Motoring with Mohammed

It’s not a new book, but I just finished reading it, having abandoned Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day” (for the time being) after 300 pages. Eric Hansen wrote “Motoring with Mohammed” in 1990. The story goes something like this: in 1978 Hansen set out on a yachting trip with some rather dopey people who seemed to have more money than sense. They ran aground on a desert island in the Red Sea and were eventually rescued, but Hansen buried his notebooks there on the island, and inadvertently abandoned them there. Ten years pass and Hansen returns to Yemen in an attempt to reclaim the buried notebooks. Bureaucratic delay and ineptitude prevent him from obtaining permission to return to the island, and he must learn to go with the flow of things. The book, then, is a chronicle of the customs and oddities of Yemen, as only Hansen can tell it. Here’s a sample:

“Afternoons were frequently spent chewing qat with Martin and his friends. Wednesday was a special day at the house: as many as a dozen people would congregate for lunch in the high-ceilinged dining room on the third floor. The windows of the room overlooked an old neighborhood of family compounds, vegetable gardens, and leafy trees. Minarets and television aerials pointed into the sky, where black birds circled overhead on the warm updrafts.”

Nice stuff, with plenty of action and plenty of waiting for action. Qat is a mildly psychoactive drug, chewed in leaf form every afternoon by the men. Just the notion of having afternoons free to sit around chewing qat is what makes this place seem so other worldly. Time to sit around and do nothing? No wonder we don’t see eye to eye with the Arabs.

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