Tag Archives: Best American Travel Writing

Essaying: Sarah A Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping”

I first read Sarah A. Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping” from Best American Travel Writing 2013 over Christmas. The title caught my eye quickly, and the essay pulled me in from the start. It’s a quick read (you can find the whole thing archived at The Atlantic, where it was originally published in September 2012), but it sure has stuck with me, and it generated some great discussion when I taught it a few weeks ago. We all kept circling around the same question, though: what in the hell is going on here?

Bedouins who live in the Sinai peninsula kidnap tourists because the Bedouins have relatives in Egyptian prisons. They hope that agreeing to release the tourists will lead to the release of their relatives. But it rarely works. The tourists are treated well, so well that some of them comment on what a great experience they had being served tea and sometimes lamb by their kidnappers. The kidnappers even refer to their acts as “tourist safaris.” They do want to treat the tourists well so as not to incur the wrath of the government but also so as not to incur anger from the fellow members of their tribes. In the end, it works out for everyone but the Bedouins who often do not get their relatives out of prison. It’s confounding to a Westerner like me, but it’s also not like I’ve ever had to fight for my family under such circumstances.

Some great quotations from the essay that I hope make you want to read more:

“In recent months, the security vacuum has emboldened a handful of Bedouin in the southern half of the peninsula to lobby for the release of jailed kinsmen via a novel tactic: kidnapping foreign tourists and using them as bargaining chips. Between February and early July, Bedouin tribesmen took three pairs of Americans, three South Koreans, a pair of Brazilians, and a Singaporean on “safaris” lasting between a few hours and several days” (65).

“The recent rash of kidnappings is well timed to mortify the Egyptian government. The country’s economy is already in free fall, and beach tourism is a key source of foreign currency. So the government has worked to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible. But a strange thing has happened: some of those freed tourists have described their captivity in surprisingly glowing terms” (66)

“He added that he’d packed bread, cheese, and juice for his captives. What would he have done if they had become hysterical? Attwa said he would have left them, but they didn’t cry, so he brought them here” (67)

“The kidnapper explained that in addition to the customary tea and coffee, he had served his guests roast lamb, a dish usually reserved for special occasions. He said his uncle remained in prison” (67)

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Essaying: Colleen Kinder’s “Blot Out”

I’ve been reading Best American Travel Writing 2013 and recently finished Colleen Kinder‘s “Blot Out,” originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. It’s another one of those essays I had to finish once I started. She is a journalist who spends a month in Cairo. One day, she decides to wear a full niqab and black tunic on a Friday afternoon trip to a souq. That allows her to explore life in Egypt as both a woman who can pass as a local citizen and as a foreign tourist clearly marked as an outsider. The results (and the way Kinder writes about those results) are fascinating.

She provides a lot of rich, evocative details. The biggest surprise to me is how she is clearly treated as a woman whether in the niqab or not, but the specifics of her treatment depend on what she wears–or does not wear. While covered and appearing on the surface to be a local, a man grabs her ass. While uncovered and appearing on the surface to be a tourist, men yell “Big Dick” and “Sex” at Kinder and her friend, Tori. No matter what, she is accosted and harassed.

I’ll be teaching this book next semester in the second-half of our first-year writing sequence, the research course. I’m sure this is going to be one of the essays that inspires students to do research and dig deeper. It’s having that effect on me. Some of my favorite lines:

“These are the ways foreign women get down the street in Cairo. These are the tricks they share, the ways they teach me to ‘beige out,’ as one woman put it, to fog up the glasses, whenever outside. Outside is the sphere of Egyptian men” (51).

“The niqab begins to tempt me like a secret passageway–a way to be outside without actually being seen. At the end of a month in Cairo, nothing sounds more liberating than erasing myself from this place” (52).

“Instead, the first gasp comes from inside my veil when Tori and I pass a full-length mirror in the furniture mart and neither one of us appears” (56).

“I ask this souq the same question I ask all public places in Cairo: where have you hidden the women?” (57).

“There are places that feel like the answer to the question of why we travel in the first place, why we bother to trespass, crossing the lines that looks like fences. This place is one of my few” (58).