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THE WORLD INSIDE OUT

2
June 19, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Rainbow

OK, I can hear you, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘this guy, this Tahir Shah is just talking rubbish. He’s got nothing at all to say so he’s doing random colours now.’ OK, well, it’s not true… OK it is a little teeny weeny bit true. But this blog writing lark is very good for getting my juices juicing in the mornings. To tell you the truth, I’m getting quite fond of it.

The thing about sitting here a lot of the time, staring out at the delicious garden and the tent at the far end, is that a lot of stuff goes through my head. Sometimes I try and tell Zohra, the maid, what I’m thinking, or Rachana, and usually (99% of the time) they brush me away. They’re too busy to listen, or have no interest in random thoughts, most particularly from me.
So the blog is a way of venting thoughts, a way of sending into cyberspace all the nonsense (well, a small proportion of it at any rate) that spews out of my head. And it seems as if I have a lot of nonsense to spew. The greatest thing about the Internet is that it’s like the universe — it’s so massive, so ridiculously unwieldy that it can absorb a huge about of stuff. I could spew nonsense on an industrial scale for decades and decades and still there’d be space for more. And, the way the net is expanding, there’s always be a black hole of the size of Pluto ready to be plugged with debris from my mind.
So why Rainbow? Well, today, I was sitting here with a blank canvas for a mind. Nothing came out… not a colour, not a sound. Then, all of a sudden there was a blinding flash and POW! — A Rainbow, the likes of which I have never encountered.  I fell backwards on my chair, almost spun around.
And what is more natural, more blessed than a rainbow? Nothing, well, hardly anything at all. Because a Rainbow nature illuminated in its most dazzling perfection — like the dawn light on a dew-covered spider’s web. It gets you all choked up, all emotional. And so it should.
The next time you are lucky enough to see a rainbow and, who knows, it may be today… say a little prayer for all the thoughts from me and everyone else, floating around us in cyberspace.
TS
 
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June 18, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Yellow

I think I must be part reptile inside because nothing affects me so much as dazzling sunlight. I can’t operate without it, can’t hardly move.  In the morning I’m like a zombie, eyes all bleary, face all rumpled, unsteady at the knees. As soon as I push myself out of bed and onto my feet, I nudge the curtain back and look out at the sky. If it’s overcast, grey, miserable, that’s how my day will be. I won’t get hardly any work done, and I’ll be glum and sullen as long as the clouds last.

But on days that it’s sunny, I feel as if I’m walking on air. I float from the bedroom to the bathroom, then downstairs, moonwalking. I have taken to working in the dining room because there’s an endless view down through the house to the white tent at the end of the pool. I like looking up from the computer screen and out to the tent which, on bright days like this, is like a dazzling reflector. It’s mesmerising.
When we lived in London I bought an SAD lamp (for seasonal affective disorder). On short December days I used to huddle over it, staring into the bulb. I felt like a lackluster Swede trapped in Lapland in the winter. 
There was no possession I parted with so joyfully as that lamp. I gave it to a friend and smiled wryly, because in Morocco — although sunshine’s not always guaranteed — there’s a heck of a lot more than in the East End.
Then the other day, a rainy day, while on a train from Hereford to London (I’d been talking at the Hay Festival), I met a man even more obsessed by sunshine than me. He was so taken by it — and so energised by it — that he’d written a book on the subject. And what a very brilliant read it is too (Sunshine: One man’s Search for Happiness’, by Robert Mighall, John Murray Ltd).
As the train rumbled passed the fearful cooling towers at Didcot, Mighall told me that as soon as the sun comes out he feels the urge to drop everything and anything and run out into it with wild abandon. His habit of stripping off his clothes and sunbathing had earned him the nickname ‘Gecko Boy’ from neighbours. I noticed that even  hearing the word ‘sunshine’ was enough to get him going. I watched as his eyes lit up, how colour slipped onto his cheeks as if blushing with embarrassment.
I asked Mighall why he lived in Bethnal Green and not the prairies of Samburuland, if he really was such a worshipper of all things solar. He went very still, stared down at his lap. I coaxed him for an answer. ‘I’m not sure that I could.’ he said.
TS
1
June 17, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Pink

There was a time when Ariane livied in a world that was that sickly, toe-cringing, jaw-wrenchingly pink. Her bedroom was filled with it — pink curtains, bedspead, cupboard (and its contents), dolls, soft toys, towel, toothbrush, and even toothpaste, a vile shade of bubblegum pink. She used to whisper to me that she liked words that sounded pink, and tried to think pink, because thinking in any other colour was naughty, the sort of thing that little boys would do.

