“HE squinted down at the shoulder-strap on the summer uniform of the tank commander whom he had chosen as his first target.
He was about twenty metres away, sitting there, looking bored. The two small stars on the red stripe, two more on either side. A captain. The Soviets must be sending officers in for training. He crept forward. When he got to within ten metres of the man, who was now lighting a cigarette, the colonel remembered that he was a Pashtun, of the Barakzai clan, and could not attack a man without warning. Now and again, famous in history this kind of bravado possessed the frontier man.”
The above is a small anecdote from a long tale spun by Idries Shah in his one-off novel titled ‘Kara Kush’, published in 1986 at the peak of the resistance movement launched by the Afghans against the Soviet invasion of their country in December 1979.
The fabled bravado referred to in the said incident was perhaps the last of its kind occurring in and reported from the Pashtun or Pakhtun lands. That aura of sheer awe has undoubtedly disappeared from the Pashtun milieu as a result of which countless men, women and children have since lost their lives.
Idries Shah is little known in our part of the world, though he was a darling of the literati in the Western Europe. Shah was born in 1924 at Simla in India in a family that claimed a thousand year old ancestry from the Paghman Gardens near Kabul in Afghanistan. The family soon thereafter shifted to England with Shah’s Scottish mother, and where the man who in the years to come would gain international fame for his seminal work on Sufism mainly grew up.
Idries Shah’s best known work is ‘The Sufis’, published to international acclaim in 1963, and subsequently several other titles in the same vein. Kara Kush --‘The Eagle’ in Dari was an aberration, an obsession with a cause that forced an ancient looking, sturdily built, brown-complexioned Sufi writer into embedding with the resistance fighters called ‘Mujahideen.’
It is quite astonishing to note a writer brought up in England and writing for his mainly western audience, and afflicted with a serious heart ailment becoming one with the soil and people with only vague bonds of lineage to share with and speak for in the fast advancing years of his life.
Kara Kush provides a fulfilling reading into the Afghan history, culture, geography and ethnology as the writer takes his readers on a tour de force of the snow, covered mountains, parched deserts, fecund vineyards and orchards, dense woods and dirt tracks of a country at war with a super power.
Kara Kush is Idries Shah’s Iliad of the Afghans wherein he introduces supernatural forces to emphasise the enormity of the occasion and the earnestness of the struggle waged by a ragtag soldiery against Goliath.
Amid the war cry ‘Hala, Hala, Hala!’ -- ‘Attack, Attack, Attack! The Afghan fighters, as conceived by Idries Shah in Kara Kush, performed feats that would humble any military worth its might into submission.
The story in Kara Kush revolves around its hero, Adam Durrani, an American educated Afghan engineer, who has returned to his homeland to organise small bands of fighters against the forces of invasion. His allies include his childhood friend, the beautiful Noor, the Australian David Khalil, the Central Asian Captain Azambai and a group of freedom fighters armed with catapults, stones, and kites with bombs attached thereto.
Men did not figure alone in these superlative acts of valour and exemplary conduct befitting of true warriors; women were in tow matching their counterparts in all spheres.
“Kara Kush, they have tasted martyrdom, and they have found it sweet,” comments the elderly Karima accompanying Adam Durrani in one mission when the latter removes the veil from the faces of his fallen companions. She goes on to say, “I have killed seven men today, Komondon (Commander).”
Idries Shah, the master of Sufi writing, has weaved a strong plot interspersed with acts of supernatural chivalry and unique gestures of magnanimity. “Take this prisoner to the city with the others, and don’t harm him. Captives are protected by God,” Adam directs his men while handing them over the custody of an unrepentant Russian, contemptuously swearing at and calling the bluff of his captors.
Nikodemov, the pilot in his Mi.24 pursuing Adam and his men, is administered the same genial hospitality when the latter finds himself trapped in the intricate Nuristan landscape after his plane is brought down crashing by a sniper aiming at him from his position on a razor thin cliff.
When the novel hit the stalls it was an immediate bestseller as overzealous readers in the west eager to see the discomfiture of their arch cold war enemy pounced on it with open hands. Doris Lessing, Shah’s most vocal proponent and the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 2007, called it, “the best war novel I have read.” The Daily Mail called it “a whopping epic of the Afghan guerillas’ fight back against the Russian invaders.”
Much water has since flowed in the rivers across both Afghanistan and Pakistan carrying with it the epic chronicled by Idries Shah. Another epic was what people did not wish to be written; but that was not what fate had ordained as another endless period of trauma ensued. The passing away of Shah in 1996 coincided with the metamorphosis of Mujahideen into Taliban. The catapult wielding fighters turned overnight into teenaged suicide bombers, and adept at killing their detractors with a heretofore untold brutality.
The neo-guerillas have dispensed with all manners of both profound and subtle parameters of good conduct from the time tested code of their forefathers. They have rubbished what Idries Shah had tried to tell the outside world to be an anathema to a Pakhtun to attack his enemy without forewarning him. The conflict has spilled over into Pakistan, consuming thousands of unwary innocent people in its all enveloping fury.
Who could forget the young eight year old boy standing alone outside the gate of his school waiting for his parents to pick him up when all his school mates had left? Moments before his parents arrived he was killed in a bomb blast without being warned by his gutless enemies. And who could forget the lady teacher waiting vainly for her husband with her three kids, including an infant, at the forlorn gate of her school when all else had since long left? Like the young school boy, her husband too had not been warned by his cowardly enemies not to visit his workplace at the courts where he embraced martyrdom in a bomb blast.
It indeed requires far more space than covered in Homer’s thirteen thousand plus lines Iliad to recall the lives of those thousands of innocent people devoured by the savagery of the present times. In fact the convenience with which we have forgotten about all those people is as unforgiving as the manner of their passing away. Our cold callousness shows as if they had never lived among us.
Idries Shah’s heroes have indeed shamed their mentor as beasts appear to have entered the dead carcass of the Kara Kush, killing and maiming indiscriminately. One only wonders how the great Sufi writer would have scribed the present saga dictated by the ravenous beasts walking in our midst and exploding themselves.