Review: Among Muslims, by Kathleen Jamie

This post is a part of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.

Among Muslims, by Kathleen JamieAs I wrote in my preview of May’s title in this series, I was looking forward to Kathleen Jamie’s Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan firstly because she was Scottish, and secondly she was travelling in a challenging part of the world.

I should begin by saying that these two factors played out as real strengths of the book to me. There was a familiarity in the author’s perspective on things, making her comfortable and friendly company, and her adventures were a suoerbly written story of a part of the world I know all too little about.

The next thing that stands out is that Jamie did this journey in the 1980s, solo, and with seemingly few contacts arranged in advance. It was a tremendously brave journey, and one that was immensely informative, enlightening and inspiring,

Indeed, it didn’t even feel unoriginal following February’s adventures through Pakistan with Dervla Murphy. While Murphy’s time in the country was not without danger, the fact that she cycled meant she was usually on the move and rarely able to linger long in any one place, Jamie, meanwhile, spends a considerable amount of time in the country – and specifically in its northern border areas – and travels independently on foot or by bus.

It feels patronising to say this, but the author was incredibly brave to do this, and it especially feels that way because she came over not as a strong-willed, machine-like traveller ready for anything, in the way Murphy did somewhat, but instead as a gentle, thoughtful, contemplative and deeply poetic individual. Perhaps her nature was the key to her success, meeting as she does a great many people, digging deeply into their lives, and especially forging strong connections with women.

There are dangers for Jamie, of course, though she seems to take them very much in her stride, with a philosophical attitude and a desire to focus on the positives. She even resorts to seeing the absurdity in some of her situations such as when she is propositioned for sex on one occasion.

This version of the book is a 2002 republication of the original of a decade previously, embellished with a new introductory chapter and rounded off with an account of a poignant return trip to hunt down contacts once more. Quite what these additions bring to the book, I am unsure. The introduction, focussing on an encounter in her Fife hometown with a group of Pakistani men on a peace walk, serves to cast the author’s mind back to her travels though doesn’t really draw the reader into her main story any better than the first proper chapter does, which is so beautifully written that it speaks for itself.

Indeed, so evocative is the opening paragraph, so descriptive, so utterly able to draw you instantly into both the moment and the context, that it is perhaps the best opener to a travelogue I can recall reading. See what you think.

From the roadside, a nomad herdsman watched our charabanc rumble by, then turned his horse and was gone. To the east the distant ridges of Mustagh Ata rose purplish from the plain; west, the mountains of the Hindu Kush. For the thousandth time I shifted, trying to get comfortable. For the thousandth time I leaned my head against the window, but still it shook too much. How I longed to be that herdsman, laughing as he rode.

And so the book continues, with rich, poetic and engrossing observation bringing the people (especially, crucially, the women) and places the author encounters to life. Jamie also writes powerfully about the contrasts (and similarities) between her life in Scotland and the lives of the people (again, especially the women) she meets.

By getting to know and observe women so closely, she reveals a part of Pakistan most of us in the UK rarely hear about and which male travel writers would almost certainly not explore so deeply. So in terms of the purpose of this year’s reading mission, the book not only demonstrates that it could be done by a woman, but actually that it took a woman to be able to do it like this.

Jamie also dwells marvellously and meditatively on the sheer enormous natural beauty of the area she explores, something that often comes out strongly when she is away from company.

It was strange to be alone. I walked the quarter-mile uphill to where a wall topped with a tangle of briars marked the border of the village. On this side of the wall were grasses and wild flowers, butterflies and dragonflies. There was a copse of trees where the stream entered the village lands in a sparkling sheen. One could worship this laughing water. It is the font of life.

And she writes with terrific, warm, gentle wit too. At one point she writes about the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili people.

His photograph is ubiquitous. He is everywhere framed in shops and homes, he is made into key-rings, he dangles from the mirrors of Ismaili minibuses and jeeps. And everywhere he has the same benign, rather overwhelmed expression, like an unassuming bank clerk presented with a retirement gift.

It’s just as well that the author writes so compellingly and beautifully, because it counteracted some serious annoyances I had with the book. I’ve mentioned above my concerns about the added introduction and postscript, but also I struggled to follow the author sometimes, and still don’t understand why she did the journey, what her driving purpose was, and what her prior experience, interest and preparation was – nor, at the outset, her route or end goal.

Only the brilliance of each short section, each almost a stand alone vignette, kept me going and I soon realised I just had to set my questions aside and enjoy the brilliant immediacy of the story. I was not surprised to discover that Kathleen Jamie is more of a poet and essayist – I suspect her style soars in such tighter formats. Perhaps I should explore her other work.

In sum, this was a book whose disjointed nature meant that I wanted to not like it, but the author’s superb prose meant I failed spectacularly, and ended up loving it.

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