Travel literature is often regarded as boring and unvaried. Personal tales of “getting off the beaten path”, discovering the “inner journey”, finding romance on a moonlit night in Paris, or being rendered speechless by one of the many colossal icons across the globe have been overdone, and the small shelf allocated for travel literature in bookstores bears testament to its limited demand. With readers often slightly bewildered by a genre that offers an obscure mix of fiction and non-fiction and few fresh ideas to spark interest, travel literature seems to have been becoming a forgotten genre.
Thankfully, Pico Iyer offers a refreshing change amongst the underdogs with his enchanting tale The Khareef. This piece, from his collection of travel stories Sun After Dark, details Iyer’s 2001 trip to Oman. As he reflects on the Oman as it was, as it is, and later as it will come to be, Iyer illustrates a place far removed from the rest of the world, triggering colourful images of a magical, otherworldly and far away land, somewhat stuck in the past, but juxtaposed with snapshots of contemporary influences.
Those unfamiliar with the travel writing genre, may be unacquainted with the British born novelist, who in 1995 was named by the Utne Reader as “one of the 100 visionaries worldwide who could change your life”, next to the likes of Noam Chomsky and Václav Havel. A regular essayist for renowned Time magazine since 1986, Iyer has also made a name for himself contributing to prominent publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic and Harper’s. He is also the author of Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk and The Global Soul, to name a few.
With all this behind him, The Khareef doesn’t disappoint as a travel piece to outshine travel pieces. The word khareef refers to the south-western monsoon that passes through the southern tip of Arabia each year, and it is with this image that begins visions of a “heavy chill mist” falling over Oman with its veiled women, “only their mascara’ed eyes looking out”.
There is a distinct feeling of isolation highlighted through vast desert images, abandoned hotels and little to no connection or intimacy with any people or of the place itself. Little dialogue gives the impression that Iyer is simply observing and reporting what he sees rather than interacting or becoming a part of it. He describes a place somewhat resistant to receiving foreigners as its own, stuck in an odd limbo between past and present, yet ironically destined to continually and dramatically change and transform within the restrictions of its isolation. There is little magic in Oman, but Pico Iyer shares with his readers the enchantment that veils this far away place.
Without warning, readers are led on an unexpected path of deeply thoughtful explorations as Iyer begins his piece far from where it finally ends. Late night encounters with young boys and their guns “guarding their turf as in East L.A.”, black veiled women tapping away on their slow computers “linked to a world no one really believes in.” Curiously, his detached voice offers a distinct undertone of discontentment with Oman as Iyer passes through, observing but never engaging. He evokes the feeling that foreigners are from too different a world to ever truly belong there or understand it, and yet despite this, sanctions a deep appreciation for its uniqueness, antiquity and detached charm.
Iyer’s command for language is flawless. The words roll off your tongue like poetry, each line evoking an image that draws you further into the desert, carrying you along as if swept up in the khareef. In an interview with travel writer Rolf Potts, Iyer stated that the writing process for him involves trying “to catch the feelings — the sound, the smell, the tang, of a place” (cited in Potts n.d. ⁋10) Indeed, colourful images of the landscape, the sounds, the people, all contribute to a read which takes all the senses on a memorable ride.
The Khareef liberates itself from the more mundane in travel writing. In a rare moment, it succeeds in delivering a place both desolate and neglected, yet also alluring and irresistible. It is hard to say how exactly Iyer manages to make his readers both distance themselves further from Oman and at the same time yearn a closeness to it.
If you are looking for a travel story that strives valiantly to set itself aside from the rest, look to The Khareef. Let Iyer take you on a magical journey to a particular kind of cheerless hell that leaves you wanting more, without suffering the reality of it. And brace yourself for the ending. It will undoubtedly remind you that despite our absolute dislocation from Oman, it really isn’t that far away at all.