Friday 18 January 2019

Travels in a very strange land

Journalist Isambard Wilkinson has written a personal account of his travels through Pakistan - a place he grew to love in his Anglo-Indian grandmother's Waterford home. He spoke to our reporter

Isambard Wilkinson on his travels through Pakistan. Photo: Scott Eells
Isambard Wilkinson on his travels through Pakistan. Photo: Scott Eells
Travels in a Dervish Cloak, published by Eland, is out now, €23.99

Joe O'Shea

It may seem a quixotic endeavour - to write a travel book about a country few people would ever choose to travel to.

But Travels in a Dervish Cloak, an account of one man's lifelong fascination with troubled Pakistan, is much more than a travelogue or traditional memoir of a foreign correspondent's adventures in a strange and dangerous land.

Journalist Isambard Wilkinson did put in his time as The Telegraph's man in Islamabad, endeavouring to shed light on a country which, since the 9/11 attacks in the US, has become synonymous with terrorism, chaos and extreme danger for Western journalists.

But Wilkinson's enchantment with Pakistan began long before he chose journalism as a profession. And its roots were in the Co Waterford countryside, in the home of his Anglo-Indian grandmother and in her stories and the Hindi nursery rhymes she would sing to him as a child.

Isambard's father was in the British navy, the family travelled around the world but he spent much of his childhood at his grandmother's home outside Lismore in Waterford, where she had settled after leaving India following the end of the British Raj.

"I have a great affinity for Ireland and this is home for me," says Isambard over a coffee in Cork city, having just arrived off an airplane from his latest work posting in Hong Kong.

It was to his childhood countryside home that his grandmother's great friend, the elderly scion of an old Pakistani family known as the "Begum" (a title that once meant "Lady" or "Princess"), would arrive for long visits every year.

For the young Isambard, this was the annual arrival of an exotic caravan, with the Begum and her servants descending with trunks full of colourful robes and carpets, cooking curries and flat breads in the kitchen and flooding the house with pungent aromas, bright colours and strange speech. "It was certainly something different in rural Waterford in the 1980s," says Isambard.

"As a child, I remember, the Begum's servants would sleep on the floor outside her bedroom door, we would have told her that wasn't how things worked here in Ireland, but that wouldn't have made any difference."

These annual visits stoked a fascination with Pakistan, and Isambard made the first of several visits (as a wide-eyed teenager) to Lahore in 1990, to attend the wedding of the Begum's youngest son.

Several more visits followed, with Isambard and his older brother exploring the country by train and bus, trekking up into the Hindu Kush mountains or walking the backstreets of Lahore to find colourful temples, dusty remnants of the British Raj and tribal chiefs who were friends of the Begum.

What he encountered, and what remained a feature of Pakistan throughout his time there, was "incredible hospitality and genuine warmth" in a country where deep layers of history preserved ancient religious beliefs, sometimes unfathomable conflicts and contradictions and the seeds of religious fundamentalism which would later tear Pakistan apart.

Wild political currents

Having been posted to Pakistan as correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper in 2006 - at the height of the War On Terror - Isambard was now working in the country that had fascinated him from his childhood, trying to navigate the wild political and religious currents of a land that in many respects, seemed to be descending into violent chaos.

However, his book, Travels in a Dervish Cloak, is not straight-up reportage or an attempt to explain Pakistan's recent troubles to a Western audience. There are elements of the traditional newspaper man's travails in a strange land, such as accounts of tortuous, dangerous journeys deep into the tribal areas to find warlords and jihadists who could, at any moment, turn on a Western journalist.

At its heart, it is the account of finding oneself in a very strange land. Isambard writes with humour and wit about his difficulties with employing interpreters, local fixers and household staff, of navigating the maddening bureaucracy and complicated caste systems of Pakistan. He also recounts his serious health difficulties which caused him life-threatening problems and eventually led him to leaving the country.

"There was no journalistic compulsion in writing the book and I don't think this is going to do much for my journalism career," he says.

The author instead takes a very broad and deep view of his host country, exploring the culture and history far beyond the headlines.

"It was my big complaint as a journalist working there, the narrowness of the reporting on Pakistan, that it is always about the chaos, the War On Terror, Islamic fundamentalism. The Western media just vilifies the place, the headlines will only be about this epicentre of terrorism, the axis of evil," he says.

One of the great themes in his book is the conflict between the less hard-line, mystical Sufiism tradition of Islam, prevalent in Pakistan for many centuries, and the recently propagated fundamentalism which accepts no accommodation of any other traditions or beliefs.

The author recounts visiting centuries-old Sufi shrines, where elements of far older religions such as Zoroastrianism still survived, and seeing how they were being (in many cases) bulldozed or blown-up as the new hardliners sought to erase the "impure". It seems Pakistan's great tragedy is how this brutal fundamentalism is systematically destroying a gentler tradition which allowed different religions or even different strands of Islam to co-exist in peace.

"I went back to Pakistan with my wife for a holiday last year," says the author.

"And while the general level of political violence had fallen, most of the Sufi shrines we wanted to visit had been recently hit by suicide bombers, killing up to 50 people at a time".

Isambard writes of the beauty of the country and the spontaneous hospitality of its people.

"Pakistan has got so much beauty. Before the troubles there, the mountain areas in particular, the Hindi Kush and the Himalayas were such incredible regions to visit. It could be attracting tourists from all over the world."

The author's deep affection for Pakistan, for its people and its culture and traditions, is obvious. But does he believe Pakistan, for so long mired in political violence and dysfunction, can hope for a brighter future? "That is the million dollar question," he says. "Its problems seem immense, it has separatist movements within its borders, endless conflict with India, the huge threat of fundamentalism and a ruling elite which has not served it well for decades.

"But I can't write it off. And I think that says something about the resilience of the people. Far away from the state-sponsored, belligerent nationalism, you meet ordinary people and they have a kind of natural pride in themselves and their country, and that gives me hope for the future."

Isambard points to the example of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl shot in the head and left for dead by fundamentalists, who has survived to become a champion for women's rights and a shining example to the world of what Pakistan's future could be.

Travels in a Dervish Cloak, published by Eland, is out now, €23.99

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