What’s Wrong With Travel Writing
I’ve recently read “Cleopatra’s Wedding Present” by Robert Tewdwr Moss, a well-written account of travels through Syria in the late 1990s. Moss is an evocative and sensuous writer. His sense of place and time is highly accurate: I immediately recognised the streets he described, and wanted to tell him how things have changed. (But it’s impossible to tell Moss anything now. He was stabbed to death by a rent boy in London shortly after finishing this book).
The strength of characterisation – of Syrians and foreign tourists – in the book suggests that Moss would have made a great satirical novelist. There are also strong set pieces on some of the archeological highlights of Syria, such as Queen Zenobia’s desert city of Palmyra, Saladin’s castle in the green Lattakian mountains, and the ‘dead cities’ around Aleppo – Byzantine settlements which were suddenly and mysteriously vacated, leaving mosaics, churches and olive presses for archeologists to puzzle over.
Moss is particularly good on death and decay. Whether he is describing a crumbling old city hara or a Mesopotamian tell with its layers upon layers of ancient habitation, he captures the weight of history that can be felt as a burden in Syria. (The Prince’s long monologue on the endlessly colonised dry landscape of Sicily in di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” does it even better). And the particular series of deaths that Moss most illuminates are of those killed in the Armenian holocaust, when Turkish authorities force-marched civilians into the Syrian desert, where they starved and shot at them until there were a million corpses to stuff down wells or into caves.
He is good with atmospherics in general. There is a sustained expressionism in which, for example, an old printing press bucking and screeching like a chained animal in the room beneath his hotel bed becomes emblematic of the fettered Syrian spirit in thrall to dictatorship, the secret police, and the forces of history. The fact that Moss was gay throws stranger light onto this mood. He relates cruising anecdotes that will be as eye-opening to many Syrians as to foreign readers. Moss tends to meet misfits, not only because of his sexuality. A fellow Englishman, also gay, tells Moss that he feels he belongs in Syria because it is a land of misfits, a land of victims, a land of the weak. Moss seems to agree, but by the end of the book these are the reasons that make him want to get out of Syria and not return.
Anyone closely connected to Syria will find this difficult reading. Moss’s dark vision of the country’s political tyranny and its numberless private tragedies is accurate enough, but it shows only one aspect of Syrian life. Moss misses the genuine national pride of Syrians away from the inanities of official discourse, and Syrian intellectual vigour, and the irrepressible Syrian sense of humour. (When he is told a joke about the president on a bus into Syria, Moss notes that the joker quickly grows serious as the bus arrives in Damascus, and that this is absolutely the only president joke he has heard. In fact, there are hundreds of jokes about the president and the regime. Joking about the dire political situation is a Syrian speciality). Moss talks about the Turkish massacre of Armenians but doesn’t dwell on the Syrian hospitality which allows for the presence of a million Armenians and half a million Palestinian refugees. (A million Iraqis have arrived since Cleopatra’s Wedding Present was written). He is wrong when he suggests that the Armenians don’t have their own schools (they do) and that most Armenians converted to Islam (they didn’t). He makes the incomprehensible statement that Syrian food is boring (granted restaurant food in poor villages isn’t exciting, but city restaurants and homes provide a wonderful variety), and generally fails to recognise the Syrian love of the good life.
What else? Not all Syrian hospitals are as dirty and badly organised as he claims. For a third world dictatorship, Syria has remarkably good medical care and some top flight doctors. The private hospitals are in much better shape than the state hospitals, but that’s the case in Britain too. And…Arabs don’t swig unhygenically from shared botttles. They pour from bottle into opened mouth without touching the bottle with their lips. And…Muslim men have a taboo about wearing gold, but not about working with it. The fact that most of the gold merchants in Aleppo are Christians doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of Muslim gold workers in Syria too.
Now I’m working up a heat. Moss consistently refers to his Palestinian lover as an ex-terrorist, because he had been an anti-Israeli fighter in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. Sleeping with a ‘terrorist’ may have given Moss a frisson of subversion, and certainly feeds the stereotype that any Arab with a gun is a terrorist, but you have to twist definitions very far to describe fighting an invading army (which was beseiging refugee camps and organising massacres of civilians at the time) as terrorism. Moss also follows the neo-cons’ favourite orientalist Bernard Lewis in connecting contemporary Syrian ‘terrorism’ with the medieval terrorism of the Ismaili ‘Assassin’ group. Suddenly history – and context, motivation, politics – loses its weight and becomes very light indeed.
Finally, I can assure you that Moss is wrong when he tells us that sex amongst Arabs is always a heartless transaction. That must have been his experience, and that’s a great shame I’m sure, but I wish he wouldn’t generalise to include all sexual encounters between all 300 million of us.
Moss pretends to speak Arabic, but whenever he includes an Arabic word it is unrecognisable. This is the problem. He’s in a country which he can’t understand, surrounded by people speaking, as far as he’s concerned, gobbledygook. Sadly, most people who read his book will have read none other about Syria. They’ll have learnt what they ‘know’ about the country from CNN or some equally blind source, and so may take Moss’s assertions as the only truth. And that’s problematic for Syrians for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that Western audiences hold a degree of power over Syria. Put simply, they decide through their assumptions whether to allow their leaders to bomb or sanction Syria.
I thought of an equivalent travel book about Britain for British people to read, and realised that there isn’t an equivalent. There are books about Britain written by foreigners who speak English as a first language and who share most of Britain’s cultural assumptions. But what the travel writing market needs – and what I would most definitely commission if I were a publisher – is accounts of Britain written by people entirely wrapped up in the perspectives of their African or Asian villages, people who would find ordering a meal in English a challenge.
These comments don’t invalidate Cleopatra’s Wedding Present. It’s still a great read which gives a sharp if one-sided picture of Syria. My top two travel books for the Middle East are Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, for which Thesiger lived and travelled and starved with Beduin of the Empty Quarter, and The Marsh Arabs, about the tribes of Southern Iraq. Both books read as a lament for the days before state machineries, oil and superpower machinations wrecked the region. Thesiger spoke very good Arabic. He never ‘goes native’ and is never sentimental. At the same time, his obvious sympathy and respect for the ancient ways of life he discovers is the motor of his writing.
I’ll add to the list From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, which traces the steps of a Byzantine monk from Mount Athos through what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, focusing on contemporary Christian Communities in those countries.