Afghan `Keep Out' sign still up


Isolated: It's not just recently that the Central Asian nation has been wary of foreigners. Such an attitude is long-standing, old magazine accounts show.

October 24, 2001

The buffer state of Afghanistan, historic shock-absorber between Great Britain and Russia in middle Asia, years ago put up a "Keep Out" sign, a "This Means You" warning, to all white men and Christians. The land is "posted" - to use a poacher's phrase - posted against trade and concession hunters, against missionaries, and against all military and political hunters in particular.

This paragraph, no doubt, could have been written at any time in the last century or so. It was published in the January 1921 issue of the National Geographic, written by Frederick Simpich and Haji Mirza Hussein. Reading this account, part of which follows, is to marvel at how little has changed:

Time and again, the British have pushed up from India to invade this high, rough region hard by the "roof of the world." More than once their envoys have been massacred or driven back, or imprisoned, with their wives and children, in the frowning, gloomy citadel of Kabul; and once a retreating army "shot it out" almost to a man, scattering its bones all the way from Kabul back to the Indian frontier.

The "Keep Out" sign is still up. Today the foreigner is no more welcome in Afghanistan than he was a hundred years ago. Forbidden Lhasa itself is no more exclusive than brooding, suspicious Kabul, the capital of this isolate, unfriendly realm of fanatic tribes, of rocks, deserts, irrigated valleys, and towering unsurveyed ranges.

No railways or telegraph lines cross this hermit country or run into it, and its six or seven million people are hardly on speaking terms with any other nation.

Night and day, from stone watchtowers and hidden nooks along the ancient caravan trails that lead in from India, from Persia and Russia - trails used long ago by Alexander and Ghengis Khan-squads of bearded, turbaned Afghans, with imported field-glasses and long rifles, are keeping watch against trespassers from without.

The Amir has long felt the necessity of secluding his little-known land to the greatest possible extent from the outside world. Only a few Europeans, mostly British, but occasionally also an American and now and then a few Russians or Germans, have had permission to come into this country and to sojourn for a while in its curious capital.

Today no other monarch anywhere wields such undisputed authority or is in closer touch with the every-day life of his subjects. He personally runs his country's religion, its foreign affairs, and he even supervises much of its commerce. He also owns and censors the only newspaper printed in all Afghanistan. Incidentally, he keeps 58 automobiles, and he never walks. Even from one palace to another, he goes by motor over short pieces of road built especially for his pleasure.

Amir Amanullah Khan, through his agents in India and elsewhere, is in close touch with the world's current events; because his land happens to lie just as it does on the map of the world, it is plain that for a long time to come he will be an active force in the political destinies of middle Asia.

The Amir's word, his veriest whim, is law to his millions of subjects. He is, in truth, the last of the despots, a sort of modern Oriental patriarch on a grand scale. His judgments are, of course, based primarily on the Koran, or on the common law of the land; for there is no statute book, no penal code, and no court.

The Amir reserves to himself the right of passing death sentences. The cruel Afghan forms of punishment, such as shooting a prisoner from the cannon's muzzle, sabering off his head, stoning him to death, burying him alive, cutting off his hands and feet or putting out his eyes, are seldom employed nowadays; yet often the criminal himself will choose a quick, though violent, exodus to paradise rather than suffer long imprisonment in a filthy iron cage, perhaps to die eventually of starvation.

Through the mountains of northeast Afghanistan wind some of the most picturesque and historic trails of the whole world. For centuries the trade between Turkestan and India has flowed over these high passes, and the story goes that often these annual caravans number as many as 120,000 loaded animals, including camels, mules, and horses.

Alexander the Great founded Herat and Kandahar, and here and there are ruins and monuments that mark the marches of the ancient Greeks through the valleys of Kabul, of Loghar and Bactra.

From the Persians the Afghans got the idea of marrying more than one wife; but, like the Persians, too, they have found, to their dismay, that polygamy is nowadays more expensive than exciting.

The women of Afghanistan are kept in more rigid seclusion and are more closely veiled than the women of any other Muslim land. The Afghan is notoriously jealous of his harem, and few indeed are the men of the outside world who have ever looked on the face of an Afghan woman of the towns. With the desert women, wives and daughters of the nomads, it is different; the Koran permits them to go unveiled.

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