English | Español
The Spy of the Heart
1 : Of Spies & Rogues
2 : He is with you...
3 : The Great Buddhas
4 : Recollections
5 : A Broken Peace
6 : The Salt of the Earth
7 : With Friends Like This
8 : An Ill Wind
9 : What the Devil...
10 : Not by Bread Alone
11 : A Loss of Face
12 : The Water of Life
13 : Shades of Mercy
14 : Afterword
Buy the book from Amazon
45 color photographs, several sketches, and 3 maps.

The Spy of the Heart can also be ordered direct from the author :
Send a check for $20 to
Real Impressions,
P.O. Box 714,
Sausalito, CA 94966, USA.
incl. Postage & Packaging.


2. He Is With You Wherever You Are

Somewhere between extraordinary coincidence and the lifting away of the usual laws of causality lies the world of the miraculous. It also seems to me that this world around us, and the tenuous and precious hold that we have on life itself, are ongoing miracles. But it is the first-mentioned, unusual kind of miracle that can change one’s life course and bring a new dynamic into rigid patterns of feeling and thought. That is the miracle that can suddenly release one into freedom, like a caged bird flying into the vast sky thanks to a fortuitous failure of the door latch. From the moment that I met Ustad Khalili and through our all-too-brief, one-year-long association, I felt that I had been blessed with this kind of miracle.

The days of our journey into northern Afghanistan were blending together. It was hard travel with hazards along the way, but it had, in fact, invigorated me. Being in the war zone at the edge of life and death kept me alert and conscious of my goals. I thought about my whole life. I was hopeful about where it was now leading me, despite the risks.

At thirty-seven, I had been involved in a spiritual quest for twenty years or more. By spirituality, I mean the state of my most innate nature, the core of my awareness and experience. I had studied the religions of the world closely and found a common Truth at the heart of each faith. These early readings and contemplations nurtured an awareness of my innate spirituality, whereas religious doctrines of all varieties left me with questions and doubts about traditional formulations. This was, perhaps, the reason that I became interested in the works of Idries Shah. I enjoyed his wonderful retelling of traditional Sufi stories, and I found his presentation about the path of Sufism, the mystical path originating in early Islam, to be clear and modern.

It may be that Shah’s writings were destined to be the clearest part of his Sufi message. I came to this conclusion because, despite the power and beauty of his writings, whenever groups of people organized around this material to study it, problems arose. I suppose I should have expected these typical issues of group dynamics and corruption in the hierarchy of the organization’s leadership. But in my youthful naivete, I hoped that studying and applying Shah’s approach would free us sufficiently from these pitfalls to enable us to make real progress on the spiritual path. This optimism seemed justified because Shah favored a psychological language that even explored the nature of these very problems. He surrounded himself with a greater than usual number of psychologists and doctors. Words, even beautiful and meaningful ones, are not enough; nor is ordinary human striving.

During those twelve years of study, I tried to ignore the growing dissonance between the presentation and the problems of group dynamics, some of them quite serious. Then I decided to move on and study the roots of Sufism more carefully. It was, in fact, my disillusionment with this study that led me to delve into Persian and Arabic, that I might read the original works of the Sufi tradition. While learning these languages, I began doing humanitarian aid work in the Afghan refugee camps of Pakistan. Soon I went there to live and learn more about the Islamic culture that gave birth to Sufism.

I met Ustad Khalilullah Khalili in the spring of 1986. He immediately accepted me as a friend and spiritual seeker. He was a kind, soft-spoken, war-saddened man in his mid-eighties. His sadness was tangible but he also possessed joy and a great sense of humor. Our first meeting would have been an introduction, except that it felt more like a reunion. His openness was like a sea of kindness that washed over me with familiarity. He recognized the nature of my spiritual search during our first meeting. 

“Tell me more about yourself and what you have studied,” he asked me after a long moment of sweet silence.

In my rudimentary Persian, I summarized the studies I had engaged in since adolescence, emphasizing the last few years that had left me disillusioned. He listened attentively as I spoke and seemed to immediately understand how I felt. I told him of the vicissitudes of a byzantine spiritual bureaucracy that had left me confused for some time. I had been on a path that emphasized that others knew better than my own conscience, a school where abusive behavior of various sorts was freely engaged in, on the pretext that this would cultivate the right “humility” in the student.

“My young friend,” he started after hearing me out, “the approach that you have described sounds odd and complicated. Sufism is actually simple and straightforward. The clear truth is that you have always been and will always be in a relationship with God. In the Qur’an God says, ‘We are closer to them than their jugular vein.’ He is that close and closer. God is always with us. But are we prepared for and open to that relationship? It is only a matter of learning how to accept what has always been so.”

This immediately registered true. I had certainly felt that I was directly responsible in every moment to a relationship that I knew was always there. It had been there since childhood, when I felt it in the turquoise lagoons of Tahiti, in fiery, awesome sunsets, in my own thoughts and feelings of yearning, and in the occasional paradisial oneness that I had known with my surroundings. As Ustad Khalili spoke in this way, I recalled an incident from my childhood: I had run away from my friends on the beach to escape their plan to take the tasty autera’a nuts I had just extracted from their hard shells. I ran fast and hard, pulling out in front of them when I thought I heard the ocean say, “Give me the nuts!”

“What? Who is talking? Where?” I thought, running down the beach.

“Give me the nuts!” The voice also came from inside me.

I stopped and looked at the ocean. It was vast and beautiful.

“Give me the nuts!”

I threw them into it as my friends caught up with me.

“Why did you do that?” they taunted. “Poor sport!”

My awareness came back to the old man with the gentle, understanding eyes.

“There is a Qur’anic verse in which God says. . .” He recited it in Arabic and translated into Persian, “‘We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth.’ You see, my young friend, we are in God’s hands in every moment that we live and He is teaching us.”

His words pierced deeply, suddenly burning through the clouds of confusion that had covered me. They resonated with the daydream I had just emerged from. I thought for a moment about what he said. The way he put it made spirituality sound so easy. I thought about the reasons I thought spirituality was so demanding and difficult; what I had been trained to believe.

“But what about the long study under a teacher, as is recommended in Sufi literature?” I inquired.

“Yes, that is all true, but it is secondary to a proper understanding that everything is right inside of you. A teacher can only help you to get out of the way of your own blindness and selfishness. But a teacher must do this skillfully and with love.”

“Do you believe in God?” he suddenly asked me.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, a bit surprised—this was the first time an Easterner had asked me such a question. It would be inconceivable, in Afghanistan, not to believe in God, or to admit to having any doubts about God’s existence.

“But why, why do you believe in God?”

I thought quickly and immediately answered, “Because of beauty, because of the existence of beauty.”

“Very good, young man! You are right to think that way,” he replied. “Indeed God is beauty and you do well to worship Him in His face of Beauty. Please consider well though how He shows himself in many other ways, even in what we take to be misfortune. I asked you about belief hoping that you would answer from your experience of direct recognition. You have said that God exists because of your recognition of Him in beauty. Beautiful, beautiful!”

The rest of our first meeting was taken up with Afghan hospitality. A delicious meal was served. Ustad Khalili recited poetry and showered me with the care due to a dear friend or a returning son. I left him several hours later in a completely different state of mind. I was open, free, clean inside.

As I walked from Ustad Khalili’s home in Islamabad to my hotel some distance away, I was elated and grateful. I felt a remarkably strong connection with him in that short meeting. I mentally replayed our interchange as I walked along, and realized that I was not surprised to have met him in this way. Our connection was so immediate that it seemed that we were destined to meet. I had been studying his poetry for years before we met and had retranslated some of his quatrains; I knew that he was regarded as the last great poet in the whole region, recognized by Afghans and Iranians alike for his eloquence and command of the Persian language. He was, like most of the classical poets before him, firmly grounded in the Sufi tradition.

I had first approached his poetry through a translation of his quatrains published by Octagon Press, an English publishing venture headed by Idries Shah. Shah’s father had been friends with Ustad Khalili and his Afghan Sufi associates. I first read some of Ustad Khalili’s quatrains while studying Shah’s works and books recommended by his organization.

One reason that I wanted to meet Ustad Khalili is precisely because he had been identified in Shah’s works as an authority on Sufism. In my search to reconcile the disparity between the high-mindedness of Sufi writings and my disappointment in their application, Ustad Khalili was a unique source of authoritative information on the matter. He was a living Sufi working in the classical, ecumenical, Islamic yet modern tradition that was the source of the teaching I had abandoned.

I was back at his home the next day. He had asked me to return so that his son, Massoud, could meet me and help with translation. Massoud, probably in his late twenties at the time, was familiar with Western thought and fluent in English. During this meeting, the three of us discussed many things. I asked a range of questions hoping to get a broader sense of Ustad Khalili’s perspectives on Sufism. He returned to his theme of the day before.

“Many people wonder about spirituality, what it means, how to approach it. There is a wonderful story about the woman Sufi, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyyah. She was one of the greatest of the early Sufis. A dervish seeker approached her and said, ‘I have been striving on the spiritual path for many years. I pray, keep nightly vigils, I fast, and I cultivate solitude. I have been knocking on His door for many years and I do not feel that I have attained my heart’s desire. Can you please help me?’

Rabi’a replied, ‘You say that you have been knocking on His door for many years, but that door has always been wide open!’

“You see, my young friend,” Ustad Khalili continued, “there is nothing in the way but a person’s own limitation of understanding, a kind of blindness that afflicts us in this world.”

This was the fundamental point that he continually emphasized throughout our all-too-brief friendship. He challenged my preconceptions about the path of spirituality. I had been trained to think about this spiritual endeavor as a long path with a faraway goal, a group process, a difficult-to-attain understanding beset with barriers blocking the way. At this early stage of instruction, he emphasized the most fundamental truth that is accessible in the very conscience of any sincere seeker.

“‘He is with you wherever you are,’ it says in the Qur’an,” he continued. “No matter what you do and in whatever state or activity you find yourself—there is no exception. He is there with you lovingly, he is your very spirit—this is why He is always with you.”

He then quoted a verse from a poem by Sa’di of Shiraz:

The Friend is closer to me than I am to myself

This is even stranger in that I am far from Him.

I smiled as I listened to the way he referred to the love and gentleness of the Qur’an. I had, a couple of days earlier, spoken with a number of attendees of a religious conference being held at the Islamabad Hotel where I happened to be staying. Some of them were happy to talk with me about Islam. In almost every case, they drew my attention to the frightful message of torment for unbelievers in the afterlife and how to avoid this by adopting what sounded like a fearful attitude of piety. The references they made to the Qur’an couldn’t have been more different from Ustad Khalili’s references. After I heard his words, this difference suddenly struck me in a broader way. This was actually a clarification of something I had been struggling with my whole life: Religious people are usually afraid of their God. They pray to a Divinity outside of themselves, not at their core. They fear a physical punishment from a wrathful God, or they hope for His acceptance of them. But if, as Ustad Khalili stressed, God is always within oneself, as one’s deepest self, or one’s inner consciousness, one’s whole understanding changes. Seen from this point of view, turning from His presence in myself to the external pursuit of what pleases my bodily senses and my personality’s narcissism and self-love, is a turning toward loss and suffering that I myself bring about. If I face the world fully, but am able to keep an awareness of Him as my inner nature, then I can experience paradise here and now, and it is not only something I believe in, in an afterlife.

Ustad Khalili saw the impact he had on me and was quiet for a while. I was experiencing his words deeply. We could have ended the meeting then and there, I felt so full. Nevertheless, I did want to ask him a couple of other things that I had been thinking about.

“Could you explain your view on cultivating the paranormal?” I asked. It was a fact that many Sufis in the region were deemed to be Sufis merely because of a reputation for performing miracles like healing the sick, reading minds, and the like. Many Easterners were interested in what most Westerners might consider quackery or nonsense. People in the East found it perfectly reasonable to find God’s name written in the fibers of a sliced watermelon or receive blessings and information from saints and prophets in dreams. I was perhaps more open-minded than most Westerners because of my childhood in Tahiti. I clearly remember a fisherman in our neighborhood who whistled at the seashore to call a large triggerfish to come see him. When I was a child, my father took me to see some fire-walkers in Raieatea who really did walk through red hot stones and embers that were so hot, I could not even get close to where they were walking. I also remember having moments of such clarity that I thought I could see what was just ahead, just about to happen.

