Arabian Journey, by Levison Wood

I’ve realized that I have a deep love of nonfiction accounts of amazing, slightly-crazy journeys. Levison Wood’s An Arabian Journey definitely fits the bill. Wood, a journalist and world traveler, had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark—Europeans who traveled into the Arabian desert and made friendships with Bedouins, Arabs, and the other residents of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

When Wood first floated his idea of walking around the Arabian Peninsula to two friends he wanted to go with him, they told him he was nuts. Not only was he nuts, they told him, but they had proof that the idea could never work. Many of the places Wood wanted to visit during the fall of 2017 were active war zones, had recently been war zones, or were shaping up to possibly war zones in the near future. It would be incredibly dangerous because of all the fighting on top of the fact that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Wood, of course, goes anyway.

An Arabian Journey is an amble of a book, fittingly enough. Wood starts in Syria and Kurdistan, planning to walk “clockwise” around the Peninsula—which of course puts him in the middle of the Syrian Civil War and the lingering fight against ISIL. In each country, Wood travels with a guide/fixer. Some of these, as his guides in Oman and Saudi Arabia, are great. Others, like his cantankerous guide in Iraq, are so awful that Wood regrets even starting out. It didn’t take me long to figure out, based on these detailed sketches of the people he works with and meets, that Wood is as interested in people as he is in the scenery of the desolate deserts and mountains of the Peninsula.

Wood is at his best when he’s talking about that scenery. He loves the empty spaces and wildness and arid danger. He marvels at the flora and fauna of the magical sounding island of Sir Bani Yas and the frankincense trees of western Oman. A lot of his journey is miserable, mostly because his luck in picking guides is dreadful about half of the time. When he has a good guide, like his guides in Oman who hooked him up with good camels, Wood can almost transport you. These passages make up for the parts when Wood is at the mercy of guides who half-ass their way through the desert or who want to scam him out of more money. Wood’s account is completely honest, for good or ill.

An Arabian Journey mostly scratched my itch to travel (via words) to remote places full of history and packed with interesting people and animals. I would never have the gumption to pack up for a long walking tour in my own country, let alone traveling to a place that is so dangerous for so many reasons as Wood did. I’m glad that I got to tag along, in a way—even if there were parts I wish Wood had glossed over. If you have a yen to visit far away places via print, I would recommend An Arabian Journey.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

An Arabian Oryx, one of the many amazing animals Wood saw while hoofing it around the Arabian Peninsula. (Image via Wikicommons)

Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani

There aren’t many examples, but there are enough for there to be a distinct subgenre for obsessive colonial stories. While Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani and translated by Edward Gauvin, is not as harrowing as Heart of Darkness or Fitzcarraldo, it shares a similarly mad plot MacGuffin and features exotic locales. In this instance, the mad plot involves moving a building from Tripoli, piece by piece, all over Africa and the Middle East so that it can be rebuilt in Beirut.

An unnamed narrator begins his grandfather’s story with some background about how that illustrious ancestor, Samuel, got into the British Army in the early 1900s. After the Madhist War, the British Army desperately needed men who could speak English and Arabic fluently. (There are several cutting remarks about how artificially “virile” the Arabic spoken by the English officers is.) Samuel gets a job and is promptly sent to Khartoum. Meanwhile, another Lebanese man, Shafik, makes what seems to be a deal in Tripoli. Shafik buys a small palace in what turns out to be an undesirable location. So, he has the palace dismantled and hires a caravan to ship it south to try and sell it to a sub-Saharan prince or sultan.

The two men meet while Samuel is bribing local sultans to round up Madhists. Shafik has been lugging (or rather, his employees have been lugging) pieces of wood, stone, and other bits of palace all over the place. He just can’t sell the thing. Eventually, Samuel takes a liking to the palace and buys it, intending to rebuild it when he gets home to Beirut. He takes Shafik’s place as the man throwing money and spleen around trying to get every scrap of wood and stone to its destination.

With a bit more effort, this book could have been a hilarious picaresque. The humor falls short of this as Moving the Palace develops into more of an adventure story when Samuel and his palace get caught in the middle of World War I and the Arab Revolt. The tone of the book doesn’t help either. While the narrator captures some of his grandfathers frustrated doggedness, the book reads more like a piece of historical nonfiction. In spite of this, I was entertained—mostly by the setting. The years 1908 to 1916 between Sudan and Lebanon are rich ground for story and Majdalani does his setting justice.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017. 

Footprints in the Desert, by Maha Akhtar

Maha Akhtar’s Footprints in the Desert had so much potential. T.E. Lawrence makes an appearance and blows up trains and tracks. The Ottoman Empire is fighting against Faisal ibn Hussein‘s Arab Revolt. The main characters are on the run from Ottoman agents in Cairo. What’s not to like? In all honesty, this book has only its setting to recommend itself. The characters were, if not outright caricatures, shallow and one-dimensional. The dialog is dreadful. The pacing is all over the place. Most of the protagonists have miraculous escapes (except when a minor character is sacrificed to make the story more believable). I’m sure the only reasons I finished this book were the fact that I was tired after a week of library conferencing and trapped on a plane for a couple of hours. I didn’t have many brain cells to spare for anything better.

The plot, in brief, follows Salah as he escapes (repeatedly) from the forces of an Ottoman pasha. Salah is wanted because he has been stealing information about troops and trains for the British and the nascent Arab revolutionaries. He’s not entirely sold on the idea of an pan-Arab state, but he likes them better than he likes the Ottomans. (Motivations are only rarely examined in Footprints in the Desert.) Meanwhile, his long-time love, Noura, is recently widowed and in need of shelter. Both make their way to Cairo, where Salah’s mother lives. The rest of the book is a repeat of Salah does something, then the Ottomans fail to kidnap the right people or blow the right things up, and Salah remains at large. This sequence is replayed almost half a dozen times until World War I comes to an end and the Ottoman Empire is dissolved.

I can’t recommend this book at all.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 4 August 2015.