India 2013/2014 · Life

RIP Muhammed Ali (not that one)

One of our family friends has died. His name was Muhammed Ali — not that one — but everyone called him Ali. He lived in Leh, capital of Ladakh, which a state in north India near Kashmir and one of the most remote and strange places on Earth. It is a primarily Tibetan Buddhist city, but he was Muslim.

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You can see Leh’s mosque about a third from theĀ  right here.

He was a good man. I want to write about him so that he is not forgotten.


My dad met Ali first. My dad was a tour guide for overland groups in the 1980s; one of his ‘flagship’ trips was driving London to Kathmandu. He met Ali when the latter owned a hotel in Leh — Ali’s hotel became the default place in which my dad’s tours would stay, and the two men became friends.

My dad and I agree that when travelling in India you always need to be alert, because many people you meet, especially in a business context, see you as a naive Westerner and want to trick you. But Ali was never like that.

‘Of all the people I met in India, Jess, my friend Ali was always the kindest and the most genuine.’

My dad met my mum when she was on one of his overland tours: this one in Turkey. They dated, stopped travelling, conceived me, and married, and they had their honeymoon in Ali’s hotel in Leh. After hearing that my mum was pregnant, Ali brought her apricots each day, because they’re full of iron and were good for foetal me. On the last day, my dad went to pay and Ali waved his wallet away, because they were friends and he couldn’t take money from him.

That’s the last time either of my parents saw him – 1991; twenty-five years ago.

Since then my dad stayed in touch with Ali as he did with his other friends from travelling — through long letters, occasional phone calls, and with the advent of the Internet, email. He would occasionally mention ‘My friend Ali‘ or ‘My friend Muhammed Ali‘. In 2007, Ali rang my dad and told him that his wife was sick and that he needed some money to take her to hospital. My dad sent it to him. (We were all so proud of him).

I went to Leh in September 2013, and when I was there my dad liaised with Ali and arranged a time and place for him and me to meet. He looked different to how I expected: less Indian and more Ladakhi; wearing thick sunglasses; tall and strong and lean. He shook my hand, asked me about my family and my trip, and then said, ‘I no longer have a hotel, only a travel agency. But in my house I only have an Indian-style toilet and no hot water. I understand if you prefer to stay in a hotel.’ I realised that it went without saying that he would put me up while I was there. I was touched that he was so concerned about my Western sensibilities.

I went to his house and I stayed for four nights.

He lived with his son Salim Jafar, his daughter, his three grandchildren (a boy, Risa, and two girls), and his wife. Only Ali and his son spoke English — everyone else only spoke Ladakhi and Hindi — and I made myself understood through pointing and smiling, and through playing with the babs. They fed me copious amounts of delicious food and tea, and refused to let me do any chores. It remainds the only place I have ever stayed with no running water: they fetched it in great tubs from a tap about a hundred yards away. Every few hours Ali went to the mosque to pray, and each night we had a power cut, which was greeted with nervous laughter from his wife.

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He locked me in my room at one point.

Ali and I talked a lot. We talked about politics, economics, the culture of Leh and how it had changed with the rise of tourism, and his work. He owned a travel agency, as I said, and he led treks around the Leh valley and the surrounding areas such as Zanskar. (My dad calls Zanskar the most remote and untouched place in the world).

The most memorable thing Ali said to me was that over the years, he had carried a dozen Westerners on his back who had passed out or died during treks from the altitude.

At one point I mentioned that I was planning to go to the Stok, Spitok, and Tikse monasteries. Without blinking, Ali gave me a time and a place to meet the following day, took me to his car, and drove me there. All in all I think he drove me about 100km, and he gave me at least an hour at each place.

When we were leaving Tikse monastery Ali suddenly noticed that the light looked good and stopped the car (mid-conversation) for me so that I could take a picture of it. When I did he looked at the picture and said ‘That’s not good enough – I’ll wait; take your time.

This is what I ended up with, which passed his inspection.

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In the car while he chain-smoked we talked a lot about my parents, about my brothers and what they were up to, and about the old days. He told me that he went on holiday to Italy once, and he wished my dad could have come south or that he could have gone north so they could have finally reunited — ‘So close‘, I remember him saying. ‘For once, so close.’ He thanked me effusively and humbly for the money my dad sent him, and he spoke with intense respect about my mum.

When it came for me to leave, I gave them biscuits and a book as a thank-you — I knew that my money would have been as unwelcome as my dad’s had been twenty-two years earlier. Ali sent his son, Salim Jafar, to escort me to the bus, and not only did his son do this but he also waited with me for about half an hour, not leaving until I was on the bus and its engine had fired.

I honestly can’t imagine a better host or a kinder or more respectful man. Rest in peace, sir.
I hope you didn’t suffer, and that your family are well-supported in your absence.
I wish we had known you better.

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