Critically acclaimed Anglo-Afghan writer, journalist and documentary maker, Tahir Shah, recently met up to talk shop with Fulbright Researcher and Folklore and Djinn enthusiast Sam Gordon at his home in the Fes, Morocco. Casablanca-based Shah chatted about his hunt for djinns and sorcerers, the importance of thinking zig-zag, and why the Battle ofTalas should be people's #1 Time-Machine destination.
Samuel Gordon: Okay! ...so tell me about your morning. Tell me about it, I heard you had rocks thrown at you as you tried to film and that you were hot on the trail of different djinns…
Tahir Shah: We did a huge zig-zag through the medina, about 250 miles of twists and turns… The crazy thing about the medina is you cover so much ground, but at the end of it, it’s just a blur, you just can’t remember what you saw. I could tell you hundreds of random things that I’ve seen, hundreds of superglue packets down there, guys selling eggs, chickens being slaughtered, camel’s heads. It’s just life, and Fez blows me away just because of the levels of life. It’s strung out inch by inch, mile by mile. You can find a single doorstep in Fes that has more life than entire cities elsewhere in the West. Fez is just seething, heaving, incomparable.
So were on the hunt for magicians and people who knew about djinn, and we found it was quite hard to access that whole level of society. I know it is hard to access because this is the Orient, it’s quite different from the Occident. It’s the same thing when you want to buy something from a store here. The last you thing you ever do here is ask for the price right away. You do not point to something and say ‘how much is that’. It’s got to be your last question. You’ve got to work your way around the shop and slowly get to the price. Rush, and you lose out.
Fez is my great love. I can't lay that on thick enough. I admire it, treasure it, swoon over, and adore it.
Looking for djinn and djinn information is the same thing. You have to go zig-zag. If you really want to find something of merit. And you have to go in a roundabout way – that’s what we did. We started asking random people and, more than that, we just waited for something to happen. I found that’s the thing to do in Morocco – just stand on a street corner, don’t go in search of something, but let it come and find you, so that’s what we did.
SG: Ahh… that’s a pretty zen-like approach I suppose, very frog-on-the-lily pad. I will come back to that approach but I was wondering if you could share your general thoughts on the city of Fes, and its inhabitants, both Moroccan and expat?
TS: Fez is my great love. I can't lay that on thick enough. I admire it, treasure it, swoon over, and adore it. One of my favourite things is to drive down from Casablanca and, as I cross the Saiss Plateau, I feel a sense of anticipation in my stomach. It's the most bewitching, worldly, mesmerising city I have ever been to. The Fassis are part of a tradition that stretches back centuries. I sometimes wish they would value what they have -- the old medina – and less fixate less about what they could have -- a second rate villa nouvelle. As for the expatriates, I am jealous of course because I am not living in Fez, too.
SG: So I am curious as to why you are interested in doing a documentary on djinns.
TS: I'm very interested in cultural crossroads, here in Morocco and elsewhere. Djinns are a facet of Islam, and Morocco, which are almost certainly shaped in part by Africa. Morocco has, of course, its roots in Africa, and I am fascinated by the way Africa, Berber culture and Arab society have given shape to this magical land. Djinns are so often misunderstood in the occident, a point that surprises me because, as is so often the case, the Holy Qur'an is very precise on the description.
SG: In terms of cultural crossroads and looking at different roots and sources of information, your recent book, In Arabian Nights, was one where you sort of went about and collected oral histories and anecdotes. How did you find that project, what was the initial catalyst for doing it, how was the overall approach and process for you?
TS: My book In Arabian Nights was perhaps my most fulfilling book so far because I grew up in a family where people were telling stories, my father was this… y’know, this great story teller, really a bridge between the East and the West, and my aunt too, who’s very old now, a fabulous story teller in her own right. So I grew up with these people telling me stories and now that I got two little kids I feel this responsibility that I have got to tell stories as wonderful as I was told. My father used to go on and on that these stories contained wisdom, that they were multiple levels. He used to say that if you learned to decipher them, they would educate you, that they were a teaching system in their own right.
Although I went to school in England, I grew up with this idea, that stories are a matrix through which knowledge, information, and culture were passed. In our case it was a matrix that would show us Afghanistan since we couldn’t go to where my family is from. These stories were the culture of Afghanistan in a different form.
Then I suddenly woke up and found I had two children of my own, and I thought, ‘God, I have to tell them stories – I have to explain these stories to them’. I started telling them stories and I started explaining them. This meant such-and-such, and the donkey signifies truth and Nazuddin, or Joha as they call him here, signifies man and humanity and the kids would say ,‘Oh Baba, it’s so boring when you tell us how the stories work. We love these stories but we really don’t want to know how they works.’ It’s a bit like a car, you don’t want to know how the engine works you want to get from A to B. It reminded me that my father said to me once that you do not need to understand how the story works. If you allow the story inside you, he said, it will sow its seeds and do its magic. It is not about understanding all the levels all the time.
Humanity is obsessed with fiction and telling things in a story-like way. We don’t know why we do it but we do it. I was on a bus in London a month or so ago and I heard two women talking on the upper deck, and one of the woman Joan asked, ‘What did you do today?’ to this other woman, Gladys. Instead of just giving her bullet points about what happened that day, she gave an explanation of her day in a story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
I noticed that women are usually much better at telling stories. It surprises that Morocco was so famous for its male storytellers because all the great storytellers that I’ve met here have been women. Moroccan culture is completely based around women in kitchens and in living spaces instructing children through stories. I can see that with our maid, Zeinab, and her instructing our children with stories during mealtimes. She will start telling them a story as they’re eating and, if they stop eating their vegetables, then she’ll stop telling the story.
Women are these great raconteurs in Morocco, and they have this extraordinary value in society in educating young people with unbelievable wisdom. The beauty of it is that you’re learning without realizing that you are – that you’re receiving something so valuable. As children, we all sat behind desks in classrooms and were being told, ‘Okay, now we are going to learn’. And it was the most painful, painful thing. I hated that part of my childhood. Oh, how I hated it. The best way to learn is through a game or a story, through teaching in a zig-zag way.
And that to me is the power of Oriental learning, the power of the Orient, and these teaching methods are something that the Occident, the West, is really grasping now. It drives me crazy that Europe even now often regards stories as something for children, which they aren’t. Read A Thousand and One Nights, Alf laylah wa-laylah. It’s an incredibly complicated corpus of work with very specific aims and teaching mechanisms running all the way through it. And it’s only one of many corpuses. You can look at Antar wa Abla, which I grew up with, or Saif, and these were hugely powerful. But what happened with the Victorians was that they watered these stories down. They made huge illustrated editions for children, they took out the sleazy stuff, and they toned down the violence. In a way, they took something incredibly sophisticated and powerful and they limited it in tremendous ways, and I think the Western World is all the poorer for that. What I always think is that stories are out there, but its possible for anyone or any society to relearn how to use stories as a teaching mechanism. It’s something that my father dedicated himself to doing, to teach people that they can learn again.
You’ve been here for a year, you know the stories of Joha, the great wise fool. Joha is a character used from Morocco and the southern Mediterranean, through the Near East, through Central Asia to Northern India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and he’s something so importantly culturally. These stories belong to all societies and that’s the amazing thing about them. No one society can claim them. My father wrote a book in the seventies called World Tales. It showed how the same stories – like Cinderella – are found across the world in cultures thousands of miles apart. How could that be? I don’t know. It just is.
SG: Lots of information there! Something I really enjoyed you touching on was the story of Joan on Gladys because it brings up the importance of narrative and perspective and even storytelling frames. You have two characters you are adjacent to, recounting a days event, in a narrative format, in a confined public space like a London double-decker bus, and you are the observer. Frames, nested narratives, and such are important in works like your book In Arabian Nights. In other works like The Caliphs House, that to me was more a mix of different elements and styles. Is it difficult switching between different writing styles, is there a particular style that you enjoy writing the most?
TS: What I tried to do with Caliph’s House was to represent certain facets of Moroccan life and Morocco and life in a very palatable form, one that could be received by people in the United States and the Occidental world. With every page I was writing and every anecdote I was writing, I asked myself ‘What is the effect going to be on an audience post 9/11 with this?’ How am I going to show people the extraordinary magic of this country? I could have talked about politics, or could have gone on about endless boring history, but I knew I had to engage people and that I had just one chance. So I did it with stories, in the form of anecdotes. The Caliph’s House and In Arabian Nights are kind of Trojan Horse books. They were written to get inside people in secret, and to download masses of information about Morocco, before anyone would realize what I was doing.
One by one these anecdotes didn’t say too much, but together as an entire book it built up the layers. Something that drives me really crazy is that the Western mind always wants to see the big picture in one large panorama. They don’t want fragments. But if you watch how humanity has always worked, the default setting of humanity, it’s always been piece by piece. I’ve watched children, my children, learn things, and I’ve loved watching them receiving knowledge in fragments. You cannot teach a child from the beginning A-Z. A kid doesn’t want to learn that way, and humanity never ever learnt that way. In the West, they take you at five years old, dump you in a school and teach you that way from A-Z. It’s baloney as they say in the States. Pure baloney. Teach like that and you get people bored out of their minds.
The way to learn is to bombard someone with zig-zag fragments. How do we learn languages as children? We learn by pieces and by building up the layers. I’ve watched my kids learn how to say a word like ‘lemon’ and they get it wrong, and they correct themselves over time. I’m bugged by the Western world because I think they’ve lost extraordinary capabilities that they need to relearn. And I really think they can relearn, and that they can learn from Morocco. Between Morocco and China there is this huge dominant culture, an Oriental mindset.
SG: There was some criticism came out after The Caliph's House was published in that some Moroccans thought you were taking the subject of djinns maybe too lightly. There were also some criticisms of being a bit Orientalist from western audiences. Were you shocked by any reactions of that?
TS: I wrote The Caliph's House for the Western world as a reaction to 9/11. That may make it sound very serious, which may be misleading. I saw that after 9/11 the West was confused about Arab society and needed to be shown a précis of it all in a way that they would soak up and digest. I have written about all sorts of things that people may be confused by, in morocco and elsewhere. If there's any theme to my work, showing what is right before people -- but is a different way -- is a common think, a link I enjoy. The West must come to understand the East, and vice versa, if we are to live in harmony -- something that's not happening right now. The grave danger is that the gap between occident and Orient is widening. Give it a few more years and it could become a chasm if the right kind of thinking and learning does not take place.
SG: Something that’s really common in your writing and interviews is negotiating and trying to create this East-West bridge…
TS: Look, I grew up in a family that’s a mix of East and West, and there’s a lot of people like me that have one foot in the East and one in the West and I see this huge humongous responsibility after 9/11 to do something. Someone sent me something the other day from the deep South in the United States, and I have had good times in the south, and someone sent me a thing on Youtube that was ‘We’ve got to kill the Arabs, let’s kill as many Arabs as we can.’ It’s just, I’ve got no problem with that, because it is is a misunderstanding. There is a huge misunderstanding between the East and West, and I have Moroccan friends or Arab friends that will give me a bunch of baloney about America as well, and I try to correct them as well. So I see that I’m kind of in this no man’s land between the two cultures, and it’s not just me, there’s a lot of people like me as I say, people who see that’s there an opportunity to correct misunderstanding, and what an incredible amount of misunderstanding there is. You will see when you return to the States that you’ll find yourself defending Morocco and the Arab world, because I defend Morocco endlessly and I’m not even from Morocco. I’m just totally in awe of the place.
SG: Does it feel like an uphill battle at times?
TS: Completely… and (sigh). I see people, and it really really bothers me when I hear people say well Moroccans are just stupid Arabs and they are all al-Qaeda and whatever. I have been on National Public Radio in the States, answering questions and defending Morocco. Morocco is this wonderful hybrid, a crossroads of culture, which the rest of the Arab world could learn from, and the West could, too. It’s a mixture of Africa, Arab, Berber, and European. It has such important systems still intact that have been shattered long ago in Europe and North America. At the heart of it all is the family. What is the divorce rate in the States and what is the divorce rate here? You put old people in ‘retirement homes’, they do it in Britain as well. Retirees, what are they retired from? Society. In Morocco, you would never do that. I am outspoken about systems like that, and I champion the systems they have here, like the respect that young people have for their parents, and that sort of thing.
Beyond that, I love the teaching mechanisms that they have in Morocco, the way that stories are part of society, and are seen as valuable as traditional schooling. I think the West could really learn from this society, and it’s important as well that the Arab world understands what the West is, because they’re getting confused, they’re getting very mixed messages. It is something for us all to remember, all of us have this responsibility, any of us that like Morocco or are from the West, it’s our responsibility to be part of this bridge.
SG: I want to switch gears now and talk a little bit about your writing process, even if it’s a little technical. You mentioned that stories, or even just the learning process overall will have a natural zig-zag pattern. Would you say that your writing process mirrors that or is it more linear and focused. Do you have a set time of day that you put aside for writing or is it more an accumulation.
TS: Different people write books in different ways. When I write books, I usually make a detailed plan. I don’t necessarily look at that plan, sometimes I don’t even touch it. It’s usually on my desk with a few other things. It’s a like a scaffold, a framework, if I need it, it is there. When I am writing I’m usually writing quite fast. I write a book of 100,000 words in 25 days. I’ll do 4000 words a day and I’ll try to polish those words as I go along. I won’t get out of the chair except to maybe grab a coffee or something until I finish my words for that day. It usually takes me about six hours to do 4000 words. In the evening, I might look through it and definitely the next day I will look through it and make amendments through it before I start that day.
It is very hard to get an agent for a start. I couldn’t get an agent, so I made my own agency. You’ve got to think zig-zag. I put on a funny voice and called myself William Watkins of Worldwide Media.
I grew up in a family where people wrote books and it is not seen as a big thing, or a particularly amazing thing to do. I think there is a lot of baloney about writing books – writing books is an extremely easy thing to do. I don’t understand all the mystique. You just need a comfortable chair, because you are going to be sitting in it a whole lot. Sit in the damn chair and keep going, and you’ll get to the end. The faster you write, the faster you’ll have the manuscript done. I never read work that people send to me if it isn’t finished, I would never dream of sending anything to anyone that wasn’t finished and polished and polished and polished. Sending a work in progress is plain rude.
Something happened a few months ago. I know a woman and she said her ex-boyfriend had written a book and asked if I would read it. At first, I was a bit irritated because I asked her, ‘Have you read it?’ and she said, ‘No, I haven’t because I’m too busy.’ And I thought, ‘Screw you, do you really expect me to read it?’ But she caught me in a good mood, and I said, ‘send it over’. I looked at this thing and it was complete crap. But there was a spark of genius very deep in the underbelly of the book. It was deep and I found it on about page 354. So I wrote an email to my friend, and I told her I don’t know your ex-boyfriend, I don’t know what he’s trying to get, if he wants attention like I think he does, or if wants to be a writer and actually make a name for himself.
So I said to my friend, ‘I’m going to attach two letters and it’s for you to decide. If he wants attention give him letter A, and if he wants to really break through give him letter B. Letter A said “you are amazing, you are a natural writer, this is just the best work I’ve ever seen, incredible, incredible, incredible!” Letter B said, “This is absolute crap and if you’ve completely wasted a lot of my time, but on Page 354 I was really moved, I felt there’s something in this thing. If you rewrite the thing, and spend weeks and weeks and months doing it, you will become a published author because there’s something really really cool here.”’ I don’t know which letter she gave him, I never asked her.
People send me stuff all the time. I look at anything anyone sends me because I remember what it was like trying to break through. I get irritated though if someone would send me something that they haven’t made into a diamond before, if they haven’t polished it. Maybe they don’t know how to polish something, but it’s an area you have to work hard on. With book writing it’s very hard to break through, because the system is stacked and there are glass ceilings and filters. It is very hard to get an agent for a start. I couldn’t get an agent, so I made my own agency. You’ve got to think zig-zag. I put on a funny voice and called myself William Watkins of Worldwide Media. I sent a manuscript to a hundred leading publishers in Britain and none of them called back.
Then finally one of them called back from Weidenfeld and Nicolson, this big big famous publisher in London. The editor agreed to publish the book, but I had to put on this whole fake thing that I was this agent William Watkins. It worked, and I succeeded with this Oriental method of breaking in, and that’s the way to do it. Most people drop out, most people drop out of everything, and that’s what is so cool if you decide to be in something for the long haul, because you will always get in. Keep going and everything’s possible.
