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1089 Nights: An Odyssey Through the Middle East, Africa and Asia

by Ann Von Lossberg

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1089 Nights: An Odyssey through the Middle East, Africa and Asia by Ann von Lossberg is a lively non-fiction account of Ann von Lossberg’s travels together with her boyfriend, Jim Hucock, through the Middle East, Africa and Asia, mainly undertaken in the 1980s. The prefatory allusion to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights introduces the reader to the text that follows – one is encouraged to expect a cornucopia of interwoven tales. Written with the benefit of hindsight, based on the details that she meticulously wrote up in her journals, the Odyssey has a vibrancy and immediacy that makes it sound as though you are seated with her around a camp fire.

From the outset, her engaging use of dialogue elicits our close involvement with the evolution of her travels from a vague longing to the actual nitty gritty strategizing of her adventure into yet-to-be-encountered realms. Refreshingly lacking in pretension, her flowing text is direct and appealing. Unlike many other travel writers, she does not resort to lengthy descriptions overloaded with adjectives, rather imbuing her writing with momentum and drive. Reveling in the exotic-sounding names of local phenomena encountered on their travels, she delights in lively and colorful descriptions of others whom they meet along the way.

Never patronizing in her approach, Anne sums up the relevance of what they see in images accessible even to the most homebound of travelers, such as where she writes of Cappodocia as “a mushroom village in a fantasy world, a Disneyesque kind of limestone landscape.” In this way she allows the reader to embellish her tales with their own appreciation of the myth and mystique of the lands through which she passes.

Any difficulties that Anne and Jim encounter are related with humor, such as their inability to express their appreciation of Turkish delights in terms other than “guzel”(good): “Guzel tea, we tell them. Guzel food. Guzel Turkish cigarettes in little tins. Everything is guzel.” Her appreciation of children, including the frantically eager Cemil, and animals, such as the timeless camels, also enlivens the text.

Anne’s open-mindedness is shown, for example, where, though critical of the chauvinistic culture of Turkey, she views self-limiting aspects of the society as reasonable within such a context. Retrospective reflection has enhanced her understanding of different cultures, allowing her to come to terms with what clearly were rather unpleasant experiences at the time. Regarding her responding to men who addressed her in the streets, she now realizes that “[w]ith each answer, I inadvertently reinforced their poor opinion of me.”

Anne’s US nationality emerges in her encounters with Syrian society, where she feels the need briefly to outline the reason for the lack of entente cordiale between the two nations. Her avoidance of the polemic makes her account consistently fluent and readable. Sensitive to the idiosyncracies of others, Anne is at all times respectful, and even at times reverential, towards foreign cultures and traditions, as in her description of worship in a Syrian mosque: “The unified effect of hundreds bowing the same moment and the sense of humility are wondrous.”

Anne’s narration of the Odyssey is self-directed, but definitely not self-absorbed. Revelations of the significance of travel for the human psyche are counterpoised against practical insights into what travel on a limited budget entails. Though Anne makes a passing reference to her poetic and introverted nature, she restrains such impulses with what appears to be admirable ease. Rather than swamping her readers with obsessively self indulgent soul searching, stray moments of spiritual introspection are pithy and absent of angst, such as where she compares Jim and herself to onions “shedding layers of our former selves”. Making the commonplace exceptional is, after all, the prerogative of the poet. ( )
  LoisH | May 22, 2011 |
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