Interview with Tom Chesshyre

17/03/2014 09:26

Written by Tom Chesshyre

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, war reporters rushed to publish accounts of the uprising. Tom Chesshyre took a different approach – he jumped on a plane and became the first to return to the region as a tourist. The result is the fascinating, street-level tale of a lay traveller's journey through lands fresh from revolution told in his book A Tourist in the Arab Spring

In your book, A Tourist in the Arab Spring, you visit Tunisia, Egypt and Libya one year after massive upheaval in the region. What prompted you to go in the first place?

I was sitting at home on October 20, 2011, when news came through of Gaddafi's capture (and horrific death). I'd been amazed by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which had happened so quickly, with the internet spreading word of the uprisings and proving key to their success. It just seemed like such a remarkable time, on a par with an event such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. The dictators were tumbling, and with Gaddafi gone a route had opened up across North Africa. Would this be the moment democracy came to the region? It seemed a time of great hope... I bought a cheap flight to Tunis and set forth. 

Did you plan to write a book or did that come later as you were travelling?

Yes, I did plan to write a book. I wanted to capture a period of great optimism, as well as trepidation. I also wanted to see the countries with my own eyes, rather than through the lens of a news camera. With travel so simple to organise online these days, I thought: why not?

What single thing surprised you the most about the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

The rapid rise to prominence of Islamic parties with fundamentalist tendencies, while the more liberal folk who planned the revolutions were quickly marginalised. Perhaps I was naive not to have realised this would happen so fast.

Did you encounter much hostility, being a white English citizen?

For the most part, I was welcomed and treated with great openness. However, from time to time I would sense hostility. In Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt I was accused by a man in a street gang of being of Israeli spy. In Tunisia a petrol smuggler waved his fists and shouted insults at me (at least I took them to be insults) for getting in his way while driving. In Benghazi, members of a brigade at a checkpoint temporarily detained me for questioning, maintaining an aggressive attitude - the most worrying moment of my journey. 

Were you invited into the homes of people you met along the way?

Yes, I was - most memorably in Qasr al-Haj, a small town in the Nafusa mountains in Libya, where I joined a Berber family for tea in their small house. Down a dusty alley, we entered a narrow doorway in a dirty wall and came to a little oasis of orange cushions in a cool room. We sat on the floor and spent what seemed like hours discussing Gaddafi and his legacy. They had never dared to talk to a Westerner so openly before. There was a strong sense of catharsis.

You were often the only "tourist" for example, in Tunisia, where your travels began. Were you ever fearful for your safety? Did you wish you had a bodyguard? 

I never felt as though I needed a bodyguard, though while I was in Libya I did hire a driver - I would have struggled to get about without him. As I mentioned, there was a terrifying moment in Benghazi when I feared I was being abducted. This was several months before the horrific attack on the American diplomats in which Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Lubya, was killed. Before leaving, I had taken advice from experts running adventure travel companies, and they had said 'go but be very careful'. I was extremely cautious and did not take unnecessary chances. I always adopted a policy of moving quickly - not spending a great deal of time in any one spot, drawing attention to myself. I felt safe in Tunisia and Egypt (though I was wary in Cairo). Libya was the most risky country and has become even more so now. I would not repeat the journey I took for the book; I think it's probably too dangerous. In a sense I went during a golden period after the revolutions, when hope was still in the air, before in-fighting between factions began. 

Why did you start in Tunisia?

Tunisia was where the Arab Spring revolutions began. When a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against ill treatment by corrupt local officials in the little-visited Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, pictures were caught by a mobile phone camera. They spread over the internet and on TV channels. Within a month, President Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, had fled Tunisia. 

What was the worst thing that happened to you while travelling?

Being temporarily abducted in Benghazi.

... and the best?

Meeting so many characters along the way. Watching the sunrise from the top of Mount Sinai at the end of the journey was spectaular. 

Do you think you would have learned as much as you did if you had not spoken French?

In Tunisia my very rusty French was helpful, but it's amazing how far you can go with English just about anywhere these days.

What are your thoughts on the aftermath of the upheavals? Did you have a sense of how things might turn out? Were you right?

By the end of the travel across Tunisia, Libya and Egypt - a distance of about 1,500 miles - I had my doubts that the liberal-leaning campaigners behind the revolutions would come out on top. Mosques are incredibly powerful in the countries and when it comes to an election, advice given by the mam is taken very seriously. So it seemed evident that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood woud fill the power vacuum of the dictators. There was still great hope that there could be a Turkish-style of rule in the Islamic countries. Many people I talked to hoped for that. They wanted to taste the luxuries and feedoms of the West, but needed a model with an Islamic setting. Turkey was mentioned time and again. I think I was right to be dubious about the future. I hope the book gets across this feeling of frustration mixed with aspiration - the street level reality of life in the countries. 


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