In 2007, the countries between the Maghreb and Pakistan rated seven choice destinations out of 27, a better than 25% rate (if you include “ Schussing above the beaches in Cyprus.” But the feature wasn’t yet as developed as it became the following year, when it turned into an interactive Web adventure. The Times seemed pretty impressed with itself, bumping up the total number of destinations to 53. Of those, seven were in the Middle East, a respectable 13 percent ratio that I featured here in The Middle East’s Best Travel Spots.
The Times is at it again for 2009, but both the number of destinations (44) and the number of Middle East picks (four) are down. Isn’t everything else, coming out of dismal 2008? Travelers’ budgets are slim, esoteric destinations are out, old standards are in: Washington (to honor Barack Obama’s inaugural, Berlin, the Galapagos Islands, the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Vienna, Rome, Chicago, Dallas, “Castles in Britain,” Copenhagen, Cologne, and so on. The Times might as well have dusted up the itinerary of tourists in Henry James novels for this edition.
There were a few surprises, like Dakar (Senegal), marvelous Bhutan, Monument Valley (Ok, that’s not a terribly surprising one, but who doesn’t love those John Ford backdrops?), but in a typical sign of what ails all industries in general and newspapers in particular, The Times ran out of space for its “44 Places to Go” in the print edition. You’ll only find 31 of them in the slimmed down Jan. 11 travel section. The other 13 are only online.
But even though the Middle East rated just four spots, this year it also has the Number 1 spot: Beirut! Ready for the tour?
Beirut, City of Delights
Quick: when is the last time you didn’t automatically associate Beirut with war? Hard to remember. In reality, the city is rebuilt, and many a cliché-loving Beiruti will tell you it’s back, bigger and better than ever. It’s mostly true. The city is again a traffic nightmare, a publishing free-for-all, a gambling and drinking and whoring getaway for the otherwise strait-laced and wealthy hypocrites of the Gulf countries, and, not least, it has its first farmer’s market in many decades. It’s called “Souk-el-Tayeb,” the tasty souk.
Contrast that with the copy of another Times article I have on my desk as I write this, this one from 1976, a piece entitled “Lebanon, An Artificial Nation, May Not Endure.”
Here’s how reporter James Markham began his piece, written when Lebanon’s 15-year civil war had not yet lasted a year: “As machine gun fire crackled outside his office, a Beirut editor observed that the only things uniting the people of Lebanon these days are the water, electricity and telephone systems, which have miraculously functioned through nine months of butchery.”
The market, founded in 2004, The Times now reports, “reconciles Lebanon’s warring factions through their common love of their country’s food.”
Doha, “A New Arts Capital,” comes in as the 9th best place to visit on The Times’ parade of nations. “Ever since Dubai reinvented itself as the region’s Las Vegas — with its juggernaut of skyscrapers, snow domes and underwater hotels,” writes Gisela Williams, “its wealthy gulf neighbors have been jockeying for the title of cultural capital. Abu Dhabi, for example, has been throwing oil money at big-name architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster. But Doha is well ahead, especially with the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art."
The museum is a spectacular coup of architectural and cultural ambition, even if it goes by the odd acronym, MIA. Its Web site is itself a delight of easy use and browsing through galleries (“Writing in Art,” “Calligraphy,” and yes, “The Figure in art,” belying the occasional assumption that even in the Arab world’s museums, the human figure won’t be portrayed in deference to Islam’s supposed edict ( inaccurately attributed to the Koran) against depicting human portraiture in general and the Prophet Muhammad’s in particular. Nevertheless, in the Museum Mohammed’s likeness is indeed MIA.
At No. 13 comes Marrakesh, a somewhat unoriginal choice (on par with The Times’ other conventional, general picks such as Alaska, South Africa and India, the sort of places that are closer to continents than countries, and whose expanse would warrant 44 picks on their own).
The Times’ treatment of its Marrakesh story is conventional, too: it’s all about the food. Do we really need to go to Marrakesh to sample couscous? Well, yes, Seth Sherwood tells us: “As the fascination with Moroccan cuisine has taken off — both in the United States and around the globe — epicures and chowhounds are flocking to the ancient ochre-hued city of Marrakesh. Foreign-led food tours are sprouting. Homegrown cooking classes are multiplying."
Egypt’s Red Sea
Finally, at No. 32, the Red Sea, and this odd note from The Times: “Not since Moses have so many people rushed to the Red Sea. Or so it seems with the string of luxury resorts popping up along the ancient waterway, known for its spectacular scuba diving.”
Speaking of Moses: I was amused by this other Times report, by Michael Slackman in 2007, about the myths and archeological strata surrounding the Red Sea: “In Egypt today,” Slackman wrote, “visitors to Mount Sinai are sometimes shown a bush by tour guides and told it is the actual bush that burned before Moses. But archaeologists who have worked here have never turned up evidence to support the account in the Bible, and there is only one archaeological find that even suggests the Jews were ever in Egypt. Books have been written on the topic, but the discussion has, for the most part, remained low-key as the empirically minded have tried not to incite the spiritually minded.”
Whatever the parting may bring: Have a good trip, and beware those guides.