If you thought the Middle East was just sand and showy ziggurats, think again. David Bellamy has always been a travel writer at heart and this book explores the spirit of a region the West often dismisses. His skill lies in finding the hidden corners that define the character of a place rather than its public faces and spaces. He also explores the life of the region through its people as they go about their daily lives; again, these are things done for practical purposes rather than public show. Thus, we get a quiet corner of Cairo at night (David doesn’t completely eschew the larger settlements), the eerie light of midday heat among the rocks of a wadi (a dry valley), where scale is provided by middle-ground figures. At the same time, David also visits Petra and Abu Simbel, somehow managing either to avoid the crowds, or at least edit them out. These results typify his ability to capture atmosphere – in words as well as pictures – with an assuredness that betokens both familiarity and understanding.
David is no wide-eyed first-time tourist and the book tells the stories of several journeys, giving each section an effective narrative arc, for he is also a master storyteller whose words and pictures are part of a whole, rather than one being an adjunct to another. Travel books are often separated between a writer and a photographer whose visions are – even if subtly – different. As a result, you look at the pictures as one piece of the jigsaw and the words as another, the illustrations being a counterpoint to what you are told. When the author is an artist, the images are not necessarily a blindly faithful record, but rather an assemblage that captures both the essence of the scene and the impression it made on the painter. That eerie light would be almost impossible to capture with a camera, but responds perfectly to the subtle hues and granulation of watercolour.
The overall impression of this beautiful book is of the narrative arc I referred to before. It’s the story not just of a journey, but of a place and its people and David has done it supreme justice.
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