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My Top Ten Favourite Films

Big-fish-movie-posterIn response to a recent request, here is a list of my top ten favourite films:

1. Big Fish
2. Cinema Paradiso
3. Fitzcarraldo
4. The Red Violin
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Wag the Dog
7. Apocalypse Now
8. Catch Me if You Can
9. Amelie
10. Being There


Q&A on storytelling and tradition...and The Tale of the Sands

30maro_slide05You are creating wonderful stories about what our heart is telling us, but today more than ever we fail to reconcile our heart and our mind. Why are they tugging us in different directions? What do you do when your mind shouts louder than your heart?

As you say, I am telling and creating stories, and that’s what’s so central here. Storytelling appeals to the default setting of mankind, the core programming that’s in-built within us. We don’t really know why, but culture is arranged around storytelling – revealing information, ideas, and entertainment through stories. We can’t help but retell experiences in this way because we are programmed to do it. And, bizarrely, most people have forgotten that humanity operates with stories as their language. I sometimes find myself wondering whether other animals, or even insects, do the same and tell stories as a matrix like we do.

At the same time as live to tell stories, we reside in a world that’s so incredibly at odds with the realm our ancestors knew. Yet, in this mad frenetic, frenzied stew of life, it’s the stories and the storytelling that present themselves as a recognizable thread – a kind of communal backbone to humanity. We grasp hold of stories whether they be in the form of a book, a Tweet, a blog entry, a TV commercial selling soap, a movie, or even in the guise of a video game.

You mention your father very often in your works. Would you say that your story is a sequel to his? To what extent are our hearts beating together with those of our ancestors’? Does our storytelling begin where theirs has stopped? Read more


Q&A on Writing and Travel

TS101. The explorations and adventures in most of your work are set in exotic places that are shrouded in mystery and rich in history and tradition, and it seems as though you have traveled just about everywhere. Do you happen to have any connection with a small and relatively mainstream place like Belgium?

When I was a child, I was sent to stay with friends at Ypres. I was eleven years old, and I remember the visit vividly. Of course I have returned to Belgium time and again since then, but it was that winter journey that is so burned in my memory. My sisters and I were taken to the Great War cemeteries there. I can see the headstones now – all lined up perfectly, glinting white in the flat winter sun. I remember reading the names and ages of those men. They were so young – their lives having hardly begun. A day doesn’t go by on which I don’t think of them. And it is for them that I remind my children daily: Carpe diem! Seize the day!

2. I recently heard you tell a student group that they could and should be explorers. As far as I know, there are no significant mysteries here in Belgium, though there is a great deal of history. What sorts of explorations do you think have yet to be pursued here? What do you think is the best way for parents to make explorers of their children?

Read more


Q&A with Tahir Shah

Tahir_bio_pic 2013bI just did a Q&A with myself, based on some of the questions I’m asked on a regular basis.


There are both huge differences and huge similarities. For me, book writing (any writing for that matter) is about storytelling. Tell the story in the right way and the reader will do a kind of dance through your work. The most important thing for me is that my reader has the right experience, and that’s achieved by giving a great deal of thought to the way a passage will be read. I devote time to thinking about the reader whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally, though, with fiction you can let yourself loose a whole lot more. But, having said that, I think there’s enormous scope for non-fiction writers (especially travel writers) in observing what they think they know and understand, in new ways. It’s a great challenge, but one that pays great dividends when you get it right.



Interview for Vilnius Book Fair in Lithuania

vilnius book fairAs I mentioned before, I’ll be in Lithuania next week for the Vilnius Book Fair. I just did a short written interview with the main Lithuanian newspaper, which I’m sharing below for you:

1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written nonfiction book, Living to Tell the Tale. Do you share his thought, that a man has to live in such way, that he would have tales to tell? Personally for you what is more important – to hear or to tell stories? Read more


The End Game

The grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, set out for Baghdad in 1257 with a vast army. The Caliph refused to surrender, and enraged the Mongol leader with threats and taunting. Worse still, he hadn’t strengthened the city walls or prepared for a siege, perhaps believing his own publicity that his capital was impregnable. As a result victory was swift (the siege was less then two weeks).

Baghdad was sacked and burned to the ground. The waters of the Tigris supposedly ran black with ink for months from all the ink, from the House of Wisdom and other great  libraries, which were hurled into the river.

The Caliph was rolled up in a rug and the Mongols rode their horses over him. So great was the stench of death and decay that Hulagu had to move his camp upwind of the city.



Inventions II


1.             Windmills were first described by Persian geographer Estakhri in the ninth century. They were used to grind corn and draw up water and looked different from European ones. The technology is thought to have arrived in Europe through Islamic Spain.

2.             The first hydro-powered water supply system was developed by al-Jaziri in Damascus – driven by gears and hydro-power – to supply water to the city’s mosques and hospitals. Fès had a similar system which worked until relatively recently. Hydro-power was used to power paper mills and all sorts of other devices.

3.             Water wheels called Norias were developed for feeding water into aqueducts. The newly-invented crankshaft was added, and the technology was constantly refined.

4.             As well as crankshafts, Arab engineers devised flywheels, chain pumps, gearing systems, suction pumps, and automata.

5.             The greatest engineer of the era was without doubt al-Jazari, whose breakthroughs in the twelfth century can still be found around us today. His masterwork was the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He developed the first automatic gates, run on hydro-power, water clocks, and machines which looked like people and would serve cold drinks. He invented the flush mechanism found in most of our toilets, and even a musical robot band.




I have already mentioned in passing a number of Arab inventions from the Golden Age. They include a wide range of medical, chemical and astronomical devices. But there are whole other areas in which the Arabs inventors excelled.

         Arab engineers learned from the Romans, Greeks and from their own scientists, and came up with creations that demonstrated their astonishing ingenuity. Some of these creations improved living conditions, while others were more whimsical.

         Engineers were hugely important. When the tenth century Persian engineer and polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), reached Cairo, the Caliph himself went to the gates to greet him. He had been invited to regulate the flooding on the Nile. It soon dawned on him that he couldn’t solve the problem. The only way to save his neck was to feign madness and live for years under house arrest… biding his time until the Caliph’s own death.




As Astronomy developed so in tandem did mathematics and geometry. The great Arab polymaths changed the world in which live by their mastery of mathematics.

1.                               Without doubt the most important breakthrough was the language of mathematics: the introduction of ‘Arabic’ numerals from India, and their use for the first time of a decimal point.

2.                               Introducing Zero to mainstream mathematics was the other massive breakthrough: so enormous that we can hardly grasp its importance… the idea of representing nothing with a symbol.

3.                               In the ninth century Persian polymath al-Khwarizmi gave us Algorithms, which form the basis of most computer programming… indeed our word ‘Algorithm’ is derived from his name.

4.                               Al-Khwarizmi is credited with writing the first book on Algebra as well. It’s title was The Compendious Book on calculation by Completion and Balancing, and was published about 820 AD.

5.                               Arab mathematics honed the work of the Greeks, the Romans as well as that of South Asia. And this work was channelled directly into Europe through Islamic Spain and, with time, made available to the great minds of the Renaissance.




The lightning spread of Islam by the eighth century – from Iberia to modern Afghanistan and beyond, led to a huge reappraisal of geography. New information was flooding into research centres in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Cordoba and elsewhere, and new technology (such as quadrants and astrolabes) was used to create ever-more accurate maps.

         The greatest was Al-Idrisi’s twelfth century atlas, prepared for the Norman King Roger II of Sicily (in 1154 AD), incorporated Africa, Europe, Asia minor, India and the known stretches of the Far East. It was the first atlas of its kind and took 18 years to produce.