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In this episode, a princess who became a spy, the story of Noor Inayat Khan. Noor was born in Russia to an American mother and a Muslim father who came from a noble family. By the time she was a young girl she had moved from Russia to England and then to France, gaining an understanding of all of these cultures along the way. This would serve her well when, during World War II, she joined British intelligence and was the first female wireless operator to be sent to occupied France. Noor Inayat Khan lived a short, full life, and in the time exemplified what it means to be a Rebel Girl.
Actress and activist, Freida Pinto, is known for acclaimed films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ ‘Trishna,’ ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ ‘Desert Dancer,’ ‘Knight of Cups.’ Her upcoming films include Ron Howard’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ ‘John Ridley’s ‘Needle in a Timestack,’ ‘Love, Wedding, Repeat,’ ‘Only,’ and a very timely and hard-hitting film on the world of global human trafficking, ‘Love Sonia’. She has been involved with Girl Rising for 4 years. The movement is focused on creating behavioral changes towards the way girls are viewed in many parts of the world by helping them get an education and through the use of the visual medium – storytelling.
FREIDA PINTO Once there was a princess who became a spy. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan.
Noor was welcomed to the world during a frozen winter in Moscow, (in) 1914. She was the greatest joy in her family’s life. Her father, Inayat, a traveling musician, sang to her while carrying her throughout the house, cradling her in his arms as if she were a tiny, precious doll until she drifted gently to sleep.
Her mother, who called herself Amina, had defied her family’s wishes and had run off with Inayat — despite her family’s disapproval of a dark-skinned Muslim man.
Noor’s parents hadn’t had an easy life, but they wanted better for their children. They marveled over their first child, fondly nicknamed “Babuli.”
Babuli was a calm and quiet baby. Even as well-wishers welcomed her into the family with song and dance and feasting she remained quiet and unbothered.
This quiet calm would serve her well later in life.
PINTO I’m Freida Pinto, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Noor Inayat Khan.
PINTO Just after Noor was born, unrest crept through Moscow and soon made it to her family’s home. There was no choice but to leave.
On their way out of the city rioters stopped their sleigh and would not let them pass. So Inayat lifted tiny Noor out of Amina’s arms and held her up for all to see, like a gift of peace. Seeing Inayat’s impressive figure in flowing gold robes with his most precious daughter suspended above him, the crowd fell silent.
The rioters stepped aside to let them pass. The family left their life in Moscow and headed to England.
PINTO After arriving in their new country, Inayat and Amina’s family grew. Noor’s three new siblings tumbled into the world one after the other: Vilyat, Hidayat, and Khair who later took the name “Claire.” Their new life in London gave Noor and her three siblings a lot of room to explore. In a park near their home they searched for faeries amongst the bushes, trees, and flowers.
Despite how lovely England seemed, the family would soon have to move again. This time to France. Because of their Sufi Muslim religion. Because Amina was white and had married a dark-skinned man. Because Noor was mixed-race.
By the time she was six years old, Noor had lived in three countries: Russia, England, and now France. She could speak fluent English and French, plus some Urdu and Hindi.
Though she didn’t know it yet, Noor was already preparing for her future mission.
PINTO In France, the Khan children often sat on the red brick steps of their old, stone home. They admired the glittering lights of the Eiffel tower on clear evenings. Sometimes they raced about the walled garden and climbed trees. Inayat called their new home “Fazal Manzil”—The House of Blessings.
Though Noor’s father was famous for his music, he was also a respected spiritual man who meditated and prayed each day. He traveled giving lectures and spoke to anyone who sought wisdom. Inayat respected all religions and taught lessons of kindness and acceptance to his children.
But there was tragedy peeking around the corner for their family.
On what was meant to be a joyous trip home to India, Inayat fell ill and died.
Noor’s mother, Amina, walked the house like a ghost.
At thirteen, Noor became head of the household, taking responsibility for her brothers and sisters. In her grief she was shy and quiet. She fell into her love of reading, composing and playing music, and drawing to soothe her pain. And, she expressed her feelings through poetry…
PINTO Noor wrote:
“May we treasure as our life’s gem / the seed in our heart, you have sown…” “…And always remember this / The path of the heart is thorny / which leads in the end to bliss.”
And Noor never stopped writing. She began translating stories and fables about Buddha that she had loved as a child. By 1939, Noor had established herself as a writer and published her very first book Twenty Jataka Tales. The celebration was bittersweet. On the one hand, she wished her father had lived to see her achievements. On the other, she was elated that her writing career was about to take off.
PINTO In 1940 misfortune found Noor again. The Nazis had turned their eyes toward France. At twenty-six years old, she packed up her few belongings in order to flee for the third time. It was hard to believe that just the year before she had celebrated the publishing of her book. Now she had to leave the House of Blessings behind.
War seemed to follow Noor like a shadow.
Her brother, Vilyat asked his siblings, “Can we stand by and just watch what the Nazis are doing?” He encouraged them to take action, to stand against the horrors that were unfolding throughout Europe.
Noor’s brother, Hidayat, stayed in France to join the French Resistance while Noor and Vilayat vowed to join the war effort once they made it to the British Isles with their mother and Claire in tow.
PINTO England looked very different now. London had been bombed repeatedly, leaving many people homeless, terrified, and hungry. Armored tanks rolled through the streets. Constant air raid sirens set everyone on edge.
Noor worked hard to help. First, she got her Red Cross certificate and became a nurse. Then, feeling like she needed to do more, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. There, she became a radio operator. A year later, Noor was recruited by the Special Operations Executive, or S-O-E, to sabotage Nazi operations by aiding Resistance forces.
Noor didn’t believe in violence, but she learned to fight with her hands and defend herself. She learned to encode secret messages on her radio and transmit them across enemy lines.
Noor was skilled, calm, kind, and selfless, and Resistance leadership began to take notice. And not always in a good way. A few nasty reports described her as small and unstable. They said she was temperamental, “scared of weapons,” and “not overly burdened with brains.”
But Noor was determined to show them all just what she was made of.
PINTO In 1943, Noor arrived in Nazi occupied France. She carried nothing but a handbag, a false ID, and a pistol. Using the codename Madeleine, she arrived at her safe house and relayed a message to London in record time.
But danger was barreling towards Noor and the other agents at top speed.
Unbeknownst to her, the man who met her plane in France had been a double agent.
The entire spy network collapsed as members of the Nazi secret police — the Gestapo — cornered and captured them one by one. The agents scattered, only to be rounded up and thrown in jail.
This time, luck was on Noor’s side. Her contacts warned her ahead of time about the Gestapo and she was able to escape to Paris by bicycle. Her superiors begged her to return to London and prepared to have her extracted from the danger zone.
PINTO She knew she was the last remaining link of communication between Paris and London. Even though she had to do it alone, she vowed to stay and rebuild the network.
More determined than ever, Noor began her undercover operation.
To keep herself safe, she changed her appearance often, moved constantly so she wouldn’t be caught sending messages, and never left home without the heavy suitcase containing her radio. Noor coordinated shipments of supplies and weapons, and the arrival of other agents – while doing the work of six radio operators at once.
She transmitted from back roads, remote houses, and even strung her cables from trees.
Once, a German soldier caught her stringing up her radio wiring outside, but he offered to help her! He assumed she was simply a music lover having trouble finding the right station.
But Noor’s good fortune wouldn’t last for long.
PINTO After four months of working undercover in France, Noor finally planned her return to England. More than anything, she wanted to see her mother Amina and her three siblings again. But Noor was betrayed.
The sister of one of her Paris contacts had turned her in to the Gestapo who swooped in and captured Noor.
She fought back like a wild animal, biting, scratching, and making use of her training. The officers would later say that she had the eyes of a tiger.
No matter what they did, Noor wouldn’t tell the Nazis anything. She refused to betray the Resistance. At night, locked away, she sobbed in grief and pain. She knew she had to escape. So she began to exchange notes with the other prisoners.
Somehow, they got their hands on a screwdriver. Over the course of a few weeks, they managed to wiggle the iron bars out of the concrete frames. Night after night, day after day, Noor could only think of freedom.
PINTO Under cover of darkness, with her shoes dangling around her neck, Noor anxiously worked at removing the[that] final bar from her window. Could the guards hear the scraping? she wondered. It sounded like thunder to her ears.
Finally, the bar came loose. Noor and two companions crept out of the window and across the rooftop. They shimmied down a knotted length of blankets to the ground. Freedom was so close.
But suddenly, an air raid siren went off, filling the chilly air and setting the guards on high alert.
Less than an hour later, Noor was back in chains.
PINTO Noor was never seen again.
Back in England, her commanding officers changed her status from “active” to “captured” on her military paperwork. They contacted Amina to let her know that her little Babuli, her peace-loving, artistic daughter, was missing and presumed dead.
It would be a year before the family would get the official word of Noor’s passing. Allowing them to grieve for her, and to celebrate her life.
The world will always remember the determination and sacrifice of Noor Inayat Khan. Plaques and statues decorate the towns where she grew up and where she gave her life for the Resistance.
Some say that the last word she ever spoke was liberté – Freedom.
Today’s episode was hosted by Freida Pinto. Fredia is an Actress and Activist known for acclaimed films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire. Freida has been involved with Girl Rising, a global campaign for girls’ education and empowerment for 4 years.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Jestine Ware and edited by Katie Sprenger. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli was the sound mixer.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!