Biography of Pirzadi Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan
January 1st, 1914 — September 13th, 1944
George Cross, Croix de Guerre
Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery on 1 January 1914. Her name meant “light of womanhood.” Her title was Pirzadi, daughter of the Pir. As the First World War engulfed Europe, the family left for England, where they lived for the next six years. In London, three more children were born.
When Noor was six, the family set sail for France again and began to live in a large house on the outskirts of Paris. Hazrat Inayat Khan called the house Fazal Manzil – or ‘House of Blessing’ – and such a place it was. It became an idyllic home for the family, an open house full of music and meditation with Sufis visiting round the year.
But in 1927, Hazrat Inayat Khan decided to return to India. He had not been keeping well lately and yearned to go back to his motherland. A few months later they received the devastating news of his death. Noor’s mother, Amina Begum, went into seclusion. Noor, at the tender age of thirteen, took responsibility for the family and became a mother to her siblings. She began to write poems and short stories and found solace in these when the burden of domestic chores became too much to bear.
After her schooling, Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and also joined the École Normale to study music. Meanwhile, she was finding her feet as a writer of children’s stories. Her stories were published in the Sunday section of Le Figaro and in 1939 her first book, Twenty Jataka Tales, was published in England.
In 1940 with the German army ready to enter Paris, Noor and Vilayat took a crucial decision that was to change their lives. Though they were Sufis and believed in nonviolence, they resolved to go to England and volunteer for the war effort.
In a bombed-out London, Vilayat volunteered for the Royal Air Force, and Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. There she was trained as a radio operator, joining the first batch of women to train in this field.
But while Noor was tapping away at her Morse code, she was being watched by the Special Operation Executive, who were looking out for people with language skills. The SOE was a crack organization set up by Churchill to aid the Resistance movements in Occupied countries. Their job was sabotage, and providing arms and money to the Resistance.
Noor was called for an interview at the offices of the SOE. She was told that she would be sent as an agent to occupied France after training. She would have no protection, as she would not be in uniform, and she would be shot if she was caught. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said she would take the job. Back on French soil, she made her way alone to Paris and joined the circuit. It was the biggest SOE circuit in Europe, called Prosper. Soon Noor settled down and began transmission.
Within a week, disaster struck the Prosper circuit. By mid-August Noor was the only British agent in Paris. Single-handedly she now started doing the work of six radio operators. The next three months, Noor was to survive in a dangerous cat and mouse game played by the Gestapo. The Nazis knew about her and could even hear her transmissions but they could not catch her.
Noor’s address was sold to the Nazis for 100,000 francs. With this information the Gestapo arrested her and took her to their Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch.
Noor immediately made an escape attempt, but was caught. A few weeks later she made another daring escape attempt with two other prisoners, loosening the sky window and clambering on the roof. If this escape had succeeded it would have gone down as one of the most daring escapes of the Second World War.
Noor was now labelled a “highly dangerous” prisoner, and became the first woman agent to be sent to a German prison. She was regularly beaten, tortured and interrogated but she revealed nothing about her circuit and gave out no names.
On the night of September 11, Noor was ordered to come out of her cell. She was driven handcuffed to Karlsruhe and met three of her colleagues there. Together the women were driven to the railway station and made to board a train.
They reached Dachau at midnight and were led to the concentration camp. It was to be a long night for Noor. All night long, she was kicked and beaten and when her frail body had slumped on the floor, she was asked to kneel and shot point blank at the back of the head by an SS guard. Her last word was “Liberté.”
Back in England, both her mother and brother had the same dream. Noor came to them surrounded by blue light. She told them she was free.
On 16 January 1946, the French awarded Noor the Croix de Guerre, the highest civilian honour. Three years later in 1949, England awarded her the George Cross.
More than sixty-five years after the war, Noor’s story needs to be preserved for a new generation who need to know about the sacrifices made for freedom. Noor’s last word, “Liberté,” has been carved on a Memorial in Gordon Square to remind the world that a beautiful young woman unhesitatingly sacrificed her life, so the world could be free of Fascism.
By Shrabani Basu, author of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, Omega Publications, 2007.
Adapted from pirzia.org.
See also: Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, Madeiline, Jean Overton Fuller, East-West Publications, 1971, 1988. A PBS documentary is also available.
The Sufi Order of Rochester Center for Sufi Studies, 494 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14607, the Carriage House behind the AAUW mansion (Carriage House is 492).