x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Book Review: Arab Spring 'tourist' follows the random road to revolt

In A Tourist in the Arab Spring, Tom Chesshyre goes on the road with the aim of better understanding the regional wave of discontent in this compelling travelogue.

A Tourist in the Arab Spring
Tom Chesshyre

Having watched the chaos in the Middle East unfold from the relative tranquility of London, the author Tom Chesshyre, a long-serving travel writer at The Times, was gripped by a familiar wanderlust. A year after the first uprisings began he was on a flight bound for Tunis with a plan to trace the Arab Spring from its very beginnings. As a tourist at that.

In his dented, tobacco-odoured hire car, Chesshyre sets out on his Trans-African Highway road trip with a plan, albeit something of a sketchy one, to discover exactly what triggered the unrest. Along the way a familiar theme emerges: the downtrodden people of the nations where the uprisings took place have risen up, weary of answering to the dictators who make their lives a misery.

For his first assignment he finds the spot where the humble fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with paint thinner and set himself alight, triggering the regional wave of discontent.

It is the random, brief encounters that provide the narrative for this compelling travelogue. Keen to prompt opinions from those he meets along the way, the author encounters people who are reluctant to open up and others who simply cannot wait to unburden their long-unspoken anguish.

There is an abundance of cigarette-smoking, leather-jacket-clad shifty characters, mostly of the kind trying to make some sort of a living. Many of the hotel stays are in squalid quarters that have seen better days. Much of the fare at mealtimes, too, leaves plenty to be desired, mostly featuring endless chicken-and-rice dishes of varying quality.

Yet along the way hospitality is extended and kindness shown as Chesshyre develops a rapport and an understanding with his hosts. With little else to develop its economy, Tunisia relies heavily on tourism, yet even in the two years that have passed since it all erupted visitors remain at a premium. And as a consequence, would-be breadwinners and their dependents must make do or go without.

Across the border in Libya with its fabulous Roman ruins, he is taken on a terrifying 150kph journey following a border dispute as a mysterious official commandeers his guide's vehicle. For a while the author's life flashes before his eyes and though he eventually emerges unscathed, the episode leaves him traumatised.

The tale of Mohamed, a Libyan Chesshyre meets who fell foul of Qaddafi's henchman, is particularly harrowing. Beaten, tortured and electrocuted, apparently for being a prominent mosque member, he is thrown along with other victims into a bullet-riddled cargo container in the intense heat. Mohamed was eventually freed from his impromptu prison, but others were not so lucky. By the time he emerged blinking into the daylight Qaddafi was gone, his captors repentant and apologetic.

Finally in Egypt he discovers another nation hugely reliant on tourism, anxious for decades of abuse and neglect to be put aside so that it can show its friendly face. A daytrip across Israel and into Jordan completes the odyssey. An enlightening journey that leaves the author reflecting on a unique and eye-opening experience.

* Michael Barnard