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Tag: east

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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.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING FICTION AND NON-FICTION?

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.

HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH IDEAS FOR NOVELS? Read more

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March 30, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

The King, the Dog, and the Golden Bowl IV

Then an old man appeared, in a rough woollen robe, and with a stick in his hand, upon which he leant heavily.

“Greetings my son,” said the old man. “What brings you to this place?”
“Some time ago I came here in rags,” said Hassan, and was fortunate  enough to be given the meat from its bowl by this dog here. When I left I took the bowl, sold it, and replenished my fortunes, and now I have come to repay the debt, and returned his bowl.”
“All those times are gone,” said the old man, “the vanity and pomp which was once my court has vanished.”
Hassan now saw that this was indeed the generous king whom he had seen feeding the poor and needy in the great palace long ago.
“Your Majesty,” said he, “please take this bowl which I have brought.”
“No,” said the old king, “I had no need for anything, except that which I have here. My hounds catch me game from my one daily meal, and my old gardener has remained with me and continues to grow some roses and vegetables for me. Together, he, I, and the hounds managed to enjoy our lives. After my enemies destroyed my city and my people were taken away in slavery, I have lived very simply here.”
“But, the bowl,”  said Hassan, “May I not leave it to your Majesty?
  “If a dog of mine thought it fit to give away his bowl,” said the King, “it is not for me to take it back. I am sure that he has no need of it now. Oh, return from whence you came, we are sufficiently provided for at the present time.”
So, bowing to the king, Hassan mounted his horse and rode away. He looked back, and saw the old man, leaning upon his stick, wavered last farewell, and then disappear back into the ruins, with his three hounds about him.
 And Hassan, in after days, often told the story, that men should not forget the tale of the King the Dog and the Golden bowl.



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March 29, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

The King, the Dog, and the Golden Bowl III

By clever buying and selling, he soon had enough merchandise to take back to his native town, where his friends greeted him with much joy.

His luck soon changed, and Hassan became a successful trader once again, and before long he was once as rich as he had ever been. 
 Some years later, he felt the urge to return to the town where he had been shown such kindness by the dog. He made up his mind to replace the golden bowl which he taken away at the insistence of the dog.
Within a few days, a replica of the bowl was ready, and Hassan climbed onto his best horse with flowing robes and boots finest leather, set off
 At last he arrived and once more saw the old walls which were built around the city. But, upon writing inside the gates, he saw with amazement that the glory of the palace was no more. It lay wide open to the sky, roofless and ruined, its beautiful pillars broken as if destroyed by Mongol hordes.
The wrecked houses were silent and empty, the shops where rich and contented merchants had been, were sacked and smashed, their merchandise looted.
Sorrowfully, Hassan was mounting his horse to ride away, when a great hound darted out of the palace ruins and was followed by two others. Hassan recognized them as the dogs which had been brought by the attendant to feed from the golden bowls when he was a beggar in that very same place.


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March 28, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

The King, the Dog, and the Golden Bowl, II

There was a great concourse of people, young and old, being given food and money by the generous monarch, who sat upon a great golden throne in the middle of the lofty hall.

Suddenly from his hiding place, Hassan saw three great hounds being brought to space a few feet away from him; and an attendant placed to three bowls of finest meat before each of the dogs. The man then went away, and Hassan found his eyes fixed upon the delicious meat which had been given to the dogs. As he was thinking that he could with joy feed from even the leftovers in the animals’ bowls, so great was his hunger, the dog nearest to him raised his eyes. Looking at him in an almost human fashion he pushed his jewelled  golden bowl towards Hassan. The famished man, unable to wait a second longer, helped himself to one of the pieces of succulent meat, and pushed the bowl back to the dog. But, with its paw, the animal again pushed it over to Hassan, until he had eaten to his heart’s content. Then the intelligent creature ate, and after it had licked the bowl clean, it pushed it back to Hassan. The man saw it was offering him the bowl, and so he took it in his hands and then hid the precious object under his tattered cloak. When he had done so, the animal seem to nod his head in agreement.
Hassan realised that if he sold the bowl, and bought himself new clothes, he would at least have a chance to approach a merchant to do some sort of work.
He patted the hound gratefully on the head, and slipped away from the crowd. Next day he sold the bowl, which, being studded with precious jewels, brought him in such a good price, but he was able to set himself up in business once again.


