The British Empire Library

Fifty Enthralling Stories of the Mysterious East

Edited by The Sheikh Ahmed Abdulla

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Published in 1937 this book was bought by my parents when they were living in London before the war. Two earlier anthologies in the same series were The Mystery Book (1934) and the Great Book of Thrillers (1935). But Enthralling Stories is the one that attracted me as an eleven year old, leading a blameless life in Cheltenham. ‘Seventeen full page illustrations’ were commissioned from different artists, none particularly well known today, but the black and white drawings add excitement to the stories. On page 177 Geoffrey Lister, in sola topi and on horseback watches in horror as a band of armed keffiya wearing Arabs ‘hurled themselves upon the rock, uttering hideous cries, their faces alight with cruelty and the lust for revenge’. The accompanying story ‘The Traitor’ is set in Egypt where Arabs in traditional dress are rare, but that is entirely beside the point. This is the mysterious East where anything can happen, and to a child everything seems possible.

‘Sheik Achmed Abdulla’, the editor, was a pseudonym of Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff, himself a writer, whose father was cousin to Tsar Nicholas II and his mother. Princess Nounnahal Durani, the daughter of the Amir of Afghanistan - a suitably exotic introduction to the book. The choice of stories was eclectic and the East was interpreted as anywhere between Cairo and Peking. A few of the authors are recognised today, if not much read - Somerset Maugham, Maud Diver, Pearl Buck, Ernest Bramah, Lafcadio Hearn, Pierre Loti and Sax Rohmer. The latter was a prolific novelist best known for his Dr Fu Manchu stories, but his story here is set in Cairo where the narrator, the Honorable Neville Kernaby, has adopted native dress in order to find the secret ingredient of a rare perfume, nicknamed 'The Breath of Allah’. Kemaby gets stoned on hashish and describes trying to read an ancient Arabic prescription: I found myself pursuing one slim ‘alif entirely up the page from the bottom to the top where it finally disappeared under the thumb of the Lady Zuleyka!’

This is pretty good stuff from someone who started life in Birmingham as Arthur Henry Ward, son of poor Irish immigrants and whose first job was as a clerk. Perhaps the more mundane one’s early circumstances, the more some of us crave for the exotic and have found it in the Orient. Magical place names - Bokhara, Constantinople, Samarkand, old Delhi, Lahore, Rangoon, Singapore, and Shanghai. Magical people too - Abu Tabah, the sorcerer; the Maharajah of Coochperwani; Lee Fong the opium addict; Daulat Ram the cruel moneylender - often more vividly drawn than the pipe-smoking, sola topi-wearing Britons who confronted them and who often came off the worst. So I’ll settle for the romance of the mysterious East, still undimmed by visiting in later life many of the places I had read about as a child in England. And meeting some fascinating people too.

British Empire Book
The Sheikh Ahmed Abdulla
Odhams Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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by Stephen Luscombe