Dear Condé Nast Traveler: Religious details should matter in your stories

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Condé Nast Traveler is what it purports to be: a publication for the rich, discerning and leisure class traveler for whom the word “budget” is not an option. So one would think it would have the money to pay for knowledgeable copy editors

Or maybe not. According to glassdoor.com, a fair share of employees report low pay, long work hours, no work/life balance, that sort of thing. So maybe their copy desk isn’t top of the line.

Whatever the case, the magazine needs some folks who know the basics of world religions, including the central Christian doctrine resurrection of Jesus. My case in point is a piece written by Brooklyn, N.Y., writer Bliss Broyard out this month that is called “I took my kids out of school for three months of travel.”

The stops included sojourns in Jerusalem, Athens, Istanbul, Rome and Oslo and being Jewish, they wanted to their kids to experience Israel, so that’s where they headed first. All went well until:

The next day, while my husband and E. wait in line to enter the Muslim holy site, Haram Al-Sharif (called the Temple Mount by non-Muslims), R. and I run over to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, where we’re carried on a tide of people through the entrance and up some worn stone stairs, polished and slippery from centuries of the faithful’s footsteps.
We wait our turn to lie on the floor and reach down into a hole to touch the tomb that is said to hold Jesus’s bodily remains. I can see that R.’s curiosity is piqued: whether by the chance to lay his fingers on a tangible relic of history, or a kid’s conditioned desire to join any long queue because it must lead to something cool, I have no idea.
Then we overhear a tour guide saying in a well-practiced phrase that the wait can be over an hour, and it’s not even certain that Jesus is buried there. So we hustle back to the Temple Mount for a chance to see the spot where the Prophet Mohammed allegedly rode his mythical stallion to that final mosque in heaven.

The tomb “that is said to hold Jesus’s bodily remains?” Seriously?

Actually, no one has ever found Jesus’s body that we know of. The whole paragraph would have been improved if it had all been put into the past tense. Or was the author sending the message she doesn’t give a rip about what Christians believe and that as far as she’s concerned, Jesus’s body is still somewhere around? Hard to tell if it’s just sloppy phrasing or something more.

Then we get to last sentence about Mohammed riding his horse 766 miles to the “final mosque” in heaven. Actually, the Al Aqsa site was supposedly the final mosque although there was no mosque there at the time. It was more of a garbage dump; the Second Temple of Jesus’ time having been torn down centuries earlier. What is now known as the Dome of the Rock wasn’t built until 691 A.D., long after Mohammad died. 

Also, the “trip to heaven” didn’t involve a mosque but rather a meeting of various biblical personalities during a tour of the seven stages of heaven.

I don’t know much about this writer, but religion (at least those outside of her faith) doesn’t seem to be her area of expertise if she made two mistakes like this in one paragraph.

And in the introduction to her piece, she refers to "three of the most important religious sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims squished into one acre of land." I could see how the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall could be in the same vicinity, but the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a few short blocks away; hardly in the same acre.

I found a photo on Creative Commons (thank you Pixabay) that shows the golden Dome in the foreground and the blue-domed Sepulcher some distance back. Had no one proofreading this article actually walked about the Old City? 

One could argue that Condé Nast Traveler is a luxury travel publication and not a religious one, therefore I shouldn't quibble over minor details, but actually, the Traveler has been covering religion quite a bit recently, starting with this piece on the food and hotel scene in Jerusalem that ran in March. 

Also in March, they ran a piece on 15 sacred sites around the world. (Sounds like March was their religion issue, no?) Religion tourism is big business. So if Condé Nast is going to play the game, they need to follow the rules.

I say this as someone who does religion and travel writing (although not together), who has been doing travel writing off and on since 1993 and who knows how hard it is to get travel stories into elite publications like Condé Nast Traveler. I landed four stories in the Washington Post travel section in 2016 alone, so I am hardly new at this, but magazines like the Traveler give the impression they solicit only from the best-informed writers. 

In this case, turns out they didn't. Or the writer was treading in an area beyond her expertise. 

This past April, I was at a regional travel writer’s conference here in Washington state and I saw some very hardworking people, most of whom will never get near a top magazine because they don’t have the New York connections that Broyard has and don’t have the money for the kind of glamorous destinations that the Traveler wants people to write about.

One dirty secret of travel writing is that most magazines don’t pay your expenses at all and the (usually paltry) fee one gets even from the larger publications doesn’t come near to matching what you pay for a trip. Meanwhile, they do quite well financially because they get to charge top rates for travel ads. 

Yes, writers get to write some things off as business expenses, but that still doesn’t pay the bills. And that’s if you get an assignment. I’ve pitched ideas to the best of them and rarely do editors get back to you. It’s a buyer’s market out there. And it's not what you know that gets you the assignment, it's who you know.

Back to the "I took my kids out of school" piece, the rest had more religion in it via a journey the family takes to a Turkish island where the husband’s Sephardic Jewish ancestors lived for centuries before emigrating to the United States a century ago. Oddly, the narrative is cut off soon after that, leaving one to wonder how the rest of the journey went.

I’m certainly not criticizing the entire piece and a lot in it was interesting, although way too much space was devoted to how the author’s children were learning about Greek mythology. But details matter when you’re traveling in parts of the world where the great religions meet and clash. And if Condé Nast can't ensure that all its writers grasp the important details of it all, then they need to hire some editors that do. 

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