“I do not seek such powers,” Ustad Khalili answered. “These things may or may not happen to mystics but this is not an essential part of the Sufi way. We are only concerned about our relationship with God and cultivating the miracle of knowing His love within us.”

It was midday and Massoud had to leave. His father accompanied him out toward the front gate. I sat alone thinking about our conversation. I had asked Ustad Khalili about the paranormal partly because he really did seem to understand me deeply, without having had any prior contact. I admit I thought he might be reading my mind. The thought made me self-conscious; I wondered if such a thing were really possible and, if so, what a person with such powers would think of someone like me. I felt unworthy of the attention he was giving me. Just then, he returned and I heard him calling me at the door. As I reached it, I saw that he was holding my sweaty sandals in his hands. He put them down in front of me. I was embarrassed and surprised. I had just been thinking, “How would a person who could read minds behave when faced with all of my failings?” This was his way of showing me his commitment to serve others, to behave toward everyone with humility.

“Come, Sikandar, today’s meal is being served elsewhere,” he said lovingly.

During the following year, I met with him whenever I could. I was traveling back and forth between California and the Afghan border. My Persian was improving by leaps and bounds and I was able to converse more deeply with him each time we met. We agreed that I would retranslate his quatrains into modern English, and the task really delighted me. I felt honored that he would accept me doing this. Massoud and I occasionally got together, especially after Ustad Khalili’s death in 1987. Thanks to his help and the participation of American friends and poets, our foundation published a translation of Ustad Khalili’s book of quatrains in 1989. The book did especially well in Pakistan among the many foreigners living there who had no idea about the beauty and subtlety of Afghan literature and mysticism. At that point, and even today, Afghans stood out as fierce warriors or needy refugees. Many non-Afghans said that the book of Ustad Khalili’s poetry allowed them to see a depth and sensitivity that they had not suspected existed. Several of the quatrains often run through my mind:

Pleasure’s origin is the company of lovers
and death’s hardship is separation
As lovers reunite under rich soil
life and death are one to us

Kneaded by fate on the table of grief
What chance to drink pleasure from life’s cup?
Struggling like a candle in a drafty room
I flicker to a waxen puddle and vanish

When a drop of blood falls to earth
a gem falls from the ring of heaven
Be careful! An orphan’s cries
bring down the walls of the subtle realm

You knew I saw you as a delicate flower
a shining essence in the depths of that sea
Though you were half-hiding your face from me
I saw the blossoming branch end to end

It was in early 1987 that I last saw Ustad Khalili. We had a wonderful meeting at his home and as I was leaving I promised to return from the United States as soon as possible. He smiled gently and took my outstretched hand. Instead of shaking it, he pulled it close to himself, up to his heart. His eyes closed and he stood that way for a long moment. I was silent and relaxed as I felt his presence, his care for me radiating from him into my hand and through my whole body. He opened his moist eyes and said goodbye.

 A couple of months later I got a phone call from Mohammed Ali, my office manager in Peshawar.

“Your friend Khalili has died,” he said slowly. “He became ill suddenly and was taken to hospital. He died there yesterday. I am sorry.”

Grief gripped me as I heard these words. I quickly got off the phone and sat with my loss. I thought of his guidance and his immense kindness toward me in the short time I knew him. I had changed in profound ways since meeting him. My tears met a smile as I remembered him.

I was not alone in my respect and love for Ustad Khalili. A couple of years later I sat in northern Afghanistan with Qazi Jamaluddin Rahmatullah at Darzab in Jowzjan province. He was an older Uzbek man who had known Ustad Khalili many years earlier. He was a mystic of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis; he had the most penetrating, calm gaze that I’ve ever seen. The Naqshbandis believe that the spirits of saints guide those living on this earth and offer them spiritual sustenance. He knew of my friendship with the late Ustad Khalili.

“Do you dream of him?” he asked me.

“Yes, I do on occasion. I’ve had some powerful dreams. Once he came to me and entered my body through the openings in my head. As he flowed through me I started to tremble from the energy that I felt. I awoke and was trembling, full of life. Once, we flew together, very very fast through the universe, faster than I can describe.”

“You were lucky to have met him,” Jamaluddin remarked. “He was a good man and very generous. He was your teacher and his presence remains with you.”

Ustad Khalili’s generosity was renowned. Homayon Etemadi, a dear Afghan friend and mentor who resettled in California, had known Ustad Khalili most of his life. He told me many stories about him.

“Once we were part of the royal retinue hunting and picnicking in the countryside. As some of us walked together, a very poor man, a woodcutter, came up to us. ‘Please help me,’ the woodcutter said, approaching us cautiously. ‘My son is very ill and I have no money.’ Khalili stayed to talk with the man and the others walked ahead. I stopped close by, just to be near Khalili in case anything untoward happened. I saw him take off the gold watch that had been given to him by the king. He spoke quietly to the woodcutter, warning him not to sell the watch too cheaply. He knew the woodcutter had never seen anything like this watch. He warned him a couple of times to sell it carefully, and then said his goodbye. I tried at the last minute to dissuade him from giving away the watch but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

Ustad Khalili’s father, the keeper of the treasury and one of the most powerful men in the land, had been unjustly imprisoned and killed by King Amanullah in the early twentieth century. The family lost all of its holdings and Ustad Khalili lost his father, his material security, and the happiness of his childhood all at once. All of his poetry is infused with an enduring sadness, softened by his immense kindness and generosity of spirit. In person, Ustad Khalili could also be very funny and a little mischievous.

Homayon Etemadi told me another story, of an errand they were on for his Eminence, King Zaher Shah. Privately, the king was a devotee of the mad Sufi, Sayid Jan Malang who lived at Gulbahar. Homayon, the king’s cousin and royal secretary, was instructed to take one of the few automobiles in the land to deliver some presents to Sayid Jan. One of the gifts was a tin of chocolates from Turkey. Ustad Khalili wanted to visit with Sayid Jan Malang and asked to go along. The chauffeur was at the wheel and Homayon and Khalili were enjoying each other’s company when Khalili asked to see what these chocolates looked like. Homayon opened the box and Khalili smelled them. He said that they could taste one of them if they just rearranged the other chocolates to fill the space. Homayon was a little nervous about this, but reluctantly agreed.

To make a long story short, in no time they ate all of the chocolates; it was a long drive. When they arrived at Sayid Jan Malang’s residence, they found him surrounded by dervishes. They brought the other gifts in and put them near Sayid Jan. He looked at them, and kept shuffling through them. Finally, he looked up with a questioning glance at Ustad Khalili, who was standing nearby. Khalili couldn’t hide his guilt. He was completely silent but his face told the story. Sayid Jan Malang was, alas, something of a crazy type of Sufi. He worked on another plane of reality, one that didn’t make sense to ordinary people. He would slap people from time to time, for example. The people who were slapped by him often became enlightened, or so the story goes. And so, Sayed Jan slapped Ustad Khalili, who was closest to him; the poor man stood there, resigned to his punishment, which he also accepted as a blessing.

In my case, Ustad Khalili used humor rather than sternness to point out my deficiencies. Or he would hang his head silently, with an expression of sad tolerance at what I had said. Early in our friendship, he asked me why I wanted to translate his poetry.

“Because I feel the spirituality in your quatrains,” I answered.

“Oh I see!” he said. “Perhaps this is because you are a spiritual person?” The way he said this made me chuckle. It was as if he had gently reached his hand inside me and touched something a bit false. After I chuckled, he laughed. Then I laughed more loudly. Soon we were both laughing. It was amazing! I laughed with him at myself with no self-consciousness, no desire to defend myself. I laughed at the foolishness of my own personality. This moment had a long-term impact on me, as this particular interchange comes to mind from time to time, whenever I behave foolishly.

“There’s no rose without thorns,” he said.

“But what if there’s no rose?” I asked.

“Potentially, there’s a rose. It may be that the soil is impoverished, that the poor rose bush is growing deep in a forest with no light. It may be that there is no water. But there is a rose in waiting. Clear the brush to let in light. Turn the soil over around the bush so it can take in water. Fertilize the soil if it’s deficient. Then the rose will appear, if God wills.”

Buy the book at Amazon.com

The Great Buddhas >>