Eddie started life as a member of an Armenian refugee family in San Francisco but he left and travelled to India in the early sixties, where he’d stayed ever since, like a godfather of all the hippies. It was a privilege to host him at Qamarlandi.
LAST SUMMER IN SWAT & CHITRAL, BEFORE ‘THE FALL’
After Eddie left back to Goa I continued quietly with my plans which involved shutting things down as far as possible and disposing of the remaining horses. A couple had turned up in Peshawar in the winter who were riding their own horses, slowly, all the way from the north of Afghanistan to Goa. He was a tall, black Jamaican called Ted, who had a white horse with black eyes, and she was a tall, white Belgian woman called Ariane who had a black horse with white eyes, called Geronimo. They were good fun and open to a trek into the high hills of the Frontier. We decided to trek to Chitral together, a horse-country where I reckoned I could sell my horses and be free to start a brand new life. They were happy to join me and also Kevin who turned up from Dharamsala in India, and who readily joined us to ride Wazir. I took Savoy.
It was a great last trek, 500 miles through Charsadda, Mohmand, Malakand Pass, Lower Swat, Chakdarra, Dir State, over Lowaritop Pass and down to Drosh in Chitral, taking several weeks having plenty of fun and lots of adventures. Geronimo got sick after Drosh so Ted and Ariane trucked him to Chitral to see the vet; Kevin and I rode the last part by ourselves.
On 5th July there was a coup d’état in Pakistan as Zia-ul-Haq deposed President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. If it was a bad omen, I ignored it.
The next day I rode from our base with Kevin and Ted for the last time to Chitral’s little airport, to fly back to Peshawar. I said goodbye to them and goodbye to my horses. I’d told Kevin he could keep the horses as long as he liked, then to sell them off whenever he wanted. I was all lined up to leave for Europe for an unknown period. This would be the end of Rafiullah Khan’s ‘Company of the Horses’ for me. [See my other Flower Raj Blogs, “The Company of the Horses” and “Captured by Bandits on the Afghan Frontier”.]
The minibus that I took on reaching Peshawar arrived in Madyan, Swat, at dusk. I took my saddlebags off the roof, swung them over my shoulder and strode down the passage along a gurgling stream through the old village houses. Heading for home. In the twilight, Sultan Zarin’s teenage son Liaqat Ali loomed up. Such was my fate.
“Welcome, Sinjan” said Liaqat Ali respectfully, pronouncing my name the Pakistani way. He was curious. “Where have you been?” he asked in Pushto with a smile as he stuck out his hand.
“To Chitral” I said, shaking it.
“Oh, Chitral! What have you brought back?” he asked all innocently, indicating my woollen saddlebags bulging with all my horse tackle and personal stuff.
“Saman” I said, meaning ‘just my stuff’. ‘Saman’ in all that part of the world is a generic term for ‘luggage’, ‘stuff’ or ‘my things’ but due to their own habits it is also often used as a euphemistic term for ‘cargo’; smuggled goods, whatever they might be. I thought nothing of it, oblivious to the fact that hashish from Chitral was famously preferred in Swat, and my VW camper had been parked in the village while I was away, perhaps giving rise to suspicion in the minds of the suspicious. I continued on my way through the village. But Liaqat Ali had already jumped to a massive wrong conclusion and hurried home to tell his father what he had seen. My fate was sealed, I should have opened the saddle bags up and shown him the horse gear inside. Uttering this one word, “saman” without heed to its secondary meaning was over confident. It changed the entire rest of my life radically and literally overnight.
Everything was ready to leave for Europe next morning. The date was 7-7-77, a lucky day to start my trip, I thought. Not so; there were too many sevens. While I was at breakfast the dogs started barking wildly. I looked out and saw seven armed policemen filing along the path at the top of the escarpment. They reached the pathway leading down to my establishment on Qamarlandi they turned down onto it. I tied the dogs up and they came up to my entrance and onto my land. Going out to meet them. I recognised some of their faces; they wore simple dark blue uniforms with berets and pistols and had old British Empire standard Lee Enfield 303 rifles on their shoulders. Why on earth were they coming to see me, I wondered.
