Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Salman Rashid - Odysseus of Pakistan's Travelogues

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By Fatima Arif

Salman Rashid is a renowned travel writer who has nine books under his belt. Although travelling was a childhood passion, this was not the future his father imagined for him. As any parent of the subcontinent, he wanted Salman to become an engineer and despite all indication he was persistent to the point that he pressured him to join Government College Lahore's BSc programme to study physics and mathematics. In his third year, Salman failed, dropped out and joined the army where he served for seven years. "I didn't have a mathematical mind and I was unable to grasp both these subjects." As a child when Salman Rashid could not travel, his alternative hobby was to look at maps in atlases. He was interested in seeing the world but his first attraction was to explore Pakistan and thus kept going back to the country's map.

After leaving the army in 1978, Salman Rashid worked for Siemens Pakistan in Karachi, where he stayed for six and a half years. He wanted to be a gentleman farmer and although his family had some 200 acres of land in Thal, his father didn't trust him to earn a profit from it. He believed that Salman would waste whatever money he had along with that of his uncle's (who had promised to invest in the land). So between the period of his resignation in February 1978 to his release from the army in September 1978, his father sold all the land the family owned for around PKR 60,000, a pittance even at that time. "I never had the idea that I was capable of writing. In 1983, Talat Rahim, Director Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, pointed out that I have a skill and told me to write the stories that I tell of my travels. They had a magazine at that time for which I then wrote. My first piece was published as it was without any editorial work done on it!"

Roaming the wilderness was where it all started for Salman Rashid along with an auxiliary interest in exploring monuments, which later became a passion. "People ask me where I did my PhD in history from! My knowledge base has developed through self study and exploring places first hand." Walking on foot for hours on the Karachi Super Highway, going upstream along the Malir River and camping in the area alone is an experience that, in Salman Rashid's words, taught him to appreciate nature as it is, without getting revolted by any part of it, be it lizards or snakes.

His travels are also what led to his interest in environment and ecology. For someone who doesn't take up things at a superficial level, Salman Rashid started reading about various subjects, combining what he learned with ground realities. When he was first invited to write he knew that he had to conduct extensive research. Not a lot of studies were available on Ranikot Fort and as a result Salman Rashid had to do his own research and learnt the process. He discovered the library of the Department of Archeology and by the end the staff was fed up with him because of all the time he spent there. During the same period he found the book, Blank on the Map by Eric Earle Shipton, which has been the biggest inspiration of his life. In the 1990s, Rashid used to visit WWF-Pakistan's office on his bicycle just to consult one book or the other!

"The majority of people have no understanding of ecology. Environment they do, to some extent, but no one understands the word ecology. Since we don't understand these things as a nation we are completely insensitive towards them."

In his lifetime, Rashid has seen a consistent deterioration of the environment and what saddens him the most is the insensitivity of the majority of Pakistan's citizens - be it individuals, officials or institutions. Despite the obvious degradation of places like Lake Saif-ul-Maluq, Narran, Shogran, and Head Sulemanki to name a few, people simply turn a blind eye. Places that were once pristine have deteriorated for one reason or the other, often for economic development. For locals who are otherwise financially strapped, they are willing to compromise on the sustainable and environment-friendly use of Pakistan's tourist areas.

It is a mammoth task to make adults unlearn and then relearn concepts and ideas. However, in order to save the future it is important that the next generation be taught from the very onset about our environment and the need to conserve it. They will be the changen makers as they are the future and have the ability to monitor their elders' behaviour, as well. The same can be said about eco-tourism - if practiced in a sustainable manner, it can help the local economy and also contribute towards the preservation of our cultural and natural heritage.

"Our issue is that we are confused about our identity and are not proud of it the way we should be." Salman Rashid is of the opinion that brainwashing plays a key role in this identity crisis. Our disconnect with our heritage was started by the system under Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship and continues to this day. If the state decides to take on a counter narrative, it is capable of inculcating a sense of ownership of our diverse heritage in the country's people.

Talking about travelogues and a declining interest in them, Salman Rashid points out that in his experience there is a language barrier. A very small percentage of the local population reads English for the love of it. Urdu is still comparatively more widely read but there is no quality content available in it. What is available misleads people and does not fit the definition of what a travelogue is supposed to be. In Pakistan people in general visit tourist spots for two reasons: to get away from the heat or to go on a picnic. They are not interested in history, culture or architecture. Some of Salman Rashid's work is in the process of being translated and he hopes that people will develop an interest and appreciate the value of knowledge in his writing. However, he also fears that people might reject his work because it lacks the frivolity that they are accustomed to.

"A travel writer educates. He has to be a historian, geographer, geologist, anthropologist, sociologist and at the end maybe even a biographer."

As the only Pakistani who has seen the North Face of K2, Salman Rashid's trip, although inspired by Western explorers, ended up in his book and was a celebration of the people of Baltistan. "When you know your history, you also get to know your culture. Baltis have lost their language, which was a part of their identity some hundreds of years ago and they are known to be scared of these high altitudes. However, the fact is that the glaciers of the area are named in their language (Drand-mang, Khojolinsa, Chogoree etc), bearing testimony to the fact that Baltis travelled along this area well before any Western explorer."

Intellectually unspoiled folk wisdom has an inbuilt mechanism, where stories with nature preservation as their theme, are passed down from generation to generation. Preserving them and promoting local and international tourism, with a focus on environment and nature conservation needs to be promoted, while on-ground arrangements to accommodate the resulting influx of visitors also needs to be to ensured.

Though he does despair at times, Salman Rashid feels that there is still hope. A beacon of light, from individuals and organizations that are committed to the cause, will eventually guide us along the right path.

Also at Natura

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 17:52, ,

Why trees matter

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Our relationship with trees is disharmonious. We simply have no understanding of what trees do for us, for the environment and for global ecology on the whole. And then trees are divided between Hindu and Muslim trees. Either that, or some trees are paindu — uncool — and others not.

A few years ago, a bright, educated young woman in Karachi asked to be advised on which tree to plant in her family’s garden.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:52, ,

My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days