x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Undercover Muslim: a conflicted odyssey into war-torn Yemen

Theo Padnos, an American, travels to Yemen to live among the locals, getting high on qat and studying in radical madrasas, in this rather inconsequential account.

Undercover Muslim.
Undercover Muslim.

In 2004, Theo Padnos, an American, had just published a moderately successful book about his time teaching literature to juveniles in a high-security Vermont prison. But he doubted his work and wanted an experience.

The US president and vice president George W Bush and Dick Cheney were "rolling out their adventure-in-Iraq programme". Images of the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, were everywhere.

"The kid had clearly been lost in Arabia," Padnos writes. "But he had also found himself in some important way."

Padnos's own Yemen odyssey proves similarly conflicted.

He gets high on qat; he studies in radical madrassas: he despairs of a life of rice, chicken and tea when pizza and coke are so tempting. He is by turns embraced as a believer and mistrusted as a fake. The problem is that not even he seems to know which is true.

When submitting to Islam he has Huckleberry Finn in mind, "the way he committed himself to the...current of the river". So is he questing or drifting?

A friend in the Yemeni capital Sanaa tells Padnos he isn't qualified to write this book and it is tempting to agree. Because if this is a journey it's not so much incredible as inconsequential.