“Welcome” I said warmly in Pashtu, “how are you, come in, sit down, what the matter?”
“Fine, Sin Jan. How are you? There is a report that you brought charas, a banned substance from Chitral” said the captain of the squad, somewhat uneasily.
“No,” I said, “that cannot be. I brought nothing.”
“If you do not confess and hand over the goods, then we must search your house” he responded, looking a little embarrassed.
“No, no, no, my friends” I said wearily, confident of being able to frustrate this raid and avoid any disruption to my programme, “I didn’t bring any banned substance from Chitral, and anyway, to search my house you would need to have an official search warrant.”
“Here” he said, pulling a paper from his pocket, “this is the warrant.”
I stared at it, surprised, but it seemed like a genuine warrant. However, I had no contraband in the house; everything I had was already very well concealed in the petrol tank of the van parked up in the village.
“Well, in that case, of course, you are most welcome” I said with a smile, “please come inside and search as much as you like! There is nothing banned here to my knowledge. Tea?”
“No tea” said the captain as he directed his men to go through the rooms, “we already took our tea, thanks. I am sorry, Sinjan” he said, “This is our duty.”
The men swarmed in and went all over the house, searching in boxes and cupboards and under the wooden platforms that served as beds. Hanging on the wooden pillars and walls were items from my collection of old Swati artefacts, including old swords and daggers and other old weapons hung on the walls. The collection included a 7mm rifle I’d brought years before in Darra. This is a tribal village south of Peshawar and Kohat which is famous for its firearms, pistols and rifles of all designs. They are individually handmade in simple village workshops by craftsmen who work sitting on little stools with simple lathes, forges, anvils and files. The bolt of my own rifle had been removed and was stored separately.
“Have you got a licence for this gun?” asked the policeman, holding it up.
“Of course not” I said, “it’s not a complete gun, it has no bolt, it’s for exhibition only.”
“So why do you have live ammunition?” he asked, holding up a plastic bag with thirty rounds in it that one of his men had found on a shelf.
“In case some bandits come to rob me” I said, still confidently trying to bluff him, “this house is in a lonely spot, it’s just in case. But I lost the bolt so it can’t be fired. Anyway,” I reminded him, “you’re looking for something from Chitral, aren’t you, and this is from Darra.”
He handed the boltless rifle and the bullets to his men to keep aside as evidence. My heart fell.
In the back room, under the platform were a dozen locked suitcases and tin luggage boxes left by hippie and traveller friends who’d spend a season in Madyan and go off to Goa, Europe or Kathmandu, asking me to keep their stuff until they returned to Madyan for another season.
“These are not mine” I explained, “they are left by friends for safekeeping.”
“Get the keys, open them up” ordered the captain.
“I don’t have the keys, it’s not my stuff” I protested.
He turned to his men. “Break the locks and we shall see, what is inside.”
The locks were broken and the contents pulled out, clothes, books, personal stuff. Eventually in one of the boxes a small piece of hashish was discovered. It was all they needed. Now they had something to justify their raid.
As well as this and the rifle and a handful of bullets, for further effect they took a selection of the antique daggers and swords that were hung on the walls.
I was charged with having an unlicensed weapons and a banned substance, plus, to make it sound even worse, a non-existent bottle of whiskey. Held in a police cell overnight I became front page news in the Khyber Mail, an English daily published in Peshawar. Ellie from the White House Hotel kindly came and bailed me out but the case dragged on and my plans were delayed for two months. This untimely misfortune, after Z. A. Bhutto’s ignominious fall, was a second warning which I also disregarded.
Kevin returned from Chitral to spend a couple of days at the house, then he went back to Chitral to take care of the horses. He was in good spirits, and he was the only person who knew what I was up to. He wished me luck.
My court case was eventually heard by a friendly magistrate in a newly harvested wheat field. I pled my own case, was fined the princely sum of $10 and was allowed to go.
Inflexibly fixed on to what I’d set out to do, I immediately drove to Kabul, all loaded up, heading for Europe. From Peshawar I wrote a letter to Kevin in Chitral, to tell him to sell the horses and stay in the house in Swat if he wished. I never saw him again, since when I came back sixteen month later he had tragically and mysteriously died, near my place in Swat. Some people thought the landlord’s family had murdered him. They were certainly capable of it, but I could never be sure since they had nothing to gain by it.
I drove up to Kabul through the Khyber Pass and the Kabul Gorge. The checking of ‘tourists’ on both sides of the Torkham border post is always cursory, to say the least. In Kabul, I checked in at my usual Green Hotel.
Ever superstitious (whilst studiously ignoring all ill omens), after dinner I consulted my oracle, the I Ching (Chinese ‘Book of Changes’) to see what I could divine from it about my gamble. I tossed the three coins six times, noted how they fell, heads or tails, making a hexagram, six yin or yang lines.
The ‘judgment’ relating to my hexagram was decidedly inauspicious: “The fox gets its tail wet crossing the frozen river, misfortune”. My heart fell. Further, in the details of the hexagram’s six individual lines, the first line was ‘changing’ from yin to yang, indicating a deeper, particular judgment. The text relating to this change was unambiguous: “The bird is flying too high: disaster!”
Even worse: I saw that I had six borders to cross, and this reading even indicated that I’d fall at the first hurdle, the Afghan-Iran border. It could not be, I told myself shaking my head in disbelief; it could not be. However, and it was a very big ‘however’, the reading had yet another dimension to it.
When there’s a ‘changing’ line in a reading, as in this, the changed line creates a brand new hexagram which indicates the long-term result, the ultimate outcome, as opposed to the short-term, immediate indication of the first hexagram.
This led me somewhere quite different, to ‘The Cauldron’; a vessel full of good things. “Thunder upon thunder” the judgment read, this time: “Unqualified Success! The laughter is heard a hundred miles around! It is favourable to cross the great water!”
Thunder, in the Chinese tradition is a very auspicious phenomenon; it brings the rain to water the crops, to release tensions and all the bounties of nature and make everything good. As for it being ‘favourable to cross the great water’ this obviously means it’s a good time to undertake a long but perilous journey.
“Hmmm,” I thought. It meant proceeding with the plan, if I could call it a plan, would be great success, despite a short-term problem. If I had any faith in it at all, I had to go. If I did not believe in it at all, I still had to go; in fact, I had no choice.
Next morning, feeling a bit like Luke Rhinehart’s hero in his seventies novel ‘The Dice Man’, which my brother Paddy was so fond of, or perhaps like a member of the Charge of the Light Brigade, I got up, had my breakfast and hit the road south out of Kabul, heading for Iran.
Focussing on the glorious long-term forecast I drove, like a lamb to the slaughter, across all the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan with my entire rational mind on hold. In this state of suspended animation, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I exited Afghanistan at the Islam Qala border post, into ‘no man’s land’. Half way was the last, isolated Afghan outpost.
“Stop!” signalled the Afghan sentry in his pale, tattered serge uniform, holding up his hand. He emerged from his roadside sentry box alongside the metal chain which hangs across the road, and his whitewashed mud hut was away from the road down a little stone-edged path. This was my last chance to turn back. He just looked at my passport, dropped the chain, grinning through his helmet-strap like a zombie from hell and waved me on; and on I went, not sure if I was hallucinating I drove over the chain, across this stony desert of a no-man’s land, with dry, skeletal balls of tumble-weed being blown along by the wind, rolling and bouncing beside my course down the rock-strewn valley bottom and into Iranian territory.
Pure momentum and an inflexible will to finish what I’d started kept the wheels rolling down the slope into Iran, as skeletal balls of tumbleweed bounced and rolled eerily along with me in the wind, twenty metres away. A few miles further down the dusty road and the barbed wire fence-surrounded Iranian Customs and Immigration check post at Taybad hove into view. I drove straight in and swung the camper into the customs compound, where I was directed to park it in a covered bay. I handed my passport to the customs officer and waited by the van in my black leather coat with my hands behind my back, looking as relaxed and innocent as I possibly could. A thorough and systematic search of all my luggage and the vehicle itself was to be expected, but nothing involving in any way the petrol tank. The customs inspector came over, glanced at my camper van, narrowed his eyes and grinned at me.
“Mister, how many kilos in your petrol tank?” he asked, looking hard into my eyes.
“What?” I answered, with a puzzled look.
“In your tank, how many kilos?”
“Oh, litres you mean” I say, “it takes about sixty five litres.”
“No mister, hashish not petrol” he says with a smile, shrugging and raising his hand, palm up; “how many kilos of hashish in your petrol tank – ten kilos, twenty kilos?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, grinning a puzzled grin, “hashish in my petrol tank, it’s not possible.”
He called a mechanic over and told him to drop the engine from its mounting at the rear, cut away the steel panel behind it and cut open the petrol tank behind that to see what was inside. I protested about the damage it would cause. The mechanic jacked up the back of the van, put a large tin can under the tank and opened the sump. The petrol started trickling out into the can. Then he also went away.
In my coat pocket, my fingers toyed with a matchbox. I could have tossed in a lighted match, ignited the petrol, burned the car and hopefully destroyed all the evidence in the resulting conflagration, but something stopped me. I had to go through with this.
The minutes dragged by, the mechanic took away the petrol can and got busy with his oxy-acetylene equipment. Within an hour the incriminating contents were uncovered. I was arrested and charged by the inspector.
“I didn’t know it was there” I protested lamely, “Someone else must have put it there. I’ve been framed.”
“Yes, yes,” said the officer drily as he completed the ‘busted’ forms, “don’t worry. It’s no big deal, you’ll just be fined and allowed to go in a day or two.”
I couldn’t believe it. It was as if they were expecting me, but nobody knew, except Kevin and my trusted connection.
“Are you hungry?” asked the Inspector, with concern. “Go and eat. He will take you to eat”. He called an assistant, who took me down the road to a local restaurant and bought me a tasty chicken curry with rice and nan and plenty of chai to wash it down. “Have you had enough? Fill your belly. Don’t worry” he reassured me, “it’s no big crime here, you’re a foreigner. They’ll just fine you and let you go in a few days time”.
I wanted to believe him, but it all sounded too easy. They just didn’t want me to panic and try some desperate kind of escape stunt. Ten years later, I found out why: some Dutch friends went through the same experience here, but they jumped in their Landrover, crashed through the barrier and escaped back to Afghanistan at high speed, where the Afghan customs gave them refuge.
I was held in Taybad’s horrible detention centre for several days. It was crowded with recently-arrested young men, what for I had no idea. Later I realised they were political prisoners of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police who rounded up suspected dissidents. I’d been swallowed up. I lay on a three-tier bunk in an utter daze, my mind in a whirl, trying to make sense of my predicament. It was hot, full of flies and stank of sweat. There were no showers. There was a stunned atmosphere of fearful repression, shock and apprehension. And yet the Iranian prisoners were kind to me and sympathetic, because I was a foreigner.
Squatting at the toilet my John Lennon-style dark glasses slipped out of my trouser pocket in their case and clattered down the stinking hole. That’s me, I thought, that’s my life. Well and truly down the plughole and in deepest, darkest kaka.
After very few days I was bussed with a group of Iranians to the west of Meshed city and along a tree-lined road. It turned right up a driveway to a forbidding concrete fort in the stony desert. The massive, rolling steel gates opened up. My new home for the indefinite future, no doubt.
The bus drove through the gates, which rolled closed behind us, and we were ordered to get off. As a foreigner I was singled out by a police goblin wearing a dark blue, NYPD-type uniform. He prodded me with his truncheon towards an office door on the right, using an Iranian command that would become familiar.
“Buddho, mishtair! Buddho, buddho!” he yelled. ‘Get moving, mister! Get moving!’