by Victor-M Amela, of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, interviews Tahir Shah.
[Translation from the original Spanish piece which appeared in La Vanguardia on 2 August 2018.] TAHIR SHAH, son and representative of the Sufi writer Idries Shah
I’m 51. I was born in London and live in Casablanca. I’m a writer and explorer of life. I’m divorced and have two children, Ariane (17) and Timur (15). Politics? Liberal. Beliefs? I respect them all but don’t follow any. My father used to be friends with Robert Graves, Salinger, Doris Lessing…
The Book of the Book
His flight from Bristol has just landed in Barcelona. He’s two hours late but in a good mood. He tells me how one of the passengers on the plane was shouting about the delay… and laughs. “I once spent 16 days in a cell in Pakistan and had pistols pressed against my head as a game. Am I going to get upset about a two-hour delay? No!” He makes me laugh. We laugh together about how funny life is. Together we read some of his father’s amazing stories, and laugh some more. One of them goes like this: “Last night a voice whispered to me: ‘There’s no such thing as a voice whispering in the night…’.” I read The Book of the Book by Idries Shah, his father, which is something of a test: it either makes you angry or you laugh. I won’t say anything more.
Victor-M Amela. – I’ve read some of the stories by your father, Idries Shah…
Tahir Shah – He published more than 300 stories, and essays on psychology, magic, Sufism, spirituality…
V. A. – I don’t understand some of the stories.
T. S. – Ha! That’s what my sisters and I used to say when he told them to us as children.
V. A. – What did he say?
T. S. – That every time he told us a story it was as if he were giving us an injection… and that we would notice the effects with time.
V. A. – Which ones? When?
T. S. – According to each moment and the circumstances. I know that I have a blood stream in my body, but I also have a stream of stories.
V. A. – I’ll borrow that metaphor from you.
T. S. – See? It’s already working in you. My father used to say that every story is a sophisticated machine, a mechanism which will work inside you.
V. A. – Another good metaphor.
T. S. – A story is like one of those objects which changes depending on the angle from which you view it. That’s why only you can interpret it. That’s why my father used to say that we would eventually feel their effect…
V. A. – Who was your father?
T. S. – Idries Shah was a writer who wished to inject traditional Eastern wisdom into the West through his writings.
V. A. – Did he achieve that?
T. S. – He published his work over half a century – from the 1940s to the 1990s – and his readers and admirers included Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Graves, J D Salinger, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing…
V. A. – Borges?
T. S. – Borges admired my father’s Sufi teaching. And my father used to say that Borges’s stories were very Oriental.
V. A. – Graves?
T. S. – I used to see him swimming in the sea under a full moon; as a child I played with his children at his house in Deiá. Today it’s a museum, which makes me sad.
V. A. – Did Graves and Shah work together?
T. S. – Graves encouraged my father to publish The Sufis, for which he wrote a fantastic introduction.
V. A. – Salinger, Hughes, Lessing…
T. S. – For me, Doris Lessing wasn’t a Nobel Prize-winning author, but a lovely elderly lady who used to sit in an armchair in my house. She moved from Marxism to Sufism thanks to my father and claimed that this was how she started to write science fiction.
V. A. – Your father had an influence on others.
T. S. – I know he changed more than one person’s life. “Give more than you receive,” he taught me. And I’ve taught this in turn to my children.
V. A. – What more did he teach you?
T. S. – “Don’t imitate, be original.” He hated routine and convention. He loved the unusual and strange. “Travel! This world is a jewel. Use your imagination!” He saw a treasure in every person and enjoyed exploring it. He would speak to everyone and saw the extraordinary in everything… without having to go as far as Tibet.
V. A. – Who taught him?
T. S. – His father, member of an Afghan family considered to be descendants of Muhammad, who inherited a principality in India given to them by the British. And he left it all behind to bring up my father. In Argentina, London…
V. A. – Have you never tried to get those family lands back?
T. S. – As a boy I suggested it once to my father, and he got angry with me: “You have no idea of how brave your grandfather was to leave all that behind!” I learned.
V. A. – Tell me one of Idries Shah’s stories.
T. S. – It’s nighttime and Nasrudin is looking for something on the ground, in the street, under a street lamp.
V. A. – Who’s Nasrudin?
T. S. – A traditional Sufi figure who is both wise and a fool.
V. A. – Unusual, someone your father would like.
T. S. – “What are you looking for?” one of his neighbours asks on seeing him. “My house key,” replies Nasrudin. “I’ll help you,” says the neighbour, and he gets down beside him. Another neighbour passes by, and the same thing happens. And another. After a while, many people are crawling on the ground looking for the lost key.
V. A. – Do they find it?
T. S. – No, and so one of them asks, “Where exactly did you lose the key, Nasrudin?” And Nasrudin says, “Outside my house, but it’s dark there and here there’s more light.”
V. A. – I won’t ask you to interpret it for me.
T. S. – Of course. It will work inside you. Share it.
V. A. – I’d like another story, please.
T. S. – Nasrudin crosses the border every day with his donkey, the saddlebags filled with straw. When he returns, the bags are empty. He does this for several months and retires, a rich man. His neighbours can’t understand it, as straw isn’t more expensive on the other side. “How did you do it?” one of them asked Nasrudin some time later. “Easy,” said Nasrudin. “I wasn’t smuggling straw, but donkeys.”
V. A. – Another story.
T. S. – Nasrudin persuades his tight-fisted neighbour to lend him a cooking pot. “I want it back in one piece!” says the neighbour.
V. A. – Uh oh…
T. S. – The next day Nasrudin gives it back to him intact, but inside there’s a smaller pot. “Your pot has given birth,” says Nasrudin. The miser jumps for joy: he’s got a new pot for free. Some time later Nasrudin asks to borrow the pot again.
V. A. – And this time the miser is happy to oblige, right?
T. S. – Yes, and he lends Nasrudin the pot. A few days pass and Nasrudin doesn’t give it back to him. Annoyed, the miser goes to Nasrudin’s house to get it. Nasrudin, however, is dressed in black. “Just as I told you your pot had given birth, now I have to tell you that it has passed away. You were happy then; now is a time for mourning.”