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Apr - Jun 2017: Travel writing by non-European and non-North American authors

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Edited: Mar 31, 2017, 10:34pm Top

This was both a fascinating and frustrating topic to tackle as a first-time moderator. Fascinating, because research took me to some very strange and delightful places on the world wide web, and frustrating because for all the writing that is out there and available, much of it remains the purview of e-zines and blogs, and what is published is often not published in English, which is problematic for me since I can barely read a newspaper in French or Italian, or Arabic, for that matter, without a stack of dictionaries to hand.

So what you'll find below is some suggested reading, and also a list of the many questions that came to me as I was trying to compile that list. I'm hoping that folks will be inspired to discuss some of those questions, and I will be added to the list of books and authors as people post what they are reading.

But first, since folks seem to like pictures, there's this:


ETA: Nuts, well LT isn't showing the picture titles, so here they are, left to right, top to bottom:

1. Ved Mehta
2. Tete-Michel Kpomassie
3. Dean Mahomet
4. Pandita Ramabai
5. Olaudah Equiano
6. V.S. Naipaul
7. Ibn Battuta's travel routes
8. Ibn Battuta
9. Basho

Edited: Apr 1, 2017, 9:33am Top

A note on the list

One thing that immediately became apparent as I went looking for "Non-European, Non-North American" travel writers was that I was a little fuzzy on what that meant. Was it a question of birth place? Of culture? Of ethnicity? Of destinations? The writer Caryl Phillips was born on St. Kitts but he came to Britain at the age of four months. Does his book on being black in Europe, The European Tribe fall within the purview of this subject? What about the South African Afrikaner Sir Laurens Van der Post, who wrote some much lauded (and now much criticized) travelogues of white settlements in South Africa?

I don't have answers to these questions. Or rather, I should say that my own choice of what to read depends on a personal answer to such questions that is just that--- personal, idiosyncratic, and not at all definitive or even always consistent. I tend to pick voices that are from non-dominant cultures, overlooked points of view, repressed or oppressed perspectives. Phillips would thus be higher on my list than Van der Post.

But rather than answer such questions for everyone, I've taken a broad, rather than narrow, approach to "Non-European, non-North American" even though it might mean there are a few names on the list below that people might disagree with. That in itself would be worth discussing.

So, here is "the list," such as I was able to compile, by destination rather than origin. It is heavy on Africa and the Middle East, lighter Asia, South and Latin America, and other places, simply because Africa and the Middle East tends to be where my interest lies:


Looking for Transwonderland: Travels through Nigeria, by Noo Saro-Wiwa
The Voyages of Ibn Battuta, by Ibn Battuta
One Day I will Write About this Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina
Water Has No Enemy, by Teju Cole
The History and Description of Africa: and of the notable things therein contained, by Leo Africanus
Tour of Duty by Pelu Awofeso
A Sense of Savannah: Tales of a Friendly Walk Through Northern Ghana by Kofi Akpabli
Portrait with Keys by Ivan Vladislavić
Dark Continent My Black Arse by Sihle Khumalo
The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain Mabanckou


The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Basho
Faxian: a Record of Buddhist Kingdoms
Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele
From Heaven Lake – Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet by Vikram Seth
Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy: One Woman's Mid-Life Travel Adventures on Myanmar's Great River by Ma Thanegi
The Summit by Pemba Gyalije Sherpa


A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid


The European Tribe, by Caryl Phillips
The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavius Vasa, the African, Olaudah Equiano
Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute by Julio Cortazar
Taken for Wonder: Nineteenth Century Travel Accounts from Iran to Europe

Great Britain

Silent Traveler: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland by Chiang Lee


Butter Chicken In Ludhiana: Travels In Small Town India by Pankaj Mishra
Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate by Amitava Kumar
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
Walking the Indian Streets by Ved Mehta
Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India by Gita Mehta
In the Light of India by Octavio Paz
Beyond the Border: An Indian in Pakistan by Yoginder Sikand

Latin and South America

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie
My Invented Country: A Memoir by Isabel Allende
Trail of Feathers by Tahir Shah
Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara

Middle East and Turkey

Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, edited by Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin D, Edwards and Hanna Ziadeh
On the Wonders of Land and Sea: Persianate Travel Writing by Roberta Micallef and Sunil Sharma
In an Antique Land, Amitav Gosh
The Voyages of Ibn Battuta, by Ibn Battuta
Leg Over Leg by Ahman Faris al Shidyaq
Zaatar Days, Henna Nights by Maliha Masood
Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North

North America

A Turn in the South by V.S. Naipaul
The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavius Vasa, the African, Olaudah Equiano
Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter: The Peoples of the United States by Pandita Ramabai

Other useful references

Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages by Elkan Nathan Adler
Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature
Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations, A Words Without Borders Anthology
Tablet and Pen:Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by Reza Aslan
A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing
The Oxford Book of Exploration
The Oxford Book of Exile

Edited: Mar 30, 2017, 10:33pm Top

Some helpful websites and blogs

Travel Writing at The Complete Review

10 Travel Bloggers of Color You Should Follow

Travel at the African Books Collective

African and African Diaspora Travel Writing

Travel Writers: India, England and US (this is a course description and call for suggestions for the syllabus)

The myth of the African Travel Writer

Traveling and Writing Africa from Within

10 Travel Books by People of Color

Black travel writing: the invisible genre

http://www.ishqinabackpack.com/ -- family of four (two very young!) wandering around the world. They have good reading recommendations.


https://briankamanzi.wordpress.com/ -- beautiful writing, here. As far as I can tell, he's only published in newspapers and magazines, no full length books.

Edited: Mar 31, 2017, 10:35pm Top

What I think about when I read travel literature: the questions I ask myself

Offered simply as a way to think about the books folks might be reading for this topic.

1. Is it about what the writer is going to see, or what the writer is escaping?

That is, what drives the journey? Some seem founded in a desire for exploration, others -- I'm thinking of all those Victorian lady adventurers -- are driven perhaps as much by the desire to be free from constraints at home. Does that change their outlook? The way they see the places they pass through and the people they meet?

2. Why did they make the journey?

Pilgrimages, business trips, adventure seeking, exploration, wanderlust, escape? -- I have found I am most fond of writers who are seized by that curiosity or restlessness that makes them always want to see over the next hill, and also the writers who seek to immerse themselves in some unfamiliar setting, to let themselves go, and become something else. I have a kind of benign tolerance for the pilgrim -- the traveler who has decided to trace Ibn Battuta's route in homage, or follow Chekhov across the Siberian steppes. And I can be interested in those who find themselves in unfamiliar places because fates have conspired to place them there: journalists and diplomats, soldiers stationed in far flung posts and not too battle weary to write about it. My least favorite, the ones I now avoid like the plague, are the explorers -- the ones who start every journey with their goal fixed firmly in their mind and pursue it at all costs. "I crossed India on a skateboard!" "I bicycled the entire length of South America!" "I hiked the entire Appalachian trail in sandals!" Such pursuits are not about the seeing so much as the conquering. (And yet, one of my favorite travel books is Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, which is just this kind of book. I can only say that he seems to lose sight of his grand goal for most of his journey, so diverted is he by the people that he meets as he's rocketing down lesser highways in his makeshift camper.)

3. Is the writer going, or returning?

Especially relevant to this topic, I think. Many non-European, non-North American writers are nevertheless very involved in "the West." They have been educated there or worked there, or even lived there for much of their lives. They are sometimes exiles, refugees. Diaspora. Sometimes, in returning to their country they are returning to a place they barely remember, or have never been. African diaspora writing is especially strong in the US, where so many feel ties to a continent their ancestors were forcibly removed from centuries ago. Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde all "returned" to Africa at some point and wrote about the experience, although I did not include them in my list above.

4. Is it travel writing if they never leave home?

"Travel" implies going from one place to another, but a fair number of the books in the list above are of people writing about their own country -- driven by a desire to describe their home place to others, rather than having it described to them by strangers. Is Pamuk's "Istanbul" rightfully a "travel" book if he is describing his own city?

Indeed, I think there is a strong intersection between travelogue and memoir -- in many cases the distinction is almost meaningless. It begs the question, does one travel to discover others, or to discover oneself? Is it primarily about the place? Or the person on the journey?

Edited: Mar 31, 2017, 10:31pm Top

Ibn Fadlan In the Land of Darkness

Offered as a review to sort of kick-start the discussion.

I saw the Rūs, who had come for trade and had camped by the river Itil. I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans, but a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad bladed and grooved like the Frankish ones. From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth. –Ibn Fadlán, In the Land of Darkness

In the year 921 the Caliph of Baghdad, Muqtadir, sent an emissary north up the Volga river to a recently converted khan who was seeking religious instruction in his new faith, not to mention a surer alliance with his powerful southern neighbor. The emissary was Ibn Fadlán, a man who was both conscientious and devout, and perhaps also a little curious for he wrote a diary of his journey recording his impressions and what he observed of the customs of the people whose land he passed through on his way northwards towards the Bulghar khanate.

His account has been largely ignored by history since it lacks both what his contemporaries would call “wonders” (descriptions of miraculous things), and moral edifications of the kind that highlight the superiority of the faithful and the civilized over the barbarian unbelievers. It is, Ibn Fadlán’s fellow scribes might have commented, a remarkably dry and boring account of how a barbaric people lived–what they ate, how they dressed, (and an unflinching description of how, and how often, they had sex).

In other words, Ibn Fadlán was something of an anthropologist. And if it is clear that he wasn’t always best pleased with the circumstances he found himself in (“They have neither olive oil nor sesame oil; in place of these they use fish oil, so that everything they make with it smells bad.”) modern scholars are nevertheless indebted to Ibn Fadlán’s talent for observation and attention to detail. His account is one of the few reliable primary sources for the area and the era–for the people of the upper Volga known as the Rūs. Today, we would call them the Vikings.

I came across Ibn Fadlan sort in reverse, by way of a fantastic Swedish historical novel called The Long Ships, originally Roede Orm, sjoefararae i vaesterled (Red Orm on the Western Way). It's a Viking adventure story with a hefty dose of sardonic cultural commentary -- especially about the weird religion making its way up through Europe called "Christianity." Its irreverence is not unlike Ibn Fadlan's although its sense of humor is more present (especially given that Ibn Fadlan's is almost non-existent).

Because I am the kind of reader who lets books lead her to other books, I found Ibn Fadlan after doing a few Google searches on the source material for The Long Ships. (I also found the Prose Edda, but that is another story). I love reading original accounts -- even in translation, even despite the unfamiliar, often formalized cadences and stilted literary styles of harried diplomats or busy merchants. It never ceases to amaze me, just how vivid a picture is still evoked by these writers -- across centuries, across languages, across cultures. It's almost magic.

Mar 30, 2017, 9:18pm Top

It looks like you have some reservations about this topic!

Mar 30, 2017, 10:07pm Top

Not at all. I think many questions make for good discussions.

Mar 31, 2017, 3:13pm Top

Thanks for the intro - lots of interesting material already, and no doubt more to come as we get going.

