Noor Inayat Khan: A life of courage and self-sacrifice
despite being afraid
I wrote this on Eid night. The entry is on my blog, too:http://timbuktu58.blogspot.com/2008/10/life-of-courage-and-self-sacrifice.html October 1st, 2008 Chaand Raat of Eid-ul-Fitr.
I won't be writing about Eid day. It will be tonight- Chand Raat, Eid night.
It is Eid night here, and I cannot sleep …
My son is coming on Eid day in the evening, and I will be glad to see him and the bahu (d-i-L), but that is not the reason for loss of sleep.
Previously I lost sleep when I saw on TV, the US bombing of a civilian shelter in Baghdad with one of its smart missiles. What the rescue workers took out were charred bodies of women and children.
This continues to be the US mode of operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well.
The videos of the Bosnian and Kashmiri suffering also caused me insomnia.
Have you read Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu?
On Monday 29th September, I leafed through this interesting book at a bookstore. Initially I did not want to buy the book because of its price, but the story is so captivating, that I bought it.
I am glad that I did, for it dispelled some of the misconceptions I had developed on the leafing through.
I sat down to write a gist of the book with some comments of my own, but I cannot leave much out, and I feel very, very depressed as I go through this story.
Shrabani's narration is the most accurate so far, as it is the only one that also draws on classified War Office papers that were declassified in 2003.Nur-un-Nisa (Noor) Inayat Khan
, alias Nora Baker
(1914-1944), was the eldest child of Pir Inayat Khan. She was the grand-daughter of Tipu Sultan's great-great grand-daughter. Tipu was the last Muslim king of Mysore, who was martyred when fighting British soldiers of the East India Company. Noor was born at Moscow on 1st Jan 1914 to her American mother Ora Ray Baker, who had met her father when he visited the United States. Ora was a distant cousin of the woman who was the founder of the Christian Science movement. She was under age, and her guardian was not in favor of her marrying Inayat, so she waited until she came of age. Inayat had, meanwhile come to Europe. Ora joined him, and changed her name to Sharda Amina Begum.
Noor's father, Inayat Khan had started out as a Sufi Chishti Shaykh, who had been sent to the West for spreading Islam. Discovering prejudice against Islam, he had instead formed a new Sufi Order Universal Sufism, that regarded all religions as from God. Islam teaches that, too, but it says that the other religions are now corrupted versions of the original message. Inayat preached wahadatul wujood . In special prayer sessions, extracts from texts of holy books of different religions were read). The Movement has its own Temples, just like the Bahais. Its development, infighting for control and breakup into subsidiary Orders that are still joined together, are interesting studies as well, but we will focus on Noor here.
Inayat was a successful music teacher and performer (together with his brothers) in Moscow at the time of Noor's birth. He had become friends with Leo Tolstoy's son. WW-I began on 28th July 1914, Noor's family moved to London in August of the same year, and then to Paris in 1920.
At school, the Inayat children had to bear with considerable teasing, due to not being fluent in French (they spoke English at home), and being darker colored than their peers. Noor bore all this with good humor and a smile. She learnt to keep her thoughts to herself, and yet won friends by being sweet and helpful under all that teasing.
If Inayat were a Muslim, Sufi or not, he may have taught Noor and his other children how to gain inner strength from meditation on the Almighty. The memebrs of the Sufi Movement do Dhikr, remembrance of Allah by reciting Allah's names in original Arabic.
Noor's father visited India in 1927, was shown around Nizamuddin Auliya's dargah, became seriously ill and died there, then buried in the dargah. Her mother, overcome with grief, became ill and indisposed for the rest of her life. So Noor had to take care of her younger siblings from the age of 13. She would compose poems, in English, French and Urdu (she wrote them in Roman Urdu, as she did not know the Urdu script. She made cards by hand and illustrated them delicately with flowers and drawings of animals. She loved her family. Who does not, but her devotion and love were extraordinary.
Noor had to attend school herself, and look after the household at the same time, on an allowance that can best be described as frugal.
She joined Ecole Normal de Musique for studying Music in 1931, and fell in love with a fellow Jewish student from a working class background. They became engaged to be married. This was an unfortunate choice, as he was grossly demanding and overbearing. He was rejected by her family and its circle of friends. She, nevertheless, persevered with the engagement in the hope the family would come round. Her family, however, saw that it wasn't love but her nature of wanting to help those with handicaps that was responsible for this liaison.
She had absorbed her father's thesis (actually, an old one), that all religions led to the same Almighty, and hence got close to that fellow student. She wanted to end the engagement earlier, but he threatened her with suicide if she did not marry him. So she kept the relationship alive. But the conflict within her made her ill, and eventually she saw that she had to break the engagement.
