[18 September 2007]
A book exploring some of the world’s most war-torn hellholes with a self-important endorsement from Bono on the back cover does not promise to be a barrel of laughs. Curiously enough, that’s exactly what Andrew Mueller’s I Wouldn’t Start From Here is. Despite including extensive coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the independence aspirations of such obscure groups as the Southern Cameroonians and the Abkhazians, this is a truly funny book. In a hurt-yourself kind of way.
Andrew Mueller’s background is in music journalism and this experience shines through in the irreverence with which he treats the most serious of topics. Foreign correspondents and long-time travel writers often assume a lofty detachment and a ponderous prose style. Mueller does neither—he brings to his material the mixture of rage and earthy irony that is the mark of a great satirist. And while he’s friends with Bono, he clearly recognises that the U2 frontman-cum-rent-a-quote is a bit of a twat.
There are some good reasons for treating topics such as genocide with appropriate gravity. But equally, Mueller’s wry observations are never superior or smug—they reflect his genuine bafflement that people persist with violent and often idiotic actions despite their proven track-record of failure. And he seems to be motivated by a strong affection for people in general and struggling people in particular. His love for groups that retain a quirky dignity in the face of oppression is apparent throughout.
Mueller is at his most reasonable and compassionate when he seeks to answer why some societies disintegrate while others prosper, even from similar starting points. A common response from both commentators and the general populace is that some groups and cultures and inherently opposed to civilisation and peace. That is, they could not be peaceful and prosperous if they tried.
While it may sometimes appear that way to the superficial observer, this perspective is nothing more than racial stereotyping. Mueller effectively challenges the validity of the stereotypes by comparing similar ethnic groups in different environments: the Albanians in Albania and in Kosovo and the Jews and Arabs in Tunisia and Palestine. By showing that the same group can live in peace in one environment (Albania and Tunisia) and not another, Mueller demonstrates the importance of external factors.
Mueller’s case studies suggest that once a society has passed a certain point of disruption and unrest, the scene is set for the crazies and lunatics to assume control. While politicians are of questionable repute in most countries, the power vacuum of failed states attracts ‘leaders’ that would be rightly ignored or imprisoned in more peaceful countries. The loudest voices are rarely the sanest.
More optimistically-speaking, some countries have demonstrated the difference that peaceful protest and dignified leadership can bring. The 21st century multicoloured revolutions in the former Soviet bloc may be imperfect but represent a positive trend in regime change.
Unfortunately, Mueller is unable to present a clear solution for the dozens of states where disorder and chaos remain. This is no fault of his—wiser heads have turned up a big blank and the last thing the world needs is another simplistic plea for peace, love and understanding. Mueller sees these things as self-evident goods and simply wishes some people would see things the same way.
So I Wouldn’t Start From Here is not a How-To manual for global democracy and it never purports to be. It is a reality check and a guard against the oversimplification and dehumanisation of much international reporting and analysis. Mueller presents the reader with real people—the good (though flawed), the bad and the bizarre. The reader can then decide how to respond, being a little bit wiser as to the truth of the situation and with a little more empathy.
The most impressive fact about Mueller’s experiences is his sheer disregard for personal safety. In some cases he can plead ignorance—his trip to Israel at the dawn of the latest intifada was intended to be a tale of a country awakening to peace. Other times, he should have known better—a visit to West Africa to meet with a banned secessionist movement was particularly ill-advised. Nevertheless, Mueller manages to muddle through perilous situations in the manner peculiar to travel writers everywhere. Perhaps it’s a case of natural selection—the unlucky journalists don’t live to write books.
It’s not really a travel book in the traditional sense. Most are destinations that will earn you strange looks from your travel agent and possible investigation by your local intelligence agencies. Your partner will in all likelihood not accompany you. Mueller certainly makes no effort to sell these locales as attractive destinations—he learnt his lesson in Jerusalem seven years ago. Simply put, he goes so you don’t have to.
The anti-travel book is nothing new and there are several titles circulating at the moment. But few are as rewarding, thought-provoking and ludicrously funny as I Wouldn’t Start From Here.