Travels With Myself
by Tahir Shah
From Goodreads: TRAVELS WITH MYSELF is a collection of selected writings by Tahir Shah, acclaimed Anglo-Afghan author and champion of the intrepid. Written over twenty years, the many pieces form an eclectic treasury of stories from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and beyond. Some consider the lives of women in society, both in East and West. The women-only police stations of Brazil, for instance, as well as the female inmates waiting to die on America’s Death Row, or the young widows who clear landmines for a living in northern Cambodia. More still look at Morocco, where Shah and his family reside in a mansion set squarely in the middle of a sprawling Casablanca shantytown. And, yet more reflect on the oddities and contradictions of the modern world. Such as why, in India each summer, hundreds of thousands line up to swallow live fish; or how the Model T Ford sounded the death knell of lavish Edwardian ostrich-feather hats.
I enjoy a good travel memoir. If I did not, I would be a much different person now as I give credit to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild for helping me find the courage to go out and travel on my own. I also enjoy reading about places I will probably never venture to, just so I can have some little taste of places like Marrakech or Lhasa.
So when I came across Tahir Shah’s Travels with Myself I added it to my Goodreads TBR where it haunted me for months until I broke down and bought a digital copy which I promptly downloaded and started reading. And wow. Travels with Myself covers a wide array of topics spanning five continents, which is hardly surprising as these essays span twenty years.
Shah’s writing is light on its feet, moving from light-hearted when talking about his house in Casablanca to somber when discussing the widows of Bhopal. He never condescends to the people he writes about, whether they’re an impoverished woman on the streets of Varanasi or a fabulously wealthy Qatari art collector- to Shah, everyone has a story that is worth being told, and everyone deserves their dignity. It is a viewpoint not always found in travel writing, where viewpoints often skew from one end to the other. It seems like some of Shah’s perspective stems from his Afghan-Indian-raised-in-England heritage, but much of it comes from his own travels and experiences. One essay details Shah’s experiences in a Pakistani prison where he was endlessly questioned and threatened with torture for two weeks before suddenly being released with no explanations of any of it. Some of that wisdom, though, comes from the people he has encountered, such as a Moroccan street vendor who walked up to Shah one day, gave him a single piece of advice, and walked away. This one bit of advice- to find the magic in the everyday- radically altered Shah’s perception of his day to day life.
Many of the essays talk about Islam and its history. ‘The People of the Cloak’, for example, discusses the early history of Islam, how the Sunni/Shia divide happened, and why it still causes massive conflict to this day. Here in the West we often have only a basic understanding of this division (if that), but knowing the differences between the two sects and understanding why those differences have occurred is critical if we want to co-exist with Muslim communities in the future.
Religious differences aren’t the only things that Shah talks about. There are several essays about the breadth of Islamic art and scholarship throughout history. Both subjects are far more extensive than most Westerners realize, and Western culture owes a lot to Islamic scholars and artists- many of whom we in the West have never heard of before, and yet their discoveries and ideas are often cornerstones of science, mathematics, and art.
While I could do with a little less of Shah talking about the renovations of the house he and his wife bought in Casablanca, Travels With Myself is overall a fascinating look at parts of the world we often don’t think about. From the search for the legendary Incan city of Paititi to Moroccan ski resorts to the Swiss rail system, Shah’s adventures are a delight to read. And when they’re less delightful, they are eye-opening and force you to examine the way that you look at the world and the people in it.