He was an appalling man, and the purpose of his journey was disgraceful: to penetrate the two holiest cities in the Islamic world. But Sir Richard Burton's Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (Dover paperbacks), published in 1856, is, for me, the best and most riveting book of travel and adventure I have ever read. Burton's style is superbly vigorous and funny, whether he is fighting off a group of mutineers and pirates, dosing the locals with his own patent medicines, or getting up the nose of some colonial Englishman by brushing against him disguised in the dirty robes of a street Arab and making him curse. (Burton: "Well, damn it, Hawkins, that's a nice way to welcome a fellow after two years' absence." Hawkins: "God, it's Ruffian Dick!") Even at the most dangerous moments, as at the holiest place in Mecca, his witty self-irony never deserts him: "I will not deny that, looking at the windowless walls, the officials at the door, and the crowd of excited fanatics below - and the place death, considering who I was - my feelings were of the trapped- rat description." It's as enjoyable as it is thoroughly reprehensible.
John Simpson's 'The Wars against Saddam' is published by MacmillanReuse content