Posts Tagged ‘travel ethics’


Uzbekistan in retrospect

November 8, 2008

            7/11/08 Shymkent, Kazakhstan

            I am aware that my writing during the three weeks that I spent in Uzbekistan has not been as stimulating as it was while I was in Iran, nor has it offered as many interpretative ‘snapshots’ of Uzbek people or life as I feel my Iran writings did. I think this is because I engaged much less with Uzbekistan, in the sense that I both learned less about it and felt that what I did learn was, perhaps, somewhat superficial. I feel like I left Uzbekistan with a piecemeal idea about its history and a glimpse of its geography, but no comprehensive sense of Uzbek social dynamics, no hint of individual perceptions, tastes or hopes, which are aspects that I felt I gained a minimal yet significant exposure to in Iran.


            One of the biggest causes of this sense of lack was definitely due to the fact that I experienced much less interaction with Uzbek people than with Iranians. In Iran, I felt that I had several meaningful encounters with different people, even within the frame of ‘foreigner’ or ‘tourist’ to which I am inescapably bound in my travels. Generally, I suppose, I found Iranians to be more open, more curious, more eager to strike up a conversation in which they inquired about me and spoke about themselves. Moreover, while they actively sought my point of view on ‘touchy’ subjects such as politics or religion, I was surprised to find them willing to express often dissident opinions about those matters. When I expressed such surprise to one Iranian man quite early on in my trip, he said that he was not afraid to voice his disapproval to foreigners (when asked his opinion about Ahmedinejad, he had replied, without a second’s hesitation,: ”asshole”), but that he would never choose to act on his feelings because he felt that there was too much at stake. I found that his comment shed light on the ideas that condition the circumstances under which many Iranians feel more or less able to manifest their opinions.


            In Uzbekistan, I was privy to only a handful of conversations with Uzbeks, and their scope was far more standard: origins, education, family. On one hand, I think it had something to do with the language barrier: more people spoke English in Iran, and Arabic is far closer to Farsi than it is to both Russian and Uzbek, which had proven very useful at times. (I managed to make some headway with the ethnic Tajiks we met near Bukhara and Samarkand, because Tajik and Farsi overlap quite heavily).


            But language aside, I felt that many Uzbeks reacted to my foreignness with a certain distance. In the rural areas, I felt this translated into amusement, where my linguistic ignorance was often met with laughter.  In the cities it expressed itself less endearingly, and, especially Tashkent, I felt general apathy, manifested in a scarcity of smiling faces and a lack of willingness to help. This stood in such drastic contrast to the hospitality of the Iranians, the scale of which I had never encountered before. Perhaps mistakenly, I attribute the relative disinterest, even coldness that i experienced in urban Uzbekistan to a combination of the proliferation of mass tourism and the indifference and anonymity that accompanies the way that Central Asia has come to be atomized along post-Soviet Russo-European lines.


            By the same token, I must acknowledge my own agency in not connecting as much with Uzbeks as I felt i did with Iranians. Two months of travel (coupled with a week’s worth of traveller’s diarrhea) have doubtlessly drained my explorational energies. My laziness manifested itself as much in my lack of efforts to learn Uzbek or Russian as in my favouring  early bed-times over nights out in local haunts, which is where I could have potentially met and chatted to more people.


            The amalgamation of these factors, set against the frequency and depth that characterised my conversations with the Iranians I met, led me to feel that my interactions with Uzbeks revealed to me less about aspects of Uzbek society. This might sound patronising, but I did not find that my conversations with Uzbeks were as eye-opening or as insightful as those that I had with Iranians.


*          *          *


            Personal interaction is not, of course, the only source of knowledge, but unfortunately, the information that I acquired through other channels proved hardly illuminating either. There is undoubtedly a plethora of material artifacts and architectural structures that bear testimony to the hayday of Uzbek history, the glorious days when the Silk Road was the centre of the world. However, I failed to find the curation and presentation of these stimulating. Something that i found particularly offputting in the ancient Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand was that each mosque and madrasa was being used more as a market stall than a place of archaeological import. When one enters through the huge, arched, blue mosaic-tiled entrances of the centuries-old structures, instead of being able to absorb the characteristics and imagine the past life of the building, one is encountered with flocks of old ladies clad in colourful head-scarves peddling embroidered bags, throws and carpets; terra cotta plates and bowls with intricate geometric designs; and small boxes with hand-painted miniature scenes of courting, music and feasting.


            Now, do not doubt the craftsmanship and consequent appeal of their wares, for both are evident. But I felt that it was inappropriate to allow four hundred year-old courtyards, celebrated as prestigious centres of learning of Islamic world some 500 years ago, to serve as platforms from which unsuspecting tourists could be wielded out of a few dollars. Although it could be seen as infusing otherwise ‘dead’ places with a new commercial life, I found that it distracted me from being able to imagine their histories. The vaulted rooms which were once the classrooms of the Islamic world’s most ground-breaking philosophers, doctors, astronomers and poets had been transformed into tourist bazaars. Sight-seeing came to be quickly replaced by browsing and, eventually, shopping. Yes, time and time again, i was sucked right in.


            Even the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, aka national museum, offered a shallow overview of over 10,000 years of human history, beginning with the stone tools of Neanderthal man and ending with fragments that represent the modernity of post-Soviet Uzbekistan: the production quota of chemical plants; various Olympic medals; Visa cards and Mastercards. Admittedly, some of the more interesting material concerning popular Uzbek uprisings against Russian and then Soviet imperialism was not translated into English, so again language proved a significant barrier to learning.


            Thankfully, one avenue of cultural/historical discovery was opened for us: we were fortunate to be able to get tickets for a production at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent which had English subtitles. Ecstasy with the Pomegranate told the story of a Russian painter who had been sent to live in Tashkent in 1916, as part of the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Against the background of the ‘civilizing’ mission of imperial Russia which sought to replace traditional Uzbek culture with Russified values, the painter finds his objects of both artistic and social interest in a group of ‘bachas’, male dancers that perform in a sexual, homoerotic style similar to Arab belly-dancing. The themes were multi-faceted, ranging from traditional Uzbek gender roles (one character is a girl who dresses as a boy in order to be able to fulfill her passion for dancing); the dynamics of the colonial encounter, including the sexualisation of the cultural other which stimulates unconventional affections (a Russian soldier who falls for a young bacha) and the difficulties in blindly applying the Russian legal system in a completely different cultural context; and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on both Russians and non-Russians.


            It was a long production, almost 3 hours, and though i nodded off during the last act (shame!), I found it was the most interesting representation of Uzbek history and culture that I had encountered in Uzbekistan. I left the theatre feeling like I had engaged emotionally with Uzbek history as well as having witnessed a snippet of the avant-garde contemporary arts scene, which, judging from the fact that the show was sold out, seems to be in full bloom.


            *          *          *


            I think that ultimately, though, my overall disappointment with my time spent travelling in Uzbekistan is a consequence of the fact that all experiences are perceived of comparatively. Generally, the interpretation of any experience is significantly influenced by the past, and therefore the ways in which we come to think about or see something new will always be imbued with previous encounters. Our perceptions will always be influenced by the many factors of our own construction. We can never experience something as it is; but only according to the conditions that structure our encounter with it.


            In my mind, my experiences in Uzbekistan will always stand in relation to my experiences in Iran because I visited the two countries as part of the same trip, in which one followed nearly immediately after the other (save the brief four-day transit through Turkmenistan). I believe that this relationality dampened my appreciation of the country, which also means that should have made extra efforts to break through my high-expectations. Therefore, I wish to mediate my previous negative comments about Uzbeks, their hospitality, the organization of their tourism etc by stating that I realise that my interpretation is equally, if not more responsible for the mediocraty of my experience than any of the flaws i previosly pointed out.


            And this is not a disclaimer! It is only the meager efforts of a wandering wonderer to bring sense and meaning to the many different, often conflicting emotions that the (largely indulgent) act of perpetual vagabonding entails….


The death of a vegetrian. Or, “Displacement and the suspension of principles”

October 27, 2008


           I have always rejected the dogmatic clinging to principle, because all value judgments take root in and are thus only valid in a specific context. I believe that as context changes, the tenets that people hold dear also change.


            Some would deem that fickle. Others would agree and argue for the contingency of the individual, recognising that as circumstances change, so the self changes. Both are charges that threaten us: on one hand, our integrity is compromised by hypocrisy; on the other hand, our adaptability pales in the face of immutable conviction. As with all things, therefore, it is a matter of balancing the two, of negotiating some stance between two-faced irresponsibility and blind, unconditional devotion.


*          *          *


            I have self-defined as a vegetarian for over six years. I say ‘self-defined’, because by some people’s standards, I would not have even merited the designation ‘vegetarian’, because I seldom chose to eat fish. Such a decision was motivated by the philosophy that motivated my ‘vegetarianism’ in the first place: an inclination towards boycotting exploitative methods of production while accepting local, small-scale produce.


            I stopped eating meat at the same that I started to acquire broader socio-political awareness. In my last year of high-school in France, reading books such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo and discovering the ”Another world is possible” slogan of the World Social Forum introduced me to the concept of responsibility in consumerism. On one hand, it was your classical late-nineties anti-globalisation fare, which entailed choosing not to buy products produced by sweatshop labour or associated with multi-national corporation (who abused human rights and undermined local, independent business). On the other hand, it led to me ceasing to eat meat, which in university continued into a penchant towards products (especially dairy) produced according to Fair Trade and organic standards.


            My borderline flirtations with eating fish sprouted from a belief that if you ate it from local sources, you were supporting small-scale industry and not causing too much environmental/social tension. Initially, I only ate it at the sea-shore in France, Italy or my dad’s house in the Caribbean (dare I divulge the privilege of my upbringing). But then, after a couple years, I became lazy and my occasional contingently-justifiable delights (once every few months) became more frequent indulgences, perhaps sushi in a self-proclaimed ‘sustainable’ sushi bar, or the odd package of Sainsbury’s Organic smoked salmon (the debate regarding purchasing supermaket-produced organic and fair trade products from huge companies that monopolize the market or threaten small business exceeds the scope of this piece, but is nevertheless something that requires much more deliberation).


            Consequently, it became that my principles concerning fish consumption were more flexible than before, and I found myself being more and more able to justify eating fish. Recently, more precisely over the last couple of weeks, my convictions regarding eating red meat have fallen victim to a similar tendency.


            The cause of my choice to boycott of meat products originates in a disgust of the industry. Consequently, I have often maintained that I would consider eating meat that came from animals reared in more humane methods, such as traditional shepherding. And during a stop over in the very small village of Jerbent in the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, on the highway between Ashgabat in the south and Dashogus in the north, I took myself up on that.


            Jerbent is pretty much the closest place I’ve ever been in to the Middle of Nowhere: a tiny village of perhaps a few hundred inhabitants living in single-story, rectangular houses scattered on the sand. Outside these houses, camels can be found either attached by ropes to wooden troughs or wandering aimlessly through strewn rubbish in the company of chickens. Sheep and goats are kept in circular pens made out of large, 2 metre-high tree branches, with their broader end fixed into the sand while the twigs of their narrower extremity reach up into the cloudless blue sky. One of the roads encompassing of the village had been completely encroached upon by the constantly shifting dunes of the desert, and served as the slightest indication of the power of the natural forces at play in that harsh environment.


            Our two cars pulled up to a house whose owner was accustomed to providing sustenance to passing drivers and their passengers, given that after Turkmenbashi ordered the demolition of the other main village on the desert highway, apparently because it did not conform to an example of the progressive society he was attempting to forge,  Jerbent is the only real source of human activity for a 500 km radius. We were led into a narrow room with no furnishings apart from a refrigerator and a collection of jars filled with stewed fruit and pickles in one corner. The ten of us (2 drivers and 8 passengers) sat around a plastic tablecloth spread out on the floor, something we had grown accustomed to during our time in Iran and which I had come to admire for its convenient dispensing of practicalities such as not having enough chairs to accommodate unexpected guests. Our hostess served us green tea, and then asked if we wanted something to eat. The only thing on offer was lamb, and, to the surprise of both my vegetarian and omnivore companions,  I put in a request.


            Now, I had had a small breakfast of coffee and biscuits a few hours before. I was by no means famished, and we had enough apples, apricots and various other tidbits to last through the 6 hours until we were to arrive at our destination. Therefore, my decision to eat the lamb was not motivated by a fear of hunger, nor was it out of politeness to the hosts. I, quite simply, was not bothered by the thought of eating a sheep raised in the Turkmen desert. In fact, and perhaps slightly morbidly, the idea rather appealed to me.


             The meat came in sizable chunks soaking in its gravy on two communal plates with some chopped raw onion sprinkled on top, to be eaten by hand with the help of bread. The flesh was salty, fatty and tender, and it gushed its full-bodied juices onto my taste buds. I chewed and chewed, entertained by the challenge of masticating that unmistakable consistency, while savouring the distinctive, succulent flavour.


            Yes, I really enjoyed that simple dish of dead desert sheep, despite feeling it sit heavily in my intestines following the meal. And, perhaps in total hypocrisy, I am not ashamed of that enjoyment. Even more shocking, I decided to reindulge the growing carnivore inside me about a week later, when I ordered a lamb shashlyk (grilled on a skewer) in Bukhara, Uzbekistan…


            So, what now? Do I consider myself a ‘meat-eater’. Should I? Is my claim to vegetarianism nullified by these recent spurts of lamb meat-love?


            In response to these questions, Di made the useful point that no labels are ever either seamless and therefore often dispensable. ‘Don’t call yourself a vegetarian, just say that you don’t eat meat’, she suggested. Yet although that may be a practical way of framing the situation when I’m ordering food in a restaurant, how does it sit when placed within the philosophical debate about the ethics of human consumption of animals? Does the fact that I have veered from the principled path of vegetarianism forsake the ground from which I am able to criticise the exploitative, unsustainable methods used in most western meat production?


            And what about other pro-vegetarian arguments, such as the fact that in view of the world food crisis, the amount of grain that it takes to nourish an animal could sustain many, many more people than the those that would get my on the amount of meat derived fro that animal. Accordingly, it would follow that the most humanitarian decision would be for us to renounce meat so that the grain that would normally go to the meat industry could be directly redistributed to those populations who experience food shortages. But where does shepherding fit into that logic? Surely, animals that survive on the dry, prickly vegetation of the Central Asian semi-desert are usurping neither actual food resources nor arable land? 


            Despite the rationalisation that I am increasingly capable of, I am left with a resounding suspicion that my relativism, through which I evaluate my actions based on the specificities of the context, still stinks of hypocrisy.


*          *          *


            In order to come to some sort of pertinent evaluation of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that my recent decisions to eat meat should to be situated alongside other choices I have made during these travels. For example, over the past month my qualms about purchasing certain products, namely from Coca Cola and Nestle, have been similarly neglected. Again, the decision to boycott these companies dates back to my student days, when Coke was accused of murdering some of its employees who were members of a turbulent trade union in South America; while Nestle occupies a prestigious spot on the ‘Black List’, a group of companies who have either administrative or economic ties to the Zionist movement. In the U.K., France, America, I am often adamant about the importance of such boycotts, framing them in terms of a broader ‘ethical consumerism’, which seeks to reject placing one’s purchasing power in companies that use sweatshop labour (Nike), or have investments in arms companies, or tend to monopolise certain markets (Chiquita banana).


            Since travelling, however, I have become so slack when it comes to following through with such principles: if i feel a bout of dodgy stomach emerging while on public transport, I’ll buy the first Coke I see because it really helps settle the stomach. Similarly, having to wake up at 7am to catch a bus after a night on the vodka is greatly assisted by a hot cup of instant coffee, which not always but often comes in the form of Nescafe. So, several years of practicing what I preached have flown out the train window,.


            I wonder:


            To what extent is being removed from one’s context or ‘normalcy’ taken as a license to permit oneself abnormal behaviours?


            Does travelling, with the vast changes that it implies in terms of language, culture, values, become a good excuse for deviance?


            Do the combined sensations of movement, temporariness, transit and difference combine to make us more prone to suspend our tenets in the name of ‘adjustment’ and ‘compromise’?


