Arabia: Through the Looking Glass by Jonathan Raban

Review published on September 5, 2018.

After the oil boom of the 1970s Arabs left the security of their homelands and started to become more visible in the Western capitals. Seeing them around London made Raban think it would be good to travel to their home countries and see what life was like there. It was a journey that would take him from Bahrain to Qatar, Yemen to Jordon, and finally to Egypt and he wanted to go there before the vast wealth from oil changed these places irreparably. He was a little late as wealth had flowed into the communities over there, sons had headed to Europe and America to learn medicine and engineering, The temperamental Range Rover had replaced the grumpy camel and the tents that had been the homes for the Bedouin for hundreds of years were stopping being used as they moved into homemade from brick and mortar.

However, the old way of life is still there if you want to go and look for it. Raban’s gregarious nature means that he easily forges friendships with the people that he meets as he travels through each of the countries. Mixing with the expat community who are trying to recreate a little bit of England over there he finds interesting, but what he is there for is to walk the streets, absorbing the smells of the souks, chew the qat, sip strong coffee with men and get lost in the maze of street away from the tourist area. He speaks to fishermen on quaysides that have been almost untouched by the economic change, apart from making fish traps from wire and changing the sails on their dhows to engines. Walking through the night he hears the call of the muezzins before the first rays of dawn erupt across the sky.

This is the first Raban book that I have read, it won’t be the last either as I have been kindly sent a small pile from Eland of their republications and have bought a couple of others. He reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor in some ways with the way that he can engage with people from all walks of life from diplomats to the man squatting in the market with a few things to sell. His prose is very eloquent, making it a readable travel book, but most importantly he is prepared to ask searching questions of those that he interacts with to get a better insight to the places he visits. Thoroughly enjoyable and looking forward to his next, Old Glory.

Paul Cheney 4/3

Arabia: Through the Looking Glass by Jonathan Raban
Eland Publishing Ltd 9781780601397 pbk May 2018

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