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May 14, 2014 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Dave Eggers takes a Long Ride To Riyadh.
In any case, it’s a result of a gradual evolution. When I first travelled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.
posted by the man of twists and turns (26 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Shane Bauer was released in 2011.
posted by Dashy at 7:38 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


If Dave Eggers really thinks that everyone behaves pretty much the same everywhere, and that that's because people are all essentially the same, I don't have a lot of confidence in his observational talent or his critical thinking. Which is one of the nicest things I've ever said about him.
posted by clockzero at 7:38 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


For whatever reason, I always tend to misread 'Riyadh' as 'R'lyeh'. It takes my brain a minute to realize "Oh, that's the one in the Middle East, not the one with Cthulhu."
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:46 PM on May 14 [18 favorites]


clockzero: "If Dave Eggers really thinks that everyone behaves pretty much the same everywhere, and that that's because people are all essentially the same, I don't have a lot of confidence in his observational talent or his critical thinking. Which is one of the nicest things I've ever said about him."

Man, that's a really negative thing to say so early in the thread, and with no explanation to round it out. He gave you a whole paragraph to explain his thinking — couldn't you do the same?
posted by savetheclocktower at 7:48 PM on May 14 [11 favorites]


I'm reminded of the most bizarre and terrifying cab ride of my life, in Jordan, where one of the very few things my driver and I were able to communicate with each other was that Saddam Hussein was in his heart. He also bought me Romaine lettuce; he was a great guy.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:48 PM on May 14 [5 favorites]


Busting out the family photo was a great idea. That's a pretty great way to relate to other human beings you suck at communicating with otherwise.

I wonder what the "bang bang" thing was about.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:00 PM on May 14


Homeboy Trouble:

Hussein's Romaine Jordain limousane, you say?
posted by lalochezia at 8:01 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


My dad worked in Ta'if in the 70s and we lived there with him. We took many trips to Riyadh and Jedda, but drove ourselves and my dad had company connections; we shopped and traveled in places where Americans were expected and catered to, for the most part. Every now and then, even to my oblivous child self, strangeness would break through; a funeral complete with coffin winding through the streets of Ta'if, complete with wailing mourners, which we watched from the roof of our apartment building. Camels and donkeys traveling next to cars. Bleak mountain roads in burning heat that we traveled on. A young boy on a donkey yelling at my mother and I (wearing Western clothes) as we walked from our villa to another family's; he threw empty soda cans at us, I presume for our immodesty. Spending time on the local military base, which was like a strange orphaned piece of the US plopped in the middle of a Saudi city. Bedouin encampents of black tents less than a 100 yards outside the 10-foot walls of our villa (which was much too huge for us, three stories but that was the only kind of house available).
posted by emjaybee at 8:08 PM on May 14 [4 favorites]


Man, that's a really negative thing to say so early in the thread, and with no explanation to round it out. He gave you a whole paragraph to explain his thinking — couldn't you do the same?

I suppose it is kind of negative. I didn't mean to do any harm to the thread itself.

One of the things I've really loved about the opportunities to travel which I've had was seeing how different life is in different parts of the world; not because people are essentially different if they're, e.g., Chinese vs. Kazakhstani vs. Kenyan, but because different norms and histories exist in different places which govern (to some extent) how the same basic human needs will be addressed. The world is a big, fascinating place and history is different everywhere, and I thought his characterizations seemed weirdly incurious and indifferent to what I find interesting about locality.

When he says (paraphrasing here) "you are not a Saudi, I am not an American," I thought he was doing something that certain Americans often do when they're socially uncomfortable: they just straight-up deny difference. People do this all the time with regard to race in America, and it's not any more convincing here. Dave Eggers is an American in the sense that he's inclined to behave in certain ways that emerge from the particular circumstances of his life which were historically contingent. It's understandable that one wants to erase difference in order to relate to someone who has a very different background. I've done it myself, when I lived abroad. But it's a tendency whose instrumental premises shouldn't be mistaken for fact.
posted by clockzero at 8:11 PM on May 14 [16 favorites]



If Dave Eggers really thinks that everyone behaves pretty much the same everywhere, and that that's because people are all essentially the same, I don't have a lot of confidence in his observational talent or his critical thinking.

