A Modern Grand Tour

The Ends of the Earth    by Robert D. Kaplan

476 pp., Random House 1996  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      To quote a Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. Within our lifetime the population of the world has doubled or tripled, and many regions are already badly overcrowded. There is no room left for it to double again, something has to give. The West enjoys a measure of stability and prosperity, but much of the less fortunate "third world" lives on the brink, its population still rising and its quality of life still dropping. Where is this leading us? How do people live in those countries, right now?

      The way to find out is to go and observe, and Kaplan has done just that. "The Ends of the Earth" is a rapidly-moving travelogue, from chaotic Sierra Leone and West Africa to Egypt, then Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran, Uzbekistan and its sister republics in Central Asia, to the tip of China, then over the Karakoram highway to Pakistan, India, Thailand and Laos, ending in Cambodia. Wherever Kaplan went, he listened to the pulse of society, with special attention to the diversity of cultures and traditions. His preferred mode of travel seems to have been rickety local buses, and he has developed a knack for picking friends and guides: a young Azeri photographer, an Uzbek student, an Iranian businessman whose permanent 3-day growth of beard mourns the death of a martyr 1300 years ago, a 70-year old Indian naturalist, volunteer doctors in Cambodia, African truck drivers, and many more.

      Kaplan is no mere adventurer. His scholarly homework is solid--the bibliography covers more than 30 pages, and footnotes are extensive--and his journeys had a serious purpose. He wanted to find out what was happening in those societies, and what their future might be.

      As one might expect, he witnessed widespread poverty, but then most people in the countries he visited were always poor. Most inhabitants of Europe and North America used to be poor, too, before the industrial revolution brought employment to their cities and raised the standard of living, helping stem the population growth. But there is not much hope of that happening soon in most of the countries visited by Kaplan. The huge cities of the Third World, cities like Cairo, Istanbul and Karachi, are surrounded by sprawling shantytowns and have too little industry to sustain them. Those are cities of 10 millions, each growing madly as more and still more people flee the countryside to live in urban shanties.

      Why do they do so? Because, as Kaplan discovers, life on the land can be worse than life in those shantytowns. For too many people, moving to the city is a step up. Yet the trend cannot possibly go on much further. Already, governments are unable to cope with it, already violence exists between ethnic and cultural group in those cities. What is to be done? In Cambodia rebels forced city people back to the land, in a reign of terror and genocide which devastated that country's society. Kaplan finds that the memories of that nightmare endure, and so do the rebels, holding out in forests and distant regions. He argues convincingly that the only way to social health is to improve life on the land, to make the villages attractive once more.

      With a few exceptions (Thailand being one) governments are of little help in this process. It is the people living on the land, Kaplan feels, who must take charge of their own environment. In India he visits the Rishi valley, whose inhabitants have on their own initiative raised literacy, lowered the birth rate and preserved the environment. But as he listens to the valley's people, he realizes that they owe their success to the well-established culture of India. The Rishi prescription is not likely to work in Africa's tribal cultures. West Africa, in particular, is in desperate straits, drifting towards complete disarray, Liberia-style. Its straight boundaries are artificial, a legacy of colonial maps: they ignore tribal boundaries, and are in turn ignored by the tribes.

      The map of the future, Kaplan suggests, will be drawn along ethnic lines. In the Moslem world, diverse nations of Turkic descent are drawing together--Azeris of the Caucasus and northern Iran, Uzbeks and Uighurs of Central Asia, a web stretching from Europe to China. He discovers that Turkish Islam differs from Arab Islam, is mellower, more tolerant, marked by the Sufi tradition and the legacy of Rumi the mystic. Iran's Shiite Islam is different too: outwardly aggressive, still hurting from its defeat in the struggle among the heirs of Mohammed, but inwardly flexible and compromising. The death edict on Salman Rushdie still stands, and Ba'hais are still persecuted, but Kaplan feels they are the last vestiges of a dwindling revolution, whose leaders have already reversed their stand on birth control in the face of reality. Iran, he claims, is no longer ruled by extreme militants, but by "bazaaris," wily merchants who cheat and lie to get their way, but who also bend to face reality. He believes that the day will come when Iran and the US will yet draw together.

      It is a book rich in encounters, in history, cultural insights and profound reflections. One is reminded of the "grand tour" of classical Italy and Spain, undertaken by wealthy Europeans 200 years ago to expand their outlook and education. Kaplan's tour makes more sense for today, though I would hesitate recommending such a difficult and perhaps dangerous journey to anyone. Read this book instead: it will give you enough of the true flavor of those countries, and plenty to think about.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 18 January 2002