Motoring with Mohammed
by Eric Hansen (Vantage)
Reviewed by Susan Cunningham
Eric Hansen, the intrepid, foolhardy author of Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo, is back with adventures from a beguiling corner of the Middle East. Back in 1978, after a yacht-wreck in the Red Sea, he was stranded for two weeks on an uninhabited island off the coast of North Yemen. Rescued after two weeks by a boatload of amiable Eritrean arms smugglers, he left buried on the island a pile of notebooks that he had compiled during seven years of bumming around Greater Asia.
Most of Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea takes place a decade later when Hansen returns with the hope of recovering his notebooks. His plans to revisit the island are stymied by bureaucracy, military security zones, and rumors of the presence of Yasser Arafat. Fortunately, Hansen rapidly loses his sense of mission as he falls into the rhythms of the Yemeni male lifestyle. This demands spending a large part of each day chewing the hallucinogenic leaf qat.
Hansen wanders in a medieval landscape where tribesmen proffer spontaneous poems, but also tend to resolve minor disputes with the aid of AK-47s and a few hostages. Over several months, he meets missionaries, refugees and Western Arabists while happening upon ceremonies marking life and death. Here at last is a Muslim country where tradition is synonymous with generosity and tolerance, even of Jews and Nazaranis.
For one episode alone, this book will be cherished by anyone who—suffering from the temporary insanity induced by a civil war or a stolen passport—has ever sought the counsel of a U.S. diplomatic mission. With characteristic restraint, Hansen recalls: “I was given the impression that several dozen American citizens were shipwrecked each week in Yemen and the overworked staff was just going to have to draw the line somewhere. We were not offered as much as a glass of water, and assistance was limited to showing us the door and pointing vaguely in the direction of the only international-class hotel.” Ω
This review appeared in The Nation newspaper in Thailand a long time ago. I hope I don’t give the impression that one has to go all the way to Yemen to experience Muslim hospitality. I meant that it doesn’t turn up often in travelogues of Muslim lands.
Motoring with Mohammed