Review of ‘Tales from the life of Bruce Wannell Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist’

The book on Bruce Wannell could be equally entitled Scholar, Spy and Sufi as I will discuss below. Bruce Wannell is described as the greatest orientalist traveller of our times in this book and with just cause. Bruce travelled across much of the Muslim world and was intimately familiar with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanaid was a charity used by the British Government during the Afghan Soviet war to funnel arms to the Afghan mujahideen resistance. It was for this charity that Bruce Wannell worked for two years heading their Peshawar office and thereafter working for the oddly named “Freedom Medicine”. It is quite possible that Bruce was conducting work for British intelligence at the same time, using his charitable activities as a cover. Bruce was fluent in many languages including Pashto and Dari as well as Urdu so blended in perfectly to the region.

Bruce writes about his career in Peshawar, “I had meanwhile left Afghanaid after less than two years, had travelled independently across Afghanistan on horseback in the summer of 1987, and returned to Peshawar to select and train a team of Afghan monitors for the American medical NGO ‘Freedom Medicine” … I had to go and stay with a Pakistani General Jehanzeb Afridi, when my life was publicly threatened by Hezb-e-Islami after I had publicly criticized their robbery of one of our medical supply caravans destined for Shi’i Hazaras.”

Assassination was an unwelcome facet of life in Peshawar, during the Afghan-Soviet war with attendant bomb blasts and shootings. Bruce had some narrow experiences of this more brutal side of Peshawar life, which he explains years later to the daughter of a murdered aid worker. Bruce writes “Dominique’s new work for the Swedish Committee …certainly irritated and alarmed the Hezb–e Islami who were the favoured party of the Pakistani ISI and of the American CIA. …Gulbuddin with his well-honed terrorist instincts and training meant that Hezb-e Islami was virtually unchallenged on the ground. The American’s did not want to see this reality. When Alastair Crooke sent a confidential report to the London FCO criticizing the CIA’s over-reliance on Hezb-e Islami, he was summoned to explain himself not to London but to Washington: not long after that he left the service….The decision to murder your father probably had the tacit approval, or assurance of indifference, of the American’s. who apparently had stopped employing Dominique and probably disapproved of his extensive knowledge of Afghan commanders and Hezb-e Islami’s appalling record of betrayal and murder being put on the database of a neutral and potentially critical organisation such as the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan …The Pakistani ISI almost certainly allowed the murder, hence the prearranged propaganda that it was suicide. “ Professor Sayyed Bahauddin Majrooh who conducted a survey on the popularity of Afghan King Zahir Shah amongst the refugees in Pakistan was also assassinated for this courtesy of Hezb-e-Islami around the same time as the murder of Dominique.

In 2005 Bruce accompanied Kevin Rushby to Iran as his guide Kevin writes “In those days Bruce did seem like a character from the eighteenth century. In Tehran I was treated to a series of musical soirees and visits to old friends….Bruce had arranged a final treat: an all night chanting session with some Sufi holy men at a famous shrine. As the hours rolled by and my knees became rigid, then died, Bruce and the others entered deep trances and ecstatic states. Unfortunately the ecstasy was interrupted when the chief savant’s mobile phone went off. His ringtone was the theme to Mission Impossible and I got a severe bout of the giggles.”

In Sudan Wannell writes ,“We sat on the sand and talked at length as the moon rose about our lives: I told him of my hopes to go on the Umra and then by sea to Egypt and to see my aged parents in England before they, or I died; of the careless, solitary life I’d led … never thinking of tomorrow nor of the need for financial security, accumulating experiences but no material wealth, giving and sharing what I could but now, in my mid-forties with neither family, nor home nor established profession.

‘What of it?’ countered Jadidi robustly, ‘If this is your fate, live it, live it to the full and enjoy it! Some of our greatest saints never had families. That didn’t stop them from giving to those around them. Do likewise, keep faith, keep trusting!’

“In the library of the Shaykh’s eldest son Fatih, I came across that wonderful book of spiritual aphorisms, the ‘Kitab ul Hikam’ of the Ibn Atallah al-Iskandari. One saying seemed to echo Jadidi’s encouragement:

‘Let it be no cause for despair, if in spite of your insistent prayers, there is delay in granting gifts: for He has guaranteed to answer your prayers as He chooses best for you, not in what you choose for yourself, and in the time He wishes, not in the time that you may wish!’

John Butt, a practising Muslim who knew Bruce Wannell writes the following regrets of words unsaid and things that could have been, “There are countless ways I could have benefitted from Bruce’s encyclopedic knowledge, in particular, from his love of Persian poetry, a passion of mine also. But speaking as a Muslim …I could have mentored him more as far as the Islamic faith was concerned…So when Bruce told me that he had ‘woken up one morning, and lost his faith’, I did not know what to say. I could have said to him that everyone had doubts from time to time, but this should provide even more impetus to settle into one’s daily Islamic routine…I could have said to him that everyone’s faith fluctuates – even that of the Companions of the Holy Prophet – but that should not be a reason to abandon one’s faith. I could have related to Bruce any number of Hadith from the chapters on evil promptings al wasa’is – or temptation. I could and should have done, but I didn’t and now Bruce is gone and I will not get a chance.”

Bruce’s Persian linguistic expertise had a profound depth,  “ he could understand archaic vocabulary and forms and also the cultural practices (since lost) that underpinned various obsolete idioms that, but for his explanation were completely incomprehensible”.

Bruce also worked as a travel guide to the Islamic world for tourists. However, Bruce earned greater renown as William Dalrymple’s collaborator, becoming William’s font of knowledge acting as William’s gateway to understanding the Islamic world and translator of Persian texts. Bruce revealed to William the inner workings of the Islamic world which William endeavor’s to explain in his best selling books on Mughal India and Afghanistan. Moreover, William describes Bruce as his best friend and during their last dinner conversation in December 2019, Bruce somberly recited a Ghazal by Hafez :

The night is dark, I am afraid of the waves,

This savage whirlpool terrifies me.

You who walk on the distant shore, light-burdened,

What do you know of my inner state?

I had the pleasure of meeting Bruce at William Dalrymple’s Chiswick home. There he told me that his books entitled Kabul Elite Burials a wounded Heritage (2013) and ‘Herat Elite Burials an endangered heritage’ (2013) which he kindly signed for me with his artistic signature, had been published by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture without the benefit of the latest revisions to his translations of the Persian texts on the tombstones. This appeared to cause much pain to Bruce who clearly was a perfectionist. These two books on burial heritage of Afghanistan are part of Bruce’s contribution to Afghanistan’s culture.

It is unfortunate that despite his brilliance, Bruce was often at a financial abyss and died as he had lived with very little but his charismatic personality and his memory lives on amongst his friends.

The book could have done with finer pruning and omitting articles on Bruce’s life which added nothing to the overall book such as the one paragraph account by Charlie Gammell. Nonetheless it is a useful addition to the history of the region and the odd workings of the world where the brilliant do not necessarily bask in fame or fortune.

Eland Publishers

Isbn: 9781900209250

Price: £15

25 August 195229th January 2020

Farrukh Husain
Farrukh Husain
Farrukh Husain is a history researcher and author of ‘Afghanistan in the Age of Empires’ (2018)

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