The region of Kafiristan stretches across portions of what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kalash people spurn Islamic law by drinking, taking drugs, and partying. It’s not a nice place to live, but, as I discovered, it is a great place to party.
The view of Afghanistan from the top of Bumboret, the largest of the three Kalash valleys.
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is a 19th-century tale of empire, madness, and idolatry centered around two roguish British soldiers who take a perilous journey into Kafiristan, a hostile mountain region populated by pagans who kill and rob anyone foolish enough to set foot in their domain. Kafiristan took its name from the Arabic word kafir, which translates as “nonbeliever” or “infidel.” The region stretches across portions of what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not a nice place to live, but, as I discovered, it is a great place to party.
For nearly 70 years, up until 1896, the emir of Afghanistan offered bribes to the people of Kafiristan to discourage them from robbing outsiders and slinging their bodies off of mountains. The Kafirs took the money but refused to give up their marauding ways. Abdur Rahman Khan, nicknamed “The Iron Emir,” grew so incensed by this flagrant disrespect of his power that he sent troops into the Afghan-controlled portion of Kafiristan to discipline the local population. Kafirs were rounded up and given a stark choice: Islam or death. Naturally, most chose Islam, and the Afghan side of Kafiristan was soon known by the euphemism Nuristan, or “land of light.” These forced conversions and the change of moniker, however, did little to alter the nature of its people. In his 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby cataloged some common phrases in the Nuristani language at that time: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning”; “I have nine fingers; you have ten”; and “I have an intention to kill you.”
In the end, the Iron Emir was only sucessful in converting the population on the Afghan side. Across the Hindu Kush mountains, in Pakistan, a raucous pagan animism persisted. Today the descendents of these pagans live in what are known as the Kalash valleys: Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. They are the last animist tribe of Central Asia—a nature-worshipping island in a sea of Islam spreading out in all directions.
The Kalash people spurn Islamic law by drinking, taking drugs, and partying. For decades, pleasure-seeking Muslims have ventured to these valleys to get drunk on Kalash wine (which tastes like sherry) and the local moonshine known as tara (which tastes like schnapps). The drug of choice is opium brought in from Afghanistan or, more commonly, nazar, an opiate-based chewing tobacco, which oftentimes makes users sick and dizzy. Just like American kids who travel to Florida or Vegas to blow off some steam, devout Pakistanis periodically head up into the mountains for a taste of the debauched pagan life.
The author's crew, their security detail, and their Kalash host, Wali Khan (in the nonmilitary clothing and traditional Chitrali hat)—the principal of the local elementary school and the self-declared "most handsome man" in the Kahasha Desh.
Unlike spring break and other loosely organized excuses to party for weeks at a time in Western countries, trips to the valley are mostly male affairs. Besides the desire to get wasted without Allah looking over their shoulders, young Pakistani men arrive with hopes of connecting with the Kalash women, who do not cover themselves and are famed for their beauty. There is a persistent (if apocryphal) legend that the Kalash are actually descended from a renegade company of Alexander the Great’s army that deserted their warrior king to shack up with the gorgeous women of these valleys.
In the winter of 2011, I left London to shoot a documentary about the Kalash lifestyle. One of our team had been told that their sport chikik gal—a mountain-tribe version of extreme golf—had never been filmed before. We were also informed that the Kalash people are struggling to maintain their unique ethnic identity. There are barely 3,000 Kalash animists left in the valleys, and they are now outnumbered by Muslims. For decades, local imams have crusaded to save the souls of the infidel pagans. In spite of government attempts to safeguard their belief system, many fear that the Kalash religion will soon be no more.
Our trip to Chitral, the largest town near the Kalash valleys, took 22 hours by jeep from Islamabad. We wound our way up a precipitous road and through the Lowari Tunnel, essentially a long, glorified cave that cuts through the side of the mountain and is totally unlit except for the odd lantern.
The streets of Chitral were dirty with melted snow and lined with markets that sold everything from televisions to finely spun local wool to Kalashnikovs. For decades, Chitral and the Kalash valleys were considered a peaceful haven. But in 2009, the Taliban kidnapped a Greek NGO worker and philanthropist and kept him prisoner for seven months in Nuristan. This kidnapping, along with other Taliban activity in the area, means that foreigners who visit Chitral are now assigned a security detail made up of local soldiers and policemen intent on reestablishing the town’s reputation as a safe and beautiful place to visit.
A Kalash girl outside the entrance of her house, wearing a traditional headdress and necklaces. Kalash families eat and sleep together in the same room.
In the 90s, thousands of foreigners visited Chitral annually, but since then tourism has declined and we were the first outsiders to travel there in almost a year. Handwritten charts on the wall of the tourism office attested to this fact. Us four goras [“white people”] were escorted up into the Kalash valleys by 14 guards, who remained by our side throughout our month-long stay. Even when one of us awoke in the middle of the night to take a piss, they were always sitting outside the door, wrapped in blankets, ensuring that the Taliban didn’t hurtle down from the mountains to grab us.