            Or, does travelling across the world with a backpack consume so much energy that we become, quite simply, lazy?



“Dead Tourism”: Reflections on the objects of touristic interest

September 29, 2008

28/09/08 Shiraz

The two main sights we saw in Shiraz were Persipolis and the tomb of Hafez, the infamous Iranian poet. Many of the other things that had been recommended to us, such as the bazaar and certain mosques, were closed on our Friday evening walkabout of the town, obviously the worst time to go sightseeing, especially because it was the last Friday of Ramadan.

Persipolis was quite disappointing: a 120,000 metre square sight of ruins, elevated on a rock slab base 18 metres above ground level. The construction of the ancient city of Parsa was begun in approximately 518 BC by Darius the Great and continued through his successors Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and it served as a royal palace and a place of celebration for the Persian new year, No Ruz. (We found it amusing that we were potentially visiting an ancient site which served a similar function as Glastonbury or Ibiza, to which debauched subjects made annual pilgrimages in order to savour the finest earthy delights of the time… We wondered if, in 2000 years’ time, the nuclear-stricken carcasses of legendary clubbing venues such as Fabric in London would receive similar reverence…) The lifespan of the elaborate, festive city was relatively short, as it was sacked by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BC. What remains after excavation and reconstruction of the mythical location is a meager selection of structures: the grand staircase, the mammoth frame of the entrance hall, a few scattered columns, and a handful of bas reliefs alluding to both decoration and customs. Unfortunately, like so many other locations that have been reaped and pillaged by hungry Western archaeologists, the contents of the museum and the site are scarce when compared to the Ancient Persian collection in, say, the British Museum.

To be fair, we are a hard group to please, what with between us we’ve visited many of the world’s truly phenomenal sites: Baalbeck in Lebanon, Karnak in Egypt, Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Vietnam, the Terra Cota Warriors in China, Machu Pichu in Peru. And compared to those sights, which are both architecturally impressive and well preserved, Persipolis fell short of astounding. But to give it some credit, the site itself is well-curated, with clear panels in English and Farsi which provide you with plenty of information and therefore spare you the expense of a guide. And it is worth climbing up to the tomb carved out of rock which flanks the city, because it offers an interesting overhead view.

More impressive were the tombs of Naqsh e-Rostam, about a 10 minute drive from Persipolis. These consist in 4 tombs carved into a mountainside, the resting places of Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius II. They hover in the sheer rock face over 15 metres off the ground, giving the sight a slightly suspended, ghost-like feeling. Below the tombs are bas reliefs which date hundreds of years after the deaths of the kings, and the specificities of these are explained in detail in clear panels.

After resting from our morning spent out in the baking sun poking round 2000 year old tombs and palaces, we opted for a relaxing evening at the tomb of Hafez, who had discovered the inspirational mix of wine and poetry long before the likes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, or their romantic contemporaries. His verses speak of love and loss, hope and fate, and are riddled with imagery of birds, flowers and other such components of nature. He is still revered in Iran today, despite (perhaps even because of) his tendencies towards indulgence standing in sharp contradiction to the values of the Islamic state. His tomb is situated in a well-kept park of sorts, with ponds and grassy patches.

Surrendering to the romantic sensation of the whole experience, I bought a small collection of Hafez’s poems in Farsi and English in the bookshop on the premises, and then sat in a corner and alternated between reading his works and observing the many people who came to his tomb. Elevated under a sort of pagoda, groups would become silent when approaching the resting place of their revered national poet, and then their composite individuals would step up to the rectangular marble slab under which the body lay, kneel down, and place their heads on the cold stone. It was almost as if they were in a place of religious worship, such was their expressed reverence.

