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Tag: tips

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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 8, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Don'ts in Middle Eastern Business

DON’T try to get something until you have given something first. This goes for physical items as much as it does for favours, ideas and so on.


DON’T be pushy when it comes to a business deal. Arabs don’t respond well to pushy executives and such tactics force a complete shut down of the system.

DON’T mix humour and business. By this I mean don’t suddenly tell a joke in the middle of negotiations. In the Middle East there’s a clear demarkation about being serious or jovial, and the two don’t usually get mixed up as they do in the West, particularly as they do in North America, where business is sometimes less gravely serious as it is in Europe.

DON’T order alcohol or (god forbid) pork, when at a meal with an Arab executive, unless you know them very well, and are certain they are not offended.

DON’T fail to reciprocate a gift with another gift. If even the most token gift is presented to you, send something back — and ALWAYS of the same approximate cost. Gift giving is part of an ancient etiquette in the East, and is something that’s regarded as important to help form a basis of trust.



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March 7, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Do's in Middle Eastern Business

DO take the time to learn the full name and appropriate titles of the person or people you are planning on doing business with. Names and titles are regarded as very important in the Arab world, and they ought to be given in full where possible.


DO ask after a business acquaintance’s children, but NEVER his wife. In the Arab world the common greeting is ‘How is your family?’ Children are regarded as safe ground. It’s an idea to take something for the children if invited to a home.

DO as much research on a business acquaintance and the firm you are interested in advance, and always ensure you do not spend time discussing matters with a superior which might be regarded as below his station. In the Arab world appropriate etiquette is for people of the same level to deal with a matter. So it would be incorrect for a man of a high position to discuss matters of a trivial nature, and vice versa.

DO bear in mind the matter of face and face-saving when negotiating. An Arab business counterpart may not say ‘no’, especially if you are his guest. Remember this and if worried, don’t force the issue. Every years millions of potential business agreements hit the wall, and Western executives fly home without a clear answer, because they don’t know how to read the signs.

DO  be totally transparent in a business negotiation. Nothing is held in the East with higher contempt as something that appears shady. Arab businessmen don’t appreciate legalese jargon or dodgy clauses in contracts any more than their Western counterparts.


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March 6, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Business Tactics

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the lobby of a grand, sprawling hotel in the Arabian Gulf. You know how it is… as you’re sitting there, half dreaming, half alert, you scan the other clusters of tables and chairs. And I was doing just that when, quite suddenly, an Arab wearing a chequered kafir and agal headdress jumped to his feet and stormed away. His face flushed with rage, he left three European businessmen wondering what exactly was going on. I’d been half-listening to the conversation and, from where I was sitting, it was quite obvious why the outburst occurred. You see, there’s almost no era of life more affected by the East-West gap than business, and the fragile etiquette that governs it. The Europeans were acting very politely, that is they thought they were but, in the Arab context, they were giving a terribly wrong message. I’ll maybe take the opportunity of highlighting a few useful tips on doing business in the Arab world in coming days. But, before that, the three blunders I had myself witnessed in the hotel lobby: The first was when one of the Europeans (thinking he was being courteous) persisted in quizzing the Arab counterpart about his wife, asking (for Arab society anyway) very private information, which included questions on whether the woman had given birth to a new child naturally or by Caesarian. The second was when the most senior member of the foreign party served himself tea and cake before his guest and then leaned back with the sole of his leather shoe pointing at that guest. And the third was then, in a terribly miscalculated and misadvised display of his less than basic Arabic language, the youngest European spat out this line: ‘You are all gentle dogs from the desert, and as such are part of my own dog!’ The sentence was the breaking point, the one in which the Arab business counterpart departed abruptly, leaving the Europeans blank-faced. The sentence caused me to smile, because for the English throat there is a difficulty in differentiating the pronunciation of the Arabic Q (as in Qalb = heart) and the K (as in the world Kalb = dog). He had actually been trying to say something like: ‘You are all gentle hearts from the desert, and as such are part of my own heart!’ Perhaps the real lesson here is never to attempt poetry in a language you can’t speak.




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Recognising the End

Every journey has an end. As the expedition leader, it’s your responsibility to decide when to call the team together and to give the order to retrace the steps, and venture back to the starting point. The obvious time for return is when you have come upon your goal — when you’ve found the lost city and had a good look around. But, as is so often the case, the goal tends to slip away. And what of it? To me, the goal is so important because it’s the magnet that pulls you forward, the beacon of hope… but at the same time it’s without much meaning within itself. Sure, it would be amazing to find the ruins, or whatever you’re searching for, but it’s equally valuable to have endured the unendurable for so long, and to have been part of the team. When you eventually get back to the base camp, have a feast prepared with remaining food. Then divide up equipment and hand as much of it away to the men as you can. Remember, if they live on the periphery of the jungle, they’re far more likely to have use for it than you. And, taking just the bare essentials, you can slip back into the world you came from… disappear with your memories, and start thinking of another expedition.



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The Big Picture

Keeping an eye on the detail is of paramount importance, but so is the ability to keep the other on the big picture — micro and macro. It’s hard perhaps to explain this or why it’s so important. But while you’re on an expedition it’s very easy to focus on the hand in front of your face and, by doing do, to lose focus on your surroundings. In my experience, the team will quickly lose all interest in the wider goals, the greater scheme of things. They’re too wound up in the pain their injured feet are giving them, or their groaning stomachs. So, it’s your responsibility to watch the expedition from afar and ask yourself key questions. Are you on track? Is everyone pulling their weight? Could you re-jig and win time? Is morale flagging and, if so, can you pep it up right now? At the same time you must be prepared for disaster. It strikes, of course, when you’re getting complacent and comfortable. What happens if there’s a sudden downpour and the river swells two feet? Or if a man snaps his ankle on the next bend, or if hornets attack? Are you prepared? What would you do to cope? Keep the boy scout spirit alive and always remember that you’re as fragile as a feather on the wind.



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Morale

Rain, more rain, intestinal worms, dengue fever, sores, scurvy, fatigue: it all spells one thing… plunging  levels of morale. Once morale has dipped below optimal levels it’s very hard to drag back up. The worst problem is a sense that the expedition is going nowhere and that, as leader, you are forcing the team on towards unknown perils for no reason at all. As I have said previously, a good way to counter low morale is hot food and plenty of it. Another way is to have a football, or rest days, or an unexpected party. It’s true that parties and the jungle don’t go hand in hand particularly well… but you can stash some sugary food and party hats (and aguardiente of course) in a sealed bag before leaving. There’s another trick that I usually resort to at some point. Anyone who has read my books may have guessed. I take a crystalline white powder and sprinkle it on the tongues of the men in the most miserable conditions — when they’re all down with fever and general lethargy, or when the rain hasn’t stopped for weeks. They drool at the taste of it, and get a feeling that they’ve eaten a delicious meal even when they’ve not. The powder is Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG).  It works every time.



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Cannibalising Stuff

Do you remember a few days ago I was ranting on why you should avoid all that stuff from fancy expedition shops? Well, it’s because that you’re in the jungle, you may have to start ripping stuff up, turning it into other stuff. You’ll soon see that you miscalculated with equipment and your own personal kit… that you left behind valuable things which would make life easier. But use your ingenuity. It’s much easier than you imagine to make stuff. Think of it like a battleship that’s out at sea… they learn to ‘refit at sea’. That means to make do with everything they have with them. We have all become very spoiled with equipment and general possessions. Whereas our forefathers knew that things had to be crafted from constituent parts, we have got so lazy we can’t imagine making anything that isn’t sold in the form we require. Again, it’s worth remembering to take lots of constituent parts along — twine, plastic sheeting, needles, tar, strong glue and so one. You can make just about anything from that stuff.



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Living off the Land

In the movies, the jungle expedition always gains plenty of food from hunting, fishing, and gathering wild berries. Well, in reality that doesn’t work so well. One problem is that it’s very very time-consuming… and if the team have been carrying 30 kilos each all day, or have been hauling rafts up river, they are too tired to hunt or gather berries. It does work to have one or two designated  hunters, who love to try their luck at night. And you will need at least one 20-gauge shotgun for this with ammo. You can cut down chonta palms for ‘heart of palm’ but it’s not very nutritious. Beware though of scurvy, which sets in much sooner than you might imagine. You must search for sources of natural vitamin C for this, and there are plenty, as such small quantities are needed. I have always found that you must take food with you, otherwise you proceed with crippling slowness. Or, if possible, get a couple of local Indians working with you, and they will have a good chance at hunting, or at least fishing with bow and arrows.



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Rafts and Zodiacs

I’ve taken a lot of rubber boats into the jungle. A well-known brand ifs the French Zodiac. They have advantages, namely that you can take them out of the water and carry them easily over land. They work pretty well over rapids too. The disadvantage is that they get holes, especially when you are dragging them up rapids, something which tends to be done frequently depending on the height of the water line. I’m a huge fan in building rafts, and have found that anyone living near a jungle knows almost instinctively how to do it. You find a grove of balsa trees, fell a few of them (always leaving many trees). While some of the guys strip the bark into strands for the lashing, others make chonta-palm nails. You can use river-stones as hammers, and knock together five or six tree trunks (about 10 inches in diameter), tapering the ends. A team of four men can make a raft in about 45 minutes. The huge advantage is that they can be slipped up rapids with enormous ease, they can also be used as windbreaks and seating, and can even be abandonned when necessary.



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