Title: The Dark Tourist
Author: Dom Joly
Rating: 5 Stars
Dates read: 19 Mar 18 – 30 Mar 18
Publication date: 2 Sep 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre(s): Memoir, Travel
Ever since he can remember, Dom Joly has been fascinated by travel to odd places. In part this stems from a childhood spent in war-torn Lebanon, where instead of swapping marbles in the schoolyard, he had a shrapnel collection — the schoolboy currency of Beirut. Dom’s upbringing was interspersed with terrifying days and nights spent hunkered in the family basement under Syrian rocket attack or coming across a pile of severed heads from a sectarian execution in the pine forests near his home.
These early experiences left Dom with a profound loathing for the sanitized experiences of the modern day travel industry and a taste for the darkest of places. And in this brilliantly odd and hilariously told travel memoir, Dom Joly sets out on a quest to visit those destinations from which the average tourist would, and should, run a mile. The more insalubrious the place, the more interesting is the journey and so we follow Dom as he skis in Iran on segregated slopes, spends a weekend in Chernobyl, tours the assassination sites of America and becomes one of the few Westerners to be granted entry into North Korea. Eventually Dom journeys back to his roots in Beirut only to discover he was at school with Osama Bin Laden.
Funny and frightening in equal measure, this is a uniquely bizarre and compelling travelogue from one of the most fearless and innovative comedians around.
I love travelling. I love experiencing new cultures, eating new foods, meeting new people, and going places that I fall in love with. I love reading about different people’s experiences in New places, especially when those places are unusual or exciting, and visited by a comedian.
I must confess that I know startlingly little about some of the places that Dom Joly visits, and even less about the man himself. His sense of humour and frank honesty in the face of harsh landscapes and in difficult situations really opens otherwise closed destinations and cultures, and his desire to explore and then share his findings with the reader served as much as a travel guide than as a comedic memoir.
Joly is a Lebanese born Brit who spent much of his younger years living in the war torn middle Eastern country (and actual home if hummous). He went on to develop a passion and a career in current events, travelling the world in search of news stories. Current affairs broadcasters and journalists are often sent to work in war torn countries, areas battling post dictator mayhem, and cities shook by natural or political disasters, and it is these places that Joly clearly takes joy in visiting. Dark Tourism is described as travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy, and although this appeals to the author, I think it’s anything off the beaten track too, anywhere new, closed off, or still hasn’t suffered from a tourism boom that’s sapped the authentic lifestyle from the place. I can’t say this is completely me, but, I get the appeal. I don’t think I particularly seek death and tragedy, or politically interesting tourist free places, but I definitely find them interesting and found the book fascinating and amusing as a whole.
The book featured different trips that Joly took during the course of writing the book: Iran, Cambodia, USA, Ukraine, North Korea, and Lebanon. I’ve been to Washington, but the focus of my trip was less about the Dark tourist attractions and more the city as a whole. Cambodia however is a country that bow trades on its temples and tragedies, so much of my trip followed the route that Joly took through the country. Everywhere else remains on my to explore list, I actually think I’d now quite like to see some of the places featured.
I really have never expressed an interest in visiting Iran in any capacity, and I don’t really think I’ve ever considered it as a place anyone might want to visit. It’s a fairly closed country, we don’t really know a lot about what happens or what the country has to offer, and the reactions people have when they hear about Joly’s ski plans, and the welcome he receives in Tehran confirms that Iran is not a country most would normally visit. I get the appeal of seeing skiing in burqas and of experiencing a culture so far removed from Britain’s, and found it as fascinating as Joly did to experience the stark differences. I’ve visited countries with strict drinking laws and different religions, and I have my own misconceptions about Iranians and Iranian culture, so it was fascinating to hear him debunk a lot of these and talk fondly of a relatively unknown country.
I have been to Cambodia. I started in Siem Reap, just as he did and made my way to Phnom Penh to visit the city and the killing fields. Unlike Joly, I did not grow up with knowledge of Pol Pot’s regimes, nor realise how much Angkor Wat influenced the temples of my favourite film as a child (The Jungle Book, for those who wondered. I actually took a King Louie toy with me when I visited in 2014). Dom Joly visited the country for very different reasons than I did, and so it was quite extraordinary to hear how someone else reacted to the smells and sights of Siem Reap and the neighbouring wonder of the world.
There is no denying that Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields is a hard place to visit. I don’t know a lot of what happened, and certainly knew less at the time of visiting, so I can’t imagine how much worse it would be for someone who knew about the atrocities and who came from a country constantly in a state of torment. Dom Joly saw a very different side of Cambodia than I did, and certainly had a different experience, which highlights just how brilliant reading travel memoirs such as this are.
Many of those who read this will have either visited, or live in, America. I have seen the site of the World Trade Centres, and I’ve visited museums and prisons throughout the country, but I’ve never really sought out locations known for death and tragedy. I don’t think anything has ever made me laugh about conspiracy theories quite so much as hearing about Dom Joly’s experiences in Dallas, he was just trying to get onto a tour that entertained him, and ended up speaking to and being shown around by crackpots, weirdos, and state haters. (I feel like the election of Trump makes so much more sense.)
OK, his trip through the heartland states up towards Washington sounded pretty awesome – if too short – and visiting different locations in DC having visited fairly recently was really good, but it was the stories of entering the US that really made me smile. We’ve all filled in the old green customs card that asks some seriously baffling questions about genocide and nuclear triggers, and we’ve all stood scared and panicky in the immigration queue waiting to have our fingerprints taken, irises scanned, and passports stamped when we have absolutely nothing to hide. I can’t imagine what it would be like to enter the US as a guy born in Beirut, trying to convince an immigration officer from Texas that I had, in fact, decided to going skiing in Iran rather than Switzerland and absolutely was not using my beard to hide my Islamic terrorist face. Joly faces these situations with his trademark dry humour, and it made me snort multiple times.
I have a fascination with Chernobyl. I can’t deny it, I’m fascinated by the event and the abandoned zones, and if I’m honest I’d like to visit one day. I don’t really know that much about what’s left, but can definitely see why Dom Joly and his dark tourist ways would want to visit such a place. He made Kiev sound fascinatingly seedy, and Pripyat sound secretive and secluded. I don’t think I’ve ever realised how little I, or we, really know about the event, and that was shown so well by Joly as he toured, took pictures of, and explained the events and the disaster’s location.
Given the current global political situation, North Korea is pretty high on the list of places that we wouldn’t go near, even by accident. It’s the place that, for me, doesn’t fit with the dark tourist label that Joly has assigned himself as he visits as much for a cultural snapshot as he does a site of tragedy. I have friends who have visited, and although they took pictures, I’ve never heard such a detailed account of tourist life, or life in general, behind the veil. I know the stories and have heard the propaganda, but hearing someone speak about their time as a visitor, what they saw, how they felt, their interactions and the way people viewed them as spectators in their country was pretty eye opening. I think we all have an idea of what we think it’s like on a grand scale, but to hear how the little things in life were, bus rides and food and sending emails, was both scary and incredibly interesting.
I didn’t realise that this book would end in Lebanon. Given the fact that Lebanon has gone through war and strife, is a middle eastern gem, and that Joly himself was born there and has family who still resides there it seems kind of obvious that it would. I know absolutely nothing about the country, but it’s Joly’s tales of childhood trips to mountains and ruins, of the best wine tasting experiences and that the Lebanese pride themselves as the true homeland of hummus really bring the country to life. From knowing nothing to now knowing a little bit but not really much, I kinda want to go!
I know, this review was less about the book and more about how I feel about the places Dom Joly visited. I kind of feel like that was the whole point of the book. He told the stories of countries the layman won’t visit, whilst sharing the same opinions (y’know, if Easyjet start a flight there then it’s passed its best, or the more ‘democratic’ and ‘people’s’ and ‘republics’ before the country name, the dodgier the regime) and opened the doors and windows into countries we don’t really know that much about. I really enjoyed it. I laughed, I learnt, what more can you ask for?