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Kara Kush

Sep 24, 2018

Kara Kush is Idries Shah’s only novel. It was written in the early 1980s in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Given that the repercussions of that invasion are still with us today, we can welcome the timely reissue of this fascinating work.

The book was published in the US and UK in 1986 to great acclaim and topped the bestseller lists for a number of weeks. On the surface it is a standard ‘big’ thriller with geopolitical manoeuvring mixed with on-the-ground action. But although it works brilliantly as an exciting war novel, it also succeeds through a use of unusual methods for displaying character motivation. Because Shah understood the power of stories, he decided to show how the stories we hear and tell ourselves can have a crucial effect on the way we act.

Several characters are shown having experiences - usually related within a short story structure - which later have a defining effect on their actions and the story as a whole. For example, a Soviet helicopter pilot is downed in the mountains: he experiences a sense of awe and gratitude which later causes him to act with mercy. Likewise, an Afghan woman who has worked for a Soviet dam engineer takes his words to heart when the time comes to kill an evil Russian officer. Motivation in thrillers is often thin and unconvincing, but not in this book, where a careful delineation is made between acting emotionally and acting as a result of considered experience.

The book surprised some when it appeared because of its hawkish take on the Soviet Union. But here Shah was indeed prescient. The book predicts the imminent collapse of the Communist empire - at a time when very few could have envisaged that the Berlin Wall would fall in less than a decade. He suggests that Afghanistan will be the Soviets’ ‘Vietnam’, and so it turned out to be. He also mentions the massive disinformation services of the KGB, which we now know from open archive material to be true. In contrast to kinder takes on the former Soviet Union, this book has stood the test of time.

The book opens with the first elements of resistance forming in 1980 soon after the Soviet invasion. People of Afghan descent return to their homeland to help the nascent Mujahideen. At the same time a vast treasure horde - the legendary gold of Ahmad Shah - has been located but must be kept secret so that the Russians don’t get to it before the resistance. Interestingly both Idries Shah’s father and his son Tahir (who made a film about Ahmed Shah’s gold) have both spent time trying to find the horde.

The book follows the fortunes of an Afghan rebel leader, the Eagle, and his growing band of fighters. There are many gripping interludes featuring linked stories, including a stunning sequence where a Pakistani official of Afghan origin performs a Day-of-the-Jackal style hit on a Soviet commander.

Finally the group manages to save the gold, and the finale - possibly written with an eye on encouraging American support - involves the arrival of American advanced weaponry and soldiers.

Kara Kush contains a lot of fascinating information about Afghanistan and its people and the sense of honour that, even now, still persists in certain villages. When the US Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell was captured in 2005 his life was spared thanks to ‘Pushtunwali’, the code that states that a guest must be protected, in this case from members of the Taliban intent on killing Luttrell.

Shah made many trips to Peshawar and of course had travelled in Afghanistan before the war. He spoke with many refugees and was good friends with the Afghan commander Abdul Haq. All the incidents in the book, including one in which grenades are bowled into the barrel of a T72 tank, are based on real events in the first few years of the war.

The book is replete with technical detail and careful in its use of correct terminology, in the way that Ian Fleming pioneered in the early Bond books, and which has now become a staple of good thriller writing. In this way the book convinces us with its grasp of everyday detail.

Readers of Shah’s Sufi works might be expecting something along the lines of The Da Vinci Code with supernatural elements lurking just beneath the surface. But Shah is more subtle than that. The miraculous is indeed present, but it is woven into the everyday. This is a pretty straight thriller on the surface but it acknowledges the strange undercurrents of our lives.

Shah was said to be unhappy with the original Collins hardback edition of the book, with its inaccurate drawing of a Kalashnikov on the cover. With the new reprint there will be no such errors…

ISF Publishing will be releasing its new editions of Kara Kush in October 2018, including new hardcovers and paperback editions. Ebook and audiobook editions of Kara Kush will be produced for the first time.