Diary - Edward Stourton

As we passed an ordinary-looking mosque, our driver told us it was known as "chop-chop" mosque beca

Returning from Moscow in 1990, I had an unlikely epiphany on my way to Wandsworth from Heathrow; the garish shopfronts and the overstuffed shelves in the late-night supermarkets along the Fulham Palace Road suddenly brought home to me what was missing in the grey, pinched world of what was then a newly post-communist Russia, and I understood a bit more about the place in retrospect. A couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience in Terminal Four Arrivals while waiting to pick up my suitcase after a flight from Jeddah. Watching the ebb and flow of anxious humanity around the baggage carousel, something seemed insistently different; I realised that in Saudi Arabia I had been in a place where women are simply invisible in public places. It is astonishing how successfully custom and clothing can make half of humanity disappear. I was startled on my first morning when I bounded down to reception carrying my bathing trunks to be told that the hotel pool was unisex - women before lunch, men in the afternoon. But I must have become accustomed to the absence of the female face and form disturbingly quickly, because the reappearance of uncovered womanhood was quite a shock.

I had been in Saudi Arabia recording for a radio series called In the Footsteps of Muhammad. It will be the third "Footsteps" series to be broadcast by Radio 4 (we have already cracked through Moses and St Paul), and the premise behind them all is that you can learn something about the character of a religion by visiting the places where it was born and grew. It is, I suppose, a kind of reverse pilgrimage process by which we try to bring a sense of sacred geography to our audience without them having to make the journey themselves. And it has proved a fertile furrow to plough because it also allows us to reflect the way our chosen targets are a living force in today's politics.

St Paul's footsteps were relatively easy to follow. Places such as Damascus and Ephesus still contain landmarks directly associated with his life, and when you visit them with a copy of the New Testament he comes immediately to life. Muhammad proved more difficult to get at. It may have been because pictorial representations of the man are, of course, rare, so there is no mental image to work with. It certainly did not help that Mecca is forbidden to non-Muslims and Jeddah (the nearest big city) is such an alien environment that you have to work extremely hard to get at what the place has to tell you about the religion which sprang from there. As we passed an ordinary-looking modern mosque, our driver informed us that it was known as "chop-chop" mosque because it is where beheadings and hand amputations take place after prayers. This was a compellingly dreadful piece of tourist trivia, but not exactly the kind of thing I was after to help dispel the prejudices and myths that have grown up around Islam.

It was salutary to discover, in making the programmes, both how tough and how rewarding that process was, and it gave me the germ of a Big Idea: that British journalism completely misreads most of the big stories because we are so soaked in secular assumptions that we fail to appreciate the power of religion. This applies to our perceptions of what is happening in Iraq, for example, as much because we fail to understand the role that religion plays in shaping American actions as from our ignorance of Islam.

I recorded my programme about Saudi Arabia on Thursday and the next morning we left on an early ferry for France, searching for that agreeably roomy and appealingly dilapidated farmhouse that so many Brits dream of these days. We stayed in the kind of hotels that mind more about the quality of coffee at breakfast than satellite television in the bedrooms, and the only copy of Le Figaro I saw was dominated by an impenetrable story about high French politics: the Socialist former prime minister Lionel Jospin had made a speech that for some reason threw the grandees of the Parti Socialiste into a dither. It was a delight to see, by the way, that the famously handsome Jack Lang and the impossibly thin Laurent Fabius are known in French media slang as "les elephants" - the term used to describe political heavyweights.

As for the local newspaper, on the three days we were in France, the Sud Ouest (Charente edition) led successively on homosexual marriage, the prospects for the region's beach resorts and the appalling carnage on its road network over the holiday weekend. Since, I am ashamed to say, I skipped from the front pages to the property ads at the back, it came as a shock to read of the weekend's dreadful eruption of "religious" terrorism in Saudi Arabia on our return to London.

There is a cautionary tale from the events of 1967 in the Middle East which all hacks should carry in their minds when travelling abroad for pleasure. A correspondent based in Israel, so the story goes, went on a two-week hiking holiday in the Atlas Mountains. He called his foreign desk from the airport on his way home to check whether anything had happened on his patch while he had been away. "Yes," came the answer, "but it only lasted six days and you missed it."

In the Footsteps of St Paul is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, D-Day for British politics