on 13 November 2001
'Travels With My Daughter' would be better titled 'Memoirs of Neima Ash'. The pretence of this book is a summer in the 1970's that Ash, her daughter Ronit and a group of friends spent travelling through Morocco. However the book is mainly a loose collection of tales from Ash's earlier life, very few of which involved her daughter, and which serve only to reinforce the overstated point that Ash spent the 1960's and 70's mixing in literary and musical circles. Having known Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen become a recurring theme throughout.
Ash's stated aim of the book is to explore her relationship with Ronit and how travelling strengthened this. Ash never pretends to have been a conventional mother and from the start it is hard not to be shocked by some of her mothering techniques such as taking a baby Ronit to a party in a cardboard box, only to loose the box. A refusal to get up before midday leads to an inventive way of providing food and entertainment to a baby.
Ash tries to convince the reader these techniques were all part of her desire not to be bound by the rigours of traditional motherhood, but as the book progresses it becomes increasingly clear that she has never matured enough to extend her circle of self absorption to include her daughter. Ash doesn't realise that her refusal to adapt her lifestyle stops being trendy and starts to look like pure selfishness.
The part of the book that deals with Morocco provides a fascinating insight into the various aspects of the local culture, from princes to hashish growers. However, the vivid descriptions and historic background that made Ash's previous work 'Touching Tibet' so popular are limited, so ultimately it becomes a tale of an extended holiday with Ash's friends and their relationships the main characters.
Where the book does succeed is as a detailed study of a group of equally self-absorbed individuals. Aviva throws a tantrum when a Prince (who incidentally is paying for them to enjoy the highlights of Casablanca) turns up a bit late. Irving expects his wife to be pleased to see him when he turns up fresh from a holiday with his mistress. 11 year old Peter treats his mother like dirt and will only drink Coca-Cola. You do feel sorry for Peter though, as even with over 20 years hindsight Ash cannot see why Peter got upset at being left for a week on a farm with total strangers while the adults pursued their Moroccan fantasies. One of the few insights we get into Ronit is her inability to understand why her Moroccan boyfriend gets upset when his English equivalent turns up unexpectedly.
It is only in the final chapters that Ash spends any time with her daughter, and it is made clear that this is only because the others must return home. There is a hint that they then continue on together overland through northern Africa, but Ash obviously thought that experience was not worthy of including in a book entitled 'Travels with my Daughter'.
on 13 June 2008
Travels With My Daughter is released by Traveller's Eye, a small publisher established to show "that great things can be achieved by ordinary people". This book is not great, it doesn't chronicle great things, but yes, the protagonist is very ordinary, so the public is not entirely cheated.
Unfortunately, I was ripped off by the blurb, which reads: "Some may be shocked at the adventures mother and daughter share, but everyone will admire Niema's celebration of travel, motherhood and life itself ... [while] developing a unique mother and daughter bond which many only dream about." I suppose I was a little "shocked", but not by any of the promised adventures. I failed to "admire" Niema, and there wasn't a scrap of "celebration of motherhood" to be found. As for that dreamed of mother/daughter bond? The stuff of nightmares. I would have agreed with Niema's ex-husband - taking Ronit to Morocco was a bad idea. I must add that writing a book about it was a worse one.
As a previous reviewer astutely pointed out, the first third of the book at least is devoted to a feast of souped-up name-dropping. Okay, so she knows Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and late Canadian poet Irving Layton. She even indulged in a late-night drug-induced tryst with the latter two, simultaneously, which was evidently more memorable for her than they (she laments later in the book that neither of them commemorated the event with a poem). In fact, she seems at odd without relationships with men, intimate or otherwise. It's always Yeats-this and Cohen-that. She adores men unreservedly and is critical of the women in her life. Her so called travel-narrative is so frequently interrupted by the ubiqitous Irving Layton that if well-written it would be more apt as a doting memoir or a sentimental obituary. Her adoration for Layton, the philandering husband of her travel companion Aviva, is evident from the outset, the book replete with meandering tributes to his talent and physique.
Ironically, I knew little about the Irving Layton before I read this book, and what I know now I find a little repulsive. Ash paints a picture of a stocky, sensual, self-absorbed egotist obsessed with his public oratory and his own reputation, neglectful of wife and son, debauched, needy and arrogant. I hope the man himself was a better person, and that Ash's memoir doesn't do him justice. Given that her memoir of Loreena McKennit was successfully surpressed by the singer, I suspect Ash's portraits of the celebrities she encounters are disingenuous and self-serving.
