Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson: Pakistan through its mystics, tribal chiefs and feudal lords
The lone foreigner came to appreciate Pakistan’s spontaneous brand of hospitality, offered by rich and poor alike
Isambard Wilkinson on his travels through Pakistan. Photograph: Scott Eells
Travels in a Dervish Cloak
What can you find in the folds of a dervish’s patched cloak? According to Abul Hasan Ali bin Uthman al-Jullabi al-Hujwiri al Ghaznawi (aka Data Sahib), you find “all the mysteries of the universe – all the stages of the path to truth”. A maverick Punjabi friend introduced Wilkinson to this 12th-century saint who helped to spread Islam on the Indian subcontinent. Data Sahib’s promotion of celibacy and warnings against wine did not immediately enthuse the young English traveller. But, “As I read on, the book revealed its purpose, one that had a relevance to Pakistan’s present. It is a treatise on how to bridge the differences between orthodox Islam and its Sufi counterpart”.
Wilkinson’s relationship with the Indian subcontinent has deep roots. As a child, he was soothed by his Anglo-Indian granny’s Hindi nursery rhymes, entertained by her pre-Partition memories and slightly awed by her close friend, the Punjabi Begum, an annual house-guest in Ireland. As a schoolboy, “in a curious way I found myself experiencing nostalgia for a place I’d never known”.
Then came the first visit to Pakistan, for the wedding of the Begum’s youngest son. “Her family had gradually sold off most of its lands and lived in a state of threadbare nobility in an old mansion that housed up to 20 servants and as many relations.” Before returning to Britain, the teenage Wilkinson began his explorations of Pakistan’s very different provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, NWFP – the last recently renamed Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (Land of the Pathans) which Wilkinson rightly considers an affront to the region’s many non-Pathans. During those early railway trips, in third-class, windowless carriages, the lone foreigner came to appreciate Pakistan’s spontaneous brand of hospitality, offered by rich and poor alike. Subsequently, he made several much longer journeys, sometimes with his older brother Chev. But those happy wanderings were abruptly ended by kidney failure at the age of 27.
A decade passed before Wilkinson’s return to Pakistan, in 2006, as the Daily Telegraph’s Islamabad correspondent. In a few paragraphs he dismisses his routine duties while embedded with the Pakistani army being ‘coptered over the Khyber Pass in helmet and flak-jacket. He defines his main interest as “the quiddity of Pakistan” to be discerned “through its mystics, tribal chiefs and feudal lords”. Travels in a Dervish Cloak is not smoothly controlled or neatly constructed but the author’s oblique wit and deft use of language amply compensate for a sometimes confusing chronology. In pursuit of quiddities he ignores advice and strays far off beaten tracks – the sort recommended to accredited journalists since 9/11. Among his rewards are traces of Zoroastrian rites in the Hindu Kush – the remains of a Buddhist stupa evident beneath a Muslim mausoleum – the simple grace of a Grecian flourish around the entrance to a 12-century Hindu temple. Then he grieves to come upon shrines recently blown up by sharia-demented jihadis, having been revered for a millennium by both Hindus and Muslims. Or – as distressing on another level – quiet sacred places now threatened with “modernization” to provide ‘religious attractions’ for tourists.
During the 1990s Wilkinson and Chev ventured into Baluchistan to visit Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the most memorable of this book’s assembly of rare breeds. “Though his territory was off-limits to outsiders we had sneaked in to spend a week in his company.” Doubtless the Begum’s connections made that sort of thing easier and their Bugti host kept the brothers secure, under house arrest. Thus their plan to explore was thwarted. In compensation, they had a magnificent multilingual library to browse through; the Nawab was as learned as he was fierce.
There is of course much more to Baluchistan than tribal forts and camels
In 2006, when Wilkinson decided to revisit Baluchistan, the Nawab’s ancestral fort and town had recently been levelled by the Pakistani army; more than 200 men, women and children were killed. Bard foresaw that his Bugti host “would be more difficult to reach this time”. Yes indeed – once the motor able road ended, the journey to that remote encampment, deep in the mountains, was a severe endurance test. But it proved well worth the effort; this pen portrait of the octogenarian Nawab, his territory then surrounded by 20,000 Pakistani troops, is a valuable footnote to the end of an era. Shortly after Bard’s visit, Akbar Khan Bugti died on the battlefield.
There is of course much more to Baluchistan than tribal forts and camels. Having brought us up to date, Wilkinson wondered if the implacably anti-jihad Baluch, who had never wanted to be part of any state, should break away from Pakistan. Then he asked, “With all the country’s current troubles and the fibres of the old order fraying and unravelling, would Pakistan last?” More than 40 years ago Tarik Ali wrote Can Pakistan Survive? And now many are asking, Can Iran/Syria/Libya survive? All of these countries were given their 20th-century boundaries by retiring colonial powers.
At Intervals Wilkinson had to go to the customs and excise office to renew his permit to buy Murree Beer (an excellent brew, among the Raj’s more benign legacies). Dominating this office was a portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah who “through sheer bloody-mindedness created a nation-state”. To me, this seems a considerable oversimplification; for seven decades, Pakistan’s parturition has been gathering an accretion of conflicting theories. As Wilkinson concedes, some scholars suggest that Jinnah, not really expecting Pakistan to happen, had merely used the notion as a lever to ensure India’s Muslims’ rights. To be fair, Wilkinson should have pointed out that in March 1946 Jinnah urged a wholesome compromise which prompted Gandhi to propose him as the first prime minister of a united India. And two months late Jinnah warned loudly that the splitting of Punjab and Bengal would lead to disaster.
On August 14th, 1947, most leaders of the new-born Pakistan were disconcerted by their own success. As we now know, that country has never been allowed to try “democracy”. The Indian Congress, with some 30 years’ experience of political manoeuvring behind it, was intellectually and emotionally prepared to govern. Pakistan had no such institution to rely on. It was a clumsy contrivance; East and West lay a thousand miles apart, sharing only a multi-faceted religion. Soon the East became Bangladesh and in the West the US took over where the Raj had left off, using indirect rule while putting “America First!” As Wilkinson sadly notes, no one has ever done anything for “the masses that were used as cannon fodder or illiterate voters to be cheaply bought off”. And yet, in numerous folds of the dervish’s cloak, he could still sense “a spirit formed by traditions flowing together and melting into a whole”.