Book Review: Arabia- A Journey Through The Heart of the Middle East by Levison Wood

By: | Updated: February 3, 2019 3:06 AM

There seems to have been an attempt by the writer, a former officer in the British airborne infantry, to style it as some sort of insightful travelogue.

Book stays true to the manifest realities of the place the adventure is set in

Arabia by Levison Wood is a fair read as an adventure book. There seems to have been an attempt by the writer, a former officer in the British airborne infantry, to style it as some sort of insightful travelogue, but if there was any such intention, it is summarily undermined by a lack of perspective. The prose is frequently trite—“This is a journey through a land steeped in history” (which land isn’t!), “people are people”, etc. Wood, to his credit, professes an awareness of the fact that his book is not an authoritative tome on matters political, economic and social relating to the region, and of the possibility that it could seem as coloured by orientalism to some.

The latter it indeed is—from the tired labelling of his travel as “journey of discovery through a forbidden, mysterious land” to a simplistic reduction of conflict within and amongst various West Asian nations to mere feuding of “blood gangs” at the tribal level, and a Shia-Sunni war within the larger framework of Islamic beliefs, sans a thorough and sincere examination of the role of western nations and alliances like NATO. The acute hollowness of Wood’s understanding shines through when he says the “normalisation” of violence in West Asian nations makes the region “terrifying and alluring at the same time”. Had he had the time to delve deeper, he would have perhaps found many Yemenis, Syrians, Iraqis and people of other West Asian nationalities, and indeed, minority groups within these populations, look upon the violence wreaked on their cities and settlements with the greater horror than those who consume it through their tellies/mobile devices elsewhere in the world.

A wearied negotiation with unparalleled violence—simply to survive—is definitely not normalisation of the same. Wood writes of TE Lawrence, the British Army officer who played a role (the degree of, and motivation for, which is hotly debated by historians) in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, having been a childhood hero for him. The western world loves to cast Lawrence as a hero for the Arab world, but many Arab academics see him as an agent of western imperialism, whether conscious or unwitting, who sowed the seeds of conflict in the region. Naturally, for a person brought up on the unidimensional Lawrence myth so carefully perpetuated by the western nations, Wood, when commenting on the present-day conflict in West Asia, fails to so much as exposit on the link between the Saudi Arabia-US bonhomie, free-flowing petro-dollars and the consolidation of power by both the Saudi monarchy and the “Wahhabi psychopaths” he so abhors.

But there are many places where he redeems himself, training a sincerely humane eye on the commoners in the nations he passes through in his journey. Also, whatever reporting Wood does, is above average, and, hence, doesn’t bore the reader into putting the book down and not picking it up again. Four months in some of the worst conflict-torn nations takes a special kind of daring for a white man to do, and it is inevitable that such an endeavour should result in some very gripping anecdotes. Wood regales the reader with a generous collection of these, and it is here that lies his greatest achievement with Arabia. Yemen’s collapse—which no one in the developed world seems to be bothered about, really—is reported by Wood in a manner that should jolt the reader into, at the very least, trying to learn more about what is going on there.

That said, reader, approach Arabia like you would Tintin—like the popular comic series, the book stays true to the manifest realities of the place the adventure is set in (Herge often made up places, but they were almost always real ones that were fictionalised) and intends heartbreakingly well. But, like the popular comic series, the book fails to see that which the dominant western interests don’t want seen.

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