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Tag: Pakistan

April 26, 2012 Posted by tahir in Travel

Ten Worst Travel Moments

1. Being arrested, blindfolded, stripped, and flung into solitary at a Pakistani torture prison.

2. Being given the ‘rubber glove’ treatment on the border of Liberia and Sierra Leone when passing innocently through ‘Blood Diamond’ country.

3. Having dengue fever in the Madre de Dios jungle in Peru. That, along with having stomach problems, no skin on my feet, and worms burrowing out of me.

4. Having the most indescribably bad food poisoning in a locked down military area in Baluchistan, having eaten the sushi platter for four in Karachi the night before (a huge mistake).

5. Swallowing a live murrel fish in Hyderabad, a supposed cure for asthma.

6. Being lost and alone in a storm in a Cessna 152 somewhere above the Florida Panhandle, when I was aged 17 and learning to fly.

7. Being robbed of all my money, my travel documents and my luggage in the night on a train from Madrid to Algeciras.

8. Waiting for five days in a remote village in western Ethiopia for a truck to drive through so that I might have a chance to hitchhike to the next town and get stuck there.

9. Being on an organized tour of northern Namibia with retired workers from a ball-bearings factory in Dusseldorf (managed to escape, luckily).

10. Being lost at night on the live Niryagongo volcano in Congo with the threat of it erupting very likely.

How about you? What are your worst travel memories? Please share in the comments.


July 22, 2010 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Years On

Five years ago at this moment I was crouched in the corner of a solitary confinement cell at a torture jail in northern Pakistan. My Swedish film crew from Caravan Film and I were arrested a week after the London bombings of July 2005, and held without charge for sixteen days, and nights. In the half-decade that has elapsed since our release, I have found myself turning the experience over and over, looking at it in varying ways, and drawing a myriad of conclusions. It was clear that the system had seized us without quite knowing why and that once they had us, they didn’t know how get rid of us. The most obvious thing –just open the cell doors and let us walk out — never appeared to have occurred to them. My conclusions these days revolve less about our actual experience, and more about what it says in terms of the situation that people like me (one foot in the East and the other in the West) now find themselves in the Post 9/11 world. We can’t help but be affected, and be regarded with suspicion — by both sides. It’s a ridiculous position, and one which I might find myself drawing amusement from were the stakes not so high. The thing which still astonishes me is the apparent lack of cultural understanding between the Occidental governments and those of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Certainly, they may have a linguistic commonality, but they both appear (to me, anyway) to have almost no intellectual connection. My experience of this has been first hand, most shockingly when interrogated blindfold and manacled night after night in a Pakistani torture room… and then when received at Heathrow by the British secret services. I’m not trying to make a big point here other than to say that we would all do better to learn much more of each other’s culture. Reading each other’s literature, study each other’s histories, understanding dissimilar etiquettes and so on. Beyond that, I write this in anniversary of those terrifying nights, waiting for the jangling of the keys and for the blindfolds, the signal that I was about to be led back down the long corridor to the torture room.

July 7, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


It’s three years ago today that London was terrorised by bombs on the transport network. The TV captured the wounded: blood spilling over faces, the look of fear and pain in the eyes of random victims. They could have been any of us, and that’s where the real terror comes in. And the news today is of killing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Dozens dead for no real reason at all. Again, random people.

The London bombs changed the way I live my life. And it happened in a round about way. As I have published recently in In Arabian Nights, I was travelling in Pakistan with two Swedish colleagues a week after the bombs. Directives from London and Washington had encouraged the Pakistanis to clamp down on anyone suspicious, anyone suspicious with a British passport and a Muslim-sounding name. I turned up and the alarm bells sounded. We were arrested and spent the next sixteen days and sixteen fearful nights in a Pakistani torture jail.

I don’t usually write about this stuff. I leave that to all the others who have much to say. But my life changed on 7/7/05, and it’s something that I think of a great deal. Before that date I had been affected like all of us by 9/11… but had not really been touched more than superficial inconvenience (paying more for flights, airport security lines etc). Before 7/7 I lived a nice little life. And I used to think to myself that it could never really get wrapped up in something linked to Al Qaeda and Taliban.

