Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Snow and cakes

It’s been snowing almost continuously all day. Just beyond the house gardens a fairly inconspicuous little machine like a small tractor with tank treads pulling a long trailer has continued driving slowly up and down what has become a tree graveyard. Its attachment, like a metal hand with many adjustable prongs, once the tractor has stopped, can open and grip several tree trunks and deftly swing them onto the trailer.  When the tractor is moving slowly and the metal hand is not clamping and lifting trees, it swings innocuously at the end of the trailer. 

I’m sorry for the driver, out in this weather. I am more sorry for the trees, whose presence and shelter I took for granted, and for the birds who lived in them. I put bird food out several times today. These birds, my regulars, live in the large and sprawling hedge in my front garden. Perhaps they will be cosy enough there, the snow and hedge branches forming a kind of igloo.

We humans are great story makers. We create stories or narrative tales out of – let’s say perceptual material. The creative substance being the imaginative faculty, that seems to arise in the mind, working with a mixture of sense perceptions and memory. We fashion stories out of our lives, from a journey to a destination, to a visit to a friend, whatever happens, we have the capacity to shape raw material into a story.

From a young age don’t we love to listen to stories or read them? I think that creating stories of our lives we engage that higher perceptual faculty or consciousness. I remember the first time I experienced that I was about 7 or maybe 8 years old walking on my own one morning beside cliffs and sea, during the summer holidays, going into the small town to buy rolls for breakfast for the family. Feeling a sense of joy in the early morning and my surroundings I discovered that there was also an observer present, which was also myself, describing what was happening at the same time as I was living it. 

I’m not sure what links these lovely edible creations with the snow and the logs and the tree-collecting machine other than contiguity in time. The hedge branches laden with snow lean over the garden, the snow piles up on the path and I wonder how I will get to the bus stop tomorrow. Beauty in nature and beauty in creation. These cakes came all the way from Poland, (thank you so much J!) so carefully packed that only one of them was broken, the little rocking horse on the bottom left 

 I guess the snow won’t last long and the cakes certainly won’t.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

Arrival in Herat, Afghanistan

Credit: Cattle in Afghanistan by Annemarie Schwarzenbach from the Swiss National Archives

I recently discovered that, 75 years after her death in 1942, Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s photographs have been put into the public domain by the Swiss National Archive. (All the photographs on this post are from this archive.) 

I’m delighted by this as they capture a particular time in the history of Afghanistan. And because the people, the landscape and the buildings in her photographs look exactly as I remember them (whereas more modern photographs I can see online show a far more industrialized city which I do not recognize.) These photographs are a counterpart to her written descriptions and give me more information as I write about her travels, her life and the themes in her writing.

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat

Incredible as it seems to me now, I did not take photographs when I travelled across Asia in the 1970s. And all the notes I wrote down were lost.

But I do remember the vast blue skies of Afghanistan. We arrived in Herat after travelling from Mashhad in Iran. In Herat, we found a place to stay, rooms in a typical Afghan dwelling on the outskirts of the city. The road outside was a dusty track. Ponies pulling the carts that were the main form of transport (gadis) had bells attached to their harness, and their jingling was the main sound I remember of Herat, especially in the evening, when there was a silence we were not accustomed to, no revving car engines, no TVs or radios, no late night revellers. There were no street lights, just the oil lamps gleaming in the chaikahns and little shops. People who walked past moved like dense shadows, almost soundlessly. Clear skies, full of stars, and the jingling of the ponies as they passed by in the street, outside the window. Where we were staying was near the tree lined avenue mentioned below and one day we hired horses and went riding in the surrounding countryside, under those peerless blue skies. 

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

I remember the bread too, the flat and oval bread, I can remember how good it tasted, and the pilau rice, which was pretty much our staple diet. (Nothing in the west tastes as good.)

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat

It was December but not cold. I was lucky enough to see this country when it was free and peaceful, before conflict and war began to tear it apart, beginning with the Russian invasion in 1979 and it still continues today, nearly 40 years later.

When Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart visited it in 1939, they took many photographs and wrote many articles. (Ella also wrote a book about their journey, The Cruel Way.) From their descriptions it had changed little in the almost 40 years between their visit and mine. But the war in Europe broke out while they were there. They both wanted to get away from the mounting tensions in Europe where already many of their friends had fled from the rising fascism in Germany. 

Once war was declared, their responses were different. Ella went on to India where she would spend the war years, in the ashram of an Indian teacher. Annemarie felt she could not as she saw it, abandon Europe to suffer alone. She felt she had to contribute to the struggle against fascism, and did so in the form of writing and photo-journalism. The piece below, which I’ve translated from Alle Wege sind Offen was written by Annemarie before war had been declared. They were newly arrived in Afghanistan and she would spend several weeks there before heading for India and travelling back to Europe by boat. 


