Late evening wasn’t the best time to interview him. Both William Dalrymple and his pursuer were exhausted. “10 minutes,” he said, looking not too convinced, as he saw the media conference room at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival crowded with young men and women with microphones, ready to ask him questions.
For my part, I wondered why I was so keen to talk to Dalrymple when he was clearly not in the mood, especially since I had interviewed him some years ago. That had been a brief, much-interrupted piece of conversation as he signed copies of his book White Mughals, and hastily remarked that the bit about Christopher Lee’s (“Dracula’s most memorable incarnation”) resemblance to Jinnah, whom the actor played in a later movie, could be changed in future editions of The Age of Kali.
And yet mapping Dalrymple’s journey can be an absorbing exercise. Since his first book, a travelogue which saw him paying homage to Kublai Khan, he has traversed diverse territory, mostly in the subcontinent, but in the Middle East as well. His new book on the First Anglo-Afghan War, The Return of A King: Shah Shuja and the First Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, will be out in September this year, coinciding with a new assignment: a visiting fellowship at Princeton University.
It is an ideal life: travelling and getting funding for research which in many cases has been ground breaking as in the case of White Mughals and The Last Mughal. “I have the time to research and write which is a great luxury,” he acknowledges and goes on to recount a lucky break as he worked on his latest book. “There was one breakthrough day in Kabul when, having failed to find anything particularly interesting in the Afghan National Archives I went with a young Afghan Fulbright scholar to a book bazaar. We found this old dealer who had bought up a lot of the princely and noble libraries in the 1970s when everyone was emigrating. And in one hour we got 12 major Afghan primary accounts of the First Afghan War. You become lucky if you keep pushing and looking.”
With his interest focused more on 18th and 19th century South Asia, Dalrymple seems to have abandoned plans to write a comprehensive history of the Mughals which he had earlier mentioned he was planning to do. “There are many other people who can do the Great Mughals including Persian scholars, although Aurangzeb remains a very intriguing character for me,” he says and agrees that there are several periods in Indian history that need original research. He identifies the Sultanate period as one where extensive work could produce a wealth of information.
Although he is deeply immersed in the South Asian people – Nine Lives is an essential read – and the history of this region, perhaps his most engrossing book is From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium where, in his search for the roots of Christianity, he follows the trail of the sixth-century monk John Moschos. Until some years ago, Dalrymple was not emotionally prepared to delve further into what he saw in the Middle East, especially in the context of Palestinian suffering. But time heals and today he is “very excited by the way the story is moving. The Iraqi Christians have disappeared, and things are going very badly in Egypt, with anti-Coptic riots in Alexandria so there is a definite possibility of redoing that book and perhaps including a bit more on Iraq.”
For all the xenophobia that has come to characterise the two civilisations, Dalrymple is surprisingly hopeful when asked about the deepening divide between the West and Islam. “It is possible for a clash of civilisations to be provoked if there’s enough ill will on both sides, but it’s not necessary and it’s not happening yet. There was a point during the time of the Bush administration, when the neocons were full of malevolence against the Islamic world, when it seemed that it could be a possibility. But we have moved away in recent years. And although Obama has been a disappointment in a variety of ways, the tone coming out of Washington is far more Islamophilic.” It does not reflect “the Islamophobia of the Bush administration. There’s an openness to Islam that wasn’t there. The danger seems to be diminishing at the moment. Al-Qaeda is in decline and there are democratic possibilities in the Arab world. The clash of civilisations looks less likely now than it did following 9/11.”
How true is that? One can’t say at this point as the West appraises its ties with the Islamic world, and the Muslims, their confidence shattered after 9/11, finally do some soul-searching. But Dalrymple has always believed in East-West reconciliation, and has given several instances in his historical works where this has been possible, where different cultures have blended and harmony has prevailed until such time that narrow beliefs have hastened the coming of darkness. The years ahead will show how valid or otherwise his optimism is. In the meantime, Dalrymple himself will remain a work in progress. His path will be worth charting.