In this sordid age of journalistic wickedness when those of that treasured profession have decided against their ancient sacred trust of informing, of shining beautiful white light into the darkened corners of our tired world, sometimes nevertheless you come across a champion. Like a knight in shining armor, following an olden code driven onward by honor and dutybound to carry out his chosen burden in good faith; holding his cherished joy in an open hand lest he should clutch it in rage and impunity and destroy it, for it is delicate and fragile, he seeks to tell a story. A minstrel; a griot; a bard.
I find Robert Kaplan’s writing to be like this. He is a journalist from a bygone era, full of curiosity and compassion and insight when nowadays all we have is shallow hubris and hate propping up the sad enraged opinions of the uninformed informers. His works are long; as long as the journeys he undergoes to attempt to get to the heart of the issue, to understand it in order to then explain it to those of us who cannot take the time necessary to understand it ourselves. He journeys by bus, not the first class tickets and executive lounges that have become the norm these days by those who nevertheless wish to be our guides. He traverses countries through lost land-borders, like the powerless are forced to. He stays in the ratty hotels of provincial capitals; because it is there where the merchants and miscreants stay, those who govern the world away from the shiny buildings in the capital wherein rest the television studios with their painted pundits. He does the hard work, for those of us who would love to but cannot find the time – the months and months of travel and the dozens of painstaking interviews that the job demands, the compost from which grows understanding.
I picked up a copy of “Eastward to Tartary” while I was on a quick vacation in Dubai with my family. My little boy was searching out a copy of “Dog Man” (of which I will not be writing a review – though I was immensely pleased to go into a bookstore for my tiny lad to hunt down a book; though the mark was something less than literature, I’ll take it!); and I took the opportunity for myself. I was actually looking for “Revenge of Geography”; but that will have to wait, for “Eastward” is about the Caucuses and Balkans and Syria and Turkey – written twenty years ago at a time of great flux and turmoil (a turmoil which, ironically or perhaps not, has only gotten worse).
I have been spending significant time myself in the Caucuses recently – though without the opportunity and platform to turn my own wanderings into anything, at least not yet. And I wanted to read what Kaplan had to say about the place. I was not to be disappointed – in true Kaplan fashion he outlines a 4000 mile trek through the south-eastern edges of Europe; going farther and farther from Europe and Turkey to end up in the bizarre backwater of Turkmenistan. There are so many places, far at the edge of empire yet with a resonance all their own – that echo with a past of greatness and significance though today the names no longer fall freely from the lips of merchants and mercenaries and diplomats. Places we should nevertheless consider.
What I always take from Kaplan’s writing – and “Eastward” was no different – is the cyclical nature of history; of how places rise and fall and often rise again, usually in a different form, but returning to our imaginations after long at the inverse of epicenter. Places like Damascus; like Jaffa; like Jerusalem and Baku – Moscow, which always sees itself as one of the great guardians of Europe after Rome and Istanbul. Places which endure; and stories we must know if we are to divine what will happen in the future, and from whence we came. Modern journalists could take a page from the book of Kaplan’s life: rediscovering their curiosity they could deny the sirens call of arrogance and moderate themselves, perhaps even finding wisdom through so great a study which always – always – reminds us of how little we actually know about what we think we can control.
A quick aside; the one thing I did not like about “Eastward” was the perfunctory or perhaps postscript nature of Kaplan’s section on Armenia. Written as an epilogue, and focusing mostly on the genocide and the war with Azerbaijan, he does not do justice to the epic 2500 (at least) year story of Armenia; especially given the amazing fact that in each other section of the book – from great places such as Istanbul and Aleppo and Jerusalem to the lost ones like Ashkabat on the far side of the silent Caspian Sea – he describes the presence of Armenians and their impact on areas far from their gentle valley under their ancient mountain.
Maybe in his next book!