Sunday, September 11, 2016

A little-known Pakistani tribe that loves wine and whiskey fears its Muslim neighbors

A little-known Pakistani tribe that loves wine and whiskey fears its Muslim neighbors
 Hidden up in the mountains near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the Kalash tribe loves homemade wine and whiskey, dances for days at colorful festivals, and practices a religion that holds that God has spirits and messengers who speak through nature.
Long before the campaign of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, the villagers fretted over whether they needed walls or do-not-enter lists to protect them from their more-conservative Muslim neighbors — ultimately deciding that the towering heights of the Hindu Kush would protect them.
But over the past century, Muslims from modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan began moving in. Now villagers say their Kalash culture and religion are threatened by forced conversions, robberies and assaults.
“We are scared,” said Yasir Kalash, the manager of a hotel here in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “They capture our lands, our pastures and our forests, and sometimes take our goats and women. ... We are afraid in the next few years we will be finished.”
Though the area is called the Kalash Valley, Kalash settlers actually live in three separate valleys that make up an eastern prong of Pakistan’s 1,000-square-mile Chitral Valley.
The Kalash religion was once widespread in Central Asia, but the 4,200 villagers who live here in the Chitral Valley make up the last known Kalash settlement in the world. And now those villages are yet another test of Muslim­dominated Pakistan’s tolerance for minorities and cultural diversity.
The Kalash tribe is so fearful of being overrun that its members are considering packing up their children and goats and embarking on a modern-day pilgrimage in search of a new country.
“The younger generation think they cannot live here anymore,” said Zahim Kalash, 34.
In June, a two-day riot erupted on this plateau after Kalash villagers said a 15-year-old girl was tricked into converting to Islam. Last month, two Kalash goatherds were killed in a mountain pasture, the latest in a series of attacks on the tribe. And heated arguments are erupting over practices as simple as using the local spring water.
“According to our traditions, we consider all the springs to be holy,” said Imran Kabir, who lives in the valley and acts as an unofficial spokesman for the tribe. “We don’t allow anyone to wash clothes or take baths in the springs.”
Last month, several of their Muslim neighbors started doing just that — bathing and washing clothes in the cool, emerald waters that flow from the nearby heights.
“We said, ‘Please don’t do that. People drink from those springs,’ Kabir said. They said, You people are stupid. And then a scuffle broke out.
The Kalash villages are accessible only by one-lane jeep trails, and residents live in wood-and-mud houses that contain few furnishings except for cots. They eat mostly what they can produce, including hundreds of pounds of butter each year.
The Kalash believe in one god with several messengers. To communicate with them, the tribe erects altars where worshipers offer sacrifices, usually goats.
Some scholars say the Kalash religion originated during Alexander the Great’s conquest of South Asia around 300 B.C. But other scholars and villagers are skeptical, noting that neither the tribe’s written history nor its oral traditions, including song and poetry, include any reference to Alexander.
The Kalash religion at one time flourished in the Hindu Kush region. Over the centuries, however, armies and members of competing faiths moved in, and many Kalash were converted. Others fled into the mountain passes, largely left alone when the area was a western frontier of British colonial India.
After Pakistan became a country in 1947, Muslim families began moving into the Kalash Valley, drawn by the crisp climate, undisturbed forests and rich grazing lands.
Salamat Khan, who does not know his age but estimates it to be at least 75, said that for much of his life, the Kalash and their new neighbors lived in relative harmony.
But he and other villagers said the mood has changed over the past decade as a less-tolerant form of Islam began taking hold here.
Traveling Islamic scholars are increasingly showing up in the valley, and after each visit, villagers say, their Muslim neighbors appear less tolerant.
“They will say, ‘Why do you people make wine?’ ” recalled Yasir Kalash. “We make wine because it’s our culture. We use wine in our rituals, we use wine to cook, and we use wine because, in our mind, wine is purification.”
In June, according to police and local officials, a 15-year-old girl named Rina wandered away from home and ended up at a local Islamic seminary.
After a few hours, the cleric declared that Rina had converted to Islam. She later returned to her village, saying she had not intended to convert.
But angry Muslim villagers began pelting Kalash villagers with bricks and stones, arguing that a conversion to Islam cannot be undone. A judge agreed, effectively severing ties between the girl and her parents.
“The conversion rate is very high, and we are afraid if this goes on, our culture will be finished within the next few years,” Yasir Kalash said.
Kalash villagers also are fearful of violent attacks, including raids by Taliban militants.
Zabir Shah, 26, a Kalash villager, said that two years ago, Taliban militants from Afghanistan sneaked into Bumberet, the unofficial capital of the valley, and stabbed a 15-year-old boy to death.
“I saw 25 Taliban, from a distance, surrounding the guy and killing him,” Shah said. “There can be no reason for them to kill him except that he was a non-Muslim.”
Villagers say the recent killing of two Kalash goatherds underscores the threats to the tribe’s way of life.
“If we cannot take our goats high up in the pasture, then our culture cannot survive,” said one Kalash villager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. “The goats are part of [our] religion, and we sacrifice our goats, and down in the valley there is not enough grazing land.”
A young man carries freshly cut hay. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)
Kalash men use goat blood in religious cleansing rituals.
Not everyone believes tensions are rising between the Kalash and their neighbors.
Qimat Shah, 24, a local Muslim man who spends his day making flatbread in a wood-fired oven, noted that young Muslim and Kalash villagers go to school together. He said that whatever problems exist stem from a lack of education among village elders.
“We are people from both religions living together,” Shah said.
But Michael Javed, chairman of the Karachi-based Pakistan Minorities Front, said the problems facing the Kalash community are a subset of the intolerance that afflicts minority groups throughout Pakistan.
Thousands of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and non-Sunni Muslims have fled the country, fearing persecution or state-sponsored policies, including harsh laws on blasphemy.
“No minorities in this country are safe,” said Javed.
What makes the Kalash community especially frightened is a feeling of being “isolated and alone,” Yasir Kalash said.
He said Christians can turn to the Vatican or the West for support, while Hindus can look to India, and Shiite Muslims can seek some protection from Iran. Kalash villagers, he added, feel as if no other country cares about them.
“We request to the world, preserve us,” he said.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Earthly Matters: Who will save the Kalash?

