icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Code Name Madeleine

 From Chapter Four: The Road Is Weeping


    The Khan's had planned to take a train from Paris to the coast [in June 1940] and, from there, cross the Channel on any ship they could find. But after hearing news of the tumult in almost every train station in France, they decided to drive from Paris and board a train in a station that was reasonably calm. The only way to get to that possibly mythical destination was in her brother, Vilayat's, MG -- a great car for a picnic in the countryside, but not for a flight to safety during a war. With Vilayat and his mother up front and Noor and her sister, Claire, in the jump seat, they began driving the 148 miles to Tours, where they hoped a train would take them to the coast. They quickly learned that everything they had heard on the radio was true: the roads were filled with broken-down cars and broken-down people; and with French infantrymen, humiliated by their rout; and dead horses lying in ditches and thousands of people on bicycles, weaving in and out of the rabble… Everywhere you looked, mattresses were lashed to the tops of Renaults and Citroens and Mercedes. On the top of one car the body of a grandmother who had died en route was tied to a mattress because her son could not bear to leave her alongside the road. 

    All Noor could do was look directly from her perch in the MG into the eyes of the young and the old, the fit and the lame: all walking onward, feet swollen, shoulders slumped: a multitude of the weary. After years of spiritual pursuits at Fazal Manzil, Noor was not prepared for such sorrow. 

    Vilayat left the MG with one of his father's Sufi disciples in Tours. Finding their way to the train station, the Khan's found seats on a westbound train. Their coach was noisy and crowded, filled, as Noor observed, with "frantic young mothers with tear-stained eyes carrying their sleeping youngsters. They knew not where, just running toward freedom if freedom was to be found. Where were their men? It was useless to even wonder." 

    Noor and Clair had taken a Red Cross course so they could nurse wounded French troops. In their scramble to leave, they had forgotten their Red Cross certificates. Leaving their mother and brother in Le Verdon, Noor and Claire boarded a bus, hoping to find a Red Cross office in a close-by town that could issue certificates to them. The landscape they passed through was a combat zone. Some towns had been bombed. Others strafed. The worst was Saint-Nazaire. The day before, a German bomber had sunk a British ship. Too deep to enter Saint-Nazaire's harbor, the Lancastria waited offshore as 9,000 passengers were ferried to it… Around 4 p.m. on June 17, a Nazi pilot scored four direct hits on the Lancastria. Men who could not swim clung to the hull until the ship sank 20 minutes later. Enemy planes strafed thousands of survivors who were floating in the water; others drowned or choked on the thick, glutinous waves of oil spilling from the ship's tanks… The Lancastria suffered over 6,000 fatalities – the worst loss of life in British maritime history and more than the combined losses of the Lusitania and the Titanic.

    In Saint-Nazaire, Noor wrote, "Noises ceased. Movement stopped. The town was stunned stiff… Throats were choked… A silent rage stirred the crowd." A seasoned fisherman was crying. A few Englishmen tried to console themselves by repeating that old bromide that had somehow comforted millions of their countrymen -- "There'll always be an England." Maybe so. That was consolation for another day. For now, the Nazis were in Paris and that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – France's sacred memorial to its dead from the last war with Germany – was, as Noor wrote, being "guarded by the enemy. God! It was worse than death!" 

    Noor and Claire headed back to Le Verdon. That took almost 24 hours. Bombs had made many roads unpassable and German strafing had wrecked many of the buses that were still operating. At night, all was black; the blackness gave Noor and Claire cover from German planes and snipers. Upon their return, Vilayat was furious they had been gone for so long. With great effort, he had found space for everyone on a Belgian cargo ship. If Noor and Clair had returned any later, they would have been stuck: France would be handed over to the Germans in a few hours. 

    The Khan's boarded the Kasongo on June 19 -- a battered freighter infested with beetles. The day was clear and blue, with calm, dazzling water and a few other ships visible in the distance: a liner that had been pressed into service; a yellow ship with a yellow cross; a destroyer whose presence cheered everyone. At night, the Kasongo's deck was covered with bodies wrapped in coats and blankets. In the moonlight, they looked like corpses, moving only occasionally to pour tea from thermos flasks. The Khans didn't care about the discomfort or about the beetles. They were out of France. 

