Friday, 24 August 2018

Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson

Book review: Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson · Lisa Hjalt

Can I tempt you with a captivating book cover and great content? Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson is a book about his adventurous and dangerous travels in Pakistan, where he covered the War on Terror for The Daily Telegraph. Wilkinson is an excellent pen, witty and observant, free of the egoistical style that sometimes characterises travelogues. He takes the reader all over Pakistan and shares insightful accounts of its exotic culture ('the mysterious world that I was so eager to capture before it disappeared'). The author understands and cares deeply for the country, but isn't blind to its problems. This was my favourite read of 2017. It's now available in paperback and I urge you to grab a copy if travel writing is your genre.

In the book Wilkinson shows us the range of Pakistani society; people going about their daily lives, holy men, warlords, crooks, and other oddities in a country that is changing fast. His approach is educating, unpretentious and fun. Here he visits an old fort close to a tribal area:
Sitting in the courtyard, I could almost feel the modern age clamouring at its walls, wanting to bash down its gates and slay its lord, who I imagined would have gone without a murmur, accepting his fate as the natural order of things.
He is true to his subject and doesn't judge harshly. His observations of people and places ring true. There are literary references in the book and this one made me laugh: he has a meeting with a 'bloody-minded tyrant' who refuses to 'go gentle into that good night'. I never thought I would associate poet Dylan Thomas with a feudal warlord in the Baluchistan region! By the way, the warlord dies. Sometimes the book reads like fiction; in excitement I turned its pages almost holding my breath. At some point I had to remind myself that there would be no book if the author hadn't survived the ordeal. This book is for readers who want to see a different side of Pakistan than the one reflected in Hollywood productions. This is real stuff.

Book review: Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson · Lisa Hjalt
A photo in the book by Chev Wilkinson: A teacher and his pupils in Kashmir, 2005

If you follow the world news you probably know that a new government has been formed in Pakistan, led by Imran Khan who seems committed to reform. (If we look at the current occupier of the White House I guess a former cricket player for PM isn't the worst option for a nation.) I still remember the shocking news in December 2007 when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while rallying in Rawalpindi. It always felt promising to me that a female had served as PM of a Muslim state, twice. Two months earlier, Wilkinson was close to the horrific scene in Karachi when she survived a bombing, but in Ireland when her injuries were fatal. He had been expelled from Pakistan for an editorial about then-President Pervez Musharraf, but allowed to return the following January. His horrible driver greeted him at the airport with 'hideous orange flowers'.

The driver Allah Ditta is one of the book's many colourful characters. His name means 'Gift from God' and I can only say that God must have a weird sense of humour. His cook Basil is no better. These two do not get along and the result is hilarious domestic warfare in the Wilkinson's household. My personal favourite is his brother Chev:
'You can't hang about here like a mixture of a wannabe Lord Byron and Lord Fauntleroy waiting for the next cup of tea or bout of diarrhoea. Pick a spot on the map and let's be off,' he said. ... His presence was reassuring. He's always stuck by me, whatever my failings. He doesn't mind sharing a bed with me, as long as there's a pillow between us lest I grow amorous in my sleep. And he's good at pointing out if I have food round my mouth before I interview people.
Chev, a photographer, is the ideal travel companion. More importantly, when Wilkinson is forced to leave Pakistan because of kidney failure we learn that it was Chev who saved his life: He donated a kidney.

I wish I could tell you that another travelogue was already in the making but Wilkinson has had two kidney transplants and probably won't be venturing into unsafe places. I thoroughly enjoyed the rich storytelling of Travels in a Dervish Cloak, a book full of wit and spices, which was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. If you judge a book by its cover I can assure you that this one delivers.

Travels in a Dervish Cloak
By Isambard Wilkinson
Hardcover, 256 pages, illustrated
Buy hardcover | paperback

images by me | black & white photo by the author's brother, Chev Wilkinson | cover illustration: Dorry Spikes

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