La ilaha illa Allah — cry of the believer

The following account is extracted from an early draft of The Novice. The narrator is in the heart of the Swat Valley, recovering from a debilitating bout of hepatitis and exploring the hospitality of the Pathans.

I was off to the nearby village of Miandam, where the local schoolteacher had invited me to spend a few days in his bungalow. It was set on a breezy ledge around the slopes of a gorge-like valley, overlooking plum, apricot, peach, pear, apple and walnut trees. Karim’s servant brought us vegetables with fresh maize chapattis, and a compote of fresh and dried fruits.

My host’s English was excellent, and he had a small library of contemporary books. Karim pulled out Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and asked me about it. I tried to explain that life in his valley was so remote from Western alienation that it simply might not mean very much to him. The truth was that, while he wanted to get up to speed on Western thought, I was trying to escape it. I told him I was here in search of a more authentic lifestyle and considered his lifestyle, without television, shopping malls, reliable electricity and labour-saving devices, a great thing.

He thought I was nuts.

No, I explained, life here followed natural rhythms, and Marcuse’s intertwining of Marxist dehumanisation with Freudian repression couldn’t be less relevant.

He thought I was patronizing him. The more I enthused about the idyll of life in his village, the less communicative he became.

I strolled down the road and sat on a fallen tree trunk. A group of eight or so adolescent boys approached me, boisterous and loud. “Hello mister,” they said. “Hey, hello”

“Hello,” I said.

“What is your come-from?” asked the first one.

“No, no, no,” interrupted another. “You are America. Yes? No? America very good.”

I shook my head and said, “England.”

“Ah, you are England. England good.”

His companion punched him in the arm and said in a broad accent, “No no, not he is England. His come-from is England.” The two glared at each other, each one evidently second-guessing the memory of their English lessons, presumably delivered by Karim.

“Actually,” I clarified. “I’m English. I come from England.”

“Yes, yes,” shouted the first decisively. “Come-from, come-from!”

The two lapsed into Pushto and ended up wrestling energetically. There was much grunting and shouting, but they were ignored by the others. Another reached towards me and pulled the chain around my neck. On its end was a tiger’s eye Buddha, a birthday gift from my sister Yolanda.

“This bad,” said the young man shaking his head. “Very, very bad.” He looked grimly at it, then kindly at me. I apparently wasn’t responsible for the abomination. His companions all concurred, repeating the word “bad” over and over. They crowded around to more clearly see the false idol. The two wrestlers stopped fighting to join in the chorus.

“Why bad?” I asked, only a little uncomfortable. “It’s just a stone.”

“What is this? What for is it?” asked one, with an expression of distaste.

“It’s a Buddha,” I said. “From Japan.”

“Buddha bad,” he said. “Japan?”

I laughed. “Why bad?”

“Not Allah,” said another. “Only Allah.”

Another said, “La ilaha illa Allah.”

“Yes, yes,” said another. “Muhammad Rasul Allah.”

Several of them chanted together, “La ilaha illallah. Muhammadar Rasul Allah.” They looked at me expectantly as one of them repeated the phrase, mouthing it slowly and deliberately. They evidently wanted me to say it.

“Larillrla,” I said hesitantly.

At this their eyes lit up and each one scrambled to be the one to correct me. “La ilaha illa Allah – La ilaha illa Allah – La ilaha illa Allah.” Their excitement approached frenzy as they coaxed me. I didn’t know what I was saying, although I recognized the word ‘Allah.’ Their hormonal excitement was overwhelming – they elbowed each other out of the way as they vied for my attention.

I raised my arms to silence them. They regained control of themselves. One was nominated to be interlocutor, and stepped forward. Once I’d mastered the syllables he worked on the stress – “La ilaha illa Allah,” and soon they were crowding together again. They weren’t satisfied until I could pronounce it precisely, and kept at me for over half an hour.

Beauty is a spell which casts its
splendour in the universe


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