March Issue 2018

By | Interview | Published 6 years ago

Newsline interviews Isambard Wilkinson, author of Travels in a Dervish Cloak.

Isambard Wilkinson en route to meet Nawab Akbar Bugti in his cave hideout, months before his assassination. (Photo by Scott Eells).


Driven by nostalgia, does the yearning for the ‘old’ and ‘enlightened’ Pakistan overlook its inherent contradictions?

When I wrote the memoir, as a journalist covering the turbulent years of Musharraf and thereafter (2005-2009), I was very aware that the West had a bad perspective of Pakistan. The country was dubbed, in the western media, as the ‘front line of the War on Terror,’ ‘the axis of evil’ and so on. It was a negative and narrow-minded view of Pakistan, and that has remained in people’s minds in the West. Pakistan is synonymous globally with terrorism; and someone like me, who has been coming here since the age of 18, has always seen the country from the inside — from the perspective of the Pakistani family; a pre-2001 perspective.

I felt, on many levels, that I should write a book that spoke about the positive side of Pakistan, which to me is its diversity and richness of culture. In my book I present the Pakistan that outsiders don’t know about. People have come up to me and said that they were not even aware that mysticism existed in Pakistan, nor had any clue about its syncretic culture. They had no idea there could be places of worship where Hindu, Sikh and Muslim prayed shoulder to shoulder. Hopefully, the narrative of the book also shows things from a journalistic perspective; so it is not only driven by nostalgia. I wanted to portray that softer side that just wasn’t known. I talk about honour killings, feudal power, the impoverished masses.

Does the underprivileged section of Pakistani society have reason to look back at the old Pakistan with as much fondness as the elite do?

With change and progress we all see the positive and embrace modernity — in terms of the advance of medicine, in the principles of human rights and certainly one would hope that as Pakistan goes forward, it will become more egalitarian in regards to the distribution of wealth, for example, and land reforms.

What I realised when I was here was that Pakistan was undergoing a time of change. Conservative Islam was on the march, there was a lot of violence and I sensed that a positive impulse was being lost and I wanted to record that. I wanted to produce a portrait of a country at a particular time. I think the poor, as well as the rich, have probably lost something of value.

You dwell on the decadent lifestyles of Pakistan’s urban elite. Where do they figure on the spectrum of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Pakistan?

As you read in the book, as a young man, I very much partook and enjoyed the parties. Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke is a classic and I love it. It talked about, and alluded to, the impunity that comes with power. And so on that spectrum, I hope that the rich son of a Pir, for example, won’t be able to pistol-whip an innocent bystander who has answered him back. This behaviour is rooted in a feudal power and a sort of lost society.

Why were you expelled from boarding school?

I had left a very strict, repressive Victorian-era prep school, and I think I was going through an adolescent rebellious phase. I found Cheltenham, the school I was at for my A-Levels, very restrictive. And so, I embarked on a vendetta with my housemaster, the final sequence of which was me, drunk and vomiting on his desk. That was the final straw, but there had been a long build-up, for a year or so. I was determined to get expelled, and it led to a very positive outcome: I went to a better school — one that emphasised education rather than sports.

I think when you are a young, rebellious adolescent, you are like a young creature that is breaking out. You want to establish your own identity, make your own decisions. I think that phase of my life was very much part of that process.

What solace do you find in the wandering dervish that you cannot find in your own culture?

I think in western culture there is a strong tradition of itinerant asceticism. What I really liked about the tradition of the wandering dervish in Pakistan, was its inclusiveness, tolerance and, in some strains of Sufism, its anarchic abandonment in search of the truth. And that really appealed to me. It was another unexpected part of Pakistan. I felt it would be interesting to outsiders, who have a rather narrow view of the country.

What does travel writing effectively capture about a society that journalism fails to?

There is a slightly blinkered focus in journalism. Of course, journalism is an essential tool of a democracy and any society. But I think travel writing is much broader because it is subjective and immersive when it is at its best. And you can use lots of techniques that you cannot deploy in journalism, to give a fuller picture. For example, the human factor. Using novelistic techniques, you can transpose mood, gesticulation, atmosphere and spirit of place. You have a far broader range of tools with which to draw a portrait of a place.

Part of what the West finds ‘exotic’ about the East are elements that exist purely due to a lack of gentrification, such as encroachments around shrines and disorderliness on the streets — sights that locals view as a nuisance. Do you feel the West’s aesthetic perception of the East is naïve?

I think that perspective is a little out of date, because in the West now, people have an abhorrence for any kind of filth and dirt — whether it is romantic or not. England has become multicultural, it has a less naïve, less romantic view of abroad. Although it may have an inaccurate view of Pakistan, I don’t think it is guilty of the orientalism that Edward Said wrote about. Towards the end of my book, when I am driving to the airport, I refer to the disorderliness I saw on the streets. But to me that’s not about romanticising dirt and filth. To me, that was about a life lived in a vivid way, with a passion. And I think that is one of the attractive things about Pakistan — it has that sense of improvisation. If you walk down the street, you will see two people laughing and deep in discussion about something. It’s a vibrant society.

What drove you to write a column in 2006, criticising the British Club in Islamabad and the then high commissioner, Mark Lyall Grant?

It was an accumulation of things. I never wanted to go to the British Club in Islamabad, but when I heard that British journalists weren’t allowed there, I immediately thought that it was very strange, because, the French, for example, allowed their journalists into their club. The reason for this prohibition is that the British want their diplomats to be able to speak freely, which is not a very adult way of looking at journalists. There is something slightly infantile about the culture of Brits abroad and how they treat members of their own community.

But what actually drove me to write the column was my trip to Faisalabad — once known as Lyallpur. I thought it would make for a good story about how Mark Lyall Grant was using his ancestry to do some more development work in Faisalabad. So I went down with him and when we got back to Islamabad, he sent a minion to tell me not to write the piece. As a journalist, if someone tells you not to write a piece, you say to yourself, I think I will! Britain, at that stage, was trying to sell its Cool Britannia image and the Empire was anathema. I found it all quite hypocritical. And so I wrote a satirical piece. Was it a coincidence that Grant chose to carry out development in a city formerly named after his ancestor? Was it part of his self-aggrandisement, or was it so worthy an objective that he had extended it to other towns as well? I don’t know the answer to this and so I would not like to make any judgement.

Based on your experiences in Pakistan as a journalist, do you feel Pakistan’s English language media has a strong grasp of the country’s rural society and sensibilities?

When I was working here as a journalist, the local reporters were absolutely part of the fabric, and clearly knew the areas they were working in. But they were under immense pressure, often having three or four intelligence agencies breathing down their neck.

However, like in England, the newspapers are usually produced by a metropolitan elite, and often do not reflect as well areas in the countryside.

What was your impression of Brahumdagh Bugti when you met him in the cave hideout? And how do you think he would fare as Akbar Bugti’s successor?

He was young, but he was a quietly charismatic leader who had the confidence of his grandfather, who had made him his field commander. I observed that Nawab Akbar Bugti gave him orders, which indicated that he found him competent enough to carry them out. At one point we thought a drone had spotted us, and it was Brahumdagh who suggested that we move. The Nawab put up a bit of a resistance at first, but later gave in and we left the cave the next morning. Interestingly, the Nawab and all his commanders had read Robert Taber’s War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerilla Warfare.

I imagine that because of Brahumdagh’s place in the tribe, and because he was anointed by Bugti, I think he enjoys the confidence of the tribe as well.

Did your dance party with Islamic militants in Khyber Agency change your perception of them?

Before the Pakistani Taliban even arrived on the scene, I had Pathan friends from the tribal areas who always talked about their rich culture of dance and song. But as far as the Islamic militants I met in Khyber Agency are concerned, I was surprised when they pulled out a rubab (musical instrument) and started playing it. It certainly added another dimension to the militants, whom Musharraf famously called the ‘charsi Taliban.’ I also found that, in private, they did not necessarily agree with their leader Mangal Bagh’s ban on Sufi worship and music. It was good to see that they had their own minds.

Do you think Jinnah genuinely believed in the idea of Pakistan?

Looking at the lead-up to his bid to create Pakistan, you can definitely see, from his origins as well — within the Congress party — that he would have preferred a reconciliation between the Muslim League and the Congress. But as the horse trading and the intransigence of the negotiations went on, he increasingly came to believe that the Hindu majority would not be able to safeguard the Muslim minority. And looking at the rise of Hindu nationalism in India today, I think maybe he was right.

Jinnah had been snubbed earlier on, but I don’t think he was a man to be thwarted. Ultimately, he believed in the idea of Pakistan, and used it as a bargaining chip. Pakistan is, to some extent, a result of that man’s will.

When my grandmother’s friend, the Begum, whom I mention in my memoir, read the book, she was concerned about the section on Jinnah. As an outsider I don’t have to have the same reverence for Jinnah. And I think it is important to be able to look at a subject within the paradigm of contemporary history.

The writer is a staffer at Newsline Magazine. His website is at: