British Diplomat Encounters the Extraordinary

I recently enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East (2014). This travelogue about minority traditions in a troubled region was written by Gerard Russell, an experienced diplomat in the British Foreign Service who has been posted to various embassies throughout the region. Both erudite and fluent in multiple languages, Russell visited the communities named in his book over the course of four years. He has subsequently married historical information with personal experience to produce a colorful and sympathetic anthology of marginal religious traditions. Any reader (or listener) should appreciate his insights and his respectful approach to these religions.

I found it fascinating that Russell narrates a paranormal experience in a matter-of-fact manner, without expending effort to defend or debunk what has happened to him. This encounter occurs as he is journeying into the Hindu Kush mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border. He is on his way to meet the last surviving polytheists of the Middle East, known as the Kalasha. But before he does, he finds another representation of archaic spirituality among the nominal Muslims of the area:

I was staying at the home of a man named Hussein, and he invited me to visit the local shaman, as he called her. We walked to her house along the little footpaths of the village. “She lives right by the mountainside,” he said. “All shamans do.” In her house – traditional, built of stone, the hearth fire smoldering under a pan of almost-cooked bread – she stooped over a tray on which she had scattered a collection of pins. Hussein, a powerful local figure from a wealthy family, got a rather pointed set of predictions. “Some people in the village will dislike you; they feel that you are away too much, that you pay your community too little attention.” For me, she prayed in Arabic and declared good fortune: “You will finish your book.” I had not told anyone that I was writing one. Leaving, I asked Hussein how a person living in a house huddled under the great mountains became a shaman. He said it was a matter of spending some months up in the high peaks, where the ibex lives, eating only bread and drinking only tea. When the ibex delivered her young, the would-be shaman had to drink its milk, and then descend to the valley to test his or her new-found powers of prophecy.


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