We spent our days filming and our nights with our hosts. Every night new Kalash friends would come by and we’d eat plate after plate of rice, daal, tomatoes, and naan before exchanging songs: They’d sing beautiful, haunting arias passed down from generations of mountain folk; we’d sing the Replacements.
One night, about a week into the stay, our minders invited us over to their place to drink and dance. Twenty men crammed into one of the guards’ small, overheated rooms. There was a flute player, a drummer, and a small space for dancing. Moonshine was passed around in old plastic Coke bottles, along with some nazar to keep our spirits up. At the beginning of each song, a guard would walk over and dance with me or one of my friends. We strutted around, clapping our hands and clicking our fingers to the shrill blare of the flute in a manner that could in no way be interpreted as homoerotic, at least by the locals. Pashtun culture follows a neat variation of Gore Vidal’s famous aphorism: There are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts; for the people of northern Pakistan, there are neither gay people nor gay acts. If something erotic happens between two men, it’s just something that happened.
These parties recurred a few more times over the month. Out would come the old plastic bottles, the flute player, the drummer. The Muslim guys would get hammered off a few gulps of moonshine and reel around the room before collapsing on the floor. On one occasion we were dancing to a particularly intense dirge when Taj, the local chief of police, told me that he had killed 17 Taliban fighters during the two years he spent in the Swat Valley. His eyes glistened from the moonshine as he recounted raiding Taliban safe houses late at night—how he feared for his life, and how he was never sure if the intelligence he’d been given was correct. Sometimes they’d open doors and find only women and children. They’d know that either their quarry had escaped or that the information they had been given was incorrect, intentionally or not. Sometimes their targets would beg and plead, insisting that they had nothing to do with the Taliban. But many times firefights would break out, and Taj’s men would kill or be killed. He retained the fear of what was to come and he lost many friends along the way. It’s the kind of life that drives many Western soldiers to drugs and alcohol, but for Taj, there was no easy way of obtaining such things. So he would venture up to the Kalash valleys, where he could find a few intoxicating weeks of relief. One night, I sang Rolling Stones songs for him while my friend Matan played harmonica. Taj stood there dancing on the spot, shouting, “Perfect, perfect!” It was a breakthrough moment in our relationship.
One of the Western travelers dancing with Taj, the local chief of police.
Not all of the guys we met in the valley were as intriguing as Taj. I had to sit patiently through a lot of what my friend Tom refered to as “drunk Muslim time.” (Tom is Muslim, so it’s totally OK for him to say that.) This typically consisted of one of our hosts stumbling to his feet, grabbing me, and saying “Britain… Pakistan… same thing… number one” before moving on to “Girls, pretty girls, you like?” or “You, me, good friends.” We had the same stupid, drunken conversations that take place in bars and clubs the world over, except we were crammed into a tiny, overheated room in the mountains, the smell of juniper, moonshine, and opium filling the air. At home, these guys had responsibilities; here they could go on a bender without worrying about it.
Their escapism has a dark side, of course. Over the past two decades, the Kalash valleys had begun to resemble “a zoo,” as one local lawyer put it, with devout Pakistanis coming up to the Hindu Kush to gawk at the local pagans in their bright clothing. There were rumors of Kalash girls working as prostitutes, and some men organized tourist events where Kalash girls were made to shimmy through four seasons of traditional dances in one afternoon.
Abdul Sattar, a local who, like many of his neighbors, converted to Islam, explained the problem to me. “Before, when I was Kalash, I was very happy. But at that time there were a lot of problems. The government and people from the rest of Pakistan were coming here. They were coming here and making us dance and perform. We told them we weren’t showpieces. I became a Muslim because I couldn’t enjoy performing for outsiders.”
This kind of voyeurism has created an anti-Pakistani prejudice that has taken hold in all three valleys. “So, you went to see the pretty girls who don’t wear veils,” a government official in Islamabad asked me, his voice dripping with innuendo. A number of recent ethnographies mention young Muslim men desperately trying to chat up Kalash women.
The Kalash can also work the situation to their advantage. A number of Kalash men traffic illegal booze and drugs in and out of the valleys, selling their contraband wares in neighboring towns. When the police stop them, they generally escape punishment because they are not bound to Islamic law in the same way as their neighbors. As Nabaig, “the world’s first Kalash lawyer,” told me: “Nothing in our law tells us that we can’t drink, so why should we be punished for drinking?” It’s a strong argument, one he uses pretty much all the time, as the majority of his cases relate to the conflict between the Islamic law of Pakistan and the law of the Kalash people.
If Western trips organized around debauchery, like spring break, serve as an escape from normal life and a celebration of hedonism confined to a particular setting, then the Kalash valleys are an odd variation on this. In an increasingly unstable part of the world, partying with strangers can be a transformative, if sometimes painful, bonding experience. The way of life of the Kalash is unique in Pakistan, but while it has its attractions, it also has obvious pitfalls. After all, no one ever went out of the way to protect the people they secretly party with.
More from our Cultural Atrocities issue: