My eldest son Leon is an adventurer, explorer, journalist and author. His partner Emily is a photojournalist, Leica Ambassador and storyteller. They get around, most recently travelling the length of the Tigris from mouth to source largely on the river itself. Emily has documented the trip in photography and Leon has written a book on the adventure which I’m helping to proof-read right now.
Leon began adventuring by cycling across and around the USA, South East Asia and southern China. Then he took to walking for months on end in very remote places - Mongolia, The Empty Quarter, all peppered in between by short adventures here and there, funded largely by speaking engagements, modelling and whatever else it takes to make ends meet in an unstable profession. This burst of youthful activity eventually settled down into a much more mature and focussed engagement with place and people, converging on the countries of the Near and Middle East. He worked on The Abraham Path Initiative and more recently has had contracts to open up trails in China, Tajikistan and Kurdistan, where he and Emily now live.
My understanding of Leon’s and Emily’s wider aim is that they want to help Westerners open their eyes to the stories and lives of people, in other words to foreground their basic humanity, in a region often scorned because of assumed connections with undesirable religious or political affiliations. Emily in particular has succeeded in getting behind ‘the veil', working with women and domestic life in societies where Western men cannot do such things.
I’m not going to give away details of the Tigris project before the book’s published but I will say that following Leon and Emily from afar on this gruelling trip through seriously contested territory has led me to fresh understandings - of travelling through this world of ours, the environmental and physical challenges, of Mesopotamia’s deep history. All this eventually led me to the journeys of very early travellers, not only those who went from West to East, like Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent, but also Arabic such as Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Battuta (whom Leon described as ‘making Marco Polo look like a recluse’).
I was drawn especially to the ancient history of Mesopotamia, more accurately a large region stretching across modern day Turkey, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq. I’ve slowly been unpicking the timeline and politics of the Assyrians, Sumerians and Hittites and have now established a growing depository of names, possible historical facts, untruths and legends that I can plunder in the name of art when it comes to ‘branding’ some of my musical output.
But above all this I love flowers and I absolutely adore botanical illustration so I want to make a short film about how flowers and plants found their way from East to West, not a documentary as such, something less literal, with some of the colour and eroticism of plant life. I confess my ignorance in failing to realise until recently that many of the flowers we see and love in our gardens and parks were taken to Europe by travellers such as Ogier from the near and middle east (and originally from the lower Himalayas in some cases). Then of course the Dutch fell in love with tulips and on it goes. Tulips from Amsterdam by way of a few thousand miles.
I’ve been reflecting on all this as a benevolent form of colonial appropriation. Suleyman the Magnificent and other powerful Eastern leaders loved their flower gardens and were often eager to share specimens and knowledge with Western botanists. From what I can gather there was little plunder and theft as such, the sort of activity you find with the removal and relocation of physical artefacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs for example. A lot of the work seems to have been done in the spirit of care and attention to the flowers and plants themselves. In many cases illustrators and painters travelled with the botanists to do their work on location. We have a debt of gratitude not only to the kings, sultans and others (whatever we think of their methods of governance) who generously and willingly provided specimens, but also to the travellers who made the journeys to seek out these flowers and plants which have become so fixed and so important in our daily lives.
So certainly not a straightforward documentary (because I don’t have the skills or resources) A more dreamlike and fabulous investigation, a journey into botanical colour and form, with a story. Exotic places, exotic people, exotic flowers.