The Slow Road to Tehran: A Revelatory Bike Ride through Europe and the Middle East by Rebecca Lowe
Pedalling south from Cairo, Rebecca Lowe receives some unwelcome attention. It comes in the form of a “hefty smack upon my arse”, dished out by a young tuk-tuk driver. Furious, the author of The Slow Road to Tehran turns to him: “Instinctively, I lash out and attempt to return the blow, but the awful wretch just steers away from my flailing fists, cackling and hooting with glee.”
Cycling from London to Tehran, covering 11,000 kilometres and taking in 20 countries along the way, has plenty of ups (cathartic moments whizzing across Jordanian plains or twisting through Albania’s aptly-named Accursed Mountains) as well as downs: many a puncture in the pouring rain and bout of public pestering. In this instance, Lowe is having trouble on the route beside the Nile, where another aspect of her remarkable adventure — heavy-handed authorities — comes to the fore, when officers from a police escort apprehend and begin to beat the tuk-tuk driver.
Stunned, for a short while Lowe does not react — “after days of ogles, air kisses and bottom-grabs, I derive a certain amount of satisfaction at witnessing this OId Testament-style vengeance in action” — before she pleads with the policemen to stop. She had not requested this escort, but her presence in Egypt as elsewhere on her epic ride regularly has security services twitchy.
The Slow Road to Tehran describes a year-long journey begun in 2015 during which Lowe, a former International Bar Association reporter, endeavours to “learn about the region’s history, culture and people” by covering what she sees from her bike saddle away from Middle East warzones such as Libya and Syria, the usual beat of foreign correspondents back then. Her idea is to capture everyday life, reporting on the “silent 99.9 per cent” who rarely make news bulletins, attempting to understand the connections between the West and this troubled region as she takes its temperature rolling on by.
All the while she is aware of the privilege she has “with my pallid skin and purple passport”. She is also only too conscious that she is whisking in and out of places, while those she encounters do not have this option — such as the Egyptian tuk-tuk driver (who is bundled into a police van, off to who knows what fate).
Small beer compared to her later dabbling with opium in Iran
Having set out her stall, Lowe pushes off, with words of warning from friends and family ringing in her ears. She is, she admits, “chronically ill-prepared” although her panniers are packed with a satellite tracker, solar-powered battery charger and rape alarms — plus a collapsible wine glass, silver-plated hipflask and bottles of gin. Lowe likes to let her hair down and many of the more memorable passages of this engaging travelogue come while she’s knocking back the hard stuff, be it in smoky dens in Cairo or (despite the illegality of alcohol) at underground parties with the surprisingly large number of liberal-minded revellers in Iran.
The spirit of two fellow female travel scribes, full of similar derring-do, permeates The Slow Road to Tehran: Dervla Murphy and Freya Stark. The words of Murphy are at the forefront of her mind — “for it is not death and hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship” — as she spins through Croydon to the coast, catches a ferry to Dieppe and winds through France into Italy and the Balkans.
Lowe’s method is to touch on the position of Muslims in each of these early countries to maintain her theme, in between relaying the nitty-gritty of hitting the road. One in 11 people in France is Muslim, she points out, making it “the most Islamic country in the West”. The ISIS attacks of November 2015, in which 130 people were left dead, have yet to take place, but the Charlie Hebdo shootings have raised tensions. She discusses this with two young men she asks for directions in a Parisian banlieue, while sharing a joint (small beer compared to her later dabbling with opium in Iran). Do they enjoy living in France? One answers “yes”, the other “no”, before mimicking a gun and saying “boom, boom” to which his friend interjects: “Now she’ll think we’re terrorist!”
Having reflected on the likelihood that Venice would probably be little more than a fishing village without Muslim commerce over the centuries (such historical asides are scattered throughout), Lowe is swiftly onwards into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Bulgaria. She refers collectively to these countries as the “Borderlands” on her journey to the Middle East.
Howling dogs give chase. She goes wild camping or stays with hosts from Couchsurfing.com or Warmshowers.com. She drinks fiery rakija. She wakes with hangovers that feel like “clumsy buffalo [are] blundering about my skull”. And she talks, talks, talks to whoever comes her way including Syrian Kurd refugees in dismal camps in Bulgaria, a country that had 1,000 asylum seekers in 2011, but 20,000 in 2015.
She spins onwards to grim Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps
A man named Hashem, with whom Lowe chats in a bar as he downs double vodkas, sneaks her into one of the guarded camps (access is usually tricky for journalists). He soon declares his love for her — his “angel” — before adding macabrely, “I will kill you! And have sex with you!” following her rejection of his advances. This unsettling episode ends with him lashing out at her hotel receptionist and being arrested.
In Istanbul, a dreadful city for cyclists with its chaotic dual-carriages and spaghetti-like streets (“almost entirely bike-proof”), locals open up about the tough policies of controversial President Recep Erdogan: “He’s a classic dictator. He steals our freedoms, then distracts everyone with big shiny things. We now have the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world and a presidential palace thirty times bigger than the White House.” Yet autonomy of the press is under threat and demonstrations with echoes of the Arab Spring have left the country “more divided than ever and Erdogan’s more paranoid and crazy”.
After two tough weeks in cold conditions across Turkey — men in remote village cafes are bemused by her arrival (“three dozen stubbly mouths dropped open”) — the rides deliver Lowe into the heart of the Middle East, via a ferry to Lebanon. She spins onwards to grim Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps, where dying from messy overhead electrical cables is common, health centres are dire and living conditions damp. “We’re the forgotten people,” says a young but dead-eyed man in the Palestinian camp at Shatila.
The other side of Lebanese life, in Beirut, is extravagant parties with flowing booze till 3am as locals tell Lowe that drinking to escape reality is commonplace. Meanwhile in Jordan, which Lowe reaches by plane (her bike packed in the hold), there is less wild abandon. She says it “could be described as one giant refugee camp” with so many Palestinian refugees. The capital Amman is “reassuringly stable but lacks spark”, she concludes having talked to an American NGO who tells her life can be “pretty boring” despite its hipster joints. She adds bluntly: “Jordan lacks its own industry and is entirely reliant on aid. That’s why it’s taken in so many refugees: to keep the income flowing.”
A ferry takes Lowe to Dabah on the Sinai Peninsula, shaken after a terrifying hitchhiking experience in which she is forced to threaten her driver by pointing a a knife at his groin, after he gropes her. This results in her being swiftly dropped off in the middle of nowhere, the menacing driver parting after bafflingly declaring, “I good man!”
Tourism is almost non-existent on Sinai due to flaring violence from jihadists in the remote, virtually lawless north. They are reacting against the policies of the military-supported President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. His power-grab from the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi in 2013 is still fresh in minds, and the shooting down of a Russian passenger plane flying back from the usually busy beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224, has wiped out business.
Lowe once collapses from heat fatigue, crashing her bike
Further on, in Cairo, where the driving is “shockingly bad”, it is clear Sisi’s increasingly autocratic tendencies have left many with a sour taste regarding the ultimate outcome of the Arab Spring in 2011. From talking to activists and journalists, however, Lowe senses that “the pulse of the revolution [is] still beating”.
By the time she is wheeling into Sudan, these interviews and vox pop-style chats have developed a rhythm, offering sharp behind-the-scenes (and headlines) vignettes into local life. In Khartoum, human rights activists daringly speak out about the corrupt regime of President Omar Al-Bashir, although many others are fearful of official observation. “The government is weak and paranoid, so it’s at its most dangerous,” says one. “You should be careful. All foreigners are watched. It could cause problems for people you meet.” This is cycling with eyes wide open for secret police.
You will her on across the Sahara, where temperatures touch the mid 40Cs and Lowe on one occasion terrifyingly collapses from heat fatigue, crashing her bike. In her feverous state, she is looked after by villagers passing on a donkey cart. You also hope that officious policemen and the seemingly never-ending stream of sex pests will keep away, though they seldom do. She even learns a few local phrases to shoo off the most persistent: “Gom shoo! Pedar sag!” (Go away! Your father is a dog!), and “Goozidam too cheshmet!” (I fart in your eye!).
She detects a murmur of dissidence at the overbearing regime
Forays follow into Oman and Dubai (“undemocratic and opaque…with caviar-gorging tycoons, while migrant workers build diamante palaces from the depths of impoverished ghettos”), before a ferry to Iran and parties in the mountains with newfound friends (where the opium pipe comes out), conversations with protestors against the regime who have been beaten by police, and descriptions of the glittering sights in Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran. In the latter, she detects a murmur of dissidence at the overbearing regime, although nobody she meets admits to being politically active.
The Slow Road to Tehran is a major achievement, insightful throughout and held together by the gripping plotline of Lowe’s travels, with Europe in the grip of a migrant crisis sparked by troubles in Syria. Her conclusion, tying into her historical assessment of (especially British) colonial involvement: “In the West, our memories are short. We look east and we forget it bears our imprint. We forget how it came to this and how the liberties we cherish were earned.”
The maltreatment of women across the Middle East — forced marriages, FGM, marital abuse (one in three Iranian marriages ends in divorce) — acts as a constant backdrop, with many sad stories related. “Men are doing as they please without consequences,” says one Iranian activist. “And women are used to accepting it.” Another is the bravery of human rights workers, with whom Lowe — thanks to her old job — has good access. Meanwhile, the multiple acts of kindness among those she meets on the road are heart-warming: so many beds for the night, delicious beef stews, kebabs (for which Lowe has a great fondness) and cups of tea proffered, usually free of charge, along the way. The Middle Eastern streak of hospitality runs strong.
This is modern travel writing at its very best, full of vim and vigour, painstakingly researched, laced with wry humour, political (without being too political), adventurous and rich with anecdote. As Lowe checks in her beloved, much dented and repaired bicycle (nicknamed Maud) at Tehran’s airport, I couldn’t help but whisper: bravo!
Tom Chesshyre is the author of A Tourist in the Arab Spring (Bradt).
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe