Writing War, Writing Memory
Peace never meant a thing to me.
—JUNE JORDAN, “WAR AND MEMORY”
I remember walking along the dirt road just west out of the village of Bumburet, Chitral Province, northwestern Pakistan, high in the Hindu Kush in 1977. Bumburet was, and apparently still survives as, a Kalash village, an ancient, polytheistic cultural community gravely threatened by the onslaught of modernity in the form of monotheistic Islam, nationalist politics, and, no doubt, tourists like ourselves. We had come to Bumburet after having spent several days in the provincial capital, lounging on mats and drinking tea in a hotel with Yanik and Sylvie, Swiss nationals with whom we’d been traveling for weeks, ever since drifting into conversation with them on the streets of Herat in western Afghanistan. We’d checked each other out for obnoxious nationalisms. Germans, we thought, were far too remote and efficient—they carried everything with them and avoided eating or drinking local products for fear of infection. Weren’t the Swiss just like them? On the other hand, Americans were typically loud and boorish. They thought they knew it all, or worse, they thought their ignorance didn’t matter. And for me there was that added element—Yanik and Sylvie at first sight had a kind of European hippie, beat gorgeousness that brought out in me a sense of myself as irrevocably blockish, a hardy, American, square-cut shrub. But that hipster coolness bled into warm, exploratory exchanges about where we all had been, and where we might go.
Altogether my companion and I had been on the road for several months. We’d flown to Switzerland on economy tickets, and immediately fled that pristine, orderly landscape for the south and east, loving and leaving Italy, then Greece, heading further into what was for us the intensely exotic and unknown otherness of central Asia. We wanted to go to India, overland. We wanted to see what we could see, get as far away as we could from everything that we knew, find ourselves, our common yet epic heroisms based in courage, adaptability, openness, and the ability not to be pinned down, fixed, shrunken into identities prepared for us by someone or something else. In the rhetoric of my 1977 this meant above all else I was conscious that I would not be framed by gender. I would not be told what was or was not for me. I would not settle down and begin planning a future based on gender-appropriate work or the availability of love. I would not fix myself in a narrow career, or a home life that pledged me to a less than radical undermining of the status quo. I was a poet riding waves radiating out from the Beats and Black Mountain College in the 1950s, from the civil rights struggle, radical movements against the Vietnam War and against racism that washed across the subsidence of my childhood, and then the feminism where I came of age. I was 25 years old, “not that young anymore” as my particularly crusty, Yankee aunt warned me when I seemed ill-disposed to make apparent use of the college education that had been unavailable to her or her sister, my mother who died when I was 17, four years after my father’s fatal heart attack.
I could not yet recognize the oldness of this story. This trip, I thought, was about crossing out of my world into other worlds, escaping the radar of establishment America in pursuit of an alternative Americanness that, as the texts of Charles Olson I carried with me had it, thwarted classification and read the human body as agent in all perception, “so that movement or action is ‘home’” (1) rather than, as I barely understood it, the stultifying nominative—a self without a verb, incapable of stepping out. I read Olson while traveling across Asia, read Melville’s Moby Dick in Herat and Kabul and thought about the greatness of language, Ahab’s rage against that which he could not dominate, and then the industry itself, the grand and deadly chase giving way to the rendering of whales into product, lamplight oil and bony corsets cinching the bodies of middle- and upper-class women in the nineteenth century.
The oldness of this story: a young person ventures into strange lands in pursuit of the future and in an effort to escape the constraints of the past. She has a grand notion that, can she only give voice to it, she will somehow contribute to a new wave of liberatory aesthetic and political thought. She is very hopeful, but not yet aware of the perfect ironies that attend her reading of Moby Dick as she crosses the frontiers of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, countries whose histories and relations to the West she knows little. Nor is she yet capable of naming the most intimate, driving thing: she is in flight from death and its layers—the dead bodies of her parents, the extinguishing of their light, selves without verbs. She particularly mourns, though she hopes she is moving beyond this, the mother who appears to have succumbed to depression and death rather than survive being alone after her last child leaves home.
I headed East, then, a reasonably handsome young woman with a very beautiful young man, thinking myself androgynous and certainly unanchored, pursuing vastness, the great whale in a world larger than what I had known, hoping that the whale—a force moving across the great horizon of the world—would carry me with it and transform me into something better than I was. And I was transformed, challenged, taken down a notch or two. I began, just began to learn a great deal about my ignorance, what I didn’t know of arguments over secularism and religion in Turkey, the history of American intervention in the Shah’s Iran, or why 1977 was an interestingly virulent year to travel in the romantic bubble of American on-the-road adventurousness, knocked about on the streets of Tehran by men alternately eager to learn English and furious at my presence in the public eye, my Western face, and female body. I remember seeing some regime promo about how the Shah had relieved women of the veil, but sensed there was something missing from this story. I defended my androgyny in the absence of women’s faces and voices in the markets of Afghanistan, but whined about the heat and grew tentative, dependent on my companion for ventures out into the street. Like a girl, like an invalid, no longer rugged or heroic, a burden.
At least this is how I remember it, the way I thought at the time. I was grateful for Yanik and Sylvie, for the easy way they moved into the picture and kept us from imploding, because they, perhaps, saw us in ways we could no longer see ourselves. I was grateful that Sylvie, an inveterate traveler in search of spiritual connections everywhere she went, carried with her a picture of her long-dead mother as well as a sense of humor and a sensual regard for daily life that made even sitting on straw mattresses in the bare-bulbed light of village hotels an occasion for pleasurable conversation. I loved their rich laughter accented in French and German, their amused sparring, that they were European, so different from us yet still recognizable. Because of these Europeans, we broke out of our stupor and traveled well again for a time, following Sylvie’s lead because Sylvie knew where to go—from Kabul to the remote lakes of Bandiamir, to the ancient, great, and now lost Buddhist statues in Bamian, across the Khyber Pass into Peshawar, Pakistan, and then the two-day trip north by bus and on top of brightly painted trucks over the 11,000-foot Lowari Pass, stopping on the edge of vertiginous canyons for smoky milk tea, then heading on into Chitral, all the time, and for thousands of miles now, watching the faces of men and sometimes women in the countryside and in cities, engaging through gestures and in clipped, aching English the business of acquiring food, a place to stay, and sometimes trinkets, maps, a book or two, interpreting them with a sense of inquiry but with very little knowledge beyond what I carried with me in the practice of my American life.
We heard of Bumburet on the international traveler grapevine. It was a rare place higher up in the mountains from the town of Chitral, one of several remaining villages of the Kalash, a people noted for having resisted Islam, and for the black robes and embroidered headdresses heavy with cowry shells and colorful beads that were worn by the Kalash women. We’d ridden up in a Jeep for a stay of several days in a settlement of wooden houses built into the steep inclines of the soaring Hindu Kush. Bumbur Khan kept a room in his house for the tourist trade and we stayed there, sleeping on string cots and eating the simple meals cooked for us over a fire by his wife. There were ladders for getting from the first to the second story, and in the night unmarred by electricity one could step out onto the roof into what felt like the heart of the sky, reading the darkness of the mountain against starlight. One room to the side of the house had intricately carved posts leading into it, and an opening in the ceiling that poured light over the tamped down dirt floor—a ceremonial center of some kind we thought, but we didn’t know, were never going to know. Yet it was all so beautiful, so rugged and spare. Most moving to us was the open presence of women whose faces we could see and whose voices we could hear without apparent constraint.
This is what everyone said about it, what travelers who had been on the road for awhile seemed to hunger for—that the Kalash were colorful and showed their women, and wasn’t it just great to see that. Most of us wouldn’t venture much beyond this knowledge. What we did learn came from the chance meeting of a young Canadian anthropologist, a woman who spent months at a time living in the valley, dressed and lived as one of them. She spoke of things writ small and large across the village, that Bumbur Khan beat his first wife, for instance, and would be hard put to make a living without the tourists; that the communal life of the village was under immense stress caused not only by international tourism (harvest dances put on for our benefit, or the busload of Japanese tourists trying to take pictures of women near their menstrual hut) but also by the dominant Muslim culture of Pakistan, in a resurgence under the autocratic rule of General Zia. Men routinely flew up from the city to “experience” the Kalash women, to watch their dances and sometimes carry them off, for the night or forever. Multiple conversions occurred over time through violent physical coercion or economic pressure, while the Kalash and their culture were also “sold” as a tourist destination. A few thousand of them, that’s all, a civilization that dates back maybe two thousand years. That’s what’s left.
When I remember these things, two images arise. They come to mind well before the beginning of this or any other variants of this narrative I’ve told over the years. As a matter of course, I’ve had to leave out significant moments in each telling, or select and shape them so that they bend to the task of supporting the point at hand, at times risking heavy-handed language, exaggeration, oversimplification—in short, the loss of lyric integrity. And so I risk these images here, because in their aliveness for me they are part of the point, the connection between my sitting down to write about June Jordan and the quick catapult to some days in August over twenty-five years ago, when I was walking along the dirt road just west out of Bumburet and passed at one point a woman and at another point a man. I no longer know in what order, or even if it was the same day, yet there they are and I am walking together with my companion, but also alone in sunlight and steep shadow. The images of the woman and of the man play back and over, like home movies of someone beloved, dead and gone. We see the woman a short distance away with a young child. She weeps, beseeching several village men for help of some kind. Whether they are Muslim or Kalash, I can’t tell, nor can I tell which she is from the muted robe and headscarf she wears. They reject her pleas almost casually, and turn back to their conversation. I’ve been trying to walk through the feeling I have that the valley’s extraordinary beauty is cut with terrible losses among its people, all of that pitched against the finally unabating tension between me and my companion, my frustration at my weakness in the face of surrounding masculinities—his, but also the faces of the Pakistani men from Peshawar that I have seen for myself during our stay, leering in close circles around this Kalash woman or that. I am haunted by them, and haunted simultaneously by the distinct sense of my mother’s body shadowing my own, her aching descent and death. The woman veers toward us, one arm around her child and the other reaching out. She is terribly distressed, almost frantic, but because I am frozen with doubt about my position, about hers, about the possibility that any exchange between one person and another might constitute a simple good, it is my companion who reaches into his pocket for the five-rupee note he gives her. Neither of us can bear it when she kneels to kiss his feet.
And then, I think I see my father. I think I see him in the face of a Kalash man, whose blue eyes and tentative smile mirror something I remember about my father’s face soft with laughter. I can’t remember his ever having a hard look about him, yet how would I know? It was so long ago, but the feeling of recognition is acute, and as the man walks softly by us I have to restrain myself from touching him. He has, it seems to me, looked kindly at us, and it’s as if my father has come back to reassure me that whatever it is, somehow, it will be all right. Transfixed, I turn and watch him head on down the road. Just as he’s passing a cluster of Muslim men, several of them kick up dust at him and spit, laughing among themselves. He seems then to hang his head, sidling off to a safer distance, and in that instant I am aware of what it might be to be this man in his own skin, despised in his own country, and of the possibilities of kinship beyond one’s own blood.
My mother told me I should put away
the papers and not continue to upset myself
about these things I could not understand
and I remember
wondering if my family was a war
there would soon be blood
someplace in the house
the blood of my family would come from
Jane Creighton is a poet and creative nonfiction writer. Her work has been published in the journals Ploughshares and Gulf Coast, as well as in the anthologies The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth Century British; American War Literature; Still Seeking and Attitude: Critical Reflections on the Work of June Jordan; and Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage, and...