Riding horses in Afghanistan. Parvin saving us out of a weird problem with brave, cunning conduct.
– To have power or playing to have the power –
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We had already been in Asia for months. We had factually entered it in Istanbul in Turkey. Continuing to travel east then, the exotic flair of this ancient continent had gradually intensified. Turkey is a country in between, the European influence still shows everywhere. Iran is Asia, but as the center of a great autonomous ancient culture it is somewhat unique. When we drove into Herat, the first town in Afghanistan, we were definitely in Asia.
Afghanistan is a wild country. When we came, in 1973, there were still horse carriages on the streets, policemen with little flags in their hands bravely but mostly in vain directing the chaotic traffic on the main intersections. There were camels on the road and wild-looking people. In Afghanistan we felt like exotic outsiders for the first time, we would clearly stick out as foreigners and could not easily mingle with the crowd anymore.
The language in a new country is usually an obstacle. They speak a form of Farsi in Afghanistan – like in Iran, Parvin’s former home. (A fascinating language with its own highly aesthetical writing. It looks similar to Arabic but is in fact different. I keep being fascinated when I watch Parvin writing, flying over the paper from right to left and leaving a trail of these incredibly beautiful little drawings.)
So, knowing the language seemed to diminish the foreignness in a way, but on the other hand, the impression of strangeness was even enhanced just because we could understand what people said. We understood what they said but often grasped only vaguely what they meant.
Even before we reached Herat, we thought all our nightmares about this wild country had already come true, somewhere in the western desert, in the middle of nowhere, when we found a crooked tree trunk across the road and no way to pass around it. We approached very slowly, our gun ready, prepared to back up any moment if the bandits would jump out of their hiding and attack us. “Stop”, Parvin cried when a dark figure appeared between the rocks. It was only one man, and somehow he didn’t act aggressively at all. He had clothes on, so worn and dirty that we only recognized them as a uniform when he stood close and held his hand out. It turned out to be an official tollgate. We paid our dues for the road, something like 5 cents, received a ticket on something like toilet paper, and the tree was laboriously removed.
In Herat someone threw a shoe at me when I pointed my camera at a mosque. People didn’t look friendly, we clearly sensed they just didn’t understand who we were and didn’t want to know.
On the road to Khandahar, we had major car problems again. Unlike in most other countries, the Afghans didn’t come close and touch us but only watched from a distance, mute, with inscrutable faces. In the terrible heat of the desert, our fuel pump almost regularly developed vapor-lock. We finally attached a little tube through the cowling and sprayed water over it when the motor started to give up the ghost. The engine still kept overheating all the time. In Iran, a copper smith had soldered together a wonderful external tank that we connected to the cooling system, increasing the amount of circulating water by 300%. (The connecting rubber tubes leaked all the time and were covered with a hundred layers of Duck-Tape.) When it still overheated on long, steep grades we sprayed water on the radiator through yet another tube fixed from outside for that purpose. (We needed more water for all these “special effects” than for our own consumption.)
In Kabul, things were slightly more civilized, but there was something like a revolution going on: tanks on the streets, gunfire at night, lots of rumors. (It was actually the coup d’état in which their king was ousted. He was invited back in 2002 to be a unifying figure in Afghanistan after the Taliban were defeated, but he didn’t go.) We enjoyed the time, exploring the bazaars where you could buy things you had never seen before, when we finally could sit in the shade somewhere and get away with just watching.
Clean food was always a problem. We had already given up on meat because even to look at the unrefrigerated fly-covered stuff made us gag. Rice was safe, goat cheese was excellent. Vegetables were abundant and good but incredibly dirty; you could get wonderful herbs for nothing. We washed everything and disinfected things like tomatoes with chlorine. Who knows if it was really necessary, but Parvin brought us through all of Asia without ever getting seriously sick. And we hardly met anyone else who could say that.
At that time there were only two paved roads in Afghanistan (most of it not even asphalt but concrete slabs). One crossing the country west to east and one north from Kabul to Masar-e-Sharif. Other roads were few and very bad. Our good old van was already in pretty bad shape (it still made it all the way to Singapore). So, together with some friends, we decided to hire a little truck with driver to go exploring into the outback of the remote center of the country. The Buddhas of Bamyan
In Bamyan we admired the colossal Buddha statues, carved into the rock, defaced already then, now, under the Taliban regime, completely destroyed by people lost in dark ignorance. Ignorance: the curse of mankind, the greatest enemy of happiness.
