One Giant Leap... with Peter Snow
Renowned broadcaster and author, operator of the swingometer and 007 reject on the grounds of ‘gangliness’, Peter Snow shares with Compass editor Jennifer Cox memories of his first life-changing journey.
It was 1964 and I went to the Middle East for six weeks: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Iran. It was the most wonderful trip. In those days, although there were some problems with visas and the like, you could travel from one country to the other very easily. Israel was tricky and needed some care, but the other countries were open borders and you just drove through. It was a totally different world. And, of course, a totally different world to England where I’d spent my whole life.
I was a young journalist with ITN and the Middle East had always fascinated me. I’d spent quite a lot of time working up knowledge of the various countries, and I wanted to see what they were like in reality. Also I wanted to see what they all thought and did about the Arab / Israeli problem. I’d read Classics – Ancient History – at Oxford, so wanted to look at Egypt, Iraq and Iran in particular. I wanted to see the Nile Valley, the Pyramids, the Tombs of the Kings and Queens; that was all really important too.
It was an absolutely mind-blowingly revealing trip. I was amazed. For example, going to Jerusalem and seeing how closely the Jews and the Arabs lived to each other, and appreciating just how difficult that situation was for both sides. That was an absolute eye-opener. Also appreciating how deep the feeling of misunderstanding was between the two sides. So when we got the 1967 war – only three years after I got back – when the Israelis just clobbered Jerusalem, took it over and took out the West Bank, it all became understandable. All those tensions and problems I’d seen when I was there came alive.
The other thing that was fascinating was getting a real close-up view of ancient civilisations, particularly the Tombs of the Nobles in the valley just over the river from Luxor in Egypt: very beautiful reliefs and paintings on the walls, enormously revealing about what ancient Egyptian civilisation must have been like.
Arab hospitality is legendary, but it was something else to experience it. You’d arrive in a place and immediately be treated to a very delicious meal – the wonderful meze you get when you sit down with an Arab family. It tended to go on quite late. In the Arab world you tend to sit down about 6pm to drink. It might not be alcoholic, though they do like beer. So you go on drinking until about 10pm when the food arrives. The evening is very convivial, and the chat is fascinating – not just about current affairs but life in general, literature…. The wonderful thing about Iran when I went there was the obsession with poetry. They have two very famous national poets – Hafez and Saadi – who write beautifully.
Iran is the most fascinating and beautiful country; I’m so glad it’s coming back again. It’s a vastly underrated country today, as it was then. It was very peaceful and hugely welcoming, as I think it is now. It was wonderful travelling around the magnificent scenery – breathtaking stuff. I’d recommend anybody to go there. Two places in particular, Isfahan and Shiraz, have mosques with these incredible tile mosaics. The colour of the tilework and the walls and ceilings inside has to be seen to be believed – it’s just magnificent. It’s poetic and romantic, and borne of a love of art. In the Muslim world the depiction of the human form is something that’s frowned upon, so you get these wonderful floral and geometric decorations. Nature is portrayed beautifully and superbly – a wonderful depiction of the world we live in, just lovely.
At the end of my six weeks in the Middle East, I came away with much more knowledge and awareness than I had before. This wasn’t long after Suez, when the British had been rather contemptuous and angry with the Arabs. Visiting opened my eyes to a completely different picture.
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