If there is one thing that Shahzad Aziz does not want us to forget, it is that people in the Middle East are human beings too. A successful professional, Aziz throws in his job to engage in a once-in-a-lifetime journey through the Middle East, chalking up visas to two thirds of the Axis of Evil on the way. The result is a personal reflection on the reality of the human voices hidden beneath the political rhetoric and media hype about the erroneously named ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and the ‘War on Terror’. He names his book with the curious title In the Land of the Ayatollahs: Tupac Shakur is King. He needs the lengthy title to capture the contradictions and complexities of a region that is caricatured as full of fist-waving mullah’s and miserable oppressed women in long black cloaks.
The book is part travelogue, part recounting of opinions of the people he meets on his journey, and part analysis of the complexities of the confused relationships between the dominant world powers and the Middle East. It takes time for Aziz to find his rhythm, as he tries to balance the narrative of his own travel experiences, the opinions of those he meets and his deconstruction of a kaleidoscope of issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to American corporate imperialism.
The book is a well-articulated example of the range and depth of issues that burn in the hearts of many Muslims. Aziz is fully in his stride as he outlines his own historical analysis of such topics, and his ability to convey his opinions and rationale shines. You may not agree with him, but as a voice reflecting many unheard young British Muslims, his discussions must be taken seriously. Where the book struggles is in conveying the travel experience that the reader longs for. Why does he not meet any Ayatullah’s in Iran despite the name of the book? Why does he not visit the mosque of Sayeda Zainab in Damascus, despite that being one of the great draws of the city?
Aziz is personable and reflective, and his sheer enthusiasm and dedication to his task will carry you through the book. For Muslims, this book will give voice and clarity to the questions they are asked. For everyone, Aziz offers the chance to create a personal connection to the smells, images and sounds of a world that is full of people just like us.
Shahzad Aziz talks to Spirit21 about his book, In the Land of the Ayatollahs.
The travel writing market has an explosion of books. What did you think your book would add to the discussion about the Middle East?
In the Land of the Ayatollahs is a series of honest reflections written from the viewpoint of a Muslim from the West as he travels to the Muslim heartlands in the East. The ‘journey’ from Tehran to Jerusalem is indeed physical, but also intellectual and personal. Writing in the style of a travelogue, I use my travels as a canvas to explore issues as diverse as globalization and identity, to the War on Terror and of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict.
You also covered topics like the Salman Rushdie ‘affair’, and the need, or otherwise, for a Reformation in Islam. Why did you think this was relevant to a book about the Middle East?
One of the central themes of the book is to try to explain why the Muslim world and the Western world can see the same event or issue so differently. In this respect the Salman Rushdie Affair provided me with a really good prism in which to explore this issue. It also allowed me to put forward to the Western reader a critique of the Satanic Verses novel.
The issue of whether Islam needs to go through a reformation is also very emotive. To some, simply asking the question is offensive and blasphemous. To others, it is the answer to many of the problems within the Muslim world today. During my travels it was a topic that came up over and over again. I knew that if I overlooked such an important topic, then I would compromise the integrity of my project and my intentions in writing this book in the first place.
What was the thing that most surprised you during your travels?
Wherever we may live in our global village, the 21st century human being is a multitude of complimentary and contradictory identities – identities that we create and nurture ourselves and others which are imposed upon us, whether we like it or not. To the Arab and Israeli border police I possessed all the hallmarks of a sophisticated jihadist terrorist and therefore needed to be temporarily detained and interrogated, but to the shop sellers in the bazaars and souks of the Middle East, I was a dopey Western tourist, who was there to be fleeced.
Spirit21’s readers are an adventurous bunch. What one place in the Middle East do you recommend to them as a must-visit?
Esfahan in Iran is a truly beautiful city, Muslim architecture at its best. Damascus in Syria is also an amazing city. In fact just thinking about it makes me want to go there.
How do you hope people will be inspired by your book?
I didn’t set out to inspire people. If there is one point I wish to make, it is to undermine the, ‘them and us’ and ‘with us or against us’, discourses. Thankfully, the world is an infinitely more complex, diverse and sane place than that being advocated.