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Tag: mind

March 12, 2009 Posted by tahir in Books


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 of a feather flock together

Making a mountain out of a molehill

He has the Devil’s luck

A leopard can’t change its spots

The pot calls the kettle black

Don’t try the impossible

Old habits die hard

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

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’.

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.

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.


Hiring a Team

The team are the make or break for your expedition. The key thing here is enthusiasm for the work. And it’s unlikely they will ever be quite as enthusiastic as you, but it’s key to find people who have a good attitude from day one. I remember one man we had with us in the Madre de Dios jungle… his name was Pedro, and he was always willing to help others and to carry the heaviest load. He never complained. I can’t stand complainers, whether in deep jungle or at home in a town. When searching for people, try to get a sense of motives. It’s not enough if someone is coming along merely for the pay. You need people who have a sense of adventure, who want to see stuff and do stuff that’s new. Of course you are looking for people who can carry heavy loads, but you also need people who can fulfill other tasks. For example, on one jungle journey I had a man called Giovanni who did the cooking as well as being a porter. He was an average cook but his strength was that he made the men laugh. He told them jokes in the evenings and they laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks. That made Giovanni irreplaceable. Try to spend as much time around the team before you get going. It’s never too late to lay someone off or rethink before going. On one trip I realised the guide was an extremely dodgy character and I cancelled the entire expedition and stopped dead in my tracks as we were leaving the base point. It cost time and money but I eventually found new people and was stronger for it. And another thing to bear in mind is that if you hire five or six friends from the same area, they will already have a pecking order and a relationship. This may be a good thing or a bad one. It could turn out that they turn against you, but in my experience it’s better to have friends, as when things get tough, they will look out for each other. This is contrary to the old idea of divide and rule, which also works. But that’s a whole different ball game.


Local Purchases

These fall into three basic areas: food, camp equipment, expedition equipment.

Food: Think about weight, as in all likelihood the food’s going to be lugged forwards on backs at some point. Dried beans are good in protein and are light. Anything dehydrated is the best. Rice for instance is good as well, although quite heavy. Pasta is excellent although it’s key to select packaging that won’t split. Remember that in the jungle there’s water all around and a bag of pasta that’s open will rehydrate and be useless in seconds. You will always need much more food than you imagine, and the more food you have, the longer you can continue. Getting food locally out of the jungle is not easy, believe me. It is time consuming and hunting takes time. All the animals get scared away as a loud jungle expedition pushes forwards. The other key thing is, as I have said previously, to think quantity. You will never have extra food but if you did, you could share with locals. Food is currency. Also buy nuts, many kilos, mixed with raisins for small breaks. Coffee is a luxury, but one which goes down well, as is aguardiente, a potent fire water alcohol. You can never have too much. Spam, sardines, and some canned food is good to give taste. A single can of sardines will turn a huge pot of plain pasta into something pretty good. Sugar is used by porters in an enormous quantity. Also take a few bars of chocolate but never show them to the men and bring them out in times when morale is at rock bottom. Also, take a lot of spices and stock cubes… this is a way of turning river water into broth to warm cold men up after trudging all day through water. Hot sauce reduces the amount people eat if you REALLY spice up the food. A few bags of ultra cheap sweets are also good as hand-outs after a meal. If they give these after the main course, the porters will forget about going for seconds of meat and whatever savory dish you’re serving.
Camp equipment: You will need bowls, spoons, knives, tin cups, a lot of lighters, buckets, spades, tarpaulins of good quality, blankets. All this stuff can be Chinese-made and cheap.
Expedition equipment: this includes — rope, machetes (at least one for each man), sharpening stones, hammers, mallets, saws, shovels, parachute cord if you don’t have it, canvas, medical equipment (including morphine), a lot of plastic sheeting, candles, batteries and lamps, lanterns and fuel for them, more fuel. You will also need to buy rubber boots for the men. I always find that in Latin America a size 10 American will fit most men. You can buy socks as well, but rugged ones. And you can hand out sweaters. Remember that the jungle gets cold at night, and depending on where you are, it can be very chilly during the day as well. Cheap fleece sweaters are worth their weight in gold as they are easy to dry out and they don’t absorb water even when wading through rivers.
   All this may seem like a lot of stuff, but remember that once you get going you shouldn’t actually be spending much cash. You can get prices down, and if in doubt, buy the cheaper brand. Now you are ready to hire a team.



Departure Point

The preparations continue, and they fall into several key areas… buying local equipment, finding a team, possibly renting a boat, getting permits if needed, and much much more. Stay calm through this time and account for every buck you slide out to someone. This is the point where your real leadership starts and you have to think of yourself almost like a military commander. Be focussed. Never ever let your eye stray from the goal. From this point everything is aimed at getting you up that river or over that mountain, or whatever. As I have said before, the towns  on the fringe of a jungle usually have amazing shops crammed with cheap Chinese-made stuff. You can pick this stuff up and outfit an expedition easily, and quite inexpensively. I’ll go into specific supplies tomorrow. For now, you need to plan… plan numbers and calculate. If you are going to have a base team of eight men, for example, you must work out how much they are going to charge, and how much can they carry. Work out that if you continue for 30 days, how much food weight will each man eat a day… obviously, the more men you have, the more food you need, and the more food you have the more men you need to carry it. It’s a vicious circle. There’s other equipment as well, like tarpaulins, pots, pans, ropes etc. You are always going to find that the men eat three times what you had planned… so scale up rations. In the jungle there’s nothing so important for boosting morale as hot food. You’ll also need stuff to hand out to local people and possibly tribes, and you will need fuel. As you start equipping, it becomes very daunting very fast. But keep your eye on the goal and, again, stay calm.



