As far as love affairs go, the relationship between British travel writers and Islam has been both intense and long-lasting. From Orientalists such as Richard Burton and Edward Lane installed à la turque in 19th-century Cairo and Damascus to Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter, Bruce Chatwin in Sudan, Colin Thubron in Syria, Jan Morris in Oman and Egypt, Muslim ways and means have inspired some of our best travellers to produce some of their finest writing. But the nature of the exchange between these writers and their Muslim subject-matter was transformed by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the ensuing war in Iraq.
One of the most significant changes has been in the rhetoric of politicians and the press. Where once the word Muslim was preceded by adjectives such as ‘mystical’, ‘hospitable’ or ‘mysterious’, it is now linked to less flattering words, all of them associated with extremism, mostly also with violence. Publishers and editors Rose Baring and Barnaby Rogerson were so outraged by what they call ‘the lies, half-truths and manufactured fears’ which accompanied British troops into Iraq, in particular the way Islam was being presented as a religion of fanaticism and violence, they decided to ask a range of people to submit stories for an anthology of writing about encounters with Muslims. The result is a mixed bag of some disappointments and many pleasures.
The book’s title is slightly misleading. This collection does not chart the exploits of the world’s most famous Muslims. Instead, the editors have chosen stories that relate remarkable meetings with Muslims. The 39 contributors include some of our most talented travel writers: Jason Elliott gives us a preview of the follow-up to his brilliant Afghan book, An Unexpected Light, with a story set in Iran, a shared cup of tea and a conversation that throws light on the difference between Shias and Sunnis; William Dalrymple has contributed a story that appeared in his Delhi book about a scholarly Muslim living in the old city; Tim Mackintosh-Smith shares a moment of his pursuit of Ibn Battutah through India; the poet Marius Kociejowski, whose début book of his travels in Damascus was under-exposed on publication earlier this year, writes of Sufis and saints in Damascus; and Tahir Shah offers a glimpse of his forthcoming book with the story of an old man he met in one of Casablanca’s slums.
Ironically, a couple of the most powerful stories here have come from contributors who don’t regard themselves as writers. Foremost must be Angela Culme-Seymour, presented as ‘a celebrated beauty, much pursued and loved’, whose wonderful story describes her involvement in the 1960s with Ali Bulent, a Turkish prince fallen on hard times. But here, too, is the sculptor Emily Young with a luminous story of searching and understanding along the Pakistani coast in the long, hot summer of 1969. These two may not have the finesse of other contributors, but their stories are just as moving.
But what, you may wonder, do these stories of encounters amount to? It would be foolish to think that they will have any influence over the way Muslims are reported in the media or over the way politicians both here and abroad manipulate the image of Islam for their own ends. But what this deliciously varied anthology does do is to affirm that the love affair between British writers and the Islamic world is far from over. And for as long as there are writers willing and able to remind us that there is a brighter side to our dealings with Islam, then the peddlers of those ‘lies, half-truths and manufactured fears’ won’t have it all their own way.