Chewing it overI’m branded a “travel writer”, and I don’t like the term. Partly because it suggests that I live in some Whicker’s World of lounges, terminals and expense accounts (well, I wouldn’t mind the expense accounts…); and partly because my favourite journeys are the shortest ones. From my front door in San’a – the first city founded after the Flood, capital of the Republic of Yemen and one of the most stunning urban landscapes in the world – it takes precisely two-and-a-half minutes to walk to Sharaf’s restaurant.
Forget about inspiration. A plate of liver, fried with chillis, onions and garlic, is all you need to get writing. By 8am I’m back up on my fourth floor with a mug of coffee, a load of lined foolscap, and a sinking feeling. It’s not the terror of the blank page, but the opposite: how to cope with a formless, quivering infomass and rearrange it into something readable. My subject is Ibn Battutah, the 14th-century Moroccan traveller. His subject is, in short, the world.
He spent half a lifetime exploring it, reaching the Volga, Tanzania and China, and out-travelling Marco Polo by a factor of three. My research on his India years has produced a few hundred thousand words of “homework” – mainly notes taken in libraries – and 700 pages of diaries written on the road between Delhi and the Malabar coast. And out of all this, I’m trying to make a good yarn. The process has generated frustration, countless ripped pages, plenty of snapped biros and one broken window, the victim of a flung ashtray.
If I’m lucky, I can do about 300 words in a morning. After the noon prayer comes my other favourite journey, the five-minute walk to Sabri’s qat shop in the Cattlemarket. Qat is a leaf that is mildly stimulant when chewed; it is to me what opium was to Coleridge. I go back and start munching. The effect is like a deep bowl of thoughts, connecting and concentrating. I look at what I wrote in the morning, and wonder what the problem was.
This is when my most precious piece of equipment comes out, a “Life-long” brand silver propelling pencil (currently on its third life – it belonged to my grandfather and father before me). A few deft squiggles, a meaningful semi-colon here; a pregnant ellipsis there… a dollop of bathos, and lo! the sheet of paper looks like an orgy in an anthill. Very occasionally Sabri sells me a dud bag of leaves – for example, from a tree planted inadvertently on a grave – and it all goes wrong. I have been known to get stuck for three hours on one word while the qat generates a useless thesaurus of synonyms.
My daily journey to Sabri the qat-seller may soon be considerably shortened. I’m moving next door to him, to a house that belonged to a family called the Eyelashes. It stands on the Hillock of Clover, between the Cattlemarket and the Market of Lame Donkeys, in a tiny street called Dragging Alley. A few months ago, while I was doing some building work there, one of the Eyelash ladies came with a strange request: she had dreamed of her old house and of a coiled snake – a sure sign of hidden treasure.
Could she borrow the key, and a pickaxe? With some misgivings, I agreed. I returned from my recent India trip to find a number of large holes in the plasterwork. She didn’t let on what she found. But the richest treasure of the house remains: the view – a meandering line of minarets, pools of green mosque gardens between ginger houses, the bone-white dome of the Bakiriyyah Mosque, the lion-coloured mountains of Nuqm and Asir, a rim of dead volcanoes far to the north.