While the blank spaces on the maps have long since been filled in, the psychological barriers walling off regions of the world where Westerners dare not tread are as tall as ever. Here, a “multimedia backpack journalist” explores some of them.
Levinson, fresh out of college, with fortuitously ambiguous ethnic features and something of a talent for languages, pushed the bounds of his comfort zone to encompass Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and other Muslim-majority places. Travel writers have done this before—for every breezy account of summer in Spain, there’s a breathless dispatch from a leaky motorboat on the Congo—but Levinson manages to establish his own voice admirably, with an endearing mixture of ironic self-awareness, incisive sociological analysis, and simple humor. When the author, a fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale, arrived in the United Arab Emirates, he struggled to get his bearings: “The chord changes of the country, the cultural-religious-historical roots that still hold sway are hard to find, and so I felt like we were just skimming the surface, ready to drift off into nothingness.” But as he ventured further afield to locales ever further “along the axis of perceived terror,” that sense of cultural displacement became an opening through which he was able to glimpse a shared humanity. Using humor to connect with the locals, as with his readers, he makes pithy observations at once earnest and ironic, eventually asking, “was I so biased that I cherry-picked the memories I wanted to have? So committed to contesting the darkness that all I saw was light?” The author’s linguistic riffs are a highlight and more insightful than the norm for travel writing. Of Arabic’s most popular word, he writes, “inshallah carries no judgement of probability. It is weighted only toward what you believe….The way you feel in the moment between inshallah and conscious thought—that is your default setting on the spectrum from optimism to despair.”
While Karachi or Aleppo may not be next year’s hot vacation destinations, Levinson proves there’s ample reason to go.