“When time flushes the desert grass,
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass;
Lean are the camels but heavy the frails,
Light are the purses but heavy the bails;
When the snowbound trade of the north comes down
To the market square of Peshawar Town.”
– Rudyard Kipling
CAN’T IMAGINE IT!
PAKISTAN’S PERFECT STORM OF MISERY
Chitrali Hats, Odd Holiday in Hindu Kush
Awash in Swat; Collateral Soul-Damage
Sebastian Unger’s War
With Sebastian Unger’s War and the epic flooding in Pakistan headlining my consciousness these days, I’m reminiscing on my Odd Holiday in the Hindu Kush during the Utchao Kalash Summer Solstice Festival – about this time – some fourteen-years ago. Got my Chitrali hat during a sojourn into an imaginal-realm: The Kipling Country of the Kalash people, denizens of the Chitral region of Northerneastern Pakistan. Not everyone wearing the Kapul is a Taliban: It’s regional headgear worn by most men throughout the stans. The soft round rim serves as a cushion for bowing in prayer – head to ground or stone – five times a day. The woolen-hat, fashioned in many earthen hues, can also be shaped every-which-way as protection against wind, snow, hail; and the ongoing devastating monsoon rains – a Sebastian Unger-like Perfect Storm of Misery – swamping Pakistan since July.
Can’t imagine it! Daily news and images of the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan – including the fabled Swat River Valley – was slow-as-muck to hit America’s TV and text news – now all over it. Affecting over twenty-million people, including ump-teen thousands already diseased or dead, this off-the-charts environmental and humanitarian catastrophe slowly moved from the evening BBC to lunchtime CNN. Newscasters ask: Why is international AID so glacial? Where’s the aid from other Muslim countries: India has proffered a mere-pinch? Furthermore, with the Indus River banks having overflowed for many weeks – leaving much of Pakistan awash – is the country now an open-opportunity for the outrageous Taliban and hard-line Islamic groups to float-their-boats: Be the first on the scene with hot meals and aid? Is the world drowning in aid-and-compassion fatigue around serial pan-global natural disasters and acts-of-God, despite the magnitude of the Pakistan floods of an unimaginable scale and consequence: Not to mention what becomes of millions of displaced rural peoples once the waters recede, as they are doing now. Are the Tali targeting foreign relief workers? Imagine that!
As a travel photo-journalist and columnist, I’d journeyed up though the Swat River Valley on my way to the Chitral: I ‘d arrived there fourteen-years ago, just-about today, August 18, 1996. Once the valley of Milk-N-Honey – today it’s the land of Bloody-O-Hell, what with the swamping of Pakistan – and war’s collateral damage for up-country villagers dwelling in the border regions of the Hindu Kush. Especially, I’m lighting candles for the colorful Kalash. Culturally challenged for decades – this animist minority tribe exists in ever-decreasing numbers; some say only 1,700 extant – in verdant, flowering Brigadoon-like niches north of the Swat. Can’t imagine what’s become of the Kalash today!
With the up-buzz around the US engagement in – and withdrawal deadlines from Afghanistan, including the border regions not far from the Kalash and Chitral, there seems a current convergence in public consciousness dramatized by Unger’s bestselling War; as well as his stunning Sundance Award winning docu-drama Restrepo – featuring male-bonding and impenetrable terrain – and the chaos wrecked-upon remote villages along porous borders. As he states: “The men know that Pakistan is the root of the entire war, and that is just about the only topic they get political about. They don’t much care what happens in Afghanistan.” Porous borders are further exposed by WikiLeaks – revealing how the Paks are playing both sides of the coin with the Tali – both sides of the border. Such double-dealings ‘twas ever thus, as I concluded in the following article – Lo, fourteen-years ago.
The whole shebang: The war, the monsoons, and the collateral damage from this combo to the diversity of everyday Pakistanis are currently a stew-pot on the front burner of politics, policy and public opinion, and humanitarian sensibilities. My senses on-remember, I pulled from my files Holiday in the Hindu Kush – an article originally scribed in 1996 for my Traveler’s Eye column in Outdoor Photographer magazine. Re-reading the piece stimulated my thinking, once again, about the imaginal nature of exotic travel. Is the over-whelm of endless war-talk, and text – plus all the other horrors worldwide – somehow deadening people’s imagination: That soul-sense of wonderment about the world and diverse cultures therein? In a world gone wacky, might there be collective soulic-collateral damage, of sorts? What happens to the collective imagination when increasing numbers of self-insulating people, either despairingly or dismissively, announce they no longer take-in the news – as if hyper-sensitivity and ignorance are optional high-callings? What becomes of inspiration and creativity when xenophobic hearts and minds to avert their view from reality-on-the-ground, and withdraw from requisite diversity: Imagination no longer wandering – wither-it-will?
