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Journey of discovery

Kieran Nelson looks out over Cairo. - Contributed photo
Kieran Nelson looks out over Cairo.
— image credit: Contributed photo

It was something he didn't anticipate when he wrote From Cairo To Cairo.

South Surrey author and world traveller Kieran Nelson admits he was taken by surprise by the recent revolutionary turn of events among Arab nations – including the relatively peaceful overthrow of the Mubarek regime in Egypt and the current violent rebellion in Libya.

His experiences travelling through the Middle East in late 2007 – the basis of From Cairo To Cairo, a fascinating and uncompromising travel memoir – had suggested the status quo in that part of the world would be a long time changing.   

"I didn't see this coming – I really didn't, although I believe I saw some of the frustration among the youth and other political groups in Egypt."

But Nelson said it's an illustration of the barometric accuracy of one of his passions –  economic history.

All of the affected nations have shown tremendous recent growth in gross domestic product, he said.

"It's the classic idea of rising expectations among the people, which has occurred in all of the revolutionary situations – including France, Ireland and Russia."

The economic crisis that stopped expectations from rising was likely the tipping point for Egypt, he added.

"People started to find fault."

The Elgin Park Secondary grad – who earned his masters degree in global history at the London School of Economics after gaining a bachelor's degree in philosophy at UVic – said economic history can often paint a truer picture of the causes of events than conventional history, which often exhibits the bias of the victors of successive wars.

"Economic history is a way of looking at history in a more objective way than most people do," he said.    

Objectivity is important to Nelson, who said his eventual goal – after he writes some more travel books – is to become a professor of economic history at a university, most likely in the U.K.

He's part of a new, younger, electronics-savvy generation of travel writers, bloggers and filmmakers who, rather than accepting mass-media accounts of other cultures, are keen to investigate for themselves.

Funded by savings accrued doing summer construction work in the Yukon, he was able to spend months following graduation from UVic exploring the Middle East with his younger sister, Kristen, and two friends, schoolmate Sean and documentary filmmaker, Nickie. 

As he writes in From Cairo To Cairo, they found themselves among "hundreds of young travelers streaming in from the West, lured by a profound fascination with the Middle East: with the depth of its conflict, with the antiquity of its civilization, with the power and allure of its faith."

The book, published by Calgary-based Bayeux Arts, recounts their experiences in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

While it started life as an as-it-happened blog, it has been reshaped by Nelson with the benefit of experience, and some hindsight.

"This book is an example of how I taught myself to write – to find the sort of voice I wanted," said Nelson, who is now at work on a second tome recounting travel experiences in eastern Europe.

While his fascination with economics might suggest a tale as dry as desert dust –  that's far from the truth of From Cairo To Cairo, a highly-readable book teeming with richly observed anecdotes of fleeing refugees, militia groups, Syrian opposition members on the run, immigrant soldiers and victims of torture, and other young people, like a Egyptian woman, Nermine, who challenged all his cultural preconceptions.

Nelson titles one chapter Innocents Abroad in a nod to Mark Twain – but it also conveys the relative inexperience of the travellers, particularly in that corner of the world.

That they didn't retain their innocence long is clear from the book's share of hair-raising episodes, including being interrogated by the Hezbollah after straying, unaware, into forbidden territory, and being shot at and tear-gassed by Israeli troops.

"Citizen journalism can be an amazing experience to go through," Nelson said.

"But I would counsel others who want to do it to stay safe."

Nelson said the experience could only be summed up as "culture shock" – even with previous exposure to the phenomenon in trips to West Africa and Guatemala while he was in high school.

"Faced with culture shock, political correctness collapses within days," he writes. "It is one thing to live in a 'multicultural' society of mostly Westernized people; it is quite another to live in a place where another culture swallowed you whole."

The book's very even-handedness is unlikely to please anyone expecting a black-and-white polemic reinforcing their own preconceptions.

"When I write things, I want to write what I think," Nelson said.

"I never once tried to tailor what I wrote to what the public may think about it."

Nelson freely admits he found both philosphical and spiritual inspiration not only at sites sacred to Christians and Jews – but also Islam.          

"It made me more sympathetic to the Islamic point of view," he acknowledged. "When I first went to the Middle East I had misconceptions; the normally held view of Israel and Palestine. The issues are far more complex than I thought."

In the journey of discovery, the biggest change was in Nelson himself.

"It was a journey to understand my own mind as well," he said.

He said he has been heartened by the reception he has received for his book, including recent author signings in South Surrey and Seattle.

"People have told me they felt like they were on the journey themselves – which is a good thing."

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