Baghdad Without a Map

I finally read Baghdad Without a Map, by Pulitzer prize winning writer Tony Horwitz.

The foreign correspondent for Wall Street journal and The New Yorker writer has a keen sense of humor. His account of years spent collecting stories in the middle east reminds me of similar hilarious descriptions in books like Bad Lands, by Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler, and The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J Maarten Troost.

Whether Horwitz intended this or not, the main message of his story for me was that all people are accidents of fate- that it’s pretty random where we ended up being born and living our lives. We could easily have been born as someone else in a different geographic location with corresponding social limitations or freedoms. The various comedic episodes in his book actually had a serious effect on me– it really made me appreciate the various freedoms and conveniences I take for granted:

1) I can wear whatever I want.

Horwitz’s descriptions of Iran focus on women’s fashion:

“One female journalist had her nail polish rubbed off at the airport.”

One episode focuses on a woman being “racy” in a cafe- sporting a floral head scarf rather than brown or black, letting the ankles of her tight jeans show on top of new red Reeboks!

The descriptions of women having to cover up culminates in his description of an Iranian house party in the suburbs where the women just “cut loose.”

“The women, […] wore tight, frilly skirts, none of which reached as far as the knee. Some added black lace stockings and spike hells- the sort of vampish, costumey getup a sophomore might have worn to a campus disco at a Midwestern campus, circa 1975 Farrah Fawcett hairdos and blood-red lipstick completed the effect.”

Such accoutrement is reserved for “behind closed doors.”

2) I think airplanes are reasonably safe:

For me, the most hilarious episode in Horwitz’s book is when he describes take-off procedures on Egypt Air:

“Most Middle East stewardesses make quick work of the safety demonstration, or dispense with it altogether. Given the condition of the ‘safety features,’ this is understandable. As the plane rattles down the runway, luggage compartments fly open, tables pop out and stuffed toy camels bounce down the aisle. The only thing that never jars loose is the oxygen mask, ripped out years ago for emergency use as diaper or ripped out years ago when the cabin last depressurized somewhere over the desert. Just before takeoff, the NO SMOKING sign flicks on, which is the signal for passengers on both sides of you to instantly light up. Ninety percent of Arab males smoke, always on airplanes and particularly during takeoff. Nicotine helps ease tension if you’ve you’ve never flown before, and particularly if you have.”

3) No one listens in on my phone conversations…?

I suppose number three here is up for debate. A lot of Americans believe we are constantly under surveillance, but I can’t think of any glaring examples quite like this one in Horwitz’s book:

In the portion about Iraq:

“There were genies inside every telephone and telex. A United Nations worker from Ethiopia told of phoning a colleague in New York and switching, mid-sentence, from English to his native Amharic. A voice quickly cut in, instructing him to ‘please continue in a language we can understand.'”

Do yourself a favor and read this insanely funny book.

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One Comment on “Baghdad Without a Map”

  1. annetbell August 25, 2013 at 11:51 #

    Good to laugh! Namaste. . .Anne

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