Steve Wasserman on The Sabres of Paradise by Lesley Blanch [facebook 31-05-2022]

Some years ago, I had occasion to read The Sabres of Paradise by the late Lesley Blanch, published more than sixty years ago. It is a remarkable story of resistance to empire, heroism and treachery, savagery and generosity, religious fanaticism and imperial ambition. Though the tale it tells occurred over 150 years ago, its implications for our era are evident on nearly every page. If you want to understand something of the futility and hubris of the American effort to pacify Afghanistan and the unruly clans of Pakistan, not to mention the theocratic fanaticism and tribal irredentism tearing apart Mesopotamia, or the forlorn and ruthless Russian war against Chechnya’s murderous insurgents, you would do well to consider the story of Shamyl, Imam of Daghestan.

Blanch, a nearly forgotten writer, died a few years ago in the south of France just one month shy of 103. She had been a features editor of Vogue in England from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s and gained a considerable reputation as a book illustrator, columnist, war reporter, movie and drama critic, theatrical designer and book reviewer. The author of a dozen or so books, she is perhaps best known for her international best-seller The Wilder Shores of Love, a compelling if overly romantic portrait of a quartet of intrepid nineteenth-century Englishwomen who were drawn to the seductions of what they imagined were the more authentic passions of the East. Blanch admired these women as “realists of romance who broke with their century’s dream, to live it, robustly.”

She herself was always fascinated by Russia, her imagination inflamed by Tolstoy and Lermontov’s imperishable stories set in the Caucasus — stories which vividly portray the effort by the czarist Court of St. Petersburg to subdue the proud tribal peoples, mostly of the Islamic persuasion, who fought to preserve their rituals and traditional ways against the encroachments of a rapacious Russian empire. She loved the bloodcurdling stories handed down from generation to generation. Atrocities excited her: She wrote in a characteristically empurpled passage that “it had been secretly every [Russian] woman’s dream to be seized, flung over the saddle of a pure-bred Kabarda steed, and forced to submit to the advance of some darkling mountaineer.”

From the opening pages of The Sabres of Paradise, she breathlessly recounts the ruthless ways the tribes of the Caucasus went to battle, how they “wrote love-poems to their daggers, as to a mistress, and went to battle, as to a rendezvous.” They were a hard and hardened people: “Vengeance was their creed, violence their climate.” Collections of severed rebel heads were matters of competitive pride; a girl’s dowry might be reckoned in such trophies. Caucasian warriors, she writes, would dress their saddle-bows with the severed hands of their enemies, which dangled provocatively from the prize mounts they rode with enviable skill. Brutality was a way of life, the ability to suffer abuse without complaint a sign of virtue. Stoicism was synonymous with nobility.

The people of the Caucasus were legendary for their refusal to submit to would-be conquerors. Neither Alexander the Great nor successive invaders from the Roman legions to Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, nor Tamerlane nor the shahs of Persia could crush these fierce tribes, secure in their nearly inaccessible mountain redoubts, mighty ranges that dwarfed the Alps. In Persia there was even a much-ignored proverb: “When a Shah is a fool, he attacks Daghestan.”

Into this vortex of violence and stubbornness came Czar Nicholas I with his dream of extending St. Petersburg’s writ. His nemesis was the towering figure of Shamyl of Daghestan, who strove tirelessly to unite the disparate Caucasian tribes to resist their Russian invaders. He issued a call for holy war and imposed Shariah law wherever he could. For twenty-five years, from 1839 until his surrender in 1864, Shamyl was an implacable foe of Russian ambitions, forging an army of religious fanatics “whose private feuds,” Blanch writes, “were submerged in their common hatred of the Infidel invaders.” His word was law. His four wives and several sons submitted to his least whim and every command. His fury knew no bounds. Osama bin Laden was his heir.

The quarter-century war Shamyl waged was unrelenting: an estimated half-million men would die, soldiers sent by the czar into the bloody, bottomless maw of Caucasian hatred. The Russians had greater resources, the backing of a mighty and expanding empire. But Shamyl’s men were better able to withstand climatic extremes, to utilize the nimble and disciplined tactics of partisans who fought for their independence, for Allah, and for Allah’s prophet, the indefatigable and unforgiving Shamyl.

A single story from his remarkable career, wonderfully and indelibly recounted by Blanch, reveals something of the man’s austere and rigid character and his charismatic power. (Blanch’s book offers up a trove of such stories, rooted in her exemplary research and excellent reporting on several continents.) It is a story that suggests the many ways “Shamyl dramatized himself, turning to his own advantage events which, less imaginatively treated, would have spelled disaster.”

In 1843, the tribes of Great and Little Chechnya are besieged by Russian troops. Shamyl’s men are occupied elsewhere and can send no aid. The Chechens’ predicament is increasingly desperate, and rather than continue a futile resistance, they conclude that the better part of valor is to submit to the czar. Fear of Shamyl’s wrath, however, prompts them to send a delegation to Dargo, then his mountain headquarters, to beg his permission.
But no one has the courage to ask directly. Instead, they decide to ask Shamyl’s aged mother to intercede on their behalf. She is known to exercise a considerable and moderating influence over her fanatic son. He is said to revere her and to confide in her as to no one else apart from Fatimat, his first wife.

She listens to their entreaties and agrees to speak to her son on their behalf. At midnight, he emerges from her audience with him, his face inscrutable, and strides directly to the nearby mosque, where he remains alone for the rest of the night. His mother tells the trembling Chechens that the imam says it is for Allah to decide and that therefore he has gone to the mosque, where, with prayer and fasting, he will await Allah’s command. For three days and three nights he stays closeted in the mosque. Finally, he sends word that the entire population of Dargo, along with the delegation from Chechnya, is to assemble in the town’s square to hear the divine decision. The people wait for Shamyl to emerge. They have been wailing and praying on their knees for hours.

Suddenly the doors of the mosque are flung open and Shamyl appears, “livid pale, his half-closed eyes glinting.” He stands stock still, “as if turned to stone,” expressionless. A silence descends; the streets and rooftops are empty, only the dogs prowl. Two of his executioners accompany his mother, who kneels before him. Shamyl raises his left hand: “Mighty Prophet, Thy will be done! Thy words are law to thy servant Shamyl. Inhabitants of Dargo! I bring you black news. Your brothers, the Chechens, have spoken shamefully of submission to the czar. But they knew their audacity, their lack of faith, their dishonor: they did not dare to face me themselves, but used my mother, through her womanly weakness, to approach me. For love of her, as proof of her persuasions, I laid their request before Mohammed, Allah’s prophet. For three days and nights I have sought the Prophet’s judgment. And now, at last, he has deigned to answer my prayers. . . It is Allah’s will that the first person who spoke to me of submission should be punished by a hundred lashes! And this first person is my mother!”

The crowd gasps, the mother cries out and falls to the ground. The assemblage begins to wail. His henchmen bind his mother, and Shamyl seizes the whip from his executioners and begins to lash the shrieking woman. At the fifth blow, she faints and Shamyl flings himself across her body, sobbing uncontrollably. Suddenly, he springs to his feet, “his face now radiant, his eyes ‘darting flames.'” “Allah is great!” he cries. “Mohammed is his first Prophet, and I am his second! My prayer is answered! He allows me to take upon myself the remainder of the punishment to which my wretched mother was condemned. I accept with joy! I welcome the lash! It is the sign of your favor, O Prophet!” He tears open his tunic and orders his executioners “to deliver the rest of the 95 lashes upon his own back, threatening them with death if they do not strike hard enough.” He kneels beside his unconscious mother.

The blows begin to fall. He utters not a sound, and only the thwack of the lash upon his back can be heard. No grimace distorts his impassive face nor is any grunt of pain permitted to escape his lips. At last, the final blow is delivered. Shamyl, his shoulders bleeding, rises to his feet: “Where are the Chechen traitors? Where is the deputation who brought this punishment upon mother?” The Chechens grovel, they lay in the dust, prostrate with fear. They await their fate, unable even to beg for mercy.

Shamyl orders them to stand, enjoins them to “take heart, to have courage and faith.” He tells them to “Return to your homes. Tell your people what you have seen and heard here. Depart in peace. Hold fast to the rope of God. Farewell.”

Needless to say, there was no further talk of submission. Shamyl’s place as Allah’s prophet upon earth was secure.

Until one day it wasn’t. In the end, he would not be able to overcome the Russians might and he and his stalwart sons would be forced to surrender, his people decimated, the victims of a nearly genocidal policy pursued by a series of successive Russian generals who did not scruple to cut down whole forests to deny Shamyl’s warriors the cover and refuge they needed to survive.

What happened next is utterly surprising, and it would be a sin to even hint at it in this consideration. Suffice to say, the reader who spends time with The Sabres of Paradise will find instruction of a sort that will not soon be forgotten. Would that the wise men of Washington had heeded its lessons.

Bibliophile and former Los Angeles Times book review editor, Steve Wasserman, became executive editor and publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley, California, in 2016. A voracious reader with wide-ranging tastes, his library numbers 15,000-books. 

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