MAYBE YOU CAN JUDGE books by their covers. Joan Baxter's Graveyard for Dreamers has a car wreck rusting by some African thatched huts; Fred Reed's Persian Postcards shows two women in chadors, mourning Khomeini. These are dark travelogues: no tropical paradises here.
Certainly paradise isn't what Baxter found in Africa, though she went there to many her boyfriend Karl, and stayed: "That first trip to Niger is already two children, a marriage, a decade and four West African countries ago." In an account as personal as a diary, as jolting as a bush taxi, she allows herself to remember what kept her there.
Raising a family and reporting for news services from villages in Niger, Cameroon, and Ghana, she experienced - you couldn't say enjoyed -Third World life first hand, learning about drought, poverty, corruption, and thievery. Now living in Nairobi, Kenya, she can still recall, with something less than nostalgia, a typical day in Tamale, an "impoverished backwater" in northern Ghana: no power, no water, no doctor around for her malaria-stricken daughter.
Yet, she says,
... my love for this place washes over me. I love these stalwart people, I love the diversity of their languages and cultures. ... Most of all, I respect their ability to deal with the hardship of their lives.
That she loves Africa is not obvious, at first, to her or to the reader. She lugs her Canadian preconceptions and ideals with her, and spends years being shocked and appalled by postcolonial African realities. There's plenty to shock her: Karl's houseboy takes used motor oil home "for salad"; her neighbours tell her what female circumcision feels like. She sees people starving - and United Nations supplies on sale in nearby stores; she finds children playing in huge mounds of toxic chemicals.
The foreign development projects are mostly failures, while the foreigners themselves are often alcoholics or worse. She's pawed by a lecherous Irish missionary, and hears a German brewmaster confess that he's sold African-brewed beer contaminated with cleaning fluid and carbon monoxide.
Not that she's a paragon of CUSO virtues herself. She's nervy and self-righteous enough to argue with Uzi-toting guards. She's reckless enough to drive with a friend to a disco during a bloody coup in Cameroon (miraculously, they're not shot). "It did not occur to me that people like Jeanne and me were the stuff of diplomats' nightmares," she comments. She cries when she leaves Cameroon to go back, briefly, to Canada, but it's a relief to see her safely out of Africa.
She returns, more mature and seemingly less idealistic ("my dreams for a better Africa don't fit here"). But then, in tiny Burkina Faso, she encounters a politician dreamer, the radical Thomas Bankers. When his brief, hopeful presidency ends violently, she grieves.
Shouldn't Graveyard of Dreamers end in disillusionment? It doesn't, quite. True, Bankers. is dead, and Tamale, now at war, has a curfew and a death toll. But Baxter's odyssey continues. Not all the dreamers are in the graveyard.
As for Fred Reed's Persian Postcards, which sketches the country and the people of the present-day Islamic Republic, the author is having a wonderful time and wishes you were there, even if you don't. (Raise your hands, everyone who wants to visit post-Khomeini Iran.)
Reed, not a journalist but a translator (he won the 1992 Governor General's Award for Translation), first arrived in Iran in 1985, six years after Khomeini and his theocracy took power, determined to learn the mullahs' side of the story: "... If the ruling establishment in the West so loathed Iran's new rulers, might these mysterious men of the cloth have a positive aspect?" What he found, from that trip onward, was a complex culture that didn't fit Western stereotypes.
He liked Iran: "Though I saw many armed men, I met no terrorists. Though I heard the emotional stories of many common people ... I met few fanatics...." He seems to have met and interviewed most of the mullahs, dissidents, and businessmen in Iran, along with a sprinkling of everyone else, from farm-project volunteers to filmmakers. The reader eavesdrops - and tours Iran, mosque to mosque, as Reed offers exhaustive (and exhausting) discussions of Islamic philosophy and Iranian history.
But Reed assumes that his reader is someone like himself, someone who feels that the mission to rescue American hostages in Iran might have failed "due to divine intervention," or agrees that "Imam Khomeini ... must qualify as a saint."
Reed's anti-Westernism is virulent: the United States is "the Global Arrogance" and "the Great Satan." (Other tags: Israel is "the Little Satan," Saddam Hussein is "the fiendish Saddam," and the late Mao Zedong is "the Great Helmsman.") The Iranian-radio epithets colour all he has to say about Iran -- and he covers everything from the postKhomeini power struggles to the Iranian version of the Iran-Contra affair.
He's prone to odd pronouncements, too. "Overt censorship hardly exists" in the news media, he states, though often events go "unreported." "Hardly exists"? As to the status of Iranian women, Reed (nettled by Betty Mahmoody's book Not Without My Daughter) points to the "woman worshippers, unseen and virtually unheard" behind a curtain at Tehran University's Friday prayers, and adds that their presence I offers a silent but eloquent contradiction to the Western view of Iranian women as voiceless, faceless and repressed." Well, there's nothing like a little silent eloquence to reassure us on that score.
Between pronouncements, however, Reed notices that Iran after Khomeini is "awash in ambiguity." Despite the official line, the poor get poorer, the rich richer; the mullahs no longer inspire the people to martyrdom or much else; and prostitutes, corrupt bureaucrats, and Western evils are still available for a price. He even wonders, belatedly, whether Iran is a police state (he's told that the new secret police, the SAVAMAH, are "deadlier" than the Shah's security agents). But he can't quite believe in terrorists: is quiet, hospitable Mr. Mohtashemi really behind suicide bombings and the Lebanese Hezbollah?
Persian Postcards, most readable when it's least partisan, could have used more of this -- along with a sense of humour to balance the sense of purpose.