Noor studied child psychology at Sorbonne University. Later she studied languages, and became proficient in German and Spanish. However, upon graduation, she could not apply for a job as her family was Royalty, albeit on hard times. Family traditions dictated that women got married and stayed home. She couldn't take a job, period.
A very eligible young man in the same Sufi Order, had been paying her attention for marriage, but she had not considered it because she had already been engaged. He went to India on a lucrative post, and her brother convinced her that they should follow him and she should marry him. The problem was they had no money. They went to his aunt who had helped the Order in the past. She was glad of their plans but failed to realise they needed financial help, and they were too shy to mention it, so that possibility petered out.
She started writing stories for children for Le Figaro in November 1938. She was asked to write a book for children into French. She chose Buddhist tales, and her book "20 Jataka tales" was published in the summer of 1939. She was also asked to read her stories on French radio for children's programs. A career as a writer and radio broadcaster for children's programs began to develop. This also gave her a much needed independence from her uncles and other members of the family.
She had previously liked to wear Indian dresses, but as she gained this independence, she increasingly became more European in her dress and manners. Her sister even changed her name to Claire from Khairun-Nisa, in order to fit in with the society they lived in. Amina Begum did not like this, as she had adopted the Indian dress, and was never seen without her dupatta or hijab, but tolerance was the name of the game in this Sufi order, so she kept her peace.
Noor perhaps saw herself as an Internationalist. Born in Moscow to an Indian Muslim father, and an American white mother, raised in a circle of religious tolerance, fluent in English through mother tongue, French through early schooling and living most of her life in Paris, Spanish and German through language school, Urdu and Hindi (although not the script). She wrote Urdu and Hindi poetry in Roman script. She was also an anti-Imperialist.
When the Nazis occupied France, the family decided to do whatever they could to fight them. It wasn't their war, but they could not see the Nazis deport Jews to concentration camps, and sit silently.
The mother and children, except the youngest son Hidayat, moved to London on 5th June 1940. Hidayat was married and went to the South of France for spying on the Germans. Noor and Vilayat went to the War Office in London. On 14th June 1942, Noor's "The Fairy and the Hare" was broadcast on BBC Radio's "Children's "Hour."
Noor attended RAF Commission's interview on 28th August 1942. She had a British passport, as her father was Indian, and India was the jewel in the British crown. Vilayat was rejected for the RAF, but accepted in the Royal Navy after getting a maritime certificate. Noor was accepted in the WAAF. Noor, after seeing the problems faced by the recruiting clerk in spelling Vilayat (he had entered Vialayat as Vic, and without asking his religion as Church of England), told the clerk her name was Nora Baker, and religion Church of England. Hence when living as a trainee, she attended CoE services with the other girls. To all intents and purposes, she became Nora Baker from now on in her outwardly appearance and behavior. According to her father's teachings the outward practices did not matter.
She spent a few months in WAAF, before the SOE sent for her to be interviewed in November 1942. They had been looking for recruits. Someone noticed the comment "excellent French" after her name. In her interview, she said she would remain loyal to the British as long as the war was on, but then she would return to India to fight for India's Independence. This shows her political awareness, commitment and a rare maturity. Most interviewers and testers thought she would break down under torture, as her build was slight, and her comment about India indicated an excess of emotion. She also, couldn’t lie, and what use is an agent who cannot lie to the enemy.
She was very good with the wireless, so the SOE's F-section chief wanted her. He brought her to the master codesman Leo Marks for special tuition and advice. Marks thought she was too refined and loving. "Oh, Noor, what are you doing in the SOE?", he thought. He wanted her to fail the tests, so she would stay in safer Britain, rather than behind enemy lines. However, she was the best of wireless operators he had trained and tested. He, like other interviewers, found that she could not lie, and was a little careless. He gave her advice on care, which she heeded to her last. He told her to be immaculate in her filing, which she did, and also kept copies of messages she sent, as she thought she had been told to maintain these in a file, taking the literal meaning of "filing" to her heart. As for lying, try as she might, she just couldn't. Marks told her if she couldn't lie, she would jeopardize not only herself, her mission, but also the lives of all those in contact with her or known to her in France. She thought for a while and said: "what if I say nothing".
When she came back from her incomplete training, she had a smirk on her face. she told her mother she had a job with the WAAF (Women's auxiliary Air Force) that might entail her going abroad. She also mentioned that she had become engaged to someone at the War Office, but she gave no further information. She had been so unsuccessful in her romances, that she did not want to tempt fate by telling much. She remarked to her atheist frind that suddenly she had everything she could have hoped for: a very important job with action, a love in her life, and a married life when she came back from France. No one discovered who the mysterious fiancé was, and he never came forward.
Noor remained single until her death.
This is not to say she did not have a love life.
Considering the Paris of those times, and that she was quietly and politely but determinedly rebelling against the restrictions of her family, and had started becoming European in her outlook, in all probability, she had sex with her fiancés - the Jewish student and the unknown man at the War Office. Antelme, a British citizen of Franco-Mauritian descent, interacted with her as with others. Her colleagues are also sure she had sex with her fellow spy, France Antelme. The details of the colleagues and their statements are not given in the book "Spy Princess". The two were even reported to be planning marriage after returning to Britain.
The lady who rented her the apartment however, thought Antelme only had a paternal interest in her. This is unlikely, Antelme was in his forties, and Noor was thirty. He may have thought initially he was showing a paternal interest, Although Noor had her fiancé back in England, and Antelme already had a French girlfriend, they had been placed together in very trying circumstances. It is possible that their mutual liking and predicament may have turned into seeking solace in sex, and exploring the possibility of spending the rest of their lives together. In such times, the existence of fiancés back home is irrelevant. All the author Shriabni says lamely is something to the effect that in the presence of fiancés back home, they could not have discussed mutual marriage plans.
Did Noor say Salah: in all probability,: no.
Did she observe the dietary rules of Islam: no
The SOE was very short of wireless field personnel, so she was sent into the field before her training was complete. When finally saying goodbye to her trainer Vera Atkins, she pointed at a book on the shelf about "Extraordinary women", remarking "men like reading about extraordinary women".
She had signed the Official Secrets Act on February 1943, and she, the first woman wireless operator to be sent abroad, was dropped in France on 16/17 June, 1943.
Her group, the Physicians Group or Prosper, had already been compromised before she joined. Most of its members were arrested within ten days of her arrival back in France. She was the only free wireless operator left in her circle, and she frantically sent information (20 messages) to London while dodging the Germans. Once she was nearly caught by two German soldiers with her radio but she said it was a home cine equipment, and they believed her.
Unfortunately for them, Antelme already had a French girlfriend in the same Resistance circle as her. Naturally the jilted girlfriend resented losing Antelme's attentions to Noor, and became jealous of her.
When the group had been broken up by the Germans and most of her circle arrested, the British recalled their operators in that circle, as it was now very dangerous to operate there. Antelme went back. Noor refused. She (the only radio operator left in the field) was the only existing contact with the British, and thus the lifeline of the French Resistance groups. So she stayed and continued to relay important messages which saved more than 30 (thirty) Allied airmen's lives who had been shot down over France.
Not surprisingly, she was betrayed by Antelme's ex-girlfriend for 100,000 Francs.
If I were a spy chief, I would emphasize that my agents avoid liaisons like these, for the risk of treachery due to jealousy is very great.
Noor was arrested by the Gestapo on 13th Septemvber 1943, and interrogated over the next month at the Paris HQ of the Gestapo.
She was pretty, petite, and delicate. Her zeal for Indian freedom was misinterpreted by her interviewers as her being too emotional. They felt she was not suitable for a spying job, and would break down under torture. However, her French was excellent. Her skin coloue, not white, not blach, but café a la crème, made her look like a Creole, and that wouldn't raise any suspicions. She was also very good with the wireless, and the Chief selector was very impressed with her. She was sent as a spy.
Under torture or psychological blackmail, she did not break down, and never revealed anything. This was testified by her prison officials later at a trial. Her interrogators were equally impressed with her integrity, perseverance, tolerance and tenacity.
She made one mistake, though, and that should be thought of as perfect attachment to what she had been told, or rather what she understood she had been told. She had kept a record of all the messages she had sent. It was against the rules of espionage. This was due to unclear instructions. She was told to be immaculate in her filing. What this meant was that she should not make mistakes in filing a report, and should be on time. That she was, but she also took it literally in maintaining a complete and accurate file of all messages she had sent. She was told by a visiting fellow agent that this was dangerous, and she should destroy that notebook containing her messages. She, however, continued to act according to what she had understood from Marks, the master cryptographer for the SOE. This misunderstanding allowed the Germans to break her code, and to relay false information that resulted in the sending and capture of more agents, including Antelme and two others, one a woman, who would die with Noor. All three were among the best spies of the British.
The concerned British authorities are to be blamed, They knew that the messages lacked a confirmation signal. Furthermore they knew that the resistance ring their agents were to be dropped into, had fallen in German hands, and was being operated by them. In fact, despite this certain knowledge, Alterme volunteered to go over to France. Maybe he was missing Noor and was feeling guilty at leaving her alone in danger. As mentioned above he, too, was captured, tortured, and executed. He too, did not divulge any information under torture.
