Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan
By Nicolas Jubber
The title is certainly intriguing, and so is the project. With a knowledge of the Persian language and a growing love of Persia's great 11th century epic poem, the young British author travels around the region, using the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi to shine a light on contemporary Iran. He presents a convincing case that the ancient stories from a pre-Islamic world have relevance and provide inspiration to citizens suffering tyranny and oppression today. For example the story of Zal and Rudaba—reminiscent of Rapunzel—tells of a love which Zal's warrior father has forbidden. But Zal visits Rudaba in her tower and she lets down her very long hair to help him reach her, though he is too polite to use it and finds an alternative means to climb up and embrace her. Of course many romances are thwarted in present-day Iran, and flowing locks are never seen in public, where the headscarf is seen by many as an icon of female oppression. But at least the image of Rudaba's hair can be seen on the pillar of a teahouse, reminding Iranians of a past triumph against tyranny.
The cast of characters who befriend the author is fascinating, from the vodka-drinking Professor and his family who generously host him in Tehran to the fastidious guide who accompanies him on the dangerous route to Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. Jubber's evident love of the region and his tolerance of even the wildest superstitions he encounters make him an excellent non-judgmental guide. It is a breath of fresh air to glimpse some of the beauty of Iran's cultural DNA, after the relentless media depiction of Iran as a rogue nuclear state on the axis of evil. Wearing his learning lightly, Jubber weaves some of his favorite stories from Ferdowsi into his own tale. Some of the baddies would not seem out of place in a Harry Potter movie, like the divs who are horned creatures with shaggy spotted coats. Others are more chilling, like Zahhak who grows snakes out of his shoulders and must feast on human brains. The friend who introduces the author to the tale of Zahhak hints at the similarity with the Ayatollah on the front page of the newspaper. Later, in the holy city of Mashhad, he drinks arak with some students who spread out a newspaper photo of Ayatollah Khamenei and slam their glasses down on the photo, drinking not to but on the Supreme Leader with his beard.
Jubber lingers in Mashhad while he grows his own beard, essential to his disguise for Afghanistan. His object is to retrace the poet Ferdowsi's steps to Ghazni where he journeyed in 1010 to present his masterpiece to Sultan Mahmud who had promised him great riches for his literary labors. But Ferdowsi was bitterly disappointed with his reception, and was paid a mere pittance. In order to make this trip, forbidden to foreigners, Jubber must dress and learn to walk like an Afghan, and must pretend to be mute. Tension mounts as his vehicle is stopped at checkpoints by opium-smoking guards."Foreigner" goes out and his terrified driver threatens to drive off without him. This is edge-of-your-seat travel writing, but blended with an intelligent attempt to grapple with the tragedy and complexity of Persia's history over the past millennium.
The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing in the world's most unlikely holiday destinations
By Dom Joly
The premise of this book is suspect: high-profile television comedian tours places of poverty and tragedy. Where Nicholas Jubber is a serious writer, Dom Joly is a mere flibbertigibbet as he flits from the Killing Fields to Chernobyl, the Texas School Book Depository to Pyongyang. The highlight for him in Kiev is when he gets a wi-fi signal. When he has to give up his iPod on entering the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, he fears that he will no longer be able to take notes because he is incapable of reading his own handwriting. Much of this book reads like a very pedestrian diary—writing that might be expected of the humblest blogger. On leaving Kiev: "It was hot, very hot, and this put me in an unexpectedly good mood. On the ride into town I perused the free map that I'd been given at the airport…"
There are plenty of jokes of course. One of the funniest parts is a direct quotation from an online local guide to Kiev: "Avoid going to suburbs in the evening or night—these areas are poorly lit, there are rats and barely any police patrol cars and local mischiefs may take advantage of that." There is no reason to suspect this isn't genuine, even if it reads just like that spoof guide Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry that was published a few years ago. In the North Korean capital, Joly invents an amusing traffic and weather report: "Comrades, the roads today are empty, like the evil hearts of the Imperialist aggressors. Now here's Kim with the weather, which today is—as it is every day under the Dear Leader—wonderful."
But flashes of humor do not justify wading through an uninspiring travelogue. The book is riddled with contradictions. The author bemoans the fact that as soon as hip people (and he clearly counts himself among them) discover an "unspoiled" destination, it is a matter of a few years before tour groups, low-cost airlines and Starbucks render it beneath consideration. And yet who is the first to complain if he can't get a decent latte? He fancies himself an intrepid traveler and claims to relish danger and darkness, but as soon as the radiation detector at Chernobyl makes a few beeps, he is a quivering wreck (or at least pretends to be for comic effect). In Siem Reap he prides himself on getting his bearings without the "dreaded homogenizer" of a Lonely Planet guide, but in most places he relies on local fixers: he is met by a driver at Tehran airport and in Beijing by a silver Maserati arranged by a friend.
He wisecracks his way through a series of encounters but when he is confronted with true horror, as in Pol Pot's massacre of the innocents, his reactions seem inadequate. He feels 'numb' and 'disorientated.' You can't help but wonder whether celebrity comedians are the most appropriate guides to places where people have suffered. (And you can't help but wonder who at his publishers approved of the idea of including about a dozen grainy photographs of the author making silly faces around the world.)
Hints to Lady Travellers at Home and Abroad
By Lillias Campbell Davidson
While Dom Joly can't survive abroad without his iPhone, the lady travelers of the late 19th century were exhorted in this delightful little book to pack a mind-boggling array of essentials. The suggested medicine chest alone, full of mustard leaves, tincture of arnica and methylated spirits (with no obligation to keep quantities under 100ml), would require at least one porter. Fortunately (we learn) "porters are the most obliging classes of men in existence" and an attentive porter is tantamount to a genie from the Arabian Nights, "a slave of your lamp or ring." Who could say that of a luggage trolley?
When these hints were first published in 1889, they would have been seen by some as rather shocking for encouraging an unseemly independence in women travelers. But to the modern reader, advice on what to do if an accident should befall would hardly be found in a feminist tract: "It is so much an instinct with the stronger sex to protect and look after the weaker, that… if there is a man at the head of affairs, he had better be left to manage matters without the hampering interference of feminine physical weakness." But other advice is more to contemporary taste: "It is wise never to travel unprovided with a small flask of brandy." Today's woman travelers have mostly mastered some of the other excellent advice, such as never to be so vulgar as to retain fashionable dress while hill-walking.
The Royal Geographical Society has done us all a service by reprinting this little treasure trove of tips on everything from teapots to toilet requisites foot warmers to tricycling tours. This is the perfect little present for your favorite "lady traveler."
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.