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For the first time I have read an entire book that has given rise to one word in the English language. Reading Vladimir Bartol’s “Alamut” was easy and fascinating. Alamut is based on a legendary character named Hasan ibn-Sabbah who is purported to be the leader of the world’s first suicide killers. The story is set in the 11th century AD in the Middle East around Persia. Ibn-Sabbah, simply known as Sayyiduna to his followers rests within the strong walls of a towering castle, whose name is Alamut, meaning "eagle's nest." Hasan’s plan is to recruit a bunch of youngsters, convert them into faithful robots and use them in his ploy to become powerful and spread the Ismaili doctrine through the land.
But when the story begins I had no inkling of these machinations. In fact Bartol builds up anticipation by saying that nobody has seen Hassan but he is the most powerful man on earth because “Allah has given him the key that unlocks the gate to paradise.” This is the crucial message that is hammered into the head of his recruits and believers. As the book unravels I felt horrified at the extent of trouble that Hassan has gone to create a world of make-believe in order to prove his theories and realize his plans.
Bartol draws an extremely chilling portrait of this dictator who stops at nothing to get his plans into action. And yet it’s a complete, well rounded picture showing that even the cruelest dictator is nothing more than human. Hassan has his fears, flaws and yes even emotions.
"He had been hard and demanding toward himself. He had also been hard and demanding toward others.All just to realize his goal, to embody his dreams."
He is built up initially as a divine power but then it’s clear that he is very much human. And that makes it more chilling as we see the evil that we are capable of.
And now the word. Hassan’s exploits have given rise to the word “assassin” in English derived from the Arabic “hashshashin.” It is also derived from “hashish” a drug, which plays a prominent role in the novel. I cannot go more into that without giving out spoilers.
Bartol has painted a dramatic landscape filled with revenge and the thirst for power. Hassan’s strength is his capacity to ignite the passions in young men through his words. The power of his speech is admirable and at times even I found myself wavering between hating him and feeling pity for him.
One of the few things I can find fault with in the book is the way women are portrayed. They may be pawns in Hassan’s elaborate game, but they needn’t be over-emotional. Women are mostly shown as either empty headed giggling beings or teary eyed creatures, so delicate that they are unable to take romantic fervor and faint when they are in love! Such over-wrought emotions punctuate the otherwise steely atmosphere of the book. Also, long conversations on religion and its intricacies act as a drag on the book’s fast pace.
I was impressed by Bartol’s knowledge of the Middle East, despite being a Slovenian. The theme of the book is said to be taken from a chapter from Marco Polo’s travels but Bartol has made it into a towering, real life story that is not unimaginable in today’s world where terrorism strikes fear in every person. A book that is more relevant today than any other time.
Verdict: Fast paced adventurous read with a lot of insight into the origins of terrorism.