Earthly Matters: Who will save the Kalash?
Living in harmony with nature in three secluded valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains and celebrating the changing seasons according to their pre-Islamic religion for centuries, the ancient Kalash tribe of Chitral is under attack. This past week, armed militants from across the border in Afghanistan’s remote Nuristan province attacked shepherds in the high altitude pastures of the Kalash valleys — Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur — in three separate incidents.
In the first attack, which took place last week on a pasture in the Bumburet Valley, they stole around 400 animals and killed two of the Kalash shepherds who resisted the attacks. The militants had come for their goats and sheep, essential for the Kalash who survive on their milk, goat’s cheese and butter during the long winter months. Goats also play an important role in their festivals, which are a part of their unique culture and religion. It is estimated that the militants have stolen around 2,500 goats and sheep in such attacks.
In the second attack in Birir Valley’s pastures, the shepherds ran away and hid in a nearby village fearing for their lives, while the militants herded their livestock over the high mountains, back into Nuristan. The third and most recent attack in Rumbur Valley’s pastures was repulsed as around 260 Kalash men rushed up to the mountain to protect their livestock. Army action is expected to flush the militants out of the area, as they are said to be still hiding nearby.
“Our livestock can eventually be replaced but the two men who died have gone forever,” says a Kalash community leader from Rumbur Valley. “We have had to defend ourselves during the three attacks which occurred just when the Shandur Polo Festival was taking place in north Chitral and all the army and government officers were busy with the festivities.”
It is the not the first time these attacks have occurred — three years ago, Taliban sneaked into the pasture-land of Bumburet valley, killed a shepherd from the Kalash community and took away a herd of 200 goats and sheep.
“This time we are terrified. The militants have told one of our Muslim neighbours, who was also in the pastures with his livestock, not to worry; ‘We won’t do anything to you, we are after the Kalash and we plan to kill them all in their villages.’” The most recent incident has created an unprecedented sense of insecurity amongst the local villagers.
The Kalash villagers, who now number around 4,000 people, live in the three narrow valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir in the towering mountains of south Chitral. Bumburet and Rumbur have been badly damaged by flash floods and glacial floods that poured down the steep mountainsides last summer when unprecedented rainfall hit Chitral.
The Kalash are animists in an Islamic state and have been threatened by the Taliban in the past. The people of this tribe are the last survivors of Kafiristan, who mostly converted to Islam in the 19th century. Their neighbours across the high mountain passes in the Afghan province of Nuristan are the Taliban who hold sway in many parts.
“If our livestock goes, our culture goes,” explained Akram Hussain, who heads the Kalash Cultural Centre in Bumburet Valley. The Kalash believe in a creator, ‘Dezau’ but also believe in various deities, semi-gods and spirits. Prayers are usually offered during their festivities and their elaborate rites demand the sacrifice of dozens of goats.
The Kalash also confront other problems as migrants move into their valleys. “Some of these migrants are brainwashing the Kalash people. There have been several conversions to Islam,” explained Hussain. “They are slowly taking over our lands but they should not be allowed to frequent our lands. The government really needs to help us.” He felt that the government and, in fact, the world was ignoring their plight. “Scientists all over the world spend so much money digging up old fossils and studying old cultures and here you have a living ancient culture that is struggling so hard to survive and the world is doing nothing about it.”
According to Unesco, Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Kalash tribe urgently need to be placed on its ‘Safeguard List’. However, this has to be done by the government of Pakistan itself. “They have to send the nomination to Unesco, explaining why the culture is so unique and special that it needs to go on a global list — we can only help with capacity building,” points out Vibeke Jensen, the Unesco country director in Pakistan. “There are international instruments for safeguarding these tribes.”
For now, however, it seems that the Kalash are on their own. During the long winter months their valleys will be cut off from the outside world by snow. At least the deep snow will be a deterrent to militant attacks. In September 2009, the last Greek volunteer Athanassios Lerounis, who was helping the Kalash build their traditional structures, was kidnapped by the Taliban. He was released only after eight months in captivity. No other Greek volunteer has come here since then. “That was a big blow to our community since he was doing good work for the Kalash,” says Shahida, a local Kalash woman from Bumburet. “The second blow was when one of our shepherds was brutally murdered on the border with Nuristan a few years ago.” The Pakistan Army had moved into the valleys in recent years to provide them with better security but the recent attacks are the third big blow to the Kalash and they are reeling from it. “Maybe we should just move from here — if another country will have us and give us protection. We can’t live like this in constant fear for our lives,” says the community leader.
Soldiers patrol the Kalash valleys and have set up many checkpoints where ID cards are checked. Military camps have sprung up in Bumburet and Rumbur in the last couple of years but still the attacks continue.
According to Syed Harir Shah, a Chitrali disaster management expert who runs an NGO called JAD Foundation: “Serious efforts must be made to develop a comprehensive and integrated security plan to protect the Kalash people. Influential conversion of Kalasha should immediately be stopped through legal coverage. Local people (Kalasha) must be recruited into the Pakistan Army, Chitral Scouts and Chitral Police and they should be posted in security posts within jurisdiction of Kalasha.”
He is also clear about other resources needed to protect Kalash culture within Pakistan. “Preaching by Tablighi Jamaat and other individuals should immediately be stopped. Urgent legislation for the protection of Kalash community should be passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly, incorporating severe punishable criminal clauses for the forceful conversion of Kalash to another religion. All official positions in the Kalash area should be reserved for the Kalash community and additional security posts should be established within the three Kalash valleys.”
An army operation took place on Aug 2 and five militants were killed on the border with Nuristan.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2016

