Eamonn Gearon: Arabist, historian and author

After spending decades in the Greater Middle East, the author reveals the most useful sentence you will never find in a phrase book

5 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Desert. The Sahara for its size, beauty and peace. Mountains for walking, rather than climbing, would be a close second.

First travel experience?

Leaving home aged five saying, “I’m going to Africa to explore.” I had packed my Noddy and Big Ears suitcase with pyjamas and a teddy bear.

Favourite journey?

My time walking with camels in the Sahara will always be precious to me. And whatever journey that takes me home to my wife.

Top five places worldwide?

1. A garden in the oasis of Siwa, Egypt.

2. The rock hewn churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia.

3. The magical old city of Sana’a, Yemen.

4. Soft, green rolling hills anywhere in southern England.

5. A porch with a swing and a glass of Pimm’s in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.

Special place to stay?

For being close to heaven, under the stars in the desert. For a decent bed and first class setting it has to be the Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt.

Three items you always pack?

A volume of poetry. Clean underwear. An open mind.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Saudi Arabia. It’s a long story, which book I will be writing soon...

Passport stamp you'd most like to have?


Guilty travel pleasure?

BOSE noise-reduction headphones. They make flying tolerable.

Window or aisle?

Aisle, within six rows of an exit – easier to get out in an emergency and to the refreshments.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Ibn Battuta or Edward Gibbon: both for their knowledge and storytelling capabilities. In this world I tend to see more when travelling alone.

Best meal on the road? And you worst?

A picnic of delicious, fresh, simple food in the Gebel Akhdar, Libya one August. Under the shade of an ancient olive tree with a breeze, I listened as three old Libyan men talked about happier days gone by, and better times to come, after Gaddafi.

Worst was in Ethiopia: many servings of goat’s intestines cooked several ways – none of which sat well – washed down with warm lager. I felt so guilty as it was cooked specially for me.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

The Alhambra, Granada for its setting, the variety of textures and styles.

A pub without ale.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Antarctica. Just too many other places on my list ahead of it.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

My first journey to the Middle East was inspired by my father, and his tales of Egypt in the 1950s. More immediately, I was in pursuit of a girl.

Travel heroes include Gustav Nachtigal (see “The Sahara”), Friedrich Hornemann (ditto), and Wilfred Thesiger.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

Beethoven and Bob Dylan, both reserved for when I am need of emergency solitude.

Waking up on my 17th birthday, in a campsite overlooking Florence having arrived at night and seeing nothing, to the sound of bagpipes playing Amazing Grace.

What do you read?

On the road, poetry, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene (old friends and all easy to carry). At home, great books of travel and history: Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (especially for the salacious footnotes), Paddy Leigh Fermor, Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple. I also like to keep my language skills sharp by reading some Arabic text or another every week.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

Numerous people who have sheltered and fed me because I needed it, even if they could ill afford it. I have never lost my faith in humanity, but it annoys me beyond measure to hear the world’s wealthiest and safest offering opinions about the world’s poorest and least secure people, of whom they are so often wholly ignorant.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

“I am not Father Christmas!” (In Arabic, “Ana mish baba noelle”) Used whenever asked to pay too much for goods or services. Surprisingly universal, and always raises a smile.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Packing too many books.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

Reciting dirty limericks or, if my mother was present, belting out some traditional Irish songs without fear of annoying the neighbours.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

So very many happy memories. Living with the Bedu in Egypt while they taught me about the Sahara, and then walking alone with my camels in that same desert.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

The promise of hard rain hidden in sand-laden clouds. That or stale sweat and fear on an overcrowded and speeding minibus on a perilous road somewhere in central Africa.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

The late 19th-century, with sufficient money to employ dozens of staff and to conduct an enormous, completely impractical expedition, bringing all the comforts of home with me.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Cairo for the pulsating chaos, London for friends and the pub, and New York for the energy that always inspires me to believe anything is possible.


Eamonn Gearon has spent a lifetime travelling and working in the Greater Middle East. Eamonn uses the uncommon wisdom he has gathered from across the region to promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding. His latest book The Sahara: A Cultural History is now available in the UK on Amazon.


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