The big change was having my life taken away. Stripped clean off my back. And I was suddenly like a guy in one of those Hollywood flicks, desperately trying to get reconnected with his life. I remember sitting there in a cell, or worse — in the torture room — going over the ins and outs of a multicultural life. I was born in England but to mixed Anglo-Asian ancestry. My wife is from India, and I live in Morocco. At the time we were arrested in Peshawar, my colleagues and me were travelling by land from India to Afghanistan, to make a documentary.

What’s more, my passport is covered in stamps from obscure tin-pot countries. And I don’t have a real job, not the sort of thing you can quantify with a salary and a title. Try explaining all this to someone who’s never heard anything like it, and you get a very big mess.

I knew that with time the mess would get unravelled. Or rather I hoped it would. And I hoped too that we could pick up and move on out, carry on with what we were doing. But at the same time I knew something big had happened, something that had broken the life I lived before.

And every night when I watch the news and hear of the deaths in far away Afghanistan (in particular, as that’s a place I know), I feel despondent. The sadness comes from knowing that there is no honour in any of it. This is a war that winning will only return us to a kind of shaky status quo. There’ll be no victory parades. And in the time it takes to win it, the only certainty is that thousands, or millions, of innocent lives will end just as they did in London three years ago today.


July 6, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


A man is sitting in the shade against the battered pink city wall of Marrakech. He sits there everyday, wrapped in a fraying brown jellaba made from camel’s wool. It looks as though he’s baking, but there’s no perspiration on his wrinkled face… just a look of glazed fatigue. On the ground before him there’s a few inches of grey cloth. Upon it is a coin.
The man was born in a village in the mountains. In his youth he was strong and and lean. He would run through the valleys, streams glistening from melted snow, birdsong loud all around, laughing with his friends. Sometimes, on dark spring nights, they would sit together out in the meadows, away from the adobe homes, and tell stories. They would dream, plan adventures, swap tall tales, talk of the women they would marry and of the happiness they’d find.
Years came and went, and the man tilled the land that his father had tilled, and his father before him. He was wed to a girl from the next village, a girl with a pleasing smile and a kindness. He became a father, and the days and weeks and seasons rolled on and on.
Then one day the man’s crops were blighted by disease and by drought. The wheat and the potatoes died first, then the sheep grew weak and slipped away. The man taught his children to trust in God, to work hard and to keep on the right path.
Another season came and went and, with it, more drought. The village was at the point of starvation. One morning a trader came from far away Marrakech and offered a little money for tribal possessions. He came into the mud-brick home and offered three hundred dirhams ($50) for all he could carry away. He took the pots and pans, the chairs, the table, and even the front door, said he could sell them to foreigners who were moving into the medina down in Marrakech.
More time passed, but not as gently as it had done before. The man’s wife grew ill and she succumbed. No one quite knew the cause of her ailment. There was no money for medicine and in any case no one else had any to spare. The man struggled to feed his children and he grieved. He thought about sending word to his relatives who lived in a bidonville near Casablanca, but he had too much pride. If they were to visit him, he would have to cook a banquet in their honour. And there was certainly no money for that.
So the man sacrificed a chicken, his last possession of any value. And he said a prayer to God. He prayed that the drought would end, replaced by happiness, and that his children would know a different future, one touched with hope.
That night, the man had a dream. He dreamed of a path wending its way through the mountain valleys down to the city. The next morning, he gathered up his sons, together with what they could carry, and they started to walk.
Within a week they had reached the frenzied sprawl of Marrakech, teaming with transport and tourists. The man was too proud to say it aloud, but he missed the solitude of the valley. He found a room for them all to sleep in, searched for work, and began a new life of servility. 
With time the boys grew up and left the nest. The man doesn’t know where they are. But he lives in hope, hope that they were well, and that one day they will return, their own dreams fulfilled. His sight is not good now, but he has very little needs… a little bread dipped in oil satiates the pains of hunger when they come. He clings to what little hope he can muster. Because, as his father had taught him so long before, when the valley was green and the crops abundant, a life without hope is not a life at all.
July 5, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


To know about swamps you have to travel with mules. I mean it. Without one, you can’t really understand the other.

I had never been in a swamp before, not a proper one, until I ventured to western Ethiopia with Samson, my guide, and friend. I’d picked him up in Addis Ababa weeks before. Or, rather, he’d picked me up in his taxi. I was on the quest of the lost mines of King Solomon and Samson knew about gold, or so he said… so we went off together.
The trail eventually led to Tulu Wallel, a godforsaken craggy mountain towards the border with Sudan. I knew that if we could get to the mountain, and then up it, we’d have a chance at finding a secret mine once worked by the inimitable British trailblazer Frank Hayer, back in the thirties.
So we hired mules. Half a dozen of them. And we pushed forwards on to Tulu Wallel, a cloud-capped mount protruding from an ocean of green. From the first strides, I could see that these were animals with a sense of what was going on. I am not a horseman, but I know that horses are flighty, frisky, that they can’t be trusted when push comes to shove.
Very soon the rain began to fall. Torrential rain. And then the cold came.We were in a forest by this time and it was dusk. It was a wicked enchanted forest, the kind of place where grown men feel frightened out of their wits. And that’s just what we all were, although we were putting on brave faces.
Suddenly, there was a frantic call from Samson behind. He was wrestling one of the mules forward, steering it, pulling the reins to the left. Now, the amazing thing about mules is that they find their own path, and they keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs. The best thing to do is to let them go, and they will lead you through the horrors ahead.
The problem was that we had a muleteer who seemed ignorant of the genius of his herd. He drove them straight into swamp, a kind of swamp that verged on quicksand. To watch a strong, laden beast go down into a quagmire is one of the most terrible sights imaginable. The she-mule’s front legs sunk in deep, and she went down fast. Before she knew it, and we knew it, her muzzle was plunged in. She cocked it back, wailing, heaving, as the girth bindings were slashed with Samson’s knife.
I ran forward with him, and we both found ourselves being sucked in too. What a feeling, a feeling of utter helplessness, as if the end had come. Then a second mule came forward, answering the distress of the first. It sank as well.
Darkness was upon us, the sound of bats in the trees.
No light, just fear.
We must have been protected that night by some magical force. For we all made it out alive. I don’t know how because all the odds were stacked against us. It was as if we were lifted out of there, preserved by a greater power. It may sound mad, and it does, but I have always felt secretly that we were saved, all of us, by a patron… by the patron saint of mules.
June 30, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


In the far north of Pakistan the Himalayas rise up into the heavens, the rooftop of the world. The air is so clear that you can see for a thousand miles, and the scent of the valleys is the scent of freedom. The first time I saw those colossal peaks, it was from the cockpit of a Fokker-27, flying between them in air so thin that the tips of my fingers went numb.

We landed at Chitral and drove and drove up mountain tracks no wider than an axle’s length. We found villages clinging to the slopes, fir trees alive with birds, glistening streams, and children squinting in the winter sunlight. I thought I’d discovered Paradise.
In one village I was taken in and given tea. My host was a man called Attar Khan. He was one of those men whose face mirrored the hardship of his life. His skin was like a sheet of ox leather. But his smile, which never wavered, reflected a serenity, a contentment.
Attar Khan boiled up some water from the stream, thanked God for sending guests to him, and poured the first cup of tea. It was sweet, tasted as if it had been smoked through nights and days. I praised the flavour and asked about life in the mountains.
‘In the winter it’s not easy,’ said Attar Khan, pushing down his turban with his thumbs. ‘The snow is very deep and the wind so cold that we are frozen to be bone.’
‘How do you stand it?’
‘God gives us strength to do so and, besides, we have never known anything different.’
I told him that I had come from a place called London, a city where lives were sometimes swallowed up by stress.
Attar Khan smoothed a hand down his grey beard.
He smiled.
‘I have heard of it,’ he said slowly. ‘I have heard that there are trains running under the ground. And i have wondered whether this is the work of Jinn.’
It was my turn to smile.
‘Not Jinn, but engineers,’ I replied.
I asked if foreigners ever visited the valley where Attar Khan lived. Again, he pressed down his voluminous turban.
‘Last year they came,’ he said. ‘People from the country of the Jinn railway.’
‘What did they do here?’
Attar Khan stroked his beard again.
‘That was the strange thing,’ he said. ‘You see, they wanted to climb up the mountains. We asked them if they were looking for markhor or other game, but they waved a finger and said they had come to climb the mountains for the sake of climbing the mountains. We were confused. You see, here at Gilgit we only climb the mountains when we have a reason to. And your people, the ones who came, thought it made sense to climb the mountains for the sake of climbing them.
Attar Khan poured me a second glass of tea, broke open a pomegranate.
‘To have trains under the ground,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘and to climb mountains for no reason… it seems to me as if people in your country are living upside-down.’