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Kalash People: A Tribe Lost and Found

The Kalash People: A Tribe Lost and Found

Parwana Jan, 23, a native of Kalash, moved out of the picturesque valley when he was 18 years old to pursue an education in Peshawar. Now he studies film making in Lahore and visits his family back home in the Hindu Kush mountain range in Chitral once every three months. “What I miss the most is a dish my mother makes from clarified butter and cottage cheese,” he chuckles, as he reminisces about the traditional savoury speciality his mother cooks.
Jan addresses some of the problems that people from his indigenous community endure. Today there are only about 4000 Kalash – the country’s only pagan tribe – in Pakistan, perhaps the world.
Once a flourishing community, over the years the population of Kalash has seen a gradual decline. This owes in part to the rise of the Taliban – the Kalash’s neighbours across the mountains in the Afghan province of Nuristan – whose threats have compelled them to slowly join other Muslim tribes in the area or face death. Also, it is believed, due to inbreeding and the resultant health issues this can engender, the Kalash population is fast dwindling.
Jan says that the Kalash are a small community with big problems. “Roads are a huge problem. Commuting to schools and hospitals is a major task, especially when rain hits the area and roads remain blocked for weeks,” he states.
Although schools have been built there over the years, Jan says that English medium schools remain a rarity, due to which people like him have trouble when they move to the city and do not even have the basic English language skills with which to communicate and write. Similarly, he adds, “We have a hospital but even basic amenities such as X-ray and ultrasound machines are not available. So people have to commute for hours to reach a hospital that offers those things.”
Siraj ul Mulk, who runs the Hindukush Heights hotel in Chitral along with his wife, says that until Kalash is made a heritage site – something he has asked members of UNICEF working in the area to look into – the Kalash people won’t be able to endure. “Recognition by the UN would be crucial to sustaining them as a tribe,” he says.

And there are endless other problems as well. Mulk relates how a few years ago he went to the army commander in Chitral and asked him to enrol men from Kalash in the forces so they could have a viable source of livelihood. Five years later when he asked the same officer how the recruits were faring, he was told that the army had stopped hiring Kalash men as they were being influenced into converting to Islam, and –surprisingly– they wanted to prevent these conversions. The officer told Mulk that other jawans would mock the recruits because of their unusual names or outfits, and in such circumstances the boys found it more “convenient to just become Muslim.”
Forced conversions to Islam are still prevalent in the valley. On May 16, residents clashed in Chitral over the forced conversion of a Kalash girl to Islam that sparked a clash between a group of Muslims and members of her community.
Mulk continues that Christian and Muslim missionaries who had come to the Kalash lands in the past had not succeeded in converting the locals. Now, however, he says things have changed. “Their own customs are increasingly working against them. According to Kalash tradition, if a member of their family dies, they have to slaughter 20 to 25 goats. Goats have become really expensive now, so they take loans to purchase them and then cannot repay the debt,” says Mulk, adding “hence a lot of Kalash people just find it easier to become Muslim.”
The conversions are usually accompanied by new Muslim names. The Kalash seemed to have a penchant for quirky nomenclatures. For example, the manager at Mulk’s hotel goes by the name Quaid-e-Azam. A woman in his tribe is called Edinburgh Khan, and another man named himself Zardari. Mulk recalls the first female pilot to come from Kalash who was called Election Bibi. The ridicule she encountered forced her to change her name to Lakshan Bibi. But others adopt more run-of-the-mill Muslim names.
Ansari, aka Bugi, a Holland-based painter who has lived and worked among the Kalash off and on for many years, campaigns to preserve the heritage of the people of Kalash. It is a heritage that is rich in tradition and folklore. There is a season for example, when the young men of the Kalash valleys take to the mountains to perform the rites of passage which will earn them their manhood. If they survive the harsh climes and return to their villages, they are fêted and celebrated. At the Joshi or Chilim Josh festival that follows, there is music and dance and the young men choose the girls of their choice to partner with.
Another tradition, akin to some ancient Hindu customs, is the seclusion of women in a “bashali” – a house where women are required to stay during their menstrual cycle as they are considered “impure” during their periods. When they go into retreat to “bashali,” they are off-limits to men.

Ansari is enamoured by the Kalash customs, lifestyle and attire: the feathers on their hats, their chunky necklaces made of shells and beads – a mystery, for where it is often wondered, do the denizens of landlocked mountains, acquire the shells from – and their neon-coloured outfits that complement their light eyes and pale skin. “I have yet to see another tribe, which is more beautiful and colourful,” he says. “Because of their beauty, at the time of the Greek and Persian empires, the Greeks paid a sizeable bounty to mercenaries to kidnap these women and bring them to the Persian kings in return for favours.”
Ansari also pays tribute to the Kalash’s creativity and indigenous artistic orientation. But he laments, “It is heartbreaking: until just a few decades ago, the Kalash tribes had 106 statues and wooden figures created by their legendary artists and artisans. But over the years, all those masterpieces have been taken away – stolen by people from outside.” Furthermore, certain traditions are on the decline due to increasing outside influences. But the Kalash people still erect totem poles in their ceremonial grounds on the upper valley slopes, to honour those who have died and they make wooden statues of their ancestors. These statues, locally calledgandao, can be seen erected over graves in the three Kalash valleys of Birir, Rumbur and Bumburet.
And perhaps to reintroduce them to their own aesthetic and inspire them to keep creating, Ansari relates how he has taught five generations of Kalash to paint and sculpt. He says he listens to their folk tales and creates paintings around them and even held an exhibition of his Kalash work in 1989.
Ansari says that the Kalash people lived in peace and harmony with each other and their environs until 1977, when the Tableeghi Jamaat entered the valley. The Jamaat took over the hotels and land from the people and in just a short span of time, 50 to 70 per cent of the ancestral Kalash land was gone. He also tells how before the Russia-Afghan war of the early ’80s the Pakistan government had allocated funds for a museum to be developed in Kalash, but then, when the refugee crisis erupted, those resources were diverted to help the Afghan refugees settle in the Kalash valleys.
“It is still paradise on earth,” says Ansari, “but polio has even come here. One Kalash girl has polio.” He continues, “Marsia Bibi, the victim, is the daughter of a friend of mine who used to be my carpenter. I met her in 2008 and was astonished to see how she was treated – like an animal. The family would go to the fields to work and just dump her outside their house, leaving her to fend for herself.” Appalled by her situation, Ansari contacted some friends and family members who collected money to buy a wheelchair for Marsia.
Ansari is not the Kalash’s sole protector. Many organisations, both local and foreign, along with several individuals, have gone to Kalash on their own to draw attention to the situation there, but it is not an easy undertaking. Ansari recalls a volunteer from a Greek NGO who once came to Chitral and was told of a tribe nearby called ‘Alexander’s Army.’ He went and met them and when he returned to Greece, he asked school children to collect money for the tribe. He came back to Kafiristan, and while living there, built a museum in the area, but in 2009, he was kidnapped and taken across the Afghan border to Nuristan. Ansari and some associates worked for eight months behind closed doors to collect money to pay the ransom demanded for his release.

In the late 1980s, a Japanese woman, Akiko Wada, came to visit Kalash as a tourist and was so captivated by their simple, self-sufficient lifestyle that she married a local man there and never left. She learnt the language, adopted their dress and became one of them. She was welcomed by the community and she now regularly hosts activities for children at her place.
Maureen Lines, a British woman, meanwhile, has written a wonderful book on the Kalash, The Last Eden – Living With the Kalash of Pakistan, introducing this magical, mystical civilisation from another age to the world.
Mobeen Ansari, known for his portrait photography has taken some of the most famous portraits of Kalash women, including that of Bibi Kai, a famous face in Rumbur valley. Islamabad-based photographer Sara Farid, captured the valley of Bumburet in December 2015 after it was hit by floods and an earthquake.
Bugi Ansari has now filed a petition with the United Nations to help turn Kalash into a heritage site. But like the land itself, the route to attain this is “lonely, dark and deep”…..”with miles to go before” those fighting for the Kalash can sleep.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Flooding in Rumbur Valley (Chitral-Pakistan) as I Have Seen (2015)

Flooding in Rumbur Valley (Chitral-Pakistan) as I Have Seen (2015)
Text and Photographs: Muhammad Kashif Ali

