Levison Wood is a former paratrooper, a major in the army reserves, and a presenter, writer and traveller. He has made various expeditions, but the latest is the longest and the most epic: 5,000 miles around the Arab Peninsula, travelling through thirteen countries, between September 2017 and February 2018. He undertook the journey partly to discover what, if anything, were the long-term results of the 2011 Arab Spring, but also to explore one of the world’s most beautiful regions, which is always in the news – and always for the wrong reasons.
What is special about the Middle East, to you?
As discussed, we (the public) only ever see what the media show us about the Middle East: the negative things. But I knew, before I went, that there’s more to this region. Arabia is also host to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world – in Oman, Jordan, and Lebanon, and there’s more to the conflicts than we hear on the news. Not many people get the opportunity to travel to the Middle East: not many people would choose to travel there if they were presented with the choice. I wanted to shine a new light on such a misconceived region of the world, to broadcast a reason to travel to such unique destinations, and for those who are unable to go there themselves, I wanted to provide an honest account of this part of the world. I don’t expect people to try to visit Syria or Saudi Arabia now, but at least I’ve opened their eyes to another side of these countries, one that probably would never have seen the light of day had I not gone out there, against all odds, and filmed it!
What did you discover?
The so-called Arab Spring had brought about a hope of change in a troubled region. Dictatorships had been toppled, and in some places, democracy had flourished. Social media gave way to a new platform for freedom of speech, and there had seemed to be a shift in the collective consciousness of what it meant to be an Arab. But, only a few years later, that sense of hope had all but vanished. Dictators had been replaced by terrorists or foreign armies, and wars still raged in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Had the initial optimism from the revolutions brought about any change at all? This is what I planned to discover on my travels around the Arabian Peninsula. I didn’t think I was ever going to unearth the direct impacts of the Arab Spring – because that had ended seven years earlier – but I was eager to discover if and where hope still existed.
I wanted to show a more balanced portrayal of this region via my journey, and show it for all of its faces. My journey started on the Turkish border in Syria, and then onto Iraq, where I was embedded with the Iraqi People’s Mobilisation Front – I was literally strolling into battle against ISIS with 1,000 of these volunteers, waiting to be ambushed. We were prepared for it, and we counterattacked, and successfully reclaimed a village, capturing two Taliban commanders. It was a bonkers day, and that was the peak of the action. Things calmed down a lot when we travelled through the Gulf, and onto Oman. Things got tense again when we found ourselves illegally in Yemen, and had to get out before we were caught. Otherwise, the rest of the journey was more of an observation of the destruction that these places had undergone during and since the Arab Spring, and an opportunity to meet those who have lived through it all, and share their stories.
What other areas did you go through that were like those early days in northern Iraq?
I never found myself on the frontline again, but I was witness to the ongoing unrest between the Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank. My guide, a Palestinian activist, took me to a protest, where I stood with local youths risking their lives to taunt the Israeli Defence Force with makeshift catapults and burning tyres. Yet, despite the blatant conflict, life still goes on. You have two groups of people that absolutely hate each other also living next door to each other, and with no obvious way out of the awful stalemate; they have to just get on with it, as best they can.
Yemen was another eye-opening experience. It is in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and although I wasn’t there for long, I did get a glimpse of the devastation that so many are currently living in. More than 15 million people – or 53 per cent of Yemen’s population – are on the brink of starvation as access to food diminishes every day across the country. It was heartbreaking to meet so many people with so little, and not to be able to do anything to help instantly.
At the time I passed through Syria, there was widespread fighting throughout the country, including around Damascus and its suburbs. I couldn’t escape the constant thud of artillery in the distance, but that didn’t stop me from exploring the capital’s nightlife. I visited the ancient site of Palmyra, which has been largely destroyed by ISIL, and Homs, which was devastated by a three-year siege. Despite all that destruction, I left Syria with a heightened sense of hope for its future. People had already begun to start rebuilding their lives. In Damascus, many of the tourist shops were open, despite not having had a tourist for at least seven years. I asked one vendor why he still opened his shop: ‘Because one day the tourists will return, and we’ll be ready’, he responded.
What peaceful areas did you go through?
Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes were very peaceful. They’d been drained under Saddam Hussein’s rule, but have since been reflooded, and the Marsh Arabs are returning to live there, away from the danger of the cities. Then I travelled onto the Gulf: places like Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE are very peaceful, in one sense of the word. It was a shock going from the frontline in Northern Iraq to the serenity of the Marshes, to the towering buildings and blatant wealth of Dubai. Where I felt most at peace, throughout my journey, was in the desert. I crossed part of Oman’s Empty Quarter Desert with just three camels and my guide, and although I didn’t always see eye to eye with him, it meant I was able to appreciate the beauty and silence of the vast sand dunes when we weren’t making conversation. I had a far more pleasant experience in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, where I slept in just a blanket under the star-studded night sky. Before settling down, we’d sit round the campfire, and my Bedouin guides would sing traditional songs. It was during these times that I would think the most – about my journey, about my family and friends at home, and about the future.
What impact do you think there will be on the region from Trump’s recent threat to withdraw American troops from supporting the Kurds?
It’s no longer a threat, it’s reality. It’s a disgraceful betrayal. Thousands of Kurds died fighting ISIS in Syria alongside British and American troops, and now we turn our backs on them… it’s shocking.
How much background reading and research did you undertake before you travelled?
A lot. This journey had been in the back of my mind since Walking the Nile in 2013/14. It was the expedition I always wanted to do, the others were just stepping-stones in achieving it – and probably long before that. I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle East. My heroes in exploration were those who went to ‘Arabia’ and I read all about their experiences growing up – the likes of T.E. Lawrence, Richard Burton, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger. What’s more, being in the British Army means I have always been aware of the status and changes in the Middle East. So, my knowledge of the region had strong foundations, but there was still a lot more to read and research, given the riskiness of the journey, and the difficulty of getting access to many of the places on my route. You can never be too prepared for an expedition; I was still reading whilst already on expedition…
What hope do you have for Iraq when the Shi’ites and Sunnis are still divided? I noticed that when you asked a guy in the car (your guide in Iraq) about reconciliation, his reply was: ‘Not my problem.’ Surely unless Iraqis see that it is their problem and their responsibility, there will be no efforts made to bring the two sides together?
The Shia-Sunni divide is the biggest issue in Middle Eastern politics, and it’s being exploited by all the major powers. The two groups barely identify each other as Muslim in many countries and so it’s bound to cause deep divisions which often result in violence.
What impact did the journey have on you?
Despite seeing all the destruction across Iraq and Syria, and meeting people who have very sad stories to tell indeed, I returned from the Middle East with a sense of hope. These people have seen it all, and are still living in some of the most dangerous times, but they get on with their lives, they talk about their futures, and they smile as if it’s all in the past. It made me really think about appreciating how easy we have it back home, and how grateful we should be.
Did you have to emphasise the sensational, dangerous side of the trip in order to get the commission to make the films at all and to get anyone interested?
This trip wasn’t commissioned. We pitched to various channels, all of whom said it was too risky, too dangerous, and that it couldn’t be done. But I knew how important this story was to tell, and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I got together a team of friends who I’d worked successfully with in the past: people I trusted and could rely on to complete this project, and that’s what we set out to do. And complete it we did. Nothing was emphasised or dramatised. We wanted to show Arabia for what it is. I hope you’ll agree the series does that.
What insight were you able to have when you had to be protected so much, or did this change as you carried on your journey (beyond episode 1, watched at time of submitting questions)?
This was the first journey I did where I had to change guide every country. It wasn’t necessarily for protection, but it meant that I was in the hands of knowledgeable and trustworthy people each time I travelled through their country. It also meant that their opinion on a situation was biased, but I did my best to ensure I got all sides of a story wherever necessary, such as in Israel.
The story of the Marsh Arabs is a good news story. What other ones did you cover?
The overarching good news is that I don’t think it’ll be too long before people start returning to this region as tourists. The Gulf, Jordan and Lebanon are already top destinations to visit, but I’m talking more specifically here about Saudi Arabia, which has recently announced the opening of its borders to tourists. You might question what there is worth visiting, I did too, but I was pleasantly surprised. Although there is clearly a lot of wealth in the port city of Jeddah, which makes it feel quite cosmopolitan, it still retains its traditional Arabic flavour, evident in the narrow streets of the old town, bustling with smiling vendors of fresh bread and chai. I visited the old Hejaz Railway, and stood on one of the trains blown up by Lawrence of Arabia at the start of the twentieth century (a childhood dream!). I followed the route of the railway north, taking in views of the towers of Mecca and the minarets of Medina from as close as I could get as a non-Muslim. The paradise oasis, Al Ula, is reason enough to visit Saudi Arabia, whose landscape rivals that of anywhere else in the region, and I geeked out on the ancient ruins of the city, which date back 2,000 years. The Saudis I met were all friendly and welcoming, thrilled about the prospect of having more visitors like me in the not-so-distant future.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently putting together a book of my best photographs, taken over the last decade. Selecting 200 from over 50,000 was quite the chore! But before that, I’ve got an exciting project coming out on TV in the new year, accompanied by another book. I can’t give too much away at this point, but this one isn’t focused on my journey, rather the passage of one of our greatest creatures…