Afghan Hinterland


The country is 30 years at war, more or less continuously. Landlocked Afghanistan is not really Central Asia, and definitely not the Middle East. It has always been in-between. Its history may be described as a series of failed attempts of conquest. Maybe one early somewhat successful campaign had actually been that of Alexander the Great (after 330 BCE) who married Roxane, a Bactrian noble from Balkh.

In July 1960, a group of three diplomats who were working at embassies in Kabul, dared to set off to a passage to small and remote valleys in the southern parts of the Hindu Kush, Nuristan. The curious reader of their report: A Passage to Nuristan. Exploring the Mysterious Afghan Hinterland, only published 46 years after the arduous hike, has, honestly, never heard about the region and the people who had once been considered the last surviving native kafirs, or infidels, in the vast Islamic realm. Thus, the country had been called Kafiristan. When it was conquered by Emir Abdurrahman Khan in 1895, Islam was enforced. His armies brought the light (an-nur) to the polytheists. So, eventually the country became enlightened by Islam, Nuristan.


NurestanIt is a story of the lost paradise, blooming meadows and woods, torrents, daring mountain hiking; of dwarfs and fairy-tales, beautiful girls and cheerful lads, honorable maleks, great hospitality of proud people and, of course, post-colonial attitudes of White Man’s supremacy, including mild Islam phobia.

The three diplomats are Sir Nicholas Barrington who had served in the British Embassy in Kabul from 1959 to 1961; Joseph T. Kendrick, political officer in the American Embassy in Kabul in the late 1950s; and Reinhard Schlagintweit, who was working at West Germany’s Kabul Embassy between 1958 and 1961. These young men were adventurous enough to encounter the still almost unknown Afghan hinterland for which, at that time, even reliable maps were missing. They were not dependent on themselves. After having got approval for the passage from governor of Jalalabad and the Eastern Province they were even assigned a police escort to safeguard the whole trip. Anyway, what they describe in this very uncommon book is amazing.

While Barrington provides the narrative of the 10 days in Nuristan, written shortly after the adventure, Kendrick (JT) gives a more ethnologic account on the different tribes in partly isolated villages of two major valleys, the Pech and the Waigel, which are separated by a rugged mountain ridge. Several passes permit, at least in summer, communication of the people in the two valleys. While the Wamaites are generally tall with long and thin faces, and proud of descending from Arabs, Kendrick compares the short people of the Presuns (“below five feet”) with Nordic fishermen, while Barrington calls them simply dwarfs. “The Waigelis resembles southern Europeans, particularly Italians.” It is amazing to read about his comparisons with Mexican or American Indian clothing here.

Kendrick reports that Islam is not visibly being practiced among the Sefid Posh, and “[p]aganism in all its manifestations is not yet stamped out.” “[T]he stories of old gods and legends are still known among the older men and held in respect,” much to the mullah’s discontent. Dancing, songs, festivals, even wine making and consumption, seemed to be possible in this remote region of Afghanistan in the 1960s. It is unfortunately not very clear, what kind of polytheism had been (and in last century’s sixties, was?) practiced from Kendrick’s account.


The third part of the book provides the authors’ reflections almost 45 years after their passage to Nuristan. While their notes were made shortly after the adventure, when the three authors were in their twenties or thirties, it is most interesting to read the memories of now worldly-wise and experienced men, all three having had gorgeous careers as diplomatic envoys. Their post-colonial attitude of White Man’s supremacy had vanished in the meantime. The country had been devastated with a terrible proxy of the Cold War when Barrington had been appointed British Ambassador in Islamabad. He concludes:

“Sadly, as this book was going to print, the situation in Afghanistan was becoming increasingly infected by the disastrous events in Iraq. The ill-planned and illegal (in UN terms) invasion of Iraq by US and coalition forces increased support for Al Qaeda-type extremists round the world, as some of us had warned. London and Madrid suffered. Karzai’s task in Kabul was made more difficult. Remote Nuristan was not immune. In a high-profile incident in July 2005 an American Special Forces helicopter trying to rescue servicemen on the ground was shot down by missile, killing all 16 men on board – America’s greatest casualty toll in Afghanistan so far. The press reported that this took place in the Waigel Valley, which had seemed so peaceful years before.”

And Kendrick concludes in 2002 (he had deceased in January 2003):

“In my view, relations between Islam and the Western world are also at a precarious stage, and now need sensitive handling. To add to the internal difficulties, the situation in Afghanistan has intensified Muslim hatred of the Western world. The West must make clear to the Muslim world that there is respect for Islam, although not acceptance of the actions of an extremist minority. The United States, for its part, cannot afford to take unilateral political actions that will inflame the Muslim world even further and lend credibility to the terrorists.”

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