Damascus, Baghdad, Basra, Kabul, Herat. That these names mean so little if anything to most contemporary readers is the tragedy. Associated at most with hazy, flickering, granulated images of the latest civil unrest or flashing red lights on modern 3D war maps of the ostensible and perpetual War on Terror. Yet others are either shrouded in the mist of forgetfulness that descended on the post-colonials and took away any clarity of vision about their remote pasts; remain hidden behind an opaqueness inherited from the erstwhile USSR; or are simply less approachable due to various other factors stemming from tyrannies past and present – Lahore, Isfahan, Fes, Samarkand, Bukhara, Cordova, Jerusalem, and many more. Iftikhar Malik’s The Silk Road and Beyond brings to life and humanises so many of these places that vibrantly exist but are largely invisible to the common gaze.
Divided into three parts, the first is called ‘Memoirs’ and offers various moving sketches of people and events from the writer’s diverse and rich intellectual life – from his sun-drenched village in the picturesque Potohar plateau to his graduate school in cold and snowy Michigan. The final part of the book on the other hand focuses, as the title ‘Nestling in the West’ indicates, on memorable cultural and intellectual encounters and experiences as a person of, dare I say, Eastern sensibility and Western intellectual rigour. As a matter of fact, this facility of Malik’s – painstaking elucidation of complex events and the multiplicity of perspectives on the same, combined with sensitivity and candour while laying bare past and current frameworks for Othering and exploitation of many nations, and particularly the Islamic civilisation – make him an important contemporary scholarly commentator on global history. The middle and longest part of the book is my favourite. It is called ‘Traversing the Silk Road’ and comprises of twelve chapters on travels in the kind of places that, with some exceptions, are frequently portrayed as obscure and inconsequential nooks of the wider world, if not downright shadowlands, by reductionist segments of the Western media.
Travelling through Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Jerusalem, Konya, Isfahan, Cordova, Fes and also Pisa and Sicily due to their Islamic connections, Malik skilfully takes on the multiple roles of tourist, historian, commentator and philosopher. These chapters are characterised by detailed but very readable architectural descriptions, cultural insights and succinct capturing of the complex histories of these medieval cities. However, to me what made these accounts additionally meaningful and moving was the deep sense of wistfulness and nostalgia for the past on the part of the author with which they are imbued. On the face of it the journey appears to be an overwhelmingly intellectual one as the author sets out to illuminate the grand history of these metropolises, which lie fairly marginalised in the modern world. Underlining the tremendous past significance of these places he states: ‘in Islam’s early golden age, cities like Bukhara, Merv, Balkh, Aleppo, Shiraz, Konya, Fes, Cairo, and Baghdad played a vanguard role in spearheading knowledge and arts’. However, it soon transpires that this nostalgia is not purely intellectual; even though the book provides a rich account of the scholars, sages, mystics, scientists, rulers, administrators, artists and writers that populated these lands. This makes the book a valuable resource for anyone wanting to understand and appreciate how these places actually made the so-called dark ages the enlightened ages. What is, therefore, distinctive and somewhat unusual here is the romanticism that permeates the narrative.