I don't think we need be too picky. The point is to find people who saw the places they went to through eyes other than those of the "standard" western travel writer, so it's probably OK to include people like Naipaul, Rushdie and Seth who are somewhere in between two cultures.

Of the ones you listed, I've read Ibn Battuta, V.S. Naipaul, From heaven lake, An African in Greenland - I can recommend all of those. Looking around my shelves, I also came up with something called A passage to England by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. I don't think I ever read it, but it seems to be exactly what you might imagine.

I read a couple of 'back to the Caribbean' books when we were doing the Caribbean theme last year, Amryl Johnson's Sequins for a ragged hem and After the dance by Edwidge Danticat. Mrs Seacole might also be interesting as a 19th century black woman traveller, from the Caribbean, even if her book is very obviously ghost-written.

I do like that Ibn Battuta route-map. Still trying to work out who's in your first picture and where it was taken: I feel sure I ought to recognise both!

Mar 31, 2017, 10:40pm Top

>8 thorold: I labelled the pictures! LT wasn't showing the title attributes I added, go figure.

Edited: Apr 1, 2017, 12:53am Top

Ok, I thought I had a decent background on the topic but oh my god - where do I start? That didn't take long; I have just ordered Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages: 19 Firsthand Accounts Lets see: interest in middle ages, check. Fanatic reader of travel narrative, check. wanting a Jewish eye view of his travels, esp giving the time period and the very real possiblity he would not survie. check. Yep enough there where this book is practically calling out my name

Apr 1, 2017, 12:49am Top

>4 southernbooklady: I honestly could have written the following, totally agree with you (even to loving Travels with Charley)

I have found I am most fond of writers who are seized by that curiosity or restlessness that makes them always want to see over the next hill, and also the writers who seek to immerse themselves in some unfamiliar setting, to let themselves go, and become something else. I have a kind of benign tolerance for the pilgrim -- the traveler who has decided to trace Ibn Battuta's route in homage, or follow Chekhov across the Siberian steppes. And I can be interested in those who find themselves in unfamiliar places because fates have conspired to place them there: journalists and diplomats, soldiers stationed in far flung posts and not too battle weary to write about it. My least favorite, the ones I now avoid like the plague, are the explorers -- the ones who start every journey with their goal fixed firmly in their mind and pursue it at all costs. "I crossed India on a skateboard!" "I bicycled the entire length of South America!" "I hiked the entire Appalachian trail in sandals!" Such pursuits are not about the seeing so much as the conquering. (And yet, one of my favorite travel books is Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, which is just this kind of book. I can only say that he seems to lose sight of his grand goal for most of his journey, so diverted is he by the people that he meets as he's rocketing down lesser highways in his makeshift camper.)

I also like your questions - I think it is apt for a moderator to consider many aspects of the theme, and wonder about how different people might react to the selections. Doesn't mean you don't like the theme, rather , means you care very much that the theme is thoroughly explored (no pun intended, oh who am I kidding of course it is)

Cant wait to see where this discussion leads us (and really, that was not intended, honest...) Ok Im done, good night

Apr 1, 2017, 9:40am Top

You've already put several books on my list. I loved The Long Ships and the scenes on the Volga, so expect Ibn Fadlan in the Land of Darkness may be first up.

Excellent questions: number 4 especially will have me thinking. I hope there will be responses; it makes the discussion that much more interesting.

Apr 1, 2017, 11:47am Top

>12 SassyLassy: Yes, I was looking at a review of Stuart Hall's memoir Familiar Stranger: a life between two islands last night and wondering if it could be worked in here as a travel book in the light of Q3 and 4 - it sounds as though it's largely a book about going back to Jamaica. Perhaps the thing to do is read it anyway, then decide...


Apr 1, 2017, 11:55am Top

>9 southernbooklady: Oh well, half right. I don't think I have any real reason to recognise Ved Mehta, but I should have realised that it was Balliol.

Apr 2, 2017, 7:00pm Top

So I've been devouring Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City as my first foray into this topic -- I blew through about three quarters of the book over the last two days, which is saying something because I also was planting my garden. I've also come down firmly on the side that it belongs here as a "travel" account even though Pamuk is writing about the city he has always lived in, and indeed from the house he grew up in.

It's not a travel book written by "the guide" instead of the traveler; instead, Pamuk seems to be travelling through the city in his memories. He just invites the reader along.

Also, the book has what feels like hundreds of fantastic black and white photographs that make me weep.

Anyway, I'll go into more detail later. But there is a chapter in the book called "Under Western Eyes" that I wanted to excerpt because I think it has relevance for this discussion, and the issue of Western influence, or what Pamuk and many others call "the western gaze." It's basically an extended response to the many foreign travel accounts of Istanbul -- Gautier, Flaubert, Knut Hamsun, even Hans Christian Andersen.:

Because the country is trying to westernize, what western writers say is desperately important, but whenever a western observer goes too far, the Istanbul reader, having gone to great lengths to acquaint himself with that writer and the culture he represents, cannot help but feel heartbroken. Above all, no on can really say what counts as "going too far." A city, it may be said, owes its very character to the ways in which is "goes too far," and while an outside observer can take things out of proportion by paying excessive attention to certain details, these are often the same details that come to define that city's nature. (for example, when western travelers see cemeteries as part of the city's everyday life, they are going too day. But as Flaubert noted, they would disappear as the city tried to become more western; today it is only by reading western travelers' descriptions of cemeteries that we can understand how the city looked in their day.)

and further on:

If western travelers embroider Istanbul with illusions, fantasies about the East, there is in the end no harm done to Istanbul; we were never a western colony...What grievance I feel when I read western travelers on Istanbul is above all that of hindsight: Many of the local features these observers, some of them brilliant writers, noted and exaggerated were to vanish from the city soon after having been remarked. It was a brutal symbiosis: Western observers love to identify the things that make Istanbul exotic, nonwestern, whereas the westernizers among us register all the same things as obstacle to be erased from the face of the city as fast as possible.

Apr 2, 2017, 7:07pm Top

>15 southernbooklady:

Makes me wonder about the travel accounts of Constantinople. It sounds as if Pamuk is talking about a younger city than it actually is.

Apr 2, 2017, 7:15pm Top

>16 LolaWalser: His is the "end of Empire" Istanbul, the sick man of Europe, the city crumbling. The general theme of the book is something called hüzün -- a Turkish word from the Arabic that basically means "melancholy."

Apr 22, 2017, 3:17pm Top

Now reading jewish travelers in the middle ages. Thanks so much for putting this on the list southernbooklady! Its a little slow reading, partly due to translation and partly due to small print, but it really is fascinating!

Apr 23, 2017, 9:29am Top

So many great lists/recommendations here. I've read a bunch of travel books by Westerners and not so much by writers of color. So, I'm looking forward to dipping into this sub-genre.

That Ibn Fadian sounds amazing. I'm going to be reading from the sidelines here till I have something relevant to say. But, thank, Nicky, for starting this.

May 5, 2017, 3:54am Top

A modern day traveler from Africa:

Open City , a half German half Nigerian flaneur confronts radicalism, loneliness, photography, caring for the mentally ill as he observes his own journey one winter in NYC and Brussels.
An easily entertaining and intelligent read written by the Nigerian writer Teju Cole

May 5, 2017, 10:49am Top

>20 berthirsch: Open City is fiction, isn't it? There are some good travel pieces in his essay collection, Known and Strange Things.

Edited: May 5, 2017, 11:18am Top

The Gambia Diaries by Enuma Chigbo was discussed in Radio War Nerd #68 (at 1:42:28) -- but won't touchstone yet. See https://www.librarything.com/work/19517779 . It's the very recent travelogue of a middle-class Nigerian Igbo woman describing the culture shock she experiences upon visiting Gambia -- including her appalled reaction to the sex tourism by older Western women seeking flings with young Banjul men.

May 6, 2017, 11:55am Top

>21 southernbooklady: Both of those sound up my alley. Definitely in need of some unusual vicarious traveling far from my own country right now. These fit the bill

Edited: Jun 2, 2017, 11:37am Top

Okay, I hope folks are finding something to read in this topic! Here's a sort of lengthy account of one of the books on my reading list:

Beyond the Border: An Indian in Pakistan by Yoginder Sikand

Yoginder Sikand's travel account of his first trip to Pakistan is called, somewhat prosaically, "An Indian in Pakistan." But behind this seemingly mundane title is nearly a century of grief and upheaval.

Sikand, a freelance writer/journalist with an interest in interfaith relations, was set on his path as a young boy when he heard stories his grandmother told of how her family had to flee their village north of Lahore in social unrest and riots that inevitably occurred in the aftermath of The Partition -- that moment in history when the powers that be decided that Muslims and Hindus were "two nations" that required a border between them. That border, which placed the Punjab and the whole of the Indus river basin in Pakistan, left thousands of people on "the wrong side" -- Hindus in the new Islamic state, and Muslims in India -- despite the fact that their families had lived in those villages for generations. In the chaos that followed thousands of refugees fled their homes for the other side of the new border. Those who didn't flee found themselves suddenly second-class citizens, culturally at odds with the new order. Muslims on the India side of the border viewed with suspicion and contempt by the Hindus. Hindus on the Pakistan side regarded as infidels and enemies of Allah and the Islamic State.

Sikand's book is a kind of portrait of the legacy of that original devastating split. His own curiosity and desire to understand the rift began with a chance remark by his grandmother, that when her family fled their homes after the Partition, one part of the family stayed behind, converting to Islam to avoid persecution and be able to remain in their homes. The two sides of the family lost contact and had not spoken to each other in fifty years. Sikand, then school aged, tracks down a long-lost great aunt in Pakistan with the help of business man friend of his father, and the two -- young man and old woman -- become pen pals. It becomes one of the defining friendships of his life, which makes it all the more poignant when he describes how one day "Aunty Mohini" pays his family a surprise visit. He is overjoyed to see her waiting in a cab below his bedroom window. He rushes down to greet her, and then into the kitchen to tell his Nani her long-lost cousin is at the door.

His Nani won't even let her in. "She's become a Musalmani" she spits. "She isn't welcome in my house." Sikand is heartbroken as he turns back to Aunty Mohini, and she is clearly devastated as well. "If that's how she wants it, what can we do?" she tells him.

"What can we do?" seems to have become the driving force behind Sikand's life. He would go on to study social work but quickly became frustrated with the corrupt nature of welfare programs more interested in converting people or making them dependent on charity than helping them to achieve their own dignity. He moves on to become a journalist, covering human rights issues and especially interfaith topics. He makes periodic attempts to visit Pakistan, but is thwarted by circumstance or bureaucracy, so that it is not until his career is well established that he finally is able to secure a visa to visit the country for the purposes of writing a book. The official in the Pakistani embassy that approves the visit makes it very clear to Sikand what kind of book he should write. (He is destined to be disappointed.)

