Matthew Teller' vicarious trip through the Middle East

Matthew Teller gave this collection of travel pieces the title ‘Quite Alone,’ but readers feel that they are right there with him

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even without the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic which has made traveling for pleasure all but impossible, Matthew Teller’s Quite Alone would have served a useful purpose. This collection of short pieces by a seasoned travel writer and documentary maker, comprising 27 stories from 13 countries, is a wonderful way to go to destinations that are often overlooked or to see them in a new light.
The book collects stories Teller wrote from around the Middle East over a 12-year period and it makes compelling reading. Teller has a beautiful writing style and admirably also lets the people he meets tell their own stories.
Right from the start, a piece written in 2013 under the title “Egypt: “This isn’t a temple, it’s a philosophy,” it’s clear that this, intentionally, is no regular travel guide.
“Temple fatigue. It afflicts us all. This pharaoh, that goddess, some dynasty or other. More columns, more carvings. It’s embarrassing, to be bored by something you know is wondrous.
“And then, one bright day, up pops the antidote,” Teller writes.
The antidote is a tour guide called Hesham Mansoor, who brings every monument to life while “a histrionic sunbeam was doing the Indiana Jones thing, slanting dustily down from far overhead to spotlight an ankle-high patch of wall-carving.” The reader goes on culinary tours in Syria and on a Kurdish heritage trip in Amedi in Iraq where Dr. Shireen Younus Ismael points out amid the renewed development: “Heritage is non-renewable. When you’ve lost it, it’s gone.” In Kuwait, we meet the bidoon  – “The Without” – the disaffected, disenfranchised residents who are beginning to fight for the rights that are granted to citizens.
An extraordinary story tells of a chance meeting in a Saudi airport where a man conspiratorially clicks rosary beads, instead of Moslem prayer beads, and confides they are from a Christian lover in Beirut. Both apostasy and adultery carry a death sentence in Saudi Arabia.
The pieces on wildlife and the environment highlight fascinating struggles and dilemmas. Who knew about the baboon population in Taif, a small spot in western Saudi Arabia? The lessons on trying to maintain healthy animal and human populations – Hint: don’t feed the wild animals – are applicable elsewhere. Similarly, the challenges of creating and maintaining urban wildlife sanctuaries, like the one Teller finds bringing life back to a Saudi wadi, are relevant outside of the region.
Some of my favorite essays in the book come from Oman, which I visited once, in 1994, and Teller visited several times: once on a quest to find Sinbad, a figure Omanis proudly claim as their own; other times on trips to follow wildlife conservation, and a journey following Oman’s social and political situation in the wake of the Arab Spring.
In one piece, Teller follows the scent of frankincense, which, as he notes, still defines the nation: “Arrive in Muscat and the first thing you notice is a lingering, seductive fragrance,” he writes, and immediately I was transported back to Oman’s capital.
“When Shakespeare wanted an image to counter the stink of corruption, he had a distraught Lady Macbeth mutter, ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,’” writes Teller. “But Shakespeare had never been to Salalah [in southern Oman]. They’ve got just the thing for her there.” Teller also follows the cultivation behind the rose oil industry in Saudi Arabia and why it sells for a staggering 25,000 pounds a liter. “It is, almost literally, a world away from the simplicity of an English rose.” I was intrigued and saddened to learn about the fate of Oman’s program to reintroduce wild oryx. The project was much vaunted when I traveled there as an environmental reporter, covering the multilateral water talks for The Jerusalem Post. Teller followed the fate of the noble oryx in Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2009.
In 1996, two years after being named a UNESCO world heritage site, as Teller notes, the Jiddat al-Harasis’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, a vast unfenced area, was universally deemed a success. But, as Saudi wildlife expert Dr. Mohammed Shobrak, pointed out, countries can start out on reintroductions focusing on the bigger picture: “It’s all about bringing animals back to the wild – but they don’t have a detailed plan in place for what they’re actually going to do. So you start seeing the problems developing after a few years.” In the Omani case, appointing the Harasis tribe alone to be the rangers and guardians of the project upset other tribes and this rift among rivals was exploited by unscrupulous dealers who used an enemy tribe to hunt and trap the precious wild animals. The fenceless sanctuary, the size of Belgium, was unprotectable. By 2007, only 65 oryx were left, including just four females. The future of the species might now lie in the hands of more structured wildlife programs in Saudi Arabia which take into account the needs and sensibilities of local people.
In a piece written in 2018, “deep in the forests of oak and pine that cloak the hills of northern Jordan,” we meet an unusual architect Ammar Khammash. Khammash declares “Architecture is a sin. I don’t want to be visible and I don’t want my buildings to be visible.” Teller has taken us to the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, designed by Khammash. It sounds like an extraordinary endeavor – “During this two-year, $3.9-million construction project in dense woodland, not a single tree was felled.” Khammash believes in “aural architecture” – “Every time I see light on geological formations, I hear music – it’s like a waterfall hitting rocks, and the light is playing a sound.” His dream is to teach an architecture course for the blind, to force architects to use their ears and not base their work on sight.
THE TITLE, “Quite Alone,” comes from a quote by Freya Stark in Baghdad Sketches in 1937: “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”
The collection helps us meet many people in their home environments, often over a shared meal. “In other countries, food is a motivation for interaction. In the Arab world, hospitality is the motivation and food simply the expression,” Teller determines, writing from Qatar in 2014.
Here we meet those trying to protect a special, intangible cultural heritage under the auspices of the Qatar National Library – oral history. These aren’t the stories of  Aladdin and Sinbad or others taken from One Thousand and One Nights, but the local stories that every family passed down from generation to generation.
Throughout the collection, most of those Teller talks to express a note of hope for the future. Not so the Libyan whom Teller meets in Jordan in 2012. The young man is living in a hotel at the Jordanians’ expense amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring. He doesn’t want to go back to the “good, old days” under Gaddafi: “With pathos, and some despair, he added: ‘I want to keep on fighting. I just don’t know who.’” I thoroughly enjoyed the book which offered a fresh look at countries I have visited – Egypt, Jordan, and Oman – as well as those I have never seen for myself. Teller makes up for the lack of photos by using his writing skills to paint pictures for the readers. But, and it’s a large “but,” there is one area, very close to home for me, where I felt Teller failed and let his agenda guide him.
The only picture is the cover photo which he took of Wadi Qelt, which he labels as being in “Palestine.” “Palestine” for the purposes of this collection refers to the West Bank, including areas like Wadi Qelt in the Judean Desert, under Israeli control.
His preference for the Palestinian narrative over Israeli history suffuses the work, sometimes subtly and sometimes more openly.
Looking at a wall painting in a tomb in his opening piece on Egypt, for example, Teller writes: “Around 1890 BCE, it seems, a caravan from Canaan – that is, Palestine – visited the pharaoh, bringing gifts.” Every reader will know of ancient Canaan. The Palestine comment is a gratuitous mention. The Israelite patriarchs who traveled to ancient Egypt in the 17th century BCE, for example, lived thousands of years before today’s connotation of “Palestinian” came into use.
In 2012, Teller wrote twin travel pieces – one dedicated to “Palestine” and the other ostensibly dedicated to Israel, where he admits “Armageddon was delightful. It just made me cross with frustration.
“That’s Israel all over – visually stunning, but preloaded with so much baggage the simplest excursion takes on epic profundity.”
I decided to jettison Teller’s evident emotional baggage when it comes to Israel and just enjoy the rest of the trip around the region.■
Quite Alone: Journalism from the Middle East 2008-2019
Matthew Teller
Independently published, 2020
Available on Amazon
$11.73; 235 pages