Central Asia then and now

Recently I was reading the “Babur Nama” (in a translated and abridged Penguin Classics edition), the vivid and highly personal autobiographical journal of Babur, the conqueror and founder of the Mughal Empire dynasty in early 16th-century India.  A descendant of both Emir Timur and Chingiz Khan, his early territorial wins and losses took him back and forth across central Asia from Andijan to Samarkand and Kabul, and I went to the back issues of National Geographic (I have the CD set) looking for images of the landscapes he was traversing.  National Geographic seems to have a fascination for Afghanistan – the former king M. Zahir Shah was a noted subscriber – and several teams of authors have reported on their treks along the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of rugged terrain separating what was then the Soviet Union and Pakistan, leading up to the western tip of China.

In an earlier account published in the November 1950 issue, the authors Franc and Jean Shor describe how, having reached the limit of the effective protection of their Afghan military escort, they put themselves in the hands of a local Kirghiz clan leader Rahman Qul in order to complete the furthest stage of their trek.  In an eerie epilogue to their tale of surviving the rigours of the trail, they hear more about their guardian:
“Two years before, the mayor began, Rahman Qul and his tribe had crossed the Russian Pamirs.  There they had robbed a caravan and murdered every man in it.  Pursued by the Russians, they had fled into Chinese Turkistan and taken up residence near the border post of Mintaka.
“Rahman Qul had become a close friend of the commander of the little Chinese border garrison.  Less than a month before we met him he had invited the commander and his garrison of eight men to a lunch on a Mohammedan festival day.  While the Chinese were eating, Qul’s tribesmen had stolen into the tent behind them and murdered every man in cold blood, the mayor reported.  They had looted the garrison of guns, ammunition, horses, and supplies, and fled across the Afghan border to resume residence on the Pamir Plateau.”
Twenty years later in an April 1972 article, a different pair of authors Roland and Sabrina Michaud setting out on the same trek from Kabul described the help they received from their “friend” the tribal chieftain Rahman Qul, and showed him the photograph of himself in the earlier article.  Thinking that Rahman Qul had not only survived but perhaps also risen above his earlier reputation as a “highwayman”, I searched the web and found an article by M. Nazif Shahrani from the Spring 1984 issue of the journal Cultural Survival Quarterly, that added much to his story not only since but also before his encounters with these foreign adventurers.
His group of nomadic pastoralist Kirghiz fled their traditional homeland in one of the remotest corners of the USSR in the face of mid-1920’s efforts to enforce the Soviet policy of resettlement on collective farms.  They settled in the Wakhan Corridor, but after Soviet military cross-border raids in 1946 they shifted to Chinese territory in the Pamirs, only to return 3 years later after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949.  This much of the story ties in with the less-sympathetic version told in the 1950 article.  Until the late 1970’s this Afghan Kirghiz community of fewer than 2000 enjoyed stability, recognition from the Afghan government, and increasing prosperity, under Rahman Qul’s strong leadership.  But after the Communist military coup and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1978-79, the Kirghiz, led by now Haji Rahman Qul, sought refuge in the northern areas of Pakistan.  There they languished for four years in the relatively hot, lowland climate, with no land base to practise their pastoral lifestyle.  Haji Rahman Qul tried to rally his scattered community and seek a more promising homeland, first in Alaska but the US was unresponsive, and finally in Turkey.  In 1981, along with a number of other ethnic-Turkic Afghan refugees, Turkey accepted the Kirghiz group, who were resettled in a village built for them in the eastern province of Van.
“The critical role of the Kirghiz khan, Haji Rahman Qul, now referred to in the modern Turkish vernacular as Agha (chief), cannot be overestimated in the continual struggle of his community for survival. Through the strong will of this remarkable traditional tribal leader, the Kirghiz have been able to preserve the integrity of their community, although in the process a way of life has vanished forever.” (M. Nazif Shahrani)
Haji Rahman Qul, as Babur would have said, went to God’s mercy, in 1990.
The history and current status of his Kirghiz community in Turkey is the subject of a good-natured documentary film “37 Uses for a Dead Sheep” (2006) by Ben Hopkins.

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~ by Peter Harris on 12/10/2012.

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