Ask most people whether they fancy a four-month, 5,000-mile trek across the Middle East and they might conclude you need your head seen to. With civil war raging in Syria, Iraq mired in internecine conflict while mopping up the remnants of Daesh, al-Qa’eda running amok in southern Yemen and simmering strife between Israelis and Palestinians, walking across 13 countries might not seem like an obvious itinerary.
But Levison Wood, it is fair to say, is not your average traveller. A committed biped, he is the author of a trio of books on walking the Nile, Himalayas and Americas respectively. Ostensibly unlike the other television-led journeys which preceded it, this expedition was meant to be a lower key affair, though online publicity for an accompanying documentary suggests otherwise.
The adventure begins in Iraq, where, before you can say rocket-launcher, Wood has launched himself into a military operation, sitting on the front of an advancing tank as the Shia Hashd militia flush out the last diehards of Daesh. This is either commendably courageous or borderline idiotic, depending on one’s view. A more peaceful and reflective sojourn follows in the reflooded marshes of southern Iraq.
The Gulf countries of Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE are despatched in quick order and are not really his cup of tea. In his own words, and rather unfairly, he claims to have learnt that ‘very little comes for free in the Arab world’, though as the book and journey continue he realises the value of the extraordinary hospitality he is receiving, often at considerable personal danger to his constantly changing companions. Ever the paratrooper, he enjoys drinking bouts where he can, and regales us with tales of stinking hangovers. What would his heroes Lawrence of Arabia and the ascetic explorer Wilfred Thesiger have made of it?
In Oman, the camels come out at last and Wood heads to the desert with relief, and another guide who doesn’t really pass muster: ‘Nothing can beat having a local who knows the language and the nuances of native customs, religion and culture,’ he writes.
Yemen brings out the reporter in him. He writes movingly of the horrendous ruination of the country at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition. It’s more hair-raising stuff, all the while approaching the closed kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose government shows little inclination to allow him in, notwithstanding the personal intervention of a senior British royal, perhaps Prince Charles. Eventually he does manage to enter, though only after braving the Somali port of Bossaso and a voyage by rickety dhow that would terrify the bejesus out of most travellers.
The Saudi regime is odious, especially under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but Wood at least gets a chance to see a side of the country beyond the headlines, though he is supervised. He laments Mecca’s closure to non-Muslims, which he attributes to a ‘misplaced sense of superiority based on communal pride’.
From there it’s a long hop, skip and a jump to Jordan, Israel, Palestine (‘THERE IS NO PALESTINE,’ an enraged settler shouts at him in Hebron), Syria and Lebanon, via a family Christmas reunion in Bethlehem.
The finest travel writing often reveals an inner journey that runs parallel to the physical. There are smatterings of it here, but Wood’s introspection tends towards the prosaic. Near the end of the book, while ruminating on various conflicts, he concludes: ‘There are no good guys and bad guys, only people.’ The emotional range is limited. He is variously ‘somewhat surprised’, ‘somewhat taken aback’,‘comforted somewhat’ and much of the time ‘excited’.
Sometimes the book feels as though it was written too quickly and the language is hackneyed. ‘This is a journey through a land steeped in history,’ he writes at the outset. Later he describes himself as ‘addicted to life on the road’. For all that, though, he is sufficiently self-aware to understand that ‘I was leading a very selfish, ridiculous life’ which most recently has cost him a girlfriend (for a more literary take on the adventurer’s age-old plight, see Sylvain Tesson’s magnificent Consolations of the Forest). This, Wood promises himself, will be his last big expedition. Perhaps it will, but one suspects he will still pop up to entertain us on television.
So there you have it. What Arabia lacks in limpid prose, cultural awareness and historical insight, it makes up for in rollicking Boys’ Own adventure.