One year ago, we published one of the most successful books in our travel literature series. Tharik Hussain’s Minarets in the Mountains is his account of a journey with his family through the indigenous Muslim communities of the Western Balkans. It looks at a part of the world that rarely makes the news and attempts to redefine what we think of as ‘Muslim Europe’.
The book went on to be shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year and longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (which rarely honours travel books). It was picked as a Book of the Year in the Washington Post, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement and enjoyed fantastic reviews elsewhere.
To celebrate, we sat down with Tharik to discuss how his life has changed a year on from publication.
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Looking back a year on from publication, what has been your favourite part of the process?
I think it has to be the fact that people felt Minarets really changed their idea of what it means to be European. A reader from Germany who took the time to write me an email, sums it up well: ‘it (Minarets) encouraged me to consider and reevaluate my own prejudices and assumptions about what it is to be European’.
As someone who has spent much of my life directly or indirectly fighting prejudice, largely because I had no choice, words like these often left me quite moved and emotional.
From a purely superficial level though, it would probably be getting invited to so many wonderful literary festivals and talks where I got to meet readers of Minarets and other amazing writers from across the globe.
Talk us through the creation of the book itself. Did you just keep notes while on the road or were you working on a full manuscript from the start?
I trained as a journalist in my younger years, and so as a travel writer I behave very much like one; I keep copious amounts of notes on the road and support these with audio recordings, photos and video footage. So yes, I came back from that trip with tons of notes and realised there was a book there. I then spent several months – moonlighting around teaching – writing these up as a draft. Completing that stage of the book writing process was a huge milestone.
You mentioned you have a background in journalism. How did this influence your approach to writing Minarets?
As well as the habit of making notes on the road, I approach most of my trips like a journo in that I always do some research and prep before I leave. This allows me to find interesting angles and narratives I can then explore on the ground. I usually build on this by getting in touch with institutes and organisations long before my trip, setting up meetings and interviews; I might also reach out to individuals of standing in the communities I am set to visit and tap into my existing network to line things up.
When I am actually in the destination, some of the ways my journalistic experience helps include having the confidence to follow my reporter’s nose and ending up in places I knew nothing about before the trip, or knowing how to ask certain questions with sensitivity when talking to people.
How did writing a travel narrative differ from your experience penning guide books? Which did you prefer?
Guidebooks are largely about collecting data and presenting this in an interesting and honest way. Occasionally, for certain features in a guidebook, you might develop an experience or trail, where you have the opportunity to go a little deeper and tell actual stories about the destination.
Writing a travel narrative is completely different, from the start the way you research and where you go is entirely dictated by the stories you want to tell. You are not, for example, concerned with the timings of the local buses or the opening hours of local businesses. A travel narrative is as much your story, as it is the story of the destination. It is the opposite with a guidebook. I enjoy developing and writing narratives much more than the mundane data collection that can dominate the role of a traditional guidebook writer.
How have you found people’s reaction to the book? Were you expecting it to be such a hit?
I have been overwhelmed, especially by responses like the one in the first question. In hindsight though, I am not entirely surprised; the heritage and narrative of Islam in Europe is a fascinating and interesting one that needs telling properly. I knew even before I wrote the book that people wanted to hear it, but I underestimated just how many.
I also feel we are living through a time when people are questioning accepted ‘truths’ and want to hear what ‘other’ voices say about those truths; how do they see them and how different is it through these ‘other’ lenses. I feel Minarets not only does that, but actually shows readers something so different to what they were expecting it has left many quite blown away and this has played a big part in the book’s success.
On the flipside, there are also people who accept the popularised truths about Muslims and Europe and they saw Minarets as an affront to this. Many of these people responded with anger, accusing me at worst of making things up, and at best of trying to ‘Islamise’ Europe.
If there’s one thing people should take away from Minarets, what is it?
That Europe’s religious and cultural heritage is an Abrahamic one, not just a judeo-christian one (alongside pagan etc); that there is always another perspective when it comes to telling stories, be they of the past or present, and all of them are valid and worth hearing out.
How has your life changed since publication? Have you developed any new perspectives or opinions?
The imposter in me is a lot quieter. Now it just taunts me about the next book!
I certainly have a confidence that was not there before; being published and having your work celebrated has that effect I guess. I am also inundated with work in a way I never was before (talks, features, guidebooks etc). I have been lucky enough to meet and actually get to know a number of my heroes, and most bizarrely, I now get recognised, albeit very rarely and mostly at literary festivals and bookshops. That is taking some getting used to!
What advice would you give to budding travel writers?
Before you pick up that pen and say you want to write a book, get a job that makes lots of money! Jokes aside, travel writing like most ‘writing’ does not pay well and so this has to be a pursuit of passion; a labour of love. And yet travel writing is going through something of a revolution right now so if you have a great story to tell about a place, especially one from an unconventional perspective, now is definitely a good time to explore that – but don’t expect it to be easy.
From a practical perspective, before you start on that book, get yourself published in blogs, local newspapers and magazines, other travel sites, etc and build up to getting published in established national and international media. This will not only give you the experience you need to tell a bigger story and impress potential publishers and agents who will see you as a proven ‘writer’, but you might even find that some of these journeys present you with that bigger story for your first book.
What’s next for you? Do you have plans to write another book?
Yes, I’m working on a few ideas that I hope will complement Minarets and what it offers readers, but I am also keen not to rush forward and ‘move on’ to the next book too quickly. Minarets and the success that came with it was entirely unexpected, and I want to make sure I enjoy it and live in this moment. After all there are no guarantees my future books will get published or even come close to the recognition Minarets has had, so I am trying not to take anything for granted.
Finally, is there anything you’d do differently next time around?
This was the perfect first book for me; emerging organically from a family road trip that had a deeply personal ‘theme’. I know however that going forward things will work very differently; I will have to know the book before it is written and before I have done the physical journey that will lead to it. In that respect, the next book will definitely feel much more like a ‘job’.
You can learn more about Tharik and his journey through Muslim Europe in his book, Minarets in the Mountains: