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Quite Alone: stories of hope from the Middle East

October 5, 2020

When I want to escape from the grim reality of decline, unspeakable politics and national self-harm, I go travelling.

And when regulations and the desire for self-preservation make it inadvisable to venture further than my local park, I hitch a ride on the experiences of others. Books and TV travelogues are no substitutes for one’s own footprints, but at least they offer short journeys into different worlds and wider perspectives.

Matthew Teller is a writer whose adventures I have followed through Twitter and occasional BBC broadcasts. He, like me, has a profound love for the Middle East and its people. Through his work as a journalist, he has been to parts of the region that I could only dream of visiting. In contrast, my experience has been mostly urban, and the straight lines between centres of population – via roads, flight and occasionally train.

In some cases, he and I have trod the same trails – to Petra, the Asir, Taif and various emirates that nestle between the Persian Gulf (or Arabian, if you will) and the vast, oasis-studded interior of the Arabian Peninsula. But whereas my purpose has mainly been business, with side-trips when possible, his has been to explore and describe places and things most of us never get to see.

Which is why his latest book, Quite Alone, is a joy. It’s a collection of articles he has written over the last decade for a number of outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic and The Times.

He writes much about preservation and renewal. Of efforts to reintroduce the Arabian Oryx, once common across the peninsula and Jordan. About the baboons of south-west Saudi Arabia and ways to ensure that they don’t become dependent on a growing human population. Of a project to save one of central Arabia’s wadis from becoming the receptacle of polluted run-off water from Riyadh. Of the recapture of the Gulf’s long history into a digital library in Qatar. Of efforts to create a walking trail through Palestine, and preserve an ancient hill-top town in Iraqi Kurdistan. Of the cuisine of Aleppo and Damascus. And of efforts in the Oman to claim the birthplace of the mythical Sinbad the Sailor. Not to mention wine-making in Jordan – surely as unlikely an activity as hummus production in Harrogate.

It’s hard not to read these stories from the Middle East without a sense of sadness. For me personally, because I will probably be unable to visit most of the places Matthew writes about, either because I wouldn’t be welcome in some countries because of what I’ve written in the past, or because I’m no longer of an age to go backpacking and climbing mountains.

While it’s easy to accept that the world Wilfred Thesiger described – of pristine marshes in the Shatt-al-Arab and heroic treks across the Empty Quarter – is no longer what it was, the sadness from reading Quite Alone comes through the effects of war and other forms of destruction in such a short time on some of the places he describes. I never made it to Syria before the civil war. Damascus and Aleppo are scarred and traumatised. Beirut is shattered by economic crisis, continued sectarian tension and recently by the catastrophic explosion in the port. And now, of course, the pandemic threatens to cut the heart out of tourism, on which many jobs depend across the region.

So much writing about travel in the Middle East seems to focus on remnants of what was. William Dalrymple’s haunting From the Holy Mountain, for example, in which he traces the decline of Christianity by walking in the footsteps of a sixth-century monk. Many of Matthew Teller’s stories are also rooted in the past, but offer hope for the future in the dreams of the ecologists, architects, artists and the ordinary people he meets.

The Middle East, caught between the fertile land masses of Europe, Asia and Africa, fought over for reasons of politics, faith and trade, and now warped, sometimes beyond recognition, by recent mineral wealth, is nonetheless home to a stunning diversity of culture, belief and geography. Quite Alone reminds us that there’s more to the region than plastic souks, soaring tower blocks and concrete walkways between the holy places. And once the rubble has been cleared, the tanks have retreated, the secret police have returned to their barracks and the virus has been put in its place, perhaps it will again be possible to explore and learn. To rejoice in mountains, deserts and oases. And once again to experience traditions whose difference can enlighten and nourish those of us who visit from afar, if we only open our minds to them.

Matthew Teller writes with love, and also with a sense of responsibility to future generations, much in the same way as another of my favourite writers, Tahir Shah, does in his In Arabian Nights, through which he celebrates the story-tellers of Morocco, and teaches his children the same stories as his father taught him.

None of this is to deny a dark side. I’ve seen enough of that to last my lifetime. Equally, I don’t see myself as a romantic orientalist. And neither, I suspect, does Matthew Teller, who choses in his book to celebrate the positive without ignoring the darkness.

I’ve read and reviewed enough books about turbulence and torment in the Middle East. You don’t have to look far to find prophesies of further agony.

So it’s a pleasure to be reminded that the future of its people doesn’t have to be endlessly bleak.

  1. My goodness, this is such wonderful writing Steve. Well done Sir!

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