I MET COLONEL KHUSHWAQT-UL-MULK eighteen years ago in his garden near Chitral, a mountain town on the banks of the Kunar river. He was talking to some men who wanted to know what they could give their fighting falcon for diarrhoea. The bird was there too, perched on her handler’s wrist. Mulk suggested that they try a course of antibiotics. ‘What’s good for us should be good for her,’ went the logic. I remember the episode clearly. It was a beautiful spring morning, the snow peaks of the Hindu Kush behind us, the sky blue, the red roses blooming in the garden. There was a little tremor of an earthquake and our tea cups rattled in their plates.
In March this year I came across Mulk’s obituary – he passed away in his native Pakistan at the grand old age of ninety-six. Educated at the Royal Military College at Dehra Dun in India, he was the most senior living officer of the British Indian Army when he died.
When I met him, Mulk – an accomplished horseman – recounted to me how he went over the nearby border to Afghanistan on horseback to visit Ahmad Shah Massoud, the great mujahedin commander. A truckload of mujahedin forced Mulk off the road and into an old Soviet minefield. Had he not pulled his horse up hard, he would have been blown to bits. He left a note for his son before leaving, asking him not to grieve if he died because he did not mind being buried in Afghanistan. Later, I sent him a copy of Under the Sickle Moon, Peregrine Hodson’s memoir of living with the mujahedin, and Mulk wrote me back a letter of thanks, in fountain pen ink.
I had gone to Chitral because I wanted to write about the Kalash people. With their pale complexions and fair hair, they are rumoured to be a number of things: the lost tribe of Jews, descendants of the soldiers of Alexander, or survivors of Ur, among other things. I wanted to see them.
To get to Chitral, I had to travel through Peshawar. I stayed there overnight for my bus that left in the morning. I liked the city – the blooming jacarandas, the gaudy rickshaws. When I was a little boy, my parents used to bring me to Peshawar to visit my uncle’s family who lived in the Meteorological Colony, next to what is now the Intercontinental Hotel and what was then a paddock. Years later, a terrorist bomb blew up the hotel and shattered the windows of their house, but in those days there were no terrorist bombs. In the antique shops, I would find Russian Rubles from 1910 with pictures of Catherine the Great. In later years, they would sell Soviet medals from their doomed Afghan campaign too. In the bookshops, there were memoirs by Englishmen who had lived here during the Raj. Interned in the English cemetery on the far side of town lie their remains. Among the graves of bakers, tailors, planters and their families, also lie the graves of English soldiers who have been dying here since Victorian times: ‘shot by tribesmen’, ‘fell from horse,’ ‘killed in the Afghan war’, simple epitaphs telling how little things change.
When I look at the fall-out from 9/11 – the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for Al-Qaeda, the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan – I search for signs of things to come. It is not hard to find them. Our bus snaked up the steep ridge of the Malakand Pass, then crossed the Swat river, leaving the Swat valley behind for the mountains ahead. The valley is a fertile place with gently rounded terraces. One day it would turn into a battleground for Pakistani troops fighting the Taliban, but even eighteen years ago, every wall was covered with slogans – against Shias, against Ismailis, demanding the liberation of Kashmir, cursing politicians, and slogans insisting that ‘Asia will be ours’.
The mountain pass to Chitral was blocked with snow. The bus couldn’t go any further but the driver said it was possible to walk. It was a four-hour slog to the other side in deep snow, without landmarks except for the tops of telephone poles. But I set out alone, convinced that I would get to the other side. I know now that if a local had not turned up to guide me and help me climb down the steep slope, I would have lost my way.
AFTER a few days of rest in Chitral, I set out by jeep to see the Kalash in their valley in nearby Bumburet. When I arrived there in the afternoon, school had just finished and the children were playing cricket by the river. A young Kalash man befriended me and showed me around. A woman offered me a bottle of Kalash wine. At night, the full moon loomed large over the valley, and the trees and the fields glowed with a soft phosphorescent light, the sky full of stars. Beyond the trees, the river roared, and beyond that lay the mountains covered with snow. We ate a stew of mushrooms and listened to the Urdu service of the BBC. My Kalash friend told me the story of how two foreign tourists, a boy and a girl, were murdered here. The girl was raped. The murderers were found and hanged in front of the girl’s father. ‘Nobody who believes in God would do such a thing,’ my friend said. But ten years later, Islamists would behead Daniel Pearl. They would send suicide bombers into hotels, attack hospitals and hotels, and throw grenades in mosques.
I wonder sometimes when this cycle of violence began. When was year zero? Perhaps in 1839, when British and Indian troops occupied Afghanistan ‘against foreign interference and factious opposition’ – old Victorian terms for ‘regime change’. Or perhaps it was 1757, at the Battle of Plassey in India, when the East India Company defeated the Nawab of Bengal?
To my mind year zero was 1979. That is the year when the Shah of Iran lost his crown and the Iranians let themselves be fooled by Khomeini into a revolution that would devour its own people. That was the year when the prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by his one-time stooge and now nemesis, General Zia. And that was the year when the Russians arrived in their armoured convoys in Afghanistan. The dominoes fell: first Iran, next Pakistan, then Afghanistan. To me, it seems that had the Shah of Iran put down the revolution like Pinochet did in Chile, history would have been very different today. The Shah was armed to the teeth by America; the Soviets would not have dared to enter Afghanistan on his watch. Had they not come, there would have been no Taliban, no Al-Qaeda and no terrorist bombs. But perhaps this is foolish thinking on my part.
Perhaps the violence began with the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Pakistan I grew up in was a secular, liberal country – certainly not as secular or liberal as Western democracies, but leaps ahead of what it is now. (One of my uncles in Karachi used to tell me of the time when a fellow could order a Chateaubriand at a restaurant, wash it down with a fine Bordeaux, and go to a cabaret to watch can-can girls.) What happened? I think now that perhaps what I was seeing was wrong. It was only a superficial reality, hiding beneath the same master and servant society, the same social order, the same patriarchy, the same religious tensions that had always been there. The middle and upper classes took over where the British left and nothing changed after all.
I went to see Colonel Mulk because he was a writer. He showed me the articles that he had written over the years: an open letter to Indira Gandhi, a letter on wildlife protection, and an eight-page travelogue about his trip to Afghanistan. I told him about the things I intended to write.
‘Why is the West afraid if our women wear the veil or our men go to the mosque?’ he asked. Because we are the Other, I should have said, but I did not know. In hindsight, he should have known. In the 1940s, he had been sent to Waziristan to fight Fakir Ipi, the fanatic who was waging a jihad against the British. Change the word fanatic to terrorist and the parallels to today become apparent. Men like Colonel Mulk maintained the status quo and men like Fakir Ipi fought to reverse it. Predator drones and Kalashnikovs have replaced biplanes and muskets but everything else is the same. Change the names to General Kayani and Baitullah Mehsud and the parallels become apparent again.
Alexander the Great rampaged through Afghanistan in 330 B.C.; Genghis Khan laid waste to it in 1221. Timur (Tamburlaine of Marlowe) was drawing blood there five hundred years before Queen Victoria. After that, it was Brezhnev’s turn, followed by Tony Blair and Bush, et al. Perhaps there is no year zero.
It was time for me to go. I asked Mulk how I could get out of Chitral. I was reluctant to attempt the return walk across the snow-bound Lowari Pass. There were daily Fokker flights out of Chitral and I was hoping that I might use his influence to get a seat on the plane. He said that the flights were notoriously unreliable. It was best, he thought, if I went back by looping through Afghanistan. The locals used the route all year round, so why couldn’t I?
THE road to Afghanistan was unpaved and the border crossing was a boom gate with a tin plate which said, in Farsi, ‘Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’. Ahead, the road was submerged under a rushing torrent of snowmelt. Crossing that, we passed through the frontier town of Barikot. Orchards of apples, apricot and plum rose from behind thick mud walls. A pair of camels waited for their master. Women in red dresses mattocked their green fields.
It was a serene town but it had its scars. A Soviet army truck lay next to the road, its windscreen riddled with bullet holes. The seats were gone. Long grass grew around its flat tyres but the red star painted on the sides of the door was still visible. The Soviets might have gone but their legacy remained for everyone to see: the town centre was a mound of rubble called Martyr’s Square. Outside town were the nameless graves of all those who died there. By the larger graves lay smaller ones for the children.
We stopped for lunch at a teahouse called Islamic Hotel. Its name was painted in white on the turret of a burnt-out Russian tank outside. The passengers, an assortment of hirsute, bearded, hawk-eyed men, dismounted from the old bus, washed their hands in a running stream and sat down on an elevated platform in the white room. A samovar was placed in the centre. An old man from Jalalabad sat cross-legged in front of me, eating pilau, like everyone else there, with his hands.
We drove on a bumpy, broken road. When we finally turned towards the Pakistani border, I was relieved to be on a metalled surface again. On a vast, flat plain, against the sharp outline of the Tora Bora mountains, the river glimmered like a band of quicksilver. As we crossed the bridge, I watched a procession of refugees going the other way. They were returning home from the refugee camps outside Peshawar. There were pick-up vans and tractors loaded with entire families, women clutching their babies and children, their mattresses and charpoys strapped to their vehicles, pots and pans clanging together, dust and fumes, with a herd of goats bleating in their wake. Mankind on the move. It was something to see. Nine years later, American B52s will bomb these mountains. But then in the golden sunset, I could have never imagined it.
Granta: First published on 22 September 2010