by Lisa Black
Noor Khan was the daughter of an American woman from New Mexico already schooled in Sufism (Muslim mysticism) and an Indian teacher of Sufi who had descended from a famous and influential 18th century ruler. This meant Noor had royal blood as well as a foundation in nonviolence, literature, and social responsibility.
At the beginning of World War II, Noor lived with her widowed mother in France, studying child psychology and writing poetry. As Germany invaded they fled to Britain. Noor and her brother both burned to join the war effort—to fight tyranny, but also not unaware that their bravery might help foster a greater bond between Indians and Brits. Yet they were both dedicated to nonviolence so decided to compromise by volunteering for the most dangerous assignments. Her brother went into minesweeping. Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force to train as a wireless operator, but shortly, still aching to do more, volunteered to work in occupied territory. Women were already there as couriers but her wireless training and fluent French put her on the fast track to be the first woman to work inside as an operator.
But, back up. Why do I say an ‘unlikely’ spy? Because Noor was neither a great brain or a great athlete or a great actress. She was a little clumsy, sweet, friendly and loathe to dissemble—the idea of lying, even to an enemy, didn’t sit well with her—so that her handlers thought she might not be up to the task and considered recalling her. But they quickly learned her reluctance lay in causing any worry to her mother, not from any lack of confidence or determination. Noor had determination in spades.
Noor wouldn’t talk. But, perhaps as a result of her rushed training, she kept copies of all the messages she’d sent. This allowed the SS to continue sending messages, apparently from ‘Madeleine.’ Courier Sonya Olschanezky tried to warn London—but, not sufficiently familiar with her, they disregarded her information. This led to the arrests and deaths of more agents, including Sonya.
Finally they gave up and sent her to Dachau with three other captured agents, so that the four women were executed the following dawn. In 1949 she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian honor given “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger.”
Noor Inayat Khan might not have been totally cut out to be a champion of the Allies, of Britain, India or Islam, but she didn’t let that so much as slow her down.
Many times we surprise ourselves as well as others. What have you done lately that you weren’t likely to do? Small, big, serious, fun?