In 1991, when he was 21, Jason Burke and a friend left Britain for the Middle East with the sophomoric idea of joining the Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Western troops had withdrawn from Iraq (not without incident) only few days earlier and the Kurds had forged a fragile truce with Iraqis who had driven them back into the mountains.
“We knew nothing of any of this, having barely read the newspapers or listened to the radio as we made our way through Turkey,” Burke writes in his important book On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World (Random House of Canada, $32.95). “Somehow we did not think it necessary to keep up with exactly what was happening. In fact, we were almost completely ignorant of all but the roughest outline of the history of northern Iraq, its people, their cultures or society. We had read the newspapers, or at least a few of them, during the spring and seen the pictures of the Kurdish exodus from northern Iraq in the first weeks of the uprising but little more” For example, when he did make contact with the fighters (without becoming one himself, though they gave him some entry-level military training), he thought to himself that “the Kurds did not look like Muslims I had imagined. They were not fanatical, they did not wear white robes along with their kaffiyehs, they were open and engaging and literate and worldly; in short, they were everything I had hoped I was. As a result, almost unconsciously, I had decided that they were not Muslims at all.”
Burke, who writes beautifully, is now the chief reporter of the Observer in London. He’s based in Paris at present. But for most of the time since his ridiculous summer as a guerrilla wannabe, he worked in all parts of the Muslim map, absorbing understanding “from Morocco to southwestern China, from Uzbekistan to Malaysia. I have spent years living in Pakistan and Afghanistan, at least a year in Iraq, have eaten noodles with Thai Muslims and couscous with Algerian mujahideen, drunk tea with Berbers in the Atlas Mountains and coffee with the Acehnese, argued with hardline Taliban mullahs, mystic Sufi teachers, Pakistani holy men who doubled as feudal landlords and corrupt politicians. I have drunk beer with Iraqi poets and whisky with Indian bankers, Mecca Cola with Kashmiri militants and tea with (aspirant or failed) suicide bombers of various nationalitiesâ€¦”
Looking back, his visit to Kurdistan “was the beginning of a long process of learning, the lesson of which has been that the term ‘the Islamic world’ does not describe a uniform monolith where odd creatures called Muslims live their lives according to an arcane and reactionary religion but a huge, varied and dynamic spiritual, cultural and political entity that defies definition geographically, ethnically or racially. Experience has also taught me to be aware, not only of my own perceptions, but of all generalizations.” Roxanne L. Euben couldn’t agree more about the comforting myth of “the Muslim world.” Her book Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, US$29.95) looks at the mutual incomprehensibility of Western travellers writing about Islamic countries and Muslim ones writing about the West. She turns up some informative ironies, such as the fact that an Egyptian named Rifa’a Rafi al-Tahtwai was trying to make sense of France at the same time that Alexis de Tocqueville was leaving France to research what became Democracy in America. Readers know of the latter but I daresay hardly any of us have ever heard of the former: that’s part of the point.
So saying, Euben examines how “travel narratives have been particularly suspect for the representational power they enact over those they survey, not to mention the Western imperial endeavors the travel genre is said to both express and facilitate. Yet this does not exhaust all that travel narratives can reveal, particularly if the travellers and narratives are pluralized or eclipsed by the almost single-minded focus on Western journeys abroad.” For one thing, visitors who don’t know the past of the place they visit are likely to misread its present. Euben quotes the admired Scots travel writer William Dallrymple (who usually writes about India) to the effect that “the real heirs of Roman civilization were not the chain-mailed knights of the rural West, but the sophisticated Byzantines of Constantinople and the cultivated Arab caliphate of Damascus, both of whom have preserved the Hellenized urban civilization of the antique Mediterranean long after it was destroyed in Europe.”
A book that can profitably be read alongside Euben’s study is Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West (Random, $18.95 paper) by Behzas Yaghmaian, an Iranian-born American who tells the stories of Muslim refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere who have emigrated to Europe or North America on what he calls a kind of underground railroad.
Jason Burke remembers that when he and his buddy went to the Middle East, they were “almost entirely ignorant about Islam but, in the tradition of Western travellers to the region, we did not think that would present much of a problem.” This attitude is found in some of the travellers Barbara Hodgson writes about in Dreaming of the East: Western Women and the Exotic Allure of the Orient (Greystone, $24.95 paper). Her subjects are redoubtable women, most of them British, most from the 19th or very late 18th centuries, not troubled by self-doubt or fear, and given to charging ahead, thank you very much, in search of the exotic.
Hodgson, who started out solely as a book designer (and a fine one), gradually became instead a writer (who happens to design her own books, which she likes to folksy up with sepia photos and pieces of what antiquarian booksellers call ephemera). They often deal with women who in various ways confronted the social restraints and taboos of their age. That being said, those who wandered or sojourned in the Middle East are a diverse lot. They include several minor aristocrats, an adventuress or two, and the notorious Isabel Burton, wife of the explorer and anthropological iconoclast Sir Richard Burton-notorious because she burned his unpublished manuscripts after his death. Some of these travellers approached the rest of the planet just as they the Middle East. One example is Isabel Bird, whose best known book isn’t Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891) but rather The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899). Hodgson merely mentions (and doesn’t include in the index) the extraordinary Lady Franklin, widow and hagiographer of the luckless Arctic explorer. She was probably the greatest female traveller of the 19th century, charging across entire continents, demanding to be informed.
Those Hodgson does discuss, she treats with equal seriousness and with her trademark love of just the right anecdote. I was fascinated to learn that Freya Stark, the enormously productive and popular travel writer of the 1920s and 1930s, was once asked to write a biography of Gertrude Bell but of course declined. These two make a sharp contrast. Stark found excitement in the alluring (and sometimes lurid) surface of things. She was a journalist with, her readers sometimes think, abnormally large adrenal glands. She would have done a terrible job on Bell (1868-1926) who was seen in her day as a privileged English woman with great powers of observation for whom, in the words of the person who did become her biographer, “obstacles had a trick of melting away when she encountered them.” She was also a renowned archaeologist. Today she’s known to have been a much more influential figure whose apparent openness was not always genuine.
Hodgson alludes to the story that a number of other writers have explored in recent times: Bell’s role in the creation of the present Iraqi state. After the Great War ended, giving Britain a bigger stake in the Middle East, Winston Churchill, the new war secretary, knew that puppet regimes would be necessary for appearance’s sake and also to keep costs in line. To advise him, he looked to T.E. Lawrence, the recent hero of “the revolt in the desert” in which he defeated the Turks, the Germans’ ally. Lawrence worked with his fellow archaeologist, Bell, to transform Mesopotamia into Iraq and install Feisal as its king. The story is told cogently and lucidly in Chrsitopher Catherwood’s A Brief History of the Middle East (Publishers’ Group Canada, $19.95 paper, an excellent introduction. Bell of course was up to her neck in British intelligence.
-George Fetherling’s most recent book is Tales of Two Cities: A Novella Plus Stories (Subway Books). His “Books This Week” column appears each Monday.