Misadventure in the Middle East: Henry Hemming

★★★★

Travels as Tramp, Artist & Spy

It has taken me a very long time to get around to reading this book: years, rather than months. I first heard about it in rather odd circumstances in my early twenties, when a friend and I bumped into Hemming at a History gaudy at our old college and ended up retreating to the pub with him because it felt as if we were the only three people under fifty. We had no idea who or what he was, of course. As we chatted, it turned out that this very personable young man was an author and, furthermore, had had experiences which practically beggared belief. I promised him that I would read his book and, some years later, I’ve finally kept that promise.

The delay has simply been because I don’t read a lot of travel writing but, at the moment, with the heat beating down on London and the somnolent laziness of summer, my mind has turned to foreign climes. Yesterday I ordered a couple of books by Wilfred Thesiger and, while waiting for them to arrive, I thought I’d try this rather more contemporary account of a journey in the Middle East. I can say, hand on heart, that it has been a thoroughly unexpected delight. Hemming writes like a dream,  anchoring his story with a series of striking anecdotes, and this memoir of his journey brims over with sensitivity, humour and enthusiasm. I really enjoyed it and  wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it.

In September 2002, a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Hemming and his friend Al set out from London in a Toyota pick-up truck (affectionately christened Yasmine) to drive to the Middle East. They have only just finished university, they are painters, and they are very, very naive. As they embark on their journey, they have grand notions about piercing the mystique of the ‘Islamic world’ – about reconciling the contrasting Western stereotypes of terror cells and The Arabian Nights with the modern Middle East. And, to some extent, they do achieve this, although the beneficiaries of their journey of discovery are not the biased public at home, but the two young men themselves. It is a journey of the soul as much as an artistic expedition.

And it is a remarkably dangerous journey. They face challenges from border guards, mistaken identities, accusations of political agitation, interrogation as spies (several times) and, on a couple of occasions, the very real and immediate possibility of death. To make matters worse, they are not only travelling in the shadow of 9/11, but also happen to coincide with the outbreak of the Second Gulf War and the siege and fall of Baghdad. What started out as a rather self-conscious sketching holiday is transformed into a first-hand experience of the clashes between West and Middle East, although the two young men also discover that, even in these dark days, there are still people willing to welcome them and share their stories.

Hemming makes it clear from the beginning that he and Al want to force their way beyond the historico-anthropological approach of many classic works on the Middle East. They aren’t interested in the histories of tribes or the foundations of kingdoms: what they want is to channel and understand the contemporary energy of the places they visit. They have been given introductions to artists and gallery owners, and this gives them the chance to find a space in which they can communicate with painters and art students – despite their cultural differences – sharing inspiration, and exchanging methods, motifs and ideas. By moving in these particular circles, Hemming and Al also have an immediate way into the youth culture of the region: its secret parties; its discos. The unfamiliarity of public manners and morals dissolves behind closed doors, where the (privileged) young people of Tehran or Muscat prove to be remarkably similar to those of London. I insert that word advisedly; for the discos, the drinking and the mingling of genders seems to be exclusive to the upper classes of society. The few glimpses we get of middle- or working-class families in these various countries tell a rather different story.

The key thing is that Hemming wants to show us exactly how full of creative energy the Middle East is – turning his back on romantic notions of Valentino-style sheikhs, deserts and palm trees. Dubai is his trump card in this respect. It is ‘a city that towered over the rest of the region like an enormous raised middle finger to every Orientalist, from Chateaubriand to Bernard Lewis, who had written about an “Arab mind” inherently unable to organise or sustain something this dynamic‘. The artists he meets also help to dispel that stereotype. Whether they are from Iran or Saudi Arabia or Iraq, these are engaged, inspired people – representative of their wider cultures – who are trying to find new forms of self-definition even in the midst of tumultuous political change, public unrest and great personal danger.

There’s plenty on culture and religion; far from being judgemental, Hemming is entirely open, receptive and eager to learn. He studies the Qur’an, talks with Syrian Christians in Damascus and attends a remarkable example of Sufi worship. He is struck by the individual characteristics of each country he visits, and how inappropriate it is to make sweeping statements about the region as a whole (as I have, admittedly, done several times here due to lack of space). As the book goes on, both he and Al become more mature, more conscious of their situation, and increasingly aware that there is no such thing as simple observation. By being in a scene, even as an observer, you change the dynamic of that scene. What you’re recording is not the same event that it would be if you weren’t there. By the end of their trip, Hemming has come to terms with the fact that their journey has not been the objective artistic experience he’d imagined; but it has been something equally amazing:

We had lost any delusions of being able to glide through the region, invisible, stealthy, a fly on every wall, jotting down the reality surrounding us. That was impossible. If anything, we were bulldozing our path through the region and carefully recording the way different people dived out of the way. 

There’s no doubt that Hemming’s remarkable journey was greased by a very useful network of connections. How many travellers have the contacts necessary to meet Princess Susan al-Said of Oman, let alone convince her to offer accommodation and an exhibition venue within half an hour of meeting her? And how many are in email correspondence with ‘Paul Bergne, Tony Blair’s special envoy to Afghanistan during the recent coalition campaign against the Taliban‘? It transpires that Hemming’s father, who seems to have led an even more adventurous life than his intrepid son, ran the Royal Geographical Society for twenty-one years and, through its scientific initiatives, has formed some very useful Middle-Eastern friendships, not least with Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. However, to be fair to Hemming, he never once gives the impression of choosing the easy way out. His passion for his art, and for authenticity and truth, leads him to remote villages, tense hotels in Kurdish Iraq and, as the long sought-after goal, the bullet-racked streets of Baghdad itself. Indeed, far from trading on his distinguished connections, he spends a lot of time pretending not to be English at all – conscious that to be identified as British is, in certain locales at that particular time, just one step away from being shot through the back of the head.

Now, I know next to nothing about the Middle East and this is perhaps the second book I’ve read about the region, after Freya Stark’s Valleys of the Assassins, so you can see that I’m not exactly a cutting-edge expert. All I do know is gleaned from my brief trip to Qatar – and so I found Hemming’s experiences absolutely absorbing as a window onto a world that, as a woman, I will never have the freedom to explore for myself. Of course, I’m in no position to say whether he paints an accurate picture of what it’s like, but he is bright, amusing and suffused with a deep interest in humanity. This is both a gripping adventure story and a very thought-provoking book about a part of the world, and a piece of recent history, that I should understand more about. I can think of few more articulate or engaging people through whom to make the journey vicariously.

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