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Dr Ragab's Universal Language

The Power of the Mind Should Never Be Underestimated...

Charlatan. Guru. Master of disguise. Ahead of his time, wise beyond his years, a simple opportunist or the great pretender; however you choose to see him, one fact is certain: Dr Ragab is a mysterious man. Talked about by pretty much everyone in 1920s Cairo, only a few get the chance to make his acquaintance, and fewer still - one person, in fact - get to study his life lessons. Hertwig is that lucky soul. Or not so lucky, perhaps: not when he finds himself, at the very end of the second world war, imprisoned in a bunker in Germany by a gang of thugs. To make matters worse, it's not just any bunker; it's Hertwig's own bunker, and he's built it to be 100 per cent escape-proof. And yet ...there is a possible way out. Not in the conventional sense, it's true, but when you're holed up several feet underground, unsure of how long your captors plan to keep you alive, convention isn't necessarily a good thing, as Dr Ragab would be the first to proclaim - and it's his universal language that may just provide Hertwig with the escape route he needs. As unconventional as the eponymous Ragab, Robert Twigger's novel takes the reader on a surreal journey, exploring such diverse topics as far right ideologies, middle east mysticism and the art of communicating via food preparation and presentation. Clever, funny and thought-provoking, "Dr Ragab's Universal Language" is, in every sense, beyond belief: part tall tale and part self-help manual, it is, like Dr R himself, impossible to pin down - or, indeed, to put down.

To be released on July 3rd 2009. Pre-Order your copy now by clicking on the following link: Dr Ragab's Universal Language


what is a polymath?

A polymath is someone who has ‘learned much’. It is often applied to those who are knowledgeable in two academic subject areas but really polymathy is far wider than this. The polymath attempts to improve in physical, intellectual and artistic arenas. The other disabling notion is that all polymaths are geniuses like Leonardo Da Vinci. Not at all. Polymathy describes an approach, not a result. The term ‘blue collar polymath’ describes someone who may be good at fixing things, plays a musical instrument and is studying a foreign language. I have always been fascinated by polymaths and polymathy and this site is a reflection of this.

Meanwhile, my novel about the polymathic Dr Ragab continues to garner good praise both in the press and on Amazon. Kate Saunders of the Times writes that Dr Ragab's Universal Language is, "Wonderfully inventive and entertaining." 

Elle magazine call it "an utterly believable mystery story."

Anna Goodall, editor of Penpusher Literary magazine has written that the book shows "a great lightness of touch...the whole novel is very deftly written as well as being humourous throughout….a fantastic read and I urge you to purchase it..."


review from 'notes from the underground'


and if you really liked it...

Amazon is a funny old game these days with semi-professional though I guess unpaid reviewers spouting off their views...which is fine...however if you are a normal reader who just liked Dr Ragab then please post something up on Amazon!


interview with Oxford Times

reprinted interview with A.S.H. Smyth of The Oxford Times 3 September 2009


Dr Ragab, I presume.

Times’ man crosses desert in search of missing Oxfordshire author



“Er… Mr Twigger?”


For a couple of years now, ever since I read Lost Oasis, I’ve had an on-off arrangement to interview Robert Twigger. Only problem is, he left Oxford in 2004. These days he lives in Cairo.


So time came and went; Twigger was in London, I was away; he was going to visit but got something in his eye (I know; but seriously…). And then I found myself with a girlfriend who a) hadn’t been to Egypt and b) was prepared to bankroll the trip – at least in the ‘short’ term – and suddenly it was all go, without a second thought as to whether Twigger, presumably enjoying the pace of his self-imposed exile, even wanted to be tracked down, and least of all by a journalist (I mean, did anyone actually ask Livingstone?).


Now it is 6pm sharp (+/- 10 minutes, for what one might charitably call the ‘Cairene time-difference’) on a Friday evening, and, as per our Phileas Fogg-style arrangement, I am standing amidst the faded grandeur™ of the Windsor Hotel bar. As my eyes adjust to the gloom I begin the process of elimination. Two women. A gawky Russian kid with a laptop. A moustachioed Arab gentleman mopping up the bar.


Then, in one corner, a man in collarless shirt and chinos, with a side-parting and a singular spectacle (as in ‘pair of’, but minus one lens) which gives him a curious Mr-Bean-as-cartoon-villain air. Is this the 43-year-old winner of the Newdigate Prize for poetry, author of books on martial arts and endangered deer, researcher into manhood in the C.21st, hunter of the world’s longest snake, ‘walking man’ and philosopher behind the art of Zenslacking? Could be, if he’s shaved off his beard and aged a few years since his last author photo.


Throwing timidity to the winds – I have crossed Sinai for this meeting, after all – I approach, trying to recall a single quotable shibboleth from Ice Cold In Alex




PJ O’Rourke (blessings be upon him) once wrote that “good reporters don’t ask any questions because they are too busy getting drunk with the author” – forgetting only to mention that this depends rather heavily on the author in question.