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March 27, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

The King, the Dog, and the Golden Bowl I

Here is one of my favourite stories… I’m giving it here because I have just been to see the carpenter, Mr. Reda, who built the library for me at Dar Khalifa.  I was reminded of the king’s fate in the story, because Mr. Reda  was sitting in his workshop, alone. He said there was no work, and he had let all his carpenters go… but instead of being sad he had resigned himself to fate.


Once upon a time there lived a merchant, called Hassan,  who was wealthy and generous, happy and fortunate.
But one day, disaster stared him in the face. His ships, bearing great loads of treasure from afar, were captured by pirates and his warehouse — containing many valuables — was burned down. Unable to face his friends, he sold his house and his remaining belongings, and set off in search of his fortune.
But good luck deserted Hassan. A thief stole his remaining money while he was asleep in a caravanerai, and this time he found himself without a single coin to his name, in a strange and foreign land.
He went to the mosque and asked if he could stay the night, and was very ashamed at having to ask the charity. How was he ever going to hold up his head again, he wondered? He asked the mosque-keeper what he should do. “My brother,” said the old man, “go three days march from here, and you will arrive at such and such a place. The king there is generous and kind, and you may be able to put your case before him. He would be sure to give you more charity but I can give, because we are so poor.”
  Before leaving the mosque, Hassan gave his last few coins to the imam, and wished him a long and prosperous life.
Hassan set off on a rough road and was soon thirsty and tired, wondering whether the journey was a good idea at all.
  After three days he arrived almost starving at a walled city. The shopkeepers there were richly dressed in contented. Hassan walked wearily towards the palace, where the old mosque-keeper had told him the generous king helped thousands of people each night. But when he finally got there he was so ashamed of his rags, and so fearful of presenting himself in such a state before the king, that he hid behind a pillar, from which vantage point he could look upon the scene of the royal court….


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March 13, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

Nasrudin

A very good way of understanding a culture is through its folklore and the stories people tell. Rather in the same way that language contains clues to the way people of a certain place think, folklore does as well. It’s a kind of treasury of fragments, linked to everyone who has ever lived in the society. An excellent way of understanding how the Oriental world thinks, is by reading — or listening to — the tales. And there is perhaps no collection better than the teaching stories of Mulla Nasrudin. He’s found across the East, from Casablanca to Kabul, and can even be seen in Islamic China. He’s known in Greece as well, and in Albania, Kosovo, Sicily and in Andalucian Spain. In Afghanistan and Iran he’s known as Nasrudin, while in Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere he’s simply ‘Joha’. Whatever the name he goes by is insignificant, for Nasrudin is a towering giant of human folklore. My father wrote four books on the whacky and wonderful episodes of his life. Over the next few days I’m going to present some here. If you have the time, read the story once, and then a second time, and allow it to turn around your mind. You’ll find that, given the chance, it’ll take on a life of its own.



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March 12, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books

Proverbs

Proverbs and sayings are very common in the Arab world, as they are in the West. Since living here in Morocco, I’ve noticed that there are dozens of proverbs which are found in different forms in both Occident and Orient, and many more that are directly translated. This may suggest a transmission from East to West and vice versa, or it may just be coincidence.


Here are some examples (the Arabic proverb is in capitals, the European one in lower case):


BIRDS ALIGHT AMONG THEIR LIKE
Birds of a feather flock together

HE MADE A DOME FROM A SEED
Making a mountain out of a molehill

HIS LUCK SPLITS A STONE
He has the Devil’s luck

A DOG’S TAIL IS CROOKED EVEN IF HE STRUCK BY A BLACKSMITH’S HAMMER
A leopard can’t change its spots

THE CAMEL CAN’T SEE HIS OWN HUMP
The pot calls the kettle black

TWO WATER MELONS CAN’T BE CARRIED IN A SINGLE HAND
Don’t try the impossible

HE WHO GROWS WITH A HABIT GREYS WITH IT
Old habits die hard

CLEANLINESS IS AKIN TO FAITH
Cleanliness is next to Godliness


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March 11, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Arab and Islamic Titles

