"Psychology Today", July 1975
At home in east and west
A Sketch of Idries Shah
The English countryside is an unlikely place to meet a direct descendant
of Mohammed, a man described in Who's Who in the Arab World as His Sublime
Highness the Sayid Idries el-Hashimi, leader of the Sufi community. But
there, no more than an hour from London, lives Idries Shah on a 50-acre estate
that once belonged to the family of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy
Shah, a witty, urbane man whose family palaces are in Afghanistan, was born in Simla, India in 1924. As was his father before him, Shah is advisor to several monarchs and heads of state-purely in an unofficial capacity. It was his father, the Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, who first suggested the partition of Pakistan. And his grandfather dissatisfied with both eastern and western education built a school for his grandson. The curriculum included working for a year on a farm.
Whether it was this unique education, heredity, opportunity or Sufism, Shah became a remarkable man. He has written nearly a score of books, invented a device for the negative ionization of air, written and produced a prize-winning film, established a printing house, and now directs a textile company, a ceramics company, an electronics company, and the Institute for Cultural Research.
Shah was a founding member of the Club of Rome and while he retains his membership, he did not attend last fall's gathering in Berlin.
The criticism that followed the publication of Limits of Growth, a controversial report commissioned by the club, taught him that his father's refusal to join any organization was wise. The report forecast a worldwide collapse unless population and industrial growth halted and Shah was accused of being a prophet of doom.
It was not fear of controversy that disturbed Shah. When he leans forward to describe how his books were taken from Persian university students and burned, his smile is genuine. Nationalistic officials touched off the ritual pyre because Shah states plainly that Sufism is not an ancient Persian religion.
After an initial flurry of resentment when Shah and his Cultural Institute first occupied Langton House, the local residents came to accept the inhabitants as English. Over a grilled sole at the pub, Shah reported that the pub keeper once told him that, as master of Langton House, the Indian-born Afghan was the village squire. Shah objected, pointing out that there was a larger estate in the village and that its master was the squire. "Oh, no," replied the pub keeper, "he can't be the squire, he's an Irishman."
The house at Langton Green draws visitors, pupils, and would-be pupils from all over. Their ranks include poet Ted Hughes, novelist Alan Sillitoe, zoologist Desmond Morris, and psychologist Robert Ornstein. His best-known pupil, novelist Doris Lessing, has written of Shah's work for publications as varied as Vogue, the American Scholar, and The Guardian.
One opens Shah's door and steps into an English home decorated in a Middle-Eastern fashion. Oriental rugs cover the floor; sheep, leopard and antelope skins are thrown across the couches; and the soft tapestries on the walls contrast with the brass tabletops and trays.
Shah has deliberately combined hard and soft objects in order to modify the room's acoustic qualities and produce certain harmonious resonances. It is a thing done mostly by "old-fashioned" people in the East, but he finds it satisfying.
Every Sunday there is buffet lunch for guests in the Elephant, a dining room that was once the estate stable. Connected to the Elephant by a walkway is a large conservatory. Inside, flowers bloom, vines grow, and guests can reach up from their lounge chairs to pluck grapes. Outside the glass walls, icy rain drips off bare branches onto the bleak autumn landscape.It is a long journey from Afghanistan to the county of Kent. The East regards Shah as a hometown boy who made good in the wicked West and would like to see him act as their political propagandist. This he refuses to do. Shah's greatest fear is that world tensions will sharpen to until he is forced to choose between East and West. Until then, he is equally at home in both worlds.