Saira Shah on taking her Father’s Sufi literature back ‘home’ – and searching in Old Istanbul for the right Turkish translator

Stumbling through the streets of Istanbul, I wondered yet again if I was on the right path.

Following handwritten directions scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper, I found myself instructed to pass under one of the spaghetti flyovers that tangle above this immense city.

I tried to dismiss my impatience, my sense that I didn’t have enough time for this wild goose chase.

I was in Istanbul for only a few days, following up leads that a team of fixers and I had spent months methodically assembling.

I hoped our research would lead me to the editor of my new translation programme, the person to whom we could entrust editing the translations of ten titles of Shah’s works in Turkish.

I had been conducting interviews, meeting many very different people, as I went through my painstakingly-compiled list.

A lot of them were intelligent and highly-qualified. But for me, something was missing.

I knew I would know it when I found it, but it was impossible to describe, let alone ask for it in my list of requirements.

This particular address was an afterthought, the result of a chance, last-minute encounter hundreds of miles away in rural France.

And the latest stage in an ongoing journey that began with the creation of the Idries Shah Foundation back in 2013.

Saira Shah

Saira Shah

As one of the ISF’s first projects, I pledged to return my father’s Sufic ideas to the Islamic cultures from which he borrowed and adapted them.

At that time, the Turkish language was far from my mind.

It wasn’t difficult to settle on Persian as the language that we would start with.

For me, there was an element of personal choice: my degree subject was Persian and Arabic and I’d spent my early twenties travelling and working in Afghanistan.

I knew it would be far easier to learn how to run a translation programme in a language of which I had some knowledge.

It seemed like the right choice for several other important reasons: not least because of the immense love and identification my father had with Afghanistan and because of the turbulent history of the country, which could certainly use some stabilizing ideas.

Moreover, Persian was the language from which my father drew much of his material – whether from 13th century Sufi classical literature, or from oral dervish sources.

To return Shah’s material to its original language, we’d have to carry out some detective work to track back to his sources. Sources that have often gone underground (like many dervish schools) or have been neglected.

I hoped that by tackling the biggest job first, we’d provide a template that would help me work on other language programmes in the future.

If, back then, I’d realised quite the extent of the challenge we were taking on, I might have hesitated.

Idries Shah often used to quote the great Sufi poet and teacher Jalaluddin Rumi, insisting “I am not a scholar from a book!”

The tomb of Sufi poet and teacher Jalaluddin Rumi, Konya, Turkey
The tomb of Sufi poet and teacher Jalaluddin Rumi, Konya, Turkey. Rumi arrived in what is now modern-day Turkey in 1228 — a refugee from the Mongol onslaught.

Like Rumi, he followed Sufi doctrine that teaching materials should be shaped for a specific time, place and people. Nor was Shah afraid to adapt traditional materials to better fit the needs of his current audience.

Shah drew upon Eastern sources like fuel, material to be put to use in order to create an effect. And where it was called for, he created entirely new material (mostly in the form of stories) for his Western audience.

Some of that was manifestly unsuitable for today’s Eastern culture.

We do not like to edit Shah’s works – so we were forced to select titles that seemed best to fit the needs of the cultures to which we were returning them.

Then there was the question of how to deal with quotes from classical literature that are well-known in the Persian speaking world – but in a slightly different version to that which Shah used.

Add into the mix that my father had a vast body of Persian language raw material to work with. More than sixty years ago, he began borrowing and adapting ideas from the Sufi culture he’d been immersed in almost from birth. Besides millions of words of classical Persian literature, there were teaching stories and folktales, lessons from poetry and history, the syllabuses of traditional dervish schools, collections of sayings of the Prophet, proverbs, jokes…the list goes on and on.

Luckily, I soon got help and support from people much more erudite than I am. In particular, Saadi Haeri – who became what I can best describe as our content editor – was utterly tireless in his pursuit of original sources. Saadi was ably helped by a bank of well-wishers, including David Pendlebury. And the whole enterprise was underpinned by a team of translators, literary editors and proof readers.

Often our team pored through masses of Persian classical material trying to locate original quotes. Quite a few moonlighting journalists at the BBC Persian service as well as academics across the Persian speaking world were roped in.

Overall, while daunting, the project has been a privilege. Doing it the right way, not merely the fastest way, has brought its own rewards.

As we worked, our team began to see that what we at first found frustrating – such as occasions when Shah seemed to inaccurately paraphrase eleventh to thirteenth century material – was in fact instructive.

We were getting a privileged view into the mind of an active, adaptive Sufi teacher. His raw material had been written for a different place and people entirely. Like a basket-weaver he pulled threads out of older vessels and shaped them into something that would be of practical use to people here and now.

After a couple of false starts we began settling into a methodology. Each new title was first translated by a regular literary translator. When it was finished, Saadi began a line-by-line scrutiny to check that the translations stayed as close to Shah’s original text as possible. Then the text was edited for literary style and accuracy. Sometimes the back and forth with the Persian literary team went on for months for a single title. Finally the book cover was designed to nod to the English language series while appealing to its own target audience.

As we worked, the situations in both Afghanistan and Iran were evolving. Each country and population continues to throw up its own challenges.

First of all, there’s the thorny question of language. Although Iranians and Afghans can understand each other’s written Persian, it’s another matter whether they fully accept it. (Think UK and US editions.) In order to make sure that the books were well-received by each population, it was decided to produce books in both Iranian and Afghan dialects.

Distribution in each country presents its own unique problems.

In the period during which we were translating our ten titles, Afghanistan’s infrastructure was collapsing in front of our eyes. Not only were roads bad, security often non-existent and literacy levels low, but the country was becoming more and more divided along ethnic and religious lines. The people we are principally interested in reaching – the poor, the dispossessed, women and the young – are the hardest to get physical copies of books to.

In Iran, the situation is different again.

While the country enjoys far better infrastructure and literacy rates, the leadership is highly sensitive to printed materials being distributed – and Sufism is a particular no-no.

ISF’s Dari edition of The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah.
ISF’s Dari edition of The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah.

At one point we had an interesting situation where our books were being printed by a company in Tehran and secretly shipped by lorry overland to Afghanistan.

We’re aware that there are hundreds of thousands of diasporic Iranians and Afghans, not to mention Persian-speakers from the Central Asian republics also to be reached.

We have found the internet to be a wonderful tool. When used correctly, it can cross the most impenetrable borders. We are working to make all our translations available for free online and to publicise their existence.

We also plan to build partnerships with NGOs working in Afghanistan and with Persian-speakers around the world.

We would like to do more for women, particularly Afghan women, whether at home or abroad. I have immensely benefited from my father’s liberated attitude to women’s development and education. Thanks to him, I grew up believing it should be possible for me to undertake anything that I consider worthwhile.

One project dear to my heart is to prepare an anthology specifically for women. I believe that Shah’s ideas, stressing as they do values of common sense, humour, balance, generosity and critical thinking skills, are valuable tools for anybody.

They are particularly useful for people who are not at the top of society’s ladder. They are a means of breaking free – both from internal destructive habits of thought and from external unfair restrictions placed by society on certain classes of people, including women.

While Shah emphasized that he was more than a therapist, his stories have been used in the treatment of traumatized populations, particularly female ones. It’s work that I would love to build on.

So the process of considering further applications and wider distribution continues.

However, the translation and editing aspect of the Persian programme as originally conceived is complete.

Ten specially selected titles have been translated and meticulously edited in both Farsi and Dari dialects (the languages of Iran and Afghanistan).

The immense initial work of scholarship is done. We have a template upon which to build other languages.

It led us, a few months ago, to an urgent question:

Which language and culture should we tackle next?

I’ve always loved the concept of ‘taking home’ some of the ideas that Shah borrowed and popularized in the West. I believe their originating cultures need those ideas now more than ever.

Since he died, many active Sufi communities in the East have been targeted and have disappeared. Sufi ideas – once woven through the fabric of cultures from Sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia – have been replaced with a mish mash of often extremist concepts drawn from political, economic and religious sources. For me, it is as if the bedrock of thought underpinning those cultures has disappeared – leaving people unequipped to assess and balance the storm of information and emotion blowing all around them.

As the Persian project drew to a close, I looked once again at my list of languages in the Eastern cultures from which Shah originally drew his materials, to try to work out where next to direct our attention.

In sheer numeric terms, Arabic wins the race, with over 400 million native speakers.

In addition, I have a background in Arabic language and literature. In my past career as a television reporter, I’ve covered conflicts in Iraq, in Southern Sudan, Algeria and in Israel and the Palestinian territories among others. In human terms, I’ve felt deep despair for societies where the moderating Sufi influence has seemed utterly lost.

However, after our experience with Persian, I hesitated to jump straight in to a region where the political situation is moving so quickly, and which might unravel before we got a chance to complete the translation part of our project.

I felt I need to prepare the ground – and myself – before tackling Arabic.

Turkey sticks out, along with Iran, as a major non-Arabic speaking component of the Middle East region. Like Iran it has vast regional influence and is geographically ‘in’ a Middle East dominated by Arabic speakers, but culturally not ‘of’ it.

It’s is no slouch in terms of population, with nearly 80 million native speakers.

Like all the countries on my list, it’s becoming more polarized and politically less stable.

Turkey has borne much of the brunt of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It’s currently home to 3.6 million of the 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide.

Turkey has borne much of the brunt of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It’s currently home to 3.6 million of the 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide.

Today, as throughout history, Turkey’s geographical position, stretched between Europe and Asia, is a force for both connection and conflict.

A few years ago, Turkey was looking Westwards, boldly hoping for EU membership. Now, it is pulled by turbulence from the East, full of refugees from a disintegrating Syria.

Turkey has borne much of the brunt of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It’s currently home to 3.6 million of the 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide.

The human cost of these conflicts is felt in the West, not least in the form of desperate migrants risking death to escape intolerable conditions at home and to try for a better life in Europe.

However, what I found most compelling when trying to decide where best to take our project forward is the strong tradition of liberal Sufism in Turkey.

There’s still a more or less universal familiarity with the stories of Mulla Nasrudin, who is generally considered by the Turks to be one of their own.

Not to forget that this is the geographical area that gave shelter to Rumi back in the thirteenth century, as it has done recently for so many desperate refugees.

Let’s allow Idries Shah to take up the dramatic tale of Rumi’s early life:

The Sufis book cover“The virtual destruction of Central Asia by Jenghiz Khan’s forces caused the dispersal of the Turkestan Sufis. Rumi’s father fled with his young son to Nishapur, where they met another great teacher of the same Sufi stream, the poet Attar, who blessed the child and 'spiritualized' him with the Sufi baraka. He presented to the boy a copy of his Asrarnama (Book of Secrets), written in verse."

"Sufi tradition has it that since the spiritual potential of the young Jalaluddin had been recognized by the contemporary masters, their concern for his protection and development became the motive for the travels of the refugee party. They left Nishapur with the saintly Attar’s words in their ears: “This boy will spark the fire of divine exaltation for the world.” The city was not safe. Attar, like Najmud-din, awaited his turn for a martyr’s grave, which he gained at the hands of the Mongols not long afterward."

“The Sufi group with their fledgling leader reached Baghdad, where they heard of the utter destruction of Balkh and the slaughter of its inhabitants. For some years they wandered, performing the pilgrimage to Mecca, returning northward to Syria and Asia Minor, visiting Sufi centers. Central Asia was falling apart under the relentless blows of the Mongols, and Islamic civilization, after less than six hundred years of life, seemed about to be snuffed out.

“Rumi’s father ultimately made his headquarters not far from Konia, which is associated with the name of St. Paul. The city was at this time in the hands of the Seljuk monarchs, and the King invited Jalaluddin to settle there. He accepted a professorial post, and continued instructing his son in the Sufi mysteries.”

From The Sufis - Read for free or buy online

Turkish Sufi culture benefited immensely from that act of charity towards a party of dispossessed asylum seekers. The reverberations of that original kindness can still be felt in society today.

Rumi lived most of his life here, wrote his great works and instituted what would become the Mevlevi Sufi Order, famous for its whirling dervishes.

My father used to say that their dance, a brand of physical meditation, was ‘prescribed’ for almost exactly the opposite condition of most people today: for students who were too passive, too phlegmatic.

Today’s world, he said, is too excitable, too led by emotion. And since his death that has only seemed to get worse.

My father loved Turkey – its juxtaposition of old and new, of East and West. The people, the food, the sense of constant renewal that comes with being at a cultural as well as a physical crossroads.

Now, like my father before me, I felt Turkey drawing me.

I had an instinct that this magnificent country, straddling East and West, should be the next focus of our work.

Whirling dervishes perform in Nevsehir, Turkey. “My father used to say that their dance, a brand of physical meditation, was ‘prescribed’ for almost exactly the opposite condition of most people today: for students who were too passive, too phlegmatic.”

Whirling dervishes perform in Nevsehir, Turkey

Whirling Dervishes are a tourist attraction in Istanbul today. Turkey has passed through governments – from Kemal Atatürk’s secularist republic to today’s brand of political Islam – which consider Sufism a force to be controlled.

Yet the Sufi tradition seems to permeate everything.

Living as I do in the West, I’m used to having to search hard for traces of Sufism: in nature, in people, and to a much lesser extent in the built environment. In Istanbul, Sufism is so entwined with the city’s history that the very stones themselves seem to shout with it.

Much of the wonderful architecture rises out of the ashes of the Byzantine Empire, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Muslim forces in 1453.

The 21-year-old Ottoman ruler, Mehmet II, had brought down what was effectively the last gasp of the Roman Empire – which had lasted nearly 1,500 years.

One senses that the City’s Muslim conquerors had some inkling of the value of the culture that had gone before. Mehmet made Constantinople his capital. The Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, was converted into a mosque.

The streets of Istanbul are a reminder that – even as conflict arises across geographical fault lines – out of conflict, cultural connections form.

The extraordinary mosques of the Ottomans build figuratively and sometimes literally on the Roman and Byzantine architecture that preceded them. They are both a soaring expression of worldly power and of their makers’ aspiration to transcend the mere physical.

It’s a reminder of Sufism as a philosophy that aims to help people deal fairly and efficiently with the realities of our everyday world while maintaining a sense of an overarching reality that connects us all.

As such it is capable of stabilizing individuals and whole societies, helping them to find a place that is ‘fulfilled and fulfilling’.

This, of course, is one of the reasons for taking Idries Shah’s materials ‘home’.

So here I was, sitting in one of the reception rooms at the historic Pera Palace hotel, originally built for passengers on the Orient Express, conducting interview after interview for the post of editor.

So far I’d faced disappointment.

I’d met person after person who was perfectly qualified on paper.

But I hadn’t found what I was looking for: a certain quality that would tell me that they had some understanding of the fundamentals of my father’s work.

I was on my second to last day in this beautiful, troubled, mysterious city.

Despite my best efforts, a gap suddenly appeared in my punishing schedule. I had half a day free.

One potential translator (who had written his CV in the form of a poem pastiching the Sufi masters) had urged me to take the ferry to cross from the European to the Asian side.

Ferries ply the Bosporus between Europe and Asia
Ferries ply the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia. “...these commuters are bicultural – they make the crossing from European to Asian mentality in their minds dozens of times every day.”

So, early on a beautiful late-spring day I strolled out of the Pera Palace Hotel and walked down to the waterfront. Five minutes later I was on a commuter ferry – daily transport for tens of thousands of office workers who make the scenic crossing across the dazzling blue of the Bosphorus Straits.

This twenty-minute ride between two continents must surely be one of the nicest commutes in the world.

I sat on the ferry’s wooden bench among people absorbed in their everyday lives, watching waiters staggering under the weight of huge trays laden with glasses of strong black Turkish tea. I reflected that, rather than being bilingual, these commuters are bicultural – they make the crossing from European to Asian mentality in their minds dozens of times every day.

As I sipped my glass of tea, one of the most impressive skylines of any city anywhere slipped past us. The Ottomans succeeded in making their domes appear to hover on the horizon as if they are weightless despite their enormous size.

My preoccupations began to fall away. I felt in suspension – between continents, between the Black and Marmara seas, between the sky and the blue water, between earth and sea, between worlds.

My father loved to quote one of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings: ‘Treat this world as I do, like a wayfarer, like a horseman who stops in the shade of a tree for a time, and then moves on.’

Chugging across the water, it was easy to slip into this state of engaged disengagement. I felt free to observe, without immediately consuming the input as emotion.

For my journey back, I took a taxi across the bridge between Asia and Europe. Another architectural feat of connection, this time a modern one, deliberately making a way across the divide.

As I stepped out of the car onto European soil, I reached into my pocket for my purse.

I pulled out a piece of paper that I’d placed there during a chance encounter in France days before my trip to Istanbul.

A German film producer and his wife happen to have a rural retreat in what is possibly the poorest and most unfashionable part of southern France. It’s somewhere deep in the area known as the ‘green Mediterranean’ – near Spain but too far from the coast to be considered desirable.

These friends of mine fell in love with an old farm complex and have spent several decades renovating it.

They’ve succeeded in bringing out the original beauty of a place built in stone by peasant farmers who were surely also artists without ever suspecting it.

