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The Troubled Heart of the Arab World

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to publish an excerpt from David Lamb’s latest book, “The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage,” which will be published by Random House in February. It is a product of his writing and research during his APF year. In the blissful still of early morning, when Cairo is bathed in the soft blue of desert dawn and the Nile’s waters are smooth as silk, I could see from my balcony the vestiges of beauty in a city that was once among the grandest and most important on earth. Unlike the new, sterile Arab cities built by oil money, Cairo has soul and substance. Its streets throb with life, its neighborhoods are distinct and vibrant, its open-air cafes are crowded until the late hours of the night with men who discuss everything from the cost of bread to the price of peace over countless cups of sweet, thick coffee. In many ways, Cairo is to the Middle East what London is to the English-speaking world: it is an emotional magnet, a place where

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Saudis at the University of Petramin learning computer science.

The Legacy of Oil

The bad thing about booms is that they never last. They don’t lead to sustained economic growth and they seldom leave a healthy cultural imprint on society. The riches are spent, the boom ends, people move on. Spain frittered away its gold and silver from the New World four hundred years ago in a binge of high-living that weakened and disrupted the empire. Visit Brazil’s jungle town of Manaus and about the only reminder you’ll find of the Amazon rubber boom is the old opera house where Caruso once sang. Drive through the Nevada desert from Reno to Las Vegas and ghost towns stand in silent testimony to an era when silver was king. Will this one day be Saudi Arabia’s fate? Will twenty-first-century travelers to the kingdom find abandoned industrial complexes and empty cities being reclaimed by the desert? Saudi Arabia is as large as India and flying over it, on the flight from Cairo, one is struck by the emptiness below. It is a land with no rivers and no permanent bodies of

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Oman’s 490 schools have an enrollment of 168,000 - boys as well as girls.

The Sultan of Oman

In a once-forgotten corner of the world, a young sultan has led his people out of the Dark Ages and onto the threshold of the 21st Century. The journey has taken but a second on the clock of history, yet in that flash Oman has moved boldly to challenge the notion that oil-induced modernity is incompatible with traditional Arab values. Oman, about the size of Kansas, is situated on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It overlooks the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passageway for about one-fifth of the world’s daily oil production, then stretches inland through mountain gorges, rocky plains and searing-hot plateaus. The region is so rugged that less than 0.2 percent of the land is farmed and so rooted in conflict that Oman’s borders with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are still undefined and its border with South Yemen is in dispute. For centuries, anarchy, insurrections, invasions, civil wars and tribal fighting racked this starkly beautiful country whose name translates as the “peaceful land.” I arrived in Muscat, the

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Arab putting gas in a car

Viewing the Arab

The quintessential Arab is Goha, a man who lives in the fables and imaginations of the Arab world, and no where in the Middle East is there a figure more revered. He is lovable, eccentric, simple. His optimism is boundless, his generosity has no limits. He is said to be a fool, but he is clever and conniving and usually outwits every sultan he encounters. For the Arabs, Goha is the Walter Mitty of Arabia, the little man living out his fantasies, always triumphing over great odds. And for the Westerner, to understand Goha is to comprehend, to a small degree at least, the character of the Arab. When the sultan wanted someone to teach his pet donkey to read and write, Goha volunteered. He said the task would take three years and to accomplish it he would need a villa with servants. The sultan agreed and next day Goha and the donkey moved into a splendid mansion. Time passed. Goha’s friends came to visit him and found him lounging about in great comfort while

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The Arab World - map

A Clash of Cultures

Gamal Rasmi slumped into his chair and glanced about the dance floor, his fingers tapping a nervous beat on the table top. The Playboy Disco, one of Cairo’s most popular night spots, was nearly full but he recognized not a soul. “I used to know everyone here, absolutely everyone,” he said with a sigh, signaling the waiter for a German beer. The waiter didn’t see him and hurried by to fill another order. The music grew louder. Gamal’s fingers moved faster. “This getting married in Cairo, it may be a very stupid thing I am about to do,” he said. “I may never be able to dance again.” Until recently, Gamal had come to the Playboy almost every evening to dance and drink a beer or two, acting out his fantasy that he was John Travolta in the movie, “Saturday Night Fever.” Then trauma entered his life: He got engaged. His fiancée Manell was a plump, silent woman who spent her time watching TV. She was also a born-again Muslim who recently had started “veiling”

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