Tahir Shah

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Tahir Shah
Tahir Shah
Tahir Shah
Born (1966-11-16) 16 November 1966 (age 51)
London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation Writer, documentary maker
Subject Travel, exploration, Arab World, cross-cultural studies
Spouse Rachana Shah
Children 2
Relatives Shah 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.

Family and personal life[edit]

Shah was born into a family of saadat who had their ancestral home at Paghman, not far from Kabul.[1] His mother is of Indian Parsi ethnicity[2] and his father was the Sufi teacher and writer Idries Shah.[3] His elder sister is the documentary filmmaker Saira Shah.[3] He also has a twin sister, author Safia Nafisa Shah.[4]

Tahir Shah was born and brought up in Britain.[3] His father believed strongly in lifelong learning, which influenced his literature. Tahir Shah was educated at Bryanston School, Dorset, England[3] and at universities in London, Nairobi and San Diego. In 2003, sick of living in a London apartment, Shah moved to Morocco along with his wife Rachana and their two small children, Ariane and Timur, where they bought a crumbling mansion in Casablanca located in the middle of a huge shantytown.[3] The Caliph's House (2006) charts the highs and lows of their integration into their new life.


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.[5] 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,[6] 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,[7] 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.[8][9][10][11][12][13]

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—the latter now in her nineties. 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.[14] Shah himself has written about his fascination with the works of Bruce Chatwin, especially his book The Songlines,[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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'.[17]

Literary style[edit]

Shah's style is one of simple prose and overwhelming humour,[18][19][20] with an intention to educate and inform his readers, while at the same time amusing them.[21] In this capacity, one could liken Shah's work to the literary devise employed in several books by his father, Idries Shah,[22] who used the wise fool Mulla Nasruddin to illustrate deeper ideas in human understanding.

Shah avoids "self-congratulatory" literary festivals.[5] He writes on a rigid schedule.[5]

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.[23] 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 UK citizens to Pakistani security agencies.[24][25][26]

East-West Bridge[edit]

Tahir Shah is also a champion of what he calls "the East-West Bridge".[27] 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.[28] 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.[28] 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.[29]



  1. ^ Moorhouse, Geoffrey (26 October 2003). "From Kent to Kabul". New York Times. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  2. ^ Saira Shah (2003). The Storyteller's Daughter. Random House Digital, Inc. Retrieved 17 September 2011. My mothers family background, which is Parsee from India, rarely got a look in. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Owens, Mitchell (30 March 2006). "Starting Over in a Caliph's Castle". New York Times. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  4. ^ Review of Afghan Caravan by Safia Shah Archived 27 September 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ a b c Wren, Matilda. "Let's Meet". Retrieved 13 September 2012. 
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "Stopover Stories – The Journey". locatetv.com. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 24 September 2008. 
  8. ^ http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/09/02/trouble-in-timbuktu-as-an-extremist-militia-takes-control.html Trouble in Timbuktu] in Newsweek (3 September 2012)
  9. ^ Across the Continents in Prospect (18 July 2012)
  10. ^ Beijing's lost streets in The Guardian (1 July 2012)
  11. ^ Travel writers' favourite tiny and unusual airports in The Guardian (8 June 2012)
  12. ^ Tafraoute: Morocco's Berber heartland in The Guardian (25 May 2012)
  13. ^ Ifrane, Morocco's winter idyll in The National (24 November 2011)
  14. ^ Shah, Tahir. "Tahir Shah". Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  15. ^ Staff (4 December 2007). "No particular place to go". BBC. Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  16. ^ Shah, Tahir, Beyond the Devil's Teeth, ISBN 0-86304-029-2
  17. ^ a b Scudamore, Pauline (1991). Dear Robert, Dear Spike. Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd. p. 60. ISBN 0-86299-648-1. 
  18. ^ Staff. "Sorcerer's Apprentice Review". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  19. ^ Kat. "Tahir Shah". Reflections. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  20. ^ Smith, Oliver. "Timbuctoo by Tahir Shah". Lonely Planet Traveller. Archived from the original on 27 September 2012. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  21. ^ Mclean, Rory (2 June 2008). "Morocco: true stories". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  22. ^ Staff. "In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah". The Bookbag. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  23. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005 – Pakistan". United States Department of State. Retrieved 24 September 2008. 
  24. ^ Cobain, Ian (15 July 2008). "Torture: MPs call for inquiry into MI5 role. New allegations that abuse of Britons was outsourced to Pakistani agencies". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 24 September 2008. 
  25. ^ Staff (15 July 2008). "MPs urge probe into torture claim". BBC. Retrieved 24 September 2008. 
  26. ^ Staff (15 July 2008). "MPs demand torture investigation". Whitehall & Westminster World Civil Service Network. Retrieved 24 September 2008. [permanent dead link]
  27. ^ Staff. "Destination ... anywhere". New Zealand Times. Retrieved 24 September 2008. [dead link]
  28. ^ 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. 
  29. ^ Staff (4 October 2008). "Lectures – Autumn 2008: The House of Wisdom, Tahir Shah". The Institute for Cultural Research. Retrieved 11 October 2011. 

External links[edit]