by Levison Wood
Published by Hodder and Stoughton
pp 354 Hardback £25
Although I had watched Levison Wood perform on the television I had never followed up his travelogues by reading his books. Arabia is a book without a TV series and is sub-titled A Journey Through the Heart of the Middle East. Undertaken in late 2017 it was a very brave undertaking by this ex-Army officer who also happens to be a very knowledgeable historian and a huge fan of other notable Middle East travellers such as Burton, Lawrence and Thesiger.
Levison Wood’s journey starts in northern Syria and takes him through Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Oman and into northern Yemen. Bypassing the south of that benighted country by passage through Somalia and Djibouti he gains a rare visa into the huge but mostly unknown country Saudi Arabia and then travels by various means and routes through Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria (again), completing his journey in perhaps the oldest inhabited city in the region Byblos in Lebanon.
As anyone who has followed the news will appreciate, this journey included some areas still heavily mired in conflict and others that have recently experienced total devastation. But, so typical of the Middle East, throughout the journey Wood experiences wonderful hospitality and thus is able to get under the skin of the people, which is very much the aim of this book. Indeed his description of the aim of independent travelling is hard to better:
...as travellers we go in search of the extraordinary, the different – not to drive wedges, but to do the opposite. To try to see beyond the pale, and beyond the clothes and stereotypes and labels that we so often assume. The traveller goes in search of an elusive treasure, that of truth, and what defines it.
As with all travel writing the skill of the author lies in what he omits as much as what he includes. Here Wood excels in the vignettes that he selects for each of the countries he visits. His powers of description bring the wonders of the deserts, mountains, coasts and cities to life but it is his succinct conversations with those he meets that really lift this book and provides the insight that defines the people he encounters along the way.
More than once he is surprised by the views he hears, often so contrary to the preconceptions painted by the media and frequently uniting peoples divided by conflict, by ethnicity or, more usually, by sectarian and religious beliefs. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in conversations with individuals either side of the dividing wall in the Palestinian city of Hebron.
During this journey on foot, by camel or by car Levison Wood really achieves his aim as a traveller and brings to the reader new insights into the people of the Middle East. Perhaps this is best summed up by a direct quote:
At the end of the day, there are no good guys or bad guys, people are just people.
Review by John Gaye, Sherborne Literary Society