I don’t know whether Michael Mewshaw has an official Bucket List, but he can certainly cross off a lot of exciting activities if he has one. Nearing his 65th birthday, Mewshaw elected to travel alone across North Africa. Friends and family were understandably concerned about such an adventure, but Mewshaw is a dedicated traveler - no tropical ocean cruises for him! Neither is he oblivious to the dangers involved in the sort of journey he had in mind:
“I didn’t argue with those who insisted that North Africa was a Petri dish of dictatorial regimes, angry impoverished people and hostile religious fanatics. I simply observed that if Islamic terrorism is the most pressing international problem facing the West, if the world truly suffers from a clash of civilizations, what writer wouldn’t want to witness and record events firsthand?”
Luckily for us, Mewshaw has a gift for describing his travels in lyrical language. In addition, he has the benefit of age and all the insights and knowledge that come with it. Beginning with his tangle with airport security in Athens as he attempted to get to Alexandria, this author is able to evoke images of exotic landscapes and cultures that make his daredevil journey seem very much worth the risk. His snapshots of the political climate and cultural landscapes in the cities and deserts of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are finely structured and seamlessly convey the contribution of each to the whole.
We in the West are, for the most part, ignorant of the world of North Africa. It is human nature to simplify in order to categorize; we tuck bits and pieces of culture gleaned from 30-second bites seen on the evening news into our box of world knowledge. Mewshaw has traveled extensively and is better able than most to coax the details from his subjects and his surroundings, thereby giving the reader an opportunity to open up those boxes and see what is really inside. Many books will present little-known facts about foreign places, but Mewshaw’s Between Terror and Tourism delivers unexpected understanding by allowing the people he encounters to show (rather than tell) their history and culture.
“See, we are not savages,” says Mewshaw’s guide in Libya, suggesting that the people of that country have a better understanding of how the West perceives them than we have of our own image there. But a Tunisian asks Mewshaw, “In Egypt… did you see people living in cemeteries? I hear it’s nothing but beggars and poverty,’” reminding us that stereotypes and misperceptions are common to all of us. In Algeria, Mewshaw is assured that “Car crashes kill more people… than terrorism,” and indeed, there is more than one automotive mishap during Mewshaw’s stay there. In the end, it’s a bacterial infection rather than terrorism that cuts short Mewshaw’s tour, but not before he has sampled opinions, regimes, and peoples of this vibrant and thriving area of the world.
Most of us are neither brave enough nor curious enough to follow Mewshaw’s example and explore for ourselves. Fortunately the author has done the legwork for us. Don’t be misled into thinking that Between Terror and Tourism is a standard travelogue. What Mewshaw gives us is a snapshot of the human race, juxtaposed with faded photographs of previous travels to the same areas. Details change, we learn, but people are remarkably the same wherever and however we live.