Sunday, September 04, 2016

Baghdad Without a Map by Tony Horwitz

Baghdad Without a Map is entirely outdated; it's a travel book about the Gulf and nearby regions that ends with an afterword (written for this paperback edition, a year later) set during the early days of the Gulf War. The First Gulf War, from 1991. The only reason to read it would be to know what that world was like before the last twenty-five years of history stomped all over it with big hobnailed boots.

But that's a really good reason, isn't it?

Tony Horwitz was a young reporter on the make when he wrote this book; a stringer worried that he was sliding down the scale and losing any grip on a semblance of a career -- while his reporter wife got better and better assignments and he followed her around the world from one posting to the next.

What could he do in that situation? Well, the only thing a writer can do -- write himself out of it. And so Baghdad Without a Map became his first book, and his first big success, hitting a few bestseller lists and giving him a career with more room to run than stringing for random newspapers did. I think it's semi-forgotten now, as that part of the world moved in different ways over the past two decades and Horwitz got more famous for Confederates in the Attic (and maybe other books too, like A Voyage Long and Strange). But this book did its job: it's the story of Horwitz realizing he really wants to keep being a reporter and writer, and seeing his external opportunities dwindle, so he goes out to make opportunities, and to find whatever stories he can around Arabia.

Horwitz structures the book around individual journeys and time spent in particular places -- not least because each of those chapters was originally a story he tried to sell to some editor or other (and several of them successfully). These were the days when Iraq was mostly safe and vaguely Western-oriented, near the end of their log war with Iran. Yemen was a backwater, but basically peaceful, and Libya was a weird Potemkin experience run by a mad dictator, while Egypt was old and corrupt but stable. And the dangerous spot, the place reporters wanted to try to get to if there was some way of doing so safely, was Lebanon. (The hole in the map -- the place no reporter posted to a Muslim country could visit unless he had a second passport to hide the visa stamp in -- was of course Israel, and Horowitz doesn't go there.) Horwitz went to those places, and a few more, and lived to tell us what they looked like and the people he met there.

These are all individual journeys made by one man in the late '80s, a long time ago. It's not "how these places really are" -- it wasn't that at the time, and it's definitely not that nearly thirty years later. But it is one good reporter's view of those places, at a time when the world was changing but they were still open enough for one Jewish-American man to wander around them and make friends.

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