Deforestation and flooding in Rumbur river of Rumbur valley Kalash-Chitral
The flooding phenomenon is not newer for the Kalasha valleys of Hindu Kush Range, Chitral Pakistan but intensity and chaos in ecological system is a big question. I am visiting all three Kalasha valleys (Bumboret, Rumbur & Birir) since 2007 for academic research in domain of cultural history of the region (earlier for my MPhil and currently for my Ph.D). There were floods in the valleys before 2010 but not roaring and crushing flooding rather “soften” floods with least harm to valleys and dwellers. 
 Fetching water from muddy springs
Since 2010 the people of all three Kalasha valleys are under roaring pressure of respective rivers flowing in Bumboret, Rumbur & Birir valleys, with hardships they restore their lives in a year hardly and again stuck and hit by havoc flooding from high pastures where hundreds of hundreds goats and sheep ignite floods with their hundreds of thousands tiny hooves.
 Flood struck homes (Palarog Village, Rumbor Valley)
I had a plan to stay in Rumbur valley for academic data collection for a month in July and August, to materialize the plan I left my home town with my family (including three kids of 10, 7 and 2 years ages) for Chitral on July 13, 2015 and the same day first wave of the flood hit Chitral & adjacent valleys. From July 13, 2015 to August 04, 2015 (as long was my stay) there with help of my native friends I counted some 40 waves of floods in Rumbur Valley causing damaging dozen of fields, houses, washing away bridges, destroying patches of roads, hitting water mills and demolishing water channels, in nutshell paralyzing normal life in Rumbur one of the Kalasha valleys.
Flood struck orchard (Rumbor Valley)
The floods in Rumbur flow downwards from four high pastures: Bahuk, Ostuee, Chimiksunn and Gangalwaat. These high pastures are habitat of Pine, Cedar, Juniper and Oak largely. However, for four or five decades, as my local informant told, the timber mafia is massacring the jungles cold-bloodedly and the slopes of meadows are getting naked and vulnerable to inviting unexpectedly flooding. 
Jeep track of Rumbur Valley is washed away
Due to continuous flooding and disconnecting Rumbur valley from Chitral town the shops (might be counted on finger tips) got abandoned in couple of weeks and the valley was on brink to hunger when a chopper of Pakistan Army landed in valley to distribute relief ration provide by National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). My family also had to collect ration from relief package for survival. 
The lonely jeep track of Rumbur Valley is washed away
During my stay in the valley the Army chopper visited the valley just twice but it was not going to fulfill the basic needs of the valley, the people were in miserable situation, the watermills had been damaged and people had to fetch ration form relief or nearby bazar Ayun. They were adopting mountain top route on foot about 25 to 30 km, one side. And when we had to leave valley for our survival, my poor kids also had to adopt the same route and the lady was also not familiar with such unfriendly trekking.
Local community repairs water channel by themselves
The flash flood badly affected the tourism season in the valley. A bounty number of tourists visit Kalasha valleys during summer and especially during Eid vacations. The local and international tourists mark the Kalasha valleys as their fascinating destination for their culture and natural beauty. Alas! The shopkeepers, guides, guesthouse owners in valleys were looking towards tourists but flood abruptly shattered their plans and dreams. The brutal Rumbur River engulfed number of fields with crops and definitely it will cost livelihood and food for valley fellow and their cattle in coming winter. 
Tourist leaving valley via mountain top route on foot (est. 30 km)
The flood could be softened if:
·         Stop deforestation & a strict ban on cutting trees
·         Plantation on naked slopes and along with river
·         Providing alternative fuel for winter survival
·         Reducing number of goats & sheep
·         Constructing defensive walls alongside the river

All this can happen with participation of local people, the people need capacity building regarding ecology system, climatically change, importance of forests. And, obviously the people need alternative sources of income as currently they rely upon pastures agriculture largely while on tourism partially. I strongly feel the fruits, dry fruits processing units may be installed, mineral water plants may be another option for employing the local population. The local community should have proper proportion in services. With all these efforts we may lessen their dependence over high pastures which may prevent the area from brutal flooding which was not common before 2010. Let’s try to give a safer future to our future generations.

Originally published online by Chitral Times on November 16, 2015 but without photographs, here is online story

The author is Lecturer in History at University of Gujrat-Pakistan, perusing PhD and is accessible via

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Lost Children of Alexander the Great: A Journey to the Pagan Kalash People of Pakistan

The Lost Children of Alexander the Great: A Journey to the Pagan Kalash People of Pakistan

The New York Times recently published an article that had a fascinating description of the Kalash, an ancient ethnic group living high in the remote mountains of Pakistan's Hindu Kush. For centuries this light-skinned, pagan people have claimed to be the long-lost descendants of Alexander the Great's world-conquering armies, which invaded this region in the fourth century B.C. The animist Kalash are outwardly different from the darker-skinned Pakistani Muslims who live in the lowlands below them, so it seemed plausible. However, there had been no proof of this remarkable claim until the geneticists quoted in The New York Times found that the Kalash people's DNA seems to indicate that they had an infusion of European blood during a "mixing event" at roughly the time of Alexander's conquests. This isolated people are thus most likely the direct descendants of the ancient Greek-Macedonian armies who set up outposts in this region 2,300 years ago.
Few outsiders have visited this forgotten tribe, whose homeland is located near the inaccessible mountain border of Taliban-controlled zones of Afghanistan. But in 2010 I and a friend, Adam Sulkowski, made a journey to the snow-capped Hindu Kush in search of this ancient European pagan people living in an unstable Muslim country. This is our story.
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Spring 2010
For a number of years now, I have been teaching a class for the history department in which I do a "tour" of the great empires of antiquity, from pharaonic Egypt to Viking Europe. But for all my students' interest in the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Romans, it is the exploits of Alexander the Great that inevitably lead to the most questions. Recently one of my students in History 101 asked me during class what happened to the far-flung garrisons of Greeks and Macedonians who were settled in the far corners of Alexander's vast empire. I told her that over the succeeding centuries they disappeared or were absorbed by succeeding waves of invaders. All that was left of the Greeks who left their Mediterranean homeland to settle in distant lands of Africa and Asia was the occasional coin, spearhead or amphitheater testifying to the conquests of one history's greatest leaders.
But then, after some thought, I corrected myself and told her the legend of the Kalash people of Pakistan.
High in the snow-capped Hindu Kush on the Afghan-Pakistani border lived an ancient people who claimed to be the direct descendants of Alexander the Great's troops. While the neighboring Pakistanis were dark-skinned Muslims, this isolated mountain people had light skin and blue eyes. Although the Pakistanis proper converted to Islam over the centuries, the Kalash people retained their pagan traditions and worshiped their ancient gods in outdoor temples. Most importantly, they produced wine much like the Greeks of antiquity did. This in a Muslim country that forbade alcohol.
Tragically, in the 19th century the Kalash were brutally conquered by the Muslim Afghans. Their ancient temples and wooden idols were destroyed, their women were forced to burn their beautiful folk costumes and wear the burqa or veil, and the entire people were converted at swordpoint to Islam. Only a small pocket of this vanishing pagan race survived in three isolated valleys in the mountains of what would later become Pakistan.
After class the student came to me and asked me if I'd ever visited the Kalash tribe of the Hindu Kush. Wistfully I told her I had not, but that it was my dream to do so.
I remember her response vividly. "Dr. Williams," she said, "you're always telling us to get passports and get out see the world. Why don't you take your own advice and just do it?"
Lahore, Pakistan, June 2010
A student's challenge can be a powerful thing, and in June my colleague from the business school, Adam Sulkowski, and I set out to travel into the Hindu Kush on the Pakistani-Afghan border to see this ancient race for ourselves.
But when we arrived in Lahore after flying through Abu Dhabi, Rafay, our Pakistani host, reacted with caution toward our bold dream of visiting the lost descendents of Alexander the Great.
"It's a dangerous, two-day journey off-road into the mountains," he warned us. "But that's not the most important obstacle you'll have to overcome. To get to the remote homeland of the Kalash, you need to cut through the Swat Valley."
Rafay then pointed out our intended route on a map, and Adam and I groaned. Our dream was falling apart. We both knew that the Swat Valley was a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban. In 2007 the Taliban brutally conquered this beautiful, alpine-like valley and forced a puritanical version of Islam on the local people. They also used the valley as a springboard for sending suicide bombers throughout Pakistan.
"But all hope is not lost," Rafay continued. "The Pakistani army just reconquered most of the valley this winter and have opened the main road through it. If you don't stray from the road and there is no fighting, you just might be able to pull it off."
Nervous about the prospect of adding a journey through a war zone to our trip to the Kalash, Adam and I then traveled to the capital, Islamabad. There, after much searching, we found an ethnic Pashtun driver who claimed to have once traveled to the remote homeland of the Kalash. He not only knew the route but had a tough SUV to get us there.
After haggling for the price of the trip, we set out driving across the burning plains of Pakistan, where the heat soared to 120 degrees. Finally, after traversing the country from the Indian border to the Afghan border, we arrived at the mountains.