I tried to slip into Ariane’s mind… see the world as she saw it: a luscious ebbing flow of undulating pink. The more I tried to see as she saw, the more confused I became. Don’t get me wrong, a little pink is a good thing. Without it we wouldn’t have roses or Morocco’s radiant pink  hibiscus flowers, and we wouldn’t have strawberry ice cream,  raspberries or even the Pink Panther.
But… and it’s a big but, there can be too much of a good thing, a thing that only little girls below the age of seven can really comprehend. As Ariane bounced around stroking anything pink she could find, I found myself wondering if the adoration for a colour could be wired into a person’s head. Could that be possible? And if so, how did it come about?
I looked at my little son Timur. He likes blue, but not with the same intensity with which Ariane is drawn to her colour, and I’m fascinated about why that is. Had I the time I’d read up in dusty dark depressing psycho journals, but I have too little time, as most of it is spent answering questions like ‘what do trees dream of at night?’ and ‘why don’t dog’s laugh?’
But then, the other day something remarkable happened. Ariane got out of bed, stretched, and said ‘Yuk! Look at all that horrid horrid pink!’ ‘What do you mean?’ I replied, struggling to pull a dress down over her upstretched arms. ‘Pink… it’s nasty nasty nasty! And,’ she said, sticking out her tongue so far I could see her tonsils, ‘I don’t want to see it ever again!’
But little girls being little girls, there is not an end to colour, just a new one.
And it’s red.
TS
2
June 16, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Green

The swimming pool has been going green again. Turn my back for a second and it’s like a secret curse, appearing for nowhere to afflict us. When the waters go green, the guardians line up and shake their heads. They say it’s the dust, and the noise of the donkeys and the cows, and the chemicals put in the tap water by the evil French-owned water company. Then, when I say we have no choice but to drain the pool, they go crazy. They jump up and down, plunge their heads into their hands. It’s as if draining the pool and filling it with an abundance of fresh water has robbed them of honour.

They beg me to buy a huge industrial barrel of Chinese-made chlorine. Only that can do it, they say… for as everyone knows, the Chinese made the world’s most potent chemicals. I don’t dispute this. But the idea of hurling an entire barrel of chlorine into the pool seems too much. Go for an evening dip and we’d dissolve. So I asked Osman to think again. There had to be another solution. One which didn’t included our flesh being melted from our bones.
Days went by. The pool went a little darker green with the passing of the hours. Mosquitos began to breed, and there were unpleasant little bubbles of air boiling up from the deep end. Again and again I insisted that we drain the water and use it on the flowerbeds. Still, the guardians refused. They said that an answer would come. ‘When?’ I asked. ‘When the time is right.’
So we waited and waited, and waited and waited until i could wait no more. I went out and bought an enormously expensive orange-coloured pump, then pointed at the device and then at the dark green water. The guardians, who had lined up again, looked sheepish.
Osman shook his head again and asked for about $2. I gave it to him. He rushed away and returned at dusk. In his hand was a twist of old newspaper and, in it, a small quantity of chalky powder. It was blue.
‘What are you going to do with that?’ ‘Just wait and see.’ Osman sprinkled the powder into the water. Next morning I came down in my dressing down. The guardians were in their places, lined up beside the diving board. They were smirking. I pushed past and inspected the pool.
The water was deliciously transparent, unclouded, clean and bright.
Osman grinned.
‘Even in filth there is purity,’ he said.
TS
0
June 15, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Sunday: Beginning and end

Only someone who has tasted loneliness can fully understand the mesmerising joy of crowds. A thousand feet walking in every direction, faces smiling, grinning, scowling, or blank of any expression, bodies of all shapes and sizes, the scent of perfume and perspiration.

