Friday, December 28, 2007

Understanding Afghans.

King Zahir Shah before his death this year.

The bones of thousands of over-ambitous conquerors and their followers lie strewn across the heights of the Hindu Kush as they tried to take Afghanistan, but few were able to hold the mountain lands for long as the Soviets found out in the 1980's. This current war,like so many earlier ones against Persian, British and Russian armies, will be decided in the mountain valleys and passes where fanatical warriors momentarily put aside tribal feuds and joined together, displaying a unique brand of mountain guerrilla warfare which is based on hawk-like instincts, circle, swoop and loot. The spoils of war provide important resources. William Blake wrote "Bring me men to match my Mountains," and as Najibullah found out, you can't hold a capital city unless you have popular support in the country side.

European writers over the centuries have described the people as fiercely proud, arrogant, hospitable, ethical, loyal, insolent, belligerent, aggressive, friendly, untrustworthy, truculent, lawless, poetical, violent, passionate, revengeful, mystical, nationalistic, tribal, scavenging and indolent and it is this dichotomy that the Pashtoon (Pathan) code of ethics has its root. Cameron in his classic "Mountains of the Gods" touches on some of these characteristics.

"It is because the Hindu Kush is split up into so many frequently warring communities that its people have acquired a reputationfor lawlessness and belligerence. 'They are proud' to quote from Peoples of the Earth), 'and although they can be hospitable and friendly they are also aggressive and quick to avenge any injury. They enjoyed centuries of independence, and raised their sons to be hunters and warriors, first with spear and bow and later with rifles. Not so long ago a man's most prized possession was his Lee Enfield.' It is not surprising that more explorers have disappeared without trace in the Hindu Kush than any other range in the complex."

Describing Afghans superficially is easy, but understanding them is trying to understand each complex and inter-related strand of a finely woven tapestry. Unless you have a good knowledge of their language, culture, religion, poetry, folklore and equally important, having lived and travelled with them, simplistic conclusions often mask complex answers. Why is travelling ewith them so important ?

Afghans love to travel and at heart, each is a pilgrim and an adventurer. In August 1994 when walking over the Sabzak Pass, by chance three Afghans caught me up. After awhile I asked them where are you walking to,; They replied, "Home."

"Why are you walking," I asked. " We like walking, walking is a journey." Still puzzled I asked again, " Why are you walking," and in reply they said, " we try to walk every day." During 4 years in Afghanistan I crossed many high mountain passes on foot and lived in Nuristan, and it was on these journeys that I discovered the true unquenchable wanderlust, and their fierce desire to be free of all foreign powers.

No comments: