According to Levison Wood, whose latest book shares human stories and rays of hope from an epic journey across the Middle East
6 February 2019| Last updated on 23 June 2019
All credits: PA
At once intriguing but woefully misunderstood, the Middle East is a topic of controversy and fascination.
Intrepid writers such as Wilfred Thesiger and TE Lawrence piqued public interest with their epic adventures along the world’s largest peninsula, yet in recent decades, newspaper headlines have generally stirred confusion and even terror.
Eager to share human stories from the troubled region, and cast a positive light on its natural beauty and pockets of calm, explorer and author Levison Wood embarked on an epic journey through 13 countries, covering 5,000 miles, for his latest book ARABIA.
Here, he reveals some of the journey’s highlights.
Where did the idea for ARABIA come from?
“The genesis of this project was our invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was a 21-year-old student backpacking in Egypt, Israel and Jordan, just as the war was finishing up. A terrorist blew himself up and the Jordanian border was closed off, so I ended up hitchhiking into Baghdad and spent a couple of weeks travelling.
“It was my first flavour of the Middle East, and I have returned several times since, but I thought, ‘Why not do a journey in a similar vein to my previous expeditions?’ This one wasn’t walking, but it was a way of discovering the essence of a place by travelling at the slowest pace and meeting the people.”
What about the Middle East appeals to you most?
“It’s steeped in history and mythology, but it’s also misunderstood – and it’s usually in the news for all the wrong reasons. By approaching a place as a journey rather than a correspondent, I thought it might be nice to show not just the doom and gloom, but some of the human stories as well. People think of camels, terrorists and deserts, but actually there’s a lot more to it.”
You travelled through Syria. What was that like?
“I was about three miles away from the front line in downtown Damascus. You can literally hear the bombs going off and mortars landing, and yet there are people having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine; people get on with their lives.
“Even now, all the tourist shops are open. There’s no one shopping but it gives the shopkeepers a sense of hope; every morning at 7am, they open the stores, they hang their carpets out, they sit there and nobody ever comes. When I asked why they didn’t do something else, they told me: ‘This is our job. One day they will come back’.”
Did visiting Saudi Arabia present you with any moral dilemmas?
“I could have avoided it, but I thought it was more important to go there. If they actually opened their doors, it could be a tourist hub – there are beautiful sites of antiquity and stunning landscapes. The rock formations make everything in Jordan pale into insignificance; the desert is Wadi Rum times 10.
“The cities are also vibrant, and in Jeddah, there’s a hipster scene – women wear jeans, there’s a McDonald’s on every corner and it’s a bit like being in Miami. 60% of the population is under 25. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, but it’s going to change – and the sooner it does, the better.”
Which place struck you most during your journey?
“Lebanon was beautiful. I ended up having lunch with Hezbollah and they were lovely people actually. What I’m trying to show in my book, is that if you look beyond the agendas, people are just people – but there’s a lot of messy politics involved.
“In terms of scenery, the Dhofar ridge in Oman is stunning – one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to anywhere in the world. It’s a mile-high cliff that’s about 60 miles long – a wonderful plateau where all the frankincense grows. When the monsoon hits, it turns into lush forests. It really is like a paradise.”
ARABIA by Levison Wood is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Available now.