Book Review: Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, Morgan Spurlock (2008)

April 23rd, 2009 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

A surprisingly weighty read.

five out of five stars

With the tongue-in-cheek goal of tracking down Osama bin Laden, award-winning filmmaker (SUPERSIZE ME, 30 DAYS) and expectant dad Morgan Spurlock travels through the Middle East in search of the FBI’s most wanted terrorist, in this book based on a film of the same name.

Far from serious, the “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” angle serves as the vehicle through which Spurlock examines some pretty weighty issues. Naturally, Spurlock begins with a biography of bin Laden, detailing his transformation from trust fund baby to radical Islamic jihadist. He then traces bin Laden’s steps through much of the Middle East, including Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, learning about the man’s life and influence throughout the region in the process. During his quest, Spurlock converses with a variety of people, such as religious and political scholars, government and military personnel, teachers and students, relatives of terrorists and former terrorists, and secularized Saudi youths. Taken together, these voices speak (oftentimes contradictory) volumes about life in the Middle East.

From cover to marketing copy, WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? appears on its face to be a somewhat flippant look at a deadly serious subject, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth: Spurlock’s written a mighty weighty read here. WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? presents an accessible, empathetic and cogent look at the long-running conflict(s) in the Middle East, as well as the U.S.’s changing role in the region. Topics covered run the gamut: the nature of terrorism, religious fundamentalism and fervor, the spread of secularism and attendant clashes with theocracy, past and present Palestinian/Israeli conflicts, how best to “spread” democracy, ethnic and religious intolerance – Spurlock packs quite a bit into only 300 pages.

The author/filmmaker weaves his tale against the backdrop of his impending fatherhood; throughout his travels, for example, Spurlock solicits advice on parenting from his sundry interview subjects. While this grows a little tiresome about halfway through the book, the payoff is well worth it: Papa Spurlock concludes his search for bin Laden, not with the apprehension of the fugitive, but with a tear-jerking call to peace, tolerance and an end to the “othering” of our fellow humans, hopefully beginning/continuing with his own little “Sponge Bob.” (It’d be nice if he’d extend this consideration to non-human animals, especially in light of his baby mama’s veganism – I mean, WTF is up with eating foie gras in front of your pregnant vegan girlfriend, dude!? – but hey, you can’t win `em all!) Spurlock knocks not just Islamophobia among Westerners, but also anti-Westernism, anti-Semitism and misogyny amongst religious fundamentalists in the Middle East.

My only real complaint is that Spurlock’s trademark smartass humor – which I found so charming in SUPERSIZE ME and DON’T EAT THIS BOOK – falls a little flat in WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?. It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly; I’m not sure the weightiness of the subject quite explains it, as SUPERSIZE ME’s material is just as heavy (pun intended). Perhaps it’s because, in cracking jokes in war-torn countries, Spurlock sometimes comes off as a caricature of that obnoxious Yankee that bin Laden & Co. have so successfully traded on.

Even so, WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? is an entertaining, moving and delightfully informative read – and much more hopeful in tone and feeling than similar books about “The War on Terra,” to boot.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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