THE FACE

ANNABEL McGIL­VRAY meets AZHAR ABIDI AU­THOR, FUNDS MAN­AGER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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.

Pic­ture: Richard Cisar- Wright

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