After my teenage travels through Africa — especially the vast empty Great Rift in the continent’s east — I took refuge in Japan, and found pleasure in the press of commuters at Ikebukuro Station on a Friday night. It was like a powder keg in those subterranean tunnels, the sound of birdsong blaring through speakers, a psychologist’s solution for keeping crazed minds calm.

There were so many people, a streamlined mass — black briefcases and rubber-soled shoes, striped neckties and poly-wool suits. I used to wade into the middle of the frenzied rush, splay my feet wide and bend my knees to be rooted to the spot, and enjoy the surge of life all around. There was no feeling on earth like it — a sense of invisibility — while being buffeted by humanity.
I have spent almost twenty years searching for the perfect crowd and have been sucked down in them all over the urban world: in Rio de Janeiro and New York, in Lima, London, Calcutta, Cairo and Rome. There’s something almost supernatural about a good crowd: something complex, random, dynamic.
Think of it — our rural ancestors could never have understood the raw energy of ten thousand, or fifty thousand people, all packed into a tight space. I can hear you cursing — ‘Well, lucky them!’ That’s wrong. They missed out. Because there’s something intensely human about a good crowd, an experience which reminds us of who and what we are.
Of course, when you have struggled across Mumbai’s Victiora Terminus at dusk, you know you have found it — the greatest crowd on the planet. For me it was like the moment when a surfer has tracked down the most sublime wave: the perfect swell. There was a sense of silence at the heart, a terror beyond all terrors and, at the same time, satisfaction like nothing I had ever experienced.
Half the world was right there, touching me, brushing past. There were beggars and commuters, dabawallas, salesmen, students, ladies in sweeping saris, fortune-tellers and godmen, eunuchs and pickpockets, and a seething blurred mass of legs and arms, and dark glistening hair, satchels and nylon socks.
But then, the other day, I found myself in Jma al Fna, the vast central square in Marrakech. It’s name translates as ‘the Place of Execution’, and hints that it was once far more than place de touristes. The sun went down and the air was touched by the muezzin’s call. Then, as if arranged by an invisible conductor, hundreds of stall keepers set up their food stands. Each one was illuminated by a hurricane lamp, eerie platinum light radiating out with the smoke and the chaotic sound of feet.
I stood there, right in the middle of the square, smoke racing,  swirling, twisting, mixing with the incandescent light. There were so many people squeezed in that I felt myself overcome by claustrophobia for the first time. I choked, my eyes wide with fear. Forget Mumbai, I thought to myself, this crowd may be smaller, but there’s something ancient about it, something so powerful as to defy description.
You are probably tied down in life, caught in a spider’s web of bills, chores and responsibility. If there was any way you could break free, I’d counsel you to make a beeline for that square. Spend the afternoon under the shade of a nearby cafe. Then, as the sunlight ebbs away, venture out. Wade into the ocean of people, and prepare yourself for the greatest show on earth.
TS
1
June 14, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Canned pie on Saturday

There are few things that instill such fear in me than the thought of canned pie. As a child of the seventies it was a fare I knew well… a stout round tin with a blue lid welded on tight, filled with a gooey mess of steak and kidney, and an abundance of feathery pastry ready to rise as soon as it tasted heat.

I have spent my adult life thinking of those nylon-shirted days, with ABBA and tie-dye as an omnipresent backdrop, when Fray Bentos pies would be dished up with a regularity that was displeasing to all… to all but the family labrador who circled beneath the dining table like a shark that had smelled fresh blood.
The years passed. On came the highs and lows of Thatcherism, then Blairism. The big hair of youth may have thinned, but my mind still thinks about those pies. There was something so complete about them, a world in themselves, meat trapped in metal, like a dinosaur iced into the Steppes. And, like the pemmican of the first Arctic explorers, they were something quite under-appreciated, a cuisine ready to nourish the brave and the good.
The more I think of them, the more I feel warm inside, touched with a vein of nostalgia, as if they were a symbol of lost hope. My mother used to say, as she dished them up, that the man who invented the process of canning a pie was very brilliant… very brilliant indeed. He’d become a millionaire, she said, adding in a whisper that he had once owned the house in which we lived. 
My mind ground away. Canned pie — what a revolution of simplicity, an obvious and genius design. A fare that’s protected so securely that it would withstand even the nuclear threat of the A-bomb that hung over all our seventies’ homes. And the more I thought of it, the more I realised the genius… taking something that’s known and loved — good old English pie — and transforming it into something else.
I hear that the ‘Liebig Extract of Meat Company’ in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, is now a museum… a point of focus perhaps for nostalgic hippies and children who’d been weaned on nuclear shelter food.
So I’ve decided to make my own journey there, a humble pilgrimage. I leave for Uruguay in three weeks. My heart is going pitter-patter at the thought of it. An excitement hardly known since the long gone days when I’d managed to slide an entire canned pie under the table, to the waiting jaws of our labrador.
TS
2
June 13, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Thank God it's...

