Memoirs of a Dervish, By Robert Irwin
The decade that went by in a whirl
Sunday 17 April 2011
Unusually for a Sixties memoirist, Robert Irwin doesn't claim to have lived in a golden age.
But then, unlike his contemporaries at Oxford, he eschewed swinging London and spent his first summer vacation in an Algerian religious foundation, enthusiastically converting to Sufism at a time when Islam barely registered beyond its heartlands, and not at all with the hippie hordes seeking spiritual fulfilment. Decades later, the Arabist and novelist is greatly amused by his younger self, a character he barely recognises. Piecing together his misadventures from old diaries and writings, the older, mellower Irwin is fascinated by his youthful desperation for answers.
Soundtracking his solipsism with the Velvet Underground and Donovan, he blithely walked where the Foreign Office would soon advise us not to tread, even hitch-hiking round the Med from Istanbul to the Maghreb, before the Six Day War curtailed such jaunts forever. Algeria in the mid-Sixties was a grim place, only recently independent of France, its aggressively secular new rulers repressed anyone deemed overly traditional. Irwin's chosen Alawi sect would be targeted after his return to England. Irwin wonders now how he failed to see the signs. Yet such oversights were not untypical – just check his list of "ghastly iconic Sixties people", from Frantz Fanon to Frank Sinatra, R D Laing to Richard Neville.
Admirers of Irwin's excellent 1967-set novel Satan Wants Me will find something familiar about the older narrator recalling incidents of his peculiar youth, but the sheer strangeness of Irwin's quest still impresses. And he took the task of getting closer to God very seriously. Joining the wild communal dancing of the 'imara, he dived in deep, often experiencing religiously provoked seizures. He never, though, participated in the famous whirling dervish dance which, he was advised, merely left its participants in ecstasy rather than truly purified.
Back in drab, turn-of-the-decade London, Irwin deals with his emptiness, continuing his guru hunt well into his thirties, as a parade of charlatans and messiahs wait to scoop up the suggestible. Eventually normality beckons, yet ghosts of his past reappear occasionally. Years later, Irwin's favourite Algerian adept recognisably inspires a character in Esther Freud's semi-autobiographical Hideous Kinky. Irwin's witty, casually erudite tribute to his clever, naïve youth shows that there are no short cuts to wisdom. But it often comes with age.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
How to read Will Self: Unlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain