Travel: Books of the week
Sunday 11 January 1998
Tibet has long been a Shangri-La for Western travellers, and it is with exaggerated romance that many authors choose to write about the place. Not so Dawa Norbu, who started life as a humble Tibetan peasant and moved on to become Associate Professor in Central Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nerhu University, New Delhi. His mission is to rectify the imbalance by painting a "warts-and-all" picture - in what turns out to be two books for the price of one.
The first part is a rehash of his earlier, Red Star Over Tibet (Collins 1974), a beautifully written semi-autobiographical account of life from the perspective of the Tibetan peasants. Through the experiences of Norbu's family we witness the harshness of life on the roof of the world before encountering the new brutality of Communism. It is not without irony that the author notes how, despite the "liberation" of the Tibetan people by the Chinese Communists, the peasants still have no voice.
In the second part of the book Norbu discards literary narrative, and goes on to reject China's claim that Tibet has been a part of China since the 7th century. The final chapter, "Tibet's Future in Post-Deng China", would not look out of place in the pages of the Economist. But for those who have had their appetite for Tibetan affairs sufficiently whetted, this second section will certainly prove to be compulsive reading.
The Tangier Diaries 1962-1979 (Arcadia Books pounds 13.95) by John Hopkins.
Hopkins' diary begins at the Hotel Olid, Tangier on 12 July 1962 and ends on 29 March 1979, the day before he left the city for good. In between, be draws the reader into the daily life of what he describes as the "Saigon of the Sahara", with tales of his encounters with the likes of William Burroughs, Malcolm Forbes, Wilfred Thesiger, Timothy Leary and Rudolf Nureyev.
Before settling down into a groove, Hopkins drags the willing reader through a series of rapid accounts - such as his drunken summer job on Wall Street, a bloody bar room brawl on the road to Uganda and how he began his career as a writer. This happened when he was challenged to spend a day and a night on a rocky Italian islet without food or water; making notes of everything he saw, felt or thought.
But just as your attention is waning you stumble across gems such as:
"June 27 1977: Death posts its challenge with a single grey hair. Arab proverb"... and all is forgiven.
I was hoping for more salacious gossip about the many famous and colourful characters he encountered. But despite the surprising non-evidence of sin and debauchery, The Tangier Diaries is still a chronicle of an era that has disappeared forever.
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