I have to admit I bought this book for its cover. I usually have good luck picking books based on their covers; they usually turn out to be just as magical and as enlightening as they appear from the outside. Last month I saw something on social media where Hong Kong-based journalist Isambard Wilkinson was speaking about his book, Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland, 2017) and immediately ordered the paperback.
Wilkinson first travels to Pakistan with his grandmother in 1990 at the age of 18. He’s completely taken by the country and returns in his twenties as a journalist with The Daily Mail. His grandmother travels to Pakistan almost every year to visit her friend, the Begum, a woman she met and became close friends with in Malaya during the British Raj. Wilkinson’s grandmother moved to Ireland after Partition and the Begum, which is an honorific name for upper class women, to Pakistan. When his grandma visits the Begum in the years before the War on Terror, they don’t just take tea in the garden, but travel all around the country, including dangerous places like the Khyber Pass, right near the Afghan border. While Wilkinson reported on the War on Terror, he wanted to revisit some of the places he had traveled with his grandmother years earlier.
Drawn to Sufism, he travels around Pakistan searching for signs of mystical Islam. My favorite parts are when he recalls his trip with his grandmother and her subsequent visits back to Pakistan while he’s living there, as well as when his brother, Chev, joins him on his travels around the country. His travel writing is some of the best I’ve read.
Another part that captured my attention was his interaction with Benazir Bhutto and the excitement leading up to her return in 2007. Wilkinson had met the Prime Minister a number of times and didn’t go much into his first meetings with her, but wrote more about when he met with her in late 2007 upon her return to Pakistan. Wilkinson provides ample background on the tragedies that have struck the Bhutto family, but he doesn’t hold Bhutto up to goddess stature like many (including me) have. He’s in Ireland when he hears of her assassination and writes that “the news filled me, as it did everybody else, with despair.”
Wilkinson’s memoir ends in 2009 when he leaves for Ireland. He suffers from kidney disease and writes about his first transplant years ago. While in Pakistan, he doesn’t want his disease to get in the way of his work and travels, but in 2009 he realizes he needs to return to Ireland to take care of his health before he can get back on the road again. He’s now based in Hong Kong, as mentioned above, which isn’t exactly roughing it, but it’s still close to the action.