Review: A “mixed” memoirist’s Silk Road travelogue becomes a road map to sanctuary and enlightenment
In 2011, an Egyptian businessman named Hassan El-Haddad, who was about to be arrested for a fraud conviction, began thinking about how he might slip out of Egypt in a way that would allow him to spend a few days writing an account of his journey. The idea—as well as his business, which he was hoping to develop into a real-estate development—had been hatched a decade earlier while he was living in Damascus. At the time, he had assumed he would write a book about Syria, but it wasn’t until he returned to Egypt that he decided to write a travel story—and a travel story is what, in the end, he wrote, taking the same journey—which he did by air, arriving in Istanbul on a Turkish Airlines flight at 6 a.m. on Dec. 24, 2015.
When he returned home, El-Haddad, 41, wrote that he was “feeling very discouraged.” As he put it in the introduction to his memoir, The Silk Road: From Cairo to Istanbul to Beijing, he was “a person with a lot of baggage.” Despite years of study and work, he felt that he had nothing new to say. He was “sick of being told what to do,” by a wife, parents, and family, and by the community of people he had studied with during his years at Oxford University. He was frustrated by how little he himself knew, and how much he worried about doing the right thing, especially in the light of his arrest and the possibility of his being put under house arrest for years.
Then, in April 2015, he decided to take a leap. He wrote in the introduction to the book that he realized he was at a “tipping point,” in which he would take a leap of faith and take a very different, long-planned and carefully managed path to do what he has only ever before dreamed of doing. He would not become a doctor; he would become a writer. “Writing a book” is a phrase he used a lot in his notes as he traveled. In addition to describing a number of journeys he has taken on in addition to this one, El-Haddad also said that he had been “writing for a long,