The Spy of the Heart

My Outlook op-ed March 27

I write book reviews rarely, though all the time I am reading something. But when it is any good read, that provokes thought and reaction in my mind with each line of the chapter, I write down the reflection. On this opinion page of the newspaper, I only wrote a book review last year at this time. It was about The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, a travelogue of his epic adventure from Herat to Kabul on foot, right after the fall of Taliban regime. That was the best travel book I ever read on Afghanistan. Author’s beautiful narration and the cultural understanding not only make the book a masterpiece of travelogue, but connecting each of the book-chapter to the historic travel of Mughal Emperor Babar on the same route makes it a historian’s record of a very important time in the history of modern Afghanistan. Since then, there have been many travel books about Afghanistan, mostly on the stories of post-Taliban Afghanistan and the impact their rule had on the social life, while also reflecting the change that this country is going through after the 9/11 and arrival of the US and NATO troops. In 2006, a book titled The Spy of the Heart by Robert Abdul Hayy Darr was published. Unlike most of the books written in the post-Taliban Afghanistan, it was not about them, but the era just before their rise.

When I read a random book without any prior knowledge about its content, I check the review pieces on its cover by newspapers, or some writers, or sometimes check the chapter-headlines in the list of contents, to have an idea what the book will be focused about and if it is of my interest to read. While reading the review on the back of The Spy of the Heart, I thought it was an academic research about Sufism and Islam, and the story of how a westerner was converted to this religion. Because the review started like this; “Do any books on contemporary Sufism in Afghanistan exist? In any European language at least, this is the first one to my knowledge”. Then I checked the content list, it looked more like an adventure piece, rather than a pure academic work. I was impressed of the writer’s knowledge about Afghanistan from the very beginning, while reading the foreword of the book.  Robert Abdul Hayy Darr, I thought, knew much better than many others who have written travelogues in Afghanistan, about the socio-religious problems of the country, political and ethnic complexities and the way he connected the dots of current events with history.

This book is one of the most fascinating stories of the adventures of a western aid worker, activist and researcher of Sufism traveling throughout Afghanistan during the last years of Soviet occupation and Mujahideen resistance. Robert Darr was not only arrested several times by different factions of Mujahideen and threatened to death, but he also amuses the readers with his knowledgeable narration of the small encounters of humor during a war.

Basically this autobiographical travelogue uses the author’s quest to learn about Islam, and Sufism in particular, as a metaphor for the book, but one can get a greater picture of the years before the rise of Taliban and a glimpse of the side of resistance that we have not read much about, while provoking some tough questions about that era in the minds of readers that we might have not thought about before.

The Spy of the Heart does tell the story of Sufism practiced during a war in Afghanistan and the author details his quest through his association with Afghan poet Khalilullah Khalili and then his later encounters with Sufi practitioners in Northern Afghanistan. Robert Darr, an American student of religion and Islamic culture for a decade before he arrives in Afghanistan, tells the story of his journey searching to know about Sufism, that ultimately leads him to convert to Islam, but taking a very long personal research adventure asking tough questions, which do not happen in most other convert stories. And in this adventure, Robert not only learns Persian and resumes a local name Abdul Hay, but lives an ordinary life among common Afghans practicing local culture and traditions going native, which is in part because of the troubles and risks of traveling in a war-ravaged country.

What makes the book more fascinating is the grip of author on local language and his study of Afghan literature of that time. It’s strange though, but as an Afghan, I have read for the first time through this book about the radical anti-western thoughts in Afghan literature long ago even at the time when the whole country was fighting against Soviet occupation, with American aid. But the questions this book provoked me to think, are how the American policy makers and media could miss this? Afghan poetry during the resistance era show very extremist worldview, particularly about the United States. Robert Darr tells his readers about this, and has translated some poems written during 1988. Particularly two poems; one about a meeting between Ronald Reagan and Michail Gorbachev titled “the Meeting of Two Satans” and the other about visit of a Mujahideen delegation to White House titled “The White House and the Red House”.

Following are some lines from both poems.

Again the world-devouring wolves met face to face…

And plans of darkest treachery, they have set in place…”

“The White House is not the seat of a worthy advisor…

there is no promise there, but evil for men of goodwill…

“Its as red as the Kremilin in the blood of people…

It’s a Black House of conspiracy not the White House…”

One story in the last chapters of this book raises very serious questions about the role of American press and the way they reported the Afghan resistance, as a result of which, I think, a radical transformation of fanatic thoughts during that period was overlooked with the indiscriminate and unaccountable assistance of the US to the Mujahideen factions. It was those last years of the anti-Soviet resistance that Osama Bin Ladin and influx of angry Arab fighters penetrated and radicalized some factions of Afghan Mujahideen. And later it was them who used Afghanistan as training ground for Arab Jihadis to spread terror across the globe, of which came the 9/11. How could the US remain unaware of all this radicalization happening? And what responsibility comes to the questionable role of American press in that era?

It was billions of US dollars by taxpayers money that were used in support of the Mujahideen resistance against Soviet Union, and the American press coverage of this resistance was all from a small town in Peshawar city of Pakistan based on rumors and completely biased in favor of Mujahideen due to which the radicalization and much more disturbing anti-American extremism growing in that era were overlooked. The journalist community of American Club did their all reporting for all major US media outlets from the University Town of Peshawar and Robert Darr tells the story in one the last chapters of this book in some detail.

Though not a New York Times Bestseller, The Spy of the Heart is better than most bestsellers about Afghanistan. It is not only a must-read for researchers and journalists who work in and write about Afghanistan, and the students of modern Afghan history and politics, but also the Afghans themselves, for a self-critical look towards us through the adventures of a westerner during the last years of resistance.



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