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Thursday, March 26, 2020 11:10am ET by  


Interview with Amar Latif on Pilgrimage: The Trip to Istanbul

Pilgrimage: The Trip to Istanbul Coming to BBC Two on Friday 27 March

Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?

There were a couple of reasons. The first was that although I’ve been able to get a lot of first-hand experience of the world’s cultures during my fifteen years of travelling with my company, religion often forms such a private, personal part of our lives that I’ve actually never encountered it that much on my travels. Yes, I’ve visited plenty of temples and religious sites in my time, but this has always been part of some tour or another. These can be wonderful experiences in themselves, but they can only really go as far as what religion is - the traditions, the history, the practices - and not what it means. I’d been looking for a way to learn more for some time, and so I was thrilled to be given an opportunity like this one.

The second, and probably more significant reason was that I was invited to join the pilgrimage at a time when I was already beginning to re-examine my relationship with the faith that I had been brought up with, but had slipped away from over time. Some of my family are practicing Muslims, and whilst I know this had a huge impact on the person I came to be, the challenges I faced through my blindness have certainly left a huge mark as well. I wanted to know how much of me comes from the faith that gave my childhood its structure, and how much of me still relates to it. Given how much I love travelling, it seemed only natural to try and answer these questions by heading out on a grand adventure!

Have you ever taken part in anything like this before?

I’ve taken part in a lot of things like this, but nothing exactly the same (although I suppose no two journeys ever can be!).

On the one hand, I’ve been to some of the countries we trekked through before. On the other hand, I’ve also actually been on Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. This was when I was a teenager and before I became totally blind, so it’s also one of the latest memories I have of the world of the sighted folk. To this day I can still picture the sight of thousands of people, all dressed in white, walking round Kaaba: it was a sea of people, all trying to touch this great black building in the centre, and it was a hugely profound moment to me. I had a much firmer relationship with my faith at that point, and I remember thinking that it was like I was looking at Islam itself - this awe-inspiring sight was the religion, and I could feel that this was the source.

Did you have to prepare in advance for the pilgrimage? What did you do?

I’m a regular gym-rat, so I suppose I’d been preparing for the physical challenge before I’d even been invited to come along. The mental, spiritual challenge, however, was something I found myself having to work a lot harder to prepare myself for, as it’s been quite a long time since I’ve actually had to think seriously about my faith. After all, my working life hasn’t really given me much chance to focus on my religion, and it hasn’t really required me to either.

Getting myself into a headspace where I was ready to seriously consider the questions I’d need to answer took a lot of effort, and I spent a lot of time talking to my friends and family about it. I was quite worried about what my family would think of me discussing the particulars of my faith on television, but funnily enough it was in talking to them that I found the reassurance I needed to feel comfortable exploring these things in such an open way.

Have you ever walked this far before?

I’m definitely no stranger to long distance trekking! I walked 220 miles through the Nicaraguan jungle a BBC Two documentary. We went all the way from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, climbing an active volcano and navigating shark-infested lakes along the way.

That was a little while ago though!

Did you find it a challenge?

It was a challenge, but a mental one more than a physical one. I was trying to work out what I believe in - what I am - and how I’m going to bring this forwards with me. How can I integrate my faith into my day to day life? I know there’s certain traditions and observances that people keep, but what about outside of that? It’s a tough one for me to answer!

Tell me about your experience on the series?

Pilgrimage was an incredible experience, and I met some incredible people - both in my fellow pilgrims and the locals we met along the way. I’ll never forget this Serbian woman we met, who went to study in Essex and returned after having transformed into a nun. Who knew that Essex could have that kind of effect on a person?

Seriously though, I was astounded by the strength of her faith. To meet someone so content in their relationship with God and religion is sort of unusual these days, but it was as refreshing as it was thought-provoking to meet living proof of the fact that that kind of devotion is still possible.

What was your highlight?

The highlight, for me, was seeing all the amazing things that people get from their faith and religion. Again, in Serbia, seeing the way that communities got together after Mass, seeing how they welcomed us and involved us - it was wonderful to witness but even more so to be a part of.

What was the hardest part?

Oddly enough, I’d give the same answer to this question as the one above. Seeing how faith can give people such comfort, such strength and such clarity in their lives is truly beautiful, but in a way, it also highlighted to me exactly what I’m missing out on. It confronted me with all the doubts that I had, and dredged up memories of all the spiritual challenges I faced immediately after losing my useful sight.

Are you affiliated to any religion and do you practice?

I was brought up in a Muslim household, and the values I learned during this time have really shaped who I am today. However, when I was eighteen, I became blind, which forced me to deal much more with the pragmatic side of life. As time went on, this pressure only increased - making my way through the world, I realised that there was a lot of prejudice against blind people that I’d have to overcome. In the beginning, at least, this seemed like something I’d have to tackle on my own, and so I did.

Studying for a maths, stats and finance degree in the early nineties with no accessible technology to help, convincing employers that a blind person could be an accountant, and then overcoming the restrictions of a travel industry unreceptive to the idea of a blind traveller - all of these things ended up taking a lot of my focus away from religion, to the point that I probably can’t say that I practice anymore. 

Has the experience changed or increased your faith? 

It’s made me realise how much people get out of religion, and how much greatness can come out of it.

At the same time, though, its ended up raising a lot more questions for me than it’s answered! I used to think that religion was something basically separate from the world I lived in - the world of accounting, world-travelling and blindness, or, as I thought of it from time to time, the 'real world'. Now I’ve seen the strength people get from their faith, and all the clarity and confidence that comes from proper belief, and it’s thrown everything into the air for me!

Has the experience changed you in any way?

I would say that the most significant way in which the pilgrimage changed me was that it gave me a new respect for people with strong faith. I may not be there myself, but I feel like I have a better sense of where they are and of what they see. It’s made me want to visit places of worship wherever I travel - whether it’s a mosque, a synagogue, a church, anything - and just connect with the people there. The world will never grow stale for me, but this experience has shown me a new facet of it that I’m excited to explore.

Did anything about this pilgrimage surprise you?

As I’m blind, I occasionally needed a bit of a hand from some of the other pilgrims, most often when it came to navigating new buildings or accommodation. Fatima Whitbread was very kind and offered to help me out a lot of the time, but the surprise came when, after a full day of hard trekking, we got to the place we were staying for the night and she said: “Right, before we go to our rooms, do you mind if we go to the gym first?”

I really shouldn’t have been surprised - she is a gold medallist after all, but that woman is a force of nature!

How did you get on with the other pilgrims? Was it a bonding experience for you all?

It was a great group of people, with everyone coming from different walks of life but still getting on really well. This was even after being in close proximity for two weeks, too, which was a surprise. If someone had told me they were making a comedian and a politician spend a fortnight together, I’d have expected it to be a total powder keg, but it was actually a huge blast (in a good way!).

Speaking of Edwina, she was an absolutely fantastic sighted guide. She put so much effort into describing the world around me, and, as an added bonus, every morning she’d come down to breakfast with another chapter title for the book she kept telling me to write. We’ll have to see how that goes, but it was still really nice that she was thinking about these things.

Have you stayed in touch with the other pilgrims?

I have! We’re all in a WhatsApp group together, and I have regular catch up chats with Edwina and Fatima. Since Edwina and I both live up in t’North, I’ve even been able to meet with her and her husband in person as well.

Describe your feelings/emotions when you reached the end of the pilgrimage and arrived in Istanbul...

Arriving in Istanbul was the most incredible feeling. Stretched ahead of us was the Bosporus, where the West meets the East, symbolising our journey across the Sultans Trail, and almost as soon as we got there, we were met by the haunting, beautiful sounds of the Islamic call to prayer.

It had a profound effect on me - I felt as though the entire scene was speaking to me, and almost making explicit the questions that I’d been asking myself for weeks. How do I reconcile my faith with my life as a blind person? Am I ready to bring myself back into religion again? I still don’t really know the answer, or even how to answer, but when I stop and think I can feel myself back in that moment as clearly as though it were yesterday.

Would you do it again? 

It was an incredible experience, and I’d certainly do another pilgrimage. There are a lot of different ones, and I think I’d like to see what it would be like to go on some of those, but there’s a very special feeling that I’d probably expect to find on them all. Even if you’re not religious, it’s not just a holiday - going on a pilgrimage brings you into a different world where you’re exploring your thoughts and beliefs in a way that you never would otherwise.

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