"Our tendency in Egypt [is] to describe anything that is strange or abnormal as 'American,'" admits an Egyptian scientist in the 1950s; and, indeed, from a Middle Eastern point of view, what country could be more strange and worrisome than the United States? For over a century, Arabic-speaking travelers - students, scholars, journalists, businessmen, diplomats-have been visiting the new world and writing their impressions; Abdel-Malek, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, has gathered a sampling of these and put them together in a short, fast-paced, fun-to-read, and insightful anthology.
Perhaps the predominant theme is to contrast the economic prowess of the United States with its alleged spiritual poverty: "we are more civilized" than the Americans, writes an Egyptian. Typically, one writer find that America adds "nothing, or next to nothing" to the moral worth of man; another finds that money and sex drive American life. The power of American popular culture is another wonderment to the visiting Arabs. A football game inspires the observation that Americans "are enthralled with flowing blood and crushing limbs." And sexual mores - what can one say? The conservative spirits from the Middle East are amazed and shocked.
Much else strikes these foreign observers as odd or unpleasant: the "appalling" narcissism, the wake, jazz music, the emphasis on work, the treatment of the elderly, the corruption, the preciousness of time, the frenetic quality of life, the cultural superficiality, the vastness of the Sunday New York Times, even the habit of putting salt on apples. The great achievements are put down: skyscrapers, we learn, "are like the pyramids of Egypt" and express the "inherent inferiority complex" of the American psyche. One writer calls the United States "the most obnoxious empire in history" and another finds Americans "not dissimilar to the Nazis."
In the face of this indictment, it is refreshing to find at least some of the authors defending the piety and spirituality of America: "Some people fault Americans for their love of money and their desire to make it. But for God's sake tell me where is this person who does not love making money?" Better yet, writes an Egyptian: God has destined Egyptians to deceive themselves into thinking American "civilization is materialistic while ours is spiritual."