Monday, June 6, 2011

The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

By Sarai Shah

"Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare. But if you seek safety, it is on th eshore." from The Rose Garden via Gulistan, Sheikh Sa'adi of Shiraz

"I am the slave of whoever will not at each stage imagine his journey is ended. Many a caravan serai must be left behind before the traveller reaches his destination." from Masnavi, by JALALUDDIN RUMI

" soon as I'm eighteen I'm going to go to see for myself," I said...then perhaps I'll have fresh experiences that will help me grow up." Saira

"If you would only grow up a little in the first place," he snapped, "then you would realize that you don't need to go at all." The daughter's story-telling father

IDRIES SHAH (See the description of his whimsical yet practical book "Learning How to Learn" on the Shah family album)

Here is a tale of contradictions and the colorful solace of maps connecting these ironies. I love the way quotes from Rumi and other literary geniuses in and out of the "Storyteller's Daughter" embellish the front of each chapter while little large stories and homespun bits of wisdom run through every page or two...

Saira Shah is an award-winning journalist, war reporter and documentary film-maker whose work includes the films ‘Beneath the Veil’ and ‘Unholy War’. Her documentary, ‘Death in Gaza’, is a tribute to James Miller and so is this translucent, blockbuster memoir by the way - along with her family story-telling heroes and heroines. James was her long-term cameraman and collaborator who was shot dead without explanation by Israeli forces in 2003 while filming with Saira. Shah is a freelance journalist born in Britain of an Afghan family, the daughter of Idries Shah, a writer of Sufi fables and many other legendary relatives which she has herewithin made eternal celebrities for her readers. She first visited Afghanistan at age twenty-one and worked there for three years as a freelance journalist, covering the guerilla war against the Soviet occupiers. ALAS, there is way more to this rich, thick, golden story of stories.

In the next weeks and months web sites devoted to Saira Shaw's family and their work will go online, with links to specific pages...To see a fascinating quick mini-album of the author's literary and adventuresome family GO here For many years - over three generations - and perhaps even earlier through the global connections and myths of great stories - the Shah family has worked to explain the East to the West, and the West to the East. This tightly-knit yet inclusive family have published scores of books on Eastern traditions and folklore, philosophy, travel, lettres from the past and kept their story-telling fully alive - riches they value much more than land or physical wealth.

Note from blogger here, Connie:

I'm rapidly wanting to spend every second to finish Saira's embroidered yet visceral book - alas writing deadlines of my own and other responsibilities are forcing me to ration out this book of beyond genius writing into small dollaps of a rich - albiet sometimes bitter dessert of reality and dreams seamlessly intertwined. So, I felt that I would deprive blog readers if I waited another second to let you in - DO find it somewhere anywhere you can. We will all learn something to live by within these pages. If you are a would-be world traveler and are also hungry to read a gamut of the best writers on earth today, like me you'll take a long time with this one as well because on every page is a line or paragraph or two you'll want to read two or three times to fully grasp the depth,beauty and wisdom.

More personal comments from me once I finish the book.

Here's just a longer passage to show how easily Shah skips from a story to her present reality:

"Mullah," he exclaimed, "whatever happened to your fishing net?"

"Ah," replied the mullah, "what need is there of the net now that the fish has been caught?"

We passed a checkpoint maned by unfriendly mujahidin. Instead of the usual warm greetings, were hostile questions. There was something else differnt about them, but for a while I could't put my finger on it. Then I got it: there was no laughter, and none of the disrespectful banter that usually accompanies any group of Afghans. These cold-eyed men didn't relax until they had watched us leave.

It struck me that a sense of humour may be the opposite of fanaticism, or at least its antidote. It is difficult to dream of martyrdom if you can see the funny side of life. Of course, the great Afghan poet Jalaluddin Rumi got there centuried before me, and said it better: "If you have no sense of humour, then you have an incompleteness in your soul."

Sarai's infamous story-telling and tradition-bearer Grandfather

Two reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars A must read and buy!!, January 8, 2010
By Nyx

This review is from: The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland (Paperback)- A beautiful book. Well presented, well written and moving. One of the very few books I actually want to thank an author for taking the time to write.

[taken from Nyx' blog]

This book is intense, its fabulous, its emotional, it is well thought out, well written, it is one that I have had to add to my to buy list because checking it out is just not good enough.
This book struck a chord with me.

Some extra bonuses with the hard cover are thicker paper, and its not insanely bright white. When you have issues with colour and sight that is a god send.

I converted to Muslim a few months ago, when i found this book, it was one of two with similar titles and I skimmed what this was about before adding it to my list not really thinking anything about it one way or the other.

Saira Shah has blown me away.
She takes you on her journey literally with her, there is no sitting by the sidelines and reading about it.
You are filled with stories of a personal nature, combined with historical fact and legends.. Which is what (living)life is, or rather, what it should be.

The book is filled with tibits that you will find yourself stopping to record for your own reflection later.
It's definitely added to my to buy list. I am amazed my library had it and saddened I appear to be one of the few whose checked it out.

This book has changed the way I think about a lot of things and identified some things I have been wrestling with lately. Things I have been trying to find on my own spiritual journey to Allah and know I know now more about what it is that I am seeking along the way.

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Multifaceted Jewel of a Book, January 16, 2004
By A Customer

This review is from: Storyteller's Daughter (Hardcover)
Saira Shah's stunning new memoir is one of those rare and wonderful books that's hard to classify because it touches the reader in so many different ways. A jewel of many facets -- from high adventure to geopolitics to the wisdom of the ages -- it takes us on a journey of the human spirit as compelling as it is rewarding. The setting of the book is Afghanistan, a country that, despite its recent prominence on the world stage, remains for most of us little known and much misunderstood. Shah opens up Afghanistan for the reader, revealing it to be far more complex and culturally rich than the evening news would lead us to believe; and in so doing, she opens up much, much more. An acclaimed London-based journalist whose powerful television documentary "Beneath the Veil" exposed the horrors of the Taliban to the world just prior to Sept. 11, Shah comes from an accomplished Afghan family of ancient pedigree. Her brother, Tahir Shah, is a celebrated travel writer, and her father, Idries Shah, who died in 1996, was a well-known Sufi philosopher whose 30-plus books have been translated into a dozen languages. But growing up in England, where her family had settled, Saira Shah's main contact with her Afghan heritage was through the stories her father told her and her siblings -- timeless stories of fairytale mountain landscapes peopled by proud and fearless warriors upholding a centuries-old code of honor. THE STORYTELLER'S DAUGHTER is built around her search for her own identity as she attempts to reconcile the romantic Afghanistan of her father's tales with the country's reality after years of devastating civil war. In gripping fashion tempered with gentle humor, it recounts her clandestine forays into Afghanistan with the mujahidin as a fledgling reporter in the mid-1980s, as well as her equally risky trips there in 2001 to film "Beneath the Veil" and its follow-up documentary, "Unholy War." In the process, it sheds considerable light on the conflict that has ravaged that country for decades, as well as on the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism -- quite alien to Afghanistan's moderate, Sufi-influenced tradition -- that has given rise to al Qaeda. But the book goes far beyond those things in scope and appeal and, like the very best literature, serves as a lens through which the reader can gain a greater self-understanding. Thought-provoking, moving and beautifully written, THE STORYTELLER'S DAUGHTER is, among many other things, a timely reminder that we can rarely fit the world's complexities into the narrow confines of our own preconceived notions and oversimplifications.


  1. This am I decided I have to put this book down...I keep reading and re-reading certain sections which are some of the most well-rounded, evocative passages of literature I ever read - never mind the incredible youth of the writer and of her experiences in war-torn Afghanistan at the age of 21 on up.

    I have to come back when I'm "mature and brave enough" if need to be face the more bloody sections of the atrocities done by Russia, the Taliban, the US and various other horrific power behind the gun and with the bomb...ALL of these raping the land and the culture if not the beauty of the children women elderly innocent who have nowhere else to go.

    The one take away lesson I received was how STORIES work at best to sustain us all...seed the age-old values and PATHS not only for our children yet for us much closer to a natural end...guides which prevent us from giving up no matter how many times and ways any manner of hope is available...

    We become, in books with this gorgeous, sustaining quality, both the Storyteller and the Daughter.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that in a world where governments of all manner of ideologies fail and where even the UN has trouble hearing the heart of the common people, "I am cheered by a vital awareness of world literature as of a single huge heart, beating out the cares and the troubles of our world."

    That is what little miss genius storyteller Saira Shah does in this book over and over again facing the most wretched scenes of common and impoverished humanity.

    More later...Not through with her yet maybe never...

  2. PS I realize that I've left out some of the most humane and tender portraits Saira Shah paints of men as well...all manner of men...all positions on the battlefield and as would-be protectors of their homes, even if homes tented or on the bare land. Men who in one way shape or form are often MADE impotent by forces way beyond their control. Men who do touching little acts of love in many quiet and small unheralded ways.