Thursday, 1 November 2007

Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand, our book group choice for last month, October, is Frank Gardner's account of his time as a correspondent in the Middle East and his subsequent injuries after being gunned down by terrorists.

Gardner read Arabic and Islamic Studies at university and fell in love with the landscape and peoples of the Middle East during visits there. After a less than enjoyable spell as a banker he finally plucked up the courage to become a lowly paid journalist in order to live in and visit the lands he loved.

There are primarily two interesting facets to the book: firstly, Garner gives a fascinating and knowledgeable insight into the Islamic world, including that of such terrorist groups as al-Qaeda. His story is a personal one but politics are very much part of it: the differences and complexities of the tribes and cultures are very apparent.

Secondly, Gardner's strength of character (active, determined, intrepid and courageous) shines through: it was this that fuelled his second career and also what brought him through the disability he suffered. Other more negative characteristics were what possibly got him into the fix: stubborn, arrogant, single-minded and competitive.

He appears marvellously and commendably lacking in bitterness although there is still disbelief that he, an Arab lover and admirer, should suffer such terrible injuries in their country and at their hands. It seems that the attack finally made him realise that the Arab in his own land is not always an honourable being: he certainly observes that the fundamentalist terrorist is not a true follower of Islam.

Gardner is clearly a talented journalist with a wealth of knowledge of the Arab world but what he is not is a writer: on the whole the text is plodding, stuffed with too many details and the jokes are forced. It was almost impossible to keep track of characters, countries and creed and every one of the group was thankful that a map was included for reference.

However, when Gardner stays for weeks in the tents of a Bedu tribe – and he desists from bombarding us with his achievements and contacts – his writing suddenly soars. His description of the landscape and the people becomes more lyrical and the reader really gets a feel for the place and understands what it is that he loves about it all.

I admire the manner in which Gardner never tried to instil his own culture or ideas on the people he met with but wholeheartedly embraced their way of life whether it was to sleep in a rug on the floor, to eat at their communal meal or respect their religious belief.

Everyone in the book group found Blood & Sand interesting: we all learnt a great deal (when we concentrated) about the Middle East and recent events there. Much of it was fascinating but not everyone finished the book – due to the plethora of facts or the plodding.

But it did cause as all to think because discussion of the book turned into political discussion generally: the Iraq war, the fate of the Palestinians, the role of the US, Israel, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, the Taliban and the role – or lack of power – of women in the Islamic world. Of course, left to us – a roomful of women – we could have that whole lot sorted in a matter of months.

We agreed that Blood & Sand (originally Life, Blood & Sand in the hardback version) had probably started as a form of therapy for Gardner and every one of us was full of admiration for a man that has so spectacularly and successfully come to terms with his changed circumstances. Would we read it again? No, but we might give it to a husband, brother or son – they seem to like facts and Blood & Sand is a very macho title.


Book Note: for those in love with the Middle East the definitive book must surely be TE Lawrence's, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). Now there was another singular man and one who's commitment and love of the Middle East shines through all his writing. It was my grandfather's favourite book but I have to admit I've never finished it. Better to start with Robert Graves biography of Lawrence, Lawrence and the Arabs (1934), on which the film ´Lawrence of Arabia´was based, one of my Best Beloved´s favourites.

1 comment:

Carla said...

I share your Best Beloved's fondness for the film Lawrence of Arabia. Whenever it comes on, I clear the decks and watch it again.