Dear fellow travellers
Perhaps you, like us, were enthralled by the tales from Damascus as Amina Arraf blogged about her adventures and misadventures in the Syrian capital. Amina has of course now been exposed as an American hoaxer with a very fine imagination and a gift for writing fiction. But he probably knows as little about lesbian life in Damascus as we do. The world's media will dissect the Amina affair, and for a while it will make us all a little more attentive to sources. Can this or that blogger be trusted? Or, for that matter, this or that travel writer?
The Amina affair recalls an earlier episode when a writer assumed a false identity and created fictitious accounts of Damascus. Take this quote from Mandeville's Travels, a text that acquired enormous popularity in late mediaeval Europe:
"Beside Damascus is the Mount Seir. In that city of Damascus there is great plenty of wells. And within the city and without be many fair gardens and of diverse fruits. None other city is not like in comparison to it of fair gardens, and of fair disports. The city is great and full of people, and well walled with double walls."
We learn from Mandeville's Travels that the text's purported author is an Englishman, one Sir John Mandeville, born in St Albans. In some editions of Mandeville's Travels, a postscript reveals how the author took his manuscript to Rome to secure the imprimatur of the pope: "And so my book is affirmed and proved by our Holy Father," boasted the author. Chutzpah, for here's the rub. There never was a John Mandeville, just as there was never an Amina Arraf.
Critics still argue who actually wrote Mandeville's Travels, but of one thing they are sure. The author, whoever he was and whatever his intent, had almost certainly never been to Damascus, nor indeed to most of the other places described in Mandeville's Travels. One of the most popular vernacular texts of mediaeval Europe, and a book acclaimed as an important piece of early travel writing, was a gigantic hoax.
Fact or fiction?
Which makes us wonder about quite where the boundaries between fact and fiction lie in travel writing. Amina gave every impression of documenting the everyday reality of Damascus life in her blog, and we probably would not have read her words if we had realised they were being penned by a middle-aged American living in Edinburgh. We were fooled. Just as Christopher Columbus gave more credence to Mandeville than the author properly deserved.
Browsing our own bookshelves, we realise that some of the travel writing we most admire is actually fiction. Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and Jan Morris' Hav spring to mind. Morris' accounts of visits to the fictional city-state of Hav are very fine prose in the best traditions of English travel writing.
Let's face it. The rigorous travel narratives of nineteenth-century explorers were often deadly boring, and prose that veers to the sentimental or even novelistic can be immensely more entertaining. Imaginary voyages are sometimes more appealing than real ones. No-one reads Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey expecting a documentary account of a real voyage, any more than we turn to Homer's Odyssey to plan our upcoming journey to the Land of the Sirens.
That was where Amina went one step too far. She invited us to believe she was in Damascus when she wasn't. Sir John Mandeville pulled off the Damascus trick and he wasn't unmasked till long after his death. Things are tougher nowadays.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)