Across a crowded room two pairs of eyes meet. It was in Edinburgh, a reception at the University as WWI raged across Europe. A young lass, 16 years old, broke her father’s cardinal rule, and arrived home late from the event he didn’t want her to attend. And she was chaperoned back by a foreigner.
They found a common subject; her love of the hills of Scotland, and his of his homeland hills, the Free Lands, between Oxus and Jumna, the Hindu Kush. The Scot’s father tried to arrange a marriage for his daughter, and the Pathan’s was persuaded to dispense with the arrangement he had in mind for his son. He did so after being promised that the foreign maiden would become a Muslim and was more than capable of defending the family fort against raiders. In time she did just that, and much more.
By the time the war ended, and the happy couple boarded a steamer for Karachi, a train to Peshawar and a caravan into the hills, they had a daughter. Two sons would follow. Elizabeth Louise MacKenzie became a central part of a dynasty, and her influence is there for all to see today.
A year ago I bemoaned that I would miss Tahir Shah speaking at Wigtown. But I caught a radio interview when he spoke of his Scot’s granny. Saira Elizabeth Luiza Shah wrote under the name of Morag Murray Abdullah, and I’ve just finished reading her My Khyber Marriage – Experiences of a Scotswoman as the Wife of a Pathan Chieftan’s Son.
Now grandson Tahir is a born story-teller; he gets it from both sides of the family and his tales of his paternal ancestor, Jan-Fishan Khan, are something to behold. But Granny could tell a tale herself, and eloping to the east was just the start of it.
We hear of her exploits in disguise, dressed as a maid under her burka as she climbed the walls of the fort intent on scaling the sacred mountain. She hid in a cave as armed brigands roamed outside. Her husband that turned out to be. And then there was Snake Valley, and her escape from a locked room, a long drop through a window, after being left to consider an offer to become the next wife of the householder. Her husband thought she was visiting her sister in law.
And being the female of the species she was adept at that age old art of twisting the chieftain round her fingers, as she indulged in the traditions of seeking a marriage settlement for her husband’s sister, or obtaining consent for whatever trip she had in mind. In all it’s a terrific account of times gone by, a different age in a different world.
She wrote also Travels in the Valley of the Giant Buddhas, and that too awaits my attention. The Buddhas are no more, destroyed by the Taliban in more recent years, making accounts of them ever more precious.
And again Wigtown beckons. For Tahir Shah’s sister is at the book festival this year, and Saira Shah will be talking specifically about Granny’s book. It looks unlikely that I can be in the audience, at 4.00 on a Friday afternoon. But, you never know, there just might be another radio interview. Meantime grab a copy of the book, it really is a good read. I’d expect nothing less from any relative of Tahir Shah. And be thankful for Granny’s influence in the scrapes he gets into, and the tales he tells of them.