Review of Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson published by Eland Books, September 2017
“The next morning, standing in the doorway to see me off on my way to the north of Punjab, to the capital, Islamabad, the Begum strained with both hands to raise a heavy old leather-bound Koran under which I ducked to receive divine protection. She resembled a classical figure holding up a torch so that I might see the good in her country.”
Two great matriarchs loom over this memoir which flies over Pakistan like a magical flying carpet: Isambard Wilkinson’s grandmother, and her friend, Sajida Ali Khan a.k.a. the Begum, from Lahore in the Punjab. As a small boy visiting the Irish family home that is suffused with a “heady, dusty fragrance” and chock-full of Anglo-Indian mementoes dating back to the 19th century, a warm and intoxicating vision of another world offered an antidote to the cold austerity of boarding school. His first actual visit to Pakistan was with his grandmother in 1990, to attend a wedding of one of the Begum’s children; and then in 2006 as foreign correspondent. His desire to explore the country and live there eventually was cut short by kidney failure, dialysis and successful surgery when his brother gave him a kidney. Travels in a Dervish Cloak has been seven years in the making.
The narrative is a patchwork of personal reminiscences of a much-loved place and its tribal people, visited time and again; historical anecdote; and set against a bigger picture of how world events have impacted on a rural country steeped in folklore and mysticism that is now controlled by Islamist fundamentalists, and a corrupt military establishment trading in everything. Wilkinson’s aim is to capture the disappearing Pakistan that is “under threat from not only the Punjabi-dominated centre, but also from Saudi-financed wahabi mosques.”
On an early trip, he explores Islamabad from his guesthouse base looking for a more permanent place, and visits the shrine of Bari Imam, a 17th century pacifist and holy man, on the outskirts of the city. A mystical form of Islam, Sufism, is followed there. “Places of communal worship like Bari Iman are under threat from militant and conservative Islam, which wishes to wipe out all that has gone before.”
Wilkinson rents the house of a professor overlooking the hills. He is looked after by driver-cook-chamberlain, Allah Ditta. They visit Nawab (already encountered ten years previously), “an old cantankerous and highly cultured tribal chieftain in Baluchistan.” The warrior is a paradox, “a tyrant . . . with a softer side.” Five months later he is killed in his mountain caves by a government commando raid.
The pleasures of the demi-monde
Islamabad’s community of politicians, diplomats, aid workers and bureaucrats is fêted by local hosts who throw parties in their honour fuelled by Johnny Walker whisky and hashish. Hierarchies of Hindu-based class, caste and tribe, despite being a Muslim country, make for complications in daily life. The households of the Begum and the Professor provide anecdotal insights into social and culinary customs and linguistic eccentricities.
Historical tidbits, personal observation and descriptions of Multan and the rural hinterland reveal something of what Pakistan once was – with its olive trees and jagged rockscapes, Dervish fairs, saints’ festivals, bazaars, geckos, buffalo, day-labourers and snatches of dialogue recounting past Mughal legends and present political jitters.
Wilkinson visits the ancestral homeland of the Bhutto clan and the five-domed, white marble mausoleum where Zulfiqar Bhutto – who was hanged in 1979 by Pakistan’s then-dictator, General Zia ul-Haq – is buried.
In Karachi, he dines in style with a rich friend, “a Memon businessman, who, over plates of oysters (his brother had dishes delivered to his house by air from Le Gavroche in London), told tales of corruption. The dissolute wealthy, he said, had Swiss accountants who travelled to Pakistan with paper shredders in case they were caught in a coup d’état with incriminating documents. He said that in Lahore it was fine to drive a Porsche, but if you flaunted your wealth that way in Karachi you might be carjacked. Lahore was still feudal, while in Karachi your servants might get uppity and murder you.”
He visits Chitral “a small town gathered round an old fort high on a bend in a river high up in the Hindu Kush” where pre-Islamic beliefs in spirits and fairies still prevail. The forests of cedar are the home of urial, ibex, markhor and snow leopards.
The land of the sufis
A book on sufism by Data sahib is the origin of the title of Wilkinson’s many-layered memoir travelogue: “I came across a passage about the significance of a Dervish’s cloak. He said all the mysteries of the universe could be found in such a patched garment containing as it does, the earth sun and moon and all the stages of the path to truth.” The path to a kinder, gentler truth is being obliterated in Pakistan, as hard-line militant intolerance takes hold.
Wilkinson illuminates aspects of Pakistan that do not generally get media coverage. His poetic writing is cinematic and colourful; his anecdotes and attention to detail give richness and depth to the narrative. You are with him on the road, eavesdropping on his conversations with local people, or right there beside him as he is shown something secret or unexpected.
To discover something of Pakistan as it once was before suicide bomb attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and civil unrest became the norm, read this book. Its intricate narrative and extraordinary cast of characters will mark you. The trauma of the bloody, sectarian violence of Partition in 1947 has never healed; Musharraf’s political shenanigans served as a Greek chorus. Despite the despair that it engenders, Travels in a Dervish Cloak is a memoir travelogue to be savoured and relished.
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