SG: You just mentioned to me publishing fiascos and the process of breaking-in, I was wondering what your current take is on publishing is because it seems like it’s becoming a very chaotic and fast-changing world for both writers and publishers. You have e-readers like the Kindle and Nook becoming more and more popular and the e-book phenomena really taking root.
TS: Publishing is changing and it is changing right now, last year, this year, next year, it’s beginning of a whole new time of publishing. For authors, I think it is very exciting. For publishers it is a complete nightmare.
Publishers are like pimps. They’re like the scum on the surface of the water. They have very little purpose, especially now. Until now, you kind of needed a publisher because they would make sure a book was marketed. Now you do not need that because with Kindle or with print on demand, anyone can get their book on Amazon or whatever. It is possible to find a readership through blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter and the social networks. I think it’s a wonderful time and we are getting back to a time that used to exist in the 1700s and 1800s. Authors would publish themselves. Richard Burton for instance published A Thousand and One Nights himself under the name the Kama Shastra Society and he printed it himself. Although it says ‘Benares, India’ it was actually printed in Stoke Newington, England because of the libel – he was so scared he would be shut down for pornography.
But he printed it himself and sold it by subscription, and I think we’re going to get back to a time where authors do that. I am doing it for myself, for this new novel I have coming out called Timbuctoo about the European obsession for Timbuctoo. I am printing it myself and cutting out all the middlemen, the agents, the publishers, the directors, the secretaries, the warehouse people, and the number crunchers and it makes me deliriously happy, you have no idea. I sleep so happily at night, because I had been extremely bugged by all those people the vampires sucking the life-blood out of authors.
The important thing here is that if you are originating good material you’ll rise to the surface and you’ll do well. Publishers and agents, they’re nothing, they’re pimps, and may they rot in hell, I have nothing good to say about them. Nothing at all.
SG: So you mentioned Timbuctoo a new book you are working on about European obsession with the shrine and town in Mali.
TS: Early 19thcentury/late 18th century all the European powers were obsessed with one thing – getting a Christian, or a white man, but they always said a Christian, to Timbuctoo and back. Their plan was to sack Timbuctoo, which was a city that French, the English, and the Germans believed to be fashioned from the purest gold. They believed it because Leo Africanus had said it was a city made from gold a couple of centuries before. The only people not looking for Timbuctoo were the Americans, the United States of America, because they were such a young country.
My novel is begins in the winter of 1815 and goes through until late spring of 1816. It starts with a man called Robert Adams being found half-naked and starving on the streets of London. That was October, 1815. Robert Adams, it turned out, had been to Timbuctoo, a point that shocked Regency society, posh British society at the time. Worse still was that he claimed it to be a wretched, godforsaken place. He had been taken there as a slave, having first been shipwrecked on the coast of West Africa, at Cabo Blanco. His Toureg captors presented him to the King of Timbuktu as a gift. At the time there were many thousands of European slaves in the Sahara.
We always talk about black Africans who were enslaved in the Americas, but we forget that there were thousands and thousands of Europeans who met their early death in the Sahara. From time to time, some of them would be saved, the word was called being redeemed, redemption. Robert Adams, American who I based the novel on, arrived in London having been redeemed. An illiterate sailor, he narrated to the tale of his journey to the African Committee, and became rich and famous while shocking British society at the same time. I love Adams’ tale because he set off to make his fame and fortune by trading but he actually made it by selling his story, and I find wonderful irony in that.
SG: You’ve also been doing a lot of film projects, or I should say a lot of writing for film. I recently saw your film Journey to Mecca. Do you see yourself going more in that direction necessarily?
TS: No, it is just so difficult to get a film made. The beauty of writing a book is you write the stupid book and then its printed exactly as you wrote it. I write a book quite carefully and I like it to be printed just as I wrote it. I do not like things to be ripped to shreds, and of course, when you’re writing a screenplay it’s updated continuously as everyone pitches in with some ideas. I think they were nineteen versions of Journey to Mecca eventually, and I wrote about eleven of them. It is a great communal effort but it drives you crazy if you’re trying to create something. It’s like you reach after a while, I believe, a lowest common denominator, and then script is just the starting point for a movie, because when you’re on location and shooting everyone just abandons the script anyway. I don’t know, with writing, I like to do all kinds of stuff, I do some journalism, some screenwriting, I write some books, and that’s what I like doing best of all
I like having all kinds of different projects, and I think as a writer now, with publishing changing, I think it’s really important to have a lot of different irons in the fire as we say, a lot of different projects going on. I know far too many writers who have hit a dead end. I got three friends who write about Spain, between them they’ve done so many books about Spain that they can’t really break out because people know they write about Spain, and expect their work to be on that subject. I told one of my friends years ago stop writing about Spain, write about Morocco, it’s another part of the Spanish puzzle in a way since it’s so close to Andalusia, and they have influenced each other so much.
So I think it’s really important to diversify while keeping a central arrowhead if you like, whether it’s writing about a common theme or part of the world.
SG: You’ve done a lot of work on a variety of different topics, you’ve spent 17 weeks in the Peruvian jungles, you’ve done novels on finding lost cities, you’ve wrote a sort of travelogue/memoir/lens-into-Moroccan-society book through your novel The Caliph’s House, you’ve done collections of collected oral histories and anecdotes. First question would be, would you say there is one thing in particular you truly enjoy, or maybe one project in the near future after Timbuctoo that you’re looking forward to doing?
TS: I am working on another novel called The House of Wisdom, the first part of it which is actually based in Fes. And it is trying to explain the Islamic world to the Western world but almost as Trojan horse, because like I said, with storytelling, the best way to reveal something, is when you disguise it as something else. Let me explain this: in the 1980s my father wanted to write a book about Afghanistan to explain to the West what was happening in Afghanistan. I remember him sitting down and, instead of writing a big academic work, like Afghanistan from A-Z, he decided to write a novel. And it was the only novel he ever wrote called Kara Kush and it became a huge bestseller.
That novel was kind of a university degree course on Afghanistan, and Afghanistan from the inside out, but done in the shape of a novel. Lots of people who would never read a book on Afghanistan read a lot of stuff, 600 pages of information on Afghanistan. It’s the same thing, when we wanted to make a film on Mecca to show the West, we made a film about Ibn Battuta, which was a device, a Trojan horse, a way to get people in Boise, Idaho to watch a film about Mecca, something that they would never watch a film on usually.
So I’m writing a novel called The House of Wisdom, based on this thing called the Bayt al-Hikma, which was during the Abbasid age in Baghdad. I’m working on a series of books which are really inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, because I really see The Nights as the greatest repository of stories, characters, and ideas that have hardly been tapped in the West.
SG: You focus so much on traditional oral stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, and right now you’re hoping to do something on the Golden Age of Baghdad, if you could witness any historical event or go back and bear witness to anything in history, what would it be?
TS: Oh that’s easy for me, there was one moment in history that was so monumental, that I often think about. It was the year AD 751, and it was the Battle of Talas, when the Arabs were so cocky and so strong that they decided to attack the Chinese. And they took Chinese prisoners, you know the story, the Arabs had perfected watered steel blades, incredibly strong because of alchemy and all kinds of things, and they attacked the Chinese and they won, and took Chinese prisoners. It was not so important that they won the battle, they didn’t really move into China in a big way like they had hoped, but as a byproduct they got their hands on paper.
|An early depiction of the Battle of Talas
It was the basis of the Golden Age of Islam, the Abbasids, because they had perfected steel nibs as a byproduct of swordmaking, and making a different ink that the Chinese had made, and the Arabs took this Chinese paper and they refined it and made it with mulberry bark, the Chinese had been using more rougher fibres. So the Arabs took this breakthrough and they honed it like they did with everything else in Baghdad at the time.
That to me is one of the most exciting pivotal moments in human history, when this secret knowledge of paper-making was acquired by the Abbasids. And, because the Abbasids had the Qur’an, and literacy, and because everyone was reading the Qur’an, and because there was this need for mass paper and, because they had the pilgrimage routes that spread from West Africa all the way to China, they had a way of spreading written learning. And so cities like Fes where we’re sitting, and Cordoba, Seville, Samarkand, Bokara, and Herat, they all became milestones on what was its own way on a kind of primitive Internet. And it was all made possible because some Chinese prisoners were taken at the Battle of Talas on a cold morning in AD 751.
Sam Gordon can be contacted by email : gordon (dot) samuel (@) gmail (dot) com
Tahir Shah's sites are very much worth a visit: