It’s tough to know where to start when you’re talking to a guy with a resumé like that of Zegrahm’s cultural geography expert, Ron Wixman.
Do you ask about his 20 years living in tiny villages in the Balkans, which made him an expert on the region? Do you talk about his time as a student in Leningrad, or as a Cultural Geography professor at the University of Oregon? Or do you ask about his work as a consultant with the US State Department and CIA on ethno-cultural conflicts?
Fortunately, we had time to ask him about all of these career highlights, as well as his thoughts on what makes Zegrahm’s forthcoming Sea to Sahara expedition so special…
You're considered an expert in the ancient and modern societies of the Mediterranean, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia. What was it that originally drew you to that subject?
My initial interest was in the folk cultures of the Balkans. My further interests in the cultures, religions, languages, and modern nationalisms of that area resulted in my development of an interest in those issues in all of Eurasia and the Middle East.
At the university I studied the cultural geography and anthropology of those areas and developed a keen interest in their impact on modern nationalisms, geopolitics of the areas, and on development.
You spent 20 summers living in villages in the Balkans. What kind of impact did that experience have on you?
Instead of studying at institutes in capital cities, I chose to live in villages and take part in village life in order to better understand the peoples and cultures of the region. I stayed in homes without electricity or running water, on hills with shepherds, worked on the farms, and went to the local markets to sell various products.
Through this I obtained a deep knowledge of the peoples, their cultures, ways of life, and values. This education ran totally counter to what I had studied at the university, which led me to become one of the American experts on this region.
My entire life changed as a result of this, as well as studying in Leningrad in the USSR. I learned how important it is to know the people of a country and not just their government.
Your bio lists you as a cultural geography expert. Can you explain what that is?
Cultural geography is the study of the important aspects of human cultures as they relate to issues of language, ethnicity, nationalism, religion, development, and geo-politics.
For example, in Bosnia there are three peoples that are ethnically identical in origin. However, their ancestors chose different religions.
Having the constant of ethnicity and language, and all living in the same region, one can study the impact of religious values on a given people.
What led you from being someone interested in ancient and modern societies to someone who consults with the State Department and CIA on ethno-cultural conflicts?
Having lived in Balkan villages, becoming an expert on ethnic issues, knowing four local languages, and learning Russian fluently (and having lived in Russia as a student), I was sought by a professor at Columbia University to work on a project dealing with Soviet Nationality problems.
At the same time another professor—who was a specialist on Islam in the Soviet Union—had me work with him. I did not know that the former was a specialist on the USSR for the State Department, and the latter a specialist on Islam in the USSR for the government of France.
The latter eventually contacted my advisor in the geography department at the University of Chicago, who worked for the CIA on Soviet affairs. At the University of Chicago, I worked for one of the heads of the Soviet East European section of the CIA, along with my advisor and the specialist on Islam in the USSR.
Out of this I became a consultant with the CIA and State Departments, and when the war broke out in Yugoslavia I was called in to work with the Department of Defense.
You've traveled all over the world. What makes the region Zegrahm visits on its Sea to Sahara expedition so special?
In cultural terms, the Azores and Canary Islands are some of the most interesting areas in the world. Not only is the environment quite harsh for human habitation, but its geographical location made it crucial in the expansion of Portugal and Spain to the New World; they could replenish their stores of food and fresh water, making them vital to these two imperial nations.
Two major cultural issues are also involved. Virtually all slave trade between West Africa stopped in these and the Canary Islands, and the slaves were a major commodity for trade here. The other is related to Jews and the Inquisition. Under adverse conditions, many of Portugal’s and Spain’s Jews in 1492 chose to claim to be converts to Catholicism. But they still practiced Judaism in private and in secret.
The governments of Portugal and Spain did not trust them, so many were sent to settle in the Azores and Canaries. Many people believe that the cult of the Holy Spirit Churches that abound on these islands were actually founded by these Jews.
To make this trip all the more exciting, in addition to the fascinating geology and geography of the Canaries, we go to Marrakech, a city built by the Tuareg nomads of Northwest Africa. The pink architecture is magnificent, and the souk (old covered market) is one of the most interesting in the world.
Can you talk about some of the cultures of the Cape Verde Islands, Canary Islands, and the Western Sahara? How are they different, and what commonalities do they share?
The Cape Verde Islands, the Canaries, and the Azores were all settled primarily as a result of the rise of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. As I mentioned before, they were important in the slave trade (especially Cape Verde), and as stop-off points in both directions between Iberia and the Caribbean.
Morocco benefited greatly from this trade as well, as it was closely connected to the Iberian States for centuries.
Also interesting is the fact that the Jews of Morocco, Spain, and Portugal all had the freedom to trade with each other, as Christians had been forbidden to trade with the Moslems. This led to the Jewish communities prospering in all of these regions prior to the Inquisition. Moroccan Jews made up approximately one-third the populations of Marrakech, Fez, and Meknes, Morocco’s three traditional cities, up until the end of World War II.
I know the Western Sahara is a disputed territory between the Moroccan government and the indigenous Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. What can you tell us about the conflict, and the misconceptions people have about the region?
Western Sahara was called Spanish Sahara and was ruled by Spain independently long after Morocco became independent from France.
With their independence, both Morocco and Algeria claimed the Western Sahara as their rightful property. But the people of Western Sahara do not wish to be a vassal of either Morocco or France.
As such, a national liberation front called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has moved for independence. Currently, this region is ruled by Morocco and appears on maps as Moroccan territory.
Can you talk about your interactions with Zegrahm travelers, and what you hope they’ll take away from this expedition?
I always make it a point to chat with our travelers wherever we go. I hope that those traveling with us on this fascinating journey will come away with a greater sense of understanding cultures in a deeper way.
Seeing how people have lived on the harsh volcanic islands of the Canaries, and on the edge of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, should provide great examples of human geography at its best.
I hope to convey a deeper understanding of the role of religion in these diverse regions in a positive way.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.