Sikand's travels up and down Pakistan are awash in accounts of the capriciousness of bureaucracy, the lurking fear of being deemed an enemy of the state, and the unquenchable good-heartedness of people. He is generally appalled by the crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure of the Islamic State -- bus rides are a misery, public restrooms better not mentioned at all -- and the abject poverty of much of the population (whom he points out would not fare better under a Hindu caste system). But he enjoys the cafes and the parks, visits what holy sites he can (his visa restricts his movements to a few approved places and he is not inclined to tempt fate by straying), and generally loves to talk to anyone who will talk to him. His most common observation is his feeling not of the strangeness of a foreign land, but of the familiarity of a well-known one. Pakistani culture, despite the implacable nature of Islamic law, is at its heart much like his own. In fact, Sikand is frequently mistaken for Pakistani himself, so much so that he takes to carrying around a book printed visibly in Hindustani, to make it clear to others he is a tourist. It works. People invariably come up to talk to him and ask if he is Indian. Just as invariably, they will then glance nervously around the cafe and suggest going somewhere else "more private" to talk. Many of Sikand's conversations take place strolling through parks, out of earshot of possible cultural policing.

Sikand stays with a female friend in Lahore during his visit, a woman named Sheila he describes as a "leftist activist" he first "met" in an online discussion group. Sheila is a remarkable character in her own right, inclined to proselytize on behalf of women's and workers rights, but also someone who goes above and beyond to help Sikand see her country -- even acting as witness in places where he has to deal with military or police authority. Her relative freedom is partly because she managed to become financially self sufficient, partly due to the fact that her family is old feudal royalty in the Punjab, and even now such family ties carry a hefty amount of automatic respect, regardless of religious principles. Sheila introduces Sikand to the progressives of Pakistan, but he also spends time with many other people in other cities, including one very conservative family that support the Taliban. Despite his fears that he may end up causing some offense that will end up getting him arrested, it turns out that the family -- especially the old imam -- is among the most thoughtful and intellectually challenging people he meets, unlike Shiela's casual slogan-spouting, Bollywood-obsessed leftist friends. It is the imam, also, who takes care to provide Sikand with vegetarian meals, unasked. Vegetarianism unheard of in Pakistan and for his entire trip Sikand has been living on a lot of salad.

All in all, Sikand's book is a portrait of a country that is hardly the homogeneic picture those of us in the west tend to get. Instead it is a confused and cobbled-together mix of Islamic principles and Two Nation ideology laid over cultural beliefs that have never really changed over hundreds of years. A humanist at his core, he sees both the relentless repression of Islamic rule but also the sort of universal kindness that people who regard hospitality as sacred will give to the strangers in their midst. And while the book is dominated by discussions of religion, he moves among many different kinds of beliefs and believers with a generally open and accepting attitude. Sikand is something of an expert at avoiding direct questions about his own faith, which is undefined, neither Hindu nor Muslim, but he draws out what people find meaningful in theirs. Most often among the cab drivers and the porters and the cafe owners and the market vendors, it is a variation on the Hadith of the prophet:

"He is not a believer whose stomach is full while his neighbor is hungry."

Jun 2, 2017, 11:33am Top

And here, for comparison, is an older review about another Indian in a Muslim country:

In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh

Despite his westernized education, I think this belongs on my all too short list of travel narratives by non Europeans. It's a lovely parallel account of his time as an anthropology student in a small village in Egypt, and his research into the life of a Jewish slave mentioned in some medieval documents found in a cache in Cairo. The story of how the research came into being is fascinating in itself -- his description of the cache of documents in the Cairo Ganizeh would have been enough to keep my interest, but his account of living in the farming village was equally charming -- especially his inability to explain the religious traditions of Hindus to the Muslims he was living among. He is not Hindu himself, but everyone assumes that he is, and thus that he worships cows, and burns the dead -- two things that are blasphemous to a Muslim. Ghosh comments at one point that he didn't know an Arabic word for "cremated" and thus, when describing Hindu religious traditions, was forced to use the word "burned" -- the same word Muslims used to describe the fate of sinners destined for hell.

There is little to no sense of Western superiority in the story, but there are a fair number of eye-opening observations on the politics of the Middle East as it is experienced by your average village farmer looking for a better life.This is in the early eighties, so a generation or so after the Egyptian revolution of Nasser in 1952, when serfs were freed and allotted their own land. Now the economy is in upheaval, the promise of the revolution has either been realized, if you were lucky, or dissipated if you weren't. There is an exodus to find work "outside" -- in Iran, mostly, which was at war and needed labor -- and a need for hard currency.

All in all a wise and touching account of a small village in the midst of economic upheaval and modernization, and at the same time a rather brilliant historical investigation into the life of a man known only via a few mentions in letters between 12th century merchants trying to do business across uncertain trade routes.

Jun 3, 2017, 5:01pm Top

That looks like the NYer review I read last night; definitely on my to be read list.

Loved In An Antique Land - think that was my first introduction to the Cairo Geniza - and whats funny is how many times its been referenced in other books I've read. Looking for a book to take with me to the beach - I might want this one along for the ride.

Jun 3, 2017, 5:06pm Top

Oh and I ended up reading Cole's Open City and Known and Strange things,loved both. He has a new book out Blind Spot which is a collection of his own photography (a subject he speaks about at length in Known and Strange Things), with text. Very much would like to read that.

Jun 3, 2017, 10:41pm Top

>26 cindydavid4: Ghosh is the better writer, but I found Sikand's perspective fascinating -- especially his constant feeling of both familiarity and strangeness. The book has prompted me to read more about The Partition, that created Pakistan. I really only have the most basic idea of what it was.

Jun 13, 2017, 10:28am Top

As we come towards the close of this quarterly read -- which I admit I have been enjoying immensely, is it still called "armchair travelling" if most of the reading is done sitting at the picnic table on my back deck? -- I've moved from Africa and India into Asia:

I finished Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which was beautiful, and a bit of a shock. Being Basho, he records the things that make an impression on him in haiku, so I was expecting a series of painterly moments. I was not expecting for the account to being with the description of an abandoned child:

As I was plodding along the River Fuji, I saw a small child, hardly three years of age, crying pitifully on the bank, obviously abandoned by his parents. They must have thought this child was unable to ride through the stormy waters of life which run as wild as the rapid river itself, and that he was destined to have a life even shorter than that of the morning dew. The child looked to me as fragile as the flowers of bush-clover that scatter at the slightest stir of the autumn wind, and it was so pitiful that I gave him what little food I had with me.

Despite this wrenching moment, the journal and other travel sketches in my Penguin Classics copy are more about scenery than about people. Basho is looking for beauty, but he is not curious in the way the explorer is curious. He's not looking for the strange or the exotic, not concerned with documenting or witnessing the lives of strangers. He's interested in cherry blossoms and springs of water and pine trees that poets before him have immortalized in verse:

To talk casually
About an iris flower
Is one of the pleasures
Of the wandering journey.

Thus, the armchair traveller like myself ends up with a vivid image of the places he journeys through, but only murky impressions of what it is to live in such places.

Something of this impression also came through to me reading Chiang Yee, the author of the Silent Traveller books. I dug up a tattered copy of The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland, written in Britain on the eve of war, and read it in airports over the Christmas holidays -- it basically made the layovers bearable. That short book -- the shortest of all his books -- was clearly cobbled together as a kind of afterthought from his travel journal. It's spontaneous, written without any real audience in mind, I think. Later books, (I have Paris and Edinburgh) are longer, more put together, more deliberate. But this first one retains its open-ended feel. The only real constraint on the author being the occasional train schedule and the fact that he really only has a couple of weeks to himself.

And "to himself" is key. Like Basho, Yee is not interested in people. When he finds himself on part of a package tour of Wales he is miserable and can't get away fast enough -- people keep talking to him, trying to include him. They won't leave him alone. The whole title for his series comes from this. He doesn't want to talk, he wants to be silent, and just observe.

I empathized, I think I am exactly that kind of traveller myself.

Yee, who is an artist, is also more aware of the landscape than the people in it. His descriptions of the rain on a country road, of the rising swell of the hills, the chance-met waterfalls, the clouds settling over the peaks of what the English deign to call "mountains." All this is beautifully told, sometimes with memories of his own youth in his own mountains in China overlaid. Even the tiny rooms he bunks down in at night are portrayed perfectly (although his hosts remain indistinct). And because he is an artist, he sketches as often as he writes, and the books are worth it just for the illustrations - these quintessentially English, Scottish, Parisian scenes rendered in inkwash and watercolors in a Chinese landscape style. What's so strange about them is that they still look like England, like Edinburgh, like Paris.

Of the two I think Basho is the better writer, and the better observer in that I could read between the lines to get a sense of the country and people he encounters. Yee is less nuanced, but he is also less aloof from his surroundings than he tries to be. This is, after all, the era of the rise of Nazism -- something he clearly detests -- and of World War, with he an alien in a country expecting a cataclysm. For all that Yee is a stranger in a strange land, he is more caught up in events than Basho, who wanders from friend to to friend, shrine to shrine, with little to distract him except the crying of a child.

But weirdly, I was drawn to the unsettled, uneasy undertone of Yee -- an undertone many people seem not to notice. I found myself as interested in his struggle to be detached as I was in his clearly unique perspective. I suppose I'm always looking for that in the books I read, especially the nonfiction: whatever it is the writer is struggling with that underlies what he is driven to say.

Edited: Jun 13, 2017, 10:44am Top

>29 southernbooklady: Something of this impression also came through to me reading Chiang Yee, the author of the Silent Traveller books

Oh somewhere I have his San Fransisco book - started it a while back but got distracted. Didn't realize this was a series! Thinking about it now that you mention his focus on landscape and not people, that might have been why I was easily distracted. I get the idea of being silent away from other people. But when I am being an armchair traveler, interaction with people and the culture is just as important to me as the descriptions of place. Not sure I could have gotten through the book, but if I find it, I may try it again.

Edited: Jun 13, 2017, 10:46am Top

Niki, have you ever read Jan Morris? I know she's Welsh so doesn't fit here, but if you like the Silent Traveler series you might enjoy her writing as well. She does include people, but her sense of place is so strong that her books are quite wonderful to read.

Jun 13, 2017, 11:02am Top

I have her book on Venice, and Conundrum. And yes, she's an amazing writer.

Edited: Jun 13, 2017, 4:14pm Top

Love Venice, and even tho its decades old, her essay collection Locations is something I reread every few years. Its a collection of articles she wrote for various journals and mags, and each is a treat to read and revisit.

Jun 20, 2017, 9:56am Top

>29 southernbooklady: You've definitely convinced me to look for this book. I'll have to muse on the "armchair reading" and picnic benches. There must be some catchall, as there is also "porch reading" for these kind of travels.

Jun 21, 2017, 4:31am Top

I'm feeling rather guilty about not having contributed anything of substance to this thread yet: I've simply not come up with anything that really grabbed my interest, even though I've read quite a few books in the past that would have fitted in very well here. Possibly that's the problem other people had as well: those of us who were interested in reading Ibn Battuta or An African in Greenland already did so?

Anyway, I've started A passage to England, which I've dipped into a couple of times in the past but never read properly. Definitely a period piece (a very portentously Edwardian Bengali intellectual getting to grips with fifties England), but interesting, anyway.

Jun 22, 2017, 5:44am Top

A rather minor contribution to this thread it turns out to be - interesting and moderately charming, but disappointingly lacking in postcolonial bite. What a pity that the Stuart Hall book I mentioned in >13 thorold: turned out to be too far away from "travel writing" to qualify for this thread...

