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Behind the Story: How a Writer Prepared for a 40,000-Mile Trip

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Eighteen months ago, when the New York-based T writer at large Aatish Taseer began planning his reporting trips for this month’s three-part feature story — an exploration of religious travel in Bolivia, Mongolia and Iraq — he was already well acquainted with the idea of pilgrimage. His first book, the 2009 memoir “Stranger to History,” opens with what is arguably the world’s best-known faith-motivated journey, the hajj to Mecca, and ends with what he describes as a personal pilgrimage to meet his estranged father in Pakistan. In Delhi, India, where Taseer grew up, quick trips for the purpose of worship were commonplace. “People would do a pilgrimage on an ordinary Sunday,” he says, “instead of going to an amusement park.”

This undertaking, however, was much bigger. Though Taseer has traveled extensively — including for T, where he has written about the complicated history of rice in Mexico, political and personal revolutions in Turkey and the remnants of Islamic influence in Spain — these three destinations were entirely new to him. Then there was the sheer ambition of the trip, which was, he says, “by far and without a shadow of a doubt” the most arduous journey he’s ever undertaken. This past year, he traveled to the Bolivian Andes for the Feast of the Virgin of Copacabana, traversed the Gobi Desert to visit Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and headed to Najaf and Karbala in Iraq during the annual period of mourning around Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein. By the end, he had covered more than 40,000 miles, including the return trips home. “It wasn’t just the 20-hour flights or the hundreds of miles of driving,” he says of what made the trip so challenging. “It was extreme altitude in the Altiplano, 115 degree heat in Iraq and cold and desolation in Mongolia. Iraq was the culmination of all this discomfort because, apart from the heat, we were in a city in the throes of religious frenzy. I felt completely drained — and elated, somehow — by the end of it all.”

Like many of his other stories for T, this month’s is defined by what Taseer characterizes as “the wounds of the past reverberating into the present.” He continues: “All three societies are still recovering from historic cataclysms, whether it was the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Communist erasure of Buddhist Mongolia or the pain the Shiites of Iraq feel for Hussein, which they use as a thread to connect all the injustices of history.” For Taseer, pilgrimage was not so much a means of exploring faith as “a way to enter into the unresolved history of these places.”

On his trip to Copacabana, Taseer bought a few small, double-sided Virgin pendants that he had blessed by a priest. He has worn one ever since — not that his travels resulted in a conversion to Catholicism, or in any sort of spiritual awakening in the traditional sense. He did, however, come away changed. “I was very moved by human beings going to these places with this sense of expectation. I found that very powerful and heartbreaking,” he says. “It had an effect on me that I think is close enough to a religious experience.” — Jenny Comita

The books that Taseer read before embarking on the three religious pilgrimages recounted in his story, with notes on a few of his favorites.

1. “The Bolivia Reader: History, Culture, Politics” (2018), edited by Sinclair Thomson, Rossana Barragán, Xavier Albó, Seemin Qayum and Mark Goodale

2. “The History of a Myth: Pacariqtambo and the Origin of the Inkas(1990), by Gary Urton

3. “The Incas of Pedro de Cieza de León” (1553): “A classic from the conquistador-historian, [Cieza de León’s account] is full of the prejudices of [his] age, but fascinating as a historical document.”

4. “History of the Conquest of Peru(1847), by William H. Prescott

5. “A Concise History of Bolivia” (2011), by Herbert S. Klein

6. “Conquistadores: A New History of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest” (2021), by Fernando Cervantes: “A new take on an old story that reveals how much of the religious zeal of La Reconquista the Conquistadors brought with them to the Americas.”

7. “Pilgrims of the Andes: Regional Cults in Cusco” (1987), by Michael J. Sallnow: “A fine sociological work that explores, among other things, the re-consecration of old sanctities.”

8. “Eight Feet in the Andes” (1986), by Dervla Murphy

9. History of How the Spaniards Arrived in Peru (2006), by Titu Cusi Yupanqui

10. “The Extirpation of Idolatry in Peru” (1621), by Father Pablo Joseph de Arriaga

11. “From Viracocha to the Virgin of Copacabana: Representations of the Sacred at Lake Titicaca” (1997), by Verónica Salles-Reese

12. “Open Veins of Latin America” (1997), by Eduardo Galeano

13. “Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes” (2001), by Brian S. Bauer and Charles Stanish

3. Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire” (2019), by Matthew W. King

4. “Beasts, Men and Gods: Russia, Mongolia, Tibet and the Living Buddha” (2018), by Ferdinand Ossendowski

5. “The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing” (1990), by Michael Harner

6. “Riddles of the Gobi Desert” (1933), by Sven Hedin

7. “Lama of the Gobi” (2010), by Michael Kohn

8. “Truth, History and Politics in Mongolia” (2004), by Christopher Kaplonski

9. “Buddhism in Mongolian History, Culture, and Society” (2015), edited by Vesna A. Wallace

10. “Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia” (2013), by Manduhai Buyandelger: “An academic work that deals with the collapse of socialism in Mongolia and the resurfacing of angry ancestral spirits.”

11. “The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism” (2016), by Sam van Schaik

12. “The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke (1253-1255)” (1990), translated by Peter Jackson

13. “The Political Role of Mongol Buddhism” (1997), by Larry William Moses

14. “Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times” (2009), by Morris Rossabi: “A classic study of an emperor whose historical reality is too often eclipsed by the opium-induced fantasies of the [Samuel] Coleridge poem [“Kubla Khan,” written in 1797, published in 1816].”

3. “Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey” (1982), by V.S. Naipaul: “An avid, virulent work of inquiry by a master prose stylist set in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.”

4. “After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split” (2010), by Lesley Hazleton

5. “The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: Islam’s First Century and the Origins of the Sunni-Shia Split” (2006), by Barnaby Rogerson: “A dramatization of the inner world of the Prophet, his companions and the rivalries that were to beset that first triumphant century of Islam.”

6. “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq” (2008), by Patrick Cockburn

7. “A Concise History of Sunnis and Shiis” (2017), by John McHugo

8. “Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran” (1979), edited by Peter J. Chelkowski: “A volume of excellent scholarly essays that circle around the meaning and uses of theater in the Shia world, especially during Ashura.”

9. “The Shiite Movement in Iraq” (2003), by Faleh A. Jabar

2023-11-09 10:03:38

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