Book review: Arabia by Levison Wood

his Arabia is more a description of his passage through it — a sort of war tourism — than a work to help us understand the place better.

We are always in awe of the person who walks farthest and tells us what lay over there.

With world shrunk and known to its tiniest stitch, farthest has become a subject of varying interpretation, not necessarily distance. The hardest places in the world to travel through pose the same adventure as the farthest anyone walked to, in years gone by. Add to it an emergent truth — nature hurts less than human beings do. The human being — brain on two legs — is the most unpredictable quantum in life’s album.

Making matters worse, there are many humans with access to weapons compounding uncertainty. There are lands lost to strife, unrest and war. The mix of travel, war and violence lurking in the backdrop has always attracted writers and journalists. Tales of the uncertain are high adventure. Levison Wood’s book Arabia falls squarely in this genre.

It takes you around the Arabian Peninsula; geography now associated with hardline religion, opaque regimes, oil wealth, terrorism, war and refugees. From Iraq to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — each of these predicaments is worth a book in itself. The author takes you on a whirlwind tour.

In some of these places, he is the first Western journalist in recent times. He pushes the limit — the accounts from Yemen, Somalia and Djibouti are harrowing. To the author’s credit, none of this potentially heavy narrative weighs you down. The book flies; it is a breezy read. But here’s the deal: don’t expect to learn about Arabia in a fashion more comprehensive than already known. It works more as a guide on how to travel under prevailing circumstances characterised by loony fanatics, warlords, shops selling machine guns and stand-offs reduced to the cobweb of mutually hostile groups.

The book is an ideal companion for an airport lounge or a long train journey; maybe even a cosy room with coffee for company, which, when you think of, is a bit bizarre, for the subjects are alive in diametrically opposite ambiance.

That is the tragedy of this book. Its breeziness is its undoing. Like Levison Wood, I too grew up in a house that had Seven Pillars of Wisdom sitting on the bookshelf. Like him, or unlike him, I’m not sure which of the two — I never read the book but became a huge fan of David Lean’s masterpiece, the movie, Lawrence of Arabia.

Of the film, it is often said that its true hero is the desert. Years after T E Lawrence’s book and the movie’s release, there have been dramatic shifts in publishing. As the world shrank and people travelled wherever they wanted to with the media additionally delivering home that which was comparatively difficult to access, travel writing became challenged. How do you stand out?

The desert set Lawrence of Arabia apart. In the 21st century, with the desert and its culture, its conflicts and wars — all available on the Internet, emphasis that the writer was actually there is driven home for authenticity. It’s a tricky slope. Being there nails perception. But research and history embellish perspective. Restrict the latter and you run the risk of desert fading and Lawrence looming a la Indiana Jones. It’s all action. Wood falls into this trap. The book has its share of philosophical reflections on the desert. But it feels dry, like mentions to balance the action-fuelled narrative.

At no point in its history has Arabia influenced the course of world events as it does today.

It is among the oldest inhabited parts of the planet. Yet it is, at present, a geography associated with war, violence, fanatical religion, destruction of heritage by the fanatics and cities lost to oil wealth.

When a man who writes visits these parts, you expect curiosity that is deeper than a TV journalist reporting from wherever he/she parachuted into.

For example, we know that the persistence of war and violence in present-day world will not be possible without those finding it profitable. Exposing them is today’s Holy Grail. The interlocking cogs, conspiracies within conspiracies, and the brotherhood of beneficiaries are many.

Wood does a cracker of a journey around the Arabian Peninsula; hats off to him for having the guts to accomplish it in troubled times. But in the end, his Arabia is more a description of his passage through it — a sort of war tourism — than a work to help us understand the place better — why it imploded the way it did.

Perhaps with less hurry to make the book reach the market and more background information, this could have been a substantial read.

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