Ecology of an extinct country
(with Habib Haider)
Once upon a time, in the sixties perhaps, there was a « country of the
Afghani ». This vast land streched from the innermost reaches of the desert
steppes to the fertile high valleys irrigated by the melting snows of the
Hindu Kush, or « killer of Hindus ». To the south lay some agricultural lands
where the climate was exceptionally mild. The countryside had not yet been
sown with the landmines of a thirty-year war; the villages and the ancient
irrigation network had not been razed. Millions of women and men had not
been forced to fight or flee. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Turkmen, Uzbeks and
other tribes lived side by side, at peace more or less, on an area the size
Most of these Afghanis, some 9 million, cultivated wheat, barley, alfalfa, grapes and apricots to dry. The climate was too rough and seasons too short to raise livestock. Three million others led sheep and goats over the aridearth, stopping no more than 24 hours in any area, so they would not overgraze the flora beneath the morning dew.
When the snow melted, caravans entered the mountains, which were covered with tulips in bloom as far as the eye could see. Summering at 3000 to 4000 meters [9,000 to 12,000 feet] in the terrace-cultivated valleys, they came back down in August, traveling 1500 kilometers [750 miles] to spend the winter on the border between Iran and Pakistan; in ancient times they traveled further, before those absurd separations.
Shepherds transported fermented cheese in earthenware or baskets, which they secured between rugs woven from their own animals‚ wool. They traded meat for grain. Fields were fertilized with manure from the herds, while nomads helped peasants to harvest and repair the canals. One could not survive without the other. Scarcity calls for complementarity. Cities, still rural
in spite of their ancient history and the famous sky blue domes of their mosques, sheltered at most one million people.
Travelers would say that the bread from this country, the milk from these mountains, even the water from the brooks, exhaled a perfume which instilled a special kind of intoxication, or « fahrat » in dari, the ancient Persian language which everyone understood. « If on my ashes, one day wheat should
sprout, it will give fahrat to the one who eats of it ». In this harsh environment, verses were uttered for any occasion, for comfort and remembrance. Nowadays, the foreigner can still be carried away by the beauty, but Afghans find the bread of international aid tasteless, while poppies seem to spread by force of circumstances over the wheat fields.
There was another reason for the oral culture: the lack of water. Barely 30 millimeters of rain a year, even though Afghan mountain streams feed rivers as big as the Indus. There are almost no forests. The last one would be destroyed, during the eighties, by intensive goat raising–a French idea financed by the Wahabite. Once again, modernisation was forced upon that
untamable land. In any case, Afghanistan lacked wood for fuel. Annual bushes from the high grazing-land were used to light fires and their seeds fell as he herds went by. The region did not yield the resources to make paper. So there were no books or writing paper in classrooms, except for the privileged. Neither were there registries, cadastres, or censuses.
Public schooling was available, at most, to three percent of the population. Families alone educated their children, showing them the ancestral skills: how to care for the earth and how to shape it, how to spin wool to reduce its volume, which plants to use for coloring and which for healing, how to work precious matter, metals, stones and bone, the love of beauty. Athousand precepts, indispensable to remaining alive and free, were retold: « beware where you set foot, show respect for life. » Or, put in another way, as Muslah-al-din Saadi (1200-1291) said: « Do not disturb the ant that labours to live and enjoys » ; the grandfather would add: « It is working for you » Everyone could recount hundreds of verses and the authors’ names,as well as recite parables while pointing out selected symbols on an object or a rug.
Nomad families, as they grew too large, would search for fertile lands where
some of their members could settle. Their roaming brothers brought the news
while urgent messages traveled by horse, as they had for 5,000 years. Caravanners or farmers, they were one and the same people. In this precarious life, foresight meant prudence, consideration and hospitality. A father would startle his son: « Do not sell your rug in the desert, not even for ten thousand dollars, for you would die in the cold on your matress of your bills. The buyer would take his money back on your corpse. « Or in Saadii »s words: « human beings form one body, made of the same essence, if one member is ailing, the whole body suffers » This quatrain is inscribed in theamphitheater of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York.
Afghan culture accepted and studied the main foreign religions: Buddhism, Zoroastrism, Islam. Its unique grafting of Greek and Buddhist art produced marvels. It perpetuated up to the 20th century the traditional Madrassa-énazmia schools, or « universal schools », not to be confused with the Madrassas of the mosques, or more recently, those of the Taliban. Islamic schools teach basic notions of religion and Koran reading; they never taught
the art of writing. The universal school would educate boys and girls of certain families and their servants. It survived because Afghanistan was the stronghold and refuge of Persian customs, and of Bactrian customs before that.
Great names in art and literature come from these schools: Bhezod, the painter; Umar Khayyàm (1050-1123), the scholar who invented the unknown value « X » in algebra; the poets Farid al-din Attar (1150-1220), author of « The conference of the birds », and Shams-al-din-Muhamad Hàfiz (1320-1399), venerated by Goethe; the Pashtun philosopher, Khatak, author of the « Hidden Treasures »; the female Sufi poet Nazo Ana and, in the 20th century, Said Djamaloudin Afghani. They were taught calligraphy, geometry, mathematics, music, astronomy, philosophy and religion, how to grind pigments for colours, and a yearning for the perfect. The schools, if we are to believe those who remember, mainly taught how to concentrate, look carefully, listen, and control breathing. Mastery of self leads to openness.
Endlessly repeated as litanies, poems would be passed on to a society eager
to retell and memorize them, when the teaching was good. There were evenings with poetry contests, and recitations of fables, proverbs and tales on chosen themes. Beautifully clothed Sadhus would sing the epic poems of Islam from door to door. The Talibans banished them. What happened to them? Who cares? Fanatics have turned boys into half-wits, by not making sure they could decipher what they were droning out. They have jailed girls into ignorance. What will the new Afghan schools offer them but street English and a taste for the keyboard?
In the country of the Afghani, a ream of paper costs over a month’s salary. The rug made from the herder’s wool, on the other hand, demands only patience. It is a school in and of itself. Spinning teaches the handling of materials, which is physics; dyeing teaches chemistry; mounting of the warp, computation and estimation of needs; weaving reveals the space-timerelationship. Grandparents teach these topics to children, who learn together. A rug’s designs open to the universal. Its borders depict a journey or a labyrinth, our passage on this earth. Light and dark alternate to represent day and night. The diamond shape, ever so present, evokes the unity of life, the living cell and, in another form, the germ of life. The cross reflects transcendence, the vertical. The stars suggest destiny. The rug, in its humility, invites silence and meditation.
To cite these lines from Bédel, who died in 1720: « All my life, I drank with
you; my art stems from the hangover; it hurts so much that you cannot cross
from one bank to the other », nor ever understand Afghanistan.
Habib Haider & Marie-Paule Nougaret
Translation by Odette Grille & Marc Tognotti © 2004