Sunday, April 3, 2011

The lure and learning of dangerous places--a comment on Paul Theroux in the New York Times

Another day of life in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1971.  Photographed by Don McCullin

I have mixed relationship with the Travel section of the Sunday New York Times.

I love how I can sit in my bathrobe on a lazy morning and go to fascinating, interesting or even seductive destinations, how it adds places to my bucket list and gives me perspectives on what I saw or missed on my own journeys to places in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

Then I come to what the editors of the New York Times must regard as an afterthought. That eco-tourist resort in Indonesia? $550 a night. Yank that one from the bucket. Though the Times does run some articles on "affordable" trips, even those are pricey, not to mention that the mere publication of an unknown spot has now been ruined by disclosure to one million households. I've seen the effect firsthand. Years ago, one of my favorite bars, the Two Bells tavern, became crowded with hipsters soon after a favorable column ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. After that, it was hard to get a table for lunch. The P-I died and the Two Bells thrives; do your own reflection on that.

Today came a reminder of what's best about the NYT on Sunday: an essay by one of the world's best travel writers, Paul Theroux, on reasons why it's often good or even for some essential to go where it's chaotic or even dangerous because of tensions, civil unrest or outright war.

Click on the link I've provided to read the entire piece, but here's the nut graph:
“Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. In my experience these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling.

Theroux describes many places where he took risks and felt stirred and enriched by what he had experienced and learned. One example he cites I know well: Northern Ireland, the place of The Troubles. He went there in 1982. I went there in 1975 and saw a rural landscape marred by fortified encampments of British soldiers, roads marked by check points run by armed men (British soldiers at some, IRA Provos at a few) and cities, especially Belfast, full of British soldiers on patrol in combat gear, barbed wire lining sidewalks and searching stations in the shopping districts, signs warning to report any unclaimed bags, and armored vehicles rolling at speed to some disturbance, gun barrels poking from slits.

At the time, I was visiting relatives in Belfast who lived a half block from a fortified police station. One night, returning with a cousin from a pub, we rounded the corner of the police station and I heard a click. I looked right and saw just eight feet away the opened back end of a British Saracean armored personnel carrier. Inside were British commandos with their weapons pointed at us. That click was the safety switch being turned off on a machine gun pointed at my chest. A sudden move on my part would have justified my death. We moved on.

To my cousin, it was routine, which was part of the powerful lesson I took home. Photographer Don McCullin's 1971 image, shown here, gives you a sense of how one woman reacted with horror as combat played out in the street where her children would otherwise play. Most Americans had no idea what was happening in Northern Ireland. They might get a snippet on the evening news. Much of the New York Times coverage then often was datelined London, which meant the writer stayed at the office and most likely had a perspective colored by the British, who probably overlooked the irony that their personnel carriers were named after a term used by ancient Romans for people in the provinces of Arabia.

Much as I had done some reading and interviews to deepen my understanding of the roots of the violence in Northern Ireland and understand the British policy of sending soldiers to establish security for all, I left Northern Ireland convinced that the British policy was wrong and their presence protected a regime that suppressed a minority. It was only a coincidence that on the ferry ride back to the U.K., I would up having a long chat with a British soldier returning from duty. He spoke freely of his contempt for Catholics. After our two-hour talk, we shook hand and exchanged names; his face reddened as he realized that my last name suggested links that might have given me a different perspective.

Only much later did the British withdraw its forces during a lengthy process that ended practices that oppressed Catholics and reformed a police establishment that was corrupt and systematically anti-Catholic. (None of this should be read as sympathetic towards IRA or Protestant Ulster Defense Forces violence.) Though violence still flares up now and then, Northern Ireland today is much more at peace, with the IRA and UDF having sworn off violence and moved into democratic elections. My trip then, however, convinced me how little Americans know about the world and the basis of people's greivances and how U.S. policies support or ignore those issues.

I had a similar experience in the early 1980s when I traveled to Israel as a journalist hosted (that is, expenses paid) by AIPAC, the American lobbying organization that works to generate support for Israel's policies. On the bus with other journalists, we were taken to places and met people who made a convincing case of genuine risks faced by Israel and the need for a robust defense forces and firm security practices. But I made a point some days of getting off the organized tour to interview Palestinians, journeying into less secure places for visitors. In those unescorted visits, I learned things about the harshness of life for Palestinians, especially for those on the West Bank who often faced what they regarded as daily humiliations through security practices and whose access to jobs and, in some cases, basics such as water and sewer systems were limited. I came home from that trip with a love for Israel, especially Jerusalem, but also a sense that Israel's long-term posture towards Palestinans could not be sustained. As in Northern Ireland, you had to visit Israel and the West Bank to truly feel the daily tensions that for some give rise to militancy and violence.

To be an American is to be a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world. To be an American, for just about all of us, is to know virtually nothing about how people around the world view us or how deeply embedded we are in policies that affect the lives of people we do not know. The Egyptians, for example, knew well we were writing checks to assist the Hosni Mubarek regime. We had our reasons. They saw a dictator.

Going to troubled places certainly does not make us experts. My trips to Israel and Northern Ireland gave me foremost a sense of why conflicts can be so difficult to end and U.S. policy calculations may well be difficult but are certainly often at odds with the values we profess to embrace.

Theroux makes the point that the world is going through a period of dramatic upheavals, especially in the Middle East. It pays to go places, even the risky ones. He writes: "Travel, especially of the old laborious kind, has never seemed to me of greater importance, more essential, more enlightening."

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