With disarming honesty, passable Arabic and an eyebrow ring, self-described “proud pro-Israel American Jew” Michael Bassin set off for the United Arab Emirates as a junior for a study abroad program at the American university in the midst of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
His parents weren’t thrilled.
So begins Bassin’s nonfiction book, “I Am Not a Spy,” released this month by Utah’s WiDo publishing, the title coming from an oft-repeated phrase during his semester at the American University of Sharjah — one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE — and throughout his travels around the Middle East.
Bassin’s debut book follows him over the course of seven months through five Muslim-majority countries and India, and, to a lesser extent, his eventual immigration to Israel and his service in the Israel Defense Forces. His three years in Israel make up less than a quarter of the book.
“I Am Not a Spy” offers a glimpse that most Westerners otherwise would never get into Muslim society and the individuals who make it up. He confirms some commonly held beliefs about the Arab world — namely the overwhelming negative opinion it has of Israel and Jews — but shatters other stereotypes, all in a no-nonsense writing style that makes the book an easy read, even if the subject matter is at times difficult.
Suspect and superstar
Before traveling to Sharjah, in an attempt to assuage their fears, Bassin tells his parents that he won’t reveal his Jewish heritage — a promise he promptly breaks on his first day of the semester.
After exposing himself as a Jew, Bassin becomes both suspect and superstar on campus, a beguiling figure whom everyone wants to get to know, but is also widely assumed to be an agent of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Two Palestinian brothers at the university quickly become his duplicitous foils, speaking to Bassin kindly to his face while spreading rumors behind his back.
Unlike Ben Tzion, a Russian-born Israeli who has also traveled the Middle East openly as a Jew, and who recently told The Times of Israel that “no one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Bassin experiences his share of veiled threats and open aggression over his Zionism and Jewish heritage, along with more positive responses.
Today, Bassin, a ringer for actor Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor character in the television show “Smallville,” works for a Tel Aviv-based tech company, FirstImpression.io, but he has also dabbled in journalism, including writing reviews of daily Arabic media for The Times of Israel in 2012-13. (Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote a brief foreword for “I Am Not a Spy.”)
Bassin was already somewhat familiar with the Arab world when he went to Sharjah, having spent the previous summer in Cairo. In addition, despite being born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, his two best friends growing up were an Israeli and a Palestinian.
Over the course of his time in the emirate, he dives deep into the culture, studying the Quran, meeting his classmates’ families and speaking with everyone he can — from scholars to cab drivers, from fellow students to, apparently, a member of the secret police undercover as a scantily clad co-ed who tried to lure him into a “honey trap.”
In Lebanon, he meets members of Hezbollah and a sandwich vendor who tells him that he would have killed him if he were Israeli.
He celebrates Shabbat in Egypt with one of the few remaining members of the Jewish community. With no synagogue available, he marks the Rosh Hashanah holiday in Sharjah by eating a mix of Apple Jacks and Honey Nut Cheerios cereals.
Bassin’s writing is straightforward and blunt, and it seems he is too. The “proud pro-Israel American Jew” makes his way through the Middle East by, on the whole, being unsettlingly candid… with a few notable exceptions where he pretends to be Muslim.
He dispels rumors that he’s a Zionist spy by pointing out to his accusers that if he were one, wouldn’t he be trying to hide his Jewish identity and support for Israel, not flaunt them?
In Egypt, Bassin pretends to be a Muslim convert and speaks with an imam about Islam’s view of suicide attacks. He is shocked when the cleric tells him that such acts are forbidden — except for in Israel, where even the killing of women and children is acceptable. “If we do not kill their children, they will kill ours,” the imam says.
When Bassin discovers that devout followers of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam maintain that Muslims cannot befriend Jews, he is shocked to learn that one such believer is only friends with him because he believes “that one day [he] will become a Muslim.”
In one morally questionable episode, Bassin goes undercover as a Muslim into an Indian mosque and tells the worshipers that “we must stop blaming America, Israel and everyone else for the problems of the Muslim people.”
Recalling his extensive conversations, Bassin describes a wealth of opinions among Muslims in the Middle East and south Asia about Israel, as well as about each other.
Most of the Arabs Bassin speaks with are deeply antagonistic to the notion of Zionism and the Jewish state, though few seem to have given the issue critical consideration.
His classmates and people he meets along the way describe Israelis as genocidal monsters and Jews as nefarious puppet-masters controlling the world, a la “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But when Bassin points out that they don’t think he’s evil so clearly not all Jews are, most of them just get flustered and storm off, saying they have to think about it.
Others, however, are more sympathetic. An Egyptian professor in Sharjah reveals that, in 1982, he spent a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and still thinks fondly of his time in Israel. Maher, a wealthy UAE citizen, declares himself an “Emirati Zionist” and promises to “make UAE and Israel very good friends.”
But Bassin’s classmates in Sharjah, who come from all over the Middle East, seem to spend as much time railing against the other countries in the region as they do against Israel.
The Sunnis hate the Shiites, of course. But the Sunni Emiratis also hate the Sunni Egyptians and vice versa, he writes. South Asian Muslims are effectively used as slaves by Persian Gulf Muslims and are often abused by them. One Emirati student brags of raping his servant and then getting her fired with lies that she’d stolen from him.
But while a variety of views are presented by Arabs about Israel, the same can’t be said in the opposite direction. Israeli politics gets very little discussion in “I Am Not a Spy.”
Bassin’s opinions on the conflict are the only ones seriously mentioned, and they are generally middle of the road and vague: support for the two-state solution and a belief that peace between the two sides is possible.
The only indication that some Israelis might have a different political belief comes in the form of two soldiers in basic training with Bassin who say they joined the army “to kill Arabs.” They are quickly scolded by their commander, and their views are never referred to again.
Bassin offers just a few glimpses into his army service. He initially expects that with his knowledge of Arabic, he will be placed into an intelligence unit of some kind. But his extensive travels in the Middle East make him suspect in the eyes of the IDF, and so he joins the Kfir Infantry Brigade, which serves in the West Bank, working as a combat translator for his unit.
He recalls misunderstandings and petty arguments with Palestinians, the rush of having power over another person and the shame that comes after it wears off.
His experiences in Sharjah in 2006 sometimes find him disenchanted with the prospects of peace in the region. But Bassin ends the book on a hopeful note, with his last day in the army in 2009: He promises a Palestinian child to keep him safe if he comes to Israel, and the child promises to keep him safe if he comes back to the West Bank.