TRAVEL MEM­OIR

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

Once Upon a Time in Beirut: A Jour­ney to the Heart of the Mid­dle East Catherine Tay­lor (Ban­tam Books, $24.95) THIS elo­quent and in­sight­ful book is as much a travelogue as a jour­nal­is­tic mem­oir. Whether in­ter­view­ing Mus­lim women box­ers or in­ter­ro­gat­ing a crony of Osama bin Laden, Tay­lor skil­fully melds hu­man-scale ob­ser­va­tions with the big­ger po­lit­i­cal pic­ture. She con­veys a strong sense of place through the vivid roll­call of char­ac­ters she meets, yet she also gives an em­i­nently read­able ac­count of the end­less fac­tions-within-fac­tions that char­ac­terise Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics, and the way big­ger pow­ers have made Le­banon their hap­less play­thing. Tay­lor ar­rived in Beirut with her hus­band, also a jour­nal­ist, in 2001. De­spite un­der­tak­ing risky as­sign­ments (she cov­ered the early phase of the Iraq war) and wit­ness­ing grue­some events, Tay­lor, for­merly a jour­nal­ist with TheAus­tralian , falls heav­ily for the city once known as the Paris of the Mid­dle East: in­deed, her so­cial life seems a dizzy­ing round of ritzy bars, cafes, restau­rants and week­ends away. She stayed in the strangely ex­u­ber­ant, bat­tle-scarred city for four years, giv­ing birth to her first child there in 2004. Tay­lor brings an in­tel­li­gent com­pas­sion to sub­jects rang­ing from Beirut’s im­a­geob­sessed elite to the in­doc­tri­nated wi­d­ows of sui­cide bombers. While she glosses over the frus­tra­tions and mun­dane­ness of life as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, her book goes be­yond stereo­types of the Mid­dle East, to show what life is like for those who live with the threat of sud­den, vi­o­lent death. Rose­mary Neill

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