Tuesday, January 22, 2013

MICHENER'S CARAVANS


Published in 1963 and set in 1946-7 (before the Partition of India), this book reminds us what a great investigator and thoughtful writer Michener was. The story itself is outmoded and Michener does not show great insight into the psychology of his characters. But one wonders if anyone in "exceptional" America read it when Charlie Wilson went to arm the Taliban against the Soviet supported regime, when soldiers were sent after 9/11 only to remain there for more than a dozen years. 

The author described Kabul as resembling Palestine in Jesus' day, of death by stoning, of an eye for an eye and a life for a life, of the fate of the country to be determined--whenever Afghanistan might be left to itself--by the struggle between the many bearded men led by mullahs from the hills and the few young experts with degrees from Oxford, Sorbonne or MIT, the former making up 99.99 percent of the country. 

"We are a brigand society and we murder our rulers," says one of the characters. There are indeed striking descriptions of a violent and very different society that has very likely not changed much except that the munitions have multiplied, the mullahs reinforced with money and ideology from an even more fundamentalist source, and the young experts very likely all killed, corrupted or disenchanted. It is a quiet book and does not address itself to the political issues. It muses on the fact that the Afghans look so much like the Jews and thought of themselves as one of the "lost tribes"; they rejoiced equally when the Germans proclaimed them the First Aryans.

Michener's story also gives prominence to wanderers who traded goods (perhaps stolen) and made annual migrations with their goats and camels between the Oxus (now in Turkmenistan) and Jhelum (now in Pakistan), a trek of two thousand miles.  Were they Povindahs? Kochis? Whatever, they were the gypsies of Central Asia.  The author tells of the Desert of Death that lies between Iran and Afghanistan and of the mysterious City at the border. The heat and absence of humidity of the desert were such that the Helmand River flows into the desert and simply disappears.  

The most ambitious among the Afghans in this book wants to build a dam and transform the desert gradually into farmland.  He even explores the ancient karez tunnels that were sunk deep into the ground to bring up water; such tunnels may have had Persian origins and are to be found all the way from Iran and Pakistan through Afghanistan to the desert town of Turpan in Western China.  Some years ago, I read a whole bunch of books on the Silk Road as if in a trance.  The romantic caravan trails they described, I learn now from Michener, crossed at Kabul.

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