It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that I’m stressed. I’ve been stressed all day, juggling with a book proposal that’s taken months of thought, gallons of sweat and the occasional tear. When I started out with it, I thought I’d cracked it right away. I patted myself on the back, pampered myself for working so hard, and relaxed.

My agent asked me to rework the pages, inject some new ideas. To tell the truth I felt a little bit sick, as if I was a spent force. It was like returning to a half-eaten meal. Tasted all stale and cold. But I nudged away at it again… and again… and again. Each time, I was asked ever so politely to do a little more.
I’m on the seventh draft now. There have been times when I have cursed, shouted, waved my fists. On drab winter afternoons I would sometimes open the window in the dining room where I am working, and yell out. It sets the donkeys off in the shantytown of course, and then the dogs, and the geese. But I feel I have to vent. After all, a life without a little venting is no life at all.
So here I am, ploughing through draft number seven and — after six months of struggle — it looks as if it’s coming together. Yes while at first i was so smug, so proud, I now look at the work and see the faults in myself. It’s good, perhaps very good, but it’s just a thing… granted, a thing created from the confines of my imagination, but a thing nonetheless.
On some evenings, when I’m all hunched over the computer screen, I wonder about all the books that were almost written and never were. OK it’s a strange thought. But think of it. There must have been so many men and women of genius who were going to write, but who never quite managed to sit down long enough, or who hand to hold down a day job as well.
I think of those books… and recently I have thought of them a lot. Most of all because my proposal might be a book that is not quite ever written. I fear for it. At night I wake up worrying. What if something happens and I have to get a day job, a job in a sandwich bar, and the great book is never done — like the sculpture trapped in a block of stone?
Gulp. That would be terrible. I’d be racked with guilt my whole life. I’d feel like a failure. Or would I? Would it not be a release…? A release from this torment of themes and character arcs, wordage and symmetry. Oh yes… oh yes it would. It would be freedom.
But then, of course the writer’s secret ego — inside every writer whether they admit it or not (and most don’t) — would not be massaged. Without the book there’d be no arc of the ego.
And where would I be without that?
TS
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June 12, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

Thursday's child

On some days I sit here alone hour after hour, fingertips striking keys, my mind in a twilight zone far away. When one of the guardians creeps in and stands to attention, or when the phone rings and I have to answer it, I find there’s an abyss between where I am and the real world. It’s something that fills me with awe, and troubles me all the same.

