Tahir Shah

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Tahir Shah
Tahir Shah
Tahir Shah
Born (1966-11-16) 16 November 1966 (age 55)
London, England, United Kingdom
OccupationWriter, documentary maker
SubjectTravel, exploration, Arab World, cross-cultural studies
RelativesShah family

Tahir Shah (Persian: طاهر شاه‎, Gujarati: તાહિર શાહ; Sayyid Tahir al-Hashimi (Arabic: سيد طاهر الهاشمي); born 16 November 1966) is a British author, journalist and documentary maker of Afghan-Indian descent. He lives in Casablanca, Morocco.


Tahir Shah was born into the saadat of Paghman, an ancient and respected family hailing from Afghanistan.[1] Bestowed with further lands and ancestral titles by the British Raj during the Great Game, a number of Shah's more recent ancestors were born in the principality of Sardhana, in northern India – which they ruled as Nawabs.[2]

His mother, Cynthia Kabraji,[3] was of Zoroastrian Parsi descent and his father was the Sufi teacher and writer Idries Shah. Both his grandfathers were respected literary figures in their own right: Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah[4] on his father's side, and the Parsi poet Fredoon Kabraji,[5] on his mother's side. His elder sister is the documentary filmmaker Saira Shah,[6] and his twin sister is the author Safia Nafisa Shah. Numerous other members of Shah's family have been successful authors, including his aunt Amina Shah, and his Scottish grandmother Elizabeth Louise MacKenzie.

Shah is descended from the Afghan warlord and statesman Jan Fishan Khan.[7] In 1995 Tahir Shah married to the India-born graphic designer, Rachana Shah[8] (née Devidayal[3]), with whom he has two children – Ariane Shah[9] and Timur Shah.[10] The marriage ended in 2017, although the two remain close friends.


Shah was born in London and brought up largely in the county of Kent, where his family lived at Langton House,[11] a Georgian mansion in the village of Langton Green near Royal Tunbridge Wells. The property had been owned previously by the family of Lord Robert Baden-Powell,[12] founder of the Boy Scout Movement. Shah has described how, as a child, he played in the woods which are said to have first interested Baden-Powell in the outdoors.[11]

Shah's father, the writer and thinker Idries Shah, surrounded himself with a diverse coterie of people, most of whom were interested in his published work. They included Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, poet Robert Graves, American novelists J. D. Salinger[13] and Lisa Alther, animator Richard Williams,[14] as well as the pioneer of radar "Coppy" Laws, the garden designer Russell Page,[15] and the actor Walter Gotell. Shah maintains that much of his education derived from spending time with such a varied group of people.

His first appearance on television was in the 1972 BBC documentary about his father, Dream Walkers: One Pair of Eyes,[16][17] in which Shah, his sisters, and their friends, are seen listening to Idries Shah tell the tale of The Lion Who Saw Himself in the Water.

Shah has described how his Latin tutor appeared at the front door "white as a sheet",[11] at having spotted the renowned classicist Robert Graves digging a ditch at the front of Langton House; and how Doris Lessing encouraged him to read folktales and, later, enthused him to travel.

During his childhood, Shah and his sisters would be taken to Morocco for extended periods, where his grandfather lived until his death in November 1969.[18] Described in his book The Caliph's House, the journeys introduced Shah to "a realm straight out of The Arabian Nights."[19]


Tahir Shah attended Rose Hill Preparatory School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent – where Lord Baden Powell had also been a student.[20] He has described the school as "a throwback to the Victorian age – sadistic and brutal in the extreme."[21] At 13, he was sent to Bryanston School,[11] near Blandford Forum, Dorset. He has written about his inability to keep up, as a result of "profound dyslexia". Despite this, he has been rated as the fifth most successful person to be been educated at the school.[22]

Aged 17, Shah learnt to fly in Florida, and graduated with an FAA Private Pilot's Licence.[21] He attended university in San Diego, London and Nairobi – where he studied African dictatorships at the United States International University. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations in 1987.[21]

Shah has detailed how his parents planned to steer him towards the diplomatic service, assuming he would not have the ability to be writer. Accordingly, he was "groomed for the world of diplomacy."[11]

He has described how his father strove to teach his children through stories.[23] These included the escapades of Nasrudin, the wise fool of Sufi folklore, as well as tales of Antar and Abla, and the epic treasury that forms The Thousand and One Nights.[23] During their childhood, Shah and his sisters were encouraged to solve problems for themselves. When they wanted money to buy chocolate, their father showed them how to gather seeds from the garden, and sell them from an old pram in the village.[23]

From an early age, Shah would be given work by his father including "conducting research, as well as editing and writing texts." His first publication, The Middle East Bedside Book was a collaboration between them.

Personal life[edit]

Priding himself on being unconventional, Shah rails against society for "churning out cookie cutter people who live cookie cutter lives." He maintains that "the easiest way to have an interesting life is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing."

Such methodology was the basis for uprooting his wife Rachana, and his two infant children from a small apartment in London's East End, and relocating to a mansion called "Dar Khalifa",[24] said by locals to be haunted by Jinn, "set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown." The adventure formed the basis for Shah's book The Caliph's House (2006). Shah has written widely about Casablanca[25] and Morocco,[26] and is regarded as an expert on both, as well as on India,[27] and a number of other destinations. His life at Dar Khalifa was widely covered in international media.


Tahir Shah is a prolific author of books, documentaries, book introductions, peer reviewed academic articles, and book reviews. The vast majority of Shah's books can be considered travel literature, with the exception of his 2012 release Timbuctoo.[28] Shah's first published book was Cultural Research, written for the London-based Institute for Cultural Research. One of his more notable works is Trail of Feathers, an account of his trip through Peru, Machu Picchu, the Incas and Cusco. Another book, In Search of King Solomon's Mines, searching for undiscovered mines known only in folklore. Other books like In Arabian Nights and Travels with Myself are mostly about the author's journeys through exotic locations. His first traditional travelogue was in 1995 with Beyond the Devil's Teeth, covering a trip through Africa, India and much of Latin America.

Shah has written book reviews for The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Spectator. As well as writing and film making, Shah writes screen material and co-wrote Journey to Mecca,[29] an IMAX film charting the first journey made by Ibn Battuta to Mecca for the Hajj, in 1325. In addition, he reviews for a selection of other media on both sides of the Atlantic, and writes pieces for the radio, such as The Journey,[30] which was read on BBC Radio 3.

In the years before he turned his hand primarily to book writing, Shah wrote a large number of serious reportage-type magazine features, highlighting the lives of the voiceless in society, especially those of women. These included pieces about women on Death Row, widows who cleared mines in Cambodia, the trapped lives of bonded labourers in India, and the women-only police stations in Brazil, known as "Delegacia da Mulher" (Woman's Police Station). He continues to write journalistic pieces, especially aimed at drawing attention to causes he believes deserve public attention.[31][32][33][34][35][36]

After having published a number of books with traditional publishers, Shah made the move to self publishing in 2011 with his print-on-demand book Travels With Myself, which was published using Lulu.com. He later took his self publishing efforts a step further in 2012 with the release of Timbuctoo and again in 2013 with Scorpion Soup, two limited edition hardcovers that were designed by his wife Rachana.


Shah regards family friend Doris Lessing as a key influence, as well as his aunt Amina Shah. In addition, Shah maintains a close association with a number of travel writers and novelists, including Robert Twigger, Tarquin Hall, Jason Webster, Rory Maclean, Jason Elliot, and Marcel Theroux.[37] Shah himself has written about his fascination with the works of Bruce Chatwin, especially his book The Songlines,[38] as well as with a range of the classic nineteenth century explorers, such as Samuel White Baker, Heinrich Barth and Sir Richard Burton. He had a close friendship with Wilfred Thesiger, whom he considered a mentor and a source of inspiration.[39]

Shah's father Idries Shah and English poet Robert Graves were close friends and confidants, and for a number of years, Spike Milligan and Robert Graves had a correspondence. The highlights were later published in a book called Dear Robert, Dear Spike.[40] Shortly after Tahir Shah's birth, in a letter dated 6 February 1967, Robert Graves wrote to Spike Milligan: "I may be over in a few weeks to help two young Afghan Arabs named Tahir Shah Sayid and his twin sister with a name so beautiful that I forget it. He's the nearest to Mahomet in a straight line, of any Arab baby in existence. Isn't Tahir a splendid name."

I can hear 'Tahir, Tahir'

Loud & clear
Shouted all the way from Kabul

Without the least trouble.

Kabul is locally pronounced to rhyme with 'trouble', not 'a 'bull', and in the book the surname Shah is misspelled as 'Shar'.[40]

Literary style[edit]

Shah's style is one of simple prose and overwhelming humour. He has said that his style of using short blocks of text, with a concluding denouement was influenced by Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman,[41] which he first read in 1988; and that he writes with the intention to educate and inform his readers, while at the same time amusing them.[42][43] In this capacity, one could liken Shah's work to the literary devise employed in several books by his father, Idries Shah,[44] who used the wise fool Mulla Nasreddin to illustrate deeper ideas in human understanding.

Shah avoids "self-congratulatory" literary festivals, although he had appeared as a speaker at a number of them in the past – including at Hay-on-Wye,[45] Wigtown,[46] Shute, Oxford, Deià,[47] Gibraltar,[48] and Vilnius.[49] He writes on a rigid schedule, keeping to a daily target. At any one time he has ‘between 25 and 25 writing projects in development’. Shah's earlier books fell into the travel literature genre, with more recent work being regarded as straight fiction. Most of Shah's work blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, and Shah himself condemns ‘the way Occidental society draws a rigid line in the sand between one and the other. He champions authors such as Bruce Chatwin and Rory Maclean who have walked a line between the two.

Political involvement[edit]

Imprisonment in Pakistan[edit]

In July 2005 (a week after the 7 July London bombings) Shah and two colleagues from Caravan Film in London were arrested in Peshawar in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and held without charge in solitary confinement in a torture prison. Much of the time they were handcuffed, stripped virtually naked, and blindfolded. After sixteen days of interrogations in a "fully equipped torture room," Shah and his colleagues were released. The Pakistani government agreed that they had done nothing wrong. Tahir Shah gave an interview which was screened on British TV's Channel 4 News, and published an article in the British Sunday Times about the ordeal. Shah has publicly maintained his affection for Pakistan, despite the rough treatment he and his film crew received at the hands of the Pakistani secret services. The illegal custody earned Shah and his film crew a mention in the United States Department of State's 2005 report on Pakistan's human rights practices.[50] The news story came back into the spotlight in July 2008, when a British MP claimed that the British government had 'outsourced' the torture of British citizens to Pakistani security agencies.[51][52][53]

East-West bridge[edit]

Tahir Shah is also a champion of what he calls "the East-West Bridge".[54] In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, Tahir Shah began to devote a great deal of time and energy into establishing and promoting a "cultural bridge" made up by those who, like him, are both from the East and from the West.[55] One example of this work is the Qantara Foundation (from "qantara" meaning "bridge" in Arabic). He has spoken and written on the idea that people such as he have a responsibility to "show the East to the West, and the West to the East," highlighting the common cultural heritage of the two, and working towards a common goal.[55] Shah's greatest interest within the east–west theme is probably the subject of the legacy of science in medieval Islam, and its role in creating a foundation for the Renaissance. He has lectured publicly on the subject and believes strongly in the importance of drawing attention to the polymath poet-scientists from the Golden Age of Islam.[56]



  1. ^ Zada, John. "A Beacon of Sanity in Our Age of Polarity: On Contemporary Sufism and the Works of Idries Shah". Los Angeles Review Of Books. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  2. ^ Staff. "Idries Shah(Author)". City Of Oxford School Association. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  3. ^ a b Staff. "Shah, Tahir 1966". encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  4. ^ Staff. "Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah - Making Britain". The Open University.
  5. ^ Staff. "Fredoon Kabraji - Making Britain". The Open University.
  6. ^ Saira Shah (2007). The Storyteller's Daughter. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307429407. Retrieved 18 December 2007.
  7. ^ user, private. "Nawab Bhadur Syed Muhammad Jan Fishan Khan". Geni.com. Retrieved 24 May 2018.
  8. ^ Shah, Rachana. "Rachana Shah". Rhode Island School Of Design. Retrieved 29 October 2012.
  9. ^ "Tahir Shah is interviewed by Ariane Shah". Youtube. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
  10. ^ "Timur Shah Interviews Author Tahir Shah on Writing and Travel". Youtube. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
  11. ^ a b c d e Twigger, Robert. "In Conversation With Tahir Shah". Robert Twigger. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  12. ^ Churchill, Penny. "Lord Baden-Powell's childhood home up for sale, with cricket pitch and nuclear bunker". Country Life. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  13. ^ Sufism: ‘a natural antidote to fanaticism’ in The Guardian
  14. ^ Reel History: Richard Williams Productions (05 May 2017)
  15. ^ Russell Page: the most famous garden designer no one's ever heard of in Telegraph(21 March 2015)
  16. ^ One Pair of Eyes: Dreamwalkers (1970) (10 September 2013)
  17. ^ "One Pair of Eyes: Dreamwalkers". Youtube. Retrieved 6 July 2018.
  18. ^ Shah, Tahir. "My Grandfather in Tangier". National Geographic. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  19. ^ Denning, Greg. "Tahir Shah". World School Academy. Retrieved 27 September 2016.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ Robert Baden-Powell (2015). Paddle Your Own Canoe or Tip for Boys. Read Books Ltd. ISBN 9781473394902. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  21. ^ a b c Kasem, Abu. "Tahir Shah, a Rara Avis". Abukasem. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  22. ^ Staff. "Famous Alumni of Braynston School". Ranker.
  23. ^ a b c Tahir Shah (2009). In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams. Bantam Books. in arabian nights tahir.
  24. ^ "Dar Khalifa: 5 minute tour of Tahir Shah's home". Youtube. Retrieved 11 June 2011.
  25. ^ Shah, Tahir. "A Local's Guide to Casablanca". National Geographic. Retrieved 22 August 2016.
  26. ^ Tahir Shah - Morocco Travel Blog
  27. ^ Shah, Tahir. "Know before you go: India". National Geographic. Retrieved 23 November 2018.
  28. ^ Wren, Matilda. "Let's Meet". Archived from the original on 14 February 2013. Retrieved 13 September 2012.
  29. ^ Staff. "Journey to Mecca". Cosmic Picture. Archived from the original on 19 September 2017. Retrieved 23 September 2008. On IMDB main details, there is explicit co-writer credit to Tahir Shah.
  30. ^ "Stopover Stories – The Journey". locatetv.com. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 24 September 2008.
  31. ^ Trouble in Timbuktu in Newsweek (3 September 2012)
  32. ^ Across the Continents in Prospect (18 July 2012)
  33. ^ Beijing's lost streets in The Guardian (1 July 2012)
  34. ^ Travel writers' favourite tiny and unusual airports in The Guardian (8 June 2012)
  35. ^ Tafraoute: Morocco's Berber heartland in The Guardian (25 May 2012)
  36. ^ Ifrane, Morocco's winter idyll in The National (24 November 2011)
  37. ^ Shah, Tahir. "Tahir Shah". Retrieved 11 September 2012.
  38. ^ Staff (4 December 2007). "No particular place to go". BBC. Retrieved 23 September 2008.
  39. ^ Shah, Tahir, Beyond the Devil's Teeth, ISBN 0-86304-029-2
  40. ^ a b Scudamore, Pauline (1991). Dear Robert, Dear Spike. Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd. p. 60. ISBN 0-86299-648-1.
  41. ^ "Tahir Shah, a Rara Avis". Abukasem. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  42. ^ Staff. "Sorcerer's Apprentice Review". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  43. ^ Kat. "Tahir Shah". Reflections. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  44. ^ Staff. "In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah". The Bookbag. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  45. ^ "Tahir Shah - Hay Festival". Hay Festival. Retrieved 29 May 2008.
  46. ^ "Wigtownn Book Festival 2012: Tahir Shah:'Publishers have lost the plot'". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 4 October 2012.
  47. ^ "Deià organizes a literary festival such as Welsh Hay and Wye". Vilaweb. Retrieved 8 September 2004.
  48. ^ "The Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival". Issuu. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
  49. ^ "Author's book signing with Tahir Shah in Vilnius". Youtube. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
  50. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005 – Pakistan". United States Department of State. Retrieved 24 September 2008.
  51. ^ Cobain, Ian (15 July 2008). "Torture: MPs call for inquiry into MI5 role. New allegations that abuse of Britons was outsourced to Pakistani agencies". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 24 September 2008.
  52. ^ Staff (15 July 2008). "MPs urge probe into torture claim". BBC. Retrieved 24 September 2008.
  53. ^ Staff (15 July 2008). "MPs demand torture investigation". Whitehall & Westminster World Civil Service Network. Retrieved 24 September 2008.[permanent dead link]
  54. ^ Staff. "Destination ... anywhere". New Zealand Times. Retrieved 24 September 2008.[dead link]
  55. ^ a b Staff (30 January 2010). "Harmony: East and West, Tahir Shah". Caravan Festival of the Arts. Archived from the original on 4 February 2012. Retrieved 11 October 2011.
  56. ^ Staff (4 October 2008). "Lectures – Autumn 2008: The House of Wisdom, Tahir Shah". The Institute for Cultural Research. Archived from the original on 14 April 2012. Retrieved 11 October 2011.

External links[edit]

Media related to Tahir Shah at Wikimedia Commons