`Indiana Jane' and the Cradle of Civilization

A TRAVELLER ON HORSEBACK IN EASTERN TURKEY AND IRAN, by Christina Dodwell. New York: Walker and Company. 191 pp. $18.95 hardback. SO many journeys commence with perfunctory excuses. Why did Byron's Don Juan set out on a European tour? ``To mend his former morals,'' so we're told. Why did the pilgrims of Chaucer's ``Canterbury Tales'' long to see strange shores? Blame it on the April showers. Why did Thurston Clarke, author of the recent book, ``Equator,'' decide to track that imaginary line around the globe? It had something to do with premonitions of his own expanding midriff.

Christina Dodwell, who has been seeking adventure for its own sake for more than a decade, seems to have run out of excuses. ``It was time for me to go travelling again by horse,'' she muses taciturnly, and then sets out for the wilds of eastern Turkey and the vast expanses of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Luristan - regions currently occupying parts of Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.

Dodwell's three-month journey began in May 1986 in Cappodocia, the area of central Turkey famed for its lunar landscape and rock-hewn churches. Her description of "Urg"up, a town in the center of the region, as ``sleepy'' bears witness to the growth of tourism in the last few years. "Urg"up is now ringed with busy upscale hotels. It is much easier to rent a car there than to obtain a mount.

From Cappodocia, Dodwell makes for the horse-breeding ranch of Iranian acquaintances. She travels through Iran by bus, the ubiquitous mode of popular transportation in that region of the world. While she is able to avoid the conflict zones, she cannot escape evidence of the Iran-Iraq war. Photographs of the dead line the streets of many towns. In Tehran, she spends an ironic afternoon with her host family watching a John Wayne shoot-em-up dubbed in Farsi.

After paddling solo up the Sepik River in New Guinea and traveling for three years on horseback through Africa, Dodwell's starchy self-confidence borders on detachment. When lunch on the trail is nothing more than nuggets of dried goat cheese, liberally laced with goat hair, Dodwell chows down just the way she does at the posh Sind Club in Karachi.

The equanimity that ensures her safe touring also inflects her writing. Readers expecting swells of Byronic pleasure as Dodwell traverses the tombs of Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes will have to look elsewhere. But when the pillared halls of Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital, make Dodwell's heart soar, the moment is (briefly) transcendent.

The several arrests she experiences in eastern Turkey and Iran irritate her hardly more than a canceled train annoys the average commuter. Like the inestimable Dame Freya Stark, the legendary British trekker she admires, Dodwell is a regular Indiana Jane, who expects to have to deal with trouble. Carted off at 3 a.m. to the police station in Kars, near the Russian-Turkish border, she makes her bed on some chairs and falls asleep, confident that she will be released in the morning. Only her first arrest by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards ruffles her composure. Yet even in her bewilderment, she has the presence of mind to implement Freya Stark's mordant observation that a woman can always act more stupid than she is, and wiggle out of tight spots by manipulating gender stereotypes.

Dodwell's loping prose is best suited to the last third of her journey, the only true horse-trek of the book. Aboard Keyif, a stallion whose name means high-spirited, Dodwell makes a two-month circuit through eastern Turkey that brings her to the alkaline shores of Lake Van and along the slopes of Nemrut Dag, where she inexplicably misses the colossal statues Antiochus I had ordered hewn on the mountain's summit. Poor weather and tough terrain prevent her from climbing Mt. Ararat.

It is not in these famous spots but in the villages of eastern Turkey, places accessible by narrow jeep-trail or on horseback, that one comes to appreciate Dodwell's sensibility. Just as she is not given to romanticizing archaeology, she will not sentimentalize peasant existence. When she writes about a shepherd so poor that he can only offer her a cup of hot water instead of the customary tea, she does so with a dry eye. Her scrapes with mountain bandits and the police do not prevent her from recording the remarkable generosity of the Turkish people, who through custom and religion are given to trusting strangers.

The most poignant effect of Dodwell's journey is its picture of the cradle of civilization in the late 20th century. On the outskirts of dreary cement-brick cities, families living in black goat's-hair tents tend sheep while listening to Middle-Eastern pop music on cassette recorders. Villages without electricity pool money to buy a generator with which to power a VCR so they can view American movies. Serfdom exists side by side with computers and high-tech weaponry.

Some will read this book and feel sure that the world has gone a little grayer, a little more homogenous. Others, less given to postmodern cynicism, will admire its account of creative adaptation and resistance to life in the fast lane.

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