Letter from Bumboret

Bumboret has suddenly become a frightening place. Lying between the Kunar River in North Pakistan and the Afghan border, on the edge of the monsoon belt, where the vegetation is dense with giant walnut and fruit trees draped in grapevines overhanging swiftly flowing streams, are the valleys of Birir, Rumbur and Bumboret. This is the home of the non-Muslim Kafir Kalash (meaning black infidels). I first heard about them from documentary-maker Roussos Koundouros and ethnologist Prince Petros, who ventured to shoot for UNESCO a film titled In the Steps of Alexander the Great in the late 1960s. The origins of the Kalash remain obscure. Some consider them to be the descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great (4th century BC). It is also said that some Greek cultural elements can be found in the area. I well remember the late Prince Petros, who was convinced that the sports and games in Nuristan (wrestling and shotput) were practiced in the ancient Olympics. In addition, he often said that Kalash features strikingly resemble those of southern Europeans. Yet there is no conclusive evidence, Estia publisher Antonis Kyrou, who was among the first to visit and study them, once told me. There is also a possibility that they even preceded Alexander. In Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, the authors state that the army of Alexander reached Nisa, which is thought to be today’s Kafiristan. But the leader of Nisa, they recorded, proclaimed to him that they were descendants of Dionysus (Bacchus) who had come from Greece long before. A British scholar, G. Woodcock (1966), thinks that Nisa was one of the Greek colonies scattered widely throughout Achamenid Persia long before the times of Alexander. Some years ago, I joined a group led by Professor Epaminondas Vranopoulos which traveled along much of the Alexander route. After the long flight to Karachi and to Peshawar, we boarded the 45-minute flight from Peshawar by PIA Domestic Airlines which would take us to Chitral. After 30 minutes, we had to return because of bad weather. We were forced to go there the hard and perilous way. We drove for two days in open jeeps via Dir and the Lowarai Pass (3,177 m). Of course, we could not go to neighboring Afghanistan where the war with the Russians was being waged. Those were the traditional lands of the Kalash. Many of those who had been forced out were now living with their fellow-Kalash in northern Pakistan. Nowadays, there must be some 3,000 Kalash living in about 20 villages of the area. The whole district was called Kafiristan by the Muslims, meaning land of infidels. In 1896, most of the Afghani Kafirs were forcibly converted to Islam and the name of their homeland changed to Nuristan, meaning country of light. In the year 1888, in company with Colonel Durand, C.B., then a young cavalry captain, I was traveling through the Astor Valley of Kashmir to Gilgit. Thus starts The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush as recorded by Sir George Scott Robertson, K.C.S.I., British agent. Although there is small help in forming any opinion concerning their origin, the author tends to agree that their own fixed idea is more than probable and that those ancient Indian populations of Eastern Afghanistan were influenced by the Greek colonists of Alexander. According to a report by Surgeon-Major George Robertson dated February 1, 1895, at the time all was well at Chitral and the Chitralis (the Kalash) were cheerful and helpful. The Chitrali Kafir Kalash still follow their own religion, a mixture of animism and ancestor- and fire-worship, very close to the ancient Greek pantheon, and have retained some of their original culture. Their highly independent women (unheard of in an Islamic country) are allowed to have premarital sex, drink wine and make offerings to several gods, each deity overseeing a different aspect of daily life, just as in Ancient Greece. Kalash women wear black woolen robes (kalash meaning black) tied at the waist by a black sash. They plait their hair into about five narrow braids, which stick out from under a magnificent headdress, called the shuchut, made of black material covered with rows of cowrie shells, beads and assorted buttons and crowned with a large, tasseled pompom of reddish wool. One can find an original specimen in the Benaki Museum, though I wonder whether it is on display. I remember archaeologist Marina Karagatsi buying one on this same trip. The tailpiece of the headdress flows down the back and is reminiscent of women’s headgear in Alexandria (ex-Gida), a small town west of Thessaloniki. Unlike Muslims, Kalash women do not observe purdah, though they expect payment if you photograph them. Kalash men wear ordinary shalwar-kameez and are quite indistinguishable from their Muslim neighbors – well, almost. For they insist on putting a small colored feather on their beret-like brown headgear so that others can notice the difference. The men proudly declare that they drove away the armies of Timur (14th century), of the Mogul Emperor Akbar (16th century) and of Nadir Shah (18th century), after which they remained completely cut off from the external world. Today, decimated in a world where nowhere is safe, they probably could not drive away a bunch of stray dogs. They are forcibly obliged to share the fate of Pakistan, whose subjects they are, and they will also have to pay the same price as the Afghans as well. In a predominantly Islamic country, the Kalash were always treated as social outcasts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. For centuries they were regarded much as the locals today regard Americans. Non-believers can never be friends of Muslims is what they were arrogantly instructed by their compatriots. Probably that is why the Kalash people do not reveal much about their religion to outsiders. They pretend to believe in one god, as the surrounding Muslims and the Western tourists visiting them do, but their religion seems to be more like the Greek system of gods and goddesses. That is why they feel more at ease with Greeks going there. Last week the president of Pakistan appeared on national television saying that failing to cooperate with the rest of the world would turn his country into a pariah state. For the Pakistanis, the Kalash were the pariahs until last week. As we well know, terrorists thrive on frightening the public and provoking governments into blind reactions. But for a government to seem helpless has its dangers as well. In his somber address, the president, General Pervez Musharraf, said, Pakistan is facing a very critical time. So indeed are the unfortunate Kalash. Imagine! And they are not even Muslims! All the same, they will also be destroyed (as a rare race) if US bombs come plunging from the skies. Not that it matters much to terrorists who believes in God and who in Allah. I recall, two decades ago, interviewing Georges Ibrahim Abdalah, the leader of a terrorist group known as the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction, which fought in southern Lebanon. He was wearing a little gold cross on his hairy chest. He obviously noticed my mute amazement, for he smiled and remarked, Yes, I am a Greek Orthodox Christian too! adding, So are many members of my group… Why shouldn’t they be?

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