Travelling Between Cultures

    The Imponderability of Travelling – From Iran to Afghanistan

    Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Kabul 1939. © Photo: Unknown.
From the book Unsterbliches Blau (Immortal Blue), Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürich 2003.‘Our life is like a journey …’, and so for me a journey seems to be more a concentrated reflection of our existence than an adventure and excursion into unfamiliar realms.

    It was a long time ago, two months, or two and a half, and it belongs once again to the past. And yet it all happened in the self-same summer the end of which I am now experiencing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and in the course of the self-same journey which has brought me this far, by way of many frontiers, capital cities, and all kinds of stopping-places. The Swiss number plate and the smaller Swiss cross on my Ford prove to me, if proof were needed, that everything went according to plan and as I find it recorded in my diary. Sometimes proof is needed. Perhaps my sense of reality isn’t very strongly developed; perhaps I lack a sure and calming instinct for the palpable conditions of our earthly existence. I can’t always distinguish between memories and dreams, and I often confuse dreams, which come to life again in sudden associations with colours and scents, with the uncanny but familiar certainty of a previous existence, from which time and space do not separate me any differently or more effectively than a light sleep in the early hours of the morning.

    ‘Our life is like a journey …’, and so for me a journey seems to be more a concentrated reflection of our existence than an adventure and excursion into unfamiliar realms. Resident in a town, citizen of a country, indebted to a class or social group, part of a family or clan, and enmeshed in a ‘daily life’ interwoven with all these circumstances, we often feel all too secure. We believe that our house is built for all time; we are easily led astray into having faith in a constancy which for one person makes ageing a problem while for another any change in external circumstances seems a catastrophe. We forget that this is a process, that the earth is constantly in motion, and that we too are affected by the rise and fall of tides, earthquakes, and other events far removed from our visible and tangible environment. Beggars and kings are both characters in the same great game. We forget this, supposedly for the sake of our peace of mind, which is also built on sands that trickle away. We forget it so as not to have to fear ourselves. And fear makes us stubborn. We only view as reality whatever we can grasp with our hands and whatever directly affects us, and we deny the violence of fire when our neighbour’s house is already ablaze but ours not yet alight. War in other countries? Only twelve hours or twelve weeks from our own frontiers? God preserve us; the horror that sometimes hits us, even just reading the history books. Time, space, it’s all the same: whatever might separate us from such horror.

    Children in Turkestan/Afghanistan, Oktober 1939. © Photo: Annemarie Schwarzenbach.
From the book Unsterbliches Blau (Immortal Blue), Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürich 2003.However, a journey raises to some extent the veil that covers the mystery of space, and a city with a magical and unreal name – Samarkand the Golden, Astrakhan, or Isfahan, city of attar of roses – becomes real the moment we enter it and touch this place with our living breath. The pavements of Damascus echo under our feet; the hills of Erzurum glitter in the evening light; and the minarets of Herat become visible where the plain comes to an end. But a cholera epidemic keeps us in Iran, and what was a fleeting vision, a breathing-space, becomes an episode, part of a lived existence. In Kabul we make friends, establish a household, get to know the Russian who bakes European bread and Gulam Haidar who sells fountain pens, airmail envelopes, and barbiturates. We have already established our daily routine, can find our way home in the dark, and ultimately it’s only a matter of chance whether or not we spend the rest of our lives here or elsewhere – for instance, on the shore of the Caspian Sea where the climate is infernal, caviar dirt cheap, and malaria free of charge.

    Did we once study the customs and usages of foreign peoples? That’s all well and good, but we didn’t learn how an Afghan winds his turban, and we didn’t know how pilau tastes in a country where people have nothing but rice and mutton to eat every day, where they drink tea and never a drop of alcohol. During the journey the face of reality changes along with the mountains, rivers, the way houses are built, the layout of gardens, languages, skin colour. Yesterday’s reality still burns with the pain of leave-taking; the reality of the day before yesterday is an episode now concluded and never to return; and what happened a month ago is a dream and a previous existence. At long last one comprehends that the course of a life doesn’t contain any more than a limited number of such ‘episodes’, and that where we are allowed to build our house depends on a thousand and one chance elements – but our poor souls’ peace is a precious commodity of freedom which cannot be hunted down, haggled over, or traded with dictators who can set fire to our houses, flatten our fields, or spread cholera from one day to the next.

    A terrible lack of certainty? Terrible only so long as we are not capable of facing up to it. However, the journey, which for many people may seem an easy dream, an alluring game, a liberation from everyday life, and the epitome of freedom, is in reality pitiless, a school dedicated to accustoming us to the inescapable course of events, to meetings and to loss, when the chips are down. In my memory, ‘the journey to Kabul’, which can be depicted on a map (albeit only in broad strokes) and the number of kilometres roughly calculated (albeit only approximately), is already a finely-woven carpet, fashioned hour by hour out of living breath, sweat, and blood, and now irretrievably lost. For Time has worn seven-league boots ever since an event far removed from my path, the war, intervened and took me and probably most fellow human-beings unawares, as if we were blind and deaf.

    That was two months ago, or two and a half. The same summer, end of July, and I had left the Iranian high plateau and descended the Firuzkuh Pass into dense primeval forests, into humid jungle, into the rice-fields of Mazanderan covered with swarms of mosquitoes, and as far as the pale blue coast of the Caspian Sea, fringed with mournful dunes. A fertile, melancholic landscape familiar from a previous life, dreams, and last year’s memories, where the Shah ordered the establishment of cotton mills, model farms, and tobacco-drying plants. Impoverished peasants, living off their rice fields, were urged to take up factory work and supplied with quinine; rice was replaced with tea, and local silk cocoons were put to use. In the fishing village of Meshed-i-Sehr a Palace Hotel was built and Swiss hotel directors, master dyers, silk weavers and cooks engaged. Children have to work in twelve-hour shifts. Ten-year-olds are paid half a kran (around fifteen Swiss rappen) a day, while older children received two kran daily. However, the most talented among them are trained in evening schools as highly-skilled spinners and weavers, even as foremen, and much else besides.

    I stayed the night with a Swiss man whose wife prepared coffee for us while we sat on the terrace in the oppressively humid heat. I listened as he told me about the country, its people, and the blessings of progress, for much had changed since my last visit four years previously. The following morning I departed from Mazanderan, leaving the Caspian Sea behind. The jungle opened out. No more straw roofs, no rice fields, no animal skulls on hedges. Then the tobacco fields came to an end, and with them the land owned by the Shah. Next the fields of maize that still belonged to peasant farmers. There were still meadows; somewhere, in a gentle hollow amid the hills, a village, trees, bread. Walking along the road was a blond-bearded man in high boots carrying a hoe upon his shoulder. I stopped the car. The blue-eyed man answered, tersely, in Russian. Yes, he’d come from over there, from Russia, along with other Mushiks.

    They hadn’t been able to live any longer in their homeland. The Red Guards had taken away their last cow, and the crosses and images of saints from their huts. Now they had a new village here, in Iran. There was black bread and honey. Did we want to buy any? But there was no track to the village that was fit for cars, and the Russian was untroubled when we parted company and I pursued my straight course, eastwards towards a wide horizon.

    The air was thin and dry. A hot wind rose. Now there were no more trees, no grass, no field, no village, no hut, no fence, no water. The soil turned yellow. The pallid sky suddenly descended like a heavy canopy beneath which all life was suffocated, and with the rapid approach of evening it turned violet and sulphurous yellow, rusty brown, fiery red. The spectacle was beautiful but oppressive, like a vision from the Divine Comedy. I now knew what, prior to this, books and maps had been unable to teach me completely: that I had left the tropical subsidence of the Caspian Sea and was entering the Turkmen steppe – the start of those vast steppes and deserts which extend right through Central Asia to the Far East. I was seeing this area for the first time: the home of the nomads, of black tents and yurts. But in Iran nomads had been forced to become sedentary as part of a modernisation programme, tribes had been deprived of their leaders, and already they had been almost exterminated. And what about the carpets of the Pendin and Teke-Turkmen, their colourful saddlebags and tent material, their swift horses? To my left, on a horizon now leaden and extinguished, I saw a couple of wretched tents made of goat-felt and the strangely solemn silhouettes of some emaciated camels. A dog barked. Flying from the Caspian Sea in the west some white vultures appeared, slowly flapping their wings. That was all. The steppe spread out in wasteland and silence. The heat was deadly. The night fused with this ‘Onset of Asia’ to create a sombre vision. Then, directly in front of me, and thus indubitably at the end of my road, there emerged the Gumbad-i-Gabus Mongol tower, monument to a Khan, gigantic and plain, and I did not even think of Job’s glass coffin that, according to the legend of the steppe, still hangs within its steeply-sloping roof. This overwhelming landmark, celebrating a man who had feared neither the poverty of this steppe nor its vastness, hostile to all human criteria: this was enough for me. I breathed deeply and endeavoured, despite everything, to salute life …

    The journalist, writer, and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach was born in Zürich in 1908. From 1930 onwards she counted Erika and Klaus Mann among her friends. Between 1931 and 1933 she spent time in Berlin as a freelance writer. Journeys to the Near East. In 1935 a brief, unhappy marriage in Persia. In 1939 a journey to Afghanistan. Annemarie Schwarzenbach died in 1942.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Fikrun wa Fann, September 2008

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