John McHugo on his travels in the Middle East
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 29 July

The World According to John McHugo

Author John McHugo reveals his take on the world of travel, including his experiences in Syria

Mountain/ocean/jungle/desert – which are you and why?

Mountains – they are nice and cool.

What was your first great travel experience?

Walking from London to Italy when I was 21.

What was your favourite journey?

Walking through the Syrian coastal mountains and staying with locals – today I often wonder what has happened to them.

What are your top five places worldwide?

Cairo, Damascus, Sana’a, Ba’albek and the Canigou.

Name a special place to stay.

The monastery of Deir Mar Musa in Syria – Christians and Muslims living together and understanding and loving each other.

What three items do you always pack?

A black bin bag (for laundry); a hat that is good for both sun and rain; strepsils – I seem to succumb to colds much more than to an upset stomach when travelling.

Which passport stamp are you proudest of?

My 1973 residence visa for Egypt when the country was at war with Israel, a very rare visa at that time.

Which passport stamp would you most like to have?

An Israeli one – because I will only get it when Israel has made peace with its neighbours.

What is your guilty travel pleasure?

Arriving late at night in a bar where no one speaks English.

Which do you prefer: window or aisle?

The middle – because it leads to family harmony.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Someone who speaks the language of the country and has gone there with me for a good reason.

Best meal on the road? And your worst?

Best: the escalope at the Estoril in downtown Cairo (purely for sentimental reasons – not necessarily to be recommended for others). Worst: whatever I ate that night in Aleppo when I caught hepatitis.

Most surprising place? And your most disappointing?

Most surprising: The rock churches in the Muqattam Hills of Cairo carved by Coptic garbage collectors. Most disappointing: Alexandria – because before I went there I had been fed an image of a place that did not correspond with reality.

Where do you NOT want to go?

The South Pole. I don’t see the point.

Who/what inspired you to travel?

Probably reading The Lord of the Rings at a very tender age.

What do you listen to on the road?

Nothing – I prefer to observe my surroundings or lose myself in my thoughts. I am not afraid of my mind.

Does any song take you back to a particular place?

Many do – anything by Abba makes me think of Oman when I worked there in 1981-6.

What do you read when you travel?

Ideally, a history of the country I am visiting.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity?

Many. The old Syrian woman who burst into tears because she felt sorry for my mother because I was so far from home springs to mind.

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

Salaamtak: it is a polite way of saying “no thank you very much but I really mean it” in the Gulf and is often understood in other Arab countries.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Letting personal hygiene slip...

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

A story-telling competition.

When are where in your travels have you been happiest?

When setting out on a walking holiday on a fresh, bright morning.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

The traffic fumes of Cairo.

Given a choice, what era would you travel in?

Today – travel should be about exploring the world we live in, not a trip into reimagined memories.

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

I don’t think this can be done because this would make each city lose the characteristics that attract me to it. In any case, cities are constantly changing.

John McHugo is author of A Concise History of the Arabs, published by Saqi Books. Find out more here: www.johnmchugo.com

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