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Published: December 11th 2007
I'm sitting in front of a fire blazing in a fireplace. Timber rafters, concrete floor, windows and a door that don't quite close, two beds covered with my junk. This is "my" room: the family's guest room. There were 15 people sleeping here before I got here. Now it seems like there's hardly room for another person without crowding. Sitting on a plastic chair next to me is Wali Khan, my landlord, wearing light blue shalwar kameez and a beige "chitrali" wool hat; he won't shave his week-old stubble until the first day of /chowmas/ when the neighbors will come with flowers and tell him to put aside his mourning for his dead relative and celebrate the festival. "I think I'm even older than you" he had said when I first met him. He's trying to figure out my Chinese SW radio, looking for "Aap ki Dunya Radio" with an unsystematic method of pressing all buttons and turning all knobs. The radio periodically turns itself off in protest at the low batteries.
With a head freshly shaven for chowmas, malicious blue eyes and a very strong build for his 5 years, listening to my ipod and occasionally breaking out with a "mutt mutt kalendar" is Sardar Ayub Khan, the eldest son. I laugh watching him and mutter "little terrorist". I wish I had had his life when I was 5. His 7 year-old sister Gul Sahar is trying to get the earphones from him. Her head is shaven apart from a braided lock on her forehead and another at the top of her head; she's wearing a cluster of bright orange necklaces over the traditional Kalasha dress worn by women of all ages -- a black frock with colorful embroidery around the neck, hem and cuffs -- and a head-piece like a topless cylinder with a cape down the back, decked out with cowrie shells and colorful beads. An hour or two ago when Sardar had been sham-crying she had said "he's not crying, he's practicing his song for chowmas" which had me rolling on the floor laughing, and Sardar on top of her pulling her hair. He's totally out of control: in class he refused to listen to his father (his teacher), saying "who are you? I'm the teacher!" and sitting in the teacher's seat; Wali had to giver him to another teacher (who he listens to). Now he's narc'ing on his sister: "Baya! Baya! Sahar blah blah pencil blah blah blah!" What's that? He mimes it out: you, "pencil", Sahar. Yeah, she stole my pencil last night when I wasn't looking. She probably needed it more than me anyhow. But how am I supposed to find another pencil sharpener where everyone uses knives or razor blades? I had been trying to shower that P-A-K-I-S-T-A-N spells Pakistan, and spelling makes sense and isn't based on memorization (at least for that word... wait till she gets to "diarrhoea"). I wink at her and say "Our Chowmas singer." Wali laughs.
That was in the "house", a 4mx4m square room with rope-beds along two opposite walls, surrounding the plastic-matted area around the stove where meals are cooked and eaten, homework prepared, and guests received, and which is separated from by foot-high planks from the rest of the room. The concentric squares forming an opening in the beams in the ceiling is where the old fire-pit used to be and Wali Khan says they used to throw an ox down the hole to inaugurate a new house. The area opposite the always-open door is "pure", meaning women cannot pass through the (1 square-meter) area, which is now largely occupied by a cupboard. There's some kind of representation of a deity on the rafter, and he'd be offended if a woman passed in front of him, and he'd take revenge by plaguing the house with sickness or trouble. The room is always dusky, since the electricity (generated by a small water-mill and only on in the evening) is hardly strong enough to power the single bulb on the wall. There Wali's wife smiles and imitates English words she finds amusing, and Gavar Ayub Khan, the 2 1/2 baby of the family totters around with perpetually dirty face and hands, and sticks out his tongue at me as I wink back.
We all sat around for dinner, and dinner was served in groups: Sahar and her mother, Wali and I, and Sardar Gavar and two young guys (ostensibly relatives) who were visiting. Sahar and mother ate with their hands from a shared pile of rice with some red beans and goat meat; Wali and I with plates and spoons (I'd be an embarrassment to myself and others if I tried to eat rice with my hands). Sardar and Gavar made a mess with both hands and spoons.
Standing on the terrace which forms the roof of the downstairs house (as our roof is someone else's terrace; a village is a clumping together of houses built into the hillside of this very narrow valley), I asked Wali about the Greek interest in the Kalash people. After all, they build the "Maternity and Menstruation Houses" where women must spend 5 days a month and not leave without fully washing themselves and their clothes, and which others may not even touch the walls of -- even the food is not directly handed to those "inside" but symbolically "tossed" to avoid contact. They've built special "Kalasha schools" distinct from the "Muslim schools" and are funding programmes to keep the Kalasha culture alive, including a "House of Culture" where children can learn to read and write in the Kalasha language using a newly-invented modified latin script. They even directly pay the teachers' salaries. Wali smiles: it's because they think we're descended from the armies of Alexander the Great. I laugh: don't let them know! Serves the meddlesome Greeks right. But these blue-eyed goatherds living in holly oak-clad narrow valleys, with their love of wine and dancing, and really amazing way of dressing (for the women at least) surely do seem to belong to somewhere else than where they are, sandwiched between Pakistan and Afghanistan (20km from the border), amidst a sea of Islam stretching in every direction. Ever read "The Man who would be King"? These are the remnants of the once-fierce "Kafirs", now numbering about 3000 in the valleys of Bumbouret ("the most picturesque and often-visited"), Rumbour ("the most peaceful and friendly"), and Brir ("the most traditional") -- insipid descriptions courtesy of LP. Wali says there's constant pressure to convert to Islam, and indeed two of his brothers have converted, one after the birth of 3 sons who remain Kalasha, while their 3 later-born sisters are Muslim. They'll be staying with us for the fast-approaching winter solstice festival of chowmas which promises to be packed with dancing drinking and goat-sacrificing to ancient pagan gods. And I wonder if the similarity in timing to Christmas is coincidence.
After a false rumor circulating to the effect that I've settled down in a village in Pakistan, I've spinelessly decided it wouldn't be too terrible to let my Indian visa burn and enjoy the festivities. The only problem is getting out of here: the district of Chitral is connected to the outside world via 2 mountain passes (Shandur, 3724m to the East; and Lowari, 3111m to the South), both of which close after heavy snow fall and remain so for 6 months out of the year. I'm running on borrowed time. "No problem", says Wali, "You can walk from Ziarat to Dir across the Lowari Pass; it should only take 6-8 hours." But I've more recently learnt that people die every year doing the same, due to avalanches. The other options are flying (yuck) to Peshawar, or taking the detour through Afghanistan as the locals do. "Wear a burqa" one very helpful man suggested.
I've spent the past 11 days walking through the hills, up to the 2900+m passes leading into the neighboring valleys, with spectacular views, eating up a storm, inadequately dressed for the fast-approaching winter, the only foreigner in Bumboret (there are two in Rumbour... stealing my thunder). This timeless existence is possibly the coolest thing I've done to date. Going down to the "main town" of Chitral to check email and buy supplies is the surest sign of having settled down.
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