Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads: Interview with Author and Journalist Jules StewartAbout Jules Stewart

Jules Stewart is an author, academic, mountaineer and journalist based in London. He was born in New York and lived for 20 years in Madrid. He writes about the US, Spain and the North-West Frontier.


As a writer, academic and journalist, you have a profound knowledge of four parts of the world: New York (your birthplace), Spain (where you lived for 20 years), Britain (where you live now), and Afghanistan (about which you’ve written many books). Is this purely accidental, or have you found common elements in all four which attract you?

There is only one common thread running through my life: the desire, from a very early age, to write. In New York, I dabbled in journalism for The Village Voice and founded a literary journal at New York University.  In Spain, I worked as a freelance journalist and later joined Reuters. This took me to London, the place I had wanted to live for many years, where I continued with Reuters before returning to freelance journalism. My aim had always been to become an author. The break came in 2004, through journalism. I was on assignment in Pakistan where I interviewed General Pervez Musharraf. He arranged for me to visit the Khyber Rifles headquarters, where I discovered that the history of this celebrated militia had never been written. That became my first book. My interest in the region took me across the border to Afghanistan. I saw an opportunity to document Britain’s long history of conflict in that country, which led to a few more books on the subject. In summary, apart from wanting to write, I cannot detect any ‘master plan’ in my career. The fact is that my books have varied widely in subject matter since Afghanistan, from a biography of Prince Albert to a history of New York in the 1930s. I am at my happiest when sitting, pencil in hand, at my writing table.

You’ve climbed some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas and Andes. Has there been a crossover between your writing and mountaineering?

It took me some years to realise that climbing and mountaineering, apart from offering an exhilarating sense of achievement, are to a certain extent an escape. When you are inching your way up a difficult crag in the Peak District or struggling to breathe at 20,000 feet in the Himalayas, there is no scope for thinking about relationships or the mortgage: that all becomes trivia left below. Perhaps for that very reason I have never given any thought to writing about climbing. I leave that to professionals who have logged remarkable mountaineering achievements.

Your latest book, a literary history of Madrid, has just been published by I.B. Tauris. What, in your mind, is the city’s greatest cultural gift to the world?

Without a shadow of a doubt, it has to be the Golden Century of the 17th century, when immortals like Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Góngora made Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras the epicentre of universal literature.

Does anywhere feel like ‘home’ to you?

Each of the three countries I have lived in feels like home, but only to an extent. I feel more at home in Madrid than in London and more comfortable in London than in New York. But I still get a certain feeling of alienation in those two cities.  Funnily enough, though I strongly doubt I would ever go back to live in New York, it’s the only place where I feel I have a right to be. After all, I was born in Gotham Hospital and did a stint as a Yellow Cab driver. Those are impeccable New Yorker credentials.

Afghanistan is currently off the international news agenda. But for how long?

It is indeed sad that we only take an interest in Afghanistan when Western countries are embroiled in war in that country. I think it would require a truly cataclysmic political event, such as an invasion by one of Afghanistan’s neighbours and the redeployment of NATO troops, to put the country back in the headlines. A potential scenario would be an offensive by India or Pakistan, launched to neutralise the influence of one or the other in Afghanistan. This could drag other regional powers, like China, Russia or Iran, and eventually the US, into the conflict. Apart from that, the Afghan government’s ongoing battle with the Taliban will probably always be shrugged off as a domestic affair.