Sometimes I find I am so deep in a story, so detached, that my soul has become separated from my body. Or that’s how it feels. It reminds me of ‘Susto’, the Latin idea that a sharp noise, a jolt, can rip one from the other… with the terrible fear that they can never be rejoined. But with me there’s no jolt, rather a gradual descent, a slow and even deviation. I can hardly explain it, but have come to know it’s something of extreme value… a way of reaching another world, the real world.
My little son, Timur, will be five in less than a month. There’s a quality about him that I wish could always stay there, inside him, without being knocked out. It’s the quality of pure innocence and  a natural human genius — something that the adult world strives to destroy as soon as a child has entered school. Our world regards it — a way of appreciating and processing the fantastic — as a thing of evil, a faculty to be replaced surgically with the ability of  cold, clinical thought. Timur still has it though… only just… a mind that embraces fact and fantasy as one and the same, two inseparable elements.
Ariane is seven and a half and she’s lost it. You can’t tell her a tale, a fairy story, without her having to establish whether it’s fiction or fact. And she insists that we have to make clear, one or the other. ‘It’s a little of both,’ I sometimes say. And when I do, Ariane’s face sours with rage. ‘It can’t be!’ she snaps. ‘Because you can’t have both!’
I have travelled with tribes and so-called ‘primitive’ peoples who are, as you would imagine, far more brilliant than us. Their souls are still attached, their minds screwed on right in their heads. I once spent months with the Machiagenga and the Shuar peoples of Peru, and learned to appreciate an ancient and natural way of thought that is the default setting within us all. The longer I spent with them, and the more I came to know of their customs and ideas, the more I understood how terribly misguided we are.
It sounds like basic criticism, a cliche, the sort of thing that’s fashionable to say. But it’s not. Not really. Instead, it’s something that we can all relearn… a little bit at a time. When Timur makes Lego, something he likes very much indeed, he slams some bricks together and, when asked that stupid adult question ‘what is it?’, he fumbles, then says, ‘an elephant.’ A moment later he adds a red brick to the top, and christens it ‘an aeroplane’, and after that ‘it’s mummy.’ 
Of course it is, and that’s how it should be. And we all — all of us — can learn from that, from the default setting that little Timur and every other four-year-old in our world is desperate danger of losing — his imagination.
TS
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June 11, 2008Posted by Tahir in Travel

My friend Wednesday

There’s something magical about Wednesdays. I really mean it. It means you’re in the middle of the week, a little like a traffic island in the centre of the road — protected between oncoming lanes of traffic by a thin sliver of concrete.

So here we are, perched on the traffic island with a clear view forward and a clear view back. I won’t rant on today. You must have better stuff to be doing than reading this, and I have broken through the procrastination barriers, dozens of them, and am, finally, cranking out some of the work that’s been heavy on my desk for days.

I’m actually still reeling from last week. Spent most of it in Paris, doing publicity for the French edition for The Caliph’s House (La maison du caliphe). The best thing was hanging out at Editions de Fallois, my absolutely amazing and old-fashioned French publisher… and the very very worst thing was being obliged to speak French endlessly on the radio. But then, as I always say, a life without steep learning curves is no life at all.
The middle of the week’s a weird little time, one of those days when you can take solace in strange thoughts, dreams that one might more normally expunge from a well-tuned mind. On Wednesdays I like to think about the village of Llactapampa in the Madre de Dios jungle, where I left Eduardo and his family. And I like, too, to think about a torture cell in Peshawar where I once spent time, and about waffles covered in homemade vanilla ice cream, because it’s one of those things I never quite allow myself to enjoy.
Sometimes on Wednesday I go for a long walk down the beach and watch the gulls swoop and dive over Sidi Abdur Rahman, the glorious enchanted shrine near our home, where seheras cure the needy and the good. In winter the sky is inky and full of dark possibility and, in summer, it’s indigo and pure. From time to time I mount the steps at low tide and walk up to the shrine itself and through until I’m on the apron of land at the back where the chickens are being sacrificed. I like it where because of the smell. It smells of hope, as if a thousand, or a hundred thousand people have pinned their lives to the clefts in the rocks. It’s a place of wishes, a fragment of calm destiny.
Once in a while I pass a Wednesday morning down at Casablanca’s port. I like to watch the fishing boats heaving up to the quay, low in the water, their precious hauls of fish ready for beds of crushed ice. There are cats in abundance and more gulls, and rubber boots moving fast over the stone slabs, and the cries of the fishermen boasting of their skill.
And, sometimes on a Wednesday, when the first days of summer are so near you can taste them, feel them on your skin, I climb up onto the top terrace, and look down. You can see the ocean from up there, and Casablanca’s great mosque in the distance, and the lighthouse at El Hank that’s protected ships for century or more. And you can see the bustle and real life of the shantytown all around: children running to the communal bakeries with loaves of flat bread on great unwieldy trays, women walking out to the hammam with plastic buckets and stools, the school teacher flexing her length of orange plastic hose, shepherding a flock of children into class.
And then, as always, poised on my sliver of concrete in the middle of the week, I say a little prayer, thankful for it all.
TS
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