By this standard, and any other, Robert Twigger is an interviewer’s dream. An infectious cocktail of schoolboy enthusiasm and surfer’s cool (he says “man” quite a lot, with varying degrees of irony), he talks unprompted for hours, dresses an encyclopaedic knowledge in a light bantering style, cares what his interlocutor thinks (dirty little interviewers’ secret, there), and knows all the best places to get a drink in a nominally abstemious nation.


Over the course of a beer or six, conversation roams around C. 21st smoking cultures (he jokingly recommends taking up smoking to make high-level contacts at publishing events); ‘bouldering’, and the putative causes of his detached retina (whence the spectacle); his early career selling life-insurance to nurses (while a chain-smoker himself); whether or not desert knowledge constitutes intellectual property; and how his Lost Oasis book-launch fell flat (the invitation consisted of nothing but a set of GPS co-ordinates; but when the guests all cheated by using Google Maps – with the assorted misinformation therein – he ended up just having to tell them where the event was).


Every now and then, talk even extends to Twigger’s writing.


Dr Ragab’s Universal Language – his seventh book, and first novel – was published in July, to considerable praise. Begun seven years ago (“I should’ve started earlier!”), it concerns the diary of one Professor Hertwig, imprisoned in a German WWII bunker (of his own devising) as narrated, many years later, by a jobbing journalist… who just happens to be a bunker nerd. 


To resolve his real (and metaphorical) dungeon dilemma, the imprisoned Professor begins to reflect on his time as a student of Dr Ragab, a Cairene polymath of ambiguous – not to say ‘questionable’ – spiritual and intellectual powers to whom the young Hertwig apprenticed himself, in the 1920s, in the search for a more fundamental wisdom. In parallel, our present-day bunker-loving suburbanite narrator tries to follow these otherworldly teachings and apply them to his own, more-prosaic travails in West London (and, so doing, gives himself flu).


“It’s about learning, about going to the East, trying to find knowledge,” says the emigrant Twigger – and I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a certain overlap between the book’s characters and their creator (at one point, characterising Dr Ragab, Twigger actually says “Is he a charlatan or not? Is he actually teaching me something?”). What stands out, above all, is Twigger’s own insatiable lust for knowledge in all its forms, from the frameworks of his own Zen-like philosophy to the gems of trivia he dispenses so gleefully.


Twigger is a polymath for modern times. On his blog – – he writes admiringly of Lockheed’s ‘skunk works’ research facility, in which the genius-dorks were left to play unsupervised by the accountants; he called his semi-parodic Real Men Eat Puffer Fish (And 93 Other Dangerous Things to Consider) “an excursion into the kind of blue collar polymathy exhibited by both [my] grandfathers – men who could hunt, repair almost anything, build things and make you laugh”; he mourns (in Dr Ragab) “the always dull version of enlightenment promised by academia”; and when I enquire, perfunctorily, about his eye I get a ten-minute mini-lecture on the workings of the retina, based on his reading around the subject. If Twigger is any of his characters, he is Dr Ragab himself.


Much of our conversation (for instance, that Hitler believed Esperanto to be a Jewish plot and had the inventor’s family killed in Treblinka) corresponds directly to what I subsequently read in my advance proof of Dr Ragab. This is always fun; but it takes me several more weeks to realise that Twigger was not simply regurgitating the contents of his novel by way of a plug. Quite the reverse. Universal languages; bunkers; mind games; World War II; Cairo; the desert – the book exists as a repository for all this information, a mechanism enabling the author to grapple with topics that intrigue him. When he writes of Giordano Bruno, ex-monk, victim of the Inquisition, and inventor of the mind-palace mnemonic method, I can’t help but wonder if Dr Ragab isn’t a paper manifestation of Twigger’s own mental treasure house.




At dawn on Saturday, in overdue tribute to Lost Oasis, we drive out to Wadi Digla, an occasional riverbed and ancient trade-route running due east from Twigger’s New Maadi home suburb (also home to the WWII Long Range Desert Group HQ) to the Red Sea 120kms away.


A lift in Twigger’s battered short-bed LandCruiser is a treat in itself, like getting to ride Lawrence’s Ghazala. The car is famous in its own right: it previously belonged to Mido, Egypt’s champion rally driver. “I learned desert driving the way I learn everything,” says Twigger, casually: “by reading, watching videos, and hanging out with people who are doing it.” (Later, talking about his new-found experiences with fiction-writing, he laughs, “There are probably more efficient ways to learn what I’ve learned!”)


Though Twigger prefers the great sands of the Western Desert – “it’s more like my idea of a classical desert” – the stony Eastern Desert, “a Biblical desert”, is a very useful pre-expeditionary training area. Cheek-by-jowl with Cairo, abutted by construction sites (either the city sprawls or the desert does) and adjoining an army ordnance range, Digla itself is a protected nature reserve. Plenty of expats come here, to jog or for the “world-class mountain-biking terrain”. (“I loved living in Oxford, but terrain-wise it’s quite boring.”)


