Friday 21 January 2011

Sufi Princess, Braveheart Spy

She was born in Moscow, in 1914, daughter to the famous Sufi pir, Hazrat Inayat Khan. She was a descendent of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, and therefore, royalty herself. She died at the age of thirty, at the hands of the Nazis, tortured and shot dead on the floor of Dachau concentration camp.
That part was to be expected.
That she would be instantly forgotten by the British government for services rendered, was not. Her last word was 'Liberté!' before the guards brought her down.

Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. Her gentle features are evident in the image of her playing the harp. She studied at the Sorbonne and published her first book, The Jataka Tales, in 1939. As the long shadow of Hitler gathered a storm of war, Noor could not bear to stand by and watch, helpless. Despite being part of the mystical Sufi tradition, and personally aquainted with Mahatma Gandhi, non-violence was no longer a viable option. In London, Churchill's secret army were recruiting people skilled in languages, and Noor, fluent in French, elegant and sophisticated, underwent the rigorous training of learning to kill with precision and expecting to be killed by betrayal. She was known to the Germans as Nora Baker, her Parisian code name was Madeleine, and until the end, she revealed nothing. Her body bore it all, and her voice held still until that final word escaped her lips. The only word that mattered.

When the statue of Noor Inayat Khan is finally revealed in Gordon's Square, London, 2012, it will be the first statue to honour an Indian woman in Britain - and the first statue of a Muslim. Odette Hallowes and Violette Szabo have had Hollywood revere their lives, blue plaques have been flung up in their honour. Noor, who sacrificed her life for England, has become a footnote in history... because she was a Muslim woman? Or because she intended to return to India after the war to support Indian independence from the British Raj?!

If Noor could wait so long to be recognised, then perhaps my own impatience to be 'recognised' is a little short-sighted. But maybe Noor would prefer her fellow women to be impatient, to act now, to hold true. The consultant wrote me a letter, not exactly apologising for my distress, rather summarising an Action Plan for the future. Since it includes applying for future treatments, albeit at longer intervals, and recognising my need to be involved and included in decisions made regarding my treatment, I feel better. It is a start. A dialogue is always a start.

I think Princess Noor would have approved.


Ruth said...

The greatness of a person should be acknowledged. When someone has gone to such risk and suffering for a nation and not recognized, it is shameful. I'm glad this statue will be erected for Hazrat Inayat Khan. (I visited Dachau in college; it was transforming.)

Your worth and courage in the face of the process required for you to get the treatment you need is commendable, Shaista. But more than that, I recognize your great heart, by turning our eyes to Hazrat Inayat Khan at such a time.

Shaista said...

Thankyou Ruth :)
I am sure you, being part of the Sufi tradition, already knew of the Inayat Khan family?
I love learning of new heroes - love knowing that the well of courage we live in is infinite.

* said...

"A dialogue is always a start."

And this: patience is a virtue, but sadly, not one of mine (yes, I made that up!).

Looking forward to a future UK/London visit, to Gordon's Square to see her statue (2012? I'm there!). And of course, to see you, too!!

Ruth said...

Actually I didn't know of them, Shaista, until this post. I may have seen them somewhere, but I have not studied Sufis per se. I read Rumi, and that's really it. I know something of his life, but not in depth. I seem to be delving into Rainer Maria Rilke head first though, and with the many parallels between what he wrote and what Rumi wrote, I am beginning to wonder if he might be an honorary Sufi or something. :)

Wouldn't it be a wonder if several of us for whom the Sufi tradition resonates could meet at the unveiling of her statue in 2012? Gordon's Square is where I stayed with my students in 2005, the week after the bomb exploded the bus a couple blocks away in Tavistock Square. It's remarkable to me that this is where the statue will be, it is so familiar to me. And the dorm where we stayed was previously the residence of Virginia Woolf (and also the economist John Maynard Keynes).

The only hitch in 2012 is the Olympics! It might be dicey getting housing, and it will cost an arm and a leg! (That is not a request for accommodations. :)

Shaista said...

Oh my goodness, this is so awesome!!

@Ruth what do you mean not a request for accommodation?! Mi casa etc etc!! The rooms are just waiting for you, and for the beautiful Terresa's return...
2012. Gordon's Square, London. Olympics, Sufi heroes, dinner, cherry brandy, chocolates and Conversation at Casa Tayabali!!
I'm getting over excited ;)

@Terresa... patience is not a virtue. It is blood from a stone! It is taking me many lifetimes to learn some measure of it :)

And Rilke was definitely a Sufi! Pure soul.

Geoffrey Armes said...

This music and film about Noor's life and work might be of interest:

Shaista said...

@Geoffrey, thankyou for the link. I look forward to discovering your music.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

What a beautiful, brave, spirited person - both Noor Inayat Khan, and you. Thanks for featuring her. It is wonderful - if belated - to have a statue in the works to honor her. I am glad the specialist sent you a plan of treatment. As you say, dialogue is a beginning. I hope your friends make it to see you in 2012 - wont that be a total hoot? Take care, Shaista. Keep smiling:)

Jeanne-ming Brantingham said...

if there is anything that involves heros, England, and a hint of Shaista-baby, I will come.
count me in.

fazrul arhan said...

A sad yet brilliant story about her.
I always love to read about a hero like this.
And your mom website is awesome. I love her pastel works it look so natural with a cool features. I bookmark her website too cause i believe there's a lot that i can learn from there.

And oh yea,if you have a time just drop by to my new post a portrait painting of one of my latest commission work:

My new painting

Thank you Shaista. Have a great weekend.

Anonymous said...

Listen again here to the BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Programme which talked about
"the fundraising campaign that has been launched to erect a sculpture in memory of Noor Inayat Khan, a secret agent for Britain during WWII. Sheila talks to her biographer, Shrabani Dasu"

Lydia said...

Thank you for this post. I had never heard of Noor Inayat Khan, and was spellbound as I read your words and looked at her photos. Ironically, just this night I watched 1-1/2 hours of a longer production about Hitler on the History Channel. I've always been too disturbed to spend time thinking about him, but this evening with my husband upstairs sick with the flu I, for some reason, could watch and learn more about his horrors and the horrors of the time. Anyone, especially a woman from another culture, who trained and operated in the effort to defeat Hitler is a hero in my eyes. Certainly, the UK should revere her and I am glad to know there will be a memorial. What a brave and beautiful person she was. And she had one of my most favorite names...Noor.

Very illuminating post.

Sistergirl said...

Just hoppin' by, I never heard of Ms Khan. I do not know much about Asian/Indian history but now I learned something new. I never knew Asians/Indians/Muslims were a part of the Nazi genocide.

Shaista said...

Lydia, did you know Noor means 'light','illumined'? I love the name too, one of my favourites. So glad you enjoyed the post.
Here is a link to a Timewatch special on her life

Cait O'Connor said...

Thank you for bringing this woman's life and tragic death to people's attention.

Unknown said...

Dear friends,

I, Dr. Rajesh Kelkar is fortunate to be heading department of vocal music, which was pioneered by Prof. Mawlabux-the grandfather of Hazarat Inayat Khan. May I request you all, to share any information (which is not easily available on Internet) on musicianship of Hazarat inayat Khan. That will be of a great help for me. Thanks in advance.

Dr. Rajesh Kelkar
Head-Deptt. of Indian classical vocal Music,
Faculty of Performing Arts,
The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.

+91 9924260175


Click to leave a comment