The late great Khalid Kiani

This is the post excerpt.


A conversation of late between my friend Serge Avery and I had been about celebrated travel writer Bruce Chatwin and his early death from AIDs in 1988.

This conversation very much reminded me of a close friend of mine, Khalid Kiani, whom also passed away from complications of AIDs in 1988.

Whilst working for Parks Canada and living at the old Bunkhouse, I often had long, animated conversations over the Bunkhouse phone with Kiani who was working just up the Trans-Canada Highway in Lake Louise. We usually reminisced about Islamic architecture and poetry. I used to hitchhike or take the bus up to see Khalid and stay in his garret in Deer Lodge–not much bigger than a shoebox.

Khalid so loved the Lake Louise area and especially this place where he was standing in this photo. He said that the mountains at the back of the lake here reminded him of a huge mihrab, the place where Muslims would worship in a mosque. I took this picture during the 1980s when Khalid worked at Deer Lodge which was just next door to the famous Chateau Lake Louise. We would hang out in the old chateau, reading poems to each other or having long, abstract conversations about Mughal architecture, and regale him with tales of travelling through Africa and the Middle East.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I first met Khalid when I was staying at the Spray River Youth Hostel in 1982. It was a wilderness hostel in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, six kilometres from the vaunted Banff Springs Hotel, up the boulder strewn Spray River fire road.

My first introduction to him was by the legendary Spray River hostel parent, Tony Chatham in 1983. Tony introduced him as just plain—“Hal”.

I looked at Hal and thought to myself, this guy does not look like a Hal or the 2001 Space Odyssey character of the same name. Moreover, I had just returned from a year long trip and this Hal guy looked like he was from the Indian subcontinent.

I looked at him, nattily dressed he was, and said—“Hal is not your real name, is it?”

He smiled and said with a slightly stilted English (upper class accent) “You are right, but no one can pronounce my real name, Khalid.”

Well, having travelled through Arab and Islamic countries in the past year, I had no problem with the guttural Kh sound and told him—“I’m not calling you Hal, but your rightful name—Khalid.”

We shook hands and this was the beginning of a great friendship which last until his untimely death in 1988.

Khalid Kiani was a very educated Pakistani guy from Lahore Grammar School and my mentor for Islamic and Mughal architecture.

We were supposed to have gone to a symposium in 1988 at Harvard on the Mughal holy site of Fatehpur Sikri held by Professor Stuart Carey Welch along with presenter Professor Lisa Golombek from (U of T) whom I would later take a class with at the ROM in 1993, but we never made it.

Khalid was a poet and one of his affluent Calgary friends got his poems published in Calgary. I never did get a copy of them because I was out of the country when he passed. Even today, there is a grant for students at the University of Calgary in his name for poetry.

He was the most educated and well read WOG I met (Western Oriental Gentleman) as he jokingly called himself. He called me an EOG (Eastern Oriental Gentleman).

Circa 1985, Jan Neuspiel and Khalid Kiani in downtown Banff..

When Kiani wrote letters to me, he would sign off Khalid Kiani, great-grandson of his Excellent Nawab, the Amjad Ali Shah, O.B.E. During the Mughal Empire, the emperor would designate those rulers who would rule in his name–they were called nawabs. Khalid’s great-grandfather was the last Nawab of Sardhana.

There is a scene in A Passage to India where the Muslim Doctor Aziz talks about how his ancestors rode on the back of elephants during Mughal times–that was actually Khalid’s ancestors who did that. His other great-grandfather was Nawab Qasim Jan, a courtier in the royal courts of Mughal Delhi.

I also had my own A Passage to India experience with Khalid.

He made no excuses for his bisexual nature and I met a number of his male lovers, one was a big time lawyer in Calgary. When I visited Khalid in his garret at Deer Lodge he did the unusual for a Pakistani man, much like Doctor Aziz did for Mr. Fielding in the movie A Passage to India. Khalid showed me a picture of his wife-to-be, a beautiful young woman in a dazzling, red chintz shalwar kameez who waited for him back in Pakistan.

If Khalid had been a traditional Muslim Pakistani male this act of showing me his wife would have never happened especially with me as a “westerner”. It was to have been an arranged marriage. I felt honoured then later sad because it was never meant to be.

Khalid’s mom was the first women to get a PhD in Pakistan, she was called Dr. Mrs. Aquila Kiani. She also taught at the University of Alaska of all places, finally residing in Vancouver and working for the BC government.

She was a riot. Khalid told me this story later. Unbeknownst to his mom, Khalid worked as the night auditor at Deer Lodge in Lake Louise. When she visited him and found out that he was living in a garret at the lodge–she told Khalid–

Oh Kiani, I didn’t put you through Lahore Grammar School (very elite school in Pakistan) and university, so you could work as a night auditor.”

He and his mom were related to the famous British author’s named Shah: great-uncle, Idries Shah, was an authority on Sufis and their religion Sufism. He had many books published about the Sufis including one with noted British poet, Robert Graves. Idries also had a humourous side and wrote about the silly escapades of the Mullah Nasruddin. Khalid’s great-aunt, Amina Shah, also wrote children’s books and was the Chairperson for the College of Storytellers. I had bought books on Sufism and the Mullah Nasruddin, and had a cassette with stories read by Amina Shah.

Khalid said he used to meet her with his mom at the Commonwealth Club in London for tea.

I suppose because he came from a long list of storytellers that it was only natural that he would regale my friends with Mulla Nasruddin tales and would tell jokes about stupid Americans and Canucks instead of the other way around.

We both went to see the Out of Africa movie when it came out in 1985 and he would often repeat the opening phrase—“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” He said it was a sad film, I told him the saddest thing for me was the last lines on the screen saying that Karen Blixen had never returned to Africa. When I first saw the movie with Khalid, I was in between my own trips to Africa. Well, it is 32 years later, and I still go in and out of Africa, but now to see my Kenyan family.

Khalid died from complications from taking anti-tuberculin drugs and AZT for AIDs. I could be wrong, but I think he was one of the first to receive the AZT drug in Alberta. Like Chatwin, Khalid was, at times, having trouble with having AIDs. He claimed to be bisexual, but, truth be told, I never saw him with or talk about women. Still, he was a great cook, a bon vivant and conversationalist–much like Chatwin–we would talk ad nauseum about everything from curries to cupolas. He was in his element talking about Islamic or Mughal architecture as he was about giving recipes or reciting poems.

One of his favourite poets was Coleridge and Khalid would often quote from his favourite poem, especially the part –

The Sensual and the Dark rebel in vain,

Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game

They burst their manacles and wear the name

Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!

Somewhere, maybe in my storage locker in Kelowna, I have a recording of this by Khalid.

One of the last pictures of Khalid in Calgary, 1987. L-R Susan Wright, Jack Laustanau, Janine Miedzik, Khalid and me

We need more Khalid Kiani’s.

Unfortunately, I could not attend his funeral in Calgary as I was overseas at the time. I did write a eulogy for that service, but I doubt anyone read it. Seems the only time my eulogies get read is when I read them out myself.

Nevertheless, I rejoice in spending that precious, yet short time knowing him—a great soul.

Maybe the poet is gay

But he’ll be heard anyway

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2 thoughts on “The late great Khalid Kiani”

  1. You are right. We need more Khalids. Your friendship with this amazing “Wog” should be viewed as a rare privilege, even an honour.


  2. A very beautiful tribute to what sounds like a true friendship with an inspiring and interesting character. You should send to his family.


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