Rebecca Lowe was not an experienced cyclist when she decided to cycle from the UK to Tehran, she did not train for it, and she wasn’t in peak physical fitness. Nonetheless, she was confident that she could succeed in her mission and return home safely. Her friends and family were less convinced. When the time came to set off she had her own doubts, but set off valiantly, not having researched the route much beyond drawing a line on a map. The prologue explains the origin of her interest in the Middle East, but also acknowledges the privilege she benefits from in being able to travel in and out of areas where others do not have the same freedom. On her journey she is met with kindness and generosity and these uncomfortable feelings of unearned privilege rise again, although she admits it does not stop her accepting the offers of help.
As she travels first through Western Europe, across the Balkans, through Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and many more, she engages with the locals. To begin with her conversations tend to focus on views of Islam and refugees, but as she rides deeper into countries that the news in the UK has convinced us all are entirely dangerous, she sees the frustration of local business owners that the whole country has been tarnished with a bad reputation when most of it is completely safe. People are generous in sharing their views and homes with her and some of her own misconceptions are redressed. In some countries it is dangerous for people to be seen talking to her as a journalist but many do nonetheless. She is struck by the courage of many who she meets, and again feels the contrast between the risks involved.
She finds the bureaucracy of different countries frequently frustrating, and comes to appreciate the ease with which she was able to cross borders while in the Schengen area. She finds it particularly difficult leaving Cairo with endless hold ups and misdirections. She deals with over-zealous officials with a confidence she doesn’t always feel and mostly succeeds, even if it takes a few attempts. Another difficulty she encounters in Egypt is that the police go everywhere with her, and although this occasionally proves to be useful it makes her uncomfortable. At one point a tuk tuk driver is brutally beaten by them when he smacks her backside while driving past. She takes some pleasure in this having experienced a lot of sexual harassment, but eventually asks them to stop.
Lowe is a self-deprecating, humorous writer who writes with honesty and humility about her experiences. Her year long journey fits into a reasonably slim book, and there is a lot packed in to its almost four hundred pages. It can at times feel like a whistle stop tour, but she does take the time to focus in on certain experiences, histories, and people, giving the reader a broad sense of the countries she passes through. Certainly this is not a comprehensive guide to any of the areas, but it is a very human story. Everywhere she goes she seems to have a friend or a friend of a friend, or a willing local she connects with online to host her and share a slice of their life. We see many contradictions and varying views on the way their countries are run and perceived, learn about the food, traditions, and customs, as well as the day to day struggles and joys. This is a rich tapestry which serves as a wonderful jumping off point for those who want to delve deeper into some of the issues and histories Lowe raises.