“He who passes place and time lightly,
Doesn’t let place enslave him, or time waste him”
(From “The Beauty of the Passenger” by Lebanese poet Wadi’ Sa’dah)
These verses seem to best reflect the spirit of Saad al-Kersh’s latest book, “Al-Samawat al-Sab’a” (“The Seven Skies”).
“The Seven Skies” is an atypical piece of travel writing by a journalist and author who, unlike the pioneering discoverers of the past, ironically, fears traveling. In the book’s introductory chapter, Kersh expresses his fears, saying: “I don't know if my passport represents a document for traveling to another country or a way to receive an awaiting death behind the borders.” He cancelled his trip twice before finally flying to New Delhi. He was happy that he did so, he writes, although he couldn’t tell why.
But, perhaps this is what makes Kersh's travel literature so exciting. A common critique of the genre over the past few decades has revolved around one question: Why read a book that seeks to rediscover places that have been thoroughly documented and photographed millions of times?
Reading “The Seven Skies,” we aren’t seeing the world through the eyes of a man fascinated by all that might be different or exotic, but one taking on the more personal, human side of his various journeys.
“The Seven Skies,” which received the Ibn Battuta Award for Travel Literature in 2010, tells of Kersh’s journeys to Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Netherlands, India and Cairo; Kersh is from an Egyptian village which he does not disclose throughout the book.
In none of his stories would you find descriptions of places, people’s attire or local cuisine as is common in traditional travel literature. Kersh writes: “The world has become open and revealed; there’s nothing more left to discover. The West, over 200 years ago, strove to discover an imaginary East. But, now, all travelers could do is see the world through their own eyes, to discover and touch it with a vision that no one else shares. Man remains the only unknown continent that is rediscovered in every journey.”
“The Seven Skies” starts with Kersh’s journey to Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule and international sanctions. He sought to get a better understanding of the situation by speaking to the locals who were very cautious in their conversations in the beginning. He cites one incident when he was sitting with an Iraqi acquaintance in a hotel room, drinking, and asked: “How could you bear this man?” referring to Saddam.
To his surprise, the seemingly drunken Iraqi jumped out of his seat, asking him to refer to Saddam only as “Mr. President.”
But as he became friends with the people, they became more open with him, and provided him with insights on their life in Iraq. The same Iraqi acquaintance later compared their living conditions to slavery, and explained that the large statue of Saudi King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, decorating one of the capital's public squares, was meant to thank him for supporting Iraq during the Persian Gulf war in the 1980s.
Kersh painted a detailed picture of how Iraqis suffered from the sanctions; how car and taxi owners couldn’t obtain spare parts for their vehicles, how they were totally isolated from the outside world through a manipulative state media apparatus that talked of a world conspiracy against the Iraqi people, and how for fear of future food shortages, they would eat multiple meals a day, making it a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Flying to New Delhi, Kersh was amazed by the ability of the Indian population to coexist despite their different languages and religions. People have equal right of citizenship, he writes, and fears from a loss of identity do not exist. “In India everything is Indian, from cars to films,” he writes.
“Indian people are rooted in history [like Egyptians],” Kersh writes. “But their heritage is not a burden. They neither distance themselves from it, nor do they boast it. It is rather an important psychological reference that spares them relying on that of others, and allows them to focus on creative thinking for the future.”
Cairo acts as a backdrop throughout the book, to which Kersh often compares his encounters with local conditions. But, he doesn’t only compare it to Eastern countries. He includes his visit to the Netherlands in “The Seven Skies” and refers to the seminal texts of Edward Said in his comparison of East and West.
To Kersh, the key difference is the enforcement and respect for the law, including simple things like not using your car horn. He writes that the Netherlands has “that renewable spirit, a powerful one that gains its strength from the law or social contract which was approved by everyone, and to which everyone conforms willingly, with dignity that ensures their humanity away from censorship or fear from punishment.”
As Kersh, perhaps sometimes subconsciously, compares the places he visits to the Egyptian capital, his writing is often critical of the latter. And although “The Seven Skies” is a travelogue, it is also a book about Egypt.