The world has been struggling under travel bans, lockdowns and limits on freedom for the last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Kashmir has had a much longer and more bitter experience of such restrictions.
London-based Kashmiri non-fiction author Iqbal Ahmed recently published an exquisite new book, The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey, which explores such issues and much more besides.
Writes Ahmed: “‘lockdown’ was a new expression to describe the grim reality in Kashmir. Ever since my childhood, we had called it ‘curfew’ — a medieval word.” Working on the volume during London’s three lockdowns, Ahmed could not but recall Srinagar’s curfews. Indeed, it is striking that, often when he observes a European object or phenomenon, he is transported back imaginatively to Kashmir. We see this translocal dissonance at work, for example, in the comparisons he draws between Swiss and subcontinental mountains and goldsmiths.
In an email interview, Ahmed commented that there was a continuous military lockdown in Srinagar for the seven months before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, there have been lockdowns within lockdowns in Kashmir. International tourists have all but disappeared, and the houseboats on Lake Dal are sitting empty.
In 2019, Venice and Barcelona suffered from over-tourism and Srinagar from zero tourism. These are just some of the sites Ahmed describes over the course of his chapters. Other burgs he visits include Basel, Geneva, Gibraltar, Granada, Milan, Paris and Zurich. He writes about these cities con brio, as the musical notation on the handsome clothbound edition advises.
Until the pandemic and Brexit (which Ahmed writes about with wary disdain), a great pleasure of living in Britain was to travel easily from here to mainland Europe. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught me, it is not to take these privileges for granted.
Meanwhile, as a Kashmiri, Ahmed has had this awareness thrust upon him. His open-minded, yet elegantly restrained, book offers up journeys of the mind to the “desk-bound traveller.” One can feel the heat of Andalusia, savour the fresh air of the Alps and visualise Italy’s chic fashion shows. Unlike his travel-writing forebear V.S. Naipaul, Ahmed also chooses to see the good in those people he meets during his peregrinations.
Covid-19 has greatly coloured the writing of this book. In an essay on his experiences as an author, Ahmed declares: “Covid-19 is an all-encompassing tsunami.” Like many others, although he has more time from working at home, he has felt less productive and his sleep has been affected.
He is alert to the need for sustainable travel in a rapidly warming planet. and not opposed to the fact that coronavirus has led many “to rethink their relationship with tourism.” Nor does he neglect the exploitative neo-colonial side of globetrotting. Too often, it is brown and black service industry labourers who facilitate the rest and relaxation of white guests.
Yet he recognises that this is changing, and that Indian and Chinese travellers have grown in numbers and adventurousness over the last two decades. His book also functions as a clarion call that a world without movement across borders would be a humdrum and parochial place.
The travel and hospitality industry has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Ahmed supported the writing of his five books by working as a concierge in a well-known London hotel. “The lobby of this hotel,” he told me, “was like a microcosm, where I would meet people from all over the world.” It therefore comes as a sucker punch to read in The Art of Hospitality’s final pages that Ahmed’s 19-year career in this industry was cut short prematurely in October 2020.
He acknowledged that he will find it difficult to work in another sector. That said, he expressed optimism about the future of the hospitality industry, because it has weathered many storms in the past. Dedicating his book to the industry’s workers, Ahmed takes hospitality as his main theme.
Hospitality is a trait rightly associated with both Islam and South Asia. In the Islamic tradition, it is an obligation to feed a guest for three days. I myself benefitted from the hospitality woven into the Pakhtunwali social code when I spent a year in Peshawar during the mid-1990s.
Ahmed reminded me that other religions demand their followers to be hospitable, too. For example, in the Bible we read: “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.” French philosopher Jacques Derrida avers that it is especially important to be hospitable to the other, and that an act of hospitality is poetic.
At the end of his book, Ahmed suggests that Kashmiris have found it hard to adjust to social distancing “because hospitality is so ingrained in Kashmiri culture.” Yet, the international community has distanced itself from the Kashmir conflict for decades, making the valley’s plight a forgotten lockdown.
This pandemic has shone a spotlight on how various countries look after, or fail to protect, their most vulnerable citizens. I asked Iqbal how well the nations he is most closely associated with have stood up in these testing circumstances. “I think the UK government played fast and loose with the pandemic in the beginning,” he said, “resulting in one of the worst death rates per million population from Covid-19 in the world. Kashmir has fared far better than the UK in this regard.”
At one moment in The Art of Hospitality, Ahmed notes that the sobriquet “sick man of Europe” was first bestowed on Italy and then the UK, as these countries dealt poorly with the coronavirus. How ironic that a slur originally used by Britons against Turkey around the time of the Ottoman Empire’s breakup should, in the 21st century, be foisted on the same former colonial power that propagated it.
In these curfewed nights of Covid-19, Ahmed reminds us of Kashmir’s Sisyphean cycle of lockdowns. If freedom is a state of mind, it is noteworthy that Kashmiris’ besiegement also includes severe curbs on internet usage. Yet, despite privations in London and Srinagar, Ahmed’s creativity soars high. He takes his readers on a remarkable imaginative sojourn that is welcome at a difficult time.
The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 28th, 2021