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by Robert Irwin
published Independent, Friday May 13th, 2011

This book is stuffed with a lifetime of reading, selective drug-taking, chanting, eastern travel and dancing, all undertaken in the search for God. Or at least the God within us, for Irwin is both sincere in his quest and like all true searchers also terrified of the final encounter. At one moment he reflects that ‘believing one is in love with the Invisible…was perhaps, like falling in love with a girl whom one has never seen” and yet two sentences later he speculates that ‘the mystic union between man and God was horrific and obscene, like copulation between a man and a shark.” Yet when Irwin was a disciple of the dervish community at Mostaganem in western Algeria (which he would return to for three prolonged residential sessions), he soon got used to everyday visions, but as his teacher warns him “if you see a miracle, let it pass like a train before you…and continue on the Road.” Similarly, Irwin would later learn that the physical ecstacy of the mystical circular dances of the brotherhood (the Imara) were not an end in themselves but a search for purity and peace. The process could be likened to both a war dance and an instance of possession - where ‘It was as if something vast, alien and dispassionate was reaching into the heart of me to take me over’.

Irwin was a welcome guest at Mostaganem, though he makes it clear that he was never completely trusted by the Shaykh. This is in refreshing contrast to the vast majority of spiritual memoirs that I have worked my way through, whose overriding purpose seems to be to raise the dignity and spiritual authority of the author. Another surprising element of Memoirs of a Dervish, is that it is consistently funny. The text bristles with brilliantly re-imagined comic scenes: the whispered aside that punctuates the theatrical but false solemnity of a pagan ritual, the horrors of being appraised during a naked encounter group or the babble of seasonal nonsense at a hippy poetry convention. He is also cruelly accurate with self-mockery, be it the opening line: “It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to be a Muslim saint” or depicting himself, “I was pale and thin and my hands shook from unfocused intensity."

Irwin is also receptively alive to the other world outside the closed meeting halls of the gurus. The impact of the Velvet Underground, the merits of Donovan versus Dylan, the Sufi origins of the Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’, or the redemptive power of the film ‘If”, are all treated not as the disposable scum of pop culture, but important enough to be put beside such key influences as John Fowles’s The Magus or J.D.Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. But in the process he also introduces you to more gurus, sheikhs, spiritual movements and masters than is good for either your sanity or cheque-book. Most are revealed to be exploitative charlatans, on the Scientology scale of worthlessness. Others such as R.D. Laing and the School of Economic Science are given savagely short shrift . The claims of the latter to teach philosophy are described as ‘sub-occult tripe from Ouspensky’. P.J. Bennet and Schuon are also dissected ruthlessly but you are at least left with some respect for their original integrity, even if it was later occluded by egocentric madness. Others, like an old lecturer at Oxford, John Aiken, is affectionately assessed as ‘a walking encyclopedia of dodgy knowledge.” Fortunately there are a few magnificent, if deeply flawed, characters amongst this circus of intellects and Islamic-inclined God searchers whose work remains useful: Bernard Lewis before his Neo-Con apotheosis, his successor at SOAS, the American-born John Wansbrough (judged ‘one of the most remarkable men I have ever met’) the Ottoman emigree and scholar of Ibn Arabi, Ali Bulent and a reticent scholar of manuscripts at the British Library, Martin Lings.

Irwin never turns his potent invective on his teachers back at Mostaganem. Indeed if there is a single heroic figure in Memoirs of a Dervish, it is Abdullah Faid, a Breton sailor long converted to Islam, a long term resident of the Sufi zawiya in Mostagenam, who acts as a sort of spiritual assistant to the ruling Shaykh - especially when it comes to greeting and instructing visiting westerners. The sad tale of how he and his master would be treated, first as dissidents, then as potential traitors, by the Algerian Ministry of the Interior is like a dark shadow that grows into a true horror story.

I could not put Memoirs of a Dervish down until I had read it twice over. Then other themes - an obsession with recording dreams, the absent but powerful father (a director of a lunatic asylum), the danger of living through and for your diary, the loss of childhood within an institution – came strongly to the fore. This is a brilliant, free-ranging, mind-enhancing, life-cautioning book. Beware.

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