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Travelling to Find Out

Updated: 1 day ago

Hanif Kureishi

From The Archives: A personal essay by Hanif Kureishi published in our sixth volume. Get your copy here.

One night, my friend Stephen Frears and I went on a boat trip down the Bosporus with about a dozen models, several transvestites, someone who appeared to be wearing a beekeeper’s outfit as a form of daily wear, the editor of Dazed and Confused, Jefferson Hack, and Franca Sozzani, the late editor of Italian Vogue—plus other fashionistas. We were in the European capital of culture, but it was like a fabulous night at the London club Kinky Gerlinky transferred to Istanbul and financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

At one end of the boat, in his wheelchair, was Gore Vidal. At the other end was V.S. Naipaul. It must have been June 2010 because I remember catching Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ against Germany on a TV in the hotel lobby just before we dashed out.

 A pencil sketch by Fatema Shahid depicting three men on a boat in the Bosporus, with a cityscape and a bridge in the background, illuminated by a large streetlamp.
Bosporus by Fatema Shahid

As the high-tech drum and bass beat on, and the Ottoman palaces drifted by, we godless, depraved materialists and hooligans became more drunk, stoned and unruly. Naipaul, with his entourage, kept to his end of this ship of fools, and Vidal to his. We had been instructed to keep the two aged warriors apart, and I don’t believe they exchanged a single word during the four days we were in Turkey. Vidal was accompanied by two ‘nephews’, strong young men in singlets and shorts who took him everywhere. He was unhappy, usually violently drunk, occasionally witty, but mostly looking for fights and saying vile things.

Vidia, in love and cheerful at last, accompanied by his wife the magnificent Nadira, remained curious, ever observant and tight-lipped. Earlier, despite his supposed animus against female writers, he had been keen to talk about Agatha Christie and how fortunate she was never to run out of material. In contrast, from a ‘small place’, he himself had had to go on the road at the end of the 1970s, to explore the ‘Islamic awakening’, as he put it. He had been “travelling to find out.”

I had packed Naipaul’s Among the Believers in my suitcase, and turned to it as a kind of guide, when I first went to Pakistan in the early 1980s to stay with one of my uncles in Karachi. I wanted to see my large family and get a glimpse of the hopeful country to which another uncle, Omar—a journalist and cricket commentator—had gone. Like my father and most of his nine brothers, Omar had been born in India; he had been educated in the US with his school friend Zulfikar Bhutto, finally turning up in ‘that geographical oddity’, Pakistan, in the early 1950s. He said in his memoir, Home to Pakistan: “There was in the early Pakistan something of the Pilgrim Fathers who had arrived in America on the Mayflower.”

At night, alone in a backroom of my uncle’s house, I suffered from insomnia, feeling something of a stranger myself. In an attempt to place myself, I began to work on what became My Beautiful Laundrette, writing it out on any odd piece of paper I could find.

In Britain we were worried about Margaret Thatcher and her deconstruction of the welfare state of which I had been a beneficiary. I wanted to do some kind of satire on her ideas, but in Karachi they barely thought about Thatcher at all, except, to my dismay, as someone who stood for ‘freedom’. My uncles and their circle were more concerned with the increasing Islamisation of their country. Omar had written in Home to Pakistan, “There is an appearance of a government and there is the reality of where real power lies. I had serious doubts that we would become an open society and that democracy would take root.”

Zulfikar Bhutto had been hanged in 1979 and his daughter was under house arrest just up the street, at 70 Clifton Road, a property with a huge wall around it and policemen on every corner. One thing was for sure: my family, like the nation’s founder Jinnah, had envisaged Pakistan as a democratic home for Muslims, a refuge for those who felt embattled in India, not as an Islamic state or dictatorship of the pious.

Naipaul, who in the late 1970s travelled around Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan, had grasped early on that this distinction no longer held up.


Author Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi, CBE, is a British playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker and novelist of South Asian and English descent. The Times included Kureishi in its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

Fatema Shahid is a contemporary visual artist who works in Lahore. She completed her BFA from the University College of Art and Design, Lahore, in 2018 with a major in painting and her MA in visual arts from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2020. She exhibited her work twice at the Young Artists’ Exhibition and at the 3rd National Exhibition of Visual Arts, Alhamra, Lahore. Her works, mostly in oils, acrylics and graphite pencil, primarily revolve around the conflicts and politics within the family and the psychology of domestic life.

Bios for archival pieces are reprinted as they appeared in the print volume and may not reflect the updated activities of the author and artist.



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