It’s not the way most people would celebrate their 65th birthday, but for Michael Mewshaw, the idea of traveling overland across North Africa from Alexandria, Egypt, to the Morrocan city of Tangier was just the gift he wanted to give himself.

Even if it meant traveling through Algeria, where an estimated 200,000 people have been killed by terrorists.

Ignoring the protests of family and friends, Mewshaw set out on a 4,000-mile journey that would show him places he’d never seen before, teach him more about Arabic sensibilities and bring him unexpected new adventures at a surprising time of life.

Mewshaw’s experiences in North Africa have caused something of a diplomatic dust-up at the State Department. A March 16 Washington Post story details how his new book, “Between Terror and Tourism,” has ruffled feathers, especially his description of a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Algiers in which a diplomat is quoted saying things that are at odds with official U.S. policy toward Algeria.

“There’s naturally confusion between the United States and the Islamic world, not only because there’s a great deal of distance, not only because there’s a huge cultural difference, but because our government policy toward those areas is contradictory,” Mewshaw said in an interview from his Key West winter residence.

“Our elected officials and our State Department officials are apt to say one thing for public consumption but hold much different beliefs privately,” he said. “And I think in this case that (official) slipped up and told the truth to me and then had to deny it.”

Mewshaw is a well-regarded author who has published 19 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He and his wife, Linda, spend winters in Key West, Fla., but travel the rest of the year. They’ll be in Maine this week to visit their son, Sean, who lives in Portland, and their first grandchild.

While he’s here, Mewshaw will give readings from his new book in Portland and Farmington.

Mewshaw recently spoke with the Maine Sunday Telegram about his North African journey. Here is an edited version of the conversation: 

Q: When you first announced you were doing this trip, your sister said it reminded her of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” To me, it was more reminiscent of another Krakauer book, “Into Thin Air.” All those climbers had years of experience, just like you have years of experience traveling, but they still got in over their heads and some of them died. Did you worry at all that you were in over your head?

A: Well, I wondered, and certainly given other people’s worries and given their warnings, it got my attention. But it was a mixture of expectation and joy at the trip, tinged with some fear. If you read the CIA fact sheets or the United States’ State Department travel advisories, I think any sensible person would be concerned or alert. But I also have traveled a lot, not just in that part of the world, but elsewhere, and I had a certain amount of experience I could call on. But yes, I was concerned. 

Q: I have to say it was almost painful reading how your wife and younger son begged you not to go into Algeria.

A: Oh, gee, painful in what respect? 

Q: Well, you could feel their pain and their worry. How did you resolve their deep concern for your safety with your desire to go ahead? Have you always just considered this a part of who you are?

A: I think so, and I can’t say that I resolved it. I think I just had to say what it was that I wanted to do and to assure them that I had taken as many precautions as I could take, but that I meant to follow through with it and it wasn’t really availing to keep harping on the matter. I think that they felt it was too dangerous to travel – the State Department did, and my family thought it was – but I didn’t agree. 

Q: You said in the beginning of the book that you felt you had something to prove to yourself. Did you ever figure out what that was?

A: Just that I could still do it. (Laughs.) The more people urged me not to do it, the more I was convinced that I should do it. I mean, why do people climb mountains? Because they’re there. But also, I think, it’s an extraordinary stretch of real estate from Alexandria to Tangier, and I was excited by the idea of doing it and of seeing some places I haven’t seen before. 

Q: There’s so much to learn about these places – politics, culture, geography. How much research did you do before you left on the North Africa trip, or was the research limited to travel and safety concerns?

A: Before I left, I spent many months – six months, at least – reading and talking to people who had experience in that part of the world and trying to organize an itinerary there, and arrange in cases like Libya or Algeria to have a local fixer who could help me out. So it took a considerable amount of time to arrange and also to arrange for visas. But I did do a great deal of reading, and I did interview a certain number of people who had expertise in those areas and could give me the benefit of their knowledge. So I didn’t stumble blindly into it.

It was a personal trip that I was taking, and it was something I wanted to prove to myself, but I felt it was also a trip to get some insight into that part of the world and to try to bring that insight back with me to other people who aren’t likely to take that trip. I think there’s an incredible amount of misinformation about the Arab world and about Islam, and I think there’s an incredible amount of misinformation about the level of threat or jeopardy there, and about the level of personal animosity that the Arab or Islamic world bears toward the West.

I found that people, by and large, were friendly, receptive, hospitable, helpful. Except in obvious situations there, especially in Algeria, I didn’t feel personally threatened. I mean, even in Algeria, where things were scary in a kind of global way or geopolitical way, I never had any feeling that people bore any personal animosity toward me.

I think it’s important to point out the historical context here, because I think Americans tend to ignore the reasons why some of these parts of the world would be resentful of us. I know that Bush, when he was president, used to say they hate us because we’re free, and they hate us because we have money and advantages that they don’t have. First of all, I didn’t find that they hated us nearly as much as they might, but if they bear us any animosity, it’s because of what they’ve experienced historically during the colonial period and in their relationship with other countries in the West.

We in the United States are justifiably upset, angry and still wary because of what happened on 9/11 when 3,000 people were killed. Imagine if you were a Libyan where 25 percent of the population was killed by the Italians during their occupation of the country, or where over 2 million people were killed in Algeria by the French during their occupation. There’s some deep scars. 

Q: Did you find that you had prejudices of your own you had to overcome?

A: No, I didn’t. I’ve traveled and lived in lots of Islamic countries, so I have sympathy for them. I’m not an expert. I don’t want to present myself as that. I have some understanding of the religion and of the culture, and I think I’m generally sympathetic to them.

I guess what I would stress is we in the West tend to see that part of the world as monolithic and undifferentiated. But there’s as much individual difference in terms of the way people feel about their religion as there is in the West towards Christianity, for example, where you have people who are terribly devout and there are those who are more relaxed. As I crossed from one country to the other, I was struck by how different the people were, and how they don’t always agree among themselves. 

Q: Do you feel like you were able to show people there that not all Americans hate Muslims?

A: Well, I hope so. I spoke at a number of universities and tried to assure the students there that just as we have a great deal of misinformation about them, they have misinformation about us, and just as they are not a monolithic society, we’re not a monolithic society either, and we’re not without sympathy or empathy for them. 

Q: Sixty-seven years is a long time to go with no permanent address. Do you think you’ll ever settle in one place?

A: My usual response is I’m going to skip that step and go straight into assisted living. We’ve never owned a home. We don’t even have our own furniture. We’re sort of nomadic. It’s not that I’m completely rootless. There are places that I like a great deal, and we do tend to go back to places. Italy is a great favorite of ours, so we certainly spend part of the year in Rome. 

Q: You spend the winter in Key West and the rest of the year traveling. Do you know where you will be going next?

A: We’ll probably fly to Spain from the United States and then rent a car and drive up to Paris because I also cover professional tennis, so we’ll be going to the French Open tennis tournament. And then we’ll go over to London for a few months during the summer, which we often do, and then go down to Rome for the fall. But all that is subject to change, and we’ll probably takes some side trips from there. 

Q: If you could do another trip – a fantasy trip where you didn’t have to worry about your family’s concerns or the dangers involved – where would it be?

A: Let me say before I tell you, I’m not going to do it, or I don’t think I’m going to do it, but I would be intrigued by the idea of going to Afghanistan. I’d like to do that, if I were younger, if I didn’t have to worry, if it weren’t quite as dicey there.

But I think another area that is much more plausible that I might very well do is to complete the circuit of the Mediterranean and instead of crossing North Africa, go through Israel, North Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. And that’s got its own pucker factor there. There’s enough going on there to make it interesting and dicey, but not so much that you can’t get out and about.

But there’s so much. There’s so many places. I’d like to go to the opposite end of Africa, to go to South Africa again and travel down along the coast from Namibia through South Africa and up to Madagascar, going along the coast road, but that will have to be for another time. Maybe another life. 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]


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