How Many Yar Alis? – Part Two

Part One considered the Pathan warrior Yar Ali Khan who shared adventures with REH’s character Francis X. Gordon, known as El Borak. Both were born in the nineteenth century. Gordon’s adventures in the Middle East certainly take place prior to World War One (“Son of the White Wolf” excepted) and it’s averred that he was a gunfighter in the U.S.A. before he headed out to western Asia. Like Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, he found himself in a new west that was rapidly becoming civilized, and looked for pastures new.

REH’s story “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” does not feature Gordon, but another American adventurer, Steve Clarney. The yarn exists in two forms; one with a supernatural element in the shape of a Lovecraftian monster haunting the lost city, one without the monster. In both, Clarney’s comrade in adventure is – like El Borak’s friend – a big Pathan warrior named Yar Ali.

Just possibly they were the same man. Yar Ali might have ridden with Clarney before he met El Borak, or they might have become companions later. Before would be more probable. The Yar Ali of “TFoA” does not have the honorific “Khan” attached to his name, and he appears to be much younger than El Borak’s comrade.

There is no way to be sure. Internal clues to the time of “TFoA” are slight to non-existent. Nevertheless, there are a couple. Yar Ali is described in the opening sentence as firing a “Lee Enfield”. The Lee Enfield rifle was officially adopted by the British army in 1895. The short magazine Lee Enfield Mark I and Mark II were both in service by 1906. However, the Yar Ali Khan of the El Borak stories would surely have known Gordon by then, and his loyalty to the man was unwavering. (Rick Lai did a fine, thorough job of analyzing the characters and references, to Yar Ali, the Sonora Kid, and others such as Yasmeena and Lal Singh, in his “The Legend of El Borak”. He concluded that the Yar Ali who knew Clarney and the Yar Ali Khan who rode with Gordon were the same fellow. He could be right. But going over the stories I did find a few reasons to question that.)

Besides the Lee Enfield, there’s another internal clue to the date of “TFoA”. It’s slight, but it’s there. Clarney and Yar Ali first hear of the fabulous jewel of the title in Shiraz, from “an ancient Persian trader”. The trader heard it described by a dying man, “fifty years before”. The man was believed by the old trader to have come “from the northwest – a deserter from the Turkish army, making a desperate attempt to reach the Gulf.”

The Persian caravan had found him near “the southern shore of the Persian Gulf”. If he really deserted from the Turkish army, and came “from the northwest”, he might have been involved in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. That conflict was fought in two main areas, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Both are indeed “northwest” of the Persian Gulf and Arabia. Clarney and Yar Ali encountered the old trader “fifty years” after he’d listened to the Turk’s dying words. That would date “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” to 1927 or 1928.

Francis X. Gordon’s Yar Ali Khan (call him Yar Ali I) would have been a real old-timer by then.

The younger Afridi swashbuckler (Yar Ali II) from the brief back-story given in “TFoA” had been partners in adventure with Clarney for some years. They met in India, then wandered “up through Turkestan and down through Persia”. In the supernatural/weird version of the story (the one I prefer, by the way) Yar Ali declares at one point that he senses danger, and reminds Clarney that he’s sensed it before; “in a jungle cavern where a python lurked unseen … in the temple of Thuggee …” Clarney takes him seriously, as he’s learned to trust Yar Ali’s almost psychic instinct for looming danger. (Modesty Blaise’s henchman Willie Garvin has the same gift; his ears prickle.)

REH’s verse features what may be a third, separate Yar Ali. This one also bears the honorific “Khan”. If he is a distinct person, he’d be chronologically the first Yar Ali. He was possibly born in the early nineteenth century, since the verse describes a mass battle of Afghans against Hindu Rajputs. Or possibly they were Sikhs, as the Punjab is the Sikh homeland and Sikhism grew out of the Hindu religion. The verse in question first appeared in one of REH’s letters.

Now bright, now red, the sabers sped among the racing horde,
The Afghan knife reft Hindu life and leaped the Rajput sword.
Oh, red and blue, the keen swords flew where charged the hosts in whirls,
And as in dreams rang loud the screams of ravished Hindu girls.
And through the strife, where sword and knife clashed loud on spear and shield,
With sword in hand, Yar Ali Khan rode o’er the battle-field.
From heel to head the chief was red, the blood was not his own
In crimson tide his sword was dyed that had so brightly shone.

The Sikhs of the Punjab had taken control of Peshawar at that time, and the Afghans resented it. They attempted to retake it, led by Muhammad Akbar Khan, in 1837. At the resulting Battle of Jamrud, the Sikh commander, Hari Singh Nalwa, was killed. The above verse could conceivably refer to that fight.

Afterwards, Akbar Khan (a historical personage of note) appealed to the British for aid against the Sikhs, but it was refused. Akbar Khan then sought help from Tsarist Russia instead. The British decided they couldn’t have that – they feared Russian designs on British India – and so they actively supported the Sikhs. They also replaced Akbar Khan’s father, Dost Muhammad, with a puppet of theirs on the Afghan throne. They regretted it later. The result of their policy was the First Afghan War and the British army’s disastrous retreat from Kabul early in 1842. Perhaps that earlier Yar Ali Khan was in the thick of it as one of Akbar’s aides.

Call him Yar Ali III. He might have been thirty years old at the Jamrud fight. That would make his birth year 1807. He would have been thirty-five when he helped harry the British army to destruction in the appalling retreat from Kabul. Steve Clarney’s comrade of the 1920s could have been his great-grandson and namesake. It isn’t likely that an Afghan battle of any size against Rajputs and Hindus would have taken place after 1850, because by then India was under British control and the British held Peshawar. They were occupying Afghanistan too. Keeping its Amir on their political puppet strings to block Russia’s imperial ambitions seemed highly necessary: beyond Afghanistan lay British India.

Another verse of REH’s – “The Song of Yar Ali Khan” may refer to this hypothetical Yar Ali III.

These are the hills and the mountains
And the forests of Yar Ali Khan,
Every man’s hand is against me,
My hand is against every man!
Friends have I of my tribe only,
They follow me against my foe,
My foemen? Why, they are the peoples,
Above and beside and below.
English and Afghan and Russian,
And the swart Punjabi man,
All men are the foes of Yar Ali
Excepting Yar Ali’s clan.
But Yar Ali is strong and his sword is long,
And his tribe are men of war
And the fame of Yar has reached afar,
From Sikhland to Candahar.

It mentions “English and Afghan and Russian, and the swart Punjabi man” as Yar Ali Khan’s enemies, a situation rather more likely in the first half of the nineteenth century than in the second. The Punjab and Peshawar were under British control by then. After the First Afghan War, Akbar Khan died suddenly. It’s believed by many, including some serious historians, that he was poisoned by his jealous and fearful father. Supposing Yar Ali III had admired him and fought in his cause, Akbar’s death might indeed have brought him to think his only friends were those of his own clan. He’d have trusted nobody else after that – Afghans included.

Another poem by REH, although it does not mention Yar Ali Khan, does refer to an Akbar Khan. Its title is “The Tartar Raid”. It describes a battle on the “Oxus’s southern bank” against the raiders, with “the horse of Akbar Khan … the man who knew no fear,” placed “nearest the foe” to “guard the front.” That might have been Muhammad Akbar Khan. He was certainly an experienced soldier by the time of the battle against the Sikhs at Jamrud, and the Tartar raid of the poem might have occurred a few years before that. Yar Ali III might have been there; may even be the narrator of the poem.

Men of the Afghan hills we were, from Kabul to Delhi,
Warriors who well could sit a horse or wield the Khyber knife,
From Kabul and from Kandahar, from Balkh to Abazai,
Well skilled in border warfare, well trained in tribal strife.

The poem appears to be unfinished. The Tartars have ravaged the “cities of Yarkand” and left them ablaze. The survivors are fleeing west, and the narrator sees the plain filled with them, “half mad with fear.” (Yarkand is a region of Sinkiang, near the eastern Afghan border.) He declares that only one man in five escaped the devastated cities with his life, but the actual battle of the Afghans against the Tartars isn’t described, nor are we told who won. This blogger likes to believe the Afghans did, and that Yar Ali III was present. But we’ll never know.

As stated above, I like to believe that Steve Clarney’s comrade was a descendant (perhaps great-grandson) and namesake of the Yar Ali Khan who was (hypothetically) Akbar Khan’s aide. It’s conceivable that the name ran in their family, and that the grizzled grey wolf Yar Ali I was Yar Ali II’s grandfather. If he wasn’t that, he might at least have been a kinsman of Yar Ali II’s father. They were all Afridis, anyhow, and I’d hypothesize that their clan was the Zaka Khel. (One Conan story, “The Devil in Iron” features a superhuman demon of living iron named Khosatral Khel.) Rudyard Kipling mentions the clan in his poem, “Lament of the Border Cattle Thief,” only he spells it Zukka Kheyl.

They have taken from me my long jezail,
My shield and my saber fine,
And heaved me into the Central Jail
For the lifting of the kine.

It’s woe to bend the stubborn back
Above the grinching quern,
It’s woe to hear the leg-bar clack
And jingle when I turn!

The man’s pride is offended and he promises bloody retribution once he’s out.
Tis war, red war, I’ll give you then,
War till my sinews fail,
For the wrong you have done to a chief of men
And a thief of the Zukka Kheyl.

Robert E. Howard’s Yar Ali – or all of them – would have approved every word. El Borak’s comrade, I’m assuming, was born in 1858 and fought in the Second Anglo-Afghan war – perhaps even fired the jezail bullet that wounded an army doctor named Watson, who later recorded many of Sherlock Holmes’s cases. It’s probable that he was also among the leaders of the North West frontier rising of 1897, when the younger Yar Ali was two. Francis Xavier Gordon, a wild young Texan, had either just arrived on that fierce frontier, or was about to.

Further, more definite details can be found in REH’s El Borak stories.

Read Part One