When I first started to read the books of Idries Shah, about thirty years ago, I hoped they would help me figure out how to live a better life. His work was much admired by my favourite author, Doris Lessing, and I was curious to see why. I reasoned (reasonably, I think) that if Shah’s work was useful to her, it might of use to me too.
Shah’s books, though, weren’t what I imagined they would be. I wanted them to answer all of my questions. They didn’t. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop reading them. I wanted to stop reading them, though, because the stories, and his odd arrangements of stories, were puzzling and difficult (if not impossible) to categorise. Where to put them on my bookshelf? And what to do with them now they were in my head?
On the other hand, the books were incredibly entertaining, and conveyed an optimism about the potential of recalcitrant humanity that I found compelling. The books were easy to read, but hard to dismiss once read.
The books were also full of warnings about the pitfalls and limitations of books – I found that intriguing too.
Aside from what he was doing in his own books, Shah also promoted the work of other authors – translators, psychologists, anthropologists – a whole range of people with fascinating ideas, and he encouraged anyone who was paying attention to familiarise themselves with what was being learned about human psychology in the current world.
Looking back over my own creative work, I can see how my lucky encounter with all of this material helped me move forward in practical and interesting directions again and again.
To give a concrete example, my most commercially successful work is a wordless book called Sidewalk Flowers.
What were the important sources behind this seemingly simple story, and book?
In one of his compendiums, Shah quotes a Sufi teacher who says “Sufism was once a reality without a name. Now it’s a name without a reality”.
This, I think, provided the kernel of the idea. How do you show the reality of something without in any way naming it?
In many of Shah’s books, he tells stories that show how true generosity has to be anonymous. This provided more background – how do you show anonymous generosity?
An associate of Shah’s, David Pendlebury, pointed out in the Afterword to a translation and abridgement he’d done of Hakim Sanai’s The Walled Garden of Truth that “Language has become for us like water: a tasteless, odourless, colourless medium; and like fish we only are aware of its existence when for some reason we are suddenly deprived of it.”
This frightened me. It made me reconsider my relationship to words from the point of view of addiction. Though I’d been fooled by words as often as I’d been enlightened by them, I never questioned my need for them. As a writer, they were my bread and butter. Was it possible to write without them? Could I tell a story without words?
Pendlebury was offering a challenge of sorts. I was curious to see if I could answer that challenge. But how?
Through references in Shah’s work I also found the work of an anthropologist named Edward T. Hall. And in one of his books he described the odd discovery a student of his made, through careful observation of a film of children playing on a school playground, that a little girl who didn’t stand out in any particular way at first glance was in fact (through her movements around the playground and in interaction with other children) harmonising the rhythms of everyone on the playground. What a fascinating discovery! But what did it mean?
All of these fragments worked away in me, helping make possible the eureka moment when Sidewalk Flowers came together as a story, seemingly in a flash.
After that flash, It took years to convince any publisher that the story was worth their time and investment. And I had no idea, of course, that it would become commercially successful. I actually didn’t think it would be. But I did know that I had to persevere with the story until I found someone who would take it seriously, and make a book of it.
The underpinning given to the story by all those Shah-sourced bits and pieces are part of what made my perseverance possible. It was a simple story, but it was also unusual, and told in an unusual (though accessible) way.
And I’m only talking about one of my books here – this is a single example of how Shah’s work, and the work of his associates, enriched my creative life.
Reading about the wide ranging effects of Shah’s work on people involved in a dizzying array of creative fields, I’m not at all surprised by the many grateful tributes made to the influence of his books.
JonArno Lawson is a prolific poet and children’s author who lives in Canada.