Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

13 May 2010

woman of great light

Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan.  

"Noor-un-nisa" in and of itself is a name to conjure with.  Noor means light - I was always under the impression it refers to a very great light - nisa means woman.  I really do not know any Arabic, but it appears this name would end up signifying something like "woman of great light."

Appropriately so.

I just finished reading a book called Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, and I am absolutely silenced by it. And I want to read it again. This is the first book I've read cover-to-cover in over five years.  It is a story about a saint, a woman of superior light.

 (from the BBC )

Noor's life was full of ambiguities and contradictions; her father was Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of the "Sufi Order of the West."  Her mother was an American, Ora Ray Baker of New Mexico, who took the name Ameena Begum.  (Ora Ray was half sister to the father of yoga in America, Pierre Bernard, who was also known as quite a philanderer and con man.  Noor's brother Pir Vilayat Khan was the head of the Sufi Order International until just before his death in 2004. 

I met Pir Vilayat around 1981, in Cleveland, Ohio.  At the time, I was dating a man whose father was very involved with the Sufi movement.  One day, I walked into the family kitchen and this little, white-haired man in a brown cape-like wrap was sitting at the table.  We did not exchange any words, that I remember.  But I was struck by his calmness, and how he appeared to be glowing.

Only recently did I begin reading Pir Vilayat's works, though I have been interested in Sufi thought for quite some time.  Reading his book Awakening, I kept encountering references to his sister, who was killed at Dachau.

There is quite a bit about Noor on the internet.  The picture just above this was found at Her story on wikipedia isn't bad.  But most impressive is the story as presented by Shrabani Basu, in the book I just completed.  Basu uses a very plain, straight forward language to tell the story of this shy young woman raised in a mystical household who, upon fleeing France during W. W. II, vowed to go back and help fight with the Resistance.  She became a radio operator for the British, and returned to Paris working with a highly dangerous espionage operation.

Within days after her arrival in Paris, the espionage ring called Prosper that she was working with began to be dismantled by the Germans, who had infiltrated its ranks.  Noor soon found herself alone, the only radio operator in Paris for the British.  Rather than return to London, she stayed on, dodging the Germans for months, until they finally caught her.  She was considered highly dangerous when they caught her. She fought and bit the man who captured her.

The entire time I read the book, I felt an incredible affinity to her.  All her life, she was very shy, and a bit of a day-dreamer -- a bit, in fact, like me.  She was an idealist who wanted to leave a positive mark on the world.  While in training, many felt she was too delicate and emotional to make it as a spy.  One person said she wasn't very smart.  She took things too literally, they felt. And her emotions ran too high.
But she did fine, very fine, escaping the Germans several times before she was caught, and then attempting two escapes before she was finally shackled, tortured, then executed, at the age of 30.  
Noor ignored all religious and national lines to advance the end of a miserable war, against a miserable enemy.  Once captured, she reportedly never lost her composure.  

For at least the first 100 pages of the book, I kept thinking that she was foolish. Couldn't she see, as clearly as I could, that she was basically walking into her death?  Perhaps she did and refused to accept that fact. 
However, by the end, I could see the thin line that runs between foolishness, heroism, and brilliance.   Yes, she was foolish, and perhaps she was used by the British military.  But she made her own choice to go, and to stay, when she was urged to come home.  And she never gave in to her interrogators, right up to her tortured death.

This entry is not doing her the homage I hoped to give her.  I'll write more later.   For now, here's a link to a story that was published in the London Sunday Express on June 5, 1949

No comments: