No. 26: “Baghdad Without a Map” by Tony Horwitz
Travel Blog • Rolf Potts • 05.06.06 | 1:30 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: The Middle East
The Middle East is a region that is constantly in the news, though amidst all the headlines and analysis coming from the area, it is rare that we ever learn about the lives of the people who dwell there. Published shortly after the beginning (and rapid end) of the first Gulf War, Baghdad Without a Map collects Horwitz’s dispatches from places like Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Sudan to paint a multi-faceted human face on a region that is too often obscured by crisis-driven news stories. Indeed, the reader can’t help but consider the contradictions of the Middle East when Horwitz chats with an Iranian protester who—in-between chants of “Death to America!”—claims that his dream has always been to visit Disneyland and “take my children on the tea-cup ride.” Serious, funny and empathetic at the same time, Horwitz uses simple tales (shopping for a popular stimulant in Yemen, for instance, or attending a belly-dancing gig in Egypt) to introduce us to hospitable people whose lives are being shaped by old social forces (religion, politics, poverty) as well as new ones (modernity, media, globalization).
Outtake from Baghdad Without a Map:
Anyone who flies the Israeli carrier, El Al, is subjected to interrogation by a corps of fingernail-pullers in training, a kind of farm team for Mossad. If one bead of sweat appears during questioning—which it inevitably does, standing in Cairo’s un-air-conditioned airport in mid-July—your dirty underwear, condoms and spare surgical truss will be turned out of your bag for the amusement of the two hundred people behind you. One night in Cairo, an overzealous El Al-nik picked his way through each item in my luggage, barking repeatedly, “What is this?” until he’d searched everything except a brown-bag snack. “What is this?” he demanded, seizing a tangerine.
—Rolf Potts writes the Ask Rolf column and is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His last story for World Hum was The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra.