By Tamim Ansary
I went camping by myself in the Sierras once. It was during a troubled time for the world. Perhaps you remember that era. The global economy looked shaky, inflation was looming, unemployment was soaring. Brutal dictators ruled many nations. Faceless corporations were gobbling up precious resources across the earth. Coffee and sugar could be had for a song—but I guess that doesn’t narrow it down much.
All right, I’ll be specific. It was 1982. Ronald Reagan stood astride America. The ayatollahs ruled Iran. The Soviet war machine was into its second year of squeezing Afghanistan. I had just lost my job. I decided to seek some solitude in nature.
So I borrowed some camping gear, collected some food, jammed a novel I was reading into a backpack, tossed a notebook in there, and grabbed a camera: I was ready for the wilderness. But when I left town in my hand-painted 15-year-old VW bug, I was still trailing urban worries. Was that a worrisome knock in my rebuilt engine? Might I need more oil? Speaking of oil, what about developments in the Persian Gulf?
In the Sierra foothills, the temperature was hitting the mid-nineties. I stopped for butter and salt in Sonora, where everything including the Safeway and the Bank of America looked like a Bret Harte saloon, because this was a Gold Rush tourist town. Butter, it turned out, cost too much for a guy with no job. but salt I could afford. Back in the car, I noticed a pin-sized leak in my plastic water jug. Oh well, I’d fill it up when I got to the campground, I gunned out of the Safeway parking lot—and my car died. Momentum carried me to the shoulder, but just barely. The back end of my bug was left jutting out just where two lanes of traffic came bursting around a blind curve.
The engine had overheated. That’s the trouble with goddamned “air-cooled” engines. There was nothing to do but wait. The Bank of America had a shaded porch, so I dragged myself there and opened the book I was reading: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
It was a historical novel about a young Armenian named Gabriel Bagradian whose family had moved to Paris when he was twelve. He had grown up completely Europeanized, but just as World War I was breaking out, he went back to Turkey with his French wife because he wanted to see his homeland again. He went back to the village of Yoghonuluk where his family still owned land and constituted local gentry. And then it began: officials confiscated his passport. Borders slammed shut. The Bagradians could not get out of Turkey. And the Turkish government under warlord Enver Pasha launched a program to exterminate all Armenians.
I once saw a photo of a tattered broadsheet in Lebanon showing five severed Palestinian heads. The inscription read, “The massacre of the Armenians and the destruction of Palestine are the crimes of the century.” At the time, I had never heard of “the massacre of the Armenians.” I knew you couldn’t find Armenia on a map anymore but vaguely assumed this was because it got subsumed into some larger Balkan pseudo-nation. The poster, however, seemed to imply that Armenia had vanished because the Armenians had all been killed. The massacre of an entire people? How could it be that I had never heard of this?
Now, years later, reading Musa Dagh on that bank porch, I learned that the Armenians were a population of Christians who lived between the Ottoman and Russian empires. At the start of World War I, they happened to be under Turkish rule and the Turkish government decided—as the Nazis were to decide some years later about the Jews—to wipe out this people en masse. Some two million Armenians were killed. The rest fled.
The forced march was used as the method of slaughter. Armenians were told they were being moved to “resettlement zones” for security reasons. They had to pack up and start walking within 24 hours, but they weren’t actually going anywhere. The were just walking, prodded on by soldiers on horseback, walking and walking until the weak ones died, and the strong grew weak, and then died too.
Hmm. Millions of Cambodians died this same way six decades later, under the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary government of twelve-year-olds with machine guns, headed by a few horrific elders.
As I sat on that shaded porch, waiting for my car to cool, I fell into ruminations. Once upon a time, the Nazis’ murder of the Jews was the only genocide I had heard about. I thought a profound theory was needed to explain how such an aberration could have occurred. Now, history was coming into focus as a web of horrors spinning up constant new contenders for Crime of the Century.
In 1982, this story of Europeanized Gabriel Bagradian had a special resonance for me. He was born in Turkey, raised in Paris. I was born in Afghanistan, came to America as a fresh-faced teenager, and here I still was, eighteen years later. When I waved goodbye to Afghanistan from an airplane window, the country was at peace. My father whom I hadn’t seen in years still lived there, still owned a house, still enjoyed local renown as a man of letters. Good thing I never went back. Afghanistan had become the scene of yet another Crime of the Century: first, a Communist coup killed, broke, or imprisoned tens of thousands. Then the Red Army invaded. By 1982, Soviet bombardment had reduced my ancestral village of Deh-yahya to ruins and the Afghan countryside was swimming in blood.
Finally, my engine had cooled enough for me to start my car again. I got back on the road and headed up into the mountains. Musa Dagh was a novel and Bagradian a fictional character, but Yoghonuluk was real and the core event was historical. The real Yoghonuluk was among the very few villages to resist the Turks’ genocidal program. When the marching orders came, these people moved themselves and all their herds and supplies to an all-but-impregnable spot high on Musa Dagh Mountain, overlooking the coastal plain and the sea beyond. The climb was a military feat and once garrisoned among the rocks, the villagers could battle the Turkish army to a standstill for forty days. But the Turks kept throwing in more reinforcements and the people on Musa Dagh gradually ran out of salt, food… water…
Twilight had fallen by the time I reached my intended destination, Big Trees State Park. I had to squint to read the sign at the entrance.
Oh no! And it was too late to look for another campground now! I would have to just drive on and camp wherever. The narrow hillside road had no shoulders and when I finally found a deserted place to pull over, a peek over the edge of the highway made me wince. The slope fell away into a bottomless, bushy darkness. Then, I discerned a notch of some sort, gouged into the hillside, not far below the road. A gravel pit, as it turned out. It would have to do: at least I could roll out my sleeping bag there. By that time, I couldn’t even see my own fingers. Forget cooking. I ate a slice of cantaloupe for dinner and when I flung away the skin, a huge bird-silhouette glided over me to hit the scrap. Out of the black sky, stars began to shine.
The isolation and intimacy reminded me of my childhood in Lashkargah, a tiny town in southwestern Afghanistan, situated beside the country’s biggest river and surrounded on every side by a hot flat desert. Lashkargah means “Soldier Town,” and in Afghanistan, at this very moment, while I lounged in this not unpleasant darkness, soldiers had locked fear over everything like invisible cement. I knew this only from smuggled report. At night, according to these reports, huge spotlights played over the capital, and gunmen roamed the streets, shooting curfew violators on sight. When my father wrote to me from this nightmare, he said, “The weather is fine. The family says hello.”
I had come here, looking for solitude and I had found it. I could hear traffic, but no one could see me from the road. When I woke up, it was just past dawn but already hot, and I was thirsty. I climbed back to the road to get some water, but the pin-sized leak had drained my water jug. No worries though: the Stanislaus River was only a couple of hundred feet north of where I stood—but several hundred feet down as well, snaking through a canyon of its own making. Getting to that water would be a challenge.The hillside sloped gently at first, then more steeply. It was covered with succulents, tiny desert flowers, bright spots of lichen, and gnarled trees with dry green mosses hanging from their branches. A lizard jumped out of hiding, flew across a few rocks, and came to an instantaneous dead stop, only its tongue moving.
Soon the slope was so steep I had to do some actual climbing, between big rocks wedged into the soil. It reminded me of hiking the mountain slopes above Kajakai Dam, when I was a boy. My recklessly daring cousin Najib came with us on one of those trips. We spotted a wolf, I remember, and instead of running away he chased after it with a stick. Damned fool. He had been arrested recently, in Kabul, because he’d asked a cab driver if the road to Kandahar was closed. The cabbie was a government informer. Apparently, the security of the roads was something you weren’t supposed to ask about.
I slipped on a pebble and slid down a short incline. A truck-size boulder brought me up short, and a good thing too, for just beyond the boulder, the dirt slope came to a sharp edge, the rim of a gigantic stone basin carved by water into miles of sheer bedrock . From that rim, I could see the Stanislaus clearly now. This stretch of it fell through four waterfalls, each one pouring into a deeper bowl. On the opposite shore I saw a hollow set into the canyon wall, just the right size and shape to accommodate one spiritual hermit. I wanted to be that hermit.
Getting down to the hollow would require some serious climbing, but this didn’t daunt me. I had been a serious climber in my high school days, in Colorado. I could climb just about anything because I was light and strong for my weight but most of all, because I had that one indispensable instinct. Most people hug the rock when they get up high, instinctually clinging to safety: but this is a mistake: it forces their feet away from the rock and makes them fall. Rock climbing requires leaning away from the rock, into empty space. It’s counter-intuitive but a few people do it naturally, and I was one of those. I wasn’t worried.
Just around a curve in the canyon wall, and still some 30 feet above the canyon floor, the ever-narrower ledge I was inching along narrowed down to nothing. From there, I could see a vertical fault wider than my body: a chimney. Next to it, jutting from the rock, was a broad shelf I could jump down to. If I got inside the chimney I could climb all the way down.
But once I jumped down, I could not jump back up that that narrow ledge. If I jumped down, I would have no choice except to keep going down and then find another way back up.
I jumped and nailed the landing. I was on my way down. The chimney grew ever narrower like a long thin V, until at last my body no longer fit inside, but I could grab one edge of the crack and lean away from the rock, which pressed the soles of my running shoes against the other side of the crack like a clutch plate to a pressure plate. Rock climbing demands and bestows a dense concentration. The physics of climbing works just as well as gravity so long as you give the relationship of rock to body your unbroken attention. I inched down, solving intricate problems of friction and traction and weight distribution. The sound of the river amplified. The slope changed from steep to vertical but I felt perfectly in control. I attained solid ground. Some of the blistered skin had come off my fingers, and my knees were trembling, but I was down.
The shallow cave beckoned from across the shimmering current. Polished almost perfectly round by centuries of floodwater, it looked even more temple-like from here than it had from above. Downstream, the river had smoothed the bedrock into sensuous billows, and at this season, the water ran over it in glistering sheets.
Now, between me and the tensions of the city, between me and the horrors of history, hung many veils: my troubles on the road…the night in the gravel pit…the harrowing descent…
But I couldn’t stop thought. Through all the veils, something slowly gathered: the very darkness that had driven me from the city, the consciousness that history is crime on a massive scale and that we are all trapped inside it.
Afghanistan. Three hundred thousand dead at that point, a million refugees already in the camps, and no end in sight. History had slipped its leash and rampant terror ran amok upon the Earth.
And the worst of it was, within a few years, this too would be