Friday, September 12, 2008

It's all Greek to me

We're off to Birir with Jules, a friend we first met over a month ago, to visit the Kalash valleys, just southwest of Chitral. We get dropped off at a bridge over the main valley and set ourselves to walk the dirt track to the village, but almost immediately we get a ride from a cargo jeep. The road is rotten and we start to think the walking would be easier as we're jerked and thrown side to side. The Birir valley is a narrow valley that climbs slowly westwards towards the Afghan border. It is one of three valleys settled by the Kalash people, a group that legend says are derived from some remnants of Alexander the Great's army. The people have a pagan religion, many have fair skin or blue or green eyes, and they have tried to maintain their language and culture. Many ethnographers point out that the language has no connection with Greek and suggest the people are caucasians left isolated at some point in the past. These days they have a threatened culture - in recent years their isolation has ended with the building of roads, and the valleys are filling with Muslims, some converts from the Kalash.

There's only one Kalash guesthouse in Guru, a floor to sleep on in a traditional house built of dry stone walls and wood. The kitchen is open on one-side to the world, and the flat roof serves as the terrace for the house above. The family are very welcoming, we are given green tea on the tiny veranda, and we look out over a side stream which is being used by the village for laundry. No Surf or Brite, just a flat rock, plenty of water and a lot of bashing with a short wooden stick. The women and girls are wearing their traditional black dresses and decorative headresses, but the men now wear shalwar kameez. I get a funny feeling sitting here, wondering how good it can be for us to come and visit these communities, to look at the people and, hopefully, take photographs, like a human zoo. Wondering whether this too can have an adverse effect on the culture. Alauddin asks if he can come with us on a walk around the village which is spread out amongst fields of maize - he asks in a way that we cannot refuse, but it is the best thing he could have done. He is able to lead us around, introduce us to families, translate, and show us the important buildings: schools and the halls used for celebrating festivals. We are invited to take tea. There are few men around, mainly women and lots of little children, many covered in dirt. The village looks poor. Alauddin, who is Kalash but has a muslim name ("It's better for me"), takes us to his house and treats us to some home-made wine. It's a bit sharp. There are grapes and walnuts coming into season, and the village has watchmen to stop anyone picking the fruits too soon. Back at the guesthouse we meet Irfan, the owner, who is the village councillor and has been to Chitral for business. He tells us it is very important for their children to have a good education. But when we ask what will the children do with this education, he replies that he hopes they will return to the village and help improve it. It seems improbable to us, and possibly the ultimate irony - that by creating educational opportunities for the youth, NGO's who have funded schools may actually speed up the break up of the community.

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