Wanderlust:PJ O'Rourke: Holidays in Heck

November 7th, 2011

By, Peter Moore

In 1989 P J O’Rourke turned the genre of travel writing on it’s head with the release of Holidays in Hell, reporting from trouble spots around the world and subjecting them to  blackly comic treatment. Twenty-one years later he has released a sequel of sorts. It’s called Holidays from Heck, and he speaks to Peter Moore about the changes in travel over the intervening decades.

Holidays in Hell was hugely influential, creating a whole new travel writing genre almost overnight. Did you expect it to have such an impact?

Gosh no. As with most books, I’d waited until I’d accumulated enough material, that was presentable, sometimes on a specific subject, sometimes random, then I whack it together and make it a book.

I think I had it in mind to make collection of stories about going to awful places, but it was so long ago now I can’t remember. There were some books, like Eat The Rich, where I deliberately picked the places I would go to because they offered some kind of contrast – a country with no resources that was very rich, a country with lots of resources that was very poor, that sort of thing. With Holidays in Hell I was just going to wherever bad things were happening.

I was hardly the first person to do it though. You have to go back to a man who was certainly a great traveller but a really terrible write, Sir Richard Frances Burton, to find the genesis of the form. He dressed up as Muslim and went to Mecca and Medina. He wasn’t kidding around.

Didn’t you dress up in Holidays in Hell?

I did disguise myself, as a Palestinian. I wore a kaffiyeh. But it wasn’t to pass among the Palestinians it was actually to get by the Israelis. This was during the first intifada. The Israelis had decided they were going to be very strict about who they were going to let in to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. And one group they definitely did not want in were journalists. I was quite tanned at the time – I’d been out in the desert – and it’s by no means unusual for a Palestinian to have blue eyes, so I just put on my foreign-looking jeans, one of those ill-fitting Euro-sweaters and a kaffiyeh. The only giveaway, if they’d been looking closely, is that I’ve never seem a Palestinian wearing boat shoes!

But then my photographer had more problems. I don’t have to carry much equipment but my photographer had to dress up as an old Arab man, wearing the full dishdasha, all the way to the ground, and he sort of hunched over to conceal the fact that he was carry three cameras.

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