SANDSTORMS records Peter Theroux’s five-year stint in the 1980’s during which he was stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as a journalist working for the English-language newspaper THE SAUDI GAZETTE. Stifled as a reporter because of Saudi censorship, he spends a good deal of his time improving the Arabic he first learned while in college and reading banned Arabic authors. The closed society of Saudi Arabia has a number of aspects that violate Western assumptions, ranging from a prohibition against women driving to public beheadings. Most of Americans’ meager store of knowledge about the Middle East, Theroux points out, comes from pulp novels and Hollywood films.
Equipped with the sharp eye of a social critic, Theroux is adept at exposing cultural differences not only between the West and the Middle East but also within the Arab world itself. In SANDSTORMS he recounts his efforts to collect evidence on the disappearance of the Shiite cleric Imam Moussa Sadr, in which various extremist groups and Middle Eastern governments were thought to be involved. The results of that investigation were reported in Theroux’s book THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF IMAM MOUSSA SADR.
SANDSTORMS, however, is not simply the story of a political journalist. Theroux also is a pilgrim in search of knowledge. His quest takes him to Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, and points in between. The last section of the memoir involves Theroux’s encounter with the banned Arab author, Abdelrahman Munif. Theroux admires Munif for his novels, which penetrate into the Arab psyche, and decides to translate Munif’s novel MUDUN AL- MILH: AL-TIH (1984; CITIES OF SALT, 1987) into English. SANDSTORMS is at its most enlightening during Theroux’s conversations with Munif. The memoir is a curious blend of travelogue, comic romp, and serious cultural study. It is too short to succeed on all counts, but SANDSTORMS is a welcome addition to the growing number of books that attempt to unravel the mystery that is the Middle East.