“I looked back at the last outpost of my own people and knew there would be no possibility of my return if the odds went against me…“Syed,” I said, “I trust you. You realise I am friendless here and have only you…”
Such are the words of the late author Morag Murray Abdullah (aka Saira Shah) in her book ‘My Khyber Marriage’ as she faces a scenario which will be experienced by most foreign wives of Saudis. Having reverted to Islam and married an Afghan student in her native Scotland during WWI, she returned with him and their young daughter to his homeland in the mountains of Afghanistan. Like many of us, she was bombarded with horrific tales of Western women whose marriages to ‘Orientals’ had led them to lives of misery and even gruesome deaths.
Upon the birth of their first child, a daughter, Western friends informed her that her in-laws would not care for the child as only boys were welcome in the East. Furthermore, she was advised that “all Orientals were married in their cradles and that it was a 99% possibility that Syed Abdullah was married and that once in his country he would return to the degenerate ways of his clan and I would either be given ground glass in my food or be made a slave to his relations, whose womenfolk would be madly jealous of me.”
With the advice of her husband, she dismissed the many terrible cautionary tales as the sensationalised stories of women who had “married Orientals thinking them to be princes” and become mad with despair when they found their new lives were not the ones of luxury they imagined them to be.
Regardless, as she approached the territory of ‘no return’, she was shot with flashes of doubt and fear for her fragile future which the popular scale of likelihood had already labelled as doomed. “The land of the free”, as the mountains were referred to as, were lands stained by perpetual tribal warfare. The transportation situation of the time meant that travelling between Afghanistan and Scotland was lengthy, difficult and dangerous. Should her husband or his people have chosen to mistreat her as the stories foretold, there would be no easy escape or perhaps no escape at all except death itself.
However, none of the presumed events came to pass; her daughter’s birth was celebrated by her husband’s family, she was and remained his only wife and was never known to have been fed ground glass in her food. On the contrary, Morag and her husband lived in Afghanistan for 20 years before living in various other parts of the world including Africa and the Middle East. They are reported to have remained madly in love and lived a happy life together until she died of cancer at the age of 60 (may Allah have mercy on her soul) upon which her husband fled, heartbroken, to Morocco – one of the few places they had never been together.
Their unusual union also left a rich legacy in their three children; Amina Shah, Idries Shah and Omar Ali Shah, all of whom became prominent Sufi writers and storytellers whose work sought to build bridges between the East and the West. The talent for writing made its way to the subsequent generation based in England. The most notable among these are Tahir Shah and his twin sister Saira Shah both of whom are writers, journalists and documentary filmmakers whose work frequently take inspiration from the Shah family history and its land of origin.