I was inducted into the Boy Scout Organization when I was in the second elementary grade. The school issued me and some of my classmates the entire outfit. We had drills for a month or so and then we participated with other boy scouts in the Students’ Annual March Past before the King and thousands of citizens on the second day of the week-long Independence Celebrations. This continued for several years. No further scout duties and functions were assigned to us. What we did was just the March Past while older boy scouts appeared in all the sports and saw to it that the students were not involved in fights and other disorderly conduct during sports events.
In those first years, we also had an officer of the army as our physical education teacher. His duty was to teach us how to march and do various gymnastic acts. Not many of us took deep interest in gymnastics and it did not develop as much as it did in the military schools.
Much later, I joined our school’s lawn hockey team and later still, the basketball team. I never made the first team and was thus not involved in inter-school championships other than attending most of them as a very interested observer. Basketball was introduced in Afghanistan by some American teachers employed by the Ministry of Education to teach in our high school.
The Americans were mostly good teachers and some of them stayed on for several years. We had two of them teaching us physics and biology: Mr. Harlan and Mr. Payne. Our biology teacher was later asked to teach us English also. He promptly started us on our current biology textbook during our language class saying that, too, was written in English. Before American teachers came, we had been taught by Muslim Indian teachers. The Americans initiated spelling bees which were great fun. The right half of a class competed with the left half and anyone who misspelled a word sat down until finally there was only one student left standing and he was proclaimed that hour’s class winner. I remember one spelling bee when none of us could correctly spell ‘pushed’ and it was our teacher who gleefully screamed, “By God, I won!” and promptly wrote the correct spelling on the black board. Almost all of us knew that word but the way the teacher had pronounced it, none of us knew whether the last sound was a ‘d’ or a ‘t, an ‘shed’ or a ‘cht’. His English class was fun. That first year we also completed our curriculum in biology.
In later years we also went on school picnics. The cost was borne by the school but at times the students also pitched in. Transportation would be provided by the Education Ministry. Several teachers went along as supervisors.
Once at destination, we hiked, went on long walks, played various games or simply relaxed and listened to music and songs offered by teachers and students alike. These were day-long outings and we would be escorted back to the city by our teachers and dropped off at spots closest to our homes.
The 12th graders, however, had it different. Their picnics were called ‘Scientific Expeditions.’ They would travel to other cities for several days. They would often meet with provincial Governors, local religious and tribal dignitaries to discuss matters of national importance, check historical museums and archeological sites and have fun in the process. These expeditions would occur late in spring and students would be required to write reports of their observations as term papers.
When it was our turn to go to our ‘scientific expedition,’ we were actually no longer students of the Habibia High School. Only, we had not been issued our diplomas yet. Hence no written reports of our observations were required.
Our ‘Expedition’ was to Bamian, site of the historic Buddha statues and a great center for Buddhic worship until the advent of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries. The year of our trip was l943. The season was early Fall. We were a class of 35 graduates. The school Principal, several teachers and our own Pukhto teacher — who also was our class supervisor for at least ten years –, and a few peons constituted our party. Mr. Harlan also went along with us.
(When I entered pre-grade many years before, our class numbered around 100. That number shrank to just thirty by the time we reached 12th grade. Some among us were given chances and chose to go into short training courses, both military and civil, around the seventh grade, some transferred to other schools, one or two passed away, and some dropped back, or out, altogether. We had inherited five students from the previous year’s graduating class and that raised our total to thirty five.)
There, still, were no paved or asphalted roads between Kabul and various provinces and cities. We consequently had two full days and nights on the road before we finally made it to Bamian a distance of about 150 miles. We had a lorrey with seating arrangements around the length and front of it and the middle area was assigned for some supplies. Our own baggage, and other paraphernalia were stored on the roof. We had seen to it that these items be placed strategically on the roof so that some of the students could sit on them without fear of damaging anything. Once out of the city limits, some of us climbed on the roof. I was among the ‘cowards’ who did not dare climb to the roof with the lorrey already on the move. But almost instinctively I knew what was going on up there. Some of the boys were making indecent signs or funny faces or even loud ugly remarks to oncoming pedestrians, drivers and passengers of other vehicles. Some reacted likewise while most people just stared back in disbelief. We were not the run of the mill passengers up there. We were all young, well-dressed men, obviously belonging to some school or organization but our actions were not at all commensurate with our backgrounds or upbringing. These actions did not go unnoticed for long by the others inside, especially those on the front seat of the lorrey. Finally the lorrey stopped. Our teachers got out and gave us, one and all, severe admonishment for our despicable behavior. More serious threats, including a return to Kabul, were passed along by the Principal in case this ‘monkey business’ was repeated. It was not.
An experience that I recall with some nostalgia was my purchase of three huge peaches at the foot of the Shiber Pass for just one Afghani (then equivalent to 1/13th of one dollar). One might get an idea of the worth of the Afghani when a pound of apples cost only ten pools — 1/10th Afghani– if one did not haggle with the shopkeepers, even less, if one did. Sitting there by a brook of cold spring water which flowed out of the mountain, I found I could not eat them all. Nor could I carry them with me to the lorrey as they were so ripe and juicy. Their skin peeled off at the slightest touch. No one else among us needed them as they had bought their own peaches much to the pleasure of the shopkeeper. I let the brook carry what was left of my second peach and left my third peach on a stone by the brook for some lucky passenger to enjoy whenever he or she came along. We took to the road again.
Shibar was as tortuous in summer as it was in winter. Some of its curves could not be handled without throwing the lorrey into reverse gear several times. A slight wind blew clouds of dust around and into our vehicle. We were told that during the rainy season, lorreys would get stuck in the mud, and icy conditions in winter brought all travel between the South and the North to a standstill.
We were welcomed in Bamian by the Governor, his officials and the town dignitaries. The Ministry of Education had already informed them of our arrival and the presence of our Principal among us made a big difference. The sumptuous dinner of that first night was a qaw. (Qaw is the name given to a specially roasted whole sheep.) For this, the sheep with its huge fatty tail is skinned, disemboweled and cleaned. The inside is then filled with vegetables and spices and sewn together again. Then it is lowered into a vertical oven, neck first. The oven is preheated with wood and other elements until the embers glow. The qaw is then lowered into it withh an iron rod, through both its thighs, which keeps it hanging. The oven is then covered. The heat gradually melts the fatty tail which bastes and roasts the sheep to perfection. The process takes several hours. The cook must know from experience when the qaw is done.
The qaw feast was planned to be ready a couple of hours after our arrival at the Valley. We were very hungry and found that it was really worth looking forward to. Several tables were laden with all sorts of cooked vegetables, platters of rice and other meat dishes and, of course, all kinds of fruit. But qaw was a first for most of us and most of us rushed to partake of it. The huge sheep just lay there on its back, its central area opened from which the aroma of spices and cooked vegetables arose. The cool air of the evening had already made it possible to touch and pick up chunks of the sheep by hand, although knives were placed around it for use. My fraiend ‘F’ was among the first to attack the qaw and, before my surprised eyes, cut himself a huge leg piece. He announced to the angry crowd that his cut was for both him and me. With that, he pushed me along to the food tables where we grabbed two plates, some paper-thin bread called lawasha, some cooked vegetables and rice and retreated to a far corner of the dining Shamiana (a huge open tent) to enjoy our dinner. ‘F’ was big and had the appetite of a bull. I remember, even now, that I did not get my fair share of the qaw. But I really enjoyed whatever I did get. Of course I went for a second helping and a third but the qaw was soon gone. I had some palaw (pilaff), some fresh vegetables of which there were a variety such as tomatoes, scallions, radishes, oleander and cucumbers, together with jugs of buttermilk, and lemon juice, for vegetables and rice dishes to enhances their flavor.
Soon after dinner we were all ordered to different rooms of the only hotel and told that we should get a good night’s sleep, as from early the next morning we would have several days full of physical activity. My room faced the valley below. I was awestruck when, upon waking up early the next morning and looking down at the valley, I encountered the two statues of Buddha at the opposite end of the valley, carved out of rock, with the golden light of the morning sun shining on them. That, I thought, must have been exactly how they had affected Buddhist worshipers of yore every morning of their lives. They were then covered with an actual coating of gold and many jewels that glistened in the sun.
The Buddhas’ faces were cut out leaving only their lower lips and chins. One noticed the shadow of a benign smile on the lips, perhaps meant for the thousands of pilgrims who came to worship at this center of Buddhist civilization nearly two thousand years ago.
Our official day started with a tour of the statues. Standing at the base and looking up, one was wonder-struck at the years of work it must have taken to carve them from the rock face. The guide informed us that the taller statue was 53 meters (172 feet) and the shorter one had a height of 35 meters (114 feet). Years later, when I was directly involved in the affairs of the Ministry of Information and Culture, preservation work on the two statues began in earnest with a team of Indian archeologists, it was discovered that the real heights of the statues were 188 feet and 124 feet respectively. The difference was the result of removing the debri of centuries from the area around the feet of the statues. Tunnels and stairways spiraled inside the cliff housing the statues up to the heads of the statues. From there one got a most magnificent view of the valley, including the then small town of Bamian with its one main street, the hotel on the opposite plateau and the two other adjoining plateaus lending themselves ideally for more accommodation for tourists at some later date. Beyond, lay the towering Hindukush range, standing between 15,000 and 25,000 feet above sea level.
There were innumerable niches all along the cliff for smaller statues which were no longer in existence, destroyed, no doubt by Arab Muslim invaders and devout Afghan converts after them, over the centuries or removed by invading Moghul forces of Changaze Khan (Genghis Khan) or by plunderers, for sale and/or personal gain. Interspersed, were also many niches and caves for worshippers and priests from which all relics had been removed by either tourists or religious Muslims or looters? Our guide told us that at the time Islam came to the Valley in the eighth century A.D., hundreds of priests actually lived in caves alongside the statues of Buddha. Hordes of pilgrims came, mostly after the winter snow began to thaw in Spring, paid homage to the Buddhas, spoke to and learned from the priests and then went their separate ways before the onset of the winter season. While in Bamian, most of these pilgrims lived with the priests in their caves or in special residences in the small town.
Earlier I mentioned the defacing of the huge statues at the hands of Muslim invaders and converts. This was unfortunate for students of archeology and Buddhism. The latter underwent total annihilation in Afghanistan. Most of the artifacts of Bamian were also plundered by the armies of Changaze (Ghenghis) Khan or the overly zealous Muslim Afghan rulers of later years. The gold sheeting and jewelry adorning the two main statues were looted by the invading powers and by others. Much later, around the 1880’s and 1890’s the lower middle areas of the statues were marred by cannon fire. Historian Hirodotus, the Greek, and Huan Tsen, the Chinese pilgrim, have both written in some detail about the beauty of Bamian Valley and about the magnificence of the many Buddha statues which adorned the length and breath of its western cliff boundary.
A most tragic fate befell the beautifaul statues of Buddhas in the year 2001, when the Taliban Government in Kabul ordered their demolition because, according to their belief, they were depicting human figures and it was against the principles of faith as they knew it and wanted everyone in Afghanistan to accept the destruction as ordained.
The nearby ruins of Shahre Gholghola (the City of Noises) speaks silently of how this beautiful citadel was completely laid waste by Changaze in revenge for the loss of his son or nephew in one battle in the area. It is said that he ordered the massacre of every living being in the city built on a hill and surrounded by fortified walls and so densely populated that it was nicknamed the City of Noises. No thorough archeological search has been conducted on the site. All one sees are remnants of walls, alleyways, outlines of public halls, rooms, courts and shops. The original approach to it from outside is non-existent and one climbs to the top via pathways made by tourists over many centuries.
We left Bamian for Bande Amir, one of seven sweet water lakes naturally dammed by sedimentation over the millennia. Only this lake is easily accessible. A natural wall of about thirty feet dams the lake. Its overflow runs continuously to yet other lakes further down. The water is the color of lapis of the deepest blue. Cote d’Azur, simply, could not be bluer. The shimmering water of the lake, which is in places deeper than three hundred feet, reflects the clear blue sky during the many sunny days of the year. The weary traveller is at once elated and amazed when he first catches sight of the dark blue water in the midst of the brown surrounding countryside. Everyone stops to take in the view. Standing there at the edge of a small promontory some two hundred feet above the lake, we could see dozens of relatively large fish literally jump several feet above the surface perhaps for a feel of the warmth of the sun. It was a sight that we could hardly have believed had we not been there to enjoy it in person.
We reached the rocky beach by the lake later. The water was really cold to the touch. Some of us who knew how to swim decided to take a dip. Our American teacher, Mr. Harlan, was the first to take a plunge, belly first. It must have hurt him for we heard a resounding groan as he splashed in. He was soon out proclaiming the water was very cold and himself badly hurt by the dive. Our Art teacher, Abdul Ghafoor Khan, who had thrown himself into the water at the sound of Mr. Harlan’s groan, stayed on for quite a few minutes. Prompted by us, he even dived as far down as he could and told us later that he could not reach or see the bottom of the lake. From among the students only two jumped in and hurriedly came out fearing the coldness of the water would cause them cramps.
Our host, the Governor of Bamian, had sent cold lunches along which we enjoyed there by the lake before returning to Bamian some four hours away from Bande Amir. The road was a poor quality unpaved country road. It passed through some very picturesque pastures. The nomads’ black tents were set up irregularly over a stretch of the green valley. Children and women, some clad colorfully, played or walked about. Some camels, mostly single-humped, grazed in the distance.
There also were a couple of double humped ones which were new to us Kabulis. Flocks of sheep could be seen near the foothills grazing lazily on the greenish grass. Higher up, the hills were brown, and beyond, lay the snow-clad peaks of the mighty Hindukush. Above and beyond was the dome of the blue sky of Bamian vaulting the entire panorama from horizon to horizon.
The pastures were reserved sites for the nomads and their flocks who came to the area during late spring and stayed through summer and early autumn. The settled population, ethnically the Hazaras, were not cattle breeders and shepherds by tradition. They lived in the sprinkling of villages and hamlets mainly along the road. We did not see much farmland as this part of Afghanistan did not have any running water and there was not enough rainfall to farm the land to advantage. The Hazaras made a bleak kind of living converting small sections of pastures to farming mainly for fodder and quick-growing vegetables. They generally kept a few cows and sheep for their milk and some donkeys and mules as beasts of burden. These they tended to with farm products in the immediate environs of their homes. Some dry farming was also undertaken which bore poor crops due to the prevailing dry weather conditions.
Unfortunately such dry farming was more a source of trouble between the nomads and the settled population than a means of providing more crops for local consumption or trade. Tradition, sometimes centuries old, had set up limits in the vast tracts of pastures in that part of the country beyond which the land may not ever be broken for dry farming. But these limits would, at times, be broken either as a result of legitimate growth in population and the need for expansion, or the greed of some local landowner wishing to expand his domain for personal gain. The result, inevitably, were feuds which, sometimes, became very bloody and necessitated intervention of the provincial and even central government and the court system.
The root of the matter lay in the need for the nomads’ flocks to reach the green grass of the pastures in the no-man’s lands throughout Afghanistan. There were some two million nomads in the country at that time. In the fall, they would migrate south to the warmer and greener flat lands. In the years before the subdivision of India into Pakistan and India, the Afghan nomads and their flocks went far into the subcontinent for winter. In the spring when the lowlands threatened the flocks with heat and dried-up grass of the pastures, they would travel north into cooler and greener territories in the hinterland. They spread out over a vast area and would set up their tents in regions which their fathers and forefathers had used since time immemorial. These pastures remained green longer as they were located at higher altitudes and cooler regions. They provided ample grazing opportunity for the sheep, which, in turn, produced more milk and wool to supply the nomads’ sundry needs for a rudimentary standard of life. This also provided the settled population with forms of business conducive to the continuation of life in an otherwise harsh and hostile region.
The nomad, who did not — and does not to this day — know the ways of settled life, considered these pastures, technically belonging to no one, as God’s given gift which no man might take away from him. Any encroachment by the settled population would constitute unlawful possession of his property. This encroachment would be opposed by nomads, one and all. Feuds and fights would ensue and go on until they got settled and stopped by intervention of the authorities or the Jirga (Council) of the elders on all sides.
Many years ago a battle had occurred between the locals and the nomads along the Bamian-Bande Amir route for some similar reason. Both sides lost hundreds of men. The nomads, had buried their dead on the slope of the battle-ground. The Hazaras named the site “Qabre Awghan” (the sepulcher of the Afghan) – a misnomer as the Hazaras meant the Pukhtoon nomads. It stuck. On the site stand scores of banners with red and green cloths flapping from them as signs of martyrdom. These banners are renewed every year by the returning nomads.
That heavy bloodshed had resulted in the government’s intensive application of the law preserving the pastures both for the beauty of the land as well as for the use of the nomads.
Every spring the Pukhtoon nomads observed a ceremony on the spot soon after their arrival in the region. Although this seemed harmless, it, nevertheless, brought to mind the battle between the Hazaras and the nomads and the former were not happy about it. No serious event has come about since that battle and life seems to go on normally. The two sides are not enemies really. They have a common enemy in the generally hostile climate. Whenever the region suffers a dry spring, the plateau grass is not plentiful in the first place and what there is of it soon dries out affecting the nomads’ flocks and causing them hardship. There are no rivers to speak of and the terrain does not lend itself to damming the water created by the melting winter snow. This results in precarious conditions for the precious crops of the settled population who would stop at nothing to protect their limited source of food from roaming nomad flocks in search of forage.
The nomads produce butter and qoroot from sheep milk. Qoroot, basically a byproduct of making butter, replaces the production and sale of fresh soft cottage cheese during their stay just outside city limits. Qoroot can be preserved for months and sold anywhere, any time. Qoroot is shaped in round balls, dried and stored for sale. Children buy it from the local shops in exchange for grain or money and enjoy chewing on it. In households, a few qoroot balls are soaked for an hour or more in water and then placed in kiln-baked gravel-bottomed special earthenware pans and ground to a thick liquid which is then diluted to the desired consistency for a dish of rice and peas or many other forms of very tasty dishes.
The nomad women make felt rugs of intricate designs using both natural and dyed wool. They also spin their sheep wool into yarn and weave gilims (flat-weave rug) and Qalins (piled rugs also known as Oriental rugs) and tent material. Whenever possible, men join in this endeavor. They sell these items locally and in towns they pass through during their Spring and Fall journeys.
Traditionally, the Hazaras also buy quantities of wool from the nomads. They, too, make beautiful gilims, primarily for themselves, but also for sale. Other merchandise, not found locally, and brought by the nomads from distant lands such as Baluchistan and India were traded in these villages. This trade went on for centuries and was mutually advantageous to all parties. The one exception, the sale of guns and ammunition, has proved singularly detrimental to the relations between the two peoples.
The nomads’ chief pastime in the sparsely populated regions of Afghanistan is sharp-shooting. The men use guns, the boys, slingshots. Slingshot hunting or just scaring the sheep from roaming in unwanted directions by the very audible sound of the empty slingshot, was a useful pastime for the older nomad boys. Women and young girls mainly involve themselves with the day-to-day chores in and around their tents. Any free time was used spinning wool yarn or sewing or weaving.
Schooling was next to impossible for boys and girls alike. Girls of the nomad camps simply do not get any education as we understand it. A father would only let the local mula teach his son how to read the Holy Qur’an , which must be read in Arabic. During the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, some nomadic people in certain parts of the country were finally provided with mobile schools and teachers were appointed to teach boys through the elementary grades.
Most Afghans speak Pukhto (Pushto) and/or Dari. Very few know Arabic and those who learn to read the Holy Qur’an, hardly ever know the meaning of what they read. Rarely would a nomad’s son be allowed to learn how to read and write in his own language. The real reason behind this attitude is the nature of the hard life that people lead and the need that parents feel for helping hands, easily provided by children.
Every clan keeps a mula for the daily prayers and other religious ceremonies. These mulas also serve as the clan scribes whose duty it is to read and write their letters for them. For his services, the mula receives his daily food and shelter and a small stipend.
Nomadic men and women seldom intermingle except during weddings and deaths and some religious functions. They sing and dance at weddings to the accompaniment of the flute, surnai (a reed instrument) and drums. The dance, generally the atan, starts rather slow, but gradually picks up momentum to a crescendo when some dancers fall out of the circle in sheer exhaustion. The songs are lyric in nature, some coming down from unknown poets and some even made by the singers as they sing along.
These songs are called landai and consist of two-line verses the first made up of 9 and the second, of l 3 syllables. The landai are the true folk songs as they belong to no single poet. The subject matters are love and bravery. The inaccessibility of the loved one, due to religious and social obstacles, stolen exchanges of a word or two between lovers, pining for the loved ones and so on are common examples. Some of these obstacles have to do with the interpretation of the religious codes or traditional mores such as : A man may not be seen in the company of a young girl or woman unless he is an immediate member of her family or her husband. Nomadic women must cover their faces from eligible bachelors, even of their own clan. In actual practice, however, they do not usually cover themselves up during their journeys. If they have to be in the company of men, they must either turn their faces away or bring the head cloth down to cover their faces.
This does not mean that a boy and a girl or a man and a woman never encounter each other around the campsite or on their travels. In fact, it is such chance encounters that kindle the flame of matrimony in them. This is generally arranged by the parents of the boy or close relatives of a man interested in a widow who has no available brother-in-law to marry. Nomad damsels often get married early in life, usually at puberty.
Sometimes inter-tribal marriages occur but that is not on the basis of boy meets girl, boy falls in love. It is rather the result of a desire for closer tribal ties, union of two tribes to better face a stronger third, chances of access to better pastures, solution of long-standing feuds or financial gain on the part of a girl’s parents.
There have also been occasions when a young nomad chances to fall in love with a village girl and causes his family to seek her hand in marriage for him. In such cases, generally the nomad loses a son who gets converted to a settled way of life.
Dowries are set very high. They may include sheep, camels, cattle and cash. The latter can be as high as 100,000 afghanis, a sum that was almost equivalent to a Government Minister’s annual salary in the early l970’s. Even by the standards of the business class or government employees in the cities, it is an enormous figure. But the nomads have been known to ask for, and be given, such sums and more without much ado.
There are two major daily occupations restricted to nomadic women: fetching water and gathering twigs, dry bushes and cattle dung for their camp fires and cooking. They carry water from the nearest spring or river, sometimes more than a mile away from camp. They use an assortment of containers; one is a bag sewn from whole goat or sheep hide. A woman might carry one such bag hanging from her shoulder along with a pot or two on her head and one or two jars under her arms. For dry twigs and bushes, women sometimes walk long distances. They gather heavy loads which they tie in their sadar (head cloths) or with ropes and haul them on their heads or backs to their tents. Lucky is the wife whose husband buys a fallen tree or a part of a tree, hauls it home for his wife to use as firewood.
While on the nomads’ seasonal journey, a pregnant woman in labor would just step off the trail into a dry ditch or behind a rock or a shrub, give birth to her baby and then rejoin the caravan with the infant bundled up under her arm.
The Pukhtoon nomads’ traditional winter habitat was northern India. Since the partition of India in 1947, they used to go to Pakistan but the latter blockaded Afghanistan for a time. When finally the blockade was lifted, the nomads were still barred. The nomads were then forced to seek alternative sites in southwestern Afghanistan all the way to Kandahar, Farah and Chakhansoor.
The central Afghanistan highland was, and perhaps still is, the summer campsite for the nomads. They had an established tradition of running a summer trade baazaar of a wide variety of goods for cash and barter. Practically all nomads came to this central summer baazaar for reunion, trade and fun. Shooting contests, music, songs and dances were their main occupations during these days.
That was what we came to know about Bamian and the Pukhtoon nomads during our scientific trip. We returned to Kabul happy to note that we would not be required to write any term papers on this our last high school excursion for we were no longer students. We simply awaited the announcement of our graduation and our class standing.
It was many years before I had a chance to visit Bamian again. Then I no longer had the carefree spirit of my younger days. It was an official visit and, together with a team of experts, I was burdened with the responsibility of assessing the damages of Time and the elements to the historic treasures of Bamian for the purpose of taking necessary steps for their preservation.
Thereafter, I went to Bamian many times.
My last visit was that of a private citizen taking in all the beauty of the place in the company of someone dear to my heart. We retraced my steps all over the historic spots and noticed that most of the preservation work was completed satisfactorily. Everything looked beautiful, almost perfect, in its archaic form and shape. I witnessed again, the wondrous beauty of the rising sun on the statues of the two Buddhas and on the niches and caves in the cliff-side. It was easy to think of the thousands of ancient Buddhists who must have gazed, enraptured at the awe-inspiring sight. I marveled at the breath-taking beauty of the entire valley in the dim glow of a cool August moon. Perhaps, unbeknown to me, that visit was to be my goodbye to that particular region of the enchanting land of my youth and I would be destined only to cherish those fond memories from thousands of miles away.