Gearing up to set off into the jungle requires a great deal of organisation. It feels as if you’re racing fast forward in a mad-cap effort to solve problems. And this is the time when your problem-solving expertise has to start shining through in a big way. There are problems on all sides… with the goal, with getting people, supplies, permits, and just about everything you can imagine. All you want to do is to get going, but there are a great deal of hurdles to surmount first. It’s a time when you’re vulnerable, because everyone knows that the jungle expedition in preparation is weak, open for attack. Keep the zigzag method going and exploit it. Be sure not to think in a linear way as that’s going to reduce creativity. Please believe me on this. Your zigzag approach will start paying dividends. You should find one lead who will take you to another, and then another and another… and with a bit of luck you will come across a big character, someone on the ground who believes in your idea as much as you. They may want cold hard cash, but try to play to their ego… give them a sense that this is the journey of a lifetime and you are giving them a huge opportunity to take part. Use that person to help you arrange stuff. Remember though that they will probably be of limited use in logistical matters. At the same time, it’s key not to get the official authorities too clued in about what you’re doing. They will no doubt see you as a gravy train to clamber aboard, smother, and suck the life-blood from. So you have to be a little subversive and throw out red herrings regarding where you are actually going. With a bit more luck you will get yourself to a base point. You may still be a way from the jungle, but it’s here that you’ll start getting supplied and in the right frame of mind. More on all this tomorrow…


On the Ground

This is how it works. You have your ticket, a massive goal in mind, some second-hand equipment, and a pocket full of cash. In high spirits you go to the airport, board the plane and, at 38,000 feet, you find yourself munching an inflight meal. You wash it down with a passably bad mini bottle of white wine, and you get thinking. Well, rather than thinking, it’s worry. The pilot announces that you’re beginning the descent, and you feel the air pressure change. Next thing you know, you’ve had your passport stamped by an enormous official, and you have a baggage trolley full of your stuff… You push out into the waves of unfamiliar faces, everyone and anyone offering to be your taxi driver. And you think to yourself — ‘Oh my God… what have I done?!’ At this point it’s important NOT to panic. Really… believe me. I’ve been in that spot a thousand times. I’m going to tell you here what to do… how to join up the dots. The first thing to do is to get yourself to a base camp of some sort. Find a hotel room, but in a reasonably rundown area. Don’t go too plush. Go plush and you kill the contact networks off. So you find some dive. It doesn’t have to be too cockroach-infested, but a bit of discomfort will ease you into something that’s going to get very familiar. Go get your hair cut at some low-end place. Maybe take a few taxis around, short trips… have some coffees, at different places… go to some bars. Check out the local people, get talking to them if you can. Get an idea of how you’re going to plug in. It’s in these first few hours that your sensors are on hyper-mode and that’s a good thing. Use the fact that you have fresh eyes. Let people scoop you up and take you to the next contact. Don’t be afraid. Get ready to exploit your greatest weapon… Zigzag travel. By this I mean that everyone will take you to the next step. OK, some might take you three steps backwards, but you’ll be all the stronger for it. But the main thing is to keep your head calm, and remember your goal. You may not have any idea at all how to get started, but believe — really believe — and everything will begin to configure around you.


Other Preparations

Make a list. Keep it simple. (1) Ticket (2) Basic equipment (3) Inoculations. Tick off ticket and equipment if you have covered those. Now you’re at inoculations. OK, right from the start, I’m not a great believer in inoculations. I do get Yellow Fever and Hepatitis A/B, and I take along some stuff for malaria, but never end up using it. It’s better to take some good syringes and needles and some high spec DEET, and a preferred brand of antiseptic. The Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London used to sell good tropical medical kits. They were quite expensive but gave you a sense that you were cool as hell because of the forceps and the brain drip. Better than that stuff is to get your hands on some morphine and know how much to use and how to use if you have a man go down with a broken ankle or something… but in my experience it’s much cheaper and easier to get that sort of stuff on the ground. Regarding water purification: it really depends on where you are going. As your body gets used to the water, you learn to not be so queasy about drinking river water even when it’s black with sand. Those horrid little water tablets they try to sell you at the counter at the crap expedition equipment shop ought to be shoved down the grinning salesman’s throat. They score high on the crap scale, as does anything within six feet of the cash till. Avoid those tempting tidbits at ALL costs. From time to time I’ve had a water purification pump, but they always break eventually. My friend Col. John Blashford-Snell once advised me to buy a millsack… a sack you hang over a pot which filters water in a rudimentary way. It was a good thing and showed that his army training put him on the right wavelength.