Intrigued by the Arabs, dressed in floor-length robes and yashmaks who began holidaying in London after the 1970s oil boom, Raban wanted to discover the reality of their home lives and world view. His quest took him through Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan. What he discovered was a far cry from the camel, tent and sand-dune archetypes of early European explorers. Oil wealth had seeped into almost every corner, and Bedouin encampments had been replaced by cosmopolitan boomtowns, camels by Range Rovers. The sons of Bedouin nomads were now studying medicine in Europe and engineering in New York. Yet in this fast-moving world, old certainties remained.
Raban’s gift for friendship gives us a series of affectionate individual encounters which collectively create a true and invaluable picture of Arabian society.
‘His writing has become an absolute touchstone for me, as for many others. Not exactly travel books, more like personal pilgrimages, with all those fiercely observed encounters along the way, both sardonic and yet lyrical… so stylish, so fearless, so observant, rising to a kind of visionary intensity whenever he abandons the human (often with apparent relief) and writes about landscape and water but always with a deep underlying melancholy, haunting and haunted, magnificent works of exile.’ Richard Holmes
Arabia: Through the Looking Glass
Format: 312pp demi pb
Place: Arabia, Middle East
Born in the middle of the Second World War in 1942, Jonathan Raban was brought up in Norfolk by his mother, who not only taught her son to read, but shared her own delight in writing and good storytelling with him. Jonathan’s relationship with his father, who returned from the war a total stranger and a hero, and went on to be an Anglican clergyman, was much more complex. The tension between this moral martinet and his louche and feckless son seems to have fuelled Raban’s knowing and savagely funny critique of his own British culture, and to have enabled him to escape his homeland with such relish.
Raban read English at the University of Hull and was briefly an academic before launching himself as a freelance writer, becoming part of the brilliant and hard-drinking literary crowd centred around Ian Hamilton’s New Review. A freelance assignment for the BBC, recording Freya Stark barging down the Euphrates, inspired his first travel book, Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979). He went on to float down the Mississipi (Old Glory, 1981) and sail round the shores of Britain (Coasting, 1986). For Love and Money (1987) is a searingly honest memoir and a funny and affectionate look at the freelance writing trade, while the journey described in Hunting Mr Heartbreak (1990), into and across America, led him to settle in Seattle. The birth of a daughter confirmed the city as home. While in the States, Raban has written Bad Land (1996), Passage to Juneau (1999) and Driving Home (2011) as well as such fictional works as Waxwings (2003) and Surveillance (2006).