‘Whatever journey he takes us on, Iqbal Ahmed is exemplary company, his sensitive eye ranging over a world in flux. I can’t think of a modern travel writer who is better company.’
Sameer Rahim, 2020 Booker Prize judge
Iqbal Ahmed’s fifth book of non-fiction, The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey, describes his excursions to four continental countries where he experiences hospitality as it is manifested in differing cultures and conditions. His wide-ranging travels include visits to Milan, Venice, Granada, Paris, Barcelona and Zurich.
He is responsive not only to how ordinary people live but also to the architecture and works of art he encounters. And having himself worked for twenty years in the hospitality industry, he writes from an unusual dual vantage point: as concierge at a London Hotel, and as hotel guest and cultural observer on his own foreign travels. The book has another dimension: the comparisons made between aspects of the cities visited and the memories they evoke of the town of his birth, Srinagar in Kashmir, where the concept of hospitality is elevated to a high moral principle.
Interwoven with interesting historical facts, the book provides an informal survey of both the art and business of hospitality while also exploring its more poetic aspects.
Iqbal Ahmed visited these European cities in recent years but his book is inevitably coloured by the fact that it was written during the Covid-19 pandemic. He addresses related pressing issues of our times such as over-tourism, climate change and Brexit. He also reflects on how the hospitality industry will fare in the post-pandemic future.
Written from a uniquely cosmopolitan standpoint, this book is a perceptive personal report from the sidelines of a changing international order.
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‘A hidden gem waiting to be discovered.’
Arts & Books Editor
The latest book by Iqbal Ahmed, who was born and raised in Kashmir, is a love letter to London, where he has lived and worked for the last twenty-six years.
In his previous, critically acclaimed books, Iqbal focused on the hopes and predicaments of immigrant friends and acquaintances in London, Britain and Germany. In this, his fourth book, he reflects on London itself and his personal reactions to it over the years he has spent as a hotel worker, dedicated cyclist, coffeehouse habitué, and father of an inquisitive young boy.
His perspective as an immigrant enables him to make unusual comparisons and to see London from unfamiliar angles: what others might overlook as trivial, he finds interesting, even extraordinary. The book includes chapters on such themes as the vagaries of borders, cycling in London at night, the allure of hotels, travelling on the London tube, and a fascinating portrait of a single affluent street, The Bishops Avenue in Hampstead.
The reader is taken on many an interesting detour as Iqbal’s observations weave back and forth in time and location, his impressions of London evoking potent memories of his childhood and youth in Srinagar.
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‘Reveals a reality that cannot be captured by mainstream reportage.’
Iqbal Ahmed’s third book, Beatrice’s Last Smile, completes what is in effect an informal trilogy about the immigrant experience, with its attendant themes of displacement and marginality. This time Ahmed moves beyond England’s shores – to Germany. He travels to several cities, from Hamburg and Berlin to Munich and Baden-Baden, engaging closely with friends and acquaintances along the way. He evokes the day-to-day lives of people who are struggling to make their way in life, as he himself attempts to come to terms with the grimness of European history through the prism of his own childhood and youth in war-torn Kashmir.
With the same quietly empathic, insightful and gently probing style that won him critical plaudits for his earlier books, Ahmed opens up unfamiliar areas of experience to the reader’s gaze. In so doing, he calls upon the reflections of some of his favourite writers, including Proust, Borges, Nabokov, Calvino and the poet whose spirit informs the entire book – Dante Alighieri.
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‘A great tenderness of spirit suffuses this book.’
The Independent on Sunday
In this follow-up to his warmly received first book, Sorrows of the Moon, Iqbal Ahmed extends his reach beyond London to record a journey through Britain, a country that still displays remnants and symptoms of its imperial past.
Visiting Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford-on-Avon, Hay-on-Wye, Sheffield, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh, he discovers the institutions, buildings, business enterprises and individuals that have shaped, and continue to express, a veritable empire of the mind. And he measures the often surprising reality against his rosy preconceptions while growing up in Kashmir.
Among the historical figures we meet along the way are Christopher Wren, the Pilgrim Fathers, Cecil Rhodes, and university founders John Harvard and Elihu Yale. Iqbal also has some informative personal encounters with fellow-migrant misfits. These include a Chinese student, struggling to support herself, an Indian doctor who longs to see his grandchildren one day attending an Oxford college, a would-be novelist working as a second-hand book-seller, a Bournemouth-based Buddhist in fear of attack by fellow-Sri Lankans angered by his wish to marry his Muslim sweetheart, a voluntary welfare worker from Yemen, and a white South African trying to save money to return home by hiding out from friends who sponge off him.
With the same thoughtful, gently critical approach that informed his previous book, Iqbal Ahmed’s Empire of the Mind opens up fresh and illuminating perspectives on the immigrant experience.
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‘A Mayhew excursion through the cruel and fantastic city’
Iqbal Ahmed roams the city, on foot and by bike, quietly observing and comparing – sometimes with wonder and sometimes with dismay – the real London with the city he imagined while growing up in Kashmir. Here is the East End of Bengali tailors and Indian restaurants, the near-deserted Fleet Street and forbidding Barbican, the buzzing electronic shops of Tottenham Court Road, the book fairs of Bloomsbury, the snobbery of Hampstead and the demotic liveliness of Camden Town. During the course of his travels, we meet a variety of displaced men and women trying to find a place among the English – Anwar the Bengali tailor, Zack the educated Pathan who hates working in the City, Solomon the Nigerian doorman, Kasim the Egyptian kiosk vendor, the Asian sub-postmistress who bullies employees and customers alike, Fabio the Brazilian private cab driver, Ali the Moroccan bookshop porter, and Isabel the Venezuelan kept woman who, after her wealthy lover abandons her, finds refuge in a community of South American cleaners.
By turns poignant and funny, Sorrows of the Moon shows us the underside of a wide range of working milieus that we all too often take for granted. And it gently illuminates the plight of people who have escaped from one world into another in search of freedom, only to find confinement of another kind.