The Arab and Islamic worlds hold titles very dear, and it’s a subject that’s almost always misunderstood in the West. The first thing to know is that in Islam all men are equal. There are, therefore, technically no provisions for absolute rulers, such as kings, although a number of Arab countries now have monarchs on along Occidental lines (such as Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain). The highest title has traditionally been ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’, the Commander of the Faithful, that is the one selected for leading the prayer and acting as spiritual figurehead. This is sometimes truncated to Amir, or Emir. Other honorific titles indicate that a person is of the Prophet’s family, a lineage that is held in extremely high regard within the Islamic world. Depending on the country, the title given to the Prophet’s descendants alters. In Afghanistan for example where our family is from, descendants are known as Sayed (also spelt Sayyid). Note that ‘Sayed’ and Seyeda’ are used by people whose ancestry is passed on through the paternal line. Where it is through the mother, the title ‘Mirza’ is used. Elsewhere Sayeds are permitted to use other titles such as Sharif (noble) . There are yet more titles local to a particular region, such as ‘Nawab’ (‘deputy’), a form of Muslim Maharajah, found in south Asia, and Nizam (‘administrator of the realm’). The last name ‘Shah’ as used by Muslims in Central Asia denotes a direct lineage to the prophet, and is used in place of a family name which, in our family’s case is ‘al-Hashemi’.



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March 10, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Arab and Islamic Names

This is a subject which catches people out in the West, and one that just about everyone with an interest in the East would do well to spend a moment thinking about. The first thing to remember is that Arab society has traditionally been tribal. You come from a clan and a tribe and a community, before you do a country. Rather like names of old told you a lot in the West, they continue to do so in the East. From a name you can often tell a great deal about the person’s background, his family, tribe and so forth. The first thing to look at is the first name. These names are so important in the Arab world, rather as they used to be in the West. My name, Tahir, is more than a name — it’s part of my identity. It was actually chosen for me at birth through the Abjad alphanumerical system, so that it protects me, the user, through my life. In the same way, names are given not because they sound nice, but because they are linked to values and ideals. For instance, ‘Tahir’, means ‘pure’, a value especially important to my parents, who hoped I’d be pure. Many Arab names are more complex. There are a great number for instance formed with ‘Abdul’, such as Abdul Latif, Abdul Malik, Abdul Razak, and so on. These names are linked to the names of God, and are formed from ‘Abdul’ which means ‘servant’, or ‘slave’, and the quality itself. So Abdul Aziz, is the ‘Servant of the Almighty’. So it is actually incorrect to call person simply ‘Abdul’, as you are calling him ‘Servant’. Then you come to the second part of a name. There may be the word ‘Ibn’, shortened in some countries to ‘Bin’. This is simply a link which means, ‘the son of.’ It’s followed by the father’s name, and sometimes by Ibn again and then the grandfather’s name. In the same way, you can have ‘Abu’, which means ‘the father of,’ which is followed by the name of the person’s son. There may also be the name of the family, such as Qureshi, which is actually the name of the clan or tribe, as family names are not used in the East as they are in the West. Remember that the whole business of family names has altered greatly in the West, and were never so concrete or meaningless as they are now.




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March 9, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Favour Network

Living in the Arab world, or blustering through, you find yourself faced with a system that can be disconcerting or even bewildering: the business of favours. It’s a subject that is sometimes hard for Western society to grasp, because it’s a system that’s perfectly balanced, with pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting. I can’t tell you how often we receive unsolicited gifts. Someone will send a platter of pastries or candy for the kids… and we’ll be very pleased, naturally, and thankful. But then, often, you get a request a few days later. That same person asks if they could make use of a contact of yours, or borrow something. I’m not trying to make this system sound dodgy or bad in any way. Because it isn’t, really. But you have to watch out. For example, if someone sends over a huge bouquet of flowers for no reason at all, send a platter of pastries over to them, of about the same monetary cost. This instantly negates their action and prevents them from asking the favour, and chances are they won’t try it again. It’s far, far better to be owed a favour. So, it does make sense to do a favour, and never ask if back. I promise you that it’s chalked up somewhere, in your friendship with that person, and he won’t forget. I promise you, too, that he’s desperate for you ask it, so he can clear the debt and move on.



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