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What it means to travel the world as a Muslim woman

Indian-born South African writer Shubnum Khan’s new book is about the hope and magic we can find in life if we are brave enough to push for it

Apart from ideas of hope and courage, Shubnum Khan explores the theme of walking in her book.
Apart from ideas of hope and courage, Shubnum Khan explores the theme of walking in her book. (iStockphoto)

What does it mean to be a young, Muslim, desi woman walking the streets of Shanghai alone, sometimes in a hijab? What’s it like going off on your own to the mountains to teach children in a remote village in Kashmir when you have never travelled alone? And most importantly, what happens when you decide to be brave and do those things and, in a sense, “step off the edge”?

“You think you are going to fall, but you actually fly,” says Shubnum Khan, the South African writer of How I Accidentally Became A Global Stock Photo, a collection of odd and funny stories of her travels around the world, and of learning to be soft and vulnerable, particularly to herself.

In this breezy, delightful read, Khan packs in descriptions of experiencing travel and living abroad with a good dose of earnest reflections that tap into being a Muslim woman in the modern world, with bearings rooted in faith and family. The stories are resonant not because they are common or relatable (they are, rather, strange and wonderful) but because she contextualises them by revealing something of her life and herself.

For instance, Khan takes us through her life as the fourth of four sisters in an Indian Muslim family in Durban, where, at a point in her life, she had started feeling trapped and frustrated. So when an opportunity to go to Kashmir in 2013, to teach village children, came along, she took it up. “I immediately saw that this was the first step towards doing something different with my life as compared to everyone telling me to get married and have children,” says the 36-year-old on Zoom.

That experience and move away from a sheltered life catalysed other events and happenings, travels and sometimes bizarre incidents. Her new book straddles genres in that it’s as much a memoir as it is a travelogue and, together, transcends both. While it started as a collection of her experiences during travels—from turning into a “bride” on a rooftop in Shanghai to being trapped in a house in Delhi during an earthquake—it grew into much more. “As I was writing the book, I realised I was also telling the story of my life,” she says.

Shubnum Khan.
Shubnum Khan.

Khan is vulnerable in her stories and, in contrast to trope-filled memoirs and travelogues that spotlight strength and bravery, owns up to her less-than-brave feelings. She describes being anxious and nervous throughout most of her trips. But vulnerability and sharing one’s life (whether in a book or on social media, where Khan first found an audience for her stories) can involve treading a fine line. How does she decide what to share and what to keep to herself?

“Distance and space give you a clearer idea of the bigger picture,” she says. “You are sharing so you don’t feel lonely but you are also sharing so that other people don’t feel lonely,” she says. “I really wanted to share who I am but I also wanted to protect who I am.” When Khan says “anything could happen” if you step off the edge, she’s also aware that this doesn’t only mean good things. Neither does she ignore the presence of threat or danger. Instead, she confronts it with humour.

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Even as Khan grapples with ideas such as living and travelling as a Muslim woman, she tells her stories with charm and wit. “In the book, I talk about being interrogated about my secret marriage. At the time I was so scared, it was such a serious situation. Now when I look back at it, I find it ridiculous,” Khan says. She doesn’t think of herself as a funny person but does believe that you can only laugh at certain situations in life to get through them. “Once you start seeing how ridiculous those are, you can pull out the humour from them,” she adds.

Apart from ideas of hope and courage, the book explores the theme of walking. It seems to be Khan’s primary way of experiencing any place she is visiting, especially because South Africa itself doesn’t allow her that freedom. She writes about how, in her home country, she has to watch what she wears even when going out to jog, how she can’t even carry her phone with her, and how she has to be hyper-aware of her surroundings, no matter where she goes.

How I Accidentally Became A Global Stock Photo: By Shubnum Khan, Pan Macmillan India, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>650.
How I Accidentally Became A Global Stock Photo: By Shubnum Khan, Pan Macmillan India, 256 pages, 650.

Her travel stories detail experiences and encounters of walking and getting lost in the streets of Istanbul, Casablanca, Seoul and Shanghai. A chance meeting with a weeping woman. Going down out-of-sight alleys full of possibilities. Discovering a mosque. “There’s such beauty in being able to get lost, and I can’t do that in South Africa,” she rues.

It’s an arresting vision, to imagine a young Muslim woman walking in cities of the world alone, and Khan is aware of it. “We have so many books about men walking in cities, and books about white women walking,” she says. “We don’t have too much about the Muslim woman walking.” Given the many places she has visited, it’s not unfair to think about Khan’s privilege, which she acknowledges. Does it mean adventures are possible only if certain things are aligned? “You should keep pursuing what you need to do and try to make it happen in whatever way possible,” she says. She had to fight her father to be able to travel, for instance. Some of her trips had some expenses covered. “You have to dream big but you also have to follow them with practical steps,” she says.

It’s a curious book to have been written in 2020, when the pandemic was blazing and travel was far from our minds. And yet, it was also the perfect time for the book, which has been as much influenced by the pandemic as it is a product of it. Khan says that were it not for that strange, isolating, terrifying time, she might not have come to some of the conclusions and reflections she did in her book.

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“It started making me think intensely about who I am and my role, the kind of experiences I have,” she says. “In my stories I am talking about travelling by myself, being by myself, being single, doing things alone. And then, when I was writing this book (during the pandemic), I was by myself, and I was missing everyone. I felt isolated. I think it helped tell a more intense story.”

That time in 2020 was also a period when, amid the despair and grief, we were all looking for hope. Because it wasn’t around her while she was writing, Khan says she tried to write that hope into her book. “Everything felt hopeless and writing the stories felt like I was trying to inject that magic back into life,” she says.

That is the book’s mainstay: the idea that there is hope and magic to be had from life, for anyone who wants it and is brave enough to push for it. Khan calls her book “part memoir, part travelogue, part love letter to anyone who has been afraid”. It’s essentially about choosing your own path in the face of conventionality but it is the heart and humour with which she tells her tales that make the smile already on your face linger a little longer.

I ask her what advice she would give to someone who carries the weight of dreams in her heart—and it’s usually a her—except that she’s afraid. Khan’s reply is tender and full of warmth. “It will be scary and hard but you should never stop dreaming. People will always be telling women how to be, how to act and what to do. But you have to follow what you want to do because you are living your life,” she says. “You are going to be on the journey with you. No one else will live your life.”

Tasneem Pocketwala writes on culture, identity, gender, cities and books. She is based in Mumbai.

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