February 11, 2018

Isambard Wilkinson (L) and Victoria Schofield.

KARACHI: The second day of the 9th Karachi Literature Festival saw the launch of Isambard Wilkinson’s memoir, Travels in a Dervish Cloak, at the Beach Luxury Hotel, where the festival was held from February 9-11. British historian Victoria Schofield moderated the discussion with the author, which was followed by a book-signing ceremony.

The memoir focuses mainly on the years Wilkinson — now a journalist at AFP’s Asia Pacific Desk in Hong Kong — spent in Islamabad as a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, from 2005 till 2009. Responding to Schofield’s question on the significance of the ‘dervish cloak’ in the title of the book, Wilkinson said it was inspired by the work of 11th century Sufi scholar, Data Ganj Baksh. While Data sahib wrote that the dervish’s cloak contained the mysteries of universe, Wilkinson uses the cloak as a metaphor for Pakistan. “It is by no means an Orientalist approach,” he said.

Wilkinson explained that at the time he was posted in Pakistan, the country was under immense pressure from the US to do more against the Taliban. “I was writing articles on the War on Terror, and felt it was a very narrow gauge through which Pakistan was being represented globally,” he said. “I wanted to correct misconceptions people had about the country.”

When asked about his quest to find the ‘real’ Pakistan and its Sufiist tradition, Wilkinson said that Pakistan was layered like a palimpsest. “I felt the Sufi shrines were the best prism through which tolerant elements of the country could be viewed.” Schofield said that Pakistan has a rich cultural tapestry and that the memoir sees beyond generic elements — such as cricket, for example — and paints a portrait of the foreign journalist’s interpersonal relations with locals, including his cook and chauffeur.

When asked what his biggest disappointment was, Wilkinson referred to personal health issues, such as kidney failure, which necessitated that he undergo dialysis. “With sickness comes a growing agitation of the world around you,” he said, which in this case entailed various concerns that come with living in Pakistan, including “the static relationship with India, with whom dialogue was blocked.”

Schofield asked the author to speak about the section on Kashmir, which was cut out of the memoir during the editing process. “In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, Pakistan’s army led journalists into the disaster-stricken areas,” said Wilkinson. “I was shocked to see that Kashmiris were cut off from their families by the Line of Control. On my second visit, I was hooted out by some intelligence agents.”

The author said that one of the highlights of his experience in Pakistan was his visit to the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, during the Urs. “Seeing and being part of that communion, and witnessing the camaraderie between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs was uplifting,” he says.

Wilkinson’s biggest regret was that he could not meet with Pir Pagaro, through whom he felt he could understand the country’s feudal heritage. Responding to Schofield’s question as to why he was unable to meet the Pir, the author said, “he seemed to be one step ahead of me at all times.”

A member of the audience asked the author about the origins of his unusual name. “My mother was on magic mushrooms throughout most of the ’60s and ’70s,” joked Wilkinson. “The name ‘Isambard’ is of Norman-French origin, and owing to the generations of engineers in my family, I was named after the famous British engineer of the nineteenth century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”