    Three days later, the Khans reached Falmouth, a picture-perfect English town. Lovely as it was, there was no time for repose or reflection. The docks were almost as crammed as those in France and fear of a German attack was palpable and not unreasonable. A bus drove the Kasongo's passengers to a large building where officials processed the newcomers' papers with British order and tidiness. The refugees were then ushered into a garden where ladies in green/gray Harris tweed uniforms offered lemonade and sandwiches. Without a single extra thread of clothing, the Khans boarded a train to Oxford. Vilayat was familiar with the town after attending the university there. A bed and breakfast took them in – four tired, hungry refugees who had no idea what to do next.



     The day after Noor landed in Falmouth, Hitler toured Paris. The Fuehrer's procession of black convertibles prowled the empty, early morning streets, sped down Rue La Fayette to the Opéra de Paris, the largest theater in the world; then on to the Eglise de la Madeleine, a magnificent Roman Catholic church built as a tribute to Napoleon's armies; and after that to the Champs-Elysées where Hitler, grabbing the windshield of his Mercedes, stood up to survey the vista. Ordinarily teeming with cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, the wide boulevard was deserted. As the convoy swept past the Arc de Triomphe, Hitler got out and posed for a photo with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Looking slightly upward and toward his right, with the tower over his left shoulder, Hitler evinced no pleasure. Only a stolid, blank presence. Crossing the Seine, Hitler paid a brief tribute at Napoleon's tomb, then cruised through Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter, and Ile de la Cité and Notre- Dame, and scanned from the highest point of Montmartre the city that was at his disposal. On his return flight to Berlin, Hitler told Albert Speer, his favorite architect, "It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris. I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today." He never returned.

    Noor would return. The young woman who had written poems about fairies since she was a child would attend to less fantastical matters that she had barely known existed. A recent poem of Noor's had ended with an admonition to herself to

     not covet foolish things . . .

     And never try to touch . . .  [fairies'] shining wings.

That was the last time Noor wrote about fairies.


From Chapter Ten:

    Noor knew that we pay a price in life: the price we pay to receive life. If paying that price was not, as she said, "the greatest joy, the highest and most inconceivable joy," then it was "not a willing offering." Giving, in fact, was so fundamental to Noor that she called it the "beginning of the inner path," and it was authentic only if we are primed to give our offer-ing before it is expected or asked of us. The best and the truest giving was an anticipation of the other, a clairvoyance that sprang so reflexively from our depths and our marrow that it is shorn of artifice and free of ruse. For that to occur, Noor declared, it had to be genuine. "The heart," she wrote, "must be broken in order for the real to come forth"— an unadorned, unstained emanation of truth, and of love.

    Until the middle of June 1943, the price Noor had paid in life— the gifts she had offered the world— were mostly her music and her stories and her love for others. In Paris that summer, hiding and on the run from the Germans, she was beginning to more fully appreciate that the most profound, the most prodigious gift was "expressed in sacrifice." Most sacrifices, she believed, were small, often involving wealth or material possessions. But "the greatest sacrifice," she said, was "the sacrifice of one's self," a sacrifice that "bathes" the world in a "love which purifies and heals the suffering of humanity." This was the "real religion"— faith "conceived through the heart and the mind, not through the mind only. And the question arises, Noor continued: which is the way toward that faith? The answer," she asserted, was through meditation that guides us "toward the real imitation, the imitation of God." To do this, Noor had to reach for a part of herself that she hadn't ignored, but which she had been content to leave fallow during most of her fairly protected life— courage. Her father had called courage "the light of the soul," a beacon that lets "us see life more clearly and gives us the power to surmount our difficulties." Fear, its antonym, erodes "as soon as one touches the barrier which keeps souls apart."

    A tonic and an invigorator, courage isn't static. Even Shiva— a god!— understood that courage has to be continually flexed and exercised: as a measure of moral fortitude, it could neither slacken nor relax. Which is why Noor's father had admired the classic image of Shiva standing with a snake around his neck, a sign to Inayat that the Hindu god was "not afraid of keep-ing the enemy he has conquered curled around him. That is bravery."

Noor's enemies were curled around her in Paris. She had not conquered them. There was a good chance she might not. But with the world more broken than ever, she had to determine the extent of the sacrifice she was willing to make, and the fullness with which she would abide by her father's vision about fate and destiny and purpose. Sacrificing yourself for someone you love and respect, Inayat had said, "raises you higher than the standard of ordinary human beings." Those who do this— "awakened souls," Noor's father had called them— view humanity "without thinking they are Ger-man or English or French. They are equally dear to him or her. The awakened soul looks at all, full of forgiveness. . . .  To a soul which is wide awake, Judgement Day does not come after death. For that soul, every day is a Judgement Day."