There is evidence that the British deliberately sacrificed their agents in the field to keep the Germans off the trail of more important plans, including the Normandy landings. That they did bungle up, is without any doubt, for had they paid heed to the hidden tests of genuine transmissions, they would have understood that Noor had been captured. They also sent Noor unnecessarily to meet the Gestapo agents, who got a good look at her, and thus agent Madeleine could be recognised anywhere,
Noor even managed to escape three times. The first one on the very day she was captured where she tried to escape through the window of the lavatory she had said she was allowed to take a bath in. The second was when she persuaded two male prisoners to join her in an attempt of the building she was being kept in, but was recaptured due to heightened security through removing the bars on the skylights in their rooms. They might have succeeded had British airplanes not started bombardment of the locality. After They were asked to sign a declaration that she wouldn't try to escape again. She and another prisoner refused. Both were sent to German prisons. She to Pforzheim on 13th October 1943.
Noor was singled out for special treatment, maybe because her skin color was darker. Maybe because she did not bow to Nazi pressure, and replied with dignity to abuses. She fought her captors fiercely. She was described as dangerous and kept manacled to the wall and in solitary confinement for most of her time in captivity. Both of her legs were bound together by chains, both hands similarly, and then, hands and feet tied together by another chain, so that she cannot stand up. And what is more, she wasn't even free to move with her chains. She could not go to the toilet. She could not clean or eat herself. A cleaning woman came to clean her and her cell. Imagine if one has to answer the call of nature in the semi-nude clothing she was wearing, and in the same place she was chained to, and to put up with the filth until the cleaning woman came, and one's indignation and anger is sky high. Note too, that this was a woman just thirty. She had menstrual periods, which means involuntary secretions and smelly flows from the body from days every month. She must also have been taunted on her nudity, her smelly body, her skin colour. How she endured all this degradation, is beyond imagination, but endure she did, with her head held high, and without giving the Nazis any information.
She was allowed to wear very scanty clothes, which were insufficient to protect against the cold.
When eventually she was given some exercise, it was also in isolation, and she was taken every day an the afternoon for no more than 45 minutes. She used this time to go by doing gymnastic exercises. Her soft nature can be seen in that she profusely thanked the officer who let her out for this brief respite from the chains, although he was only doing what he was told to do.
Even the scant clothes she could wear, were removed to degrade her further, and she was left naked. She found a sackcloth, with which to hide her nudity, and to come out for a walk at the appointed time. She was given one bowl of potato peel soup per day. She was severely tortured by beatings. She was abused verbally and maybe sexually. All this was to break her spirit and to keep her weak. She was beaten, stripped naked, and had to hide her body in a sack for exercise. Once the soldiers heard some other female prisoners go by her cell singing the news of Allied victories to her. They were told off, but Noor was taken to the basement and beaten harshly (maybe even raped) . Her cries could be heard by the other prisoners. When alone in her cell, she gave vent to her anger and pain by sobbing, which could be heard by the other prisoners, but they could do nothing to ease her suffering.
Four women, Eliane Plewman, Madeleine Damerment, Yolande Beekman and Nora Baker (Noor) were discharged from the Pforzheim prison on 11th September, and transferred to Dachau and lodged in separate cells. On the night of 12th September 1944, Pirzadi Noor Inayat Khan was given a specially hard time: "with full works", as described by some. She was kicked by the German soldiers with their heavy boots, raped repeatedly, and in the morning of the 13th, when she lay in a bloody mess, was told to kneel as she was going to be shot in the head. Her last word was "liberté". The other three girls were simply shot in the head. They, mercifully, did not receive the "full treatment". Bodies of the four women agents were then cremated.
The Nazis had broken her body, but not her spirit.
A plaque now marks her resting place at Dachau. Seven months later Dachau was liberated, but it was too late. She was thirty years and nine months old when she was murdered.
The French celebrate her as a national heroine. Posthumously, the French awarded her the Croix de Guerre. She was given the George Cross and made an MBE by Britain.
Do awards in this world matter?
Some of her contemporaries described her as idealist, dreamy, clairvoyant The dreamy bit may be due to her idealism, which turns out to be practical. We see that she looks after her siblings when she is herself a child and her mother is in ill-health. She uses her knowledge of child psychology by writing stories for children, and by doing radio shows for them. She shows her love for humanity by joining the War as a spy against the Nazis. That courage in putting her life at stake, of braving the possibility of torture and early death, is breathtaking.
It is Eid night here, and I cannot sleep …
Then a prayer comes to my heart, not to my lips. I seldom vocalize my prayers.
"O Allah! You are free from all blemish. Whatever happened, happened with your knowledge. O Allah! cleanse Noor of all sins, forgive her, give her permanent abode in Jannat-ul-Firdaws."