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Tag: Torture Prison

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.