Interviews August 2002

All People Are Crazy

*All* People Are Crazy

P. J. O'Rourke on the Middle East, the universality of the absurd, and his beef with Mark Twain

The photograph on the cover of P. J. O'Rourke's latest book, The CEO of the Sofa, shows O'Rourke, debonair in a pinstriped suit, reclining on a beige sofa with a martini in one hand, a cigar in the other, and a bemused smile on his face as he gazes into the distance. Behind the sofa, away from his view, two small children are wreaking havoc on the contents of his briefcase. This image, with its incongruous combination of the serious and the silly, the cosmopolitan and the mundane, seems a fitting advertisement for O'Rourke's goofy yet deceptively wise writing.

Since joining The Atlantic last year as a correspondent, he has contributed commentary and reporting on America's response to 9/11, the Enron debacle, and the complexities of the Middle East, among other topics. In each of his pieces he makes considered arguments about relevant issues, often in a roundabout, humorous way. For example, in "Letter From Egypt," his report this month on contemporary Egypt, he asks, "Why has Egypt—and the whole Arab world—made relatively little economic progress?" He theorizes that the answer may have to do with land-use management practices:

Farming in much of the area requires irrigation, a horribly communal activity, like being trapped in an endless Amish barn raising. Then the people of the region went and invented writing. Writing is the enabler of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy leads to the Department of Motor Vehicles model of government, with patronage jobs, wire pulling, and a political hack of a boss….
Islamic commercial wealth was not destroyed by European innovations in ocean shipping. Rather, Europeans were driven to the sea lanes because in the 1400s the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt nationalized the spice trade and forced the Kmart of nutmeg-and-ginger caravans into Chapter 11.

One of his specialties is pointing out the absurd and bringing home to readers that the absurdities we observe in others or in other cultures usually have counterparts within ourselves or our own culture. In his November piece on Israel he wrote of Zionism,

What if people who had been away for ages, out and on their own, suddenly showed up at their old home and decided to move back in? My friends with grown-up children tell me this happens all the time. What if the countless ancient tribal groups that are now defeated, dispersed, and stateless contrived to re-establish themselves in their ancestral lands in such a way as to dominate everyone around them? The Mashantucket Pequots are doing so this minute at their Foxwoods casino, in southeastern Connecticut. What if a religious group sought a homeland never minding how multifarious its religion had become or how divergent its adherents were in principles or practices?…. Protestant Zion would need to be perfect both for sniping at abortion doctors in North Carolina and for marrying lesbians in Vermont. As an American, I already live in that country.

While some readers take umbrage at his decidedly Libertarian viewpoint (he is probably one of the few commentators to have argued that the Enron fiasco was the result of too much regulation rather than too little) and his tendency to mock liberal-activist types, it is difficult to feel especially outraged by a writer whose overarching message is to lighten up, put things in perspective, and not take ourselves too seriously.

In his first Atlantic article after September 11, O'Rourke described his qualms about going to press with a piece about Israel that he had written before the attacks. The article, he feared, now seemed too upbeat. But upon further reflection, he explained, it dawned on him that perhaps it is precisely our ability to maintain a sense of humor—even in the face of the worst—that keeps us strong. "In Israel," he wrote, "waves of anger and fear circulate all the time, but so do jokes, and gossip, and silky evening breezes. So, too, in America."

P. J. O'Rourke is an Atlantic correspondent and the author of ten books, including Eat the Rich (1998), All the Trouble in the World (1994), and Parliament of Whores (1991). I spoke with him by telephone last week.

—Sage Stossel

P.J. O'Rourke
P. J. O'Rourke   

Judging by your recent Atlantic articles about traveling to the Middle East, and by your book Holidays in Hell, you seem to have a penchant for visiting exotic and politically interesting, but dangerous and decidedly unluxurious places. How did you get started doing that kind of unorthodox travel reporting?

I like to have interesting things to write about. And when one says something is "interesting" one almost always means "bad." Now and then these places I report on can get a little hairy. But after all, New York isn't the safest place in the world, either, or Washington, D.C., where I work.

My eternal message about places like Egypt and Israel or the rest of the Middle East or former Yugoslavia or any of these other difficult places (the technical term is "shitholes") that I've covered, is that there are certain things about human beings everywhere that are just unknowable. If we were to inspect ourselves or members of our family and our friends, we would see that we don't really have to go all the way overseas to be mystified—we can be mystified right at home.

I guess it's a bit of an exaggeration, though, to say that Egypt is a "shithole." It was actually very luxurious. I was staying in the Mena House right by the pyramids, and I didn't perceive it as being dangerous in the least. The tourists had been scared away, but that really just made it more luxurious. My friend and I—an old buddy from Hong Kong—were all by ourselves at all the great tourist attractions, like the pyramids, the tombs, the Valley of the Kings, and so on.

It was great. It's the same way I got to see the ancient city of Petra at the beginning of the Gulf War, when everyone else was afraid to go. I'm probably the only modern person to have seen Petra all by himself.

How did you decide on Egypt as a place to visit and write about?

I picked Egypt because it's the center of gravity of the Arab world. It's far and away the most populous Arab country—more populous than any other four Arab countries put together. And it has a very big economy—bigger than Saudi Arabia's—even though it's poor. During most of the twentieth century it's been the intellectual center of the Arab world. So when I kept hearing about the importance of this thing called "the Arab Street," I thought to myself, Well, gee. Cairo's got a million miles of street. Maybe I'll go check it out.

You were in Israel during Passover and in Egypt during Ramadan. How did those experiences compare?

Israel was much more lively. Ramadan really shuts things down. I had always thought of Egypt as a rather secular country. And I think it is, but people are quite observant of the strictures of Ramadan. I was there for about a week before I realized that I was a daytime animal living in a nocturnal culture. Nobody came out until the sun went down. People were up all night, because the fast is a daylight thing. The big meal of the day comes at sundown, and then there's another big meal right before sunrise. So people—even children—are out at three in the morning. I, of course, was asleep every night until it dawned on me to get with the program.

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