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Sunday, July 30th, 2006

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9:16a
Well, that's more like it!
This is the fourth of those four "Afghanistan" books that I'd gotten from Octagon back in the early 90's, and I'm glad that I held this one to last. As those who have been reading my recent reviews will recall, I've been having a hard time triangulating the other three books in terms of their veracity (having some serious doubts that the books are what they purport to be), and purpose (i.e., why Idries Shah wished to have them published at that particular time). This one, Afghan Caravan (edited by Safia Shah), however, is quite the "typical" sort of Octagon book, where you can see the gears moving and many things working beneath the surface of the actual narratives! Interestingly, this is credited by Amazon as a book by Idries Shah, yet his daughter Safia's name is on the cover (as editor) and this does seem to be her project ... while a substantial part of the book is drawn from Idries Shah's writings (published and previously unpublished), it has many other authors included, Idries' father Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah among them, as well as excerpts from a number of other Octagon books and bits and pieces of memoirs and travelogues published by visitors to and/or soldiers (from various countries) stationed in Afghanistan over the past hundred years or so.

Afghan Caravan is set up in "thematic" sections, "Looking At Each Other" dealing with cross-cultural perceptions, "Wanderings" which are travel notes from various visitors (which includes a good deal of "fantastic" material), "Hows, Whys, Whats" that looks at a wide range of topics from making rice to carpet expertise to the use of formal titles, etc., "Heard In The Tea-House" which is a group of Sufi teaching stories, "People" which looks at some historical and mythic figures, "Humor" which is more Sufi teaching stories, "Wisdom" that both looks at the use of various Sufi teaching modalities and provides more stories, "History, Whens And Wheres" which has a dozen or so pieces on historical eras from the earliest myths of Afghanistan up through the Mujahdin, and "The Red Bear From The North" which has stories of Afghani resistance to the Soviet invasion.

While all of this is good reading, the bit that stood out most for me was in the "Wisdom" section, in the "Wisdom of the Elephant" entry. In this Shah (Idries) discusses the famous "Elephant In The Dark" story, but minutely picks apart the intent of the various levels of this sort of Sufi teaching vehicle. These three pages are the most direct statement of Sufi teaching structure that I can recall, and I've read a lot of books from Shah's various publishing entities over the years! Here's a little sample, where Shah is discussing how to view the stories:

Remember, too, that in addition to analysis and discussion of written materials, there has to be perceptivity. The tales are not mechanical or preaching a belief. The are there to develop capacities in you. Let them seep into your mind.
Again, I can't recall a case where Shah has been coaching his readers like this ... that alone makes this a valuable book to have! Needless to say, I highly recommend getting a copy of Afghan Caravan! This is entertaining, informative, and instructional, and could even be seen (despite the "conflict in Afghanistan" spin to a lot of it) as a very good introductory book to Sufi teachings (I know that I would have "absorbed" much of my reading over the years better had I read the above-noted section when first approaching this material!).

Of course, as an Octagon book, this is still in print, and both they and Amazon have it for $35.00 in hardcover. Oddly enough, there don't seem to be ANY used copies of the hardcover available via Amazon's "new/used" vendors, although you could get a used copy of the $19.00 paperback edition for around $11.00 ... but this is one that I'd say to "splurge" on and go buy the paperback at retail (you might as well buy it direct from ISHK and give them Amazon's slice of the pie)! Poking around on the ISHK site, I see that this is also available (in hardcover) as part of a special package deal (much like the one I bought some time back), with four books for just $52.50 ($130.00 cover price), which is a pretty sweet deal (see HERE).


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