BY VEENA RAO
From Cairo to Beirut is a gripping, page-turning illustrated travel memoir of Redmond, WA-based urban sketcher Sunil Shinde’s journey in the footsteps of a 200-year-old route of famed Scottish artist, David Roberts.
A collection of 250 original sketches made on the spot―often at the exact location where Roberts stood and sketched― the book is also a richly narrated story of his journey through Cairo, Sinai, Petra, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon. Through his artistry and an evocative, visceral voice, Shinde provides the reader with a graphic account of both travelers’ exploration of the land, its fascinating monuments, history, and people. The outcome is a powerful narrative of the enduring human spirit.
“Nowhere else is the love trumps hatred, hope survives all calamities motto so brazenly emblazoned across the land that is otherwise seething with centuries-old unrest… Everything had changed, yet nothing was different. I felt like I experienced everything that David Roberts experienced,” Shinde tells NRI Pulse in this extensive Q&A.
How and when did the travel bug bite you?
Not early enough, unfortunately. I started traveling for pleasure long after I had moved to the US but as soon as my (older) daughter turned 5. Luckily, she happens to be a fantastic traveler. Young as she was, and before smartphone became a kid-pacifier, she would merrily skip beside me through museums and ruins. My travel, like my reading, tracked the ridges of ancient civilizations, historical battles, and the glorious golden ages of civilization in Africa, South America, and South-East Asia. Even on our trips to India to meet family, a ritual every immigrant is familiar with, we took time to explore forts and temples. As a result of which I have seen India more in twenty years since immigrating than in the thirty years that I lived there. If I could change one thing about my youth, I would use my weekends and holidays better. My wife and younger daughter are excellent travelers too. So, traveling is now a family sport. I am making up for lost time as fast I can.
The prologue for From Cairo to Beirut is set in Petra, Jordan. You are on a spring break with your daughter and you are sketching the façade of a famous monument when something inspires you to embark on your adventure. Tell us about it.
I was seated in front of the Khazne in Petra, sketching the rock-cut ruins bathed in the early morning light. My daughter and I were on a father-daughter trip in Jordan. A Bedouin sitting nearby made an amazing connection: the composition I was attempting was printed on one of the postcards he was selling. The connection lit up a bulb in my head. The artist on the postcards was a Scottish painter named David Roberts, and he had traveled to Petra in 1839. He had funded his own trip with the sole intention of making a portfolio of sketches, a rarity that set him apart from some of the earliest known travelers to this region.
An avid traveler and travel sketcher myself, I was struck by how we had a matching goal of telling stories of distant lands through sketches. David Roberts’ route also traversed a part of the world I was hoping to travel meaningfully. Roberts’ itinerary of 1839 started from Cairo, across Sinai, through the ruins of Petra, crossing the desert and the biblical sites of Palestine, the walled city of Jerusalem, and through the wilderness and mountains of Lebanon to explore the Roman ruins at Ba’albec before finally reaching Beirut. On a whim, I made a decision to follow in his footsteps.
Did you have a book in mind when you left for your travels?
Not at the beginning. The project clearly grew on me. I thought I would put together a little booklet in which I would juxtapose five of my sketches with David Roberts’ compositions. Maybe print a few copies for friends and family. By the time I completed the Egypt phase of the journey, I realized the potential for something more than a booklet. After I returned from the travels, I set aside my journals and sketchbooks for a few months. When I eventually got back to them, I realized I had quite a corpus on my hands. By the time I had a solid draft for my editor, I had seventy-thousand words on paper with 125+ illustrations to go with them.
What motivated you to follow in the footsteps of David Roberts? What did you hope to accomplish?
The retracing of Roberts’ journey was an exploration into the mind and methods of an old master. I wanted to explore if I could learn from him simply by putting myself not only his footsteps but also often standing in the exact spot he stood to sketch 180 years ago.
David Roberts was the first commercially successful “urban sketcher.” Urban sketching is a popular contemporary art movement that encourages artists to sketch on location and from direct observation. I took up sketching so that I could ditch my heavy camera and the electronic paraphernalia I was lugging carrying on my travels. It was an attempt to travel light and travel slow. It was also an attempt to detox from digital devices and the ubiquitous LCD screens.
David Roberts traveled to the Orient in the early 1800s, a completely different time from ours. How was your journey similar and/or different from his? Were there any surprises that you were not prepared for?
Roberts reached the Orient, as the region was known in the early 1800s, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s military campaign. Champollion had recently translated the hieroglyphics and Egyptomania was in the air. The region had been inaccessible to the West for over a thousand years and the world was excited to see the curtains pulled on a land studded with wonderful things and a thriving, throbbing culture. The West was curious to see the land described in the Bible. Roberts endured all the hardships one would expect from an early traveler to an unexplored land. The Bedouin tribes were at constant war with each other. The Pasha of Egypt was at loggerheads with the Ottoman empire. Citizens of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were being conscripted for an expensive land grab. Poverty was rampant. Xenophobia was at its peak after seeing white men, an arch-enemy from the days of the Crusade, freely roaming the terrain. The region was rife with disease. The plague was rampant. Jerusalem was in fact under a 40-day quarantine when Roberts reached its fabled gates.
When I landed in Egypt, the region was tense after President Trump’s announcement to move the American consulate to Jerusalem. A mosque in northern Sinai had been bombed by ISIS, the Egyptian air force was undertaking surgical airstrikes in the mountains to nail the perpetrators, not far from my route. Iran-Israel-Lebanon-Hezbollah were locked in a gridlock. The embers of ISIS were still smoldering over the Syrian border. In addition and because the region was going through an unprecedented tourist recession. COVID and lockdowns were still a few months away, but you see where I am going with this?
Everything had changed, yet nothing was different. Nothing was like old, yet everything was new. I felt like I experienced everything that David Roberts experienced. Ageless monuments built by the Pharaohs. Architecture of the Arabic civilization at its peak built when the West world was in the dark ages. Stunning, untouched landscape. And above all, beautiful smiling people who welcomed us with open arms, fed us, took care of us, entertained us. Nowhere else is the love trumps hatred, hope survives all calamities motto so brazenly emblazoned across the land that is otherwise seething with centuries-old unrest. A paradox that is the Middle East.
You obviously learned a lot about local culture and people during your adventure. Did you also learn anything new about yourself? And during the writing process?
Traveling makes home a desirable destination. That is certainly the biggest takeaway after the three-month-long adventure. Short vacations are fun. Long trips can take a toll. Nomadic life is not easy especially for creatures of habits that the Taurus are.
I was keen to test how far I would go to make this project a success. Travel comes easy to me. But it is one thing to travel quietly, taking it in slowly and blending in with the locals. Trying to make a book out of it is an entirely different proposition. One is constantly looking for a story, like a journalist is. I am a recluse and an introvert. Talking to people and putting myself in the middle of a situation does not come easily to me. But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was able to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I must admit I even enjoyed it a little bit.
What were the challenges of reproducing your sketches and the story of your journey for a book? How did you work through those challenges?
My biggest challenge was to not do too much with the sketches I brought back. Sketches done in situ and from direct observation have a certain energy that can easily be lost if you try to recompose and resketch in a studio setting. It is very easy to overwork them. At the same time, Leaving the sketches alone was not easy because as an artist you are constantly evolving. You are improving every day you practice your art and when you look back at older sketches one only tends to notice the mistakes and errors.
I must confess that I resketched many of my compositions but when it came to picking illustrations to go into the book, I ended up almost always picking the sketches made on-site over a studio drawing whenever I had a choice. The raw energy of an urban sketch cannot be reproduced.
And what were the challenges of getting your book published? What’s the takeaway for readers?
Tatiana Wilde, the editor I hired to help me with my draft implored me to try the traditional publishing route. I was keen to self-publish and be done with it. But she persuaded me to give it a good solid try. “You will need to find a publisher who falls in love with the book,” she said.
That started a journey into the rabbit hole of the publishing world. To find a publishing house, you first find an editor, but only after you have a literary agent. I would spend a couple of hours every day handpicking lit agents and researching them heavily. But my highly personalized proposals seemed to be disappearing into a black hole. I realized how bad the situation was when after several weeks I celebrated the first tacit rejection I received. Just hearing back, even if the verdict was negative, felt cathartic. 250 unrequited book proposals and 9 months later, I finally was introduced to Mary Bisbee Beek, my publicist who in turn introduced me to Bruce Rutledge at Chin Music Press ensuring a happy ending to the story.
My takeaway for first-time authors is this: Once you have done everything you can to create a quality product, you have to back yourself a 110%. Trust yourself and your product. Double down and put everything you have behind it. All in. Secondly, you have to make your work discoverable by finding creative ways to put it in the public forum. Social media, blogs, community are some of the best ways to put yourself out there. This does not come easy to many people, but there is no way around this.
Are you planning another adventure? If so, will we be seeing another travelogue from Sunil Shinde? Most certainly. I have a notebook full of adventure ideas. I am ready to dive in as soon as the world is once again safe to travel.
Where can readers find you?
I share my sketchbook regularly on my Instagram (www.instagram.com/sunshinde) and FB page (https://www.facebook.com/sunilshindesketches). I am planning to expand my book website into a multimedia travelogue. You can find it at (www.fromcairotobeirut.com)