The Silk Road has long caught the imagination of travelers and has hence been the subject of interest by many writers, the majority of whom at least in English have hailed from the West. Iftikhar Malik, a professor of modern history at Bath Spa University, in his 2020 book, The Silk Road and Beyond, offers a personal perspective on contemporary travels as a Muslim scholar to Central Asia and beyond. Malik draws on four decades of travel and writes from the lived experiences of a curious academic. In his introduction, he writes that his book
attempts to reconstruct deeper and munificent aspects of Muslim histories and lived experiences that either stay ignored by the writers and travellers or are bundled out as crowded, densely populated, and unsafe no-go areas. In some cases, some of these cities are routinely and lifelessly defined as tourist destinations where mechanical details deprive a reader of their cultural and historical richness.
In part I, entitled “Memoirs”, Malik writes about the histories of people and places he has encountered over his lifetime and begins his story in a town in Pakistan. A keen observer, he writes sensitively as he employs a storytelling approach when discussing people in the book. A particularly enjoyable chapter is devoted to his senior-most cousin Hakim Mohammed Nawaz Khan, known widely as “Hakimji”. Hakimji, a traditional physician trained in Old Delhi, leaves his family to marry his brother’s wife and takes on guardianship of her children. Despite the obvious family schisms, life goes on for the couple as they lead a blissful married life and Hakimji continues to serve the needs of his patients far and wide.
“Memoirs” then shifts to Malik’s graduate days at the leafy campus of Michigan State University and then fast forward a few decades where he attends an intimate evening held in honor of the Persian poet Hafez at the Nehru Centre, London. Speeches are made by leading scholars, to mark the occasions followed by recitation of poetic verses, accompanied by music composed especially for the evening.
In part II, “Traversing the Silk Road”, the writer’s journey on the Silk Road begins the moment he arrives by train to Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Malik marvels at the monumental architecture adorned with dazzling tilework that has entranced many a visitor to the region:
Mir-i-Arab, with its enchanting exterior and undiminished internal beauty, is a captive piece in human devotion to aesthetics and could be characterized as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world which, despite its constant usage as a residential seminary, has maintained its originality and majesty.
As a Persian speaker, Malik manages to converse with the locals and the book comes to life through these encounters. Throughout the book, as he travels from city to city, he writes social commentary that reflects these experiences:
In post-Soviet years, Bukharans are once again trying to find a balancing point between their long-time traditional mores and a seductive modernization. While the monumental vestiges from the past engender a sense of awe and respect, the exigencies for a respectable survival equally lead one towards a greater share of modernity. Some people may still harbour nostalgia for the Soviet system, a major component of Europeanisation, while others tracing their rootedness in their Muslim and Asian identities, may try to recover a ‘lost heritage’ and thus the quest goes on.
The next chapters in this section document his travels to Samarkand, Jerusalem, Turkey, Isfahan, Cordoba, Morocco, and, finally, Sicily. Factual histories blend with Malik’s own appreciation of contemporary sights and sounds. While chapters on the many places featured in Silk Roads and Beyond are an important part of the author’s collective experience, the volume could have benefited with fewer chapters on places to offer the reader a more localized insight of travel within the Central Asian region or the Persianate world. However, I appreciate that the author needed to include all these cities to meet the aims and objectives for the book as stated earlier in his Introduction.
In part III, “Nestling in the West”, the writer arrives back in the UK and includes chapters that reflect on his experiences as a professor of modern history, living in the West. Through the lens of an academic, the reader glimpses charmed scholarly life in the city of Oxford and gains an appreciation of institutions; vast repositories of important manuscripts and artefacts that were once used to train British colonial officials destined for careers in Britain’s far-reaching former colonies.
Through observations and memories, The Silk Road and Beyond certainly brings a unique perspective to travels through Central Asia and beyond. Malik weaves together history, philosophy, politics, literature, and poetry of a vast region while offering insights into challenges faced by those living in the contemporary world.