x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Love for travel literature starts with a book

What made me fall in love with travel literature was not an idea to travel to Iran or a book about Ibn Battuta’s travels, but something much closer to home: my father’s bookshelf in my childhood home.

About 10 years ago, I had planned a trip to Iran. While searching for travel guides to the country, I stumbled upon Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Travels with a Tangerine and thus began my love affair with travel literature. Since then, I’ve wanted to meet the man behind the book and at the recently held Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I got the chance to.

He was part of a panel discussion which revealed him to be a passionate Arabist with a fantastic sense of humour. It was no surprise that after the session, his book-signing queue was longer than others. I was fifth in line and congratulated myself for joining the queue early, before it occurred to me that this may not be the ideal scenario to meet the man whose book spurred my interest in the genre of travel literature. The line behind me kept getting longer and I’d be lucky to get a hurried signature before the person behind me impatiently nudged me out of the way.

My mind went back to a networking workshop I’d attended ages ago, where the instructor had shared a story of how she ended up having coffee with her favourite author, Paulo Coelho, because she was the last person in line at a book signing. I decided to give it a shot: if not coffee, at least an unhurried chat. And so I stayed at the back of the line by saying “Please, go on ahead” to people lining up behind me. Eighty minutes later, I was in front of Mackintosh-Smith, with no one waiting behind me.

“This book has been with me for 10 years,” I said to him. “Waiting to get signed by you. It’s the reason I fell in love with travel literature.”

“You should tell my publishers that,” he said with a laugh, as he signed my book and wrote “Better late than never” underneath.

After a chat on writing, books, travel and writing travel books, I walked towards my car, satisfied. I flipped through the pages of my signed book and a piece of paper fell out and floated to the ground. I picked it up. It was a handwritten no-objection letter from my father to the Iranian Embassy, conveying to them his permission for me to travel to Iran (a tourist visa requirement). The letter was dated May 3, 2003. Ten years ago. I never submitted the visa application and I never went to Iran. Reading about the country in Travels with a Tangerine was about as far as I ever got.

Finding the letter suddenly reminded me that, contrary to what I had believed until now, what made me fall in love with travel literature was not an idea to travel to Iran or a book about Ibn Battuta’s travels, but something much closer to home: my father’s bookshelf in my childhood home. To be precise, a book titled Dunya Gol Hai (The World Is Round) by the Pakistani travel writer, humorist and poet Ibn Insha.

I first read the book when I was 10, and then reread it several times in the next couple of years.

Ibn Insha may not have been quite the intrepid explorer that Ibn Battuta was, but his job with the UN did take him all over the Far East, Middle East and farther afield to Europe and the Americas, resulting in travelogues written in his trademark cheeky style. Sadly, there will be no book signings with Ibn Insha – he died in 1978. In his own words: “Ab Inshaji ko bulana kya, ab pyar kay deep jalaana kya?” (Why call for Insha ji? Of what use is your love for him now?).

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi living in Dubai

artslife@thenational.ae