Just as the Taliban swept into Kabul, I was coming to the end of Eric Newby’s famous 1956 account of his hiking trip to Afghanistan, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.
I’d been avoiding news media for a month previous, preferring old books, and was unaware of recent developments. It made the end of the book, especially the 2008 epilogue, very poignant.
Newby travelled to Afghanistan during a period of unusual peace and stability. He and his climbing companion, Hugh Carless, visited the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul (where fighters are still holding out against the Taliban as I write), and then attempted an ascent of Mir Samir, a mighty peak in the Hindu Kush.
They failed, but then turned to perhaps the real object of their trip, the attempt to penetrate the mountain passes into Nuristan – an impossibly remote series of valleys known, prior to 1895, as Kafiristan, due to the paganism of the locals (kafir is an Islamic term for a non-believer).
In 1895, Emir Abdur Rahman came from Kabul to subdue and forcibly convert the inhabitants to Islam. I found it extraordinary that little over a hundred years ago, Afghans so close to Kabul were still being forcibly converted from paganism to Islam.
It throws the Afghanistan of devout Islam, the one I thought I knew, into a new light. Even when Newby travelled there in the 1950s, there was much evidence of pagan practice beneath the recent adoption of Islam.
A quick google of this mysterious land of Nuristan (renamed since Rahman had brought the light (nur) of Islam to the inhabitants), brought up only familiar images of US soldiers on patrol along mountain paths.
Only scratch the surface a little, and so much more is revealed.
Want more? Read my blog about Afghanistan in the 1930s in Robert Byron’s classic The Road to Oxiana
Photo credit: nasim dadfar