Why does it always take a crisis to get us to read about foreign countries?
Last year, the University of California Press published a book titled "Republic of Fear," an analysis of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.It was written by an Iraqi who used the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil because he feared reprisals from the dictator he was attacking. The book, which was not reviewed by any major newspaper or magazine, sold only a few hundred copies.
After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August, the book sold out in a day, was turned into a paperback by Pantheon and earned its author television interviews and a review in the New York Times.
"It is rather depressing," Lynne Withey, the assistant director of California Press told the New York Times. "It took a war for anyone to pay attention. Nobody cared about Iraq until the United States started sending troops there."
Some people have criticized publishers for cashing in on the latest events by hyping books that are only vaguely related to the Persian Gulf crisis as "timely" or by producing "quickies" that take advantage of the sudden interest in the area.
In October, Times Books rushed "Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf," a $5.95 paperback by Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie into print in a dazzling 10 weeks after the Kuwait invasion.
Also in October a novel titled "The Gulf" (St. Martin's Press, $19. 95), written by David Poyer long before our confrontation with Iraq began, was released and billed as "a timely account of military confrontation in the gulf." Never mind that in the novel, it is an Iranian and not an Iraqi missile that destroys the hull of a U.S. destroyer.
Bemoaning the appearance of these Johnny-come-lately books, however, misses the more disturbing issue.
The publishers, after all, merely are responding to a genuine hunger for information that now exists. What is worrisome is that hunger for information did not manifest itself before. Why is the American public only interested in the foreigner when the foreigner is an enemy?
When Poyer wrote his novel, our enemy was Iran. For years our newspapers were filled with stories about the evils of Iran. "Nightline" and other television programs bombarded us with information about Islamic sects and ayatollahs.
Back then, no one showed much interest in Iraq, even though that was the country we were backing in the Iran-Iraq war. Few bothered to talk about the contradictions of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, the party that ruled Iraq, the party that, on the one hand, was providing enormous social benefits to its citizens (literacy campaigns, free health care, more equitable social redistribution) and, on the other, was conducting a campaign of terror against its people.
Back then it was the leaders of Iran who were compared to Hitler. So it is not surprising that Poyer - whose story concentrates more on the technical details of a naval battle in the gulf than on the political problems there (Poyer is an Annapolis graduate, now attached to the USS Antrim) - would choose Iran as the book's aggressor. Now, of course, he might have opted for Iraq.
There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when the enemy's name was Gadhafi. Then his name was Noriega. As the faces of our enemies have changed, so has our attention.
That it takes a crisis to goad us into reading about other countries is not only depressing, it's dangerous. Our lack of knowledge about the world around us is striking when compared to the citizens of other nations.
Few Americans read a foreign language. Few translations of foreign books make their way into print. Too few of us feel the need to learn about other countries - except when we feel threatened.