Arabia: A Journey through the Heart of the Middle East
First-hand accounts from Iraq to Lebanon are marred by an Orientalist gaze...
A few weeks after Mosul was recaptured from the Islamic State by the Iraqi Army, author and traveller Levison Wood landed in the city. He saw the remains of the war. He was at the ruins of the al-Nuri Mosque from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the IS Caliphate. "Even the feral dogs and cats had fled this haunted place. Only flies and the stench of death remained," Wood writes in Arabia: A Journey Through the Heart of the Middle East, his latest book.The book offers several such first-hand accounts from the war-torn countries in the region. Wood, a former officer in the British Parachute Regiment, started his journey from northern Syria and then travelled to Mosul via Iraqi Kurdistan. In Mosul, with his local aide who's an undercover agent with Shia paramilitary groups, he goes to the frontline of the war against the IS. From Iraq, he goes to the Gulf kingdoms where he sees how oil has changed the countries. In Oman, he takes an adventurous camel ride across Rub' al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, with another aide.
Horrors of war
Wood travels 5,000 miles (over 8,000 km) in four months, covering countries from Iraq to Lebanon. From Yemen, one of the poorest in the Arab world that has been bombed by Saudi Arabia since 2015, he comes up with stories of the horrors of war. He was in Iraqi Kurdistan when the region was preparing to hold a referendum on its independence.
In Saudi Arabia he wonders why the Mecca Masjid is closed to non-Muslims. He blames the "misplaced sense of superiority based on communal pride."
In Empty Quarter, he was reminded of Wilfred Thesiger, the explorer and writer who believed in the "philosophy of sand." In Hebron in the West Bank, a Jewish settler shouts at him, "There is no Palestine."
Overall one gets a picture of today's West Asia, with its faultlines and pitfalls. But still, something is missing in the book. Wood laments the "normalisation of violence" that made the region "so bizarre, terrifying and alluring at the same time." He also slams the "blood gangs" in the region.
But West Asia has always been an imperial backyard. The external interventions have done as much, if not more, in destroying the region as the internal faultlines. It's also hard to miss the Orientalist gaze of the book.
Wood agrees with Thesiger's observation that the discovery of oil "ruined" the Gulf countries as their "sense of purity" was lost. He's not comfortable with two of his co-travellers (one tells him jihadists from his country led the charge of massacres in Mosul and he's making fun of the other praying - "one I am pretty sure, he will fall asleep halfway through his prostrations," Wood writes.) If one overlooks these bumps and wants a light read on present West Asia, Wood's "journey" fits the bill.
Courtesy: THE HINDU