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
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45 color photographs, several sketches, and 3 maps.

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Review by Leonard Lewisohn

Do any books on contemporary Sufism in Afghanistan exist? In any European language at least, this is the first one to my knowledge.

Robert Darr’s The Spy of the Heart chronicles his years of travels, many adventures, imprisonment among Afghan warlords and tribes-people during the Soviet occupation just before the rise of the Taliban. This fascinating autobiographical travelogue, which presents a more positive view of Islam than currently represented in the Western press or by the more literalist exponents of Islam, details the author’s spiritual search that led him ultimately to convert to Islam, but not without asking many questions about the purpose and problems inherent in adopting any religion. Between 1985 and 1990, Darr, an American, was in and out of Afghanistan working with aid organizations delivering medicines and humanitarian aid to those affected by the war with the Soviet Union. He had already been a student of Islamic culture for more than a decade, with a particular interest in Sufism. During these years in Afghanistan Darr became fluent in Persian and immersed himself deeply in the Afghan culture, going completely native in a way that few Westerners ever have—the priceless photos of Darr in Afghan turban and shalvar that illustrate the book recall Edward Browne in A Year among the Persians (1893) decked out in dervish regalia.

Not an historical survey of Sufi orders like Trimingham’s The Sufi Orders of Islam (1971), nor monograph on a particular Sufi order like Pourjavady’s and Wilson’s Kings of Love (1978), nor research anthropological fieldwork like Valerie Hoffman’s Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt (1995), Robert Darr’s The Spy of the Heart yet represents a unique account of experiential Sufism lived and practiced in war-torn Afghanistan during the 1980s—the kind of living esoteric Islam promised but never delivered in Idries Shah’s works or in Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men. Darr’s account of Sufism offers no extravagant fabula with dramatic effect and novelesque style—certainly no attempt to hoodwink the naïve student with Blavatskyian tall-tales of secret masters in hidden monasteries, or treasure maps of lost civilizations concealed in dilapidated houses, a la Gurdjieff et Shah.

The Spy of the Heart is a simply told, but an intensely gripping story of study and later initiation into Sufism vis-à-vis the author’s association with the greatest modern Afghan poet Khalilullah Khalili and the miniaturist painter Homayon Etemadi and encounters with Sufis of the Naqshbandi Order in northern Afghanistan. Although casual and non-academic, Robert Darr’s narrative yet manages to explore many themes of interest in the study of Islamic spirituality and history, militant Islam, the role of ethnicity in socio-cultural relations, current affairs, and international relations, making it a good text for undergraduate students seeking an understanding of contemporary Islamic spirituality of the Persianate variety, as well as students of modern Afghan history and politics.