When the first violent images of the Arab Spring flashed across our television screens, most of us watched with interest, wished the demonstrators more or less success in their efforts, depending on our points of view, and then got on with our lives. Tom Chesshyre, on the other hand, decided to take a look from up close, travelling through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in the wake of revolt. This might come as no surprise – he is a journalist for the Times of London after all – but Chesshyre is not that sort of journalist. He is not a foreign correspondent. He writes, but he writes about travel: chatty books written from the point of view of the casual tourist. As he readily admits at the beginning of his latest book, “A Tourist in the Arab Spring,” he is no “veteran reporter with gung-ho tales from the front line” and has “no experience of the sound of bullets fired in anger.” He plans to visit the region not as foreign correspondent but as a “casual visitor with an open mind.” It is this readiness to admit that he is visiting the region as a tourist – not just out of his area of expertise but out of his comfort zone – that gives his book much of its charm.
Nonetheless, it is his desire to address the political roilings of the region, so he begins his voyage in Tunisia where the Arab Spring began. At Sidi Bouzid, in 2011, an unknown fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi drenched himself with paint thinner and set himself alight in protest at his ill treatment by corrupt local officials. Arriving in Sidi Bouzid, Chesshyre immediately establishes the modus operandi he will use throughout his journey. It is simple and personal. He navigates to the place where the crucial events occurred and starts talking to people. Some will talk to him and some will not. At times he is treated as a spy, and on one chilling occasion he is abducted by the local militia. The result however, is a series of snapshots of life in the aftermath of revolution that, while sometimes sad, is always frank, generally engaging, and often revealing. Travelling through Tunisia, Libya and finally Egypt, he meets smugglers, policemen, rebel soldiers and, in one memorable scene, a group of men engaged in the dangerous task of mining unused bullets.
As a journalist, Chesshyre is ever alert to the practical results of the political turmoil, and his sharp attentiveness to telling details is one of the book’s strengths. Much has been made of the importance of social media in the revolutions of 2011 and 2012, and in all three countries he is quick to notice the prevalence of graffiti written in English or of images without words at all, facilitating foreign media coverage and thus garnering international attention. And while he generally eschews broad political analysis, Chesshyre is astute in his efforts to point out how such small, individual details combine to reveal a larger pattern. Like any other tourist, he spends much of his time with guides and drivers, as well as eating in hotel restaurants. But in his case, he notices that he is always eating alone, the only diner in the place, with no one to talk to but the staff. One unfortunate consequence of the revolutions in all three countries has been the damage done to their economies through the reduction of the tourist trade.
By talking to ordinary people, Chesshyre gains a sense of what fueled the various revolutions and the differing circumstances of those who took part in them. In doing so, he also offers a picture of life post-revolution. It is not a carefully posed landscape, photographed from a distance: it is a messy, fractured close-up, but it is extremely vivid. It is clear, moreover, that events are still moving. If there is a common theme to his interlocutors’ comments, it is their belief that, especially in material terms, things are not much better than they were and that as a result, political events may move in a variety of directions. As events have shown, they were right in their predictions.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 67