Friday, December 30, 2011

The Reading List: "Motoring with Mohammed"

Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea
Eric Hansen, 1992.

Despite more than a passing interest in geography, in places, and in the varieties of human experience, I’ve never been a big fan of travel writing. Part of the problem may just be that I am not crazy about travel itself. Travel broadens, as we all know, but it also narrows: a traveler generally travels to places that appeal to his or her interests and beliefs, and then concludes from this experience that the world is more or less in line with what was expected.

Then too, the reports of a traveler suffer hugely from a sort of uncertainty principle: travel writing can not really capture what a place is really like, because the place itself is distorted by the presence of the traveler. Does this sound flip? I’m not being flip. The next time you read a piece of travel writing, pay attention to how much of the text is spent describing the plans, motives, adventures, and discomforts of the person traveling, how much is spent describing an outsider’s reaction to novelty, and how very, very much is spent describing amusing or amused conversations between the traveler and the local people. What is left over, generally, is more than just setting but much, much less than a real understanding of a place.

Eric Hansen’s Motoring With Mohammed is an interesting book about Eric Hansen, set in Yemen. Hansen is a smart, resourceful man who spent an amazing youth wandering about the antipodes. Just as he was beginning to think about settling down, he had a truly remarkable adventure involving a shipwreck in the Red Sea, rescue by Eritrean goat smugglers, and a brief period stranded in what was then North Yemen. Later, in the hopes of recovering personal journals lost in the shipwreck, he would return to that country, have a variety of very colorful adventures, and interview a lot of expatriates about their own very colorful adventures.

They really are awfully colorful adventures, and Hansen’s workmanlike prose renders them effectively enough. I chuckled occasionally. I thought about how remarkable Hansen’s life seems to have been, and found myself occasionally weighing his life choices against my own. But I also found myself wondering from time to time why I was reading these stories. Eric Hansen has been in some amazing situations, for sure, but Eric Hansen is not my favorite uncle. These are the amazing stories of someone else’s favorite uncle.

Let’s be fair. To be sure, I found the glimpses of Yemen and Yemeni life very interesting. I found myself digging out various maps of Yemen. In fact, my threshold of interest has been raised to the point where, if I were to encounter a book about Yemen, or better yet a book FROM Yemen, I might toss it onto the pile.

There are two technical flaws to Motoring With Mohamed that are grievous enough to be worth mentioning. The first is that, in a book about a man wandering around North Yemen having adventures, there is a map of North Yemen… following the final page. I salute the decision to include the map, but it would have been nice to know it was there while I was still reading the book.

Secondly, the title is unfortunate. If it is intended to be read literally, it refers to a single trip made in the company of a man named Mohammed that occupies considerably less than one-tenth of the book. If, on the other hand, it is supposed to suggest that this book captures some sort of essence of what it is like to travel within the Islamic world, than it is patently delusional. If it is Hansen’s own title, I’d love to know what he was thinking, but I kind of suspect that it’s just a set of words that a meeting at the publishing house thought would be jaunty enough to sell a book of real-life adventure stories set in the southern mountains of the Arabian Peninsula.

1 comment:

Voron X said...

My absolutely favorite travel journalist/journey-vidologue is Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. I feel that he really does a great job of seeking out the authentic side of the country, largely by means of that most basic and connecting aspect of the human story: food. Through the food, he introduced you to a culture. Also, he's sardonic, sometimes crass, and witty as hell.