|Why the region doesn’t write about itself and how a disconnected literature market affects the way people travel.
|By Pakinam Amer
|From bards’ tales detailing journeys into the unknown to ancient manuscripts and intricate maps of the world, the legacy of travel narrative in this region is magnificent — at least it was hundreds of years ago. Today, however, travel literature and travelogues written by local writers and native explorers are scarce in Egypt and the region, and the lack is exacerbated by disconnected literature markets, according to observers and industry experts.Because of the nomadic origins of many of the tribes that roamed or settled in the area, from the Arabian Peninsula across North Africa in countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the culture of movement and the lore associated with it was once prominent. But stories have dwindled, and Egyptian and Arab travelers have ceased to tell tales — most of those who write about ‘us’ are authors from outside the region.The problem does not lie in history. For instance, the 14th-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta is one of the most celebrated adventurers of medieval times. Accounts of his trips have been translated into numerous tongues and still change hands today among Arabs and foreigners.
During the golden age of Islam, mobility in search of knowledge was encouraged. Pilgrimage was one form of travel made “for the sake of the journey” — a tradition for followers of monotheistic faiths in the region. The hardships encountered, possible routes and personal stories were all documented, and the accounts can still be found today in libraries. The collective pool of experience from which those who wander can draw was deep.
In modern terms, travel narrative in our region was the “it” thing.
At a time when domestic and inbound tourism is suffering after a revolution that has changed the face of politics in this country, promoting Egypt through literature written by its own people both encourages tourists to visit, and creates a legacy for years to come. Festivals, hashtags on social networking websites like Twitter urging people to “#Come2Egypt,” and TV advertisements directed at sightseeing-lovers abroad may be effective but fleeting whereas a book inspires for centuries.
And right now, all across the world, the travel industry that includes offshoots like tourism, exploration and meditative and spiritual journeys is booming, as more people are able to travel. In some parts of the world, red tape is being cut and borders are opening, improving mobility and in turn creating a culture of travel.
But this travel culture is passing us by, largely due to a combination of factors unique to our region. Blame illiteracy and bureaucracy, blame a lack of resources, local writers and literature markets; the fact remains that our region and Egypt in particular has not come far since Ibn Battuta’s times in terms of exploration and journeys that conquer the small worlds within.
For many explorers and travelers here in Egypt, this is very much tied to the scarcity of literary travel accounts that merge experiences of past travelers and explorers.
“Say you’re an explorer in Egypt and you’re looking to discover a place. Wouldn’t you want to read about what has already been discovered so you build on that?” says Mahmoud Mohareb, an explorer and owner of a company that organizes deep-desert expeditions in Egypt.
Ancient traditions and tales have taught us that travels require a stimulant: something that clicks inside a person and makes him or her feel they want to travel. One of the main sources of inspiration for travelers has always been to read what others have done.
Experts in the field of publishing and travel writing note that such stimulants are lacking in the Middle East and the Arab Mediterranean cultures. A thorough overview of the travel literature available shows that the industry is and has been dominated by ‘foreign’ writers and publishers, from 19th-century Oxbridge-educated explorers to contemporary European and American travelers who publish and blog incessantly about our own countries, seen through their own lens.
Mark Linz, director of the American University in Cairo Press, says that in general, foreign travelers have been “criticized for having slanted ‘the Orient’ in the last 200 years.” Nevertheless, they still remain the leading authority on the region.
“Most of the [travel] books are by European and foreign travelers. Very few Arab travelers travel through Arab countries and write about it. Very few come with a book to publish in travel,” Linz says. “The best books written about the desert and camels are by a Dutch woman who lived for years in the desert among camels.”
He adds that Arab travelers seldom keep diaries of their trips.
“No Egyptians write about Egypt,” adds Sara Abu Bakr, owner of the small Cairo-based publisher Saray. “It’s scandalous [that we don’t write about our own country].”
The Travel Cycle
Travel can be used as both a means and an end, and in both cases the travel cycle or the dynamics of the trip are completely different. More often than not, those who write focus on the journey as an end in itself — the act of traveling itself becomes the objective, and travelogues embody the juice of their experience.However, avid travelers and writers usually follow a ‘travel cycle’ that begins with the decision to travel and ends with a contemplation of the travel experience, sharing the proper documentation.Many however skip the ‘documentation and sharing’ phase: They return home from their trips with photos, videos and stories, and their only audiences are relatives, friends and coworkers. It stops there. In Egypt, for instance, even among some local explorers, Mohareb says, it is the same: “Most travel like adventurers but document their trips like tourists.” The experiences that come out of journeys could act as that needed precursor that pushes others to make the decision to travel, explains Hany Amr, a desert explorer and adventurer who organizes trips to Egypt’s Western and Eastern deserts through a small company that he founded. According to Amr, documentation — be it in digital or paper form — completes the cycle and keeps the travel momentum going. Documentation is sorely lacking in Egypt and the region. “At the core of it, people don’t have the ‘know-how’ of traveling off the beaten track,” Amr says. “They don’t know how much it costs, how risky it is, and very few people here write about their experiences. So ignorance about the unknown prevails.” The Voice of a Friend Looking at the available travel literature in the nation’s bookstores such as Diwan, Kotob Khan and Shorouk, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of Arabic and English-language travel guides. These logistical aids are aimed at tourists specifically, and travelers at large, to help them save time and money in finding the best places to sleep, eat, drink, etc. in a new country. Here you’ll find advice on transportation, key words in the local language and a list of sites to see. They’re mainly ‘touristic’ and often commercial. Travelers who use the same guides often have near-identical experiences of the same place. The shortage, however, lies in the travelogue, a personal account of the experience of the traveler. The accounts are mostly subjective, colorful and highly personalized. The interpretation of events and the observations give insight not only into what the writer sees but also into the actual writer. Writer Colin Thubron put it beautifully in the introduction to his travelogue The Hills of Adonis, recounting his stories in Lebanon. He said that the journey and the search he had decided to embark upon “will entail being led astray, demanding as it does, a long walk down the corridors of time and thought. The conclusions will be personal, and the quest may be satisfied, as pilgrimage are, as much in its journey as in its end.” Because of its nature, a travelogue is an exploration on two levels, of both the trip undertaken and the person taking the trip.
The purpose is to make you believe that the writer’s adventure could have been yours and that if the writer can do it so can you. You gain confidence and a surge of excitement that comes when people with similar abilities to yours go through a transformational travel experience, and you are less likely to be deterred from taking this step yourself.So why is it important then to produce travelogues locally? Readers want to be able to relate to the writer’s trials and tribulations, pains and joys, and reflections through the journey. The writer’s voice must echo that of a friend, someone the reader can easily and perhaps immediately identify with.“People are in a box, and some may want to get out of it if they see others try and do it,” says Amr. “When they see a traveler like them, from their own culture, go to the extreme and adapt, they’re encouraged to do the same. Sadly, we don’t have this culture yet. But once someone from among us does something different and comes back to tell the story, people may very well change their perspective and might feel safe enough to try and go on an adventure themselves.” Psychologically, people identify with others if they share aspects like nationality, race, religion or gender. The 20th-century British travel writer Freya Stark was credited for encouraging women to travel alone. She used to go on dangerous treks to countries such as Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, unaided by the company of men. Sometimes she even went where no Western explorers have dared go — her accounts are still fascinating and popular among women who equally dream and fear solo travel. When such identification takes place between the reader and writer, whatever happens to the traveler becomes feasible in the eyes of the reader. The reader immediately sees a possibility of what his journey could become. “People love to listen to what others have to say first, before taking the leap,” Amr says. While he is not a writer, Amr says he makes it a point to recount his adventures to fellow travelers and friends. “And every little [bit of] information makes a difference, about roads and checkpoints, and how I handle them. People need to know that ‘it can be done.’ Literature, written by locals, will accomplish that.”
Travelogues Aren’t Traveling
Robert Twigger, a Cairo-based British traveler, and author and cofounder of the Explorers’ School, says that the lack of literature here could be due to the reason that “this kind of information [about travel] is not given freely [by the authorities] [...] This region has seen a lot of upset and turmoil recently. It’s not as settled as other areas.”For instance, in order to get copies of paper maps to certain areas from planning authorities, one has to have a “special permit” or to justify the need of a map — mere exploration is not a good enough reason.In a sort of ‘chicken or egg’ situation, the lack of Arab travel writers could be one reason why the culture of travel and exploration has not taken off in the region, while the lack of this culture could explain the lack of travel writers. That said, there are Arab travel writers out there who do document their own experiences within the region. Nadia El Awady, for instance, is an award-winning science journalist who has frequently traveled and hiked across Egypt and was the first female Egyptian to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the highest summits in the world. She blogs about her journeys in English, and has often been interviewed by international and local media about her adventures. A good model for aspiring travelers — but she’s not a published travel author perse.
However a possible reason that writers such as Al Awady and others are not having as big a movement as would befit the region, besides the difficulty of publishing here, is that the markets themselves are disconnected.
This means that the few books by writers from the region about the region — and the potential some writers have for producing good literature — remain in their countries of authorship and are difficult to spread to other countries. This breaks the travel cycle and stops the snowball effect from taking place.
Publishers say that the region lacks a unified structure for distribution networks on par with those in Europe. “It’s a pretty fragmented market here,” said Linz. “In Europe, distribution is very unified, very clear.”
Apart from some underdeveloped networks, there are book fairs every year, however this is a relatively basic form of connection within the publishing industry and is not producing the required results of connecting travel writers to readers.
Twigger points out that the culture of reading is not as big in Egypt or the region, compared with say Japan or his home country, the UK. As he puts it, it is difficult for books to spread when there aren’t that many people reading.
Linz reiterated the popular phrase, “Books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq.”
A possible preliminary solution to help spread ideas and writing is the Internet — through blogs, travel networks, social networking sites, and online travel magazines and e-zines, suggest both Twigger and Linz.
Internet penetration rates have reached significant numbers within the literate populations of the region, especially in post-revolution Egypt, and can arguably play a vital role in spreading the information through documentation and providing access to those interested in hearing about the region from its own inhabitants.
Both the writer and publisher know that this doesn’t solve the problem, but only lowers the barrier to write about trips and travels. With the Internet, writers do not need to go through the ordeals and hassles of pitching to publishers who demand stellar literary quality and months-long commitment to writing and re-writing.
“Blogging is very good and it’s free,” said Twigger, adding humorously, “What’s the point of publishing if not for vanity?” The online format automatically rewards good writers who will be encouraged through feedback and increased readership to continue, and possibly publish books, he says. In a way, it also provides an easy way for readers to gain access to the information and not depend on the underdeveloped and currently disconnected literature markets.
Does that mean that printed travelogues are obsolete? Definitely not. Post January 25, publishing in Egypt has undergone a significant boom, according to some experts. Whether or not this boom will expand to include travel literature is still unknown; in the short term, publishers may still view travelogues as ambitious ventures considering that the tourism industry is still at a standstill and that the political scene is (at best) turbulent.
However, with a renewed passion for re-discovering this country and the region, perhaps local writers should start knocking on (or knocking down) the doors of publishing houses. There’s no better time to tell the world tales of adventures and show readers unfamiliar with the territory how this country and the region that harbors it, are never short of glamour, mystery and hidden pockets of beauty.