Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco by Lawrence Rosen
The University of Chicago Press, 363 pages, ISBN 978-0-226-31748-9
published by TLS
John Freely is a living legend, an Odysseus-like role model for travel writers of my generation. For John, who looks like Ernest Hemingway, has left behind in his wake two-dozen guidebooks, biographies and arcane histories, but also a trail of laughter and exhausted hosts. As this books shows he also has a Byronic capacity to shake of the effects of a two-day long party with a dawn swim. Bars in Venice, Athens, Naxos, Beirut and whole streets in Istanbul still mourn the day he left town. Two of his works Strolling Through Istanbul and Stamboul Sketches have achieved cult status and there is not a Turkophile amongst us who hasn’t pillaged his books on the Ottoman Seraglio, Prince Jem, Mehmed the Conqueror and the Jewish mystic Sabbati Sevi.
He was always a triumphantly enthusiastic traveler, who crossed the Atlantic fourteen times and made a cats-cradle of any chart of the Mediterranean, having taken every conceivable ferry across the inner sea these last sixty years. He acquired his knowledge of its cities through walking their pavements into his memory, much of it accompanied by his three multilingual children. Yet this enviable record of life and literature was only the half of it. His day job was as a Professor of Physics, having worked on the Manhattan Project in his youth who could also lecture brilliantly on maths and the history of science.
John was born into an Irish-American family with a childhood divided between lodging houses in Brooklyn and peat-filled ancestral cottages in County Kerry’s Dingle peninsular. In one typically funny but painful aside, we learn the harshness of those times, when he asks his mother if they are working class, to be told that they could be if his father could only hold down his job – and by inference keep a lid on his drinking.
The future Professor dropped out of high school and seem destined to be cannon fodder, for he enlisted in the US Marines and served in the Far East. Fortunately a Catholic priest on board his US warship introduced him to a list of a 100 classic books of the world from Homer to Joyce. His intellect, once ignited, would never be dampened.
Though we meet most of bohemia between these covers, there are only two true heroes, his Irish mother Peg and Toots, who was not only his college sweet-heart, his manager and the mother of his children but who fully shared his passion for travel. It is a remarkable, uplifting and edifying life, though his is too modest about his charisma. To counteract this, I recommend you also read one of his daughter Maureen Freely’s novels - Sailing Through Byzantium or The Life of the Party. He always was that.
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson