Three Journeys in the Levant
Shusha Guppy Starhaven, 146pp, £10
One of the changes that I believe will need to take place, in the light of the events of 11 September, is a rethink about how we use language and how we describe ourselves and others. If language itself needs to be rethought, so do those supposedly innocent literary genres that profess to explain the world to us, of which travel writing is the most disingenuous. From Pliny to V S Naipaul, the travelogue has spread even more disinformation about the world than the travelling circus that goes by the initials CNN.
In our taut atmosphere of counter-crime and counter-punishment, with its "attack on civilisation" hogwash, Shusha Guppy enters the fray with her fragrant Three Journeys in the Levant. At least two of the three countries she describes - Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - are lands at which the super-hawks of the American, British and Israeli regimes would no doubt like to lob missiles, as part of a Dr Strangelove war plan to build an even newer "new world order".
Guppy is concerned with the oldest of world orders, and with the civilising satisfactions to be had from observing the relics of vanished empires in museum countries that have managed somehow to survive the machinations of every possible combination of history's imperial powers - including the most recent and the most lethal of them all, whose political, economic and military policies in the Middle East, for decades designed to terrorise and to cow, were answered in ferocious kind by the 11 September attacks.
The book, which started life as a series of travel pieces, is written in a simple and straightforward way. It has none of the arch attitudes of Colin Thubron's Mirror to Damascus, or the macabre atmospherics of the late Robert Tewdwr Moss's Cleopatra's Wedding Present. It serves as a charming, because unprepossessing, guide to these largely unknown countries, humanely summoning up their ordinary citizens, with their unfailing generosity in spite of straitened circumstances, their emotional openness and dignified welcome. It is full of historical anecdotes, many of them amusing and some of them deeply ironic, given the present context. Take Guppy's evocative description of the Christian ascetic and iconoclast Simeon Stylites, who, at the beginning of the fifth century, lived for long periods in a well, or buried up to his neck in a garden, or on top of the pillar from which he gets his title. He spent his last 38 years disregarding all human discomfort, tenacious in his efforts to blow up the value of his times. Today, this zealot's bearded face might well have figured on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, although Guppy does not say so.
But what she does say makes one want to catch the next flight to Amman, Damascus and Beirut - no mean achievement in these jittery times.