As we wander, so, predictably, delightfully, does the conversation: Spalding Gray (the eye again), storytelling, and why writers should avoid reading their own work (Eliot, Larkin); tone-deafness and tone-dumbness (Twigger was once paid to sing on a programme demonstrating that the tone-deaf could be taught to carry a tune); the formal Arabic used on TV; Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots; a man who’s sussed how to recycle plastic bags by ironing them into tarpaulins.


By 9am it’s scorching, and we sit, drinking water, in a niche in the cliff, identifying fox-tracks and wheeling birds, and plotting an ambush on a runner a hundred meters below.


In a couple of days he’s heading up to Dakhla to negotiate with Bedouin guides for the purchase of camels. Soon he plans to lead an expedition in the footsteps of the German desert explorer, Gerhard Rohlfs (1873: “probably spying”). “I love copying what old explorers have done. You get such an insight into how they thought.” (Typically Twigger, he’s following a failed expedition. Rohlfs attempted to travel from Dakhla to Kharga oases – at 600kms the longest distance in the Sahara between water sources – but turned back. “Basically I think he bottled out.”)


We walk on and, somewhere in what is literally the 11th hour of our interview, as I trot behind him, trying to take notes and photos and keep flies off my dripping face, he turns and says, grinning, “Got any more questions, then?”


I don’t (have the breath for any); so he starts telling me about the new novel he’s working on, a detective story in which the detective happens to be a cat. The cat doesn’t speak, obviously – and so begins a disquisition on feline intuition and why pets act all sheepish when you’re naked.



Dr Ragab’s Universal Language is published by Picador, £12.99 Hardback






review- Guardian

2            Ian Sansom

            The Guardian, Saturday 29 August 2009

            Article history

Robert Twigger will be familiar to readers from his self-exploring, self-excelling non-fiction; most famously and delightfully, 1997's Angry White Pyjamas, in which he recounts his year spent learning aikido with the Tokyo riot police. Twigger appears in his books as a sardonic, terribly English, grandly-self-appointed-but-nonetheless-slightly-apologetic-about-it kind of guru figure, who travels, adventures, writes, and is a proponent of what he calls "lifeshifting". He now extends himself further, lifeshiftingly, into fiction, with Dr Ragab's Universal Language - which is basically a Paulo Coelho book as written by a funny English bloke.

Dr. Ragab's Universal Language

by Robert Twigger

304pp, Picador, £12.99


Buy Dr Ragab's Universal Language at the Guardian bookshop

The narrator is a wimpish slacker living in west London who has been commissioned to write the history of a German aluminium company. He is also obsessed with bunkers, air-raid shelters, abandoned tunnels and pill-boxes - something to do with "their darkness, their permanence". He dutifully travels to Germany and, during the course of his research, discovers a manuscript - hidden, miraculously, in a bunker - written by a Dr Ragab, proposing a method for learning a universal language. He also discovers an account, by a Martin Hertwig, a relative of the founder of the aluminium company, of how he learnt Dr Ragab's universal language and used it to save himself from imprisonment in a bunker in Germany after the second world war. The book consists of the bunker-obsessed narrator's translation of Hertwig's manuscript, with the narrator himself enjoying various minor adventures and self-revelations before eventually overcoming his "lack of push and thrust", leaving his own metaphorical west London bunker, and moving to Egypt.

Hertwig's account of his tutelage under Dr Ragab in Cairo in the 1920s is believably odd and thoroughly entertaining. Ragab is the kind of spiritual teacher who encourages self-awareness through pointless activities such as jumping up and down while talking, and drawing mystical symbols in the sand. It is not clear whether he is a crank, a genius or a huckster. But whatever Ragab's true identity, his teaching, as the narrator explains, "was about, or seemed to be about, maintaining concentration, or, rather, a certain intensity of involvement in the task - almost despite the absurdity of it all".

One reads on, despite the absurdity of it all. Curious episode follows curious episode with, it seems, mere adjacency the governing principle. Hertwig and Ragab go on a journey to visit the lost pillar of Seth. Hertwig is trapped in a bunker by roaming brigands. There is a thinly veiled satiric attack on the Swedish author Sven Lindqvist, author of Benchpress (1988), merrily traduced as Sven Marquist, author of A Short History of Bodybuilding. Lots of other weird stuff happens - penis piercing, bunker building, post-Holocaust chaos.

The real pleasure of reading Twigger derives from his knowing things other people don't, knowledge he has carefully cultivated. His non-fiction books combine Boy's Own adventures with sharp observation and esoteric ideas; now, as a novelist, he treats the form as essentially just another vehicle for transmitting this extraordinary knowledge. Dr Ragab's Universal Language is thus part allegorical quest, part philosophy and part pure hokum. Which is why Coelho springs to mind - but also Denis Diderot, or Jonathan Swift, or Herman Hesse: writers who created work both outlandish and quite universal.