Nicholas Jub­ber

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Nicholas Jub­ber is a man with a pas­sion for far-off places. A travel writer with a dif­fer­ence, his books are more than just about trav­el­ling from one place to another – he en­deav­ours to dis­cover and learn from those he meets on his jour­neys. His first book, The Prester Quest, sees him travel from Venice to Ethiopia to de­liver a let­ter writ­ten by the Pope in the twelfth cen­tury. His sec­ond book, Drink­ing Arak off an Ay­a­tol­lah’s Beard, saw him try­ing to dis­cover the sto­ries be­hind the head­lines in Iran and Afghanistan and his third book, pub­lished last Septem­ber, has him trav­el­ling to Tim­buktu and liv­ing with no­madic tribes. Matilda Hickson went to meet him and dis­cover more about this ex­cit­ing ‘new’ writer.

When did your love of travel start?

Well, it’s hard to know when specif­i­cally. I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by places but with­out nec­es­sar­ily hav­ing been to those places that seemed far away from where I lived. I don’t know if that was grow­ing up in the sub­urbs (of Hert­ford­shire) and feel­ing a bit bored as a teenager. It was nice but it didn’t feel like the most ex­otic place in the world but I think I was just a very dreamy child and I loved read­ing 1001 nights, and about far away places or the usual sci-fi stuff of far away plan­ets and I loved to write sto­ries as a child and they al­most al­ways in­volved the char­ac­ters go­ing some­where out­side their own ex­pe­ri­ence.

So I think it was there be­fore I even started trav­el­ling. When I left univer­sity, I did a jour­ney across South Amer­ica and it wasn’t the jour­ney so much but the com­bi­na­tion of read­ing and travel books, that I hadn’t re­ally read be­fore and I started read­ing writ­ers like Wil­fred Th­e­siger and Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor and some of the clas­sics of travel writ­ing. I be­came fas­ci­nated by this genre and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of peo­ple go­ing to places where they were out­side of their own ex­pe­ri­ences and they had to learn and be­friend the peo­ple in these places.

Did you al­ways want to be­come a travel writer?

I read English at univer­sity, and a lot of the lit­er­a­ture that I spent a lot of time with was about jour­neys. One of the things that al­ways sur­prises me about travel writ­ing is how it is of­ten ma­ligned by peo­ple that don’t know it that well, but any of the core books of Western cul­ture are travel sto­ries, from the Odyssey to

Alice in Won­der­land. They are sto­ries of peo­ple hav­ing ad­ven­tures in places where they meet peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent to them in some way and they have to learn to in­ter­act with them.

A good travel writer is able to take you with them. You are made to feel that it is ac­ces­si­ble but hope­fully takes you deep into that cul­ture. If you take some of the Th­e­siger books for ex­am­ple, they take you as deeply as any trav­eller has gone into Arabia and I think it is the same with re­ally good travel books and it has be­come an as­pi­ra­tion that I am try­ing and still work­ing at.

I feel like I am learn­ing how to write travel books at the mo­ment and I am still an ap­pren­tice. I think it is a much more com­pli­cated and so­phis­ti­cated genre than is of­ten given credit for, it is cer­tainly very hard. I of­ten can’t put all my ex­pe­ri­ences into a book, and it is not the bor­ing things I leave out, it is some­times the ex­cit­ing things, but they don’t fit with the fo­cus the book has ac­quired dur­ing writ­ing it.

How long do your books take to write?

Un­for­tu­nately they take a long time to write! It is re­ally hard work. My sec­ond book went through 10 drafts and some of them were page one rewrites. I couldn’t work out how to write that book be­cause it was re­ally about two jour­neys – one in Iran and one in Cen­tral Asia and Afghanistan and they were sep­a­rate and I had to work out a way to meld them to­gether.

One of the prob­lems with a travel book is that tra­di­tion­ally it has been writ­ten in a very lin­ear way by most writ­ers but we live in a world where we are in­creas­ingly con­fronted with dif­fer­ent struc­tures and most gen­res have em­braced dif­fer­ent struc­tures. So what I have tried to do in my books is to chal­lenge that struc­ture a lit­tle bit by not writ­ing it in the ob­vi­ous A-B lin­ear way but by in­tro­duc­ing other el­e­ments. For ex­am­ple in my first book I had some me­dieval let­ters which were an el­e­ment of the book and I think there is much one can do with the travel book as a form ac­tu­ally.

