Posts Tagged ‘travel in the Middle East’

August favourites #19: Travel writer

August 19, 2018

Male travellers and explorers are often out to prove something, particularly more recent ones, and I often find this tiresome: I’m expecting to read about places and peoples, not egos. If a writer is going somewhere because it’s there, out of curiosity, then I warm to them, as I did to the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart when I was first introduced to her writing some twenty years ago. Although she began writing in French, she soon switched to English; nevertheless it’s the French and the Swiss who have kept pretty much all her writing in print. She travelled quite widely in the early days of the Soviet Union, blagging her way to various places where foreigners weren’t wanted and onto expeditions that got her to those places; she travelled very widely in the Middle East and central Asia, and from China to India through forbidden territory during the Chinese civil war and Japanese invasion of that country… and ended up in India reflecting and meditating on the meaning and purpose of her existence. Maillart was an intrepid woman moved by curiosity about and real empathy with those among whom she lived for months, sharing their lives and dangers, and travelling at a time when places weren’t easily accessible, and instant communication was not available.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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Olivier Weber: Je suis de nulle part

February 3, 2018

51Em0ULZj1L._AC_US218_This is the nearest I’ve come to an account of Ella Maillart‘s life, although it’s written by an admirer, and is selective in its detail, rather too eulogistic to be a true biography. Indeed, I know of no other travel writer who seems to have established such a cult following of – worshippers is too strong a term – younger followers who seem determined to track her every footstep as far as is possible, in the quest for what exactly I’m not quite sure. Clearly, Maillart exerts quite a spell.

She spent her younger years learning to sail with a friend on Lake Geneva; she was a sporting type generally, uninterested in academic achievement or success. She came to crave adventure early, experiencing, in common with many others of her time, the strong desire to leave post-Great War Europe far behind, regarding it as a world and a way of life that had completely lost its way and meaning in the recent horrors. Thus her need to travel gradually became an awareness also of her need to explore within, and find meaning to her life, for herself; re-reading this book I was much more aware of her roaming as a quest for inner meaning and purpose, too.

Despite all her hopes, her sailing and navigation skills never got her anywhere exciting, and she found herself drawn to Asia, where perhaps the people and life would be different. She set off for Moscow by train with only a rucksack full of food, and stayed for months as a curious observer of the new and totally different world of the Soviet Union, though never deceived into imagining it a utopia, as many Westerners of the time were. There followed a number of lengthy trips into the Caucasus, to Central Asia, to China during the civil war and period of Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, from where she travelled back over the Himalayas to India in the company of English Times correspondent and traveller Peter Fleming (his account of this journey, in News From Tartary, is an excellent complement to hers), to Persia and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where she came to a halt.

Maillart was clearly profoundly changed by her experiences of these journeys, by the lives of others and their closer, more intimate connection with the world; in her late thirties, at the start of the Second World War, she declined to return to Europe but remained for several years in Southern India, exploring and practising the teachings of a well-known guru, living a very simple life with a cat as a companion…

Maillart supported herself and her frugal needs through her writings, photography and occasional film-making, and giving public lectures and conferences on the far-flung places she had visited; she had many contacts with well-known writers, travellers of her day.

Her present-day admirers and followers, in Europe rather than in Britain where she remains relatively little-known, seem to be attracted both by her travels and adventures, and her inner quest, reflecting, I suppose, the relative emptiness that more and more people find in our society and our civilisation, where money, material goods and consumption seem to be the main reason for existence. I find her story attractive and interesting, but I certainly don’t share her sense of adventure! Her enjoyment of the different, the other, and her search for deeper meaning to life I very much do share, and revisiting this book, particularly the closing chapters about the second half of her life, when she had largely retired to a small village in the Swiss mountains, I came to understand her better. There is no side to her, and a genuine rapport with those among whom she travels and shares a common humanity: in this, for me she resembles Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. And yet in her restlessness she goes deeper, acknowledging our nomadic past where unending physical movement connects with our spiritual search for significance in a vast and beautiful world.

If you are interested, there is an informative website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown

November 16, 2015

51aesYOaEwL._AA160_This is a reprint of a travel journal published well over a century ago, part of Virago press efforts to bring back into print the long-lost writings of women writers. It’s not a wonderful effort: the reproduction of the text is like a rather poor photocopy, and the replacement map is very poor, showing merely a linear route and some of the placenames. But the hundreds of original monochrome photographs have all been reproduced, and many of them are wonderful; I suspect many of them are of places that no longer exist.

As a travel journal it’s a bit bald and mechanical: certainly it’s less interesting than Bell’s diaries. But she travels though wonderful territory, from Jerusalem to Antioch, via Amman, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and lots of other marvellous places; ancient places abound, sites from the earliest years of Christianity as it spread through the Middle East, before being swept away with the spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

There’s a certain amount of overlap with the territory covered by William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain, which I read earlier this year, and the mental comparison is interesting. He’s far more interested in the people he encounters on the way and questions them, and he provides a good deal of necessary contextual background, too; he’s also travelling in far more perilous times, both for himself and for the remaining Christians in those lands. Bell is writing during the final, relatively impotent years of Ottoman power in the region, before the First World War, and the subsequent Anglo-French carving up of the area, leaving consequences which are still with us today…

Syria comes across as a sleepy, peaceful and welcoming country, full of crumbling Roman towns and Christian churches; there is tension evident between various confessional groups, but no sign of the horrors to come.

This book also underlined for me something which has gradually been becoming clearer to me as I travel and read: the difference between this small and overcrowded country where I live, where space is precious and any building no longer needed or in use is demolished, removed, replaced, and other, more spacious nations where such buildings are merely left, abandoned; they crumble, maybe stones are taken and re-used elsewhere or maybe not, they remain as reminders of the past.

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