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Passing Time in Libya

Jane Austen in Tripoli

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The boredom of travel is frequently understated by travel writers. They dwell on the exhilarating time spent on the Nile and the Grand Canal or seeing the wonders of Istanbul and Damascus rather than the hours of tedium in airport lounges and hotels bedrooms.

What is true for tourists is true for foreign correspondents. For many years, if somebody had given me a word association test and said “Tripoli” or “Colonel Gaddafi”, I would have responded “Emma” or “Mrs Bennet”. This was the result of visits to Libya in the 1980s and 1990s when I, along with many other journalists, had been called by the Libyan People’s Bureau in London and told that a half-forgotten request to interview “Brother Leader” had at last been granted.

The first time this happened to me, I was staying in a tiny room the size of a coffin in the Libya Palace Hotel in Tripoli without much sign that the promised meeting with the colonel was going to happen any time soon, though I could not leave the hotel for long in case the promised call from his underlings finally came through. Other correspondents in a similar position muttered and complained, but I lay on my bed happily engulfed by the world of Jane Austen and the decorous gentry of early-19th-century England and was confident that I had packed enough of her novels to keep me going until I went home.

The choice of books for travel is not easily made. It is important not to get overexcited and bring too many worthy books one has intended reading for years but somehow never got round to. I remember an American correspondent – I think it was Curtis Wilkie of The Boston Globe – telling me in Beirut, in about 1983, that he suspected one of his arms had grown longer than the other because for years he had been carrying in his case A la recherche du temps perdu. He explained that he was always on the verge of getting stuck into it, but somehow the moment for the big Proust read never came.

Different books suit different countries. For instance, the world evoked by Shakespeare’s history plays was very similar to life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which swirled with intrigue, treachery, violence and war. Even after the fall of Saddam in 2003, a correspondent told me that she had just been to see on stage in London all three parts of Henry VI because the Wars of the Roses in late medieval England was so very like contemporary Iraq.

Saddam at bay after defeat in 1991 reminded me of Satan’s defiance when confined to hell in Paradise Lost. I still have a ragged paperback copy of the poem with details of the world’s biggest mosque that Saddam was trying to build at the old Muthanna airport in Baghdad scrawled on its last pages. An engineering professor I knew was involved in constructing the mosque; he phoned me in my hotel room when I was reading the poem and unexpectedly revealed, as I hastily jotted down what he was saying, why Iraq did not have the materials to build this megalomaniac project.

Some books are worth carrying because they are so different from what one is writing about. Covering warfare in northern Iraq after the US invasion, I used to sit in my hotel room in Arbil reading Anthony Trollope, because the intrigues over preferment in the Anglican church in the 19th century felt benign and calming compared to the sectarian and ethnic butchery all around me.

Travel books are often disappointing because the author simply does not know enough about the country where he or she is travelling. Access by wandering travellers to many countries in the Middle East, West Asia and large parts of Africa has become more difficult over the past 40 years. I felt envy when I first read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana as he travels largely unhindered from Beirut to Jerusalem and on to Baghdad, Tehran and Afghanistan.

Whereas travel books are often overrated, guidebooks are generally underpraised. Standards of accuracy are high and their authors do not obtrude like the swankier, if often mock-modest, professional travel writers. Sadly, the internet’s up-to-the-minute information on hotels and restaurants means such guides are not the money-spinners the best of them used to be.

In Libya, you were stymied if you did not bring books. “It used to be easier to bring a weapon through Tripoli airport than a book,” one Libyan told me last year. “They took books off you and held them there for three or four months.” In Beirut and Kabul, the situation was much better since each had one very good bookshop. Baghdad has its famous book market in al-Mutanabbi Street, where the book dealers laid their books on the ground. As sanctions ruined the Iraqi intelligentsia in the 1990s, it was deeply touching to see them sell libraries built up since they were students.

A good professional reason for carrying a suitcase of books on journalistic travels is simply that there is no other way of swiftly acquiring knowledge of a country. It is an absurd waste of time to start on interviews with local leaders without having much idea about makes them tick.

Reading books should also make journalists modest about any claim to write the first draft of history. For instance, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador in Kabul, writes in his recently published memoir, Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin, that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office over the past 30 years, aside from the invasion of Iraq, was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand in 2006″.

The cost so far is 400 British soldiers and thousands of Afghans dead and £20bn spent, but how many British journalists have described this disastrous venture for what it is?

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.