Memoirs of a Dervish

Memoirs of a Dervish, by Robert Irwin, Profile, RRP£14.99, 239 pages

In my memory, youth was a golden age: easy health, effervescent confidence and laughing, loose-limbed girls on warm summer evenings. Yet my late teenage diaries reveal a plainer record of self-delusional silliness. My conversation was gauche. I opened my mouth only to change feet. When I tried to put my arm around one loose-limbed girl, I elbowed her in the eye.

Our memory tells us stories, as Robert Irwin writes in Memoirs of a Dervish: “It always pretends to be telling true stories, but sometimes it lies to me, as it seeks to artistically shape my life and provide a founding myth of my identity.”

Irwin, one of the finest writers on Islamic history and culture, was troubled by those lies and decided to write his memoirs as a means of reaching for the truth. At the same time he wanted to shed light on the “ludicrous and half-witted” aspects of the hippy 1960s.

In the 1960s young westerners such as Irwin were on a quest for the meaning of life. “Be here now” was the imperative of the age. His generation believed that by changing themselves they could change the planet. Their bewitching, naive optimism – and faith in a kinder, more spiritual world – seduced and propelled many along the hippy trail to India and Nepal, towards Buddhism and Hinduism. “We were hardly more than children,” Irwin declares.

A handful of more disciplined seekers was drawn to Islam (the ritual demand of praying five times a day put off the freewheeling majority). In his first year at Oxford, Irwin decided that he wanted to become a Muslim saint. He hitchhiked to Algeria in search of enlightenment, sensing that he was engaging with destiny. At the Mostaganem Zawiya– a kind of Sufi monastery – he fell into a world of marvels and ecstasy, converted to the faith and received an initiation as a faqir. In this holy place he “saw” fellow believers before they reached his room, watched a sparrow-like bird vanish into a wall and observed smoke rising from his hands as he clapped out the beat of a dance. The miracles were astonishing and their veracity unquestionable for – to this rational and respected western thinker – they were part of life.

Irwin’s long and winding road toward heightened awareness was guided by dreams and spiritual guides, littered with drugs and secular charlatans. His dotty and joyful 1960s London contrasted with the brutality of Algeria’s wars (“a beautiful country populated by saints and murderers”); the thrill of first love provoked him to ask how it is possible to love something so vast, so terrifying, so incomprehensible as God. In time Irwin began to sense his limitations, gave up the search for the single big truth and settled for smaller certainties.

Jane Shilling once wrote that memoir-writing is a kind of adventure, a process as much of forming as describing. Irwin – by his own admission – failed both as a Sufi and in his attempt to understand the 1960s. He didn’t make it as a Muslim saint. But he has given retrospective shape to his youth and formed a true story that will last forever, or at least until the pages of this wonderful, bittersweet memoir crumble into dust: a record of an education, a guidebook for western converts to the basic elements of Islam and a glimpse of paradise (both while gazing at the stars above the Zawiya “incandescent with a fiery longing” and while sporting a silver shirt on Carnaby Street).

Memoirs of a Dervish – charged with life, humility and humour – opens one’s eyes to possibilities, which was what the 1960s vibe was about, after all.

Rory MacLean is the author of ‘Magic Bus’. His new book, ‘Gift of Time’, will be published by Constable & Robinson in August

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