‘The Man Who Would Be King’ and decided to see the isolated Afghan province of Nuristan for himself.
“Two killed.” The commander’s face was cold and impassive. Ali Jan switched the two-way radio off and sat down, cross-legged on the floor. “It was to do with a woman,” he said, and everyone nodded knowingly. “One man returned rich from working in the Gulf. He took a girl who belonged to another… they killed each other.” Seemingly unconcerned, he leaned forward and dunked a maize-flour chapati into a bowl of melted cheese.
Since staggering up the ice-covered Karik Pass and entering the Ramgul Valley in the Afghan province of Nuristan four days earlier, we had been threatened by five savage-looking mujahadeen – armed militia – had heard of three murders, two robberies and had been warned about a notorious band of cut-throats whose lair was unavoidably on our path. It was not the ideal start for my journey across Nuristan: translated as the land of light.
The idea for this jaunt had been hatched some ten years earlier. Unimpressed by my boast that I had never read a book, my girlfriend of the time bought me The Man Who Would be King by Rudyard Kipling. It was a gesture that suggested; ‘Read the book or take a hike!’ She was lovely; I read the book. I was captivated from the start by the story of two loveable rogues, Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, as they journey across the Hindu Kush to find the mysterious land of Kafiristan, to unite its warring tribes and become their Kings. I couldn’t help thinking what a great journey it would make in reality.
The thought remained a fantasy until last year when I found myself at a loose end, with itchy feet and an urge for adventure. I packed my bags and headed east. Kafiristan – Land of the Unbelievers – has now all but disappeared. A hundred years ago, in what was probably the last forced mass conversion in history, the pagan Kafirs were converted to Islam at the point of a sword. Their country was annexed and renamed, Nuristan – Land of Light. But although the religion of the inhabitants had changed, I wondered if the same would be true of their ways.
The Kafir tribesmen worshipped a plethora of ancestral gods, imbibed vast amounts of wine – even venerated the drink – and judged a man by the size of the parties he gave. They were known for their strong sense of independence, their prowess as warriors and their talent for intrigue. They farmed maize, raised goats and chopped timber but thieving and murder were often the order of the day. Families fought families, villages fought villages and valleys fought valleys. They robbed each other’s goats, seduced each other’s women and killed each other as a consequence. Would they still? With John Hayward, an aid worker with five years experience in Afghanistan, and a small group of locals, I went to find out.
Once into Nuristan the footsteps of Kipling’s heroes became impossible to define. The route we chose was ambitious. Incorporating each of the provinces three main valleys it headed north up the Ramgul Valley, past Lake Mundol, east over the Kantiwar Pass to the cliff-side village of Wama, north again up the Parun Valley to the Paprok Pass before heading east once more to Bar-e-Metal and the high frontier with Pakistan. It was a journey of some 400 kms, crossing four, 4,500 metre passes. There were no roads, every inch would be traversed by foot.
Leaving commander Ali Jan’s home the path to Lake Mundol coiled snake-like over jagged rocks – at times along the thundering river, at others on a cliff-face high above. Dry and craggy the pale ground was as hard as flint – only gnarled shrubs and holly oaks grew.
On his ‘short walk’ Eric Newby described the people of the Ramgul Valley as larcenous and wild. Although they certainly appeared that way, none bothered us. The men were tall and generally dark, rather like Romanian gypsies. They wore bright blue shawls and baggy felt shorts over thin cotton trousers. Carrying guns and telling gleeful tales of robbery and murder that had recently happened up and down the valley, they seemed more intrigued by us than distrustful or threatening.
The women had large silver discs hanging from chains around their waists and wore scarlet veils. We never saw their faces. The moment they noticed us they turned their heads away. I heard of a female American aid worker who had tried to penetrate the province the previous year. Even though she had taken a local guide and dressed appropriately – in the baggy, figure hiding shalwar kameez, her head covered in a cotton veil – she only made it as far as the first village before being forced to retreat at gun point. In the pagan past women were free to choose their own husband, divorce them if they so desired and had a major say in village affairs. In Islamic Nuristan, like much of Afghanistan, women’s rights are limited.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at Lake Mundol. It was stunning. From a ridge by the path we looked down over the steep sides of the barren valley to where the turquoise water rested as motionless as a slab of lapis lazuli. Curving slightly, it stretched away towards the north leaving the far end hidden behind a spur of rock. Suddenly a great explosion filled the air, echoing between the valley walls. As we rounded a corner we found out why. A group of boys – some naked, others in thin cotton trousers – stood dripping wet on a ledge some twenty feet above the water. Around their feet were piles of dead fish. Checking to see that all was clear below, a young man pulled the pin on a hand-grenade and lobbed it over the edge. A moment later a giant boom shook the water, sending a fountain of crystal froth ten feet into the air. Some kids charged down a steep and rocky track to the lake’s edge, while others jumped in from the ledge. Shouting and splashing they proceeded to collect the catch. This was fishing, Afghan style.
For six days we marched, up over the Kantiwar Pass and on to the village of Wama. Many times we had to cross swirling torrents when sheer rock-faces blocked our path. On the upland water meadows the land was fertile and lush. Wild flowers grew beneath laden fruit trees: mulberry, apricot, cherry and walnut. Goats and shaggy red cattle, like highlanders, grazed on the abundant grass and ripening maize rustled in the breeze. Villages were dispersed, spread out along the valleys. The houses, constructed of stone and timber, the flat roof of one forming the veranda of the next, climbed in a jumbled confusion up the hillsides.
Each evening, with the help of a chain of introduction letters – the headman of one village making us known to an ally in the next – we were made welcome and offered hospitality. Fed on cheese, bread and milk, generally we only stayed a night and then moved on. It wasn’t advisable to linger. On arriving in Wama we decided to stay a week and on the third evening almost paid the price. The sound of gun fire echoed through the valley, the bullets slamming into the ground a metre or two below us. Leaping to our feet, we charged from the roof to the sanctuary of the room behind where we were then protected by five fully-armed mujahadeen. The reason for the shooting, our host confessed, was that he was embroiled in a blood feud that had already cost the lives of his son and another youth. “For a Nuristani,” he explained quietly, “the best way to shame our enemy is to kill our enemies guests. Maybe they will try to kill you.” He added it was nothing personal.
Continuing north through the Parun Valley a few days later, the land was flatter giving rise to more agriculture. Being both high and isolated the Parun experiences long, harsh winters and is often blanketed in snow for seven months of the year. With such a short growing season, everyone who is able bodied works the land. But even in the fields, toiling under the hot summer sun, purdah is sacrosanct. At the first sight of strangers the women pulled their veils further over their faces and those close to the path turned their heads to the ground. Even girls as young as three and four wore a head scarf. Like recent converts the world over the people of Nuristan have taken to their new found faith with enthusiasm.
Bar a few cooking implements, the odd article of clothing and a small number of carved doors, I had found no physical link to the Kafir past. Twenty years ago, in an attempt to exorcise any reminder of their ancient ways, everything to do with the old religion was annihilated. We’d been offered no wine, had been told that the last important party – or feast of merit, as they were known, when a man would gain credit with his village by feeding them as grand a meal as possible – had taken place in the early seventies. And we were yet to witness a woman’s face.
The pagan temples had been demolished and the shrines destroyed.
Three days later we crossed the 4,800 metre Paprok Pass and headed back towards Pakistan. In Barg-e-Metal, the last village before the high frontier, a jurga – or meeting of elders – was in session. The grey-beard we stayed with explained why. “The problem has to do with a water channel,” he told us. “People of Kamdesh claim that the water is theirs but people of Kusht maintain it belongs to them. Each year they fight. Many get killed.” Three men had lost their lives the previous week in a rocket attack on Kusht. I did a quick sum in my head. On the four week journey, I’d heard of twelve murders and enough tales of thieving and brigandage to fill a small book. When I asked Ismael our Nuristani translator why this should be, he simply shrugged. “It is our culture,” he said.
Through a mixture of luck, cunning and daring-do, Kipling’s fictional protagonists, Carnehan and Dravot, had come to the area and united the warring tribes. They’d forged a peace and become venerable Kings. If they were to tumble from the skies once again, more than a hundred years later, the task confronting them would be exactly the same. Kafiristan is now Nuristan; the infidels have been enlightened. But beyond religion, little of their ways seem to have changed.
For A Pagan Song:Travels in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – by Jonny Bealby is published by Heinemann Mandarin.