Kaplan, the bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and Eastward to Tartary, relives an austere, haunting journey he took as a youth through the off-season Mediterranean. The awnings are rolled up and the other tourists are gone, so the damp, cold weather takes him back to the s and earlier—a golden, intensely personal age of tourism. Decades ago, Kaplan voyaged from North Africa to Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece, luxuriating in the radical freedom of youth, unaccountable to time because there was always time to make up for a mistake. He recalls that journey in this Persian miniature of a book, less to look inward into his own past than to look outward in order to dissect the process of learning through travel, in which a succession of new landscapes can lead to books and artwork never before encountered. Kaplan first imagines Tunis as the glow of gypsum lamps shimmering against lime-washed mosques; the city he actually discovers is even more intoxicating.
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Covering the Middle East, Near East and the Balkans, he seemed to me to be the best reporter covering the area at the time. Judging by this book published about 20 years later , he just kept getting better and better.
Today, he works for a Washington DC-based think tank focused mainly on security issues. This is the first of his books I have ever read, and it is superb. If you want a very fast, broad brush introduction to the history and current politics of the countries covered in this book, embedded in a travelogue kind of format, this is the book to read.
He travels by bus, taxi and rental car through most of the countries that once made up the Ottoman Empire: Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, South Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh -- essentially in one trip, though Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are tacked on in a separate trip shortly thereafter. I can almost guarantee you that if you have any touch of wanderlust at all, and any interest in the history and politics of the region, this book will inspire you to want to hit the road to some of these places in the very near future.
It may also persuade you to give a wide berth to some of them, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. This is an unusual kind of travel book, but you would be hard put to find a better one of its kind. For now, things have settled down considerably after working through a lot of the redrawing of borders and the mass migrations often forced migrations caused by the 20th century collapse of multiple empires: the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in World War I; the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in ; and then the Soviet Union itself in But the situation is still unstable, because populations continue to be mixed -- e.
Syria, Lebanon, Turkey -- and governments are generally weak because of immature democracies or over-ripe autocracies. In effect, government in such countries becomes essentially a form of organized crime. Some of the worst examples of this are those countries cursed with oil: Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
In these places, government consists of an armed battle over the spoils. Almost all of those spoils will go to foreigners and foreign corporations, or to a small number of members of the local elite.
In Turkey, for instance, it is the Islamist party that is the modernizing force, and it is the secular old elite centered in the armed forces that has been the reactionary force holding back modernization.
Postscript from five years later, in looking at Turkey now, I am not nearly so sanguine about the modernizing role of the Islamist party, the AKP, which has been in power since about President Erdogan has taken a hard turn towards authoritarianism and towards nationalist exploitation of ethnic divisions with Turkish Kurds in order to reinforce his hold on his country. After so many years in power, he is decidedly no longer the modernizer he once seemed to be.
Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus