It was a pity I read this book. I used to like Dalrymple. But this book turned out to be yet another account of a White man on a daring trip across the world in dangerous lands from whence it is next to impossible to come out alive, all while writing encouragingly of every stereotype the Whites have ever come up with of every other race apart from themselves. Anyone who is not a British is either dangerous, “stupid”, uncouth, imbecilic, unfriendly and hostile or subservient to the White man in a servile way. In way too many passages, Dalrymple speaks less like a historian and more like an inflated Cambridge spoiled brat and the pages are full of his whining.
The beginning of his journey reveals him as one whose ego cannot seem to accept the fact that the Byzantines lost and the Ottomans won in the years past. There is not a single positive word I have come across written of the Ottomans or of the Turks in general. Any positive comment that the reader comes across is only when Dalrymple has run out of something negative to say, and even that is immediately followed by a passage with disparaging humour that negates what came previously. Dalrymple’s words stink of the awareness of their wretched losses in the past. His patronising tone does not help to conceal his thinly veiled racism and antagonism towards other cultures. Even his Islamophobia shines across in this telling exchange:
‘”You like Islam?”
“I like many Muslims, I replied.’ (pg. 236)
His humour is one of the worst I have come across. Eager to be a success, Dalrymple’s attempts to make people laugh comprise of mining the Englishman’s guidebook to stereotyping the rest of the world. He makes fun of people’s inabilities to speak English, often translating what they speak in their native tongues into broken and incorrect English in order to elicit cheap laughs from his colonial audience. A lot of the conversations seem made up as they seem very convenient to Dalrymple’s cause of sounding witty. I do not know if it is an attempt on his part to come across as a “critical scholar of Cambridge” but if it is so, it falls flat on its face, only highlighting his racist mindset. There is an air of self-aggrandisement in every page and his spoilt White-boy privilege reeks from every word.
Dalrymple does not even spare his female travel companions. His portrayal of Laura and Louisa reads like caricature, which is true of his representation of practically everyone he meets on the way as well. While he subtly puts across messages like how European girls are the only girls worth calling beautiful etc. and equating fairness with European skin, he also does not attempt to hide his innate sexism. Laura, his travel companion in the first half of the journey is painted as a tough, domineering and indestructible woman while Louisa, who accompanies him in the second half, is the polar opposite of being “beautiful, delicate and fragrant” (his words not mine). He is also genuinely surprised to find Laura reading Mills and Boon at one stage of their journey and seems incapable of reconciling the fact that someone as tough as Laura could be capable of having healthy sexual desires as well, and that she would choose to read erotica out in the open rather than the obviously intellectually superior Fall of Constantinople which he makes a point of boasting before changing the topic. The exchanges with the natives are almost all carried out by Dalrymple with Laura and Louisa sometimes chipping in to not let the reader forget about their existence. I pity those poor, intelligent women who had to suffer William Dalrymple’s company for such a long, overland journey.
I am willing to excuse him on the grounds that he was merely 20 years old when he wrote this book. Still, that is not excuse enough as that is old enough to know the difference between good humour and outright disrespect of other cultures. I also applaud his determination in following this journey out to the end, and for laying the ground and following up with an original idea. Credits where credits due: following Marco Polo’s footsteps across the Silk Road is, after all, quite a feat and I give it an extra star only because of his excellent command over the turns of the English language. I only wish this journey was attempted by someone who would show more respect to the cultures and peoples that are encountered in this journey. I wonder, sometimes, if a person were to write a travel book about the West in an equally disparaging and patronising manner, would it get published?
At best, this book is comical in its approach. It is certainly not deserving of the label of a serious travel book.