Westward to Mecca: A Journey of Adventure through Afganistan, Bolshevik Asia, Persia, Iraq and Hijaz to the Cradle of Islam
Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah
The author of this travel account writes about his pilgrimage to Mecca, through India, Afghanistan, Russian territories, Persia, and Iraq. The year of travel is not stated explicitly, but according to dates given in the book, it must have been sometime between 1925 and 1928, which was the year of publication. The book also contains photographs of places and people taken during this journey.
Shah’s account starts in the Himalayas with descriptions of Buddhist monasteries and monks and the imprint of Buddhism at large. In Ladakh, the author spends three months as the pupil of an alchemist called Aruni in order to learn about the art of alchemy. However, Shah angers his master by spying on him when he collects a secret herbal ingredient and even questioning his capacity to create gold.
Very often the author contemplates about the relation between the east and the west in Central Asia, analyzing the perceptions of both concerning the other. Here Shah analyzes the results of western impact: “The Oriental world of our generation is as different from the ancient East as the poles apart. The new one with an eye on the main chance, the other hungrier for knowledge than for gold. The result of this Western impact has been that the Eastern does not now feel at all contented ‘to let the legions thunder past and plunge in thought again.’ And although the signs of revival are unmistakable, and progress in this direction assured, the whole matter has given rise to grave concern in the minds of many Eastern thinkers.” (p. 47)
Traveling through his homeland, Afghanistan, Shah provides thorough descriptions of the country, its rule and its people. He explains how H.M. Amanullah rose to power after the death of his father H.M. Habibullah Khan. The new leader is described as a man of the people, working for the masses rather than for the elite. Shah estimates the importance of Afghanistan to be crucial in the future development of Central Asia. He notes the following in Kabul: “There is one remarkable fact about this capital of Afghanistan that escapes the notice of many observers. They presume that this town of memories is wholly associated with the political controversies of the past; with the rivalries of Britain and Russia; with Lord Robert skirmishes; with blood feuds. The folklorist sees in it a host of evidence of culture-mixing; the archaeologist delights in its associations with lost cities of the earliest civilizations; but no one seems to notice that the future political and moral evolution of Central Asia is going to begin and end in Afghanistan.” (pp. 81–82)
During the first part of his journey, Shah is accompanied by a Norwegian called Rask, together with whom he has an interesting stay in a haunted house in Afghanistan.
In Russian Turkestan, at the time under Soviet rule, Shah dresses as a mullah in order to be well received by the Muslim people living there. When stopped by the Bolshevik police he is offered to preach the doctrines of communism instead of Islam. Shah, excited by the opportunity to examine “the workings of the Bolshevist system in Turkestan” (p. 128), accepts the offer, but has no intention to spread the teachings of communism to the locals. The police want to send him to Khiva, across the desert of Kara-kum: “Your business will be to travel from point to point and hold meetings among the Turkomans of the desert, describing the blessings of our rule, and assuring them that Bolshevism differs in no way from the Moslim faith, but is the modern interpretation of it.” (p. 130)
In Khiva, Shah runs into trouble with the Bolshevik police who have discovered his dishonest intentions. He continues to Bokhara where he works as a newspaper translator in order not to be suspected by the Bolshevik police again. Later he works at the Labour Bureau at the Application Office where the local people are forced to “apply to” work in the coalmines in Samarkand, or the cotton or oil fields in Ferghana. After being suspected by the authorities once again, Shah is forced to flee.
In Persia Shah visits the shrines of the great Persian Omar Khayyam. Chapter 9 is dedicated to a comparison of the Persian poet to William Shakespeare and reflections on the universality of great art. Shah continues to Kurdistan and Iraq, passes through the cities of Baghdad and Basra and finally arrives in Bombay, from where he takes a boat to his final destination, Mecca.