A Thrill-seeking American Jew’s Adventures Through the Arab Spring

Writer Adam Valen Levinson says that ever since 9/11 he wanted to discover what the Middle East is really like. Quite the challenge for a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia, and one he recounts in his acclaimed new travel memoir

Adam Valen Levinson. Was careful "not to poke people" with his Jewishness during his travels in the Middle East.
Ossie Dellimore

When Adam Valen Levinson was about to turn 13, his parents asked him whether he wanted a proper bar mitzvah. He politely declined.

“Instead of a bar mitzvah I had 9/11,” recalls Levinson, who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. “That was my coming of age.”

But nine years later, Levinson – by then in a very different place, mentally and geographically – had the opportunity to reconsider.

Fresh out of college, he was starting his first adult job, in Abu Dhabi of all places, when two Chabad rabbis popped into town for Hanukkah. Levinson attended one of the candle-lighting ceremonies they organized for the tiny Jewish expat community and he took to them immediately. On a whim, he accepted an offer from his new Orthodox buddies to undergo a belated bar mitzvah in the most unlikely place on Earth.

“Looking out at decades of Islamic architecture and a cityscape adorned with mosque domes and enormous pictures of the founding sheikhs, I performed the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas wedding,” he writes in his newly published travel memoir, “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East” (W.W. Norton & Company).

The book chronicles Levinson’s travels through 23 countries over the course of 534 days that just happened to coincide with the Arab Spring. From his base in Abu Dhabi, Levinson traveled to Egypt, where he celebrated New Year’s Eve in Tahrir Square a year into the revolution. When Beirut started feeling a bit too comfortable and safe, he crossed the border into Syria.

His insatiable appetite for adventure brought him next to the Taliban territory of Afghanistan. From Iraq, where he regularly hung out with Kurds and Yazidis, Levinson moved onto the outskirts of Iran. And after Yemen he made a treacherous voyage by sea to Somalia.

In between, he shared good food and conversation with many locals, learning along the way – as he had long suspected – that the real Middle East is not as frightening a place as most Americans are trained to believe.

Adam Valen Levinson, left, speaking with Yazidi elders in Lalish, northern Iraq, after many of the locals had fled from ISIS.
Marc Iserlis

No place off-limits

If the terror attacks of September 2001 were Levinson’s initiation into adulthood, giving him an excuse to forfeit his bar mitzvah at age 13, they were also the reason he embarked on this journey to the Middle East to begin with.

“Ever since 9/11, I was always curious to find out what the Middle East is really like,” the 28-year-old said in a recent interview with Haaretz. “Was it really the terrible place we Americans grew up to believe?”

The well-known dangers of travel in the region were no deterrent for this nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia. In fact, quite the opposite. “When anyone ever said to me that some place was off-limits, that was enough for me to want to go,” he admits.

"The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East" by Adam Valen Levinson.
W. W. Norton & Company

And although he couldn’t have planned on it, for a thrill seeker on the lookout for constant action like Levinson, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect: Two weeks after his belated bar mitzvah in Abu Dhabi, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia, setting the entire region ablaze.

“Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” has already earned critical praise for its first-time author. In a recent review published in The New York Times, author A.J. Jacobs conceded that it is “hard to criticize.”

“He gives you a tour of the Middle East that you won’t see on CNN or read about on TripAdvisor,” Jacobs wrote.

Buzz Bissinger, the acclaimed author of “Friday Night Lights,” wrote the following raving endorsement: “Adam Valen Levinson is too young to have written a book this good: eloquent, analytical, funny, sad. The Middle East is a wondrous and strange and supernatural place, hard to articulate in all the different shades and shadows. But Levinson absolutely nailed it in a brilliant first book.”

The Jewish elephant in the room

Among the surprising things Levinson learned on his travels is that being a Jew in the Middle East is not as big a deal as he assumed it would be. When he shared this tidbit about himself with locals he encountered on the road, more often than not they barely flinched. “In Yemen, where Jews go back a long way, people just assumed I was Yemeni – because as far as they’re concerned, the Jews originated in Yemen,” he says.

Adam Valen Levinson steering a 100-foot wooden boat during the journey from Yemen to Somalia.
Adam Valen Levinson

Or as one Yazidi friend calmly remarked after Levinson divulged his secret: “Many Yazidis have Jewish friends on the internet.”

Nonetheless, Levinson says he learned to be careful and “not to poke people with my Jewishness.” Nor, if he could help it, did he volunteer any information about his numerous trips over the years to Israel, where he has extended family.

Before embarking on his travels, Levinson studied Arabic for two years. His fluency in the language proved critical for immersing himself in the region. It didn’t take long to understand, though, that the Gulf was not the right place for someone bent on exploring Middle Eastern life and culture.

“Most of the people there were from other places, just like me. So unless you really like expat life, things are pretty sterile,” he notes.

Abu Dhabi served as his base while he toured the region, and he managed to hold onto his not-very-demanding job there despite his many absences from work. Levinson’s parents only learned afterward that he spent more time away from where he was supposed to be than there.

Sensing from the start that he had a book project in the making, Levinson – who likes to describe himself as a “multimedia backpack journalist” – meticulously documented everything. “I kept notes on my phone and also constantly sent myself emails,” he relates. “I also used my phone to record stuff.”

Adam Valen Levinson, right, jamming in a hotel lobby in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Charlotte Kaufman

The young author, who studied political science and linguistics at Columbia for his undergraduate degree, is currently pursuing a doctorate in cultural sociology at Yale. The topic of his dissertation is humor as a key to cultural understanding.

“You’d be surprised,” he says, “by the similarities between Jewish and Arab comedians.” He should know.