From Alle Wege sind Offen/All the Roads are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (my translation)

Herat, August 1st 1939

It's customary to date one's letters.  We've checked with each other several times and compared our personal journals, so there can be no doubt that today is the 1st August. But when will this letter reach my country?  Will the fires lit in celebration  already be forgotten, will this date appear obsolete and a little bizarre in a world that's grown accustomed to the radio?  It's a journalist's job to give information to newspapers, to be available at short notice and find outlets for their news, wherever they might be, at whatever hour of the day or night. At least, that might be the popular impression. So, here we are, not far from l'Amou-Daria, the Russian border of Turkestan and on the other side of the river there is a railway – but what importance do kilometres and timetables have here!

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

At Meshad a young Iranian said to me, when he learned that we intended to drive to Afghanistan in our Ford,
'A camel is not as fast as a horse but it is more likely to reach its destination.'
Two days later we were mired in sand, in a no man's land near the Iranian-Afghan frontier post where there was not the slightest trace of any car having passed this way. By our calculations it could only be a matter of twenty or so metres, but each one of these took us almost half an hour and cost us considerable effort. That's when we could well have done with a horse or – even better – a couple of buffaloes...

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

So it would surprise no-one to learn that when we finally reached Herat we felt we had good reason to light a 'celebratory fire' but it was simply too hot for that. From the yellow hills to the north of the town a constant and remorseless wind is blowing. We close all the windows in an attempt to keep a little coolness in the central room of our small house, which is completely devoid of shade. This will last for a month, the inhabitants of Herat tell us, and then we'll have a very pleasant autumn. That's why it's preferable to sleep in the afternoon and to wait for evening.

Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

I got up around five o'clock in the morning to drive the Ford to the chief mechanic. The shopkeepers were just opening their kiosks, filling their baskets with grapes, piling up pyramids of yellow and pale green melons, pouring milk into hanging sheepskins, and mixing in some powder and a little curdled milk from the day before to make the fresh curds ferment into whey. Men on horseback were galloping in the direction of the town centre, their white turbans floating behind them in the wind, donkeys were braying and the chief mechanic, wearing a superb grey Persian lambskin kula (sleeveless waistcoat) opened, with his helpers, the door of his courtyard. Inside, lying there in the morning sunlight, was the solitary wreck of a Chevrolet that had given up the ghost.

Our car has survived quite a few challenging situations – a sandstorm, deserts littered with  thistles and river beds filled with huge sharp stones. And only the day before, while I was crossing an ill-fated earthen bridge, the left side of the car slipped into a deep ditch, right in front of the house of the mudir we had just been visiting.  The chief mechanic tests the springs, smiles, and promises to do his best. I stay for a while and watch him working then make my way back.   Already it is almost too hot. So we wait for evening. And when the car is fixed we will leave, perhaps head north and spend the night somewhere in the mountains, where we can find shade, and where the nomads pitch their black tents.
Credit: Swiss National Archive, photo by A Schwarzenbach, Herat, Afghanistan

The evenings at Herat  are not exactly cool, but they are bathed in a golden light, and the pale moon sails above the old eroded ramparts of yellow clay, then it  floats in the direction of the foothills of the Hindu Kush, these blue mountains with spikes and peaks straight out of a fairytale. The alleyways of the bazaar are full of white turbans and respectable kulas and the streets that lead out of town vibrate a little to the rapid trotting of the splendid frisky horses which pull the two-wheeled gadis.  They head towards the pine-bordered avenue and the gardens beyond it, in this country of bare mountains. Up there, the camels of the great caravans crowd together and the bells tinkle....

Credit: Swiss National Archive - Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Afghanistan

A young Pole comes to see us – the only European in Herat, an engineer employed by the state to build roads, bridges and houses.
He asks us urgently, Have you any newspapers? Do you know what's happening in the world?
But we don't know any more than he does, it's been an effort for us even to work out the date. What political events are unfolding? But that is exactly what we want to escape from!
We're so far away here,  murmurs the young Pole, so far away!  He offers me a packet of real English cigarettes.

Credit: Swiss National Archive https://www.helveticarchives.ch/detail.aspx?ID=322051

To explain the significance of such a gift, here in this distant outpost of the world, would involve going into great detail. But night is falling, the wind has died down a little and the light is less intense. We're going to go out into the street, hail a gadi, one pulled by a white or piebald horse if possible.  The letters can wait, in this country time has no price tag attached to it. We are going back to the melons and peaches of Afghanistan.