From its first page, The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey promises to be a different kind of read. Author Iqbal Ahmed opens this travelogue in Milan, Italy, by thinking of a street in London. Lombard Street takes us to Lombardy. Chapter after chapter, this volume – written during the pandemic from his home – steps in for travel that neither the author, nor most of us, can undertake for now. Along the journey, past and present asides from Ahmed on various topics give life to the tale, as if the writer and reader were in delightful, meandering conversation while travelling along crowded streets or perched on a chair in a crowded café. All the while, the book returns to the hospitality industry and the workers, counting Ahmed himself as such for years, and their past, present and future.
Let’s start with how this book came about. The writing is a mix of memoir, travelogue and commentary on history, politics, religion, art, architecture and more. It was written during the pandemic. What prompted you to write what you call “a European odyssey” in this way?
‘Sailing over the wine-dark sea,/Unto men of strange speech’, says Homer in The Odyssey. It is an age-old desire to cross waters and experience different cultures. My writing is inextricably linked with travel. But the pandemic has taken away our freedom to roam. During lockdowns in London I had no choice but to write a book based on my past travels.
This book is utterly charming and intimate. Page after page, your casual observations and asides make it feel a bit like we’re taking a trip with you in a stream of consciousness journey – to London, Venice, Italy, Paris, Zurich, Switzerland, Barcelona, Spain and elsewhere. How did you relive these trips while writing the book – and did you consciously think of taking the reader with you?
My book is certainly coloured by my own experience of the pandemic. However, as a writer you always unconsciously take the reader with you on your excursions. But it isn’t A Journey Around My Room. The last city I travelled to, in 2019, was Venice and if I closed my eyes during lockdown I found myself standing in front of Giorgione’s painting in the Gallerie dell’Accademia. It depicts an old woman holding a manuscript that has two words written on it, COL TEMPO, which means ‘with time.’
Throughout the book you come back to your earlier life in Srinagar in northern India. The city and the Kashmir region read as lenses through which you view your work and travels. How have they shaped your writing, both in general and in particular with The Art of Hospitality?
The concept of hospitality is elevated to a high moral principle in Srinagar. I have spent exactly half of my life in Srinagar and half in London. Calvino writes in Invisible Cities that, in describing other cities, Marco Polo is in fact describing his own – Venice.
You worked in the hospitality industry for decades and you dedicate this book to those who work in the industry. You discuss past events that affected the lives and livelihoods of hospitality workers, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and Mad Cow disease. You also discuss the resilience of the industry and workers. What do you think the postpandemic recovery will look like?
I owe my literary career to the hospitality industry. I worked for a bookshop before working in a hotel. But I don’t think that I would have been able to write books if I hadn’t had the security of holding down the hotel job, quite an interesting job at that. I feel optimistic about the future of this industry. We have weathered many storms in the last two decades and the majority of the people working in hospitality are very resilient. I think we will value more our stay in a hotel when the COVID crisis is over.
You write about how we might wish to take this moment to rethink some of our relationships after the pandemic – to one another, to travel, to work, to the environment. What are the core lessons and reforms we ought to consider in a postpandemic world?
Many people are envisioning a postpandemic world in which kindness is no longer thought of as a weakness. Climate change is a far bigger challenge than COVID-19. We have to address this issue with a greater sense of urgency. There is no need to fly from London to Paris when you can take a train and reach it in a couple of hours.
Finally, we aren’t meant to judge a book by its cover, but the cloth collector’s edition of The Art of Hospitality is of such a quality that I can’t help myself. Two questions on that. First, did you have an influence on the design? And what is the significance of the Beethoven symphony imprinted on it?
I think you can always judge a book by its cover. I had endless trouble with a mainstream publisher many years ago about the cover design of the paperbacks of my first two books. I have worked closely with a designer regarding the cover of my new book. Why Beethoven? Well, his Ode to Joy is Europe’s anthem. And my small son likes to hum Beethoven’s fifth [symphony], which always touches my heart and gives me hope for the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.