Translation from Italian by Chris Dowling
They are believed to be pagans. They drink liquor, their skin is lighter, have blue eyes and practise an animistic type of religion. All this confined to an area of just a few square kilometres in Hindu Kush, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the middle of a sensitive area, a crossroads for warriors, arms and goods. I am referring to the Kalash, an ethnic group of ancient origins whose people are said to be the legendary descendants of Alexander the Great’s troops, who crossed these parts in the 4th century B.C. on the way to the Indian Subcontinent.
This is the western most corner of Karakorum, the starting point of the most majestic mountain range in the world, the Himalaya. An area of exceptional scenic value and imbued with deep symbolic significance. It’s in Kashmere, the turbulent region which has been contested by India and Pakistan for 70 years, where some believe Jesus Christ to have been buried. A little further east, in the Indian Garhwal, lies Meru, already the subject of another of our previous stories, considered the axis mundi, the centre of the universe, and the crossing point between the earthly sphere and that of the underworld. Slightly to the north, isolated in the heart of the Tibetan Plateau, in sight of Manasarovar Lake, rises the Kailash, the crystal mountain capable of catalysing the religious experience of the Buddhist universe. In the list of Himalayan wonders there seems to be a spot also for those holding the genetic heritage of Alexander’s troops. This at least seems to be the result suggested by research conducted by scientists on the Kalash DNA, and published in 2014 by the New York Times, from which emerged significant traces of European traits, dating to the same time as the passing of Alexander’s troops.
Far from wanting to confirm such rumours of a possible Macedonian lineage, in 2011 I decided to reach Chitral and the valley of the Kalash. This was the time when the armed forces of Pakistan started conducting their own war against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban active almost all along the Durand Line, the sensitive Afghan-Pakistani border, an offensive which goes on to this day. I arrived following a complicated journalistic assignment that started in the south, in the Sindh region flooded by the late-September rains and the beginning of the internal migration of hundreds of thousands of people towards the reception centres set up on raised ground. I then travelled north, towards the capital Islamabad, and then to Peshawar, to visit the Jalouzai camp, where other thousands of people fleeing the border areas kept pouring into the vast tent-city. My original idea was to proceed to the legendary Kyber Pass, and reach Kabul, in Afghanistan, but the security conditions being awful, I decided to make my way northbound along the Afghan border, so as to be in sight of the Tirich Mir, at 7.708 metres the highest peak of the Hindu Kush.
The journey towards Chitral and the land of the Kalash starts from the bus station in Peshawar. I had been in those parts for quite a few days by then. My beard was long, as custom I wore the local garbs, and I could speak Urdu fairly well, the language of Pakistan, therefore I was confident I would pass unnoticed. Anonymity being an important precondition, at least on the long journey approaching the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Swat, the district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, affected by a consistent presence of TTP figthers. Zia Ul Islam, a reporter from The News with whom I had worked in Peshawar, was convinced I looked like an Afghan. After all our Indo-European origins stem from central Asia, not the other way round. «You won’t have any problems at all» she stated before leaving me to my destiny and the tiny 12-seater minibus, on which I discovered being the 17th passenger. Nothing new for the customs of these parts devoted to low-budget travel, were it not for the 19 hours of road lying ahead.
The journey lasted an eternity. I will remember it as long as I live as a frenzy of check-points, questionings, freezing cold and total discomfort. In the list I should also add the touching hospitality of the people. I realised how badly equipped I was every time we were stopped for checks by the army. A soldier would open the side door, poke his head into the cabin and examine each one of us with a torch blasted into our eyes, both as a routine as well as looking for some anomaly, or a stranger. They never recognised me except when they randomly requested ID from five or six passengers. If the finger was pointed at me, as soon as I produced the passport the whole caravan would stop and I would be forced to step out, follow the soldiers for further checks, often in the local language, giving the same explanation each and every time.
We passed at least a dozen check-points, but at the fourth questioning one of the other travellers, exasperated by the longer waiting times caused by this stranger, followed me and the soldier in the underground bunker, dug out between Swat and Dir. He was a Pashtun, barely over 20, an official of the Pakistani army in North Waziristan, returning home to Chitral on leave. One check-point after another had convinced him I was no threat, and so he decided to step forward to accelerate procedures, after all the sooner we arrived the better. I only just made out the dialogue between him and the soldier responsible for the checks «You know the next areas are tough, if you want you can take on the responsibility, consider him your guest», the young official was told. A “guest” then, in the heart of the land of the Pashtun. The young lad turned, looked at me and nodded with a smile, accepting to carry out the unexpected obligation, by no means a simple matter in these parts. To host someone in the land of the Pashtun is a matter of honour, an obligation completely unknown in the west. It does not simply imply offering a coffee, a slice of cake and little else, but rather it involves one’s name, that of the family and the clan one belongs to. It also involves respect, in a land where respectability is everything, the penalty being exclusion from the group. After all, Osama Bin Laden was the ‘guest’ of a Pashtun family at the time of his escape to Pakistan, until he reached his compound in Abbottabad – not far from Islamabad – where he was found and killed by a commando of Navy Seals in early May 2011. In my case the onus was certainly lighter, but the matter was essentially the same. The official – whose name I have unfortunately forgotten – took my safety into his own hands. From that moment onwards, at every stop, as soon as we got out of the minibus, I would be offered a hot tea, a cigarette and the most comfortable seat, next to the warmest stove, all for free. I was forbidden from taking out money.
The drive to Chitral went on for the entire night, including a three-hour stopover north of Dir, before the most challenging section of the mountains. We were within 100 metres from the Afghan border, until we reached the Lowari tunnel, considered a sensitive target by the Taliban, and therefore surrounded by many military posts. The over-burdened minibus advanced with difficulty on the dirt road and when we attempted to wade a mountain stream, the wheels got stuck between the rocks. We had to get out, unload the vehicle and push it out, beyond the ford. The temperature was barely 5 degrees Celsius and yet two young men in sandals entered the river with the water up to their ankles in order to move the rocks away from the path of the wheels and ease the rest of the journey. A few moments later we were out of trouble. A soldier in camouflage gear urged us on, the city of Chitral was finally within reach.
A few hours later we stopped for one last time, in what seemed to be a service area, only that it was built out of bare stone, wood and bricks. The young official sat me down, mumbled something to a group of bystanders and exited. A few moments later I was surrounded by a band of large burly mountain men, at least twenty of them. With grave expressions, long dark beards, Pashtun hats lowered over their deep gazes, they advanced on me in semi-circle, staring insistently. I was stuck between the wall and the stove. Except for one window, I saw no other escape route. All of a sudden all sound was drowned out and total silence reigned in the room. From behind the line of men rose a rhythmic sound of hands clapping, and my ‘assailants’ transformed into a mountain choir. Their perfectly tuned voices filled the gaps in the walls, bouncing from one side of the room to the other, relaxing the faces and cheering the expressions, mine especially. This was their welcome to Chitral, land of music, war and hospitality. A touching memory, the greatest honour I could have received, accessible only to those who accept to lower their defences and to trust in others, receiving in return a rare form of hospitality… For the Kalash there would still be time, after all the journey itself is at times more important than the destination.