An Overland Journey across North Africa
(Counterpoint)The cover shows a shadowy figure under the half-moon marching over rocky outcrops. And the title and the map inside suggests an extended hike through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
But the writer's real journey was in most cases by taxi, renta-cars, trains and airplanes. Mewshaw didn't even try to cross from Algeria to Morocco because of the political turmoil; he flew by way of Paris and London instead. The most walking he did was in and around the various border areas, trying to just get the hell through them.
We want a travel writer to be informative, knowing, and, above all, garrulous ... if not arch. Mewshaw may be knowing --- he seems to have read a mountain of books about North Africa --- but as far as the writing goes, we will, I think, be better off with Lonely Planet Guide (which the author consults and quotes to us on occasion).
Far worse for this journey is the fact that this author is a depressive, and, as a result, I don't think I have come across a more depressing travel book since Gulliver's Travels (Swift was a depressive too). We expect illness, we expect horror stories, we expect despair; but we also expect uplift, bemusement, a touch of eccentricity, if not delight; we even should expect some poetic prose, especially from someone who took the trouble to cross 2,000 miles of some of the most spectacular coastline of the southern Mediterranean.
Mewshaw gradually reveals his own morbid personality as we go along: he's on anti-depressants and Beta-blockers, seems to need heavy doses of wine or booze to keep on trudging, reflects his own despair onto the ecologically destroyed countryside, offers us car-bombings, acts of terrorism, acts of god, wretched highways, destruction of historical sites, past and present uprisings, surly taxi-drivers, overbearing soldiers, earthquakes, blight ... so much so that by the end of Terror/Tourism we find ourselves speed-reading to get past another of his military roadblocks or depressing insight or bodily ailment or dry (liquor --- eg, Muslim) city or state or country just to be done with this bloated black sandcloud. At the end, I concluded that Mewshaw doesn't need a splendid vista, nor a stiff drink; what he really needs is a tough editor and some happiness pills to make this sweaty, mosquito-filled journey a bit more of a lark.
There are a few things he approves of. He likes the laundry services in the various hotels he stays in. And his getting stuck on the Libyan border ---- he didn't have an Arabic translation of his passport --- reminds us of the many nightmares that random authority can impose on those of us who have in the past chosen to travel outside the pack.
Mewshaw's melancholic reflections are in no way lightened by his visit to the superb collection of Impressionists to be found at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Algeria (he was the only visitor); nor the stunning coastline he encounters in Northern Tunisia; and not even memories of his earlier visits to the reclusive Paul Bowles.
My suggestion: If you want a scintillating tale of North African traipsing, you'll be far better off with those writers who get his nod: C. V. Cavafy, Gustave Flaubert, E. M. Forester.
Or better yet, covering much of the same territory, you could spend a day or two in Jeffrey Tayler's recent and stupendous Glory in a Camel's Eye.--- Angela Rodgers