Afghanistan, tucked away behind huge mountain ranges and vast deserts, was never of much interest for the civilizing powers in the rest of the world, it preserved a people that seems to be very accustomed to internal conflict. The typical Afghan has a rifle in his hand, and, with a dark, proud expression, looks at you mistrustfully; he is male – we hardly saw women, and when we caught a glimpse of those spooky figures that looked like crows they were invisible under their tchador. In those brief years of some kind of semi-liberty, influenced by similar much stronger movements in Iran and Pakistan, foreign women could get away with going around unveiled, but it was barely tolerated.
It was rare to see people laughing. When Parvin spoke with them they were cautious and reserved because she is a woman, of course, and an unveiled infidel. They showed surprisingly little interest in who we were, why we came, and what we might have to tell.
We went all the way to Bandi Amir. The driver tortured us on the horrible road and obviously seemed to enjoy it. With a friend I made a half-diplomatic half-rude and arrogant attempt to suggest that he let one of us drive. And I was deeply impressed by his refusal, full of burning hatred and barely controlled aggression, his eyes flashing like a dog, ready to attack.
Bandi Amir is a cluster of lakes, shimmering in fantastic iridescent colors, nestled in the barren desert mountains. We managed to rent some horses to get around. They proved to be more mules than horses, but when I applied the cowboy riding skills I had learned in Arizona years ago, my horse obeyed, and the others followed. Soon I even felt pretty comfortable with the jade and ventured out, galloping along the lakes and up the mountain slopes.
As I enjoyed the motion and the control over the horse, I didn’t pay too much attention to where exactly we were going. Suddenly, without warning, my good horse sank down under me, between my legs, and I found myself standing on solid ground, my feet still in the stirrups. All four legs had disappeared into holes in the ground, and the poor creature lay on its belly and didn’t move. I could walk away without dismounting.
At first I was too surprised to laugh, and then my laughter froze when I heard strange noises from underneath and people suddenly emerged from nowhere, yelling, picking up stones, and running toward me. I looked around, and, to my shock, I realized now that I was standing on the roof of a house. The house was built into the slanting terrain, and the roof was at the same level like the surrounding mountain slope and covered with earth. Only the front wall with door and windows was exposed, which I could not see from where I came from. My poor horse had broken through the ceiling, the legs probably hanging down over their kitchen table.
Gradually the full catastrophe dawned on me. I shouted a few desperate explanations to Parvin when she just arrived at the scene and faced the 20 or so men approaching from all sides.
There were a few moments of irritation and hesitation when they realized that I was a bloody foreigner, but I could clearly see their fury and rage. I saw the first guy make a few charging steps toward me when Parvin spoke.
It was a spectacle no movie director could have arranged more dramatically. She spoke only a few words at first, loud and clear and very calm. Everyone froze – it was like magic – all heads turned toward her. A woman! And what a woman! Unveiled! And she spoke their language! And she was not shy at all, commanded respect, literally!
As much as I could understand, she did not apologize at all but bombarded the poor fellows with a speech that left them standing with open mouth, mesmerized, as if struck by lightning. She spoke like a royalty – even I felt goose bumps on my skin. Her spectacular full hair – even wilder from the rough ride – was illuminated from the low afternoon sun behind her. She looked sensational (had I ever seen her that way?), her face, noble and strikingly beautiful, her posture on the horse like a goddess, and her voice profoundly feminine but commanding and with this certain ring of being darn used to commanding (almost irritating for me). She spoke very calmly, and I saw her smiling – absolutely disarming! Irresistible!
It was like a miracle. The men dropped the rocks they already had in their fists and sheepishly moved around. While Parvin continued her sermon in a slightly milder tone they rushed to find a rope and 10 men lifted the helpless animal out of its predicament.
Without changing her voice, she directed a few urgent commands in German to me: “Hurry up, god damn! Let’s get out of here, I’m running out of steam!” So, as quickly as I could, I climbed back on the horse that staggered on its feet again and got moving. Parvin gave a measured jovial gesture and hinted that she was quite pleased with their agreeable helpfulness, and off we went, riding as hard as we could.
Somehow, she never really told me what exactly she had said to these wild men that pacified them so effectively and saved my butt or even more. She only said that this had been really dangerous and that she didn’t enjoy it at all.
We left Afghanistan toward Pakistan via the Kaiber Pass. There were no shots flying in the short time when we were there, but people with guns were everywhere, and it felt like a chaotic battle would start any minute.
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010