July 18th, 2006

Books!

Hmmmmm ...

OK, so I obviously, somewhere back in the early 90's, bought a multiple-book bundle from Octagon about Afghanistan, which included the previous book reviewed here, as well as this and (what should be) the next two. I've been reading stuff from Octagon (primarily the works of Idries Shah), as well as from the Institute for Cultural Research, Designist Communications, and other of Shah's multiple projects for as long as 30 years now. And up till now I've never had any substantial reason to doubt any of what was coming out from those sources. However, in doing some background checking on this book, I ran into a few pieces on the Web which were quite anti-Shah, and I began to wonder. As I noted in my review of Adventures in Afghanistan, it was almost impossible to find any background on the putative author of that, or of much of what he describes. And, here too, My Life: From Brigand to King--Autobiography of Amir Habibullah, while dealing with what do appear to be historical figures almost all of the names, when Googled point only back to quotes from this book. This "autobiography" is of a man, Bacha Saquo (which may just mean "son of a water-carrier", which is what he initially was), who became a notorious bandit in post-British Afghanistan, eventually heading his own army and ousting the previous monarchy to install himself as King (in 1929) for a whole nine months. Notably, however, the "autobiography" was supposedly written by a Jamal Gul, a childhood friend of Bacha's who accompanied him through all the various adventures and perils of his life (while seemingly taking copious notes), yet somehow escapes execution (supposedly the fate of all of Bacha's henchmen), and manages to publish this "in Persian" some time afterwards (this being presented as a "translation" of the original Persian book). However, again via Google, there seems to be no trace of the author nor the previous book prior to this ... not that is ultimately damning, there is a great abyss of non-web information on things prior to about 1995, after all, but it still seems odd. Some small voice in my head was wondering if this had been penned by Shah (or one of his associated group, something not unknown to the Octagon catalog), and was actually of only recent vintage.

None of this goes to say that My Life: From Brigand to King is not a fascinating read, as it is quite the adventure tale, if a bit on the cruel and bloody side. It follows its protagonist from his extremely humble beginnings, into his initial entry in a life of murder and mayhem, through an ever-expanding series of criminal enterprises, and eventually to the Kingship (and his speedy downfall). Frankly, his character is painted in a way that immediately brought to mind some people that I've known from more-or-less that part of the world, so it had a glimmer of truth to it there. However, much seems difficult to believe here too, as his exploits are one "never before achieved" daring attack after another, always with intense bragging involved.

As I've noted before about Sufi books (and one has to assume that any book from Octagon has at least some Sufi subtext), one has to take a step back and try to see what's being transmitted along with the story ... and, frankly, I'm at a loss to identify what that would be in this book. There is one "magical" element, a talisman given to him (along with a prophesy of him becoming King) by a wandering Mullah, which is a constant part of his rise, but this is never particularly described, analyzed, nor discussed, just mentioned as a touch-stone of why he felt he could not be defeated. This hardly a teaching story makes. Aside from this, there was precious little else that I could point to and say "perhaps this is the real message", but perhaps I'm simply not seeing something that might be evident to somebody else.

Anyway, this is an OK book ... I really can't recommend you running out to buy it, though, unless you have a burning interest in (supposed) Afghan history, or are a big fan of this sort of literature. Being from Octagon, it is both still in print, and expensive ($30 in hardcover), and you're not saving much via the Amazon new/used vendors ($10.80 for a "like new" copy), so maybe look for it at your local used book store instead!


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