Travel Themes in Books & Movies

People of the the Book, Geraldine Brooks recent novel has time, geographic, and spiritual or psychological travel themes.  These are all part of the premise of the book, the Australian book conservator analyzing the minuscule debris in the Sarajevo Haggadah to tell the storyof the book’s creation, ownership and rescuers over five hundred years.  How and why the book was preserved over the centuries is a fascinating story in itself. So historical fiction, Brooks’ genre, provides time travel in the sense that the story works backward from the present to the Spanish Inquisition. The story of that horrible era Brooks uses as an ironic reason for the creation of the Haggadah. In each episode of the “People of the Book” after that Brooks describes the preservation as a heroic act performed by a person who understood the intrinsic value of a unique work or religious art.  In the process of preserving the book from the flames of of Inquisitors and genocidal militants,the narrative incorporates the idea of preserving a religion and culture.  The Haggadah is aways more than just artifact. 
   On the mundane level, People of the Book is a travel book of sorts, including settings from the Australian outback, to Sarajevo, London, Boston and many points in between, the jet-setting of scholars to conferences and research sites. 
     Married to a Bedouin,Marguerite van Geldermalsen’s story of marrying a Bedouin souvenir-seller in Petra, Jordan and living and rearing three children in a cave there is a really good read. The author was a twenty-two-year old nurse from New Zealand when she met and fell in love with Mohammed in the 1970s. It’s a sweet love story told by a person whose ability both to transcend and embrace cultural differences is remarkable. Petra has been named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, a well-deserved honor, and Marguerite’s account of life there before the Bedouins were moved out to modern housing in order to develop its tourisitic value adds a human dimension to this wondrous site.  She drops a few hints about the behind-the-scenes souvenir industry, but far more compelling are her descriptions of day-to-day life among a traditional people.  Though the hardships of daily life often seem overwhelming to the reader, Marguerite’s affectionate response to the cultural habits, family visits, weddings, and, of course toward her husband and children linger in the imagination. Her oldest son, college-educated in New Zealand, was selling autographed copies of Married to a Bedouin, along with beautiful silver jewelry in Petra in November 2007.  He joked that Oprah hasn’t yet picked up the book.  I think she should.
     One reason I went to see Charlie Wilson’s War was that I have just finished reading Three Cups of Teaabout Greg Mortenson’s humanitarian work in Pakistan and Afghanistan and hoped to see some cinematic background for that story, maybe some big-screen images of the Karakoram, but the “live” scenes of Pakistan and Afghanistan were filmed in Morocco.  Instead, there is some vintage Dan Rather footage that reminds the viewer how little has changed. The enemies are different but the carnage and degradation of life rage on.  The last line of the movie actually serves as the rationale for Mortenson’s work: Charlie Wilson revved up the covert war budget from $5 million to $1 billion that enabled the Afghanis to defeat the Soviet Union, but that done and the country in ruins, U.S. senators tell Charlie that the American taxpayer “doesn’t give a fuck about schools in Afghanistan.”  They refuse to appropriate a million dollars for schools or any reconstruction.  It’s a fast-paced movie with lots of entertaining shifty, seedy, colorful characters who have an occasional flash of other-directed moral sensibility. Tom Hanks is the Ladykillers professor dressed up as a congressman from Texas. But the travel theme serves to show Charlie Wilson  redeemed: he learns about the Other as a sea of hungry, displaced, victimized people and wants to help them.  He just doesn’t know how to complete the job.

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