NON-FICTION: TRAVELLING WITH A SCHOLAR

Published December 27, 2020
A statue of Tamerlane in front of the Hotel Uzbekistan in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent
A statue of Tamerlane in front of the Hotel Uzbekistan in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent

Inarguably, one of the finest (read: exhaustive) books published in Pakistan in the outgoing year is Professor Iftikhar H. Malik’s The Silk Road and Beyond: Narratives of a Muslim Historian. It is supposed to be a collection of travelogues, but the volume rises above that. Written in first person singular (sometimes it becomes plural), it gives the historical background of the places the author takes us to and introduces us to real life characters of different hues and shades.

Malik’s travels begin with a narration and description of Tamman, the hometown of Air Marshal Nur Khan, in Punjab. Joining him on the visit are his wife and their son, under the leadership of the author’s elder sister Bilqis Begum, to offer condolences to the family of the man whose services to the country’s air force and national airline, as also different sports, have remained unparalleled. The author also refers to influential people in the vicinity, not the least important of whom was the awe-inspiring Nawab of Kalabagh. On the other hand is Bilqis Begum, who persevered for girls’ education — much to the chagrin of the landlords and an influential maulvi in the town.

Malik devotes the second chapter to his senior-most cousin Hakim Mohammed Nawaz Khan, known widely as “Hakimji”, who is more than a mere medical consultant in the town. Interestingly, Hakimji’s wife’s son from her earlier marriage joins him and is addressed as “Chhote Hakimji”, and observes protocol by walking behind his senior.

In the third chapter, the author takes a long jump and lands at one of his alma maters, Michigan State University in the United States, where he renews his ties with an old mentor, and a classmate who has joined the faculty.

The fourth chapter is devoted entirely to the great poet Hafiz of Shiraz who wrote in Persian, “the language of half of the known world.” Malik claims that, from Bosnia to Bengal, there was no greater exponent of the ghazal, and that Hafiz inspired poets of the East as also some from the West, who read the translations of his exquisite verses. Hafiz’s encounter with the ruthless ruler Tamerlane, and the latter’s conversion from foe to friend, make for interesting reading. No less gripping is the author’s visit to the Nehru Centre in London where, in addition to speeches eulogising Hafiz’s poetry and its inspiring thought content, there is the recitation of a brilliant translation of the magnificent poet’s verse.

A collection of travelogues that rises above the genre because of the author’s immense knowledge of what he writes about

From London, Malik takes a leap and lands in Bukhara in Uzbekistan, with which begins the second part of the book, ‘Traversing the Silk Route’ — that is, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The author rightly calls Bukhara “the Pearl of Central Asia.” For Muslims, the city is more sacred and sacrosanct than any other place in the world, except, of course, Makkah, Madina and Jerusalem. The city, known for its fascinating mosques, mausoleums and madressahs, has attracted scholars and Sufis in almost equal measure. While Muslims are clearly in a majority, there are also Christians and Jews in large numbers, who enjoy religious freedom in no uncertain terms. That is true of all of Uzbekistan, where Muslims predominate to the tune of 88 percent.

The author has two big advantages: he speaks Persian quite fluently and his complexion is very similar to the native Uzbeks. About the women in the region, he says they are ever-smiling, more so if you greet them with “salamu alaykum.” He speaks as warmly of ordinary people such as Rustam, the man who serves delicious breakfast in the hotel where he is staying, as he does of Amir Alim Khan, the last ruler of Bukhara, who seems like a character straight out of Alif Laila.

The author is jolted when he feels he may be getting carried away, and says, “Please ignore if the historian in me sounds like a nostalgic romantic” but, whether the reader feels in the same vein or not, the fact remains that Malik is a historian-slash-traveller who has immense knowledge of what he writes about, in a manner that is truly engrossing. He also takes you to a park where there is a statue of Mullah Naseeruddin, an imaginary character whose fame extends to the Subcontinent.

The author’s next destination within Uzbekistan is Samarkand, which is supposed to be the city of Amir Taimur (or Tamerlane), whose statues adorn major crossroads — he reclaimed the honour after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin fell into oblivion.

