‘The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear And Love In The Modern Middle East’ by Adam Valen Levinson - Review
by Rana Asfour
A short while after 21-year-old American Adam Valen Levinson, a recent Yale graduate, lands in Abu Dhabi for his first job at NYU Abu Dhabi University he encounters two Dubai-based Chabad rabbis at a gathering that convince an unwilling Levinson to take his Bar Matizvah: the coming-of-age ceremony he had chosen to forgo as a thirteen-year-old. Bored with the monotony of expat life and his restless need to be doing something reckless in a land where a lot is forbidden, the writer agrees to the Bar Matizvah supposedly ‘not out of Jewishness, and not for the religious community’ but because they were having ‘a real Hanukkah shindig high above the mosques, and down sweet Manischewitz above the teetotaling deserts’ ultimately ending up with what the author describes as ‘the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas wedding’.
And so, an awakened curiosity outweighing potential risks, and armed with some Arabic, Levinson forays into twenty-three countries spending 534 days of the Arab Spring in and out of his apartment in Abu Dhabi. He goes to lunch in Taliban territory in Afghanistan, travels to Syria under the watchful eye of Syria’s secret police, meets Yazidis in Iraq and cliff dives in Oman, celebrates New Year’s Eve in Tahrir Square and travels to Somalia on a biscuit loaded ferry boat. Throughout, Levinson is a charming character, engaged and engaging. His journey of personal metamorphosis as he questions the things he sees and experiences and how they relate to where he is in his life and what he desires, is nothing less than heartwarming and if anything reminiscent of the carefree spirit of the young.
In a spot-on review of the book in the New York Times, A.j. Jakobs writes: 'This book … is hard to criticize. The reason? Whenever I had an objection to “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” — and I did have a few — the author, Adam Valen Levinson, had the same objection. And he phrased his critique more cleverly. You could say Levinson is navel-gazing. But he said it first: “How self-centered did I have to be to see a 4,000-year-old country as a metaphor for myself?”’
Sadly I have issues with the book as well. For all its endorsed hype as well as the writer’s noble intentions the book reads as the disjointed shenanigans of an inexperienced 21-year-old, recklessly (and many times tactlessly) ambling into a complicated territory at a pivotal time in its history. His flippant account jarred with the reality of a Middle East undergoing major political, economic, social and cultural changes at a costly price involving the loss of human lives, annihilation of a big chunk of the region’s infrastructure as well as a shortage of basic resources needed for dignified living. So, despite the fact that Levinson has produced the kind of timely book one desperately wants to love, it more often than not ends up being launched across the room in frustration.
However, that said, ‘The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah’ is far from being a write-off. It could be argued that the same shortcomings mentioned are the same ones that work in its favour. There is an unflinching honesty in Levinson’s observations, an unwavering belief in the redeeming kindness of mankind. Levinson’s obstinate refusal to take No for an answer where others more experienced would have easily given in and his unapologetic tenacity to stand his ground in order to face his fears to find and define love, of peoples and lands, by his own terms is refreshing and admirable.
It could also be said that Levinson’s methods of cultural immersion and writing style may not be what seasoned readers are used to expecting from a travel book, but as Levinson questions at one point, ‘when push came to gunpoint, would it always [have to be] the familiar that won?’ Touché!
Adam Valen Levinson is an affiliate of the Middle East Institute, and a Fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, where he studies senses of humor as a key to cross cultural understanding. In 2018, the International Society of Humor Scholars granted him their Young Scholar Award. He has written, filmed, and photographed for 'Al Jazeera', 'The Paris Review', 'Haaretz', 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung', and 'VICE', and did college stints at 'The Colbert Report' and 'The Onion'.
To see photographs of his travels and YouTube videos, check out the author's website HERE.