.

Heirs to Alexander

These snuff-brown mounds piled up ten thousand feet
Gaze on toward Hindu Kush peaks twice their height;
Green threads of valleys mark the rough retreat
Wherein Kalasha keep their recondite
Festivities with sacrificial meat.

Good wine and brandy old Caucasian folk
Knew how to make when Babel’s throngs pressed east;
Space purified by juniper twig smoke,
Theopathy by dance and chants released,
Each devotee sports joy’s entrancing cloak.

Proud kafir “unbelievers” know their band
As heirs to Alexander and his men,
Who found fair cousins in this hinterland;
Some stayed to sow blond hair, blue eyes, white skin,
And minds that angry scimitars withstand.

.

.

Only the Brave

Done is our climb as supreme bulwark mountains deny a declivity;
Strangely and silently sensing reflections of Macedon militant,
Dauntless we recognize wives to be chosen by stalwart Hellenic men.

Here our desirable kindred with language of bracing words singable;
Fortress and forest and farm found near rivers are practically promising
Peace and protection and nurture for us and our children and pantheon.

Weird yet congenial this mythic expanse. Alexander interpreted
It as the place where Prometheus might have been shackled for centuries,
Having brought fire to the dwellers in adamant land frozen bitterly,
Making them wiser and more self-reliant than careless communities.

Liquor-rich vines grow where wild Dionýsos laid footsteps that
Heated and fertilized soil unintentionally. Walnuts, not olives, give
Bread a smooth savor. Our herds may be lean, but no thieves raid the pasturage.
Oh, how this rigorous refuge outdoes an isle Mediterranean!

.

.

Athanasios Lerounis

A teacher in his land of Greece had heard
Of ancient family ties in Pakistan.
His life with kinsmen, for their good, has spurred
Much Greek support for the Kalasha clan.

He founded schools, paid elders to instruct,
Contrived to write their tongue, helped them construct
A showcase of their artistry and culture.
He roused their ethos, gained them admiration;
Increasing numbers spelled their preservation.

Then he was kidnapped by the Taliban.
His kind of educational exertion
Posed threats to slow extinction by conversion.
Greece paid a million pounds to free this man,
But after being captive for eight months,
He’s come to cheer his people only once.

.

Poet’s Note: Lerounis began to live with the Kalasha in the 1990s, first helping to assure them a clean water supply. He founded three primary schools and a high school with funds from Greece. These schools enabled Kalasha children to study their language and customs, and to avoid contemptous proselytizing in government schools. The Kalasha Dur museum opened in 2007 after 12 years of work on the project. In 2009, Lerounis was abducted by armed men who killed his police guard. The captors demanded ransom, the release of associates from prison, and the conversion of Lerounis to Islam. They did not achieve the conversion. Sources disagree about how much ransom was paid or whether any prisoners were released. Lerounis returned to Greece shortly after he was freed in 2010.

.

.

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


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15 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    Enlightening and inspiring, Margaret.

    Donkeys years ago, I read an obscure 1930s biography by a British guy who traveled in that region of the world (he was completely unprepared, I recall, as though it was a snap decision to travel there!). Along with adjoining parts of Afghanistan, this part of northern Pakistan was called Kafiristan due to the number of non-believers inhabiting the area.

    I never would have thought I’d read poetic works about this place and its people!

    Thanks for proving me wrong, Margaret.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      It does seem to be British adventurers in that part of the world who have provided most of the incomplete information about it that we have. I became interested in it by reading Gerard Russell, who has done some amazing travels himself in the past 30 years, and gives little sketches of what his predecessors did in the past 200. His “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms” deals with seven small groups he considers to be vanishing because of modern pressures, but his own account of how he managed to observe each is fascinating in itself. Dangers and daring deeds are different than they used to be, but still very much present.

      Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Margaret, I enjoyed the descriptions you give of the subtle tastes in food and also the children’s clothing; especially the stern epressions on their faces. Tell me, were you there?

    They are an ancient people all right, and your poems hit the mark !

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      No, I haven’t been there. The food is most interesting for the location, especially that the Kalasha are able to grow grapes for wine in harsh conditions at their altitude. The other thing to be desired by transplanted Greeks would be olives, but walnuts are the available source of fat and flavor. The children’s clothes are festival wear, but women traditionally wear that style of headdress much of the time, with colored woven bands flowing down their back. This is quite different from the veiling of Pakistani Muslim women who must cover their hair. I’m glad my poems are able to convey a feeling for this distinctive ancient people.

      Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    The dactylic hexameters of “Only the Brave” are delightful as they trip off the tongue in recital.

    Alexander did encourage his men to settle down and marry local women in his many conquests, hoping to spread Greek culture. The Aryan faces of those two Kalasha children are testimony in the flesh.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Joe, for your praise of the meter. To make the effect clear, I tried to work with strong and unmistakable accents.

      Geneticists disagree about why many Kalasha (even darker-complexioned ones) appear European. Some claim traits could have come from South India. The theory I follow in the poems is that the Kalasha were early migrants from the Caucasus, and thus similar to the Greeks. The influx of DNA from Alexander’s soldiers reinforced characteristics that were already there. Some genetics research claims to find such an influx about the time the Greek armies came to the region. I am skeptical about how to date the entry of particular genes into a gene pool under examination many centuries later, but someone says so.

      There are some surprising similarities in language cited by Russell in the book I mentioned to Paul Freeman. One I noticed for myself is the name of the goddess of home and family, which is Jestakh in Kalasha. This sounds to me like the Greek Hestia or the Latin Vesta for the same goddess.

      I was astounded to read that no one, previous to our contemporary Lerounis, had done anything to write down the Kalasha language. He chose neither of the two scripts in use in Pakistan, nor even the Greek alphabet, but Roman letters. The reason, I suppose, is to make the Kalasha language available to the widest possible group of readers and students. And to make it easy for young Kalasha students who may go on to learn and read important world languages.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        If the Kalasha language is Indo-European, then philological study of it would show immediately if it is akin to the Indo-Iranian branch that came very early to the Indian subcontinent, or a development of the Greek brought later by Alexander’s armies. Of course there are complications — the Kalasha people may have simply borrowed some lexical items from Alexander’s armies while retaining their original language, or the Greek imported by Alexander may have slowly been absorbed and overwhelmed by the other Indo-Iranian languages of northern India and the surrounding areas.

        “Jestakh” might well be “Hestia” and “Vesta.” All the names of the Kalasha gods should be recorded and analyzed, both in terms of what the gods stand for and how their names may be derived from the names and attributes of Proto-Indo-European gods. I only wish Calvert Watkins were still around.

    • Margaret Coats

      Joe, the Kalasha language is definitely Indo-European, and for the first time I wish I knew more about that branch of linguistics. I was partially mistaken in thinking the language had not been written down before, but it seems transcription prior to Lerounis was nearly all in IPA and intended for comparative linguistic study. By contrast, the material produced by Lerounis in Latin script is actual Kalasha literature easily readable by native speakers who take the trouble to become literate. It relies very much on narratives, songs, and information gathered from local elders whom Lerounis hired to be teachers in the schools he established.

      I could wish that his procedure had been followed in collecting the names of Kalasha gods. Some of that work has been done, by a scholar intent on proving Kalasha religion derivative to Hindu polytheism. His incomplete list of names is focused on names like those of Hindu deities. That does say something, as Hindu deities have the Proto-Indo-European gods behind them.

      Whether in language or religion, I can’t locate anyone living with major interest in the Kalasha. They are a small people, but a now-deceased Norwegian says their language is unique, and deserving of more fieldwork as the most archaic of those in the Indo-Aryan group.

      Everyone admits that the Kalasha believe they are descended from Alexander’s armies, but geneticists in particular are dead set against the “European descent hypothesis.” The contrary study I mentioned above does not mean that Kalasha are genetically Greek, just that others contributed something to the Kalasha gene pool about the time Greeks were around.
      Isn’t that enough to support popular belief? There’s also a worldwide genetic simulation finding the Kalasha a distinct group between Europeans/Middle Easterners on the one hand, and South Asians/Indians on the other.

      Anyway, all this gives real stimulation to poetic imagination.

      Reply
  4. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, all three of these poems are well-wrought and fascinating glimpses into the culture and history of the Kalasha people — a people I have never before heard of. I’ve seen many types of poems before but rarely – if ever — have I seen poetry that is anthropological, sociological and historical. It’s an amazing achievement! You’ve used some unfamiliar forms to present what is, itself, fascinating and unfamiliar. You also invoke imagery and historical/mythological names and personages to give a sense of scale to the Kalasha people’s historic timeline — Dionysos, Alexander, Prometheus, Babel. You make clear through association that this is an old and venerable culture.

    I’m glad Dr. Salemi mentioned those dactyls in a poem which eschews rhyme in favor of a focus on meter. I also like the forms in the first and third poems. The third poem is interesting in the way it moves for 4 to 5 to 6 lines, presumably increasing the stature of Athanios Lerounis. That his forcible conversion did not occur is heartening. That he could not return to this land which he benefitted so tangibly, however, is quite sad.

    Thank you for a very instructive set of poems!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for your comments, Brian. I introduced Babel on my own, to suggest the early arrival of the Kalasha in this region (bringing with them the even earlier development of wine culture). References to Prometheus and Dionysos come from tradition recorded by Greek historians. Alexander himself supposedly saw the Hindu Kush mountains as the possible place of Prometheus’ punishment. Most of his men wanted to get out of that area and follow the path of Dionysos’ footsteps that make the ground warm enough for viticulture. Vines are barely possible in the Kalasha valleys, but this was the place where the men insisted on turning south, rather than looking for the Great Outer Sea by continuing east over what seemed to be the impassible wall of Himalayan foothills. “Only the Brave” imagines the thoughts of the hardiest among the soldiers, who could see the potential of the place where they and their offspring enjoyed subsistence in isolation for most of two millenia. Dactylic hexameter seemed the only appropriate choice for their heroic stance.