As a character, Ash seems without sympathy. In a book about "travels with her daughter," 15-year-old Ronit is little more than a footnote. Loyal and free-thinking, Ronit seems content to follow her mother around Morocco and let her do her thing. However, in spite of boasting about being in sync with the spirit of Morocco, the lifestyle, the sensuous people, the rhythm of Marrakesh, etc., etc., Ash is totally oblivious to the experience and feelings of the people around her. When Aviva and Layton's 11-year-old son David is left with a couple of indifferent men at a "farm" in the middle of nowhere for a few days for his parents to explore their orgiastic fantasies unhindered, Ash is dismissive of his feelings of abandonment. Likewise when Aviva leaves Layton over a series of affairs to join her in Morocco, an unenlightened Ash observes that Aviva has always been prone to exaggeration ("you must admit that sometimes you grossly overracted") and trivialises Irving's serial adulteries ("you became addicted to his infidelities. Sometimes when no infidelity existed you imagined one"). She takes this opportunity to remind the reader of times in which Aviva behaved unreasonably toward Irving and she, Niema, behaved by contrast with openness and adoration. It's somewhat nauseating that she elevates Irving to the status of a god and herself an inspirational muse, while making her friend out to be confoundingly human. She is totally exasperated by Aviva's need to grieve, and totally consumed by her own journey of self-satisfaction.
The journey throughout Moroccois mainly, predictably, about sex and drugs. She pursues men, most of whom she adores unreservedly, and hashish, which she claims not to be interested in, but inhales generously at every opportunity, always with Ronit and miserable 11-year-old David in tow. She accepts invitations from strangers and expresses surprise when they take advantage of her drug-induced naivety. She behaves like a child bent on indulgence of every whim, regardless of consequence. Debauchery and drug-induced bumbling ensue, which she attempts to explain as poetry and adventure. She rambles incessantly about the sensuality of Morocco and the bodies of Moroccan men in a manner that is as embarrassing as learning the facts of life from your middle-aged mother. She spends the night with a wealthy Moroccan who has a harem full of lovers, male and female, then wonders why he never calls, convinced their liason was passionate and meaningful, insetad of an awkward fling in a string of awkward flings.
Finally, her perspective on Morocco is skewed and unsatisfying. She plainly views it as a playground for the West, and characterises it as a site of indulgence and sensual delight. She eats, dabbles in hard and soft drugs, and hooks up with random strangers, and thinks she has experienced the true Morocco. She is disgusted when she visits the palace of a Moroccan Prince, only to discover an electrical socket in the wall. Yes, Moroccans use electricity. She exclaims, "the wired connections cut like a bolt of electricity through the romance of the palace" (and yes, the book is full of such clunky epithets). The prince dons western attire and treats her to a performance of Suzanne by Leonard Cohen, which she describes as "ludicrous", "a subliminal bolt of horror". Why shouldn't a Moroccan venerate Leonard Cohen, when she has spent so much time doing it? Because he's Moroccan, and he's supposed to smoke from a Hookah, eat dates, wear kaftans and flirt with western women.
She and her friends treat Morocco like an archaic enigma onto which they can project their own western fantasies. They have fixed ideas about how North Africans should behave, and when Morocco doesn't comply, Morocco falls briefly out of favour. I know this book supposedly memorialises an era of social revolution, and that at the time of her Morocco trip Ash was only a few years older than I am now, but I long to tell this woman to get a haircut and get a real job. I must give her some credit for admitting to being a negligent and selfish mother, but I get the impression she thinks her free-spiritedness makes up for it. It doesn't. I grew weary of her irresponsible excesses, her dogged pursuit of self-gratification at the expense of everyone and everything else in her life, her inflated ego and childish outlook - not childlike as she would have us believe.
The narrative is rambling, disconnected, and ultimately boring. Her writing is not good, and the lack of sympathy with people, landscape, life, is frustrating. I finished the book in the hope that it would redeem itself. The second chapter to last, detailing an almost-arrest and a humorous money-changing catastrophe on board a boat between Spain and Morocco was promising, partly, because the humour eroded her carefully constructed ego a little, partly because this incident involved her daughter Ronit to a greater degree than the rest of the book. Ultimately reading this narrative felt like wading through molasses. I fretted constantly about whether I should just turn back or give up. I should have.