Blog 2: On the border |

Blog 2: On the border

Don Rogers

(Blog 2 aims to write the book from before the idea through the final work.)

Marriba saw Osama Bin Laden once. On a donkey. The scourge of the West. The world’s Most Wanted. Right in front of her home against the steep hillside. Looking like a prophet, albeit a dirty, tired one.

How was it that the Great Satan lived in luxury, their women bareheaded, talking back to their men, wearing gold around their necks, while the faithful lived here, hard and hungry and amid so much catastrophe, their prophets dirty and riding donkeys?

She didn’t think these thoughts so articulately. But even here, in the mountain maze of northwestern Pakistan, snippets from the West informed. These thoughts came in flashes. She noted the resentment trying to cap over pure wonder at the stories, amazing as they were, and even as they included such things as she couldn’t quite imagine.

Buildings so high they poked above the clouds? Higher than these mountains even? And planes with many people in them smashing into these buildings? This was punishment for the infidels?

So strange.

She knew she was strange. Men could not see her auburn, nearly blonde hair, with the veil women wore here. But they could see her brilliant blue-yellow eyes, which appeared to challenge the beholder even as she took care to mind the manners of subservience to the men of Islam according to custom.

Those eyes unnerved the young men, and disturbed even the elders of this nook in the Hindu Kush that technically may sit in in the tribal territories of northwestern Pakistan, or maybe Afghanistan. No one really knew for sure which. Or cared at all. They bowed to neither country.

Almost no one outside knew of the pass the prophet had just ridden through. Just a few smugglers, who augmented the crops and livestock in this rocky, forested little Shrangi La cut off by the snow even to donkeys in each direction seven months out of the year. A village way station, if you could call this collection of maybe two dozen buildings something so lofty as “village.”

The modern world could not possibly conceive just how close to civilization this region once was, a relative few turns from the Silk Road of yore. Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Genghis Khan, the British army had all passed through not so far from this roost.

America may call itself the melting pot, but this region brought together Europeans, Indians, Persians, Chinese, Arabians ” practically all peoples, save the Polynesians. Now it was forgotten frontier, backward, medieval even to the low standards of Kabul, Peshwar and Chitral, for that matter.

Marriba knew the names, although she had never left her tiny valley. Her father traveled them all and many others in his work. What that was, she still wasn’t quite sure. Trader, fighter, smuggler, guide. Whatever. He provided for six daughters and only one wife somehow. And he never showed any disappointment in his failure to sire sons, though of course that was noted with a sympathetic shake of the head among the other men, who did not quite understand why a man of his obvious vigor did not take another wife.

This apparently was his only shortcoming. Bigger, and darker, than the other men, he was known for his fealty to Allah and a certain stubborn determination that had saved many a life over the years. It also was responsible for his loyalty to his wife, a girl he brought home from the Kalasha valleys in defiance of his own father a quarter of a century ago.

These Kalasha, whom legend had descending from the great Greek king Alexander, and maybe that was true ” to this day they were just as likely to worship pagan gods as Allah as the Prophet taught. Their women, some of the man spat as if drinking sour milk, whores! They did not even cover their heads, and they mixed freely with men, even touching them publicly. Their legendary beauty, too true, but to what end besides as temptresses? Who did they think they were!? Might as well be Americans. At least Shia followed something of the true faith.

But Miah, though light compared to her new husband, could pass for Pashtun. She followed the true way to the letter as far as the village men could tell, and was perfectly obedient to her husband. Their own wives should be so good, they thought.

So she was accepted and quickly, too. Even Mahmood’s father approved in the end. God rest his soul.

Marriba’s three older sisters and one younger, all normal with dark hair and eyes, had married. At 17, she already was older than any of them when they were betrothed. The custom here was to arrange the unions, although the subjects of her family’s deals all agreed and in Zinah’s case, had actively pushed for the marriage sooner rather than later.

Marriba was different. She had only recently had become aware that her parents had been talking about this, and what to do about her future.

Her prospects for marriage were bleak. Not only did her eyes make men uneasy, but despite strict attention to her manners, she exuded her knowledge that she was sharper and more spirited than any local suitor. This was especially apparent their parents, who saw too much of the Kalasha in her, too much chance of trouble.

Here at the far end of the world, appearances mattered. They could mean the difference between life and death. Marriba’s parents, especially her mother, schooled the girls well. Too many eyes looking already, given Mom’s heritage. Let them not find a thing to cluck about. And mostly they succeeded, Marriba’s eyes the only giveaway.

Their neighbors were not bad people. Just provincial, locked in traditions that predated even Islam, and absolutely fundamentalist in their word-for-word belief in the Koran and what they knew of Mohammed’s teachings.

But if they followed this prescription for life strictly, they also were remarkably generous as only people who have nothing in a land full of calamity can be. They made loyal friends, loving parents and lived as a tightknit community, as they had to in order to survive here. Marriba loved them no less than her immediate family. If they had to keep a secret or two within the family, well, that was worth it. This was home, after all. The only one she knew.

She had some inkling of how fortunate she was to live in this high roost, cut off even from the tribal warfare in lower lands that often trumped the larger War on Terror that occasionally filled the skies with American war planes. The last big earthquake had not damaged much of the village, and residents escaped with one older woman’s broken wrist. A miracle. Allah be praised.

Her mother was the only outsider in memory to move in. Her father and a few of other men were the only ones to venture far from the valley.

Marriba alone inherited her mother’s genes and her father’s questing spirit. Her sisters, dark as Dad, were more than content to tend to the daily routines of home and their children.

As long as she could remember, she had grilled her father endlessly about his travels, the places he had seen, when he returned just before the snow closed the passes again. She could not help herself. The questions came naturally, in torrents. He skipped over the battles lightly, made the bandits comical, and usually had a couple of books for her. She could read Farsi, Pashtun and Urdu; spoke the valley’s unique Dardic dialect, unrecognizable the next valley over; understand her mother’s Kalasha-mun, mainly the nursery songs; and recognize when her father spoke halting English, though she couldn’t pick up the words.

Her insatiable curiousity and what neighbors would call rude interrogations of her father if they had witnessed them were the least of the family secrets, which included her stern, even cold father in public melting before his wife and daughters into a gentle and even gregarious bear in their home a short walk from the village. The parental roles nearly reversed in private. Mahmood inevitably smiled, sometimes sheepishly, as Miah tossed her headpiece, flashed a wide grin and shook her head, a colt freed of the halter.

“Marriba cannot stay here forever,” she declared one night after the two remaining girls at home turned in, settling herself next to him in his chair, hand on his chest, looking her husband in the eye. “Time is getting short for her.”

“I want her to be happy, ideally married,” he said.

“The village is too small for this one. She’s too much like her father. Too much adventure in her heart. There’s a reason girls aren’t taught to read.”

He laughed. “Couldn’t be helped. That one cannot be stopped. Just like her mother.”

“Well, she’ll turn 18 next month. There are no suitors here.”

He frowned. The answer was obvious. But the outside world, so welcoming to him, looked so dangerous when he imagined taking his daughter out into it. Still, he could not deny his treasured Marriba, so alien here with her white skin, blue eyes and light hair.

“It’s Allah’s will,” he said, and sighed.

She smiled, Mona Lisa-like. Someone’s will, anyway. Her daughter would have a chance to follow her own path, a prize more valuable than the security of a home that soon would become a lonely cage.

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