Instead of putting up in a luxury hotel, the narrator finds a modest bed-and-breakfast from where he can look at the splendid historical buildings. Among the places he writes of is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, one of the largest in the world, and the nearby Bibi Khanym Mausoleum. The “bibi” was a favourite wife of Tamerlane, who looked forward to rejoining her after his return from each conquest. A story prevalent even today is that the queen had the mosque built as a pleasant surprise for her warrior husband on his return from his conquest of India. The author’s description of the mosque and the mausoleum leaves nothing to be desired.

Just as Changez Khan is considered a hero and not a mass murderer in Mongolia, Tamerlane is an idol in not just Samarkand, but all of Uzbekistan. One would need an article with the same word count as this entire review to describe just the splendour of Samarkand, but one cannot possibly ignore the final resting place of Kusum ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet (PBUH), who had travelled to Central Asia to spread Islam. Miraculously enough, the grave escaped the wrath of the invading Mongols and, over the centuries, it has become a focal point of the growing cemetery around it, which houses some very elegantly designed tombs.

The author’s next port of call is Jalaluddin Rumi’s Konya in Turkey, where the Whirling Dervishes still perform — only on Saturdays, though. Isfahan, nicknamed Nisf Jahan (half of the world) in Iran is yet another town of immense historical importance to which the writer takes us. I had been a judge at the Iranian Film Festival in Isfahan a few years ago, but the tight schedule of watching films from around the world, and then attending meetings with other judges, left a sense of unfulfillment. Malik’s descriptions, not to speak of his narrations, have whetted my desire to experience the city at leisure.

Writing about Cordova [Cordoba] next, the author recalls Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s poem on the grand mosque, where he managed to offer his prayers. Now, sadly, the Spanish security guards don’t allow anyone to pray on the premises or even take off their shoes at the door. They announce that the place is not a mosque. Malik recalls that, under the Ummayads, Spain had had as many as 300 mosques.

Not too far from Spain is Italy, and the author takes us to Pisa, where he experiences “learning and leaning.” He laments that communism has been replaced by Islamophobia, but he is honest enough to say that some of his co-religionists are also responsible for strengthening this fear — rather, belief — among the Europeans.

On a trip with his wife and two children, he and his family absorbed “much of art, history, and of course the sun and the Mediterranean food” before leaving for the airport four hours before the flight time to return home to London. But they were questioned and their travel documents were examined more than once. “Our complexion and certainly the Pakistani passports were attracting the Italian police like wasps in a summer garden,” mourns the author. Still, a couple of pages later he exults, “The town receives millions of tourists but does not seem to be overwhelmed as its stone buildings, cafes and bars appear to have the capacity of absorbing armies of people.”

The third part of the book is titled ‘Nestling in the West’ and, in its first chapter, Malik takes us to the mind-boggling Oxford Bodleian Library. Billed as the world’s largest non-lending library, it occupies four big buildings, in addition to the libraries of 35 colleges in Oxford. The author is thrilled to see some, if not all, museums in the town as well.

A point worth pondering is raised by Malik when he visits the South Asian section at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He is sorry that some peerless exhibits, such as Tipu Sultan’s musical organ, have been brought from the Subcontinent and are treasured there. But his second thoughts make a lot of sense: “I felt envious but equally consoled that at least the colonial ‘loot’ was being properly looked after instead of being hurled into obscurity by the corrupt and inept scions of the developing world.”

‘Encounters’, the exhibition that enthrals the author no end at the museum, features Mughal artefacts. But that’s not all. In 1999, on the third centenary of the establishment of the Khalsa, the displays at the museum are all about Sikhs, their religion and the reign of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. The exhibits sweep the writer off his feet.

The chapter ‘Switzerland: The Land of Honey but Whose Money?’ recalls the unparalleled beauty of the country, but mourns that the wealth is largely unaccounted for and illegally deposited by foreigners, including Pakistanis.

The final chapter, ‘Back to the Pavilion: India and the Indus Journey’, takes the author to New Delhi, to participate in a conference. Barring the omnipresent overfed cows and banana-stealing monkeys, everything makes him feel that he is in Lahore. On his way back to London, he flies over Pakistan and on the clear day can see a needle-thin highway leading to Wagah and crossing it.

In conclusion, one must say that the volume under review should be read at leisure, for there is so much to assimilate. Full marks to Professor Iftikhar H. Malik.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

The Silk Road and Beyond: Narratives of a Muslim Historian
By Iftikhar H. Malik
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199405961
368pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 27th, 2020

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