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Henry HemmingMisadventure in the Middle East
Two young artists take an expansive tour of the Middle East in Henry Hemming's first book.
By Judith Evans
(The above images were taken during the trip made by Henry Hemming and Al Braithwaite. Please note, Misadventure in the Middle East is not a picture book.)
Not far into their trip to the Middle East, young artists Henry Hemming and Al Braithwaite discover that their pickup truck — somewhat preciously named Yasmine — has been broken into. After assessing the damage, they decide there’s only one way to avoid further breakins: they must make Yasmine look less invitingly expensive, and more like any other battered vehicle on the road. So they set to work with their oil paints and other tools of their artistic trade, creating bumps, scratches, dirt, graffiti, and other signs of an imaginary, difficult past on Yasmine’s shiny red surface.
The incident is emblematic of the kind of book I feared Misadventure in the Middle East would be. Affluent student travellers set off in search of experience, of an idea of authenticity; they encounter some local colour, flirt with danger, and discover how easy it is to make the world mirror their preconceptions. But like the travelling artists, I found slightly different things from those I had anticipated.
Misadventure in the Middle East tells the story of Hemming and Braithwaite’s journey, made in the aftermath of 9/11 and the prelude to the Iraq war. The well-connected pair — at times joined by other young artists — drove Yasmine in an expansive loop around the Middle East, held shows in Tehran, Oman and Jordan, and discovered the limitations of their original ‘culturally righteous’ mission to create an artistic portrait of the Islamic world.
As they travel from rural Turkey to the glamour of illicit Iranian parties, from the torture chambers of Kurdish Iraq to the mosques of Muscat, it doesn’t take long to dawn on the travellers that even if there is such thing as an Islamic world, their trip can only show them a few corners of it. Written with hindsight, this book adopts a humble attitude towards the sights they saw, the people they met, and the places they visited: holding back from interpretations, Hemming opts for an affable style of extreme simplicity, ranging from the wide-eyed to the deadpan.
At times this approach seems evasive, its wilfully naïve angle avoiding engagement with complex or uncomfortable questions. Awkward, potent encounters with Middle Eastern women bring the author closest to the Orientalism he is desperate to avoid, but his reluctance to unpack their implications leads to a curious emptiness.
Hemming is prepared eventually to turn a sharper eye on himself, on occasions lampooning his own ignorance. However, he stops short of satirising the sometimes self-absorbed pretensions of the group — including, most uncomfortably, a questionable decision to travel to Baghdad in the cause of ‘making art’ in the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion.
In the end, though, it is this refusal to apologise which allows the narrative to maintain its balance; it becomes a light, gently provocative meditation on the importance of perception, with the artists’ progress dictated by how others decide to perceive them (Islamic extremists, innocents, spies) and their perceptions of others growing finer in response. The writing can also be hilarious — especially a series of absurd encounters with officials, who continually fail to find a bureaucratic slot to put the travelling artists in. Hemming may have failed to create his planned portrait of the Middle East, but he moves beyond portraying himself to hint at wider dramas of clashing expectations.