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Books Of The Week

The Last of the Bedu

(Penguin, pounds 8.99 paperback) by Michael Asher.

It is curious how Britain seems to throw up at least one dedicated Arabist every generation - someone decidedly more at home on a camel and wearing long robes than riding the Clapham omnibus. After the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, we all thought that Thesiger had dealt with "the last of the Bedu". But no: Michael Asher, the latest of this distinguished breed, has spent months riding with the bedu (in the 1990s!) across deserts from Egypt to the Yemen.

The bedu I have known struck me as sad people, defeated by history, carrying their camels in the backs of Toyota pickups. But Asher's intrepid explorations throw up evidence that there is life in the old ways yet. And despite the title of this book, it is hard to imagine that there will not still be British gentlemen writing about "the last of the Bedu" in the 21st century.

In Light of India

(Harvill Press, pounds 9.99) by Octavio Paz.

Octavio Paz, poet and Nobel Prize winner, has been visiting India since 1951, the years immediately after independence from Britain. This little book is not a memoir nor a travelogue, but a series of lyrical essays on the subject of India, ranging from history, to art, to modern politics. Philosophical, personal and evocative by turn, these are no more than the monstrously erudite ramblings of a man in the twilight of his years - but insightful and entertaining ramblings for all that.

Cleopatra's Wedding Present (Duckworth, pounds 16.95, hardback) by Robert Tewdwr-Moss.

Hardly anyone will read this Syrian travelogue without being aware of the tragic fact that its author died on the day he finished writing it. But quite apart from the inevitable poignancy, this is a gripping, hard- edged, and highly entertaining travelogue, borne up by a journalist's eye for stories and a traveller's love of the random experience. Tewdwr- Moss rushes from character to character in search of stories from this secretive land like a latter-day Bruce Chatwin. Fascinating encounters jump out from every page, not least the author's own love for a Palestinian ex-commando called Jihad.

French Toast (Anglophone SA, pounds 7.99) by Harriet Welty Rochefort.

This book, written by an American, is supposed to teach us about life in France. The fascinating thing is that it tells us far more about life in America.