Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson

Review published on October 20, 2017.

When you think of the Asian sub-continent, India is the country that immediately springs to mind. Formed in 1947 after partition from India, Pakistan is the poor sibling when it comes to countries to visit. It is a country that Isambard Wilkinson was captivated by. His grandmother had a lot of Anglo-Indian heritage and she was regularly visited by a larger than life friend called Begum, who offered a beguiling glimpse of the country on her visits every year. The desire to visit the country grew in intensity and when the opportunity of being a foreign correspondent there presented itself, Wilkinson jumped at the chance. His delicate health was one factor that could hold him back, but he wasn’t going to miss the chance.

Paganism flourished beneath a thin veneer of Islam.

Pakistan is a country that is in a certain amount of turmoil. On one hand, you have a people that have a history that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years and even though it has been draped with Islam has still managed to maintain their mystical culture. The modern day country is currently suffering pressures from extremism and religious violence, with a never-ending tirade of bombs, coups, assassinations and ethnic violence. It is something that Wilkinson is acutely aware of as he begins his stint as a reporter in the country, but first, he had to go and see Begum.

His route around the country would take him from the Punjab up into the mountains to the saints and slaves of Sindh and to the very edge of Afghanistan and the infamous Khyber Pass. He meets with feudal overlords and saints, prostitutes and chieftains and petty officials as well as using his knowledge of the country to get to the very heart of the story. His brother joins him on this journey and it is spent in an alcoholic blur, dancing or bumping along in the back of a truck. There are moments of relaxation in a hashish haze and some very close misses as the cold fingers of terrorism are never far from where he stays.

My notes from the festival, made partly illegible by the sweat of the dance, to this day smell of perfumed water and petals.

Against all medical advice, Wilkinson followed his heart and made the decision to head to Pakistan a decade ago, and I think he made the right call. A lot of travel writers are there to observe and pass through as a fly on the wall, but he wants to participate, share drinks, mix with people from all levels of society and immerse himself in the country, and that is what makes this book quite special. He is not afraid to join in with the celebrations and criticise when appropriate, something that gets him in trouble occasionally. What he finds is quite enlightening too; it is still a young country that is still finding its own voice and identity, whilst being pressurised from outside influences from the Western and Islamic worlds, but there are still those villages that maintain the way of life as they have done for ages. The mono images in the centre of the book fit nicely, as they make you look at the subject matter rather than be dazzled by the colourful people. It is a fitting portrait that gets to the very essence of a complex country.

Paul Cheney 4/-

Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson
Eland Publishing Ltd 9781780600789 hbk Sep 2017

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