Kalash Kafirs of Chitral

They would have called themselves Katis, but the Muslims surrounding
them had for centuries called them Kafirs - infidels - and their land,
thus came to be known as Kafiristan.

One day in 1897, near the village Brumotul not far from Chitral, then
a semi-independent Muslim state high in the Himalayas, a bunch of boys
went walking. They were not Chitralis, but refugees from another place
that lay west of the newly demarcated Durand Line. They were not
Muslims, either. The boys would have described themselves as Katis,
but the Muslims surrounding them had for centuries used “Kafir” to
describe the boys’ ancestors, and “Kafiristan” for their original
land. The British had retained that nomenclature for the portion of
that land they now controlled, while the Afghan Amir, Abdur Rahman,
whose invasion had made the boys refugees, had named his portion
“Nuristan” (“The Land of Light”).

The boys stopped on a bridge to watch two “Sahibs” fishing in the
stream below, not having seen their likes before. One of the sportsmen
came over to them and said something in Khowar, one of the several
languages spoken among the Kafirs. One Kati boy understood what was
said; he asked his friends to find earthworms for the Sahib. Later, he
and another boy carried the day’s catch to the Sahibs’ camp. The man
who spoke to the boys was an army doctor named Capt; the Kati boy who
understood him was named Azar. Something about the boy struck Harris
as exceptional. He sent for him the following day and almost
obsessively insisted that Azar—barely ten or eleven at the time—should
join his service. Azar offered excuses, his mother cried, but his
father, Kashmir, the leader of the clan, gave his permission. Azar
became Harris’s servant—first for 18 months at Chitral, and then for
two years at Peshawar. Meanwhile, Kashmir was killed by some relatives
when he was on his way to Kabul—after converting to Islam—to meet the
Amir and seek from him his previous high status.

In June of 1900 Harris was dispatched to China to help suppress the
“Boxer Rebellion,” while Azar stayed with the Captain’s spinster
sister. However, when she decided to return to England at the end of
the year, Azar refused to accompany her. He insisted on staying in
service in the army with the Punjabi soldiers he had come to like, and
who had been very kind to him. Miss Harris then handed him over to a
Capt. A.A. James.

Soon after, Azar fell seriously ill, and during that illness took a
vow to become a Muslim on regaining health. After recovery, Azar made
his wish known to James, who was not pleased. It was not what Harris
had wanted, who, in fact, had given everyone strict instructions
against it. (For the record, Harris had never sought to make Azar a
Christian.) Seeing Azar’s determination, however, James took the
necessary steps and obtained the required permission from the
Political Department. One Friday, Azar converted to Islam, and took on
a new name: Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah Khan. His devotion to Capt.
James, however, and the latter’s manifold kindness to him remained

A few years later, in the summer of 1905, when Abdullah was at the
mountain resort of Murree with his master, he was overwhelmed by a
longing for his ancestral homeland. A new ambition also took hold of
him. He got the idea of accomplishing what his father had died trying
to do—return to the original home in Afghanistan and become the leader
of his people. With James’s help, a petition was prepared and—after
Abdullah put his thumbprint on it—sent to concerned authorities.
Several British officers helped in forwarding the cause. Abdullah
eventually got an audience with the new ruler of Afghanistan when the
latter visited India, but, not knowing Persian, he could not converse
with him. Promises were made—or so Abdullah thought—but nothing
happened. Then James had a serious accident, forcing him to return to

That is where Abdullah’s story, as told by him, ends. It is now
available to us in a remarkable book. (Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah Khan
‘Azar’, My Heartrendingly Tragic Story, edited by Alberto M. Cacopardo
and Ruth Laila Schmidt (Oslo: Novus Press, 2006), pp. xl, 136, 139.)
As the narrative closes in Jalandhar Cantonment, Abdullah says: “Now I
can feel homesick with a good conscience, because God Almighty has
given the Sahib relief and recovery.” The learned editors add in a
footnote: “This was probably written in early 1908; Abdullah is
already planning his return home, which will take place later that
year.” Abdullah returned to Brumotul, where he lived out the rest of
his life. The editors think he died around 1948.

At some stage during the process of petitioning (1906–07), Abdullah
dictated to someone an account of his life, containing much more than
the bare-bone given above. He also added to that “heartrending” (dilon
ko hila-dene-wali) story a separate but detailed account of his Kati
people, their history, kinship system, religious rituals, arts, and
important myths or lore. Evidently, it was done at the urging of Capt.
James, who might have also suggested the topics that needed to be
covered. The two narratives are in Urdu, and in first person. But the
editors are rightly doubtful of Abdullah’s prowess in that language at
the time, for it contains patches that are too purple for any novice.
Most likely Abdullah’s words were recast by his scribe friend. Be that
as it may, the preciseness of Abdullah’s observation and the poignancy
of his feelings draw our respect and attention even if they come in
someone else’s language. The singular manuscript, formally dedicated
to Capt. James, remained in the captain’s custody until 1914, at which
time it was returned to the author with other papers. It stayed with
Abdullah until 1929, when the famous Norwegian scholar Georg
Morgenstierne (1892–1972) met him at Bromotul, and bought it from him
for thirty rupees. It now reposes in the Institute for Comparative
Research in Human Culture at Oslo.

Morgenstierne was the first to note the importance of the book—no
worthy account of the Kati people existed at the time—and planned to
bring out a proper translation. Unfortunately he died before he could
make any serious progress. The task was then undertaken by one of his
illustrious students, Knut Kristiansen, but he too passed away before
the job was finished. Thankfully, the project was not abandoned, and
we now have the two accounts accessible to us in the original Urdu as
well as in English translation. The latter, done originally by
Kristiansen, has been revised and updated by Kandida Zweng and Manzar
Zarin, and provided with explanatory notes by the editors. A brief
epilogue accounts for Abdullah’s life after 1908, while archival
photographs allow us to see the faces of these neglected people and
their physical environment. There is a wealth of scholarly addenda in
the form of an introduction, biographical and explanatory notes, plus
an extensive bibliography, resulting in a superbly put together
book.Who were Azar/Abdullah’s people? Only the ancestors knew, and they do
not seem to have left any story of origin or migration.

Some outsiders, coming much later, have called them the descendents of
Alexander’s army because they prominently have blue eyes and very fair
skin. When in 1888 Rudyard Kipling sent off his two rascally heroes to
become kings in Kafiristan, this is how he described their first
sighting of the local people: “Then ten men with bows and arrows ran
down that valley, chasing twenty men with bows and arrows, and the row
was tremenjus. They was fair men, fairer than you or me, with yellow
hair and remarkable well built.” (Sadly, the 1975 film based on the
story was shot in Morocco and not in Chitral, and John Huston’s
“natives” were swarthy and dark-haired, true only to Hollywood
anthropology.) Linguists who studied the relevant languages have
declared them as old as the time when Aryan and Iranian languages had
not branched away from each other—even older. These people made their
home in a remote region, extremely picturesque but not possessing the
wealth that attracted marauders and empire builders. Various invading
hordes seemingly skirted them. And when the diverse people around them
became Muslim, they collectively came to be known as “Kafirs,” and
their land as “Kafiristan.”

However, what could survive ancient marauding failed against the
combined might of 19th century colonialism and nationalism. The
British in India came to terms with the Pathans in Kabul in 1893 and
put down the infamous Durand Line (1896) that cut through the land of
the Kafirs. Soon after, the Amir of the new nation of Afghanistan
invaded his portion of the divide to establish his sovereignty. Those
who could do so fled to Chitral, whose Muslim ruler let them settle
near their brethren.

The “Land of Light” is presently controlled by the Afghan Taliban. It
gained headlines around the world in October 2009 when The American
forward base, “Camp Keating,” was attacked, and eight American
soldiers were killed. Subsequently, the Americans abandoned the base
after turning it into rubble. Things are also perilous in the Chitral
valley, with frequent rumours of Osama bin Laden hiding in the region
and the CIA having a listening post there. In September 2009, a Greek
scholar-volunteer, Athanasios Lerounis, was kidnapped by the Afghan
Taliban. Lerounis had been working with the Kalash Kafirs of Chitral
for many years because he was struck by their response when he had
asked what they wanted most. “A school of our own,” they told him,
“where we can teach our language and culture to our children.” He was
now helping the Kalash build an ethnographic museum of their own when
the raiders came from across the Durand Line. They now hold him in
Nuristan, in ransom for the release of three Taliban leaders in
Pakistan’s custody. In January 2010, a group of Chitrali Muslims,
including some Kalash, traveled to Nuristan for the fourth time to
plead for Lerounis’ release, and again returned disappointed.
Back in September 2009, a member of the Kalash community had told the
Daily Times of Lahore: “If the government doesn’t take any serious
action we will leave Pakistan and go to some other country, a move
which would bring bad name to Pakistan.” Who can even begin to imagine
the desperation behind that threat, so naïve and so futile? In the
21st century, no people can emigrate at will. The countless “Durand
Lines” all over the globe will never allow it.

Source: asianwindow.com

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