A passage to England (1959) by Nirad C. Chaudhuri (India, UK, 1897-1999)


Nirad C. Chaudhuri was a well-known Bengali intellectual, a writer, editor and literary journalist who had worked for the independence activist Sarat Chandra Bose in the thirties, but later became rather critical of the politics of post-independence India, an attitude that often left him marginalised and - probably unfairly - branded as "pro-British" in later life. He moved to the UK in the 70s, and must have been yet another of the prominent people I don't remember bumping into in the supermarket when I lived in North Oxford in the early 80s...

Chaudhuri was educated in Kolkata at a time when the curriculum was heavily weighted towards British literature and history: he probably knew the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Spenser and Sidney much more intimately than most of his contemporaries who had been through the British school system, not to mention being on familiar terms with Horace, Virgil and Racine. He quotes Hardy or Grey's Elegy at the drop of a cowpat, and takes his ideas of country-house tourism from Elizabeth Bennet's holiday in Derbyshire. But he obviously also knows what he's talking about when it comes to Hindu culture and history. He's clearly not a socialist of any kind, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in caricaturing himself as something like a 1950s embodiment of Kipling's Babu.

You would imagine that it must have been quite a shock for someone like that to arrive in England for the first time in 1955 as the guest of the British Council and the BBC, and find himself in the world of the Welfare State, British Railways and the National Trust (not to mention Angry Young Men and Anthony Eden). But he robustly resists any temptation to be disenchanted by what he finds. He's on holiday and he's determined to have a good time. And he takes a huge pleasure in discovering that the English are still just as enthusiastic about their cultural heritage as he is, even if they don't always know very much about it. He is happy to pay his half-crown at Knole, Kenwood and Penshurst Place and to see Sir Laurence doing Twelfth Night at the Old Vic. He notices non-obvious things about England that are strikingly different from India - how silent the British are, and how few of them you see out in the open; how much more difficult it is to judge social status from the way people dress, talk and act; how the softer light makes the effect of depth stand out more in what you see; how coy the English are about anything to do with making money and how open they are about sex. But he doesn't complain - in fact, he criticises Indians who go to England and then moan about how no-one spoke to them on the Underground - he enjoys digging into the differences.

In an odd way, the book that this most reminded me of is A.G. MacDonnell's semi-fictional account of 1920s England as seen by a young man from the wilds of Aberdeenshire, England, their England. Chaudhuri isn't quite so funny or so sentimental, but he's essentially putting forward the same conclusion, that although the English differ in surprising and sometimes disconcerting ways from what you would expect having only met them in books, those practicalities aren't enough seriously to upset the myth of Englishness that everyone subjected to a colonial education has been fed from an early age.

Edited: Jun 27, 2017, 3:08am Top

The second quarter has nearly ended, but I just noticed that the US Kindle edition of Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa is currently on sale for $1.99. I have the UK paperback edition, but I purchased the e-book so that I could start reading it tomorrow during the long flight from Madrid to Atlanta.

Jun 27, 2017, 7:09pm Top

Before this quarter discussion quite finishes, I did want to mention one book I read that turned out to have unexpected links to this subject: Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. It's easily one of the best books I have ever read, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time. For those of you who don't know it, the book is a complicated collection of oral histories centered around the theme of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Russia in its wake. Where it falls under this theme read, however, is that some of those oral histories are from people in the bordering areas -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the far steps of Siberia. When the USSR collapsed, so did the pretense that all the workers of the world were "one people," and many people found themselves the targets of rampant xenophobia, nationalism, opportunistic racists, or just suddenly viewed as enemies by their neighbors -- people they had been friends with only weeks earlier. Armenians attack Russians. Azerbaijanis attack Armenians, the brutality is random and incredible.

And naturally, many people end up as refugees, living on the streets or in precarious situations in Moscow. Without proper documentation, with no protection from gangs or corrupt officials, missing their homes and lands which they have been summarily evicted from, by the very neighbors they had shared holiday meals with in what becomes, for them, another distant life.

Maybe it shouldn't be considered "travel" if the journey is really a flight. But there were so many vivid descriptions of the displacement felt by people forced from their homes who come to land in a country that only a few years or months earlier was still somehow their country and now is suddenly not.

One account that really stood out is from an Armenian woman who had grown up in Baku and married a Muslim, and then after the USSR fell spent over a year being hidden in an attic, a la Anne Frank, before finally escaping with her daughter to Moscow, where she cleans bathrooms in the Metro and is afraid to go out at night. Her black hair and black eyes mark her as "not Russian" and she is a target. She tries to join her extended family in America, but the fact she has a Muslim husband prevents that from happening. What struck me most is the way she repeats, over and over, that the country she thought she lived in had just vanished, and she was now in some other country, where she had no place. Even Moscow, which had once been everybody's capital city, was now the capital of some other country she moves through, careful and quiet, like a ghost afraid to haunt anyone.

Jun 28, 2017, 12:00pm Top

This is practically in the eleventh hour for this quarter, but I came across a mention of a writer who seems relevant to this topic, in case anyone ist still interested in ideas: Asfa-Wossen Asserate, an Ethiopian who migrated to Germany and has written several books with quasi-ethnographic observations on German culture and customs. I don't think any of his writing has been translated into English, but I know some people here read German.

Jun 28, 2017, 3:05pm Top

>39 spiphany: Aaaargh! - Distracted again...
I saw that he's written a book called Draußen nur Kännchen, and couldn't resist finding out what an Ethiopian might have to say about Germany's deepest cultural mystery. Watch this space!

Jun 30, 2017, 4:54pm Top

So, following up the suggestion from >39 spiphany:

Draußen nur Kännchen: meine deutschen Fundstücke (2010) by Asfa-Wossen Asserate (Ethiopia, Germany, 1948 - )


Dr Asfa-Wossen Asserate is probably not a very good match for the image that "Ethiopian refugee" might suggest to you: he grew up in an aristocratic family in Addis Ababa complete with dozens of servants and a German nanny, attended the German School there, and studied in Tübingen, Cambridge and Frankfurt, where he was just completing his PhD at the time of the Mengistu revolution. His father was murdered in the revolution and many members of his family imprisoned, and he was forced to remain in exile in Germany. He's a journalist and business consultant as well as writing books.

By the accident of his background, Asfa-Wossen thus ended up with very much the same sort of affinity for German literature and culture that Nirad C. Chaudhuri had for that of England - in fact, more so, because the grand way his family lived in Ethiopia was basically an African take on the way European gentlemen lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and he thus probably has a lot more in common with Novalis, Hans Castorp and Wilhelm Meister than most Germans born after 1945 would have. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Asfa-Wossen's best-known book is a guide to manners.

The title of this collection of essays about various aspects of German culture refers to a mystery that has puzzled generations of visitors and has been turned by Germans into a ritual joke against themselves: the notorious inability of any self-respecting German café to serve hot drinks by the cup to customers sitting out of doors. If you're Draußen, you have to order a Kännchen (mini-pot) with your giant slice of cake, and like it. Many explanations have been put forward, ranging from the difficulty of keeping coffee warm in cups to the inefficiency of carrying full cups and saucers on a tray, but none of those considerations prevent Dutch, French, Italian or Belgian cafés from selling single cups of coffee out of doors: of course it's really just a way of pushing customers to spend a bit more money in return for the privilege of sitting outside on a fine day. (And, as Asfa-Wossen points out, the practice has in any case been rendered almost obsolete by the modern taste for ever-more-expensive variations on coffee-flavoured foamy hot milk.)

Other essays in the collection deal - mostly affectionately and with good-natured irony - with topics such as German provincialism, German food, the German press, the way other countries see Germany (with an entertaining anecdote about a disastrous dinner he had with Mrs Thatcher), the German language and why Germans should be prouder of it, the German perception of Ethiopia, and what it's like to be a refugee, even in a country that you love and feel at home in. As with the Chaudhuri book, it's pleasant and mildly funny, and very elegantly written, but it's almost unbearably polite to Germany.

Edited: Jul 4, 2017, 8:04pm Top

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa


My rating:

Being Nigerian can be the most embarrassing of burdens. We're constantly wincing at the sight of some of our compatriots, who have committed themselves to presenting us as a nation of ruffians.

When many Westerners consider Nigeria and its people, their first thoughts are likely to be the ubiquitous e-mail and telephone scams that promise the recipients fabulous sums of money if the senders are provided with advance fees or bank account numbers so that they can transfer money into the recipients' accounts. Others think of it as a nation of seemingly unlimited natural resources, particularly oil, whose wealth has been largely stolen by its corrupt leaders and Western companies and governments, leaving its citizens largely impoverished and uneducated. Those who have met and work with Nigerians who live abroad may consider them to be arrogant, bombastic, and quick to argue, particularly in comparison to Africans from other countries.

Noo Saro-Wiwa, the author of this book, is the daughter of the author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority within the Niger Delta of southern Nigeria. He was the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a nonviolent organization which criticized the Nigerian government and Shell Oil for the degradation in Ogoniland that resulted from the harvesting of oil. He and eight other activists were tried and convicted by a military tribunal under President Sani Abacha of the brutal murders of Ogoni chiefs, even though the trial was widely condemned as being a sham, and all nine members of the Ogoni Nine were hanged in 1995.

Noo was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, but lived much of her life outside of her native country, particularly in London, where she and her siblings were educated while her father remained in her homeland. She, her mother and siblings returned in 2000, for her father's official burial, and in 2005, for a proper family burial after permission to do was finally granted by a democratically elected Nigerian government, but after his death she avoided returning there until she decided to return and write a book about her country and its people, and come to terms with her father's legacy.

Saro-Wiwa spent four months in Nigeria, beginning with a visit to Lagos, the nation's overcrowded and largely lawless capital, which she unforgettably describes as a woman with a "Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, with a mobile phone in one hand, a second set in her back pocket, and the mother of all scowls on her face. She would usher you impatiently through her front door at an extortionate price before smacking you to the floor for taking too long about it. 'This,' she would growl while searching your back pockets for more cash, 'is Lagos.'"

Her travels extend throughout the southern Christian dominated portion of the country and its mostly Muslim north, as she meets family members, old friends, guides, and random strangers along the way. She is a fearless traveler, who takes risks that made this reader occasionally question her sanity and apparent lack of common sense, but she managed to avoid dangerous situations. Her descriptions of the cities and regions she visited were rich and evocative, so much so that I found myself eager to visit a country that I had absolutely no desire to go to prior to reading the book. Her journey most notably includes a visit to Port Harcourt, where one of her brothers has taken up residence in the family home, and Ogoniland, where her paternal relatives live, which allowed her to reconnect with them and regain her sense of belonging in Nigeria. At the end of her journey she made her peace with the country that murdered her father, and although she spent most of her life in the West she felt a strong pull to return there permanently despite the country's numerous problems and challenges.

Looking for Transwonderland was a well written book that provides a grim and unblinking yet hopeful look at one of Africa's most prominent countries, which is deserving of the numerous accolades and awards it received after its publication in 2012.

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