There is poignancy in reviewing this brief book at a time when we are all trying to come to terms with the recent attack on America. For it describes three countries, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, at the epicentre of violence in the Middle East; and its author is a writer born in a moderate Persian family that lost everything in the revolution of 1979 and who herself now lives in London. As Shusha Guppy sadly reflects, on returning to Lebanon for the first time since the early 1970s following a vicious war, to find everywhere portraits of the leaders and martyrs of Hezbollah: "In the Middle East, no one is merely a tragic casualty of armed conflict; every death is a martyrdom in a righteous cause and holy war. The title of 'martyr' denies the essential absurdity of war, confers dignity on the victims, ennobles their actions and comforts the bereaved."
But this is not fundamentally a political book. It is travel writing of a high order, infused with a strong sense of history and an intensely romantic evocation of the present. Patrick Leigh Fermor writes in his foreword: "Politics and wars have left many scars, and they play an unavoidable part in these pagesI But in the end it is the traveller's fascination with the wonders of past ages that emerges with the most vigour, and these, and many other delights, are presented to us with a captivating informality."
All three sections are a pleasure to read, but the first, on Jordan, manages the most satisfying balance between personal response and accurate history. Perhaps this is because I happen to know the country, but I sense it is also because Jordan is the "gentlest country in the region". Refinement, and not harsh contrast, is what brings out the best in the author's writing; as the London editor of the Paris Review , Guppy is essentially a littérateur , steeped in French, English and Persian literature. (Her history is not quite so reliable; for example, the Sea Peoples were certainly not Phoenicians; and King Ahiram of Byblos was not a contemporary of Rameses II.) Hence her touching description of her Jordanian driver and guide, Gibril:
"Although he spoke little English and I knew even less Arabic, we understood each other; he had a subtle sense of humour tinged with the scepticism of those to whom much has been promised but little delivered. When our journey ended, he apologised for his broken English; I reassured him by quoting Rumi, 'It is better to be of the same heart than of the same tongue.' He wrote it down in Arabic. 'I keep this in memory of you,' he said."
The weight of past bloodshed - Phoenician, Roman, Christian, Muslim and Jewish - bears down hard on these countries. Yet it is not merely sentimental to hope, as this sensitive book suggests, that open-minded travel and friendships across political divisions may be more effective in replacing violent mistrust with peaceful tolerance than the "minuet of meetings and hugs and treaty-signing between... rulers".
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.
Three Journeys in the Levant
Author - Shusha Guppy
ISBN - 0 936315 17 2
Publisher - Starhaven
Price - £10.00
Pages - 146