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Xanadu by William Dalrymple: book review

TW: Racism, Islamophobia, Sexism. Read to know why this book is problematic.

Before writing this review I repeatedly told myself not to get overly personal or emotional because reading this book was torture. I had several moments of throwing this book across the room or burning it down. And no I am not being dramatic.

To begin with, I had high expectations, and ever since I was reading Jerusalem I wanted to explore more about the history of the Middle East. William Dalrymple traveled along the footsteps of Marco polo, exploring the silk route in the 80s. As centuries came in between two travelers, the maps got changed, kingdoms got destroyed, cities vanished, people changed. Everything except the snobbishness of a European remained as it is. I just wonder how this didn’t come under the scrutiny of evolution!

The book is a joke, pages after pages filled with cultural appropriation, mocking of religions, people, how mismanaged, unsophisticated, savage Asian countries are. For instance, he wrote, “things, of course, did not work out as we have planned. They rarely do in Asia.”

The author tried really hard to prove that it has been like this for centuries and I have a question for the dear author, why is it that the European colonial rulers invaded these very Asian countries and stripped them of their wealth? The book is filled with the callousness, arrogance, and ignorant mind of a whining privileged white child. He definitely showed no respect for any culture other than his own. While he wrote pages after pages about how refined the Byzantine empire was and how Ottomans were basically classless.

“The charm of the Dome of the Rock takes a little longer to appreciate. The gaudy Ottoman tile work and flashing dome have both been recently renovated by the Jordanians and in no way prepare one for the breathtaking beauty of what lies inside. The golden mosaic work bears the hand of the Byzantines…”

In my life, I haven’t come across many works which stated Ottoman’s tile work as gaudy! On one hand, he praises and laments how great the Byzantines were and how culturally superior was the taste of crusaders but he rarely acknowledges the fact that they mass massacred people of the other faiths. The lack of details can be seen everywhere in the book. It's a one-sided, biased narrative.

Every other page is filled with quotes of non-English speakers, mainly the innocent Arabs speaking English in a “wrong” way.

“This picture your wife? she pretty womans. How much she cost?....”

This being told to him in a makeshift passport office. Whom are we kidding here?

There are more examples like these.

He used 1.5 pages to show readers how “hilarious” the English menu was in a small restaurant in Turkey. Make a note, he asked. Soup written as “soap”, eggs as “aggs” and it continues. Surely it was to provide the much-needed entertainment for his native English readers because otherwise, the writing is just plain bland and boring.

It's not that he kept a special reservation of his English caricatures for Asians, he used it on his German brethren too, shamelessly. For once he needs to understand that English is NOT the only language and learning English doesn’t make anyone superior.

He repeatedly took the help of local Arabs during his travels even to a point where he stayed in their homes, feasting but never once acknowledged their generous hospitality, and even if he did on the rare occasions, he went back to the same mocking nature of his host's language struggle. The hypocrisy he showed is so blinding!

The purpose of traveling is to know and discover a new culture, yet he showed zero respect towards it. One of his Armenian hosts, Krikor took him to a Syrian nightclub, where an Armenian singer was performing. According to him,

“her song plainly a tragedy, combined all the drama of a Verdi aria with the earsplitting torture of loud feedback….it was a horrible sound.” “weeeeeeeaaggh…croooooosk unkph weeeeagh”


That’s how he described a language!

His ignorant mindset reflects everywhere. The standards of beauty are the one set by the Europeans as “delicate, feminine…” whereas other women are ugly.

"Good looks have been shared out unevenly among the Turks. Their men are almost all handsome with dark, supple skin and strong features: good bones, sharp eyes, and tall, masculine bodies. But the women share their menfolk's pronounced features in a most unflattering way. Very few are beautiful. Their noses are too large, their chins too prominent. Baggy wraps conceal pneumatic bodies. Here must lie the reason for the Turks' easy drift out of heterosexuality."

He boiled down to the fact that Turks practiced homosexuality (while there’s nothing wrong with it) only because their women are not feminine enough. This book got everything that defines the white superiority complex filled with stereotypes and the audacity of this man is so great that he even passed on sexist narratives towards his highly capable co-traveler Laura. He cribbed how Laura didn’t appreciate his “efforts” in walking through the heat. Dear author, nobody pulled you by your ears to travel, it was completely your decision to travel. You should have understood the locations of these countries and the climatic conditions.

He holds zero appreciation towards anything “un-European”. The sculptures are uninteresting, chunky, wild, nomadic (because Mongols built it and Mongols were nomads, how would they even have any refinement, duh!)

The book stinks of Islamophobia. It's not that he is unaware of the religion but why not mock it and make fun of it when you can! His understanding was very limited to incorrect stereotypes and a disgusting attitude towards modesty and someone’s faith.

“I asked her whether she did not mind the inferior status of women in Islam, and the fact that the two sexes were so segregated”
“my traveling companion was dressed head to foot in enveloping black wraps, like a vampire from a low-budget horror film…”

At this point, I had enough of the hell trip and partly because my yellow "post-it" got finished and I decided not to waste any of my time on this trash.


Fresh out of college and inspired by the spirit of great travelers before him, William Dalrymple undertakes a journey from Jerusalem to Shangdu taking him through Turkey, Syria, mid-revolution Iran, the famed Silk Roads, Pakistan, and China in a travelogue which catapulted him to instant literary acclaim and quickly became a classic of its genre. Both scholarly and hilarious, In Xanadu is a grand adventure in the company of a travel companion whose erudition and curiosity is matched only by his wit and flair.


William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching his second book, City of Djinns, which won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. From the Holy Mountain, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997; it was also shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. A collection of his writings about India, The Age of Kali, won the French Prix D’Astrolabe in 2005. White Mughals was published in 2003, the book won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003, the Scottish Book of the Year Prize, and was shortlisted for the PEN History Award, the Kiryama Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. William Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival. In 2002 he was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature’. He wrote and presented the television series Stones of the Raj and Indian Journeys, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002. His Radio 4 series on the history of British spirituality and mysticism, The Long Search, won the 2002 Sandford St Martin Prize for Religious Broadcasting and was described by the judges as ‘thrilling in its brilliance... near perfect radio’. In December 2005 his article on the madrasas of Pakistan was awarded the prize for Best Print Article of the Year at the 2005 FPA Media Awards. In June 2006 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of St Andrews “for his services to literature and international relations, to broadcasting and understanding”. In 2007, The Last Moghal won the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. In November 2007, William received an Honourary Doctorate of Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Lucknow University “for his outstanding contribution in literature and history”, and in March 2008 won the James Todd Memorial Prize from the Maharana of Udaipur. William is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now live on a farm outside Delhi.

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