Books of the year 2011: Margaret Drabble

Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties - Robert Irwin


I enjoyed the latest novels by Philip Hensher, Alan Hollinghurst and Adam Mars-Jones, those fine chroniclers of English gay life past and present. I also read with much interest Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties (Profile Books, £14.99), a strange book by the Arabist scholar Robert Irwin, who takes us back to his days at Oxford and the School of Oriental and African Studies and tells us how he became involved with Sufism.

It's a wild, uncomfortable tale and I'm amazed he survived to tell it. Islam, he says, was "not the religion of choice for hippies in search of exotic spirituality" and he did not follow the psychedelic route to Tan­gier and Kathmandu. Instead, he gave himself a hard time in a Sufi stronghold in Mostaganem in Algeria - God knows why - and his account explains much of what has happened since in that unhappy country.

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