476 pp., $24.95
ISBN: 0 679 43148 9
Review by Ann Skea
Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New
York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo
are the air-conditioned postindustrial regions of North
America, Europe, the Pacific Rim, parts of Latin America,
and a few other spots, with their trade summitry and
computer information highways. Outside is the rest of
mankind, going in a completely different direction".
------ (Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, head of the Peace and
Conflict Studies Program,University Of Toronto).
In about 1993, Robert Kaplan set out to wander in the cities and towns outside the stretch limo, and this book is the result of his travels. This, then, is serious travel writing: as far from the style of Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Redmond O'Hanlon et.al. as you are likely to get. No funny anecdotes about strange foreign people and customs. No hilarious personal disasters. Instead, Kaplan takes us to some of the poorest places in the world and discusses the way in which geography, history and politics have shaped these countries and how their fates may eventually affect ours.
One interviewer1 commented that it sounded like a trip through the Inferno of Dante. And, certainly, Kaplan's travels (from the devastated countries of West Africa, through Egypt and Iran where religious fundamentalism prevails, to the turmoil of Central Asia and the rapidly developing countries of South East Asia and the Indian sub-continent) seem to illustrate this view. Kaplan chose to visit the most difficult trouble spots in the world, calling his travels an "unsentimental journey" - the opposite of Sterne's 1708 "journey of the heart in pursuit of Nature".
Kaplan's concern is with the fragile state of economic and political stability, the growing disparity between rich and poor, the high birth-rate in poor countries, and the rapid spread of diseases such as AIDS and drug-resistant Tuberculosis around the world. He believes that we have no solution for these problems, that "we are not in control", and that "as societies grow more populous and complex, the idea that a global elite like the UN can engineer reality from above is just as absurd as the idea that political 'scientists' can reduce any of this to a _science_". He is open about his own agenda in these travels, telling us that he set out to find a paradigm "for understanding the world in the early decades of the 21st century", and he tries hard to present an objective view of the complexities of the countries and their people, as he experienced them. Generally, his fifteen years of experience as a foreign correspondent allows him to present an interesting and varied account which gets some way below surface appearances and which is akin to an in-depth documentary of the daily lives of people who live in some of the most troubles places in the world.
One cannot help the feeling, however, that Kaplan also chose these destinations because he thrives on the danger and hardship. "I am a time traveller", he boasts at one point, "...I chart places where a literary tourist would rarely go". He is also inclined to questionable global assertions, such as, "Geography is destiny". And at one point, he remarks glibly: "While travelling in the Near East I could think more clearly about Africa. The problem with many area specialists is that they have no such means of comparison". This may well be true, but the trouble with Kaplan's sort of travel is that a short visit to a country (especially when most time is spent in a capital city, such as Teheran or Bangkok) is not enough to give you real insight into the cultural complexities which shape the peoples' lives.
In Iran, for example, comparing his impressions of sophisticated Teheran with the religious fervour he observed in the holy city of Qom, he sees little beyond the flashing eyes and direct gaze of Teheran women, compared to the "shy and frumpy women of Qom who eschew the lipsticks, perfume and designer glasses". Such surface impressions belie the deep bond of religious faith which these women, in fact, share. Similarly, whilst mentioning that the Thais practice Theravada Buddhism which emphasises moderation, non confrontation and compliance, Kaplan seems to have little awareness of the cultural constraints all Thais learn from childhood, which require them to 'keep a cool heart', to smile and to acquiesce, and to hide any anger and emotional turmoil which they may feel. No wonder the Bangkok bar-"girls"("These weren't 'whores', as Western tourists might conclude') "lacked the hard mouths and cash-register eyes that I had seen among the prostitutes in the hotel restaurants in Samarkand".
Kaplan, however, does make great efforts to understand the countries he visits and to pass this understanding on to his readers. He is a well-read traveller, and he draws on many scholarly texts and on the classics of travel-writing by such writers as Lord Curzon, Robert Byron, Freya Stark and V.S.Naipaul. He writes convincingly of the influence of the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, on the Turks; and of the importance that Sufism still has in Middle Eastern politics. He is particularly good at conveying the atmosphere of some of his meetings with ordinary people and at suggesting their concerns and motivation.
He introduces us to Reza, an Azeri Turk from Tabriz, whose amateur photographs of Teheran during the Iranian revolution attracted the attention of Newsweek and other major publications. Reza, in various disguises, later photographed the Israeli invasion of Beirut, and the violence in South Africa. He took pictures in Soviet occupied Kabul. And in 1989, he smuggled himself into Baku, in Azerbaijan, to photograph the bloody Russian suppression of demands for freedom from Soviet rule.
Having documented the growing water problems in many of the countries he visited, Kaplan writes at length of the farming and educational initiatives in the Rishi Valley in India. Here, in one small area, he finds evidence of what can be done by a community determined to help itself, and he describes how enlightened policies and guidance have helped people to make dramatic changes to the state of their land and, thus, to their lives and to the economic viability of their valley. Like Peace Corps volunteers, and UN workers, the guides and teachers in the Rishi Valley project are educated and (largely) from middle-class backgrounds: unlike them, they come from the same country as those they are helping. Kaplan sees this as perhaps the only pattern for successful future growth: "People will either solve of alleviate their problems at the local level, as in the Rishi valley, or they won't". But, less optimistically, he adds, "The many factors at work in the Rishi Valley will replicate themselves only rarely".
Because of the unstable nature of many of the places Kaplan visited, many changes have already occurred. But this does not negate Kaplan's real thesis, which is that events in our world are increasingly interconnected: that "the world tide of population and poverty" will eventually force us all "to realise that we inhabit one increasingly small and crowded earth". For Kaplan, this is what we must understand, and this is the basis from which we must work if we are to survive the tumultuous changes he forsees for the world in the next few decades.
1This interview of Kaplan, by David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, can be found at http://www1.pbs.org/newshour/gergen/kaplan.html
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