The city of Tangier, the setting for Tahar Ben Jelloun's 2006 novel, Leaving Tangier.
Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, checks in again with the recommended-reading feature that Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth.
This month, Brown selects three pieces of writing that revolve around traveling to or from places we've come to identify in the past few months with what's known as the "Arab spring." One is a work of journalism, a report from the streets of Syria. Another is a cry for serious, dedicated travel writing from a serious travel writer. Third is a novel about the desperate desire to escape one such country.
Trying To Get Into Damascus
Brown's first choice is an article written by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian war correspondent perhaps best known for her book The Bookseller of Kabul, in which she wrote about living with a family in Afghanistan. This week in Newsweek, Seierstad writes about visiting Damascus, where the Syrian people are under the thumb of a military dictatorship.
"It's very, very hard to get into that country right now, and there's hardly anybody left there covering it," Brown tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "So she really did get a visa only by showing up at the airport and saying that she's a poet, and they let her in. And she spent two weeks there sort of quietly interviewing people on the ground, especially women."
Some of these women end up participating in an anti-government demonstration. That's a real risk in a city where, as Brown puts it, the secret police are "rounding people up and locking them up and electrocuting them and doing the most horrendous things to them. And they disappear without a trace."
Seierstad talks with a man who was taken by the Mukhabarat after participating in a demonstration. He was held, beaten and interrogated. The police's goal, Seierstad writes, is "to strangle the protests at birth," to keep them from reaching the level of disruption that overthrew governments in Egypt or Tunisia. These police "are divided into intricate systems of departments and subdepartments with a shadowy network all over the country," Brown says. "Who could be a better observer than the green grocer by the mosque or the hospital night watchman?"
And yet, the demonstrators persist. The Syrian women end up holding their protest in an upscale shopping area.
"She goes from high to low," Brown says of Seierstad. "These women are figuring out moments when they can dive out onto the street without anybody watching and just put their little demonstration up because, as one of them says, '1,000 people in the streets of Damascus is like 100,000 people somewhere else' because it's such a scary place to even risk gathering a group."
Trying To Get Writers To Take Travel Seriously
"The world is full of jolly places but these do not interest me at all," writes Paul Theroux in Brown's next pick, an essay called "The Places in Between," which was published in the Financial Times. Theroux is a travel writer who has journeyed across Africa, China and South America, often by train. Brown describes him as "maybe one of our greatest living travel writers."
In "The Places in Between," Theroux offers a plea for travelers to look past the information easily found on the Internet. "He says there is nothing more exciting, really, than a book that can take you into a dangerous, difficult place and give you a story by someone who's really risked their lives and gone there with imagination and found something that you never knew was there," Brown says.
Technology might make it seem like everything in the world has been discovered, he says, but that's far from the case.
"He says not since an army veteran and farmer in Kenya — Arthur John Wavell, who describes himself as a Swahili-speaking Zanzibari — [wrote about his] pilgrimage to Mecca in 1912 has any unbeliever done it since and chronicled it."
World traveler Theroux closes the article with a list of places with romantic names or reputations that, according to him, are actually awful.
"I love it, because we've all had romantic ideas about these places," Brown says. "He says Mandalay is 'an enormous grid of dusty streets occupied by dispirited and oppressed Burmese, and policed by a military tyranny.' And Tahiti, he says, which is one of the most wonderful, romantic names, he says is 'a mildewed island of surly colonials, exasperated French soldiers and indignant natives, with overpriced hotels, one of the world's worst traffic problems and undrinkable water.' "
Trying To Get Out
Third, Brown picks a book that she calls "newly relevant." Leaving Tangier is a 2009 novel by the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun about young Moroccans in the port city of Tangier who desperately want to escape across the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain. Jelloun himself emigrated to France in 1971, but Brown says that his writing makes clear "what it actually feels like to be one of these disempowered, unemployed young people who we now see of course taking the reins and demonstrating and saying, 'We want our dignity.' "
By Tahar Ben Jelloun
Paperback, 275 pages
List price: $15
"What Ben Jelloun does is he describes the daily life of being somebody in a dead-end place like this, hanging around bars, smoking kef, going to the ports and watching what he calls 'burning up the straits,' " Brown says. That phrase refers to the boats that smuggle illegal immigrants from Morocco toward Spain. Many are rounded up and returned, but some make it through.
"Spain, for the kids in Morocco, is the promised land ... where [Leaving Tangier's narrator] can have a job, where he can work and support his desperately poor mother," Brown says. "Finally he gets out, taken by a rich, Spanish homosexual art dealer for whom he has to pretend being homosexual. But he's doing it to help his family, and eventually his spirit is broken by the experience of exile and how much he longs for the country he hates. He was only desperate to get out of Morocco, but taken away from it, you know, whether you have roots or whether you have wings is one of the central dilemmas of this book and it's a very, very tragic insight into what it must feel like to be one of these people in stunted economies, as we're seeing in the Arab spring, saying 'We're not having it anymore.' "