ANNABEL McGILVRAY meets AZHAR ABIDI AUTHOR, FUNDS MANAGER
MIDDLE Eastern medieval fables are awash with dashing adventure heroes. It’s an Arabian Nights cast of philosopher kings and princes travelling the world, outsmarting genies for the sake of love, family and the occasional treasure trove. Poetry, politics and magic provide a balance between heroic battle and beauty.
Azhar Abidi grew up in Pakistan reading those tales. Perhaps it all comes down to charisma, but the morning we talk, there’s more than a little suggestion of the fabulous hero in the writer, now based in Melbourne. The handsome author juggles his creative exploits with a day job as investment director at one of the country’s top investment groups, surely the closest modern equivalent of treasure seeking.
When he closes the door of his funds management office, talk turns to tracking snow leopards, scaling Iranian cliffs to forage in hilltop fortresses, and the Turkish, Arabic and Indian origins of Abidi’s native Urdu language in which so many of the fables are written. ‘‘ You can say the same things in Urdu as you would say in English, but I think Urdu is more indirect,’’ says Abidi, who does the odd translation. ‘‘ Explaining factual things in absolute terms in Urdu is not easy because it’s not designed to do that. It’s designed for courtly use, for human interaction, poetry and conversation. It’s a language for conversation, not for getting things done.’’
By contrast, Abidi’s English prose is lucid and without excess elaboration. His first novel, Passarola Rising, published in 2006, is a fantastical tale of a flying ship and its creators being buffeted about in early Enlightenment Europe. The writing is without frippery, even as it describes sex in the skies above Lisbon during the late Inquisition.
Passarola was begun at the same time as Abidi’s mischievous essay, The Secret History of Flying Carpets, which was first published in literary magazine Meanjin. The essay caused a brief flurry with its revelation that newly discovered ancient scrolls showed magnetic fibres had once been woven into medieval carpets, enabling them to fly. Many were taken in, helped by a hoax ABC radio interview. Abidi laughs, chuffed by the memory, but says he won’t try such a caper again. ‘‘ It can only be a one- off.’’
After Flying Carpets, Meanjin ’ s then editor Ian Britain recommended Abidi to an American talent- spotter. Soon Passarola was being represented by US agent Thomas Colchie. The novel has since been published in the US, Australia, Canada and India, with translation rights sold to Portugal, Spain and Romania. It elicited nearly $ 100,000 in advances.
It was a fabulous start. But Abidi has a young family and his heroism doesn’t extend, at least so far, to giving up his day job. ‘‘ It would be great if I could write full time because there are benefits in doing that; you have a lot more momentum,’’ he says. ‘‘ But somebody’s got to pay the bills and school fees and so on. The risk of throwing everything in and going to write full time and then saying you’ll see what happens, I think it’s a brave and heroic act. Whether it actually improves your writing, I’m not sure.
‘‘ It’s important for me that I have the peace of mind to write what I want to write, and you’ve got to have some kind of financial stability to be able to say what you want to say and not be in a rush. And I do have that luxury.’’
So Abidi remains a considered hero, successfully combining separate identities in his carefully measured tones and writing ‘‘ funds manager’’ on visa applications to avoid unnecessary hassles. He manages funds four days a week, and on Thursdays, Saturday mornings and most nights sits down to write longhand on loose- leaf sheets at his desk at the rear of the family’s lounge room. He later transcribes what he has written into a computer. ‘‘ It’s a very disciplined approach to writing. It has to be that way, otherwise I won’t get it done,’’ he says, adding that his children, aged three and six, know when not to disturb Dad.
It took him three years to write his second novel, Twilight, released in Australia last month. Very different from the picaresque Passarola, it is a gently told family story largely set in the Pakistani city of Karachi. It examines the shifting bonds between a mother and her only son, who has married an Australian woman and lives in Melbourne. ‘‘ The characters are not autobiographical but the context is,’’ Abidi says. ‘‘ I am married to an Australian girl and I migrated from Pakistan to Australia, and the turbulent times that Pakistan went through, I witnessed those. I couldn’t have written the book if I had not gone through those experiences.’’
Abidi, 40, grew up in the Pakistani town of Wah amid the rise of political Islam. He studied engineering in England at his parents’ urging and returned to Pakistan to work as an engineer. He soon quit, however, and while working as a journalist spent more and more time writing and working with other writers.
Abidi veers into tales of his trip at the time to investigate the Iranian Valley of the Assassins and a 13th- century cult’s legendary Garden of Paradise, to which stoned recruits were supposedly taken, indulged by beautiful women and induced to do whatever was asked of them: ‘‘ They were like the modern- day Red Brigade. They used to assassinate their political targets and they met quite a grisly end. But they were very powerful at that time, and they caused quite a lot of grief for the kings and governments.’’
Abidi came to Australia in 1994 to study for an MBA and never left. His Pakistani friends are scattered across the world. He remains in touch with Musharraf Farooqi, who lives in Canada and recently translated the epic tale of the prophet Mohammed’s uncle Amir Hamza. Abidi says he trusts him above everyone else as a critic.
‘‘ It’s very useful to get that critique from someone who has the same background because they understand you a lot better — not always but often — than people who don’t have the same origins. They might see through what you’re trying to say and say, ‘ You’re just creating this effect, it’s artificial, you’re just going after the exotic appeal,’ for example, or something of that nature. They put you on the straight path.’’
Abidi hasn’t taken many straight paths. From engineering to banking to writing via Pakistan, England and Australia, he is now in the midst of another detour, immersed in work on a novel set during and after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Before he opens the office door and returns to risk assessment and report writing, the conversation drifts slowly from parallels between the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, to the illogic of World War I, thinking machines, Pinocchio and hashish. But those are tales for other times. Azhar Abidi is a guest at this week’s Brisbane Writers Festival. Twilight ( Text Publishing, $ 32.95) is out now.