Once again, Kathleen Jamie’s prose is a deep immersive pleasure, the kind of writing that stays with you for days. She’s a poet and knows how to compress emotion and meaning into letters and pauses. I loved her Sightlines and Findings, both collections of essays and short pieces. This, earlier, book is, I think, even better. Gosh she’s good.
Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan is an updated travelogue originally published as The Golden Peak, after the name of the hotel in Gilgit, in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, where Jamie stayed and in whose environs she made friends while she was travelling around Pakistan in 1990. After she got home, she wrote The Golden Peak, which eventually went out of print. In 2001, a little after 9/11, her publisher rang to suggest that they reissue the book, the reason being that Muslims were being victimised in the media (print, radio, and such online media as there was in 2001) and books like The Golden Peak were helpful in showing what the ordinary folk of Pakistan were like, and how ‘Muslim’ was a tremendously complex concept, just as ‘Christian’ is, only westerners don’t quite see it that way.
This was a timely phone call, since Kathleen Jamie and her family had just closed the front door after saying goodbye to a vanload of men from Pakistan, who were travelling around Scotland on a Peace March, intending to meet and talk to local people, and get to know them, since talking begets peace. Jamie had run around her small town looking for a place for the men to stay, after she had spotted them on Guy Fawkes’ Night, sitting in a circle on the pavement, waiting patiently for whoever Allah might send them. By greeting them with enthusiasm, and organising their hospitality, Jamie was welcoming Pakistan back into her life, and was not surprised, a day or so later, to hear that her publisher was wondering whether she might want to go back to Pakistan, to give the new edition of The Golden Peak an updated epilogue.
There’s a great difference between a western woman travelling solo around Pakistan in 1990, and even considering it in late 2001. In her earlier trip, in what seems to have been part of a journey through China as well, Jamie had freedom and was able with quiet determination to go where she wanted to go, and do what she wanted to do, always respecting local customs. There are many what-ifs and near escapes embedded silently in her account of her earlier travels, but at the time, you don’t think about what-if, if you even recognise it, you just get on with the journey.
She wore shalwar kameez, but only wore the dupatta, the broad and enveloping gauzy scarf worn over a woman’s hair and shoulders, when it really seemed unavoidable, but her equally enveloping woollen shawl was her invisibility protection and her blanket against the cold on long bus trips and in freezing hotels. In 2001, she prudently travelled under the protection of an old friend from her first journeying, who shepherded this lone western woman away from troublesome attention and out of contentious places, too full of suspicion and resentment at western military politics, and back to Gilgit.
Gilgit is where Rashida and Jamila live, in purdah, with their parents and sister Hina, and now also their children and husbands. Women writers get to see more in Islamic countries than men, as they have access to the women’s quarters, and see domestic and private life close up. Jamie was an unofficial daughter in that household, and Rashida was a close friend.
Among Muslims is about being among Muslims, Jamie’s journeys to isolated villages and very distant towns, and the people, particularly the women, whose lives she shared, for a day or a week. The conversations move in and out of the different languages at Pakistan’s disposal – English, Urdu, Punjabi and Balti – and Jamie’s questions open up fissures between the experiences she will never have to have, and those her Pakistani friends cannot ever comprehend. She is shocked at the physical damage done to women her own age by grinding poverty and repeated pregnancies. She winces at the oblivious western Himalayan trekkers setting up camp in a village graveyard, because they don’t recognise the newly cleared space in the centre as the new village campsite. She sees how education for boys will pull their families out of the poverty trap, and education for girls is a privilege to be awarded only by fathers or husbands. Back in 1990, professional mullahs bringing creeping Islamic radicalisation were already a worry for the elders in the north of Pakistan, even though independent Balti women laughed at the thought that they might have to wear a veil and keep indoors. Jamie’s account of a Shia devotional flegellation ceremony records her visceral horror at its blood, passion and endurance: she doesn’t point out the connection with Mediterranean Catholic processional rituals that produce the same result, for the same reason, with Allah given a different name.
I gobbled this book up, and for the next day felt as if I were still in Pakistan with her, in searing heat, warm dust, bouncing endless bus-trips, the taste of apricots, dhal and chapatti in my mouth as if I’d eaten them too. I wanted to know exactly why, as well as how, she and her two companions crossed and slept on the glacier, and how she built up her strength and muscles from the skinny condition she’d been reduced to on very short commons and too much trekking. Most of all I enjoyed the wondrous story of being escorted to the ruins of the old king’s palace by young princes, chance-met on the road, and meeting the old princess eating mulberries calmly in the garden.