Might just wither, as James Hillman suggests in The Soul’s Code: “The soul needs models for it mimesis in order to recollect eternal verities and primordial images. If in its life on earth it does not meet these mirrors of the soul’s core – mirrors in which the soul can recognize its truths – then its flame will die and its genius wither.”
ODD HOLIDAY IN THE HINDU KUSH
PESHAWAR, CHITRAL – Pakistan. August 18-30, 1996
Sipping green tea on the lawn of Dean’s Hotel, I’d arrived by taxi at this funk-over-charm, old army barracks turned hostelry after Monty and the Raj quit the place – the subcontinent in 1947. The long drive from Islamabad on the trepidatious Grand Trunk Road left me divinely protected, but dazed from a dusty game of bumper cars – the head-on variety. The last to arrive, the desk clerk informed me that my three traveling companions to-be were already out on-a-toot in the souk.
Thus, my odd adventure began. We were four women, off the next morning at-the-crack by third- world taxi on axle-busting roads for a twelve-hour haul up through the spectacular Swat River Valley, into the Chitral region of the Hindu Kush. Our final destination was Rumbur, one of three remote villages of the fabled Kalash people.
The Kalash tribe occupies the remote Bumberet, Rumbur and Birir valleys tucked beneath the snow- capped Lowari pass in Northeastern Pakistan. Having fled persecution in the late 19th-century into the bordering Nuristan region of Afghanistan, the Kalash – also known as the Kafirs, or unbelievers, lead as Brigadoon a life as I’ve ever witnessed. Non-Muslim, the animist Kalash drink wine and sacrifice the occasional goat during frolicking seasonal solstice festivals. With robust relations between the sexes, the women exhibit strong personalities, and a striking thoroughly authentic native-dress. The children gambol about – the little girls’ dresses slipping off their shoulders delightfully. The boys enjoy spats of soccer and roof-hopping when not in school or helping their shepherd fathers up-country.
Filthy infidels, as their Muslim neighbors are wont to call them – they bathe infrequently – the Kalash continue to be under constant and increasing political and social pressure to convert to Islam. Many of them have, indeed, been seduced into marrying Muslims, and to speaking non-local dialects. An enchanted people with surprising Grecian good-looks, it’s believed that fewer than 2,500 Kalash remain from the days of Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great.
Within this Rudyard Kipling culture that I passed my summer holiday in 1996 – a desired sojourn of adventure, exercise, soul retrieval, and re-visioning of my photography. Professionally, I had come to Rumbur to shoot video footage of Utchao, the Summer Solstice Festival. At the time, I was working on Visual Journeys, a seminar series I had developed, sponsored by Canon/Kodak. Moreover, I’d expected to have the Kalash to myself – more or less.
Instead, what I got in Rumbur village was a multi-cultural surprise: a misadventure; time on my hands; and a tired tuckus from sitting and reading Robert D. Kaplan’s page-turner, ENDS OF THE EARTH – Journey at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century (Random House, 1996). I had oodles of time to read, reflect, and observe right before my very eyes a micro-cosmic culture enduring much of the social challenge and economic transition I was reading about from the deck of the tribal chief’s house.
Saifullah Khan, then the only English-speaking person in Rumbur – complete with wit and metaphor – greeted us upon arrival with sheepish apologies. A group of fourteen French tourists had moneyed their way into the new guest-house that was supposed to be our quarters. Instead, we four: Patricia, an artist; Lisa, a teacher – both from Luxembourg; Lore an adventurist from Germany, via Colorado; and I from Santa Fe, were all stuffed into a tiny room with an orchestra seating deck overlooking the entire village and its daily doings.
Turned out this was a blessing: Perspective is everything in life. From my perch seated in a broken down director’s chair surrounded by sliced tomatoes sun-drying in flat woven-baskets, a variety of shifting perspectives unfolded. Non-sequitur as impressions from open-ended trips without a schedule inevitably become, I’ll recount a few – beginning with the multi-cultural shock we were experiencing.
Rumbur being small, foreigners were very conspicuous. Saifullah was truly distressed that his village seemed over-run with foreigners. Lore, our trip leader, had only been into Chitral in the dead of winter for Chaomos, the inhospitable, snowed-in Solstice Festival. She was as stunned as the rest of us to discover that we were sharing Rumbur with other tourists: we had no choice but to accept them as part of the unfolding dramatic landscape. Like a visit to a zoo, small groups strolled in every day, taking stock-shots of the nonchalant Kalash going about their daily chores. Tourists nicked people pictures with nary a how-de-do. They snapped off-hand village shots with sunlit textured-stone and high-contrast architectural geometrics into their compositions.
The Kalash buildings are a handsome combination of dry-stack stone and timber, with life unfolding picturesquely in the evening light. From our deck we were amused by the young girls leading tomboy lives on their rooftop playgrounds. With names like Gulistan, Mini Bibi, Nasibulta, and Sarimgul, they wrestled each other down in the dust, balanced on beams sticking out over alleyways below, and released balloons – sending them farting through the air from roof-to-roof. The boys had come by a veritable Frisbee. Teaching them which side was up, I participated in their multi-level game, shooting the disc across the courtyard to the French Quarter.
We spied on Frenchies typically turned-out in insensitive minimal clothing: They lounged about sipping valley wine. Saifullah sold them an off-year: we got special reserve, on the house, based on Lore’s tenure in town. The French women were being fitted into Kalash costume in preparation for Utchao, the Summer Solstice Festival we’d all come to see.
Besides the French, Rumbur had definitely hit the Lonely Planet trail that summer. Ina, a blond haired, blue eyed, and otherwise very shadowy twenty-three year old Norwegian woman – also in local drag – emerged at dusk to help Saifullah’s wife Washlim Gul prepare our dinner of fresh tomatoes, sliced onions and dhal. Johney Bealby, a romantic, archetypal English travel writer, circa 1965, and an odd British couple, hung-out in the smoky kitchen exchanging travel tales.
We four women gathered on the deck in the evening light for many ’round-the-mulberry-bush conversations about the effects of tourism, the insensitivity of invading point-and-shooters, the passing out of candy and balloons to kids who neither asked for tourist hand-outs, nor begged, and the introduction of hard currency to an here-to-fore self-sustaining, agricultural community not doing monetary business with the outside world. Muslims boycotted commerce with the Kalash. Meanwhile, the Pakistan government’s logging interests were happy to annex their forests, floating logs down the river right through Rumbur village and out the valley to mills.
As chief conservator of the Kalash Tribe, educated and sincerely committed to the preservation of his unique culture, Saifullah had made the personal decision to take PGs into his own home: He has – to this day – several hostelry buildings around town to raise money to fight battles against government loggers deforesting the valley – and many other issues more current today.
And so we come to Robert D. Kaplan’s THE ENDS OF THE EARTH. Based on personal experience and observation while traveling in Asia and Africa, Kaplan takes a travel writing approach in discussing the effects of: depletion of natural resources; education; cultural cleansing; political corruption; proliferation of tribal rivalries; and border disputes along ethnic, religious and historical lines. What would he be writing today?
Years ago, in his introduction, Kaplan states: “Though many landscapes are increasingly sullied, that need not spell the decline of travel writing. It does mean that travel writing must confront the real world – slums and all – rather than escape into the airbrushed version of a more rustic past. This book, which folds international studies into a travelogue, is an attempt at that.”
Ruminating on Kaplan’s words, and looking out over Rumbur – an authentic, rustic, living-ethnographic museum – and all that – I was getting cabin-fever hanging in the village. My three travel companions, none of whom I’d really known before, turned out to be more sedentary than I am. The women were happy to sit around sipping tea and shoot the breeze with Saifullah, confabulate rag dolls for the kids, make-up their faces, read, sketch, and sleep. With Robert D. Kaplan’s statistically intense volume best read in small doses, I was going bonkers for lack of exercise and adventure.
Adventure I had: I was determined to take in the scenery that Johney Bealby told me was so lovely up the river valley. With only a rucksack, he had traipsed down from Jalalabad in Afghanistan following the Kipling Route. I’d expected to hike up through the same terrain to pastures at 12,500 feet, and spend a couple nights with the shepherds: I’d come prepared with a sleeping bag and all the fixings. It wasn’t happening: I was Rumbur-bound.
Rumbur village was cut deep into a narrow valley a bit short on view. Feeling claustrophobic, I convinced Lore and Saifullah to go for a hike up the valley. Following the river for a couple hours, we stopped at a Nuristani village. Lore and Saifullah wanted to rest, drink more tea, take forever buying eggs. Wanting time to myself in the lovely natural setting, I headed home alone.
Intending to follow the open river-bed back to Rumbur – the obvious route – I chose instead to follow a sylvan water-course up on the banks, which I reckoned would run parallel to the river-bed, and eventually drop back down into it. Everything was swell until a teenage Nuristani boy, about eighteen, attached himself to me.
“How old are you”? he stammered.
“Old enough to be your mother,” I thought to myself as I walked on in silence.
Having cut my travel-teeth in numerous Arab countries, I knew not to engage in conversation with self-appointed guides. However, I quickly learned that this trick only works in busy metropolitan areas where pesky boys soon loose face in public when put on ignore by a foreign woman. This tactic doesn’t work in the woods alone with a kid possessed of raging hormones.
“You’re lost”, he persisted. I wasn’t: the path continued parallel to the river, as projected.
“You’re scared”! he taunted. Yes, I was getting nervous – still silent.
“What’s the camera for?” he questioned, pointing to my Canon.
“I was taking pictures of Saifullah. He’s right in back of us,” I stated. Tribal chief Saifullah was an authority figure in the region.
“How far?” he shot back.
Coming on stronger, he blurted, “I love you – just two minutes”.
What this kid didn’t know was: while he was walking in front of me, I had secretly readied my Swiss Army knife and placed it – major blade out and handy – in an open pocket of my photo-vest. While I felt a bit silly as I pulled this off, I have to admit I was more confident for having done so. At about this juncture, I finally saw the place where the trail dropped down to the open river-bed; I popped down the embankment into the wide-open river-bed with a sigh of relief.
Later, I told the girls bout my misadventure. My travel companions rather cynically questioned whether I was in any real danger: wasn’t the Nuristani boy just being a brat? Who knows for sure? However, Saifullah knew exactly who the only English speaking kid in the valley was: he’d been sent to school in Bumberet, a larger town. Evidently, the mere-brat had a history of hassling foreign women who’d strayed too far up-valley – alone.
What did my misadventure teach me? As a street-smart New Yorker, assuming for years that I was not a magnate for trouble, I revised my attitude. No more stride-right, don’t-mess-with-me chip on my feminine shoulder: I realized anyone can become cavalier in the countryside, take the wrong path, or simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Not personally offended by the incident, it was, nevertheless, a wake-up-call in terms of my own psychic and geographical open-space. It was a field-shift for a world in which I had roamed freely and without consequence here-to-fore.
No constrictions for me at Utchao, the Summer Solstice Festival – the high-point of my time with the Kalash in Rumbur. The shepherds had returned from the high-pastures with goat cheese to be honored in propitiation of the fairies – Yes! The two-day event took place in an inauthentic cement-block, tin-roofed pavilion provided by the ingratiating – if not coercive – Muslim government. Much to Saifullah’s dismay, the villagers had voted to accept the pavilion gift – read cultural bribe – along with an ugly cement school building – read Mullah. In this sad setting, the Kalash cut-loose with song and dance routines, swinging wildly from the ribald to the religious, and back again.
Wearing their kupasi, stunning cowrie shell-and- button head-gear, and long, black embroidered dresses, the women – all arms encircled – weaved around rhythmically in a chain – chanting hypnotically. The men had-at-it in conga-waves sweeping-up any photographer or videographer in their path.
Inspired by chanting, drum beating and song, I got into the swarm. The French women in Kalash drag were cutting a swathe, arm-in-arm with local painted-faced teens. Tourists from the Punjab and Lonely Planeteers watched from the sidelines. Video camera in hand, I was in the epicenter of an event that, despite the setting, was truly Kiplingesque – authentic, medieval, magnificent, and memorable to-the-max.
My holiday in the Hindu Kush will be memorable for its many odd moments. Nevertheless, the Utchao Kalash Solstice Festival woke me to the privilege of witnessing the tailings of a vulnerable culture in the midst of an ongoing theatre-of-war. Only a few months after returning home, I read an alarming, front-page article in the New York Times, How Afghans’ Stern Rulers Took Hold. Of the intolerant Taliban fundamentalists back then on a tear throughout neighboring Afghanistan, veteran war-reporter John F. Burns wrote:
“The Taliban, despite their protestations of independence, did not score their successes alone. Pakistani leaders saw domestic political gains in supporting the movement…Pakistan leaders, in funneling supplies of ammunition, fuel, and food to the Taliban, hoped to advance an old Pakistani dream of linking their country – through Afghanistan – to an economic and political alliance with the Muslim states of Central Asia”.
Imagine OIL! – From the Stans, and access to world-markets through Karachi, still strategic today. It’s an unspoken shadow aspect of Why are We There?
So this is the imaginal world that was: The Chitral – thought to have been a possible bivouac of Osama Bin Laden: Chitral, Nuristan, Waziristan – wherever! Today, with the vulnerable Kalash Trtibe– and their fun-loving life-style – in my heart and on my mind, I reread Robert D. Kaplan’s words in ENDS OF THE EARTH – written in 1996. Affirming his belief that Pakistan was/is the most dangerous place on earth, he closes with:
“The more I saw of the world, the less I could fit it into a pattern.
No-one can foresee the precise direction of history:
No nation or people is safe from its wrath.”
And the rest is history!