      Lerounis must have gone through hell for eight months before Pakistani military intelligence and Greek money got him out. Conversion to Islam is the simple matter of declaring belief in one God and Muhammad his prophet. I believe it was 1999 when a Catholic Pakistani student was kidnapped by fellow students who wanted to make a show of his conversion. He was held for only a week before his captors abandoned the conversion project and took him to a hospital, where he died. Lerounis insisted on one visit to the Kalasha people after his release, but he is clearly a target should he return to live with them. He did inspire heightened notice of them and their situation. In 2019, just before the world was locked down, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (now Prince and Princess of Wales) made a happy and well-publicized visit. Hard to say how things have gone since then.

      Reply
  5. Joshua C. Frank

    Wow… these are great! I’ve never even heard of the Kalasha people, but now I’m interested! I love the references to ancient history—Babel, and then the ancient Greeks. I notice “Only the Brave” is in dactylic hexameter without rhyme, just like the works of Homer in the original Greek. (I assume this was intentional.) As for the last one, it’s great that Mr. Lerounis did all this to protect these people against the Taliban. Would that someone would do this for devout Christians in the West!

    Again, great poems. One of the things I love about this site is all these lesser-known people gaining a wider audience through our poetry.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Josh, for reading and responding. In helping the Kalasha people, Lerounis seems to have been concerned with bringing to the fore their own knowledge and appreciation of their culture. Like Christians in the West, there is too much that can be taken for granted, and thus slip away without our realizing it. Lerounis, as a foreigner in a dangerous region, had a police guard, but his abduction was a surprise. The Taliban had not previously treated Kalasha as enemies. But the attack was understandable, considering that Lerounis made great strides to prevent this non-Muslim culture from disappearing. There are only about 4000 Kalasha. Older ones can remember when they were the dominant majority in their isolated region. The population shrank as individuals were converted to Islam, intermarried with Pakistanis, no longer identified as Kalasha, and no longer celebrated distinctive seasonal festivals of a polytheistic nature. As I explained to Brian above, conversion can happen easily, especially in school when children and adolescents unthinkingly bow to pressure from peers and teachers. But once a person has made a simple statement of Muslim belief, there is no going back. Apostasy from Islam is not illegal in Pakistan, but surveys show that most Pakistanis consider it worthy of death. Lerounis founded schools where students could be comfortable living and learning as Kalasha. One contentious issue is whether conversions to Islam made by minors should be recognized in law. But that matters little when mob fury can develop, just because of a rumor that someone has converted and then apostatized. I read of one such case.

      More often, things probably happen the way they did with a man known to Gerard Russell. He converted in high school to escape demeaning remarks from others, but instead of moving away, wanted to stay with the Kalasha as his people. But he has to keep up Muslim observances, and cannot participate in Kalasha festivals. The Kalasha allow anyone to participate who is present from the beginning of the festival, and performs certain purification rituals, but Muslims only watch lest they be thought by other Muslims to apostatize. Life becomes rather lonely, which is why any Kalasha who converts to Islam tends to move away and gets lost in modern Pakistan.

      There is a record of Christian missionaries (other than a few brought in by British rulers) passing through this remote region in earlier times, but no church remains to show for it.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      About the Taliban, I should have said that, at the time of Lerounis’ abduction, they had not bothered the Kalasha in Pakistan for years. They were busy fighting in Afghanistan. They had previously harassed the Kalasha numerous times, but Pakistan did not like their interference in its territory, and had kept them in check.

      Reply
  6. Mia

    Dear Margaret,
    I can’t add much to the amazing comments but feel I must comment and say how I am yet again so impressed and in awe of your ability and knowledge.
    I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of Athanasios Lerounis until now.
    As someone who was born in Cyprus and who lost their home in 1974
    I identify with people who are fighting for survival. I am also in awe of the Kalasha people especially their strength and courage.
    Thank you for being so well informed and for caring, it makes all the difference.
    Happy Thanksgiving Day to you and your family

    Mia

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you so much for your comment, Mia. I always enjoy hearing from you, and I am glad to know you share a special feeling for those who must struggle to survive. I admit I am very much concerned about how the Kalasha people have fared during the past three years. I cannot find a scrap of news on the internet. They are farmers and goatherders and foresters who used to receive income from tourism, because people who came to see their festivals would buy their handicrafts. Lockdowns would have taken all their cash income by preventing tourists from visiting, so I can only hope their work on the land was enough to feed them. A simpler life is easier to maintain, and I doubt if they succumbed to heavy dependence on technology as many of us did. But today is a time to be grateful for all God’s blessings to others as well as to ourselves. Hope you and your family enjoyed a happy Thanksgiving Day together; we certainly did!

      Reply

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