There are honey-coloured stone buildings set around a courtyard. A huge barn with arches perfectly designed to fit large containers of the deep red wine of the region. The built environment in harmony with the natural one. Form and function perfectly matched.

My friends have added a few touches of their own, such as an Antony Gormley sculpture at the bottom of the hill, so that every time you look you are started by what seems to be a rusty figure approaching at a distance. A wonderful garden that reminds me of Saadi of Shiraz’s rose garden. A natural swimming pool. A private cinema.

And to here flock the most interesting people.

An invitation from these friends is not to be missed.

So when they asked me to visit them a couple of days before my trip, I let myself be persuaded.

A young Turkish film-maker, Ece Ger was screening her film called Meeting Jim ( about Jim Haynes, a Mulla Nasrudin-like figure.

A man who – after an incredible career in the 60s counter culture scene – moved to Paris and decided to open his doors and invite anybody that wanted to come, once a week, for dinner.

Many years on, the fruits of this seemingly inexplicable act are being gathered: connections have been made in the most unexpected ways.

Ece hadn’t planned to make a film about Jim – she went to one of his dinners and was so impressed with him and the quixotic nature of his life, she couldn’t resist.

Afterward, chatting to Ece, she told me that her aunt was in publishing and that she knew and admired the works of Idries Shah.

She wrote down her name, Išik Gençer, and her address and telephone number, along with a brief description of how to find her. I slipped the piece of paper into my pocket.

Then I forgot about it.

Now, refreshed by my time out of the world, I was back on the streets of Istanbul with the paper in my hand.

Išik Gençer
Išik Gençer runs a publishing company specializing in books on music. She is also translating a selection of Idries Shah’s books on Sufism into Turkish for ISF.

I decided to nip in and visit Išik Gençer.

A Google maps search showed that I wasn’t far away. A quick phone call ascertained that she would be happy to meet me.

There followed some incredibly complicated additions to the handwritten directions on my crumpled piece of paper. And that’s how I found myself beneath an enormous spaghetti flyover.

One more desperate phone call and Išik’s husband took pity on me and fetched me. I was grateful he did so – there followed more winding through streets filled with small offices and businesses of indecipherable intent.

We walked through a wooden door and up a dusty flight of steps.

Suddenly we were in a wide room full of musical instruments, stacked floor to ceiling with books. Išik and her husband run a publishing company specializing in books on music.

The books, fresh from the press, piled in columns on every surface, brought back the unmistakable smell of my childhood, when my father and his friends also ran a small publishing company.

Išik greeted me kindly, offered me a glass of black Turkish tea and we began to talk – of life in Istanbul, the stories of Nasrudin, of Turkish history and of my father’s work.

And there it was – the quality I was looking for in an editor.

Neither too emotional, nor too intellectual. Able to speak and think clearly, without any of the mysterious hints at secretive knowledge that are the trademark of the mystical fraud. Possessing a sense of humour, an inner confidence and balance. Being ‘in the world but not of it’. A particular attitude of mind.

By the end of the meeting, she had agreed to work freelance as our editor.

A year on, the Turkish project is well underway.

Istanbul has been hard hit by COVID and Išik and her husband, who are neither of them young, sweltered indoors all through the boiling summer in a flat without even a balcony.

We’ve found one translator she likes and between them they are working through the ten titles we’ve selected.

As for me, COVID has stopped me going back to Istanbul for the moment, but in these crazy days, I’ve often thought of my brief journey there.

The story of how I met Išik always reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, by Amin Suhrawardi

Wisdom of the Idiots by Idries Shah“Allow the Source of Being to maintain contact with you: ignore the impressions and opinions of your customary self.”

From Wisdom of the Idiots

As Shah said in The Commanding Self:

“A man is anxious to free himself from a prison, and yet he strengthens the bars. Will he escape? These bars are the habits of depending only upon the secondary self, the desire for emotional stimulus and greed.”

What a privilege it is to travel – physically or in the mind as we do in books – and to be able, even briefly, to escape our personal prison. The Commanding Self by Idries Shah

We will prepare the translations our own way, to our own standards and will approach the problems of distribution when we’re ready.

Sufi material is considered contentious in Turkey too – so the task of physical distribution will have its difficulties.

We will begin by posting the titles online, enjoying the marvellous ability of the internet to cross borders, to slip through prison bars, and to bring ideas to people who may be physically trapped, as we all have been to some extent, during the past months.