And what mountains they were. The Hindu Kush are an extension of the Himalayas and soar to 25,000 feet. As we drove into the tree-covered mountains, the temperatures blissfully began to drop. While we found respite from the heat, everyone grew tense. Saki, our driver, warned us that we were now in Taliban territory. We had entered the Swat Valley.
We had not traveled far before we were stopped at the first of many Pakistani army checkpoints we would encounter. When the soldiers manning it discovered that there were two Americans in the truck, they strongly warned us to avoid leaving the road. One of them asked us to sign our names in a registration book and proclaimed that we were the first foreigners to enter the Swat Valley since the Taliban had taken it in 2007.
That night we stayed in Dir, a Swat Valley village that locals claimed had briefly served as a hiding place for Osama bin Laden when he fled Afghanistan in 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom.
Rumbur, Kalash Village, Pakistan
The next day we made it safely out of the Swat Valley after crossing a mountain pass at 10,000 feet, and a nearby glacier. We were now in the scenic Chitral Valley. We drove up this valley for several hours before our driver grew excited. Gesturing to the dark mountains on our left, he said one word with a grin: "Kalash."
With mounting excitement we left the main "road," crossed a large river and began to drive up a mountain trail straight into the mountains. This continued for a couple of hours before the narrow valley opened up and our exhausted driver announced that we had finally arrived in Rumbur, the most isolated of the Kalash valleys. Having made our way from Boston to Abu Dhabi to Lahore to Islamabad to Swat to Chitral, we had finally reached our destination in the high mountains on the Afghan border. It was now time to meet the Kalash.
It did not take us long to find them. Adam was the first one to spot a Kalash shepherdess in the trees, wearing a stunningly bright peasant costume. After seeing the faceless burqas of the women of the Swat, the contrast between Muslim women and this Kalash woman could not have been greater. As we drove along we saw several more brightly clad Kalash women. But when we tried to take their pictures, they shyly ran off and hid behind trees. Worried that we might break some local taboo regarding photography, we continued on our way.
Soon we entered the Kalash village of Rumbur. The wooden houses were built in steps above one another, going up the valley's walls, and the village square filled up with Kalash curious to see us. Among them was Kazi, the village holy man. Everyone stood back as he approached us and heard our request to stay with the Kalash for a few days and learn about their culture. Kazi, a wizened man with twinkling eyes, heard us out and thought about it for a while. After some thought he finally smiled and gave us his blessing. He proclaimed that as blue-eyed "pagans" (the Kalash believe that in worshiping the Trinity, Christians worship three gods), we were like the Kalash and therefore welcome to stay with them.
With that, everyone's shyness was forgotten, and the village men and women proudly posed for photographs and allowed us into their homes. Once again, the contrast to the Pashtun Muslims in Swat and greater Pakistan was tremendous. The conservative Muslims of Swat had women's quarters in their houses where no outsiders were allowed. Here the women were free and dressed in beautiful folk costumes that seemed to belong to a different era.
During our stay we hiked up into the mountains overlooking the Afghan border and were taken to the Kalash people's outdoor temples. There they made sacrifices of goats to their ancient mountain gods. Sadly, most of their ancient wooden idols had been stolen or defaced by neighboring Muslim iconoclasts who found them to be heathen abominations. We were also told that one of the local leaders who fought in the courts to protect the Kalash from such problems had recently been assassinated. On many levels we sympathized with the Kalash -- who were losing numbers to conversion to Islam -- as a dying race facing an existential threat. And I must say that after the heat, pollution and crowds of Pakistan proper, we found this pristine mountain enclave filled with incredibly hospitable farmers and shepherds to be a veritable Shangri La. Over and over again we were invited by smiling Kalash into their simple wooden houses for meals, where we talked about life beyond their remote valley. Most Kalash had only left their valley a few times in their life, usually to go to a neighboring Kalash valley for a marriage or to celebrate a great festival.
On our final evening in Rumbur, the villagers held a great feast for us. We celebrated with the famous Kalash red wine. My most endearing memory of the mystical night was of Adam doing a snake dance with a local elder, snapping his fingers in rhythm and dancing lower and lower to the ground in the center of the clapping audience.
The next morning we were woken to the sound of cows being led by children through the misty village. We said our goodbyes to everyone and drove out of Rumbur. As I looked back I saw several Kalash girls standing on a terraced hill above us and waving to us in their bright costumes. With our driver, a Pashtun Muslim who had never drunk before, recovering from the previous night's festivities, we took leave of our hosts and left this fragile mountain enclave to make our long journey out of the mountains. It was now time to reenter Pakistan proper, a land that seemed far removed in space and time from the ancient rhythms of the Kalash.