Under my byline

Assassins

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 29 November 2008

Alamut besieged by the MongolsOVERLEAF 7

History doesn’t so much repeat itself as offer instructive parallels. Take the Hashshashin. In his account of his travels, the 13th-century wanderer Marco Polo wrote of having visited Alamut, the last stronghold of this secretive sect, in what’s now northern Iran. He also mentioned its charismatic (and by then long-dead) founder, Hassan-i Sabbah, whom other European travellers called the “Old Man”, a corruption of the honorific shaykh. Of course, Polo was probably making it up, because the Mongols got to Alamut before he did, and they didn’t leave much behind.

The Hashshashin are famous as the people who gave their name to the word “assassin”. It’s an appropriate connection, because for some hundreds of years they were skilled killers. But it’s not how they started out. The Hashshashin formed as splinter groups often do, following a dispute over leadership. A contested succession in the caliphate in 1090 led Hassan-i Sabbah to strike out on his own.

Naturally he won many orthodox enemies, so, being relatively small and tight-knit, his group learnt to strike at the enemy’s heart, by assassinating the leaders. More than one ruler woke up in his bed to discover a Hashshashin dagger posed on his pillow, a warning to cease opposition or die. Even the great Saladin, nemesis of the Christian crusaders, is said to have woken up one morning in his tent in the middle of his vast army encampment to find a poisoned cake and a threatening note placed on his chest. In his case, the threat seems to have worked.

When the Hashshashin killed, though, they preferred to do so in full public view, often going so far as to stab the target in a mosque while at prayer. It was part of the fear-inspiring mystery of this cult that its assassins worked alone, and were not afraid of being cut down by members of the target’s bodyguard immediately after their task was done. They had been promised immortality and the wine and women of Paradise.

Well before the Mongols finally shattered the group in the 1270s, the Hashshashin had degenerated into hired killers. Even rival crusader kingdoms in Palestine used them against one another. Later rulers went so far as to co-opt them — it’s convenient, after all, for any potentate to have discreet and efficient killers on permanent standby.

What’s the instructive parallel? Of the many, the one I want to focus on is the myth-making. Being obscure and secretive was a strategic asset for the Hashshashin. It meant they were unpredictable and possibly all-pervasive. It meant that potential targets had to be on their guard all the time, distrusting even those nearest them. It meant that contemporaries as well as later writers — including Bernard Lewis, Farhad Daftary, Freya Stark, even the Lucknowi novelist Abdul Halim Sharar — had to fall back on hearsay and indirect testimony, rather than settled fact, to describe them. So all the individual Hashshashin, bar the founder, never gained their subjectivity and have vanished into the collective.

Take present-day terrorists. The 9/11 gang were extensively profiled and investigated by the press. We know how they were brought up, where they lived, who their friends were, something of what they thought and felt. Where facts are widely known, myth doesn’t find fertile ground.

What of Indian terrorists? We know what police and government say, and what distant masterminds choose to make known. But how much do we know about the actors themselves? In our own interest, and in the interest of the writers-to-come who will represent this time to us, we must hear as much as we can direct from them. As much of what they say as possible should be allowed to stay in the public domain, or we submit to defeat in our own imaginations, and the making of a new and fearsome myth.

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