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