You were in­spired to write your first book by find­ing a let­ter from the Pope?

Yes, I was hang­ing about in a li­brary in Jerusalem be­cause school was can­celled and it was im­pos­si­ble for the stu­dents to get to school, so I would pot­ter around in this li­brary and look at all kinds of stuff. One of the things I came across was a let­ter by Pope Alexan­der III to the myth­i­cal priest king of the Indies and it seemed to be so ab­surd that the Pope would be writ­ing to some­one who was clearly an imag­i­nary char­ac­ter and at the same time be­liev­able at the time of the Cru­sades. I think be­liev­able now too in the world of fake news that we live in, where it of­ten seems that the peo­ple that we see in the head­lines seem more hy­per real than imag­i­nary char­ac­ters.

So it felt like it con­nected, but I also like the story be­cause it con­nected with things go­ing on with the Mid­dle East at the time and there was a lot of talk about Cru­sades, with the con­flict be­tween Is­rael and Pales­tine but also the bor­der with western Is­lamic re­la­tion­ships. It felt to me that it didn’t nec­es­sar­ily start with the Cru­saders but they were a pi­o­neer­ing mo­ment in the his­tory of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Europe and the Mid­dle East, so it seemed that there were a lot of echoes and it felt in­ter­est­ing to put that pe­riod along­side to­day and see how they matched up. My books, past and present, have at­tempted to put them face to face and see how a par­tic­u­lar pe­riod in his­tory into our pe­riod, and echoes the res­o­nances and in­flu­ences that it has.

Did you read any other au­thors be­fore trav­el­ling to Afghanistan?

Yes. One of the things that I think is re­ally in­ter­est­ing that the travel book can do, is that it can track the way things change over time. Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple wrote a travel book called From the Holy

I be­came fas­ci­nated by this genre and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of peo­ple go­ing to places where they were out­side of their own ex­pe­ri­ences and they had to learn and be­friend the peo­ple in these places

Moun­tain which was a huge hit. By the time that I was trav­el­ling in the Near East, which was not that long af­ter he had writ­ten that book, it was al­ready com­pletely dif­fer­ent – it re­ally felt like a com­pletely dif­fer­ent re­gion to what I had read about in that book. And then Septem­ber 11th hap­pened and so many things hap­pened in the re­gion and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween East and West be­came more in­tense.

So one of the things I think travel books do is that you get these snap­shots of dif­fer­ent mo­ments in his­tory. If you go back through other books on the Mid­dle East there are so many good books that have been writ­ten about the re­gion and you can see how it has changed from when Th­e­siger was writ­ing about the com­ing of the au­to­mo­bile, which was only one of many things that changed the re­gion so much, through to some of the more re­cent writ­ers.

Who is your favourite travel writer?

I think my favourites are Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor and Wil­fred Th­e­siger. Two other writ­ers that I ab­so­lutely love are Tim Mack­in­tosh-Smith and Richard Grant who writes re­ally in­ci­sive and funny books about all sorts of places but es­pe­cially Amer­ica and Africa. But I’m also re­ally in­flu­enced by other writ­ers, not nec­es­sar­ily travel writ­ers, like nov­el­ists, any­one who can write about place re­ally. John Updike taught me a lot about writ­ing about places, as he writes about them with such a foren­sic pre­ci­sion but also read­ing an­thro­pol­o­gists such as Jared Di­a­mond and learn­ing about bio-ge­og­ra­phy and some of those is­sues is help­ful, so I try to read as broadly as I can. Although there is never time to read ev­ery­thing!

What has been your best ad­ven­ture to date?

It is al­ways the last one I guess. Be­cause it is the one most vividly in my mind and I’m still talk­ing about it, it is my trip across the Sa­hara. But when I did my trip across Iran and Afghanistan it felt very in­tense too and very ex­cit­ing, a bit scary and nerve wrack­ing ret­ro­spec­tively. I think each of my jour­neys has in­volved a cer­tain level of dis­com­fort, not com­pared with some of the great jour­neys, but cer­tainly for me they’ve had their mo­ments of dis­com­fort and fear. So in some ways they feel they are more fun af­ter­wards.

And I think that is what trav­el­ling can be, the me­mory build­ing. You are stor­ing up these mem­o­ries for later, even if you are not en­joy­ing each mo­ment and some­times I have to re­mind my­self of that, to ac­tu­ally re­ally en­joy it. Be­cause it is such a joy to be trav­el­ling in these in­ter­est­ing places but there are so many prac­ti­cal­i­ties to plan while you are trav­el­ling that you don’t al­ways en­joy them un­til af­ter­wards. You’re think­ing, how am I go­ing to eat, when is my visa go­ing to run out – all these lo­gis­ti­cal things that im­pede the en­joy­ment.

Does any­thing par­tic­u­larly in­spire you to write or travel?

I hear about a place or get a pic­ture in my mind about a place and want to see what it is like. For the Sa­hara I had a par­tic­u­larly vivid pic­ture in my mind from movies and from sto­ries that I had read, that were set in the Sa­hara such as Bowles’ nov­els to movies like the English Pa­tient and I wanted to find out what it was like.

I was aware that my im­age was a ro­man­ti­cised one fil­tered through Hol­ly­wood and through Western nov­el­ists and I wanted to see what it was ac­tu­ally like. And the same with Iran. I’d heard a lot about it, I’d met a lot of Ira­ni­ans but I knew there seemed to be a mis­match be­tween the head­lines and the im­age of the head­lines and other things I had heard from con­ver­sa­tions and so I wanted to find out how it worked. It’s like tak­ing a lid off a watch and want­ing to see how it all fits to­gether. What are peo­ple like in these places? What are these places like and how do they con­nect with other places – so it is just cu­rios­ity I think.

In your lat­est book you visit Tim­buktu. Why Tim­buktu?

In my mind, it was the ul­ti­mate far away des­ti­na­tion. In the Aris­to­crats [the Dis­ney film] one of the char­ac­ters is sent off in a pack­ing crate to Tim­buktu, and although it is pun­ish­ment, for some rea­son it got fixed in my mind as the far away place, the end of ev­ery­where. Which it isn’t, but it still feels a long way away. And the peo­ple of Tim­buktu will wel­come you with open arms and will say ‘wel­come to the mid­dle of nowhere’. Be­cause it is the end of the desert, and be­cause for many years it was dif­fi­cult for Euro­peans to get there. It is lit­er­ally where the desert meets the river and it was a part of Africa that was un­known to ex­plor­ers for so long.

You fol­lowed the route and sto­ries of Leo Africanus in your book. Why were you fas­ci­nated with him?

I started my jour­ney by go­ing out to Fez where I did a course in Ara­bic. When I travel, I al­ways try to learn the lan­guage or lo­cal lan­guages as it is a way of get­ting into the lo­cal cul­ture and a way of think­ing dif­fer­ently than the way I’m used to think­ing. So I did the course and Fez is the city that Leo Africanus came from and he trav­elled from Fez to Tim­buktu with a car­a­van with his un­cle, who was an am­bas­sador for the sul­tan of Fez [in the

early six­teenth cen­tury]. They went all the way through the Sa­hara to Tim­buktu and the way he de­scribed Tim­buktu was this glo­ri­ous city of gold plate and slaves and so rich and also full of books and manuscripts which were on sale in the mar­ket­place for much more than the price of a slave.

Leo’s book which is the ‘de­scrip­tion of Africa and the no­table things therein’ is full of in­ter­est­ing things. He goes off on tan­gents about camels singing to each other and his de­scrip­tion of Fez is one of the great ac­counts of the city and it was great to be there and see it through the eyes of this six­teenth-cen­tury ex­plorer. But as I trav­elled, as much as I was in­ter­ested in his story, I was also be­com­ing more in­ter­ested in the no­madic com­mu­ni­ties that I vis­ited and stayed with and their story and lives.

How much did Tim­buktu dif­fer from Leo’s ver­sion?

It was very dif­fer­ent be­cause Leo’s ac­count was of a thriv­ing city, so it reads like a six­teenth-cen­tury ac­count of some­where in Europe, such as Rome or Paris, and yet you get there and it feels very des­o­late and run down. But hav­ing said that, when I vis­ited with some of the no­mads who I stayed with in the desert, they see it as a huge, chaotic, mas­sive city that they get mi­graines from, be­cause it is so noisy. So it is all a mat­ter of per­spec­tive.

You de­scribe Tim­buktu as the ‘Miss Hav­isham of fa­mous me­trop­o­lises’...

Yes, it is a place of faded grandeur. I think too much of its iden­tity is that it has fallen on hard times and is no longer the great city it was. So when you visit you ex­pect it to be a lit­tle run down but at the same time, the peo­ple there have tremen­dous pride in the city and the cul­ture there. One of the loveli­est sto­ries re­cently, as there has been a lot of trouble in Mali lately, has been about a project to re­build the shrines and mosques that had been dam­aged dur­ing the ji­hadist oc­cu­pa­tion there in 2012.

The restora­tion has been funded by UNESCO and the EU they have got to­gether with lo­cal crafts­men to re­build the shrines, and one of my friends said ‘it feels as though our iden­tity has come back’. So there is great pride in the her­itage of Tim­buktu. And there is an ex­cite­ment about just be­ing in the city of Tim­buktu. Walk­ing in the sandy streets, I felt a bounce in my step be­cause I was in Tim­buktu!

You met many dif­fer­ent peo­ple and cul­tures on your trav­els. Did you think there was much to learn from the an­cient cul­tures?

Yes, one of the things that is ex­cit­ing and in­struc­tive about trav­el­ling to places that are a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent to my norm is to learn dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing and do­ing things. I am fas­ci­nated by some of the ways that the no­mads that I lived with ap­proached flat space. When I was in the desert I just saw a huge, vast, empty land­scape, but then I was taught that it was crammed with stuff: you look at the sand and it seems empty but then you see camel foot­prints or marks of don­keys or a wavy line which means a snake has gone past, and you re­alise that there are all these crea­tures that ac­tu­ally live in the desert and its not un­in­hab­ited at all.

The no­mads who I trav­elled with read this land­scape with such an elo­quence but when we went to the city, to them that was un­read­able – to them one large amor­phous block - but ob­vi­ously for me I could read the de­tail of a city. They also have a tremen­dous ef­fi­ciency the way they can lo­cate stars and lo­cate items, for ex­am­ple their tents, de­pend­ing on where the stars are in the sky. And it’s one of the rea­sons they travel at night a lot as they can nav­i­gate their way by the stars.

We of­ten think of the term no­mad to mean a ho­moge­nous group but did you find any dif­fer­ences be­tween them?

Well there are huge dif­fer­ences and it was one of the things that I learnt – I started off with the idea that ‘no­mad’ was a blan­ket term for peo­ple in the desert with camels, but as I trav­elled I met peo­ple in the moun­tains herd­ing goats or peo­ple in the rivers who fish but who also moved around all the time. So one of the things in the book I’ve tried to do is ex­plore the dif­fer­ent land­scapes in that re­gion and the peo­ple who have a no­madic life­style, not just in the desert, but rivers and plateaus too.

You de­scribe the Tuaregs as uber-no­mads. Why?

I think that is how a lot of them see them­selves and how they are de­scribed in the lit­er­a­ture, although a lot of that is colo­nial lit­er­a­ture. There has been a ten­dency to de­note them as the iconic no­mads of the Sa­hara, the blue men, and to see them as the ul­ti­mate test of no­madism be­cause the sand dunes are the harsh­est land­scape to try and prac­tice no­madic life. Po­lit­i­cally they have also been in­volved in is­sues around the re­gion re­cently, so they have dipped and dived over the re­gion in the course of the last cen­tury.

They are also seen by the other no­madic groups as the ones who are a lit­tle less ap­proach­able but that is to do with his­tor­i­cal and ge­o­graph­i­cal rea­sons as much as so­cial. There is a tra­di­tion in Mali where you have var­i­ous eth­nic groups that are joined to others and are in­ter-linked but the Tuaregs are seen as be­ing a bit sep­a­rate to that. But that is some­thing that is chang­ing.

How ap­proach­able were the Tuaregs?

The ones that I stayed with were re­ally lovely and in­cred­i­bly pas­sion­ate about their life­style. There was one tribe that I stayed with and the chief there said he was very proud to be a Tuareg and very proud of the life­style. He felt to leave that life­style would be to stamp on the grave of his par­ents and to in­sult their me­mory. Which was a les­son again of the dif­fer­ent cul­tures as I would never think that I need to fol­low my par­ents’ work pat­terns in or­der to re­spect them, but in his case he wanted to con­tinue the tra­di­tion and that was part of the re­spect across the gen­er­a­tions.

But he also talked about the great dif­fi­culty in con­tin­u­ing the life­style as they are be­ing pushed fur­ther and fur­ther out, his tribe used to be quite close to Tim­buktu but as the govern­ment have le­galised large tracts of pri­vate land they have had to go fur­ther out to herd their an­i­mals. And with war go­ing on, and an­i­mals killed or rus­tled, their life­style is con­stantly in peril and one of the mo­ti­va­tions to write this book was to of­fer a pas­sion­ate de­fence of this life­style, to show the dif­fi­cul­ties but also show the com­plex­i­ties of what the life­style en­tails.

Were there any times that you felt threat­ened?

There were a few dodgy mo­ments. We were in a mini van, it was late at night and we were driv­ing across the desert and it had been a long jour­ney. And the driver had gone off the track. And then we sud­denly saw guys on mo­tor­bikes spin­ning around us with the lights of the bikes flash­ing. And there are of­ten sto­ries about ji­hadists on mo­tor­bikes com­ing to kid­nap peo­ple and that was when I felt my­self think­ing ‘this is it’! But they were ac­tu­ally a cou­ple of lo­cal farm­ers who had come to show us the way back to the track.

What has been your worst ad­ven­ture?

I think one of the worst was when I was in Ethiopia and I ate some raw goat meat and I was vi­o­lently sick, so much so that I had to stay in bed for about three days and by the time I was able to get up again, I’d lost about half of my body weight. It was in a vil­lage on the bor­der and there was a drop loo, that mainly seemed to be used as a place for peo­ple to de­posit used con­doms. It was filthy and I spent three days stuck in a mosquito net emp­ty­ing my­self out, vow­ing I would never eat goat meat again.

Do you have a favourite city or coun­try?

Tim­buktu is my cur­rent favourite city. It is a place that I have a tremen­dous fond­ness for. I re­ally love the peo­ple that I met there, they are so warm and friendly. And it is a sad city in so many ways as it has gone through such a tur­bu­lent his­tory but I re­ally hope that things will get bet­ter for them, although the pol­i­tics of the area aren’t very hope­ful.

If I was to rec­om­mend some­where to visit it would be Fez in Morocco. It is one of the most ex­cit­ing, vi­brant and con­fus­ing places in the world. The old me­d­ina in Fez, just div­ing in there, is some­thing else. Prob­a­bly one of my favourite trav­el­ling ex­pe­ri­ences was the day I ar­rived in Fez and I just dove into the old souk and got com­pletely lost. It is an amaz­ing labyrinth with don­keys on one side, peo­ple car­ry­ing huge pelts from the tan­ner­ies that are stink­ing, you’ve got the brass mak­ing square where you can hear the or­ches­tra of all the peo­ple with their chis­els bang­ing away – the sheer live­li­ness and vi­tal­ity of the place is very ex­cit­ing.

What is next?

Another book – I’ll be head­ing off in a cou­ple of months. It is go­ing to in­volve a lot of swim­ming. Which is wor­ry­ing as I’m not the strong­est swim­mer but I’ve re­alised that I’m go­ing to have to do a fair amount of swim­ming.

Where are you go­ing?

To a place that is more north­ern than my pre­vi­ous books. And that is all that I can say at the mo­ment!

Tell us some­thing we don’t know about Nick Jub­ber

I have no sense of di­rec­tion – I get lost all the time. And if it weren’t for that, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have writ­ten any travel books, be­cause it pushes me into all sorts of sur­pris­ing en­coun­ters.

Nick with Tuareg friend

Nick on his Sa­hara trek for his lat­est book and title page, Nick herd­ing goats in Seno-Gondo

Nick at work in the tan­nery of Ain Azle­toun, us­ing a sadriya knife to smooth a freshly dyed goat skin

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.