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Tag: travel

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Q&A on Writing and Travel

TS101. The explorations and adventures in most of your work are set in exotic places that are shrouded in mystery and rich in history and tradition, and it seems as though you have traveled just about everywhere. Do you happen to have any connection with a small and relatively mainstream place like Belgium?

When I was a child, I was sent to stay with friends at Ypres. I was eleven years old, and I remember the visit vividly. Of course I have returned to Belgium time and again since then, but it was that winter journey that is so burned in my memory. My sisters and I were taken to the Great War cemeteries there. I can see the headstones now – all lined up perfectly, glinting white in the flat winter sun. I remember reading the names and ages of those men. They were so young – their lives having hardly begun. A day doesn’t go by on which I don’t think of them. And it is for them that I remind my children daily: Carpe diem! Seize the day!

2. I recently heard you tell a student group that they could and should be explorers. As far as I know, there are no significant mysteries here in Belgium, though there is a great deal of history. What sorts of explorations do you think have yet to be pursued here? What do you think is the best way for parents to make explorers of their children?

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April 3, 2013 Posted by tahir in Books

New Releases from My Backlist

TS ebook series backlist

I’m very pleased to share with you the release of my travel backlist as ebooks. Each book has been updated with a new introduction, with the exception of Travels With Myself, my 2011 release. Trail of Feathers will also be available very soon.

Get your copy now: Read more

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Morocco's Pirate Realm

Relocate from a cramped East End flat to a haunted mansion, in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown, and you can’t help but slip into the Moroccan Twilight Zone. It’s a world conjured straight from a child’s imagination – a realm of Jinn and exorcists, of dazzling colours, exotic foods, and unending possibility.

During our several years here, we have descended down through the interleaving layers of Moroccan society to its very bedrock. In that time I have become preoccupied with the Morocco that tourists rarely glimpse, the one that lies just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered by anyone ready to receive it.

            Every day Europe’s budget airlines ferry tourists back and forth, depositing them at the gates of a few key Moroccan cities – Marrakech, Agadir and Fès. Yet, the rest of the kingdom is left largely alone. So, stray a little off the beaten track, and the rewards can be immediate and quite extraordinary. And, as often happens in Morocco, the greatest treasures are where you expect them least of all.

I was reminded of this recently when my daughter, Ariane, came home and begged me to help with her pirate project. She’s obsessed with Johnny Depp, and imagines all pirates to be bumbling caricatures, rather than the ruthless killers of today’s African Horn.

Googling ‘Morocco Pirates’, she began a treasure trail which led right from our own door.

An hour’s drive up the coast from Casablanca is the capital, Rabat. It’s rather staid – orderly traffic, clipped hedges, and droves of diplomats. Across from it, nestled up on the windswept Atlantic shore is the small town of Salé. Most Rabatis like to stick their noses up at their down-at-heel neighbour. They regard it as sordid, squalid, a complete waste of time. I had bought in to the whole Salé-bashing syndrome, and found myself snarling at the mere mention of the name.

But Ariane insisted I’d got it all wrong.

She told a tale of a pirate realm worthy of Jack Sparrow himself, one where Robinson Crusoe had been taken as a slave. For eight centuries, she said, Salé had been a world centre of looting, pillaging, and of white slavery. The frenzied debauchery had reached its height in the 1600s, under the greatest marauder in the Barbary history, the infamous Jan Janszoon.

A Dutch freebooter, and former Christian slave himself, Janszoon made himself overlord of a pirate republic based at Salé. He waylaid many hundreds of ships across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, possibly extending as far as Iceland and the Americas. In true pirate tradition, he sired countless children. His descendents are said to embrace a Who’s Who of celebrity, including the Marquis of Blandford, Humphrey Bogart, and Jackie O.

Intrigued by this curious fragment of international pirate trivia, I bundled Ariane into the car and sped north.

Soon we spied the skyline of Rabat, all proud and stately as a capital city should be. Across the estuary, the syrupy yellow light of late afternoon gave a glow to the ancient walls of what was once the pirate realm – the Republic of Salé.

Even from a distance there was something bleak and piratic about it.

Gnarled volcanic rocks, breakers, wine-dark sea, and walls right out of Treasure Island. Approaching from along the coast, we found ourselves at an immense and ancient burial ground – tens of thousands of graves packed tight together, the head-stones lost in each other’s shadows.

Unable to resist, we strolled slowly between the graves, the chill Atlantic wind ripping in our ears. Ariane said she could imagine the pirates sleeping there, cuddled up with their secrets and their treasure maps.

In the middle of the graveyard a fisherman was crouching with a long slim rod, and an empty paint can filled with fish heads. He was surrounded by cats. When I asked him about pirates he narrowed his eyes, nodded once, and pointed to a low fortress at the edge of the cemetery.

We went over to it.

Crafted from honey-yellow stone, the Sqala, as it’s known in Arabic, was built into the crenellated sea wall, rusted iron cannons still trained on the horizon. A policeman was standing outside. He had a weather-worn face, watery eyes, and a big toothy grin. Ariane asked him about pirates. Before we knew it, we’d been ushered inside.

He led the way through a cool stone passage and out onto a rounded terrace, bathed in blinding yellow light. There was something magical about it, as if it was so real that it was fake, like a Hollywood set. The cannons there were bronze, lizard-green with verdigris, each one bearing a different crest.

‘They were obviously captured by pirates,’ said Ariane knowledgeably. ‘If they weren’t, the crests would all be the same.’

 Staring out to where the water joined the sky, the policeman suddenly recited a poem about unrequited love. He said there was no better place in all the world to compose poetry than right there, and that poetry was his true love.

I asked if he’d ever heard of Jan Janszoon. He cocked his face to the ground beneath his feet.

‘The dungeon,’ he said grimly.

We went down jagged steps, along a vaulted corridor bored out from the stone, lit by shafts of natural light. Home to nests of stray cats, it was damp and smelled of death. The officer showed us a truly miserable cell which looked as though it had been quite recently used. His grin subsiding, he explained that the last prisoner had been forgotten, and had starved to death.

‘Was it the famous corsair, Jan Janszoon?’ I asked.

The policeman shook his head.

‘For him, you must go to the old city,’ he said.

After sweet mint tea, and yet more poetry, we escaped with directions scribbled in Arabic, directions to the home of Jan Janszoon lost in the maze of the old city.

After six years in Morocco, I am no stranger to walled medinas, and have traipsed through dozens of them – often searching for a cryptic address. In that time I’ve learned to be thick-skinned when approached by hustlers laden with tourist wares.

Slipping through the Bab Malka Gate, we prepared ourselves for the usual onslaught of salesmen and mendicants. But it didn’t come. Instead, the silence was so pronounced that we could hear the children playing marbles in the labyrinth of lanes. Without waiting for us to ask, one of them led the way to the great mosque.

Built in the glorious twelfth century Almohad style, its one of the greatest treasures in the kingdom, and one of the least known. The boy said there were seven doors, one for each day of the week.

Twisting and turning our way down the whitewashed lanes, we found a time-capsule of Moroccan life from a century ago. There were vegetables piled high on carts, and chunks of fresh mutton laid out on fragrant beds of mint; tailors busily sewing kaftans, mattress-makers and carpenters, brocade-sellers, and dyers hanging skeins of wool in the sun. And, rather than any tourists or tourist kitsch, there were local people out shopping, bargaining for underpants and melons, pumpkins, wedding robes, and socks.

When Ariane showed the scribbled directions to the marble-playing boy, he led us to a spacious square, the Souq el Gazelle, the Wool Market. It was packed with people buying and selling used clothes and brightly-coloured wool. The boy said it was where slaves had once been sold, having been dragged ashore from captured ships.

Nudging a thumb to the directions, I asked about the home of Jan Janszoon.

The boy beckoned us to follow him.

Winding our way through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, the air pungent with kebab smoke and baking macaroons, we reached the crumbling façade of a building. Once plastered, the dressed stone was exposed, ravaged by the elements. A fig tree had taken hold and was growing out from the side, and the studded wooden door was falling to bits. The boy glanced at the scribbled directions and gave a thumb’s up.

Ariane and I stood there in awe. We were on hallowed ground after all – at the home of the greatest pirate in Barbary history, the progenitor of Jackie O no less.

As the muezzin called the prayer, his voice singing out over the tiled rooftops of old Salé, I whispered thanks to Jan Janszoon and to his band of marauding corsairs. Through a special conjury of Moroccan magic, the Dutch-born freebooter had lured us through a keyhole into his own pirate realm, the Moroccan Twilight Zone, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.


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Niche

I wrote about this before, but it’s something that has huge application in the media, and in journalism as a whole. If you can develop a niche of expertise for yourself, then editors in specific departments will call on you again and again. I have a friend who writes for food magazines, and she’s very good at it. But she also gets work writing culinary pieces for inflight magazines, for newspapers, as well as blurbs for food companies. Over the years she’s got pretty well known in her field, and is now invited on press trips, which are free trips (usually to exotic destinations) in the hope that she’ll write about the place later. And, even better in my opinion, she gets asked to write culinary books, cause she’s got a track record in the field. When developing a niche, the thing that’s so important is to follow a subject on which you’re passionate. Ask yourself what you’d write about for free. There must be something, whether it’s travel, or food, or railways or even knitting. Then set about thinking where you could pitch stories, and what angles would be good to cover. With the internet it’s much easier than before, and great because you can start at once by writing a blog.



TS
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July 2, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Desert

Once upon a time there lived a man who loved the sun and its heat so greatly that he sold up all his possessions and bought a ticket to the capital of a sprawling Saharan country. When he had arrived, been robbed a couple of times, and threatened a couple more, he set out to buy himself a small farm in the desert.

Very soon he had paid all the money he possessed to a con-man for a piece of land unwanted by anyone else. 
The man could hardly understand what was driving him. He knew that there must be a reason, a real one, that his unconscious mind had not yet revealed to him. And he knew that the only way to follow satisfaction was by following his mind’s plan. So that’s what he did.
Days passed, then weeks and months. The man made a simple life for himself. He got a dog, a cat, and a flock of ostriches, which he raised from chicks. They would follow him about, as if he were their master. He lived on their eggs, their meat and, from time to time when people passed, he would sell them fabulous fans made from the feathers.
One day an eagle was flying high above the desert dunes searching for prey. He spotted a group of specks below and, assuming them to be food of some sort, he descended sharply. Gradually, as he lowered, he realised that the specks were giant flightless birds, a joke creature as far as eagles were concerned.
The eagle landed on the sands near to where the ostriches were preening themselves for mites.
‘I am an eagle,’ he said proudly, ‘king of the birds.’
The ostriches didn’t even look up. So the eagle repeated himself, splaying his razor-sharp talons as he did so.
Just then, the man came out of the shack. Spotting the eagle, the ostriches scurried over to their master’s shadow and plunged their heads in the cool sand.
The man picked up a sharp stone and weighed it in his hand.
‘If you don’t go off at once, i’ll kill you,’ he said.
The eagle preened the feathers of his crest and didn’t budge. He smiled.
‘Are you not frightened of me?’ said the man angrily.
‘Why should I be?’ replied the eagle.
‘Because I am a man and animals are fearful of men.’
Again the eagle preened, a little slower than before. Then he said:
‘I can fly high into the air, and see a mouse from the heavens. I can live off the land, kill without tools, and right at this moment I could scratch out your eyes.’ he paused. ‘And what about you?’ he asked.
‘What about me?’ said the man.
‘You,’ said the eagle disdainfully, ‘can do none of these things and, what’s more, you rule over birds that are both flightless and terrified. See how their heads are in the dirt behind where you stand! But your greatest foolishness is to think you are superior in the face of the truth.’
The man dropped the stone onto the ground.
‘In the months since I left my country and came here to the desert,’ he said, ‘I have wondered again and again why I forced myself to come. And now that I have heard your words, I realise that they are the reason. They are the lesson I was waiting to receive. I am guilty of thinking myself better, far better, than you and everything else out here in what we would call a wilderness. I am feeble beyond all imagination, unsuited to this place, and yet I presume to be superior all the same.’
And the man stepped forward, knelt before the eagle, and together they laughed.
TS