As i sat there, willingly being taken by the whole scene, J read the last pages of the book that he has been reading since the beginning of this trip, entitled ‘We are Iran’. It is an observation of contemporary Iranian thought and social movements through blogging. The two of us sitting there in that garden, at that tomb, in the wake of our day spent discovering ancient Persian relics, sparked some funny thought in me. The contrast between J reading about contemporary social issues with very tangible manifestations and consequences compared to my delving into some abstract, romantic past, bothered me. It made me remember how I find it disturbing that being a visitor in a foreign country means, more often than not, spending more time experiencing the ‘dead’ parts of a country (i.e. its remote history) instead of engaging with the complexities of the present. Of course, to familiarise oneself with the past is an indispensable avenue to understanding the present. But to prioritize activities such as spectator sightseeing of archaeological relics over more banal interactions or up-to-date research is also shallow, because it can limit an outsider’s understanding of a place to some long-gone era that is scarcely relevant to the present.

My first inklings of this sort occurred during my year spent living in Egypt. At that time, I was seeking out the reasons behind my experiences of alienation and harassment that mired my time in that country. Initially, I blamed various elements of contemporary Egyptian society, including the sharp rural-urban divide, disparity of wealth, wide-spread illiteracy and the rise of political Islam as a consequence of the failed economic and political reforms of the Sadat era.

And then I went on holiday to Luxor and Assouan, the sites of many of Egypt’s most infamous sites, including the Temples of Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, and saw things differently. It was about 5 months after my arrival in Alexandria, where i was attending university to study Arabic, which was largely enough time to make me realise what is acceptable attire for women in Egypt: modest dress, not showing too much leg, upper arm or chest. The streams of scantily-clad Europeans on package holidays that I encountered in Assouan and Luxor made me lose my self-righteous disdain for the attitudes of some Egyptians towards me, which I had initially perceived as irrationally sexist and anti-Western. It made me understand that the behaviour of most tourists that come to Egypt actually foster the image of a certain frivolity and unfettered sexuality (compared to what is acceptable and unacceptable in Egyptian society). It also made me remember that I also had once played a part in creating that very image of Westerners in Egypt.

Egypt’s main industry is tourism, and it receives thousands of tourists every year, who flock to its celebrated relics in under-dressed gaggles on the ubiquitous Nile cruises. I had been on a similar cruise several years before, on a week-long class trip. I remember sunbathing topless in the glorious spring heat on the deck of the boat with my blossoming adolescent companions, and wandering round the ancient sites in tank tops and shorts. We were completely ignorant of anything to do with contemporary Egyptian values or manners, and lapped up the ancient history as if is was the only thing of substance in the country. I knew no Arabic, had no concept of the country’s recent history, its anti-colonial struggles, it’s wars, it’s occupation… I also knew nothing about Islam. Again, i was completely ignorant of anything that constituted twenty-first century Egypt, and behaved in according disrespect. And, returning to those tourist sites after having learned a fair amount about all those things, i realised that,similar to my young teenage self, the vast majority of those who visit Egypt are equally ignorant.

The tourist industry in Egypt is based on a civilization that existed somewhere between 5-3 thousand years ago. The millions who partake in that industry have their appetites whetted with visions of the country as a grandiose, mythical land of the Pharaohs. For the most part, they come away from their visit with that idea solidly rooted in their minds, because all they have been exposed to are the radiant sunshine and scenic palms of the tranquil Nile shores, the cradle of modern agriculture; the breathtaking temples and palaces that adorn bygone kings and queens that fashioned themselves as the representatives of Gods on earth. They have been shuttled from from boat to archaeological site in clean, air-conditioned buses, without having to spend too long in the blistering heat or dirty streets of the towns they stop in, or without having to interact with any local people apart from those highly irritating ones who run after them trying to sell cheap plastic replicas of the wonders they’ve seen.

They leave Egypt not having known an Egyptian outside the the frame of tourism, outside their own positions of privilege (obviously, no one can ever truly escape their privilege, to think so is naive, but in this case the extent that such privilege infiltrates every single relation is very strong). They might have had an entertaining Egyptian guide, or bought a carpet from a pleasant man who offered them tea, or been showered with innumerable shouts of ‘welcome in Egypt’. They are undoubtedly more fascinated by dead, decaying bodies (the mummies) than the the living, breathing individuals that populate the country. They probably also got slightly ripped off by a souvenir peddler, and perhaps resent being taken advantage of. The only modern structure that has probably been framed as being of any significance is the Assouan dam, and even then it is no doubt belittled in comparison to the glorious temples that have just been visited.

Basically, that type of tourism constructs an image of Egypt in tourists minds as a place of nostalgic return to a past, dead civilization, which is made to harbour a historical richness that is pre-packaged, sanitised and fit for Western consumption. When they compare this romanticised past to Egypt’s current social ills, including poverty and corruption and the rise of political Islam, the country is seen in a state of regression, because the current culture is rendered devoid of any significance outside the touristic trope. Reciprocally, tourists in Egypt do not even consider modifying their behaviour/dress to suit Egypt’s cultural values. Therefore, in turn, the Egyptians have come to think of foreigners as disrespectful and endowed with unimaginable disposable incomes that enable their jilted consumption of the treasures of ancient Egypt. Both images mutually reinforce the negative aspects of each party’s other, and sustain a tense, problematic relationship between the two.

Although the Egyptian case is an extreme, I have elaborated upon it so much in order to question the extent to which similar patterns reproduce themselves in all touristic destinations. How do we ‘experience’ a foreign country? What do we choose to see, what do we prioritise? Inversely, what do we deem as banal and hence not of interest? We precipitate upon the anti-Israeli street demonstrations in the major cities of Iran that marked the last Friday of Ramadan, but perhaps disregard the groups of schoolchildren leaving school, or the myriad different ways in which women transcend the strict Islamic dress code through hairstyle, make-up and other dress forms…

No traveler should forget the implications of their gaze, and how that gaze creates what is seen of our difference…


Damascus – Tehran train: part 1

September 20, 2008


Despite our disorganization and conflicting information concerning visa fees and sleeper-car availability, we managed to nab 5 beds on the Damascus-Tehran train the morning of its departure. Contrary to the information we found on the internet, the tickets were 64 Euros or 4,700 Syrian pounds each, some $106. After having registered our passport information and written out our tickets (nothing in the Syrian transport system is computerized, so the whole process takes ages), we attempted to pay with dollars. The man initially refused, and then, after adding $3 to the price of each ticket, accepted.


            Lesson 1: if you want to get this train from Damascus, try to pay in Syrian pounds.


            The train is plush. Much more elaborate than what J and I were used to taking in China,  the sleeper cabins each have two bunk-beds, a nice big window and a sink. And they come in pairs with a connecting door in between, which is fun because if you know the person in the room next  to you, with the door open you get a much more spacious area to chill in.


            The food, however, will receive a much less favourable review. We had read somewhere that there was no food on the trains, so we took some supplies with us (bread, Kiri cheese, dried figs and apricots, mixed nuts), and thank Allah we did. Not because meals aren’t provided. They are, but they leave much to be desired, especially for the vegetarians among us.


            Breakfast the first morning was hopeful: bread, cheese triangles, apricot jam, biscuits, tea and coffee. Good start.


            Lunch, however, was significantly disappointing. The contents were the same as breakfast, with the cheese replaced by a tin of tuna. And dinner followed the same pattern, except with a tin of processed meat replacing the tuna.


            Lesson 2: Bring sufficient food supplies, especially if there are veggies among you (fresh fruit and veg are very much missed!)


            Otherwise, our travel companions are very pleasant. Many of the Iranian men speak Arabic because they are either from south-western Iran or they work in the oil industry, and therefore spend most time in the Arab Gulf countries. They are very talkative, eager to chat bout anything from pre-revolutionary Iranian history and literature, to the difficulties of working away from home and family, to reminding the men in the group to ”veil their women” when we cross into Iran, to proclaiming their admiration for Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah. In a conversation with J, one man said that he loved Nasrallah more than his own children…


            However, we were indicated by several people back in Lebanon to not expect too favourable reactions from Iranians with regard to Lebanon, and Hizbullah in particular, mostly because there is a suspicion among many Iranians that their taxes are going towards arming Hizbullah instead of being invested in national infrastructure and development… Obviously, like all overtly political discussions, it will not be a topic that we will seek out explicitly, but will probably come about as a result of us mentioning that we have all come from Beirut, where 4/5 of us have been living for the past year. Treading lightly all the while…


            My affection for trains that blossomed during last year’s trans-China escapade has been rekindled in the 24 hours since we’ve embarked. Trains are both literally and metaphorically more grounded than flying, which means that they are simultaneously a less anxious form of transport (you dont have that sensation of fearing a 10km death drop at every bump of turbulence) and they enable you to really be aware of the distance being covered, and the various characteristics of different parts of each country crossed. I love witnessing the change of scenery, which has so far taken us from barren desert between Damascus and Aleppo, through lush, red-dirt olive groves along the Syrian-Turkish border, to the yellow hills and man-made lakes of west Kurdistan; lakes which are a big source of geopolitical tension between Turkey and Syria because they block most of the water from the rivers that flow southwards from the Black Sea and keep it on the Turkish side of the border.


            (Incidentally, the Brits among us only had to pay $20 each to enter Turkey, not the $150 cited to us in Damascus… But us French nationals still got in for free, yay!)


            As we move eastwards deeper into Kurdistsan, the Turkish police on the train are getting visibly more antsy. In the dining carriage, they started by merely gossiping about the as yet unveiled women among us and sneaking furtive snapshots with their camera phones. Then all of a sudden, one of them stood up and started distributing mini machine guns (Uzis?) and bullets and cockily loaded their tools of death. Are there PKK rebels on the radar?


*          *          *


            There is a 40 something German woman in the room next to Di and Caro who is traveling alone. Her name is Cordela. This morning at breakfast, she said that the men on the train keep asking her where her husband is. She had replied that he was at home, so the inevitable question followed as to why he wasn’t accompanying her, and she made some excuse. Di had the great idea that she should tell people she was a widow, but that would probably invite more approaches than quell them.


            Most of my travels have been effectuated in a group or in a couple, and I have often been grateful for the security that such company offers. In my experience of living and traveling in Arab countries, where inquiries about a woman’s marital status are usually third in line after those of name and nationality, stating that one is married is a good way of avoiding both unwanted male interest and marriage proposals in the name of acquiring a European passport. I do, therefore, think that it is more hassle to travel as a single woman.


            Moreover, I have always enjoyed traveling more when there was an element of sharing in the process of discovery; the idea that one is forming some sort of communal memory that weaves itself into platonic and romantic relationships. Obviously, all individuals involved will perceive and therefore remember differently, it is naïve to think that there will be a single narrative for any given event. And unfamiliar places and strenuous circumstances can strain already-existing friendships. Nevertheless, I do find that shared travel strengthens relationships, through both hardship and enjoyment, and create invaluable, long-lasting memories.


            Despite these impressions, I look at the way that Cordela’s status of a single female actually renders her more accessible to the Iranian women on the train than the women in our group. At one point she had over 10 women crowded into her room, communicating is fragments of different language and through a Farsi phrasebook. I haven’t conversed with any women on this train yet. The fact that we are a group does make us more insular, more liable to be content with ourselves, in our own cabins/rooms/company, and ultimately less likely to spend time with others or forge new friendships.


            I realise that that is one of the big perks of traveling alone, that it makes one more accessible to those around. And i suppose that is the danger of traveling in a group, that the sense of self-sufficiency and comfort yields a degree of complacency, which restricts the extent to which the traveling experience is one of challenge and discovery. traveling in a group could just come to be transferring one’s ordinariness onto other locations, without really engaging in the difference of those places. But then again, to suppose that one can ever completely escape from those many things that constitute the self is equally naive, and there is no guarantee that being alone makes one lose ones ties to their comfort zone. Solitude can also yield a clinging to a comfort-zone, or even introversion.


            I think, therefore, that the challenge of exposing oneself to or engaging with the otherness that travel entails is always present, regardless of companionship. I do, however, think that it requires more effort when in a group. An easy idea to formulate, but no doubt more difficult in practice; and it remains to be seen to what extent we, both as individuals and the sum of our parts, can do so.


            (and then, emerging from my room into the corridor, I realize that the whole time that Ive been writing, Di and Caro have been chatting with an Iranian man and his Lebanese wife in their room, while James has been learning Farsi with another man… So maybe, in fact, I should spend less time working on my personal narrative and more time putting myself out there).