Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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I knew Domeli from my few years in the army back in the 1970s when we did exercises (or as the Americans would say manoeuvres) in that area. I had no real memory of the town itself, located near Jhelum, but I recall seeing ravine deer in the hills not far outside the built up area. That past though is another country, for now we have successfully shot most of our wildlife.

Domeli Railway Station with 102 Down coming through; notice the raised platform on the left from where the signal, hidden behind a knoll, could be checked

Recently my friend Haris Kayani hailing from Domeli phoned to tell me of the several spreading graveyards around his hometown. What could they possibly signify, he had asked. Large graveyards meant either a populous, prosperous town of the past or a staging post where caravans routinely tarried. The latter then pointed to a busy highroad through the area. Haris said I simply had to return to check out the burials of Domeli.
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Salman Rashid - Odysseus of Pakistan's Travelogues

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By Fatima Arif

Salman Rashid is a renowned travel writer who has nine books under his belt. Although travelling was a childhood passion, this was not the future his father imagined for him. As any parent of the subcontinent, he wanted Salman to become an engineer and despite all indication he was persistent to the point that he pressured him to join Government College Lahore's BSc programme to study physics and mathematics. In his third year, Salman failed, dropped out and joined the army where he served for seven years. "I didn't have a mathematical mind and I was unable to grasp both these subjects." As a child when Salman Rashid could not travel, his alternative hobby was to look at maps in atlases. He was interested in seeing the world but his first attraction was to explore Pakistan and thus kept going back to the country's map.

After leaving the army in 1978, Salman Rashid worked for Siemens Pakistan in Karachi, where he stayed for six and a half years. He wanted to be a gentleman farmer and although his family had some 200 acres of land in Thal, his father didn't trust him to earn a profit from it. He believed that Salman would waste whatever money he had along with that of his uncle's (who had promised to invest in the land). So between the period of his resignation in February 1978 to his release from the army in September 1978, his father sold all the land the family owned for around PKR 60,000, a pittance even at that time. "I never had the idea that I was capable of writing. In 1983, Talat Rahim, Director Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, pointed out that I have a skill and told me to write the stories that I tell of my travels. They had a magazine at that time for which I then wrote. My first piece was published as it was without any editorial work done on it!"

Roaming the wilderness was where it all started for Salman Rashid along with an auxiliary interest in exploring monuments, which later became a passion. "People ask me where I did my PhD in history from! My knowledge base has developed through self study and exploring places first hand." Walking on foot for hours on the Karachi Super Highway, going upstream along the Malir River and camping in the area alone is an experience that, in Salman Rashid's words, taught him to appreciate nature as it is, without getting revolted by any part of it, be it lizards or snakes.

His travels are also what led to his interest in environment and ecology. For someone who doesn't take up things at a superficial level, Salman Rashid started reading about various subjects, combining what he learned with ground realities. When he was first invited to write he knew that he had to conduct extensive research. Not a lot of studies were available on Ranikot Fort and as a result Salman Rashid had to do his own research and learnt the process. He discovered the library of the Department of Archeology and by the end the staff was fed up with him because of all the time he spent there. During the same period he found the book, Blank on the Map by Eric Earle Shipton, which has been the biggest inspiration of his life. In the 1990s, Rashid used to visit WWF-Pakistan's office on his bicycle just to consult one book or the other!

"The majority of people have no understanding of ecology. Environment they do, to some extent, but no one understands the word ecology. Since we don't understand these things as a nation we are completely insensitive towards them."

In his lifetime, Rashid has seen a consistent deterioration of the environment and what saddens him the most is the insensitivity of the majority of Pakistan's citizens - be it individuals, officials or institutions. Despite the obvious degradation of places like Lake Saif-ul-Maluq, Narran, Shogran, and Head Sulemanki to name a few, people simply turn a blind eye. Places that were once pristine have deteriorated for one reason or the other, often for economic development. For locals who are otherwise financially strapped, they are willing to compromise on the sustainable and environment-friendly use of Pakistan's tourist areas.