Of course he doesn't actually make that very facile observation; he says that people behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. "Essentially the same" is entire dissimilar to "infinite possibility".
posted by oneirodynia at 8:12 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


The way I've long looked at it is that the basic emotions are universal but they manifest themselves in different ways. Pride, honor, love, prejudice, embarrassment, envy, confidence, anxiety, and so on. If you can recognize how the emotion manifests itself then you can feel a common humanity.
posted by mono blanco at 8:20 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]


Of course he doesn't actually make that very facile observation; he says that people behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. "Essentially the same" is entire dissimilar to "infinite possibility".

He says: But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.

He's saying that people everywhere behave in contingent ways, to my reading; he's saying that if you expect people in some country to behave in certain ways because of what you read about their country, you're likely to be surprised. Which is true, in a way, though that's more because it's impossible to convey social reality without experiencing. But I think when you spend more than a little time somewhere other than where you're from, you also see that people do behave in differently-patterned ways which are contextually specific.

So I'm disagreeing with his claim that national difference doesn't have a meaningful effect on how people behave, basically. People everywhere don't reliably act with bedrock decency or help where help is needed, because decency is differently understood in different places, and the signs of needing help are too. I just think his characterizations are genuinely facile and are born more from blithe and incurious earnestness than thoughtful observation.
posted by clockzero at 8:22 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


The idea that "we're all the same" is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can humanize people we're prone to thinking of as Mysterious Others. That's good, because seeing them and relating to them as fellow-humans is a positive thing. The shadow side of that, however, is happy ignorance of the hard and important work that's necessary to understand other peoples' experiences and perspectives.

It's damnably hard to know which of those ideas (or both) a given person will take from "We're all the same, underneath!" and similar assertions.
posted by verb at 8:37 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


I liked it. It reminded me of the scene in Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius where he thinks some people of color stole his wallet.
posted by johngoren at 9:23 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


So I'm disagreeing with his claim that national difference doesn't have a meaningful effect on how people behave, basically.

I think most people are fundamentally decent pretty much everywhere, in that they're generally kind and helpful in whatever way they know how to be, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone agrees on what that means.

I think in most places, if you say that you're lost or otherwise need help, people are more likely to help you than, say, rob you. But the help that's offered is going to be different from place to place.

Traveling as an american has it's upsides and downsides. You're free to cross borders in a way that most people in the world are not. You have a bit of a safety net because of the extensive reach of the state department. But if you talk to the locals, especially in places where the US gets involved in local politics (that is, basically everywhere), you really become aware of how much the American government is resented -- even if they don't hold it against you personally, you feel like you always need to apologize for something your country did. It's best to never joke about politics or war in those places -- you never know if the person you're talking to had family members killed by a drone strike or a US backed death squad.
posted by empath at 9:36 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Yeah when I travel overseas I am resolutely Canadian unless someone needs to see my passport for some official reason because them finding out my true nationality may lead to "Why did you, personally, vote for George W. Bush twice?" (even though I didn't).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:31 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


I didn't like it at all, this article. Let me say that differently because I thought it was well written and the experience he describes (in a strange car in a strange land and anxious) is fundamentally not unfamiliar to me. What I couldn't kind of wrap my brain around was,
Majed and I, who had enjoyed a fluid and friendly rapport for a week, had a strange exchange, which put in question if or why he should trust me. I made a joke about American-Saudi relations, and our military, their oil, various complicities and maybe even the CIA, and from then on, things went cold.

Because it strikes me that of all the things I would not joke about with someone I don't know all that well and who lives in a country where the dynamic he mentions, 'valuable resource/money/underhanded political knife-fighting by either or both countries', is very likely how the man on the street thinks about the U.S.A., it would be this. What he describes sounds to me like a moment of blindness on a scale I can only compare to ... well, I'm too embarrassed to go into it, but I've been there and I don't want to talk about it. When I have gone on to talk about it, I've been sure to mention that I realize how dumb I was in that moment. Which Eggers does not do. Which makes me wonder if he maybe doesn't see what he did? Can that be? Really?

And he wrote about it, at length. Which is interesting. But the passenger as depicted in this piece sounds to me like someone I wouldn't want my kids to turn out to be and who I strive myself not to be.

There's precedence for the prickly narrator (E.B.White comes to mind (at times)) and at times Hunter S. Thompson and maybe Mark Twain. I always read into them a good dose of self awareness, even when they are maybe being unreasonable, or making choices that might seem questionable. Where does this piece fall in with that? I mean, it kind of feels to me like the editor of this was, "Oh, you're so important, then here, take some more rope, how much? Oh, at least enough to tie a noose with." Because I don't really read anything redeeming in this piece.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:56 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Shane Bauer was released in 2011.

The events of the article, such as they are, seem to take place in 2010 or 2011, based on context clues. I don't think there's anything much to this article; it seems like they asked him to write something and he dredged up some not-particularly-insightful thoughts about a time he got a ride to the airport. And the book he's currently promoting, "The Circle," is absolutely horrendous. And the one before it, "A Hologram for the King" is also very bad.

But there's a reason I keep reading everything the guy puts out. If you want to see how truly insightful and moving he can be in portraying people from a radically different culture and set of experiences, please pick up his novel "What is the What" about Valentino Achak Deng, the "Lost Boy" refugee from what is now South Sudan. Those kind of "good cause" subjects are dealt with so badly so often that it's amazing how well he pulls it off. It's really incredibly powerful.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:17 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


You should just poke the inquisitor in the chest and say: "Well lemme just ask YOU a question, smart guy - why didn't YOU vote #1 quidnunc kid? Huh? HUH???"

That question and your snappy attitude surely will not fail to win you the undying friendship of your foreign interlocutor.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:24 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


(The above nonsense was for Ghostride The Whip)
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:26 AM on May 15


(And now I sincerely regret saying it. Sorry everyone. Sorry)
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:27 AM on May 15


But if you talk to the locals, especially in places where the US gets involved in local politics (that is, basically everywhere), you really become aware of how much the American government is resented -- even if they don't hold it against you personally, you feel like you always need to apologize for something your country did.

Try traveling abroad as an employee of the US government with the red passport. You get a lot of funny looks. And I'm supposed to support the President since I work for him. That's easier under some Administrations than others. I won't bad-mouth the boss in public when I'm traveling in an official capacity, but that's hard sometimes because I'm opinionated and have a big mouth.
posted by wintermind at 3:14 AM on May 15


I loved the living fuck out of Zeitoun. I'm reading Circle now, so jury's out yet.

My real reaction to the story in the FPP was more along the lines of 'must be nice to be an omnipotentialed male in the Middle East, but I was trying not to thread-bomb.
posted by Dashy at 5:30 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


People everywhere don't reliably act with bedrock decency or help where help is needed, because decency is differently understood in different places, and the signs of needing help are too. I just think his characterizations are genuinely facile and are born more from blithe and incurious earnestness than thoughtful observation.

I don't think that Eggers is actually saying "everyone is reliably decent", in a way that assumes some kind of uniform standard of decency. His narrative comes more out of a reaction to a pre-assumed fear, in the way that people come to NYC and are surprised to realize that individual people in the city are actually very 'decent' and nice, if not friendly, because they had assumed the worst of an unfriendly, harsh, unforgiving city.

If you consider decency as some sort of innate characteristic, then whatever Eggers is saying becomes this homogenizing denial of differences, sure: "We are all one".

But if you consider decency as the willingness of people to help people out, as a kind of attempt at communication, then this idea still holds true without falling into the former trap. "Often times, most people are decent, which means that they try to help people out, whatever trying means to that person, and whatever decent means to that person"

It would be equally fallacious to jump into the camp of "differences are insurmountable and precious little can be said about a seemingly widespread tendency of people to help other people because we are all, fundamentally, radically different". Decency may take many forms, yes, but it's always surprising to rediscover this in many different places.
posted by suedehead at 6:47 AM on May 15


So it makes it difficult to take a situation like this, the possibility of danger in this car hurtling through the Saudi desert, too seriously for too long.

Ahhhh...methinks me catches a not-so-faint whiff of the musky, back-slapping, leathery aroma of male privilege. *insert hearty Brian Blessed laugh here*
posted by SinAesthetic at 12:06 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


For whatever reason, I always tend to misread 'Riyadh' as 'R'lyeh'. It takes my brain a minute to realize "Oh, that's the one in the Middle East, not the one with Cthulhu."

I came in here specifically to post this!
posted by lollusc at 1:47 AM on May 16


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