Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen

By Phelps, Richard | Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen


Phelps, Richard, Middle East Quarterly


Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen. By Theo Padnos. London: Bodley Head, 2011. 293 pp. £12.99.

Every year, hundreds of Westerners abandon life in affluent societies in favor of a sojourn in austere piety in Yemen. Undercover Muslim examines those who journey to the country in search of a lifestyle deemed as a better way to fulfill Islamic orthodoxy.

Padnos travelled to Yemen to learn Arabic, and after a stint working as a journalist, converted to Islam. He assumed an Arabic name, pursued Qur'anic study, and immersed himself among those who came to do the same. The chronicle of his experiences in Undercover Muslim prompts far more questions than it answers. Did he, as the "undercover" in the title suggests, assume this lifestyle with an exposé in mind from the very start? The author presents his conversion and adopted lifestyle as genuine, yet he repeatedly appears skeptical of the intellectual tunnel-vision he witnesses.

Alternatively, is Padnos himself a drifter, like those about whom he writes? In his telling, travelers to Yemen are as much wastrels as pilgrims. Padnos quotes one: "I've had a difficult childhood for sure," then adds, "He had been thrown out of schools, beaten by his stepfather, and arrested by police. …

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