It is a mammoth task to make adults unlearn and then relearn concepts and ideas. However, in order to save the future it is important that the next generation be taught from the very onset about our environment and the need to conserve it. They will be the changen makers as they are the future and have the ability to monitor their elders' behaviour, as well. The same can be said about eco-tourism - if practiced in a sustainable manner, it can help the local economy and also contribute towards the preservation of our cultural and natural heritage.

"Our issue is that we are confused about our identity and are not proud of it the way we should be." Salman Rashid is of the opinion that brainwashing plays a key role in this identity crisis. Our disconnect with our heritage was started by the system under Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship and continues to this day. If the state decides to take on a counter narrative, it is capable of inculcating a sense of ownership of our diverse heritage in the country's people.

Talking about travelogues and a declining interest in them, Salman Rashid points out that in his experience there is a language barrier. A very small percentage of the local population reads English for the love of it. Urdu is still comparatively more widely read but there is no quality content available in it. What is available misleads people and does not fit the definition of what a travelogue is supposed to be. In Pakistan people in general visit tourist spots for two reasons: to get away from the heat or to go on a picnic. They are not interested in history, culture or architecture. Some of Salman Rashid's work is in the process of being translated and he hopes that people will develop an interest and appreciate the value of knowledge in his writing. However, he also fears that people might reject his work because it lacks the frivolity that they are accustomed to.

"A travel writer educates. He has to be a historian, geographer, geologist, anthropologist, sociologist and at the end maybe even a biographer."

As the only Pakistani who has seen the North Face of K2, Salman Rashid's trip, although inspired by Western explorers, ended up in his book and was a celebration of the people of Baltistan. "When you know your history, you also get to know your culture. Baltis have lost their language, which was a part of their identity some hundreds of years ago and they are known to be scared of these high altitudes. However, the fact is that the glaciers of the area are named in their language (Drand-mang, Khojolinsa, Chogoree etc), bearing testimony to the fact that Baltis travelled along this area well before any Western explorer."

Intellectually unspoiled folk wisdom has an inbuilt mechanism, where stories with nature preservation as their theme, are passed down from generation to generation. Preserving them and promoting local and international tourism, with a focus on environment and nature conservation needs to be promoted, while on-ground arrangements to accommodate the resulting influx of visitors also needs to be to ensured.

Though he does despair at times, Salman Rashid feels that there is still hope. A beacon of light, from individuals and organizations that are committed to the cause, will eventually guide us along the right path.

Also at Natura

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Why trees matter

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Our relationship with trees is disharmonious. We simply have no understanding of what trees do for us, for the environment and for global ecology on the whole. And then trees are divided between Hindu and Muslim trees. Either that, or some trees are paindu — uncool — and others not.

A few years ago, a bright, educated young woman in Karachi asked to be advised on which tree to plant in her family’s garden.
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I first heard a vague account of Naulakhi Kothi — The Nine-Hundred-Thousand Mansion — in 2015. It was built by an angrez in days of old when the Raj was at its height and when a thousand bricks could be bought for a mere 20 rupees. Back then it had cost a princely sum of 900,000 rupees to build. And so it was always known as Naulakhi.

The central reception area; the doors on the right and left lead to separate drawing rooms

The teller of the tale said it lay somewhere in the country just outside Sahiwal town, but he wasn’t certain of its exact location. At that time I was engaged in another assignment and filed away the information mentally — I was determined to one day check out this fabled mansion. Two years went by before I returned to the subject of the Naulakhi Kothi. Only now, the person who had told me the tale had disappeared without a trace.
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Cameras Not Allowed

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“Tourist resort in Nagarparkar opens” reads a Dawn news item (August 21, 2017). The news item is topped by an image of a cluster of red pitched-roof buildings under a cloud-dappled sky. There would be few Sindhis who would not know of the magical Nagarparkar and its nearby Karoonjhar Hills of pink granite. And there would be only marginally more from the rest of Pakistan who would be unaware of this fascinating part of the Thar desert.

Named after the redoubtable freedom fighter Rooplo Kohli of Nagarparkar who was hanged by British authorities in the late 1850s, the resort, so the report says, will promote tourism. I have serious reservations on the issue, however.
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Rock of all Ages

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The legend in Saddo Mazzo, Sindh that lives on through the ages is that of the sisters Saddo and Mazzo, princesses who ruled from a hilltop castle in the rugged and largely barren hills west of Johi (Dadu district). As their forces prepared to set out to attack a neighbouring settlement, the duo instructed the general to see that the flag was kept flying high for them to spot from their hilltop eyrie. This would tell them the proceedings were going in their favour.

The Dancing Girl of Saddo Mazzo

Any lowering of the standard would indicate the field had been lost. Then, in keeping with true Rajput tradition, the princesses were to fling themselves off the lofty ramparts to death on the rocks below. But as the distant fray unfolded, for one brief moment, the flag was lost from sight in the dust and commotion. For the princesses this was enough sign of defeat. Both Saddo and Mazzo leapt off the castle ramparts and died even as their victorious army turned homeward.
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'Hello, sir. Hello, Jimmy Carter'

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I first met him in the summer of 1979. I was walking down the stairway in either the city courts building or the metropolitan building of Karachi and he was on the way up. He wore a Coast Guards uniform with a subedar's two pips on his shoulders and his chest was a blaze of World War II ribbons. I, fresh out of the army, knew what the colourful ribbons meant and could recognise all of them. He wore the War Medal 1939-45, Africa Star and Burma Star. There were, besides, the Independence medal, the 1956 Constitution medal, Kashmir medal (1948) and the 1965 medals. He would have then retired for he did not have anything to show for the 1971 conflict. As he looked up, he caught me staring at his chest. The man saluted - a proper salute too, 'Hello, sir,' he said and I for a fleeting moment thought we knew each other. But then he quickly added 'Hello, Jimmy Carter!'

I returned his greeting with 'Hello, sahib,' the way we addressed Junior Commissioned Officers in the army. He was a right garrulous, jovial character and was chirping away as soon as our greeting was over. Every passerby who so much as glanced in his direction interrupted our conversation for they would be saluted with a hello either as 'sir' or 'Jimmy Carter'. Now, that was the time when the peanut farmer Carter was the president of USA whose name had somehow caught the fancy of our subedar from Coast Guards. I wasn't the only one to be called that name. We must have stood on the stairway chatting for a good few minutes before he took his leave telling me to come see him at the Coast Guards officers mess in Ingle Road where he was the mess JCO. He said we could have a cup of tea together.
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The Intent of the Invaders

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The blurb on the title page of The Arabs in Sind — 712-1026 AD tells us that the work is the dissertation of John Jehangir Bede as submitted to the Department of History, University of Utah in the United States. As for Bede, the Publishers [sic] Note on Page VI begins, “All efforts to trace Mr Bede lead to a blind alley.” However, the last line of this note tells us that he was born in January 1940 to Mary and Zwingle Bede and died in 1989. Attempts to trace him through institutions he was connected with led to similar dead ends. Regardless, the work itself is rather useful and one wonders why this piece of research languished so long before being brought to light. However, thanks to the Endowment Fund Trust, Karachi, better late than never.

Bede weaves a readable and concise account of the Arab invasion of Sindh in 711 CE. His sources are many and varied and the point of interest here is that he delves deeply into the archive of Arab history dating from the eighth to the 10th centuries. In fact, the treasure trove in the book is Chapter II, titled ‘The Sources’. It forms a compendium of all source material dealing with the Arabs in Sindh.
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Killer Trains, Petrol Looters and Darwin Awards

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‘Train Kills Three at Level Crossing.’ This was a newspaper item some days ago. Semi-literate journalists who have never read a book in their lives and will never amount to anything in life write such headlines. Having got an MA (Journalism) by cramming three worthless pamphlets – and they are indeed worthless and nothing more than rags – their heads are so full of themselves that there is no room for anything else to get into those emptinesses. Least of all any real knowledge.

These pea-brained specimens belong to a race that should by the theory of Natural Selection have gone extinct centuries ago, but Pakistan being a country where only such pieces survive and indeed get to the top of the heap, they have thrived. These morons do not understand that a train travelling at, say, 60 km/h has such huge momentum that if the driver slams on the brakes upon seeing a moron on a motorcycle rickshaw trying to dash across the line, it is impossible to stop the train. It’s the train’s momentum that cannot, simply not, make it stop.
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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days