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Chapter 9

Habib – An Eastern Western


By Dr Whitney Azoy


Scratch the American boyhood psyche two generations ago, and you’d still find the Wild West: Remington’s paintings, Zane Grey novels, John Huston and John Wayne riding the Hollywood range. Its mythology challenged the blandness of my Eisenhower-era upbringing. Its energy, ill-suited to a suburban boyhood, turned inwards and created a private landscape of canyons and crags. Was I the only kid on my block who, when glimpsing his reflection in store windows at 13, wished he could grow cheekbones like Jack Palance?

I grew up – or seemed to – and joined the US foreign service, an institution not given to cowboy mystique. But why was it that, if seemingly adult, I chose Afghanistan as my first posting – Afghanistan with all its crags, canyons and Great Game gun battles? All went smoothly at first, maybe too smoothly. My wife and I settled into an anonymous Washington high-rise. State Department orientation preached the virtues of protocol and bureaucracy, patience and soft talk. Then came six months of Afghan Persian language training – same time, same place, same people, every day. Despite my best efforts, I began feeling – in Wild West terms – fenced-in. But then one dull afternoon, as if riding to the rescue, came Lesson 21 and what for me would be a fateful sentence: “That horse is the best for buzkashi.” 

Buzkashi (literally “goat-grabbing”) is the great equestrian game of Central Asia. Played mostly by Turkic speakers (who know it also as ulaaq), it ranks, arguably, as the wildest, roughest game in the world. Hundreds of riders on specially trained horses struggle for control of a goat carcass – first lifting its 40–50-kg bulk off the ground, then striving to ride free from everyone else. Recently calves have been substituted for goats; they last longer before being pulled apart. Whichever species, the carcass as the saying goes “has four legs” and is typically wrested from rider to rider in mid gallop across the steppe. Injuries are commonplace, violent disputes frequent, and justice largely a matter of “might makes right”. The best players, known as chapandaz, are tough, massive men, hugely strong and indifferent to fear. They incarnate the selective memory of a glorious nomadic past. All across the north, all winter long, buzkashi and its players hold centre stage. 

I took special, anticipatory pleasure in Lesson 21. True, I was going overseas as a sober government bureaucrat, but nothing could block the sheer exoticism of Afghanistan. And buzkashi was said to be the culture’s most vivid event. Wisdom teaches that each of us has a still, small voice deep within, to which we hardly ever listen. Had I listened to mine, it would have said: “Skip this embassy office work. Cut to the chase and get to the buzkashi. You will anyway, sooner or later.” One day in class someone mentioned a new film called The Horsemen. 

Columbia Pictures had taken a gamble. A full-length feature film set in Afghanistan, named after a novel by French author Joseph Kessel, and scripted completely without Western characters. It revolved, like Kessel’s novel, around buzkashi. The father and son protagonists, each a champion chapandaz, were played by famously cheek-boned Jack Palance, and the darkly handsome Omar Sharif. Leigh Taylor-Young was later described by the Los Angeles Times, as “the most beautiful nomad ever born.” Otherwise the cast consisted of extras – Afghans in the early shooting and then, when the Afghanistan production phase ended (as planned or in discord, depending on whose account you believe), Spaniards dressed as Afghans on a lot outside Madrid. Eight of the chapandaz buzkashi riders were also taken to Spain for the final six weeks. Given this hotchpotch of personnel and logistics, not to mention the lack of Western characters with whom an audience could identify, it’s little wonder that Columbia’s gamble failed. Reviews were mixed at best, and The Horsemen was a box office flop. 

Our language class flat-out loved it. Here was a Western – or, you could say, a Wild East Western – which we grown-ups could allow ourselves to embrace because of our professional Afghanistan connection. Secretly, you felt like a kid again. We saw The Horsemen once as a group. Without telling anyone, I went back twice more. The best part comes near the beginning when Omar Sharif and other great riders from all across the north are summoned to a Kabul buzkashi on the King’s birthday. For 420 magnificent seconds, the spectacle of buzkashi itself is front and centre – a mixture of apparent chaos and extraordinary skill. In terms of sheer no-holds-barred horsemanship, few on earth can match a buzkashi chapandaz. 

Certainly not Omar Sharif. He grabs the carcass, heads for a score, but then is attacked at full gallop by a grizzled Mongol-looking rider of greater power and cunning. Horses collide, and whips draw blood. The fierce Mongol wrestles the carcass away. Omar falls and is dragged with one foot in the stirrup. The rest of the film has to do with his psychologically complicated quest for redemption. It almost works but not quite – psychology, I later realised, does not exist as a concept in Afghanistan. 

We never see the Mongol rider again, and his name is not listed in the credits. Even so, whenever we reviewed Lesson 21, I’d think of the game and see his face and say to myself: “That’s the Afghanistan I’d like to know. I want to meet that guy.” 

Let’s cut to the chase. I did go to Kabul, got bored with embassy work, spent ever longer lunch breaks in the bazaar, and finally met an Afghan who told me what that still, small voice had doubtless been saying all long. My Afghan friend was an “opposite number”, a member of the Royal Afghan diplomatic corps. One day we stood together sipping vintage Muslim ginger ale at a Ministry reception. He knew of my frustration, of my boredom with the rituals of Kabul diplomacy. “Yes,” he said, surveying the pin-striped assembly, “here we are always shaking hands and calling each other “Excellency”. If you want to know what we’re really like, go to a buzkashi game.” 

So I did. I took his off-hand advice, quit government employ, endured graduate school and by 1976 found myself in northern Afghanistan researching a doctoral dissertation on rural society with buzkashi as my window. “My village,” as anthropologists like to say, lay in Kunduz province near what was then the Soviet border. My host was the government-appointed “President” of Kunduz buzkashi. On the first Friday afternoon of my arrival, he introduced me to the Kunduz team, and one of them was that guy. 

Habib wasn’t the biggest Kunduz rider and, I suppose, no longer the strongest. It had been seven years since The Horsemen shoot, and by now he was nearing 60. “Shast shikast”, they say in Afghanistan – when you’re 60, you’re broken. Habib was not broken yet, but he played like an old gunslinger who had lost his fast draw – picking his spots and keeping his back to the sun. None of these subtleties registered with me at the time. I was blown away by the Mongol cheekbones, the leathery skin and the enormous hand that shook mine, ever so gently. 

I settled into the village, to the language, to field anthropology, and – as autumn turned to winter – to buzkashi. My host, Mirabuldeen Khan, remained politely bemused by the presence of this former American diplomat – widely regarded as a spy – but was always hospitable and took me to every buzkashi, both private and government-sponsored. His work dealt with the government games, but we all agreed that the private events were more fun – three or four days of free-form play without any outside control. The khan made me part of his travelling entourage, a dozen men who went with him from buzkashi to buzkashi. All winter long we ranged – often on horseback – across the latitudinal band of provinces that constitute northern Afghanistan. Even when the khan and I took his Russian jeep, it was just to get close. Once near the game, we’d greet his retainers who’d gone ahead, swing onto our waiting horses, and arrive in massed equestrian splendour. This togetherness was always phrased as “friendship”, but I tingled at the knowledge that we were also the khan’s support group, a private army in case push came to shove. 

Habib was at every game in his role as specialist chapandaz, the hired rider of richer men’s horses. As such, he wore the distinctive telpak, a kind of lambskin helmet fringed with supposed wolf fur which, in mundane fact, was often beaver or even dog. Specialist riders such as Habib dominated the play. “Har kas haq daarad”, people said, “everyone has the right”, to be on horseback, to enter the fray and to reach for carcass. In practice, only the chapandazan came even close to touching it, less still to grabbing hold and taking it “free and clear” of everyone else for a score. 

Usually Habib would husband his energies and then surge at a special moment – the last round of a day’s play, for instance, when the prize money was highest. But sometimes, even at his age, he’d lose all sense of restraint. I still hear his voice on my tape recorder: 

“Once it starts, nothing else matters. Even beforehand I think of nothing else. Once there was a big buzkashi in Imam-Sahib. When I got there, they were already playing. I had a new watch, the one Rashid Khan had given me for riding his horse the week before. I was so excited about this buzkashi that I handed my watch to the first man I met and told him to take care of it. He was a stranger to me, but I was in a hurry. They were already playing. I got right in the game. 

Afterwards I looked for the stranger, but he was gone. So was the watch, but it was a good buzkashi.” 

Bit by bit, Habib showed me the game and even tried to teach me. I learned to ride, not very well, and even learned to lean from the saddle, one leg cocked behind it, and touch the carcass on the ground. Getting upright again was another matter, but I learned. Getting upright with the carcass, even alone and unopposed in an open field, remained beyond me. So I’d content myself with riding some placid mare on the outskirts of actual play. Once, drawn into the mêlée with mixed excitement and horror, I found the carcass sprawled across my saddle. In that split second, it seemed like the whole world attacked. Mercifully, Habib got there first. “Let go, Weetnee,” he shouted. “Let me have it.” I let go. 

Play would last into late afternoon, and then we’d all retire to the guesthouse of this or that notable for an evening of dinner and stories. The choice of drinks was green or black tea, hardly the fare at Wild West watering holes, but there did exist an analogous sense of fresh-off-the-trail camaraderie. With no women, gambling or liquor – the staples of Kitty’s saloon on Gunsmoke – the post-game guests were thrown on their own considerable narrative resources. Afghans are among the world’s greatest story-tellers, and here Habib, because of his cinematic excursion to Europe, was in greater demand than ever. His was a provincial audience. Not everyone had even been to Kabul; virtually no one had been further. There was the BBC and VOA – and Radio Moscow in flawless Persian – but Habib was the real deal – he’d been in person to the Land of the Franks. 

One evening I taped two stories from that fabulous adventure. At the time both tales seemed to cast Habib, unwittingly, as an ignorant bumpkin. A quarter-century later, I’m not so sure. In any case, the stories say as much about Afghanistan as about their European setting. 

The first takes place in Spain where The Horsemen was completed and which Habib, true to Central Asia’s ancient focus on main cities, called mumlakat-i-Madrid – “the country of Madrid”. 

“What a fine place is mumlakat-i-Madrid,” he began, “as fine a country as I have ever visited.” 

“What’s so fine about it?” someone asked. 

“The people are truly brave and honourable. They fear no one. No challenge, no provocative gesture goes unanswered.” 

I piped up, superior to Habib in the extent of my travels if in nothing else. “You were there only a short time.” I said. “How could you observe their bravery? Did you go to a bull-fight?” 

“I speak not of their one-sided gao jangi”, literally “cow fighting”. “This spectacle is really not a fight in our sense. For us a true fight must be even, a conflict whose outcome is not known in advance. In gao-jangi the man’s sword is longer than the cow’s horns. And the cow always dies, we were told, no matter how well it fights. It dies even if it kills the man. Yes, we did go to a gao jangi. We believed it unworthy of the people of the country of Madrid. Here, perhaps, is why they hide it behind walls and wait until late afternoon.” 

“What then is so brave about these people?” 

“They wear their bravery like skin,” Habib said. “At all hours. Their bravery is never removed. They are braver even than we, more constantly brave. At all hours and occasions.” 

What could he mean? Everyone was listening. I responded with the patently obvious: “Afghans are brave people, Habib. Especially Hazaras like you, descended from the great Chinghiz. When are you people not brave? I can think of no occasion in which you as a people lack bravery.” 

“True, thanks to God, we are brave,” Habib said. “And it is also true, as many Franks remarked while we were in Madrid, that the people of Afghanistan can be argumentative, even quarrelsome.” (It was, I recall thinking, the understatement of the millennium – and this was before the decades of chaos into which his country would soon fall.) “How the Franks knew this truth I cannot tell you, but I also cannot deny it. We like to fight.” Habib used the word jang for “fight”; you heard jang a lot in Afghanistan. 

“So,” I asked, “at what hours, on what occasions are you not brave? And how are the people of the country of Madrid more constant in their bravery?” “

As you know, Weetnee, sometimes we suspend our quarrels. We take a break. Prayer is one occasion. Mealtime is another. Prayer is ordained by God, the Creator, before whom we are all merely creatures. One must not argue or quarrel during prayer. Mealtime is another matter. I myself am not sure about mealtime. What mention of it is there in the Holy Qur’an?” 

This question, like all theology, generated much discussion. When it died down, I steered us back to his story. “I’m not sure about scripture, Habib, but it’s true that meals are peaceful in Afghanistan. Would you have it any other way? And do you mean to say that meals are not peaceful in the country of Madrid?” 

“A poor, unlettered man, who am I to question custom? But I can tell you that there have been times during a meal, even in my own guesthouse, when I have been tempted to kill someone sitting there. Only custom stopped me. Was I a brave man, on those occasions, or a coward? These things are hard to know.” 

“Custom is blessed by God,” I said with oblique authority. “You have done as God desires and custom dictates. And anyway, how are the people of the country of Madrid in any way more quarrelsome or argumentative when they sit for a meal. I myself have been there. I remember their customs. They don’t fight when they eat.” 

“Maybe not exactly,” said Habib, “but almost. They stage fights, much as we stage fights sometimes between quail (budana jangi), or dogs (sag jangi), or rams (qoch jangi), or even camels (shitur jangi).” Heads nodded round the room. 

Habib meant the Afghan pastime of matching favourite animals in battle to determine which was stronger – and, by association, which owner. These animal fights were certainly for real – seldom to the death, but almost always bloody. The obsession for fighting with surrogates extended even to hard-boiled eggs. Get several Afghans together at breakfast over hard-boiled eggs, and they would soon be knocking them against each other to see whose eggshell was strongest. I had never met such competitive people anywhere on earth. 

“Fine, Habib,” I said, “but no barnyard animals attend Spanish meals, and no fights are staged between them. They don’t even have egg fights (takhom jangi).” 

“Much better,” he said. “Even in the finest restaurants, they have a still wilder custom. First they take some of the devil’s liquid, forbidden by Islam, and pour it into glass cups. Then they smile at one another as if friendship were their sole concern. Then, suddenly, everything changes. In response to some challenge I could never detect, they crash their glasses together, doubtless to see which of the glasses will break. They are strong, those people, and so are their glasses. They hardly ever break. Sometimes the people drink the liquid, pour more of it, and crash their glasses again. We Afghans called it glass fighting (glaas jangi). What a contest! I myself never saw one glass break. Their people must be likewise unbreakable. What strong hearts! In the country of Madrid, they fight even when they eat.” 

Was Habib putting me on? I stole a look round the room. People were more amazed than amused. Perhaps, one man muttered, there was something to learn from the Franks, a new level of manhood or at least a new occasion for its display. 

Meanwhile Habib had hit full stride. “The country of Frankfurt (mumlakat-i-Prankpurt) where the Afghan riders had stopped for one night between flights, is another excellent land,” he added and turned to me. “Did the Franks first spring from Frankfurt?” 

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think they first came from another country called France. France and Franks sound the same.” 

“So does Frankfurt,” Habib pointedly observed, as his listeners nodded again, “and the Franks in Frankfurt have splendid customs. It is a pity that we spent only evening there. There are people and buildings everywhere, more even than in the country of Madrid, all kinds of merchandise. And if you cannot afford to buy it, you can buy magazines with pictures of it. Look at these.” 

Out came a tattered bundle of vividly coloured gun catalogues, page after page with rifles, shotguns, and pistols of every description. Big game animals frolicked in the margins. 

“With all those guns and wild animals,” I remarked mischievously, “the country of Frankfurt must be a dangerous place.” 

“Not at all,” said Habib. ”I saw no wild animals, even in the countryside. Nor do the people carry guns on the street. Perhaps it is because their police are different. It was another thing that we couldn’t believe – the behaviour of their police.” 

“But you have police here in Afghanistan,” I said. “What’s the difference?” 

“Ours are corrupt and stupid,” Habib replied. ”They abuse honest Muslims. Thanks to God, they are also ignorant people who know almost nothing. Otherwise, life would be much worse than it is. Even so, when we Afghans see police coming, we go the other way.” 

“Did you meet police in the country of Frankfurt?” I asked. 

“We did,” Habib said, “and at first we all feared they would put us in prison. It was at night, and we were on our way by car to a gathering. We knew that there would be women at this gathering and that all the Franks would be drinking forbidden liquids. It made us nervous, and we feared that the police would discover these ungodly things. Mr John [John Frankenheimer, the film’s director] was driving and he lost the way. To our horror, he stopped to speak with a policeman, to ask him directions. “No, no,” we said to Mr John, “in the name of God, don’t stop. Don’t speak to the police.” 

But he stopped and spoke. We were terrified. Khosh Mohammad [a chapandaz even bulkier than Habib] opened the door on the other side to run away.” “But then we saw that the policeman was polite and helpful. I could not understand his Frankish tongue, but he pointed with a finger and indicated the way. We were not arrested. We drove away and soon Mr John found the place. It was as we feared – women and forbidden liquids. We still suspected that it was a police trap, but Mr John said not to worry. And, thanks to God, the police never appeared, never molested us. Perhaps their helpfulness was really fear. It’s good when the police are afraid. Of course,” Habib concluded, “it would be best to have no police at all.” 

Again, no hint of irony or humour. What for me was hilarious seemed to Habib and his guesthouse companions simply neutral statements of remarkable fact. Afghanistan was one world, the Lands of the Franks another. The differences were further proof of God’s greatness, of His infinite creation. Meanwhile, God be praised for struggles, firearms and the fecklessness of police. 

My research proceeded, or seemed to. New insights would keep me writing all night long by kerosene lantern – stuff that read like utter nonsense the next morning. Even so, an ambivalent realisation began to coalesce, ambivalent because I felt troubled, intellectually, by what my research revealed. Buzkashi was a metaphor for conflict; that much was clear. People spoke of buzkashi when they meant the chaos which lurks below surface events. It was also an arena, albeit disguised, for political struggle, a theatre in which rival khans tried to gain prestige at each other’s expense. In both respects – metaphor and arena – buzkashi suggested that much of Afghanistan really was what my diplomat friend back in Kabul had hinted – a perennial Badlands, a sort of “West of the Indus” Wild East. 

My disquiet, it must be said, was purely intellectual. Emotionally, I loved every minute and revelled in the sense of wild energy, the feeling that anything could happen at any time. It’s easy – and, I now realise, profoundly dishonest – to indulge that feeling when you have a US passport and an open ticket back home. My cowboy romanticism was the Afghans’ reality. They’d have no safe haven if and when disaster struck. 

Winter became spring. By early April it was too warm for buzkashi, whose horses quickly overheat, and I shifted my research to the provincial capital. Habib and other chapandaz friends seldom came here, but one day I saw him bargaining on the street for a watermelon. His enormous hands took my shoulders. “Weetnee,” he said, “my heart gladdens at this seeing of you. You must visit my home up the valley this week after Friday prayers.” 

Three days later we sat on a carpet that Habib’s sons had spread by the stream-bed next to their village, far from town. Spring in northern Afghanistan is as idyllic as it is brief, and this particular afternoon seemed almost magical. For once, the stream fairly gurgled, and its valley and even the steppe beyond shimmered in generous green. Both water and colour would dwindle within a month, but it was hardly a moment for harsh prospects. Instead we sprawled in a sun too expansively warm for the questionnaire I had prepared. Its structure seemed too much like work, and instead Habib, ever the storyteller, began to regale me instead with one anecdote after another – not about Europe this time but about the terms and incidents of life here at home. 

Most dealt, at least at the outset, with his own buzkashi exploits – often heroic, but never really boastful and occasionally quite comic. Inevitably these stories led into life beyond buzkashi – from his first games as a boy to his meeting the King in Kabul, from the prizes he won, to the presents he purchased with them. Once again buzkashi was revealing a universe. It was still, at least on the surface, a coherent universe. Its various pieces had not yet fallen apart. 

Even so, I sensed in Habib a kind of unconscious melancholy. Perhaps it was not in the man himself but in the sum of his stories. From narrative to narrative, the cast of characters varied with Habib as the only link. For a while he had ridden the horse of such and such a khan, but then had switched to another patron, and then another. He spoke repeatedly of his family, particularly his father, but otherwise the ties in his life had come and gone. Gradually there emerged from the stories his own sense of social persona – a man inclined towards fellowship but ultimately alone, loyal by nature but forced into opportunism. Above all, he said, he had to be wary. Even at his age there was no respite from vigilance. His own home valley, he said, was beautiful and peaceful, but dangerous and liable to change. 

Habib, had we only known it, was foretelling the future of Afghanistan. It was 1977. From 27 April of the next year until now – and never more so than at the present moment – all Afghan life would become a buzkashi. 

The afternoon waned and we both felt an early chill. There was something in the moment that I didn’t understand, maybe didn’t want to understand. Here was a different Habib, no longer the heroic horseman or world traveller or even the usually buoyant raconteur. 

Some part of him, hitherto unknown to me, turned inwards. Habib had kept a quilted winter cloak tucked in a ball behind him, but now he hunched forwards and wrapped it across his shoulders. For a lost moment he stared at his great fingers, turned them over and back, and then slowly began to trace the bit of intricate carpet between us. Before I left for town, he told one last story. 

“It was in the month of Dalw (February) and I was on my way to the buzkashi of Hajji Latif in Ishkamish. You remember, Weetnee, you were there. Two strangers passed me on the way and asked me where I was going.” 

“I told them, ‘To the buzkashi of Hajji Latif.’” 

“Then one of them said, ‘You must know, baba (old man), that not far from there lives the famous chapandaz Habib.’” 

“‘Habib?’ I said. ‘Habib? I have never heard of this man.’” 

“‘Oh, baba,’ they laughed at me. ‘How is it that you are so ill informed? Are you the sort of man who has never been abroad in the world?’” 

“‘This Habib,’ I asked them, ‘is he about my age?’” 

“‘Send your children to school, baba, since you know nothing and are now too old to learn,’ one man said. ‘Habib is young and vigorous, not an old man like you.’” 

“‘How big is he?’ I asked.” 

“‘Habib, were he but here with us, would make two or three of you, baba. Habib is a man who could move you over a mountain.’” 

“I thought to myself how times had changed and asked them if their village had a khan in whose guest house I could pass the night.” 

“Hajji Jura Khan has a grand guest house and Habib has doubtless passed many nights there, but you, baba, you had better find a corner in the mosque where no one will trouble you and where you will be a bother to no one.” 

“They went their way, and I told them nothing. You remember that buzkashi, Weetnee? You remember that one calf I took when the prize was 800 Afghanis and Ghafour never even touched it? I did well, did I not? And yet, you know, it’s different now. My father died last year. He was 96. Now I am alone with only my own sons. Every year the policeman comes and tells me to play in Kabul. Every year I play. But now I feel old, and my telpak helmet is loose on my head. My head, I think, has lost some of its meat. I feel old and alone, but what can I do? All my life I have played. How can I stop?” 

Dusk fell. I went back to town and then back to America. Afghanistan fell apart exactly one year later. And time would prove that Habib indeed could not stop. 

For several years I had little word from Kunduz and almost none of Habib. A communist coup in 1978 toppled legitimate rule in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and tried to occupy the country. Then, in the blisteringly hot summer of 1982, I found myself a Fulbright Professor at the Centre of Excellence for Middle East Studies at the University of Baluchistan in Quetta, Pakistan. The “Centre for Excellence” did not, for all practical purposes, exist (another story), and I was free to spend my time with Afghan refugees. It was not the easiest of moments. Israel, supported as always by the US, invaded Lebanon shortly after I arrived. My new Quetta acquaintances invited me to – and protected me at – the “Death to America” demonstrations. 

Across the border in Afghanistan, the war was going badly. Frustrated in early attempts at “peaceful reconciliation,” the Soviets and their Afghan puppets had moved to deadlier strategies. Now Afghan refugees were everywhere around Quetta. Most had settled in makeshift camps of canvas tents, mud walls and reed mats. Late one August afternoon, my driver and I trudged around one of these shantytowns. Its inhabitants clustered disconsolately in what shade they could find. One clump of faces blurred into the next. Then suddenly a man stared at me, as if somehow in this ragged stupefaction there existed a glint of meaning between us. “Aren’t you Weetnee?” 

It took a moment, but I remembered. We had met several times during my field research up north in the 1970s. He’d been a person of modest substance, not a khan by any means but someone whose life was firmly established. Now he had only a dirty tent with its scraps of carpet, charred pots, confused wife and sick children. 

It was an embarrassing reunion – awkward for us both because he now had so little and I, as if by miracle, had been transformed from field worker (that is, itinerant nuisance) to established academic. We spoke first of the awful war which, while still young, had already displaced him and wrecked his country. I was at that time a surrogate Cold Warrior, bright of eye and all too ready “to fight to the last Afghan”. 

The man seemed unutterably weary, far too tired for my glib enthusiasms. We fled to reminiscence, the stuff of better times. Did I remember such and such a person, place, event? Such-and-such a horse and buzkashi? I’d left Kunduz more than four years earlier; he’d made a run for it only six months ago. There was a lot to tell. And eventually, of course, we got to Habib. I started my tape recorder. Afghans, even in exile, were still great storytellers. 

So here’s my last Habib story, a horseman’s story worthy of any Eastern Western, as told that day outside Quetta by a man whose own life had been turned upside down. 

“Most of your buzkashi friends are scattered now – some martyred, others in prison, others in the mountains, others only God knows. Some have probably collaborated with the Communists. Life can be more complicated than you think, Weetnee. But Habib – I can tell you about Habib, at least until the time I myself left Kunduz half a year ago. After that, I don’t know. Only God knows.” 

“He’s not what he was, you know. He’s old now. But even so everybody still knows him because of buzkashi. Habib rode the horses of other men, the khans, but even so he himself acquired a name. “Habib chapandaz, Habib chapandaz,” they would say in the bazaar when he passed. And the police, of course, know where he lives up the valley. They used to send for him to play in Kabul before the King. Now there’s no King, but they still know.” 

“So the regime, the Parchamis [the communist faction then in power] wanted to use his prestige. They got him from the village and made him go to the Hazarajat, a mountainous area in central Afghanistan, where most of his qawm [ethnic group] still live. They made him say that he was against the Resistance. I don’t know much about it, but when he came back home the Resistance people were really furious with him. They didn’t shoot him or cut his throat. He was Habib, and as boys they had all heard his name and watched him play and tried to be like him. In those days there was no one as strong as Habib. Now he’s old, and the men understood how the Parchamis had put pressure on him, but even so they were furious.” 

“So they told him he had to stay at home. He couldn’t go to the bazaar. They wouldn’t let him. For five, six, seven months he couldn’t go to the bazaar in Khanabad. His sons could go but not Habib. It’s a shameful thing, you know, to be shut up that way. For all that time nobody saw Habib in the bazaar.” 

“Then he started to help the Resistance in secret – give them food, you know, and even let them borrow his horse, the good one he had in your time. And then his brother’s son, Muhibullah, was becoming a Resistance leader. He led one raid when they captured 170 Kalashnikovs. Not bad. 170! So they finally let Habib go to the bazaar. But now the Parchami spies would be after him so he never stayed long in the bazaar, and never went far – only as far as the produce market on the outskirts of town.” 

“One day it happened. They were on their way back from town, on their way up the valley. Oh, there must have been fifteen or twenty horsemen. It had been bazaar day, Monday. They were on their way back about noon when the plane attacked. Why? I can’t tell you why. The Russians think everyone on horseback must be in the Resistance. They remember that much from the time of their wars against Bokhara [late 19th century with uprisings into the early 1930s]. And it’s true. To be in the Holy War, you need but two things – a horse and a rifle.” 

“One bullet struck the horse on top of its head and came out its neck. The horse was hit [“ate bullets”] in all four legs. All four! Habib, thanks to God, wasn’t hurt at all. I don’t know why not. Only God knows.” 

“The horse kept going. It didn’t fall. Five bullets and it didn’t fall. It took Habib as far as some trees where he hid until the plane went away. Some of the other people also made it; some didn’t. Habib got down, and then the horse lay down and went to sleep. It wasn’t dead, only sleeping. And when the plane was gone, Habib woke the horse and got back on. The horse delivered him all the way home. The whole way! Only then did it die (“Surrender its body to God”). It was Habib’s own horse, the one you yourself remember. 

“Now I don’t know. Before I left, the Russians fired that BM–16 up the valley. The new rockets. They make water boil and walls disappear. And now it’s been seven months – two in Kunduz, one on the way, and four more in this camp – so I can’t tell you any more about Habib. I don’t know.” 

The man looked at my tape recorder, then at me, and said: “Only God knows.” 

I sent my driver ahead and walked back the hour and a half to my university bungalow. Quetta is a dusty oasis rimmed with craggy, unforgiving mountains. Now the sun fell behind them, and within minutes the western skyline went from fuzzy, blinding dazzle to coal-black silhouette. My feet scuffed and shuffled in the dust, not wanting to get anywhere. I began to sing old songs very softly – an attempt, no doubt, at private continuity in this landscape of shattered lives – then tried to whistle, then hummed a bit. Nothing worked. Finally I gave up and sat down and listened. 

Two phrases had ricocheted inside my skull ever since the camp. One was the sober, stark “Life can be more complicated than you think.” That phrase still fades in and out of consciousness, a reminder of dimensions beyond my experience and beyond all facile, post–9/11 talk of Good and Evil. Then the second haunting phrase: “You need but two things, a horse and a rifle.” It could have come from Clint Eastwood. The Wild West, more myth than truth in America, was alive and real in Central Asia. 

We too were alive in 1982, alive but much changed. Habib was aging and beleaguered. My informant, the erstwhile Kunduz solid citizen, had become a ragged refugee. And I? The three-piece-suit diplomat turned boondocks anthropologist? It had been little more than a decade since The Horsemen and Lesson 21. And yet so much had happened, in large part not for the better. Like it or not, life had taken us a long way. Where would we – and Afghanistan – go from here? 

And now in 2013 – more than three decades later – the answer seems the same: 

“Only God knows.” 

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