Monday, May 05, 2008

The Old Man of the Mountain

Alamut is the story, told in a style of oriental romanticism, of the origins of the Assassins, an 11th century Ismaili sect of Islam specializing in what today would be called terrorism and political assassination. As described in Bernard Lewis's The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, the reputation of the Ismailis as masters of deception and violence reached Crusader Europe quite quickly, although the primary target of the Ismailis (itself a sect of Shi'ism) was the dominant Sunni heirarchy in the Middle East.

Vladimir Bartol was a Slovinian writer with no particular expertise in Islamic studies. Published in 1938, the obvious analogues to Hasan ibn Sabbah, the fabled "Old Man of the Mountain", were Hitler and Stalin, pressing on Yugoslavia from west and east. But thinking of this novel in such terms is limiting: the subject is universal and relevant even today, the question of how one creates an ideology for which one's followers will be ready, without hesitation, to kill and/or be killed.

To persuade one to die for an abstraction, be it "freedom" or "paradise" is apparently not that difficult, given the bloody trail of human history. For Hasan, the key to the abstraction was to make it real, down to the last details. In the temperate valley behind the fortress of Alamut, Hasan created a pleasure garden, a paradise on earth with dark-eyed Houris (the most beautiful girls from far-flung slave markets), exotic fruits and delicacies, marble pavilions and tamed leopards, guarded over by muscle-bound Nubian eunuchs and administered by two women from Hasan's past.

As warriors, Hasan collects the cream of Ismaili youth, including ibn Tahir, whose grandfather was an early martyr for the cause, and who abandons his life and family to serve Hasan in Alamut. Doctrinal training and the arts of war are pressed upon these isolated youth. Ultimately, the best of them gain access to the holy of holies, the living prophet on earth, Hasan, who assures them that Allah has given him the key to Paradise. After some wine with hashish, the youths are quietly carried into the pleasure gardens, where they awaken to all their dreams fulfilled. After a night of revelry, the hashish is secretly re-administered and they awaken back with Hasan, astonished at their memories of a visit to an unworldly paradise, and willing to do anything Hasan commands for the opportunity to die in the Ismaili cause and return to their eternal reward.

As the novel progresses, Hasan's nihilistic philosophy is revealed to the upper echelon of his command. The supreme Ismaili motto is "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." By this motto, Hasan has freed himself to manipulate his followers towards his own end. He places himself as a prophet above even Muhammed, and his word is law, even to the point where he is able to coolly condemn his own recalcitrant son to death.

Bartol's Alamut is full of the violence, sex and oriental splendor one would expect from a Western fantasy of the East. I began the novel fully expecting it to be a story of star-crossed lovers who find each other in the sham pleasure garden, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sentimentality of the story has definite limits. Without giving away too much of the plot, there is no such romantic denoument. Hasan is a complex psychological being, a kind of Iranian ubermensch who has set the wheels of history in motion, and whose legacy survived, inspiring fear, for generations.




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