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Friday, June 25, 2010

A memory of Afghanistan

Due to a recently dislocated shoulder I can't type much but wanted to do an Afghanistan update, in sad observance of the fact that the US has now been there longer than we were in Vietnam. Here are some posts to revisit... http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/01/forbidden-beats-of-freedom.html

My small memoir of Afghanistan, below, is based on an article I wrote for our community newsletter, but I felt like sharing it with more people, thinking others might enjoy a different perspective on Afghanistan than what we get in the media of the here-and-now. So here is a glimpse of the country I remember from decades ago. Then and now, measured against the country's long history, these decades are only the blink of an eye but the toll of human suffering and the cost of political chicanery has been enormous.

The brain is a storytelling machine and history is a narrative and who knows if this is exactly how it happened - but the diary quotes are real; and when I shared this draft with my sister, she remembered it this way too.

On our way to Kabul, 1964

[Note: In 1964, the US and the USSR were locked in a cold war to win the loyalty of Afghanistan. It seems impossibly innocent now, but in those days, instead of tanks and bombs, the struggle took the form of, among other things, a road-building competition: Afghan leaders cunningly played each side against the other and within a few years had a very fine system of roads -- some American-built, some Russian. Unfortunately for us, the roads weren’t quite finished when we were there so we didn't get to drive on them; more sadly, I doubt much is left of them now.]

By the time we got to the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we were already seasoned travelers in Muslim areas – or so we thought. After leaving Karnataka, in South India, my father, mother, sister Andrea (21) and I (17) had driven north through several states, up the Himalayan “foothills” (mountains, anywhere else) on scary narrow roads into the disputed states of Jammu and Kashmir, then back down again to India, across Punjab, and finally into Pakistan. We were well aware of the tragic history of these beautiful areas, of the bloodletting during Partition at India's Independence, and of border skirmishes still going on between the governments of India and Pakistan. We'd all read Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh's classic novel, and in 1964 the memory of Independence was still fairly fresh.

Before we'd left South India, my father had been warned by his Indian counterparts in the town where we were living not to attempt a car trip even into North India, because of the notorious dacoits. Those were outlaws known to kidnap travelers for ransom (“How can you even think of taking such a chance with your wife and daughters?!” they said). But my father was trusting and optimistic, and my mother, charming and adventurous. They simply never worried - and most of the time, they got away with it. As for my sister and me, we were used to being dragged along on our parents' adventures, though this one was shaping up to be the mother of them all.

So there we were, in the summer of 1964, on our way to London to sell the car-- for that was the excuse for this trip -- by way of Kabul and points west. My parents did most of the driving while Andrea and I rode behind them, making up humorous verses to a song chronicling our trip (I wish now that we'd written more of them down.) The back of the car was packed solid with water containers, sleeping rolls, books, and whatever other supplies we thought we might need to survive desert crossings. To get to Kabul we had to go though the territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then over the Khyber Pass.

We kept a little daily diary, taking turns writing in our various hands. The entry for July 2 starts with notes by my father, the fact-finding journalist:

Fighting in Khyber:

1849 – British ended Sikh rule
1878 - 2nd Afghan War
1897 – Khyber tribe uprising against British
1919 – Third Afghan War
He then noted the estimated latitude, longitude, and temperature, followed by directions:
Off to Khyber – Sulaiman Mts. Pass starts 3 mi. beyond Fort Jamrud – winds up to Ali Masjid Narrows (3147 ft) – Oasis – Then Landikotal Plateau (3517) top of the pass. Landi Khana & Torkhaur = boundary.
Next, my mother, who had a more colorful way of viewing things, added a quote from Kipling commemorating the massacre of British troops in the Khyber Pass:

A scrimmage in a border station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a 10-rupee jezail...
The flying bullet down the pass
That whistles shrill, “all flesh is grass”
My father, not to be outdone, added:
Population: Afridis who are one of 4 Pactae nations. Other tribes of Pathans, also called Pashtuns for their language = Shinwari, Mullagori, Shilmani. A Pathan is essentially a Hillman and his proverbial hospitality, courage & cheerfulness entitle him to respect. These hillmen can outpace any man in a deadly manly struggle for existence.
(That last sounds as though my father had been reading Kipling, too.) According to linguistic evidence, the Pathans had come here from Iran originally; they were the descendants of the Indo-Aryans who conquered North India in ancient times.

Andrea and I watched the rugged landscape go by as we chugged ever upward in the tough little station wagon. The road wound through canyons (perhaps these were some of Kipling's “dark defiles”) and past massive hills. Each had a small fort on top, within sight of the last, and of the next. My father explained that the British had built all these forts in an attempt to control the road to Kabul, but nobody had ever controlled these territories for long. National boundaries were never really established, even between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This country belonged to whoever held it, and now it was back to the various tribes. It all made me feel very small, I remember.

At some point in our journey, as we looked forward to the fabled Khyber Pass, my father pulled off the road and headed toward a small village. If there was a reason for this, I don't remember it. He probably just wanted to talk to someone new and get a story if he could. Parking, he left the rest of us in the car while he walked some distance to a small house where a man sat by the door, watching. He took the arrival of the American in stride, inviting him to sit and have some tea. Soon they were deep in conversation. My father sat with his back toward us. In the car, our conversation went something like this: me: “Oh, great; now he's forgotten all about us and this might go on for hours.” Andrea: “And it's getting hot in here. There's no shade.” Mother: “I wonder where the women are. I'd like some tea, too.”

Usually, when we stopped the car somewhere, curious villagers soon gathered: first the boys, then their little sisters, then the men, and eventually, sometimes, women. Everywhere we'd been, people had been welcoming to us (those who didn't like Westerners simply remained aloof) and we felt appropriately dressed for a village inspection, in our modest salwar-kameez. (This was a very comfortable and practical Indian Muslim dress, with scarf for the head if needed -- great traveling garb anywhere in the world. I wish I could find them here in Ashland.) It was unusual that we hadn't been invited for tea too; normally, the man having tea with my father would have said something to someone inside, and soon women and girls would emerge to invite us in, and we'd have a jolly time with them in their part of the house trading names and words, comparing clothes, teaching each other songs (our attempts to sing were invariably thought hilarious, a great icebreaker), and enjoying sweets. But that wasn't happening now (perhaps there were no women at home today), and we remained in our state of purdah in the car.

And gradually it dawned on us that something else was different here. As the crowd around the car thickened, we noticed that these villagers were all grown men. Also, they were getting a bit rowdy. They swaggered. They were making a party of inspecting us – but even more, the car, taking a great interest in all the car's controls. They pointed at the various knobs, the steering wheel, the gearshift, the radio, and made many apparently witty remarks to each other. As hands began to reach too close to these things we rolled the windows up and did our best to become invisible. At some point it registered that some of these men were wearing ammunition belts across their chests, filled with bullets, and many carried rifles. My sister, mother and I shared an unspoken question: should we be getting nervous?

The next entry in our diary is, again, in my father's hand:

Pashtun Code of Honor: 3 Obligations:
 “Wanawati” (right of asylum)
“Badal” (an eye for an eye)
“Melmastiya” (hospitality to all)
 It was in this last Obligation that my father, in his talent for connecting with people, was correct to trust. Just as we three women in the car were starting to feel really nervous about what might happen next, we heard a shout from the direction of the house. The men surrounding us immediately quieted down and backed away, making “Just kidding – all in good fun – but we really could have used that car and that radio!” gestures at us and at each other. We smiled back in happy relief, and then they were gone. Apparently my father had made friends with the boss; it was he who had ordered the fellows to behave themselves. They wandered off in good humor, the headman sat down again, and he and my father went back to their conversation. What had my father been doing during all this? He looked around once, gave us a little wave, and went back to taking notes.

We rolled the windows back down for whatever little breeze we could get, and resigned ourselves to more waiting. When you're a woman in a Muslim country, stoicism is a useful philosophy to cultivate. Later, when we complained to him that he shouldn't have left us there in the car that way -- it had been a little frightening -- my father airily assured us that we hadn't had anything to worry about: he'd been invited by the headman to enjoy hospitality, and we were all protected by that because of his Pashtun Code of Honor.

Could have fooled us, when those armed men were taking inventory of us and our car, but the funny thing is, my father was right. The wrong thing for him to have done in that situation would have been to act worried or try to do anything to protect his womenfolk, because that would have been to declare that he didn't trust his host – and thus lose the protection of the hospitality obligation. And in any case, one journalist wouldn't have stood a chance against a small army of the fiercest fighters in the world. However, the truth is, I really doubt we'd have been in any danger that day even if my father had been tactless to his host.

In fact, my father claimed, he'd won the group over with his first word - “Pashtuns?” He said they were so pleased that a foreigner knew their name and recognized their language, and eager to have a story written about themselves, that they were friends forever. When we commented that he was lucky to have found someone here who spoke enough English for such a long conversation, my father said, “Oh, he didn't speak any English. We used a lot of sign language. And I just wrote some things down and he thought I was quoting him.” Amid our groans he added regretfully, “I don't think I have much of a story.”

That day’s last diary note was, again, by my father:

"Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane came this way. And Aryans, 1600 BC."