Tuesday, May 23, 2006


In January 2001, after being captivated by Rudyard Kipling’s description of the mountain tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan that may or may not be descendants of Alexander the Great as recorded in his epic ‘The Man who would be King,’ as well as the annals of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and more notably the first Greek Buddhist monarch, Menander, I wrote an article in NKEE about the Kalash, the tribe that is widely held to have been descended of the ancient conquerors and still retains customs and beliefs of that time, long after they have been forgotten in their birthplace. Indeed the Kalash have a fairytale aspect to them; they are said to worship the twelve gods of Olympus and sacrifice to them, have a great many Greek-sounding words in their language and further, their homes and tombs are adorned with a symbol that looks remarkably akin to that of the Star of Vergina. People love lost tribes living in pristine harmony with their surroundings and their past and it is easy to see why romantics would desperately seek to include them within the Hellenic family, as a distant but exotic cousin.
A few days later I received a telephone call at work. After heaping lavish and largely undeserved praise upon the aforementioned article, the caller asked: “So have you been to the Kalash villages yourself? Where did you get your information from? How can I get there? I am dying to go.” “Mate,” I replied, putting paid once and for all to any claim I may have ever had to the romanticism of an intrepid traveler, “I have never been there and I have absolutely no idea to get there. I obtained all my information from books.” The caller thanked me politely and I hung up the phone feeling slightly sheepish.
Years later, while inhabiting what was then my usual haunt of the Bendigo Hotel, my gaze chanced to glance upon a patron wearing a Pakol, the traditional Afghan flat hat that is so reminiscent of the Ancient Macedonian kausia. This did not seem entirely incongruous in a try-hard rembetiko teke, though it did cause me to wonder what had befallen this gentleman who had called me that day at work and whether in fact he had made it up to the land of the Kalash. This seemed so remote a possibility that I dismissed it almost immediately, instead indulging in speculation as to whether the wearing of such a hat in the aftermath of 9/11 would necessarily be a condition precedent to having interesting adventures with the authorities.
In March of this year, the indefatigable Peter Kalliakoudis, noted Hellenaras called me. Seeing his number on my mobile, I braced myself for the inevitable blast of infectious Hellenic-related enthusiasm that almost invariably follows the pressing of one’s yes button. Sure enough, I was not disappointed. “Mate,” he exclaimed, “there is this guy, he has been to the Kalash villages and he has come back bringing one of them with him. You have got to come and meet him. A real live descendant of the ancient Macedonians. Unbelievable!”
Indeed it was. It sounded like a fairy tale. And yet a few weeks later, there I sat, with George Thermos, who I recognized as the Pakol-wearing denizen of the Bendigo Hotel sitting opposite me. Next to him sat Zarin, a similarly Pakol-wearing gent with crisp, well defined, swarthy features and an ornate feather in his hat. “What made you visit Pakistan in search of the Kalash?” I asked George.
“Well,” he replied, “I read this article in NKEE a few years ago that got me interested. I wanted to explore an avenue of Hellenism that survived before the advent of Christianity. This has particularly appeal for me.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a well-worn article that seemed to have been folded and re-folded a hundred times. I recognized it as my own and was dumb-founded at the coincidence. “No way,” I exclaimed. “You were the guy that rang me seeking further information. So you finally made it? How did you do it?”
George Thermos, a modern day Odysseus, has been to the Kalash villages of Pakistan four times. Witnessing my incompetence first-hand and after seeing a Greek documentary on the Kalash, he contacted some parties in Greece and made his way to Pakistan where after a long and arduous journey through some of the most inhospitable mountain terrain in the world, he reached the lands of the Kalash and there he sojourned, in the company of equally romantic Greek aid workers, also bent on improving the lot of their long-lost cousins.
“When I reached the Kalash villages, I was taken aback at how close the people’s mentality was to our own. Quite apart from the noticeable similarities in customs and even words, I felt that somehow, I had finally come home. I had never felt so comfortable and so accepted anywhere else before. And I truly feel that these people are my people,” George enthused. I had to ask him the inevitable question given the difficulties of the times. “No I haven’t had too much trouble on account of my travels or my hat,” he laughed, “though coming home the last time, I was taken aside by officials who seemed so interested in my travels that they asked me questions about them for about four hours.”
Talking to Zarin, I was amazed at how close his mentality and sense of humour was so close to our own, though his conception of his own identity is different to that which is ‘imposed’ by neo-Greek romantics and is invariably dualistic, having as its opposite, the ever encroaching Islamic culture that threatens to swallow the Kalash way of life whole. He does not feel Greek though he captivatingly recounts ancient myths to the effect that his tribes assisted the Macedonian soldiers in their passage across the Hindu Kush, lived with those soldiers and shared their way of life with him. Thus the Kalash identity myth immediately places itself as more ancient than those that would claim the Kalash as brothers, though it still admits them as a valuable part of the narrative.
Similarly, while similarities do exist between ancient Greek festivals such as the Demetria and the Eleusinian mysteries and Kalash seasonal cereal and grain festivals – after all Dionysus was said to have come from India, Zarin’s description of what seem to be Aryan proto-Hindu festivals at best forge but a tenuous link between our two cultures, though by his own admission, much sympathy exists among his own people, for the Greeks. Examining the so-called Star of Vergina Kalash symbol, I found it to be closer to the stylized chrysanthemums of the Imperial Japan than the symbol of the Macedonian Kings. Nonetheless and despite my logical conclusions, I could not help but speculate that Zarin, in profile, looked exactly like kausia wearing Greco-Bactrian king Eumenides, as immortalized in his coinage. In a magnanimous attempt to assuage my ego, Zarin stated that he was surprised at the accuracy of the article printed on the Kalash by NKEE. When George Thermos first showed it to him, he was convinced that it had been written by someone that had visited the Kalash and had studied them in depth, which in my eyes condemns me more as a charlatan-adventurer than ever before, albeit one who takes trouble with his sources.
There was something surreal and yet at the same time heart-warming about spending time with George and Zarin. In an increasingly polarized community, where many are quick to criticize or accuse the print media of hidden agendas and where community indifference or interest in things that one may consider trivial rather than intrinsic causes one to take a cynical view of one’s own environment, place within it and own viewpoint, it is reassuring to know that NKEE can not only inform, but also inspire its readers to reassess their own conception of their identity. This is achieved through the encouragement of a pluralism of thought that rarely if ever finds its counterpart in the previous generation and its print media. In George’s case, a single article inspired him to embark upon a journey that has changed his life and entire outlook, causing him to bridge the gaps of religion, custom, culture and history as these terms are defined by others and carve his own singular niche in the world. And we here at NKEE, are grateful and touched that once in a while, we can come across people like George who have the strength of spirit to achieve the inconceivable, and who reaffirm for us that together, we can achieve miracles.
First published in NKEE on 22 May 2006