In Other Words

Leftist Planet

Why do so many travel guides make excuses for dictators?

In 1933, as Joseph Stalin was busy purging his enemies and building a murderous cult of personality, the New York-based left-wing magazine the Nation advised readers interested in traveling to Moscow that Intourist, the Soviet Union's official travel agency, employed as tour guides "very interesting and attractive young women without hats," skilled in correcting misinformation spread by the capitalist media. Although the hatless apparatchiks from Intourist limited sightseeing to approved destinations -- Ukraine, at the apogee of its brutal famine, was off-limits -- they were nevertheless adept at obtaining "special permits" from the predecessor of the KGB, which, the Nation noted, "far from being a band of terrorist police, is an extremely able and intelligent organization, always glad to help tourists."

Even long after Stalin's crimes were revealed in Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech, the migratory "fellow traveler" persisted, shuffling between failed utopias and dropping in at model collective farms and labor camps. During the Cold War, this sort of ideological tourism was almost exclusively a progressive domain; the sugar-cane plantations of Cuba heaved with vacationing European and American compañeros, but few free market acolytes turned up in Augusto Pinochet's Chile to witness pension privatization or marvel at his market liberalization program. Even in the Soviet Union's final days, Hungarian-American academic Paul Hollander noted, a number of companies still offered educational trips to Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada, and Nicaragua. And years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, ideological dead-enders could still join expensive "reality tours" of Fidel Castro's Cuba or Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.

These days, the young and progressive book travel online, eschewing tour groups and specialized travel agents. This leaves the task of a travelers' political education to guidebook empires like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, both of which -- while offering what Lonely Planet calls "honest and objective" advice on where to find the perfect pisco sour in Peru or that slice of beach paradise in Cambodia -- provide detailed, polemical asides on the political history and culture of the countries under review.

Lonely Planet was started in 1975, when the British hippie husband-and-wife team Maureen and Tony Wheeler self-published a guide to cheap travel in Southeast Asia. Mark Ellingham, also British, founded the competing Rough Guides in 1982 after finding existing guidebooks too thin on the "politics and contemporary life" of travel destinations. Both companies have been astoundingly successful. Rough Guides has sold more than 30 million books over the last 25 years, transforming itself from a publisher of travel guides into a global business empire, producing television programs, music albums, and dozens of other titles (like The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories). In 2010, Lonely Planet, now wholly owned by BBC Worldwide, sold its 100-millionth book. It too has branched into television, radio, and magazines.

Both guidebook empires have also made their founders very rich -- Lonely Planet was sold for well over $100 million -- though this has induced a certain amount of introspection. Lonely Planet's Wheeler now says he feels guilty about traveling because of the airline industry's contribution to global warming. And Ellingham, who has published The Rough Guide to Climate Change, says his business "must encourage travellers to travel less." They may be wealthy, making their money off an industry that's causing grievous harm to the Earth, but they certainly haven't left their liberal politics behind.

TO ESTABLISH THE quality of the political education they're serving up to a new generation of travelers, it's useful to begin by skimming their guidebooks for undemocratic countries like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

There's a formula to them: a pro forma acknowledgment of a lack of democracy and freedom followed by exercises in moral equivalence, various contorted attempts to contextualize authoritarianism or atrocities, and scorching attacks on the U.S. foreign policy that precipitated these defensive and desperate actions. Throughout, there is the consistent refrain that economic backwardness should be viewed as cultural authenticity, not to mention an admirable rejection of globalization and American hegemony. The hotel recommendations might be useful, but the guidebooks are clotted with historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing.

For instance, readers of Lonely Planet: Libya -- published before the recent unpleasantness -- are told that Libya's murderous dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was likely framed for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In fact, the book relates, "One of the most credible theories was that the bombing had been ordered by Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iran Air airbus by a US warship in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1988." Qaddafi is cast as a misunderstood figure ("A recurring theme throughout Colonel Qaddafi's rule has been his desire for unity with other states, all to no avail"), unfairly maligned by Western governments ("ordinary Libyans suffered [under sanctions] and the world rebuffed repeated Libyan offers to hand over the Lockerbie suspects for trial"), and the victim of media unfairness ("Western reporters, keen for any opportunity to trivialise the eccentricities of Libya under Qaddafi, referred to [his bodyguards] as the 'Amazon Women'").

It's not just the wacky colonel who got the benefit of the doubt. Has the media convinced you that the burqa is an instrument of oppression? Lonely Planet: Afghanistan, in a rare bit of what appears to be Taliban nostalgia, explains: "The burqa can be seen as a tool to increase mobility and security, a nuance often missed in the outside world's image of the garment. Assuming that a burqa-clad woman is not empowered and in need of liberation is a naïve construct."

Western media outlets have misinformed us on Iran as well. Lonely Planet: Iran assures travelers to the Islamic Republic that "99% of Iranians -- and perhaps even [President] Ahmadinejad himself" aren't interested in a nuclear conflict with Israel. In fact, ignore all the hyperventilating about nuclear weapons, because it's "hard to argue with" Iran's claim that its uranium-enrichment program exists only for peaceful purposes.

The West's misreading of Cuba is an old staple for this crowd, and a new generation of lefty guidebooks doesn't fail to disappoint on this score. The Rough Guide to Cuba, for example, even has a kind word for the draconian censorship implemented by the Castro regime, lecturing us that it's "geared to producing (what the government deems to be) socially valuable content, refreshingly free of any significant concern for high ratings and commercial success." Sure, the guidebook says, one can read dissident bloggers like Yoani Sánchez, but beware that opponents of the regime can be "paranoid and bitter" and are "at their best when commenting on the minutiae of Cuban life [and] at their worst when giving vent to unfocused diatribes against the government."

We've also apparently got it all wrong when it comes to Cuba's notorious Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a Stasi-like network of neighborhood-level informers that monitors and informs on troublesome dissidents like Sánchez. Lonely Planet: Cuba thankfully assures tourists that the group is, in fact, a benign civic organization: The CDR are "neighborhood-watch bodies originally formed in 1960 to consolidate grassroots support for the revolution [and] they now play a decisive role in health, education, social, recycling and voluntary labor campaigns."

WHY ALL THE bending over backward to excuse the world's most thuggish regimes? For the guidebook writer, as well as the starry-eyed travelers who buy them, there is no characteristic more desirable in foreign travel than "authenticity" -- places uncorrupted by the hideousness of Western corporate advertising and global brands-and many of these pariah states are the only destinations that offer it. Lonely Planet enthuses that Cuba is "a country devoid of gaudy advertising," possessing a "uniqueness [that] is a vanishing commodity in an increasingly globalized world." Indeed, the dictatorship protects its citizens from the poison of consumerism in a manner other states might want to emulate:

Almost completely cut off from the maw of McDonald's, Madonna and other global corporate-cultural influences, Cuba retains a refreshing preserved quality. It's a space and place that serves as a beacon for the future -- universal education, health care and housing are rights people the world over want, need and deserve.

Writing in the Ecologist, a venerable British environmentalist journal, Brendan Sainsbury, co-author of Lonely Planet: Cuba, contends that there is purity in Cuban penury:

Falling into step alongside pallid, overweight and uncoordinated Western wannabes out on two-week vacations from Prozac and junk food, the Cubans don't just walk; they glide, sauntering rhythmically through the timeworn streets like dancers shaking their asses to the syncopated beat of the rumba. Maybe the secret is in the food rationing.

THERE IS AN almost Orientalist presumption that the citizens of places like Cuba or Afghanistan have made a choice in rejecting globalization and consumerism. From the perspective of the disaffected Westerner, poverty is seen as enviable, a pure existence unsullied by capitalism. Sainsbury refers to Cuban food as "organic" and praises the Castro brothers' "intellectual foresight [that] has prompted such eco-friendly practices as nutrient recycling, soil and water management and land-use planning." Meager food rations and the 1950s cars that plod through Havana's streets, however, don't represent authenticity or some tropical version of the Western mania for "artisanal" products, but, rather, failed economic policy. It's as much of a lifestyle choice as female circumcision is in Sudan.

At the same time, formerly totalitarian countries that have undergone market reforms and economic growth are often upbraided by guidebook writers for betraying their revolutionary ideals. As living standards rise in Asia, the authentic travel experience is harder to come by. Writing on the Rough Guides website a few years ago, Ron Emmons, co-author of The Rough Guide to Vietnam, expressed his disappointment at the diminished power of the communist economy in Hanoi, sighing that his "first impression of Vietnam was a Pepsi advert splashed across the side of a shuttle bus. After centuries of valiantly fighting off invaders by land, sea and air, Vietnam had finally succumbed to western influences."

Even more surprising is the existence of guidebooks for walled-off North Korea, where government chaperones hover over every aspect of a traveler's itinerary. Lonely Planet, which offers a small section on the Hermit Kingdom in its South Korea book, saw in the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (who routinely announced his intention to engulf Seoul in a "sea of fire") a "pragmatism and relative openness to change." And Bradt, a British publisher that offers the only dedicated English-language tourists' guide to North Korea, positively effuses about the desolate, gray capital of Pyongyang as "a city without parallel in Korea, or Asia."

In sunlight, the streets and squares, without a fleck of dust, can literally dazzle.… Pyongyang reputedly has 58m2 of green belt per citizen -- four times the amount prescribed by the United Nations, and in spring its hills heave with green.

Perhaps it's no surprise then that Bradt also has a unique take on North Korea's successful quest for nuclear weapons at a time when millions of its people were starving: "The most common arguments in the Western media are that the aggressive little dictatorship sought all along to build a nuke and use it as a bargaining chip for more aid -- which sidesteps the fact that the DPRK was being threatened by a nuclear mega power with which, someway by mutual consent, it was not at peace." Regardless, there is little cause for concern, according to Bradt, because the "allegations about the uranium enrichment" are most likely a figment of overheated American imagination, from the same people who "cooked up the WMD intel against Iraq."

SO WHAT GIVES? The travel-guidebook writers employed by publishers like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides aren't "cleanskins," dropped into a country and instructed to familiarize themselves with the local culture and report back their findings, but rather professional travelers, enamored of the places they're tasked with cataloging. (Well, except Thomas Kohnstamm, perhaps, who admitted in 2008 that he had written Lonely Planet: Colombia without having ever set foot in the country. He was, however, dating "an intern in the Colombian Consulate.") These besotted individuals possess a remarkable ability to be forgiving of those they love, and scathing about those they hate. While Rough Guides enthuses about Cuba's health-care system and equivocates about Havana's totalitarian government, it has no problem defining American culture as a "combination of a shoot-from-the-hip mentality with laissez-faire capitalism and religious fervor [that] can make the USA maddening at times." One could see this sort of knee-jerk leftism as archaically charming, if it weren't so insidious.

After all, beyond tacitly endorsing the countries they visit, tourists also pour money into them. Take Lonely Planet's guide to Burma, a country that languished for almost four decades under a military junta known for imprisoning thousands of dissidents and leaving millions of citizens in poverty. In 2008, Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents 6 million British workers, threatened a boycott of Lonely Planet if it didn't withdraw its Burma edition; according to the TUC's petition, the book sent a "strong message of validation to the brutal military regime" by encouraging tourists to visit. Lonely Planet pointed out that the guide warned readers of the ethical dilemma by noting that forced labor was used to develop tourist sites and that "activists claim that tourism dollars help directly fuel government repression." But it refused to pull the guide. With the Burmese junta now relaxing its grip on power and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi encouraging tourism again, Rough Guides, which said in 2008 that it felt "wrong" to publish a Burma edition, is currently reconsidering.

The problem with guidebooks to countries like Cuba, Iran, and North Korea is not that they encourage travel to rogue regimes (the American travel ban to Cuba and the lack of tourism in North Korea have done little to unseat either government), but that they consistently misinform tourists about the exact nature of those countries. The solution isn't to stop traveling, but to travel wisely, not mistaking grinding poverty for cultural authenticity or confusing dictatorship with a courageous rejection of globalization.

So go to Cuba. Try to get that visa to North Korea. Visit the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Just make sure to throw your Lonely Planet and Rough Guides in the trash before you do.

Correction: The original version of this article misquoted Lonely Planet: Iran as saying it is “hard to argue with” Iran’s claim that its uranium enrichment program exists only for peaceful purposes. In fact, the guidebook says it is hard to argue with wanting to produce fuel domestically through peaceful uranium enrichment but that "if, after all the denials, Iran does produce a nuclear bomb, whatever little credibility the Iranian government retains in the international community will be gone.” Foreign Policy regrets the error. Lonely Planet has responded here.

Illustration by Andrew Roberts for FP

In Other Words

Teaching Intolerance

You should see what even first graders have to read in Saudi Arabia.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In the years just before the 9/11 attacks, I spent two semesters at a public school in Riyadh for my training as a teacher. I was stationed each day at the campus gates, instructed to inspect the girls' abayas as they left school. For each student older than 12, I checked: Was she wearing the tent-style cloak over her head and down to her ankles? Was her face fully covered, no slits for her eyes? I felt like a hypocrite, penalizing girls for violating a custom I don't support -- and one that the majority of Islamic scholars say is not a religious obligation.

The mandate was and still is part of the government-issued curriculum taught in Saudi public schools; it was in their textbooks that the girls were told they should cover their faces in order to be good Muslim women.

Much is made about the role of Islam in Arab societies -- how different interpretations of the Quran can shape laws and conventions. But less often do we consider how these interpretations reach our children: at school and, ultimately, in the textbooks they read. Since Saudi Arabia's first national textbooks were issued in 1937, the controversies they have inspired have mirrored the country's most fundamental debates -- about religion, the treatment of women, the influence of the West. Over time, textbooks have become instruments of the country's religious conservatives, replete with calls to jihad and denunciations of non-Muslims. Yet despite periodic reform efforts, and even though these efforts have escalated amid the global outrage that followed 9/11, in many ways the books remain stubbornly impervious to change. Even in the past two years, they have instructed first graders not to greet infidels and warned 10th graders of the West's threat to Islam.

The Saudi education system wasn't always destined for orthodoxy. King Abdulaziz, the kingdom's founder, established the precursor to today's Education Ministry in 1925, seven years before officially founding the country in 1932. The first national textbooks were heavily influenced by Egyptian and Lebanese curricula, and their chief author, the researcher Omar Abduljabbar, was considered a progressive, opening one of Saudi Arabia's first private girls' schools at a time when only boys could attend public schools.

By the 1950s, however, religious ultraconservatives had begun putting down roots in the Education Ministry. Despite the ministry's efforts to recruit members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and Syria, who were seen as proponents of a more liberal form of Islam, the more powerful Saudi religious establishment ensured that textbooks and school policies would become more intolerant and conservative, which the government's 1968 educational policy document solidified formally. In the following decades, those brave enough to criticize the government-mandated curriculum were scarce if not nonexistent. Saudis who were unhappy with the public education system could send their children abroad; even private Saudi schools were (and still are) required to teach Arabic and the government's religious curriculum.

Things went on this way with few changes until 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks were revealed to have been Saudis. Suddenly, outsiders began asking questions and pointing fingers, wondering what exactly was being taught in our schools. A 2002 Boston Globe report, for instance, bearing the headline "Saudi Schools Fuel Anti-U.S. Anger," quoted inflammatory passages from a government textbook, such as, "The hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill all the Jews." Saudis, too, began to reconsider: What kind of messages were we teaching our children?

The question was blown wide open in 2006 with the publication of a Freedom House report titled "Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance," which was translated into Arabic and published in the local newspaper Al-Watan. The report analyzed 12 Islamic-studies textbooks, concluding that "the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the 'unbeliever'" -- most egregiously in a 12th-grade text that instructed students to wage violent jihad against infidels to "spread the faith." Many Saudis bristled at a foreign organization meddling in their internal affairs, but the findings managed to rekindle the debate about Saudi education. The pages of Saudi schoolbooks were finally submitted to a new, unfamiliar scrutiny -- not just from outsiders but also from Saudis themselves.

The Education Ministry responded to the criticism, appearing to commit itself to reform by relegating 2,000 teachers it deemed extremists to administrative roles far from the classroom. The ministry also instructed principals to report anyone preaching extremism.

Yet textbooks remained largely untouched, with only the most explicitly intolerant material removed. Now and then a journalist today picks up one of the government-issued schoolbooks only to find that extremism has sneaked back into Saudi schools.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, the new first-grade jurisprudence book (yes, "Islamic jurisprudence" is taught in the first grade, along with a subject called "monotheism") condemned saying hello to non-Muslims. The lesson was presented as a dialogue between a teacher and a student named Ahmed. Ahmed asks, "Should I say hello to people I don't know?" The teacher replies, "Yes, you say hello to Muslims you know and Muslims you don't know." The news caused an uproar in the Saudi media that prompted the Education Ministry to recall the books and remove the offensive portion. But the new copies suspiciously omitted the names of the book's authors, replacing them with the phrase "Authored and revised by a team of experts." Among the book's creators had been Sheikh Yusuf al-Ahmad, known for suggesting that the Grand Mosque in Mecca be rebuilt to ensure complete gender segregation and for calling for a boycott against supermarkets that planned to employ female cashiers. (The sheikh is currently in prison for speaking out against the government's practice of imprisoning political dissidents indefinitely and without charge.)

Just last year, new interpretations were introduced in the boys' 10th-grade hadith, the book of the Prophet Mohammed's sayings and traditions. (Ever since a 1958 royal decree that allowed Saudi girls to attend public schools, boys and girls have been required to use different textbooks.) The move seemed progressive on the surface: The new subjects included human rights, Westernization, globalization, and international scholarships -- but under these headings lay more propaganda. Westernization, for instance, was described (in a mouthful) as a policy "exerted by the dominant forces by tools such as the Security Council and the United Nations in order to implement Westernization strategies in poor countries, especially Islamic nations, under the slogans of reform, democracy, pluralism, liberalism, and human rights, particularly with regard to women and religious minorities." The book also warned that by obtaining an education in the West, Saudi students were at risk of adopting beliefs, values, and behaviors at odds with Islam.

The hadith additions were widely thought to be an underhanded way of criticizing Saudi King Abdullah's scholarship program, which since 2005 has funded 130,000 Saudi students to study in countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States. That such anti-Western language made it into the hadiths proves how embedded Saudi ultraconservatives are in the Education Ministry -- they were able to modify textbooks even against official national programs.

The Education Ministry ultimately held its ground, revising the textbooks to exclude the intolerant subject matter. Still, teaching extremism is only one facet of a much larger, more persistent problem. In a 2009 study on education reform in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh-based researcher Ahmed al-Eissa found that the lion's share of the average male Saudi student's class time -- about 30 percent -- is still in religion. It's no wonder then that Saudi Arabia ranks so poorly in other core academic subjects. In the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, published by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, only Ghana and Qatar fared worse than Saudi Arabia in eighth-grade math scores across 48 countries. In science, Saudi students only performed better than those in Ghana, Qatar, Botswana, and El Salvador.

A study published last year by religious scholar Abdulaziz al-Qasim found that Saudi religion textbooks "have focused far too much on the lowest educational and skill objectives, such as rote memorization and classification, and neglected entirely the objectives of analysis, problem-solving, and critical thinking," leading to "passiveness and negativity." But Eissa's 2009 study noted that there is widespread refusal within the Education Ministry even to acknowledge the need for an overhaul.

It has been more than a decade since the Education Ministry began working on a plan to address these problems. Known as the Comprehensive Curricula Development Project, it is expected to be implemented across the kingdom in the next year, according to its website. Yet, if one reads the project's mission statement for religious textbooks, it is difficult to be optimistic. It calls for the books to require that "the learner grasp his membership and loyalty to Islam and derive all his affairs within it and renounce all that goes against it," as well as to "protect himself in facing deviant sects, creeds, false interpretations of sharia with reason, evidence, and politeness." Nowhere in the statement's 28 points is there any mention of tolerance or peace. Somehow "time management," No. 28, is a bigger priority.

Even if the ministry's changes materialize, education reform in Saudi Arabia is not simply a matter of revising textbooks. It's a matter of changing the minds of whole generations. Saudis who were taught to believe a very narrow interpretation of Islam are now foisting it onto millions more students. They will have to determine a way forward -- but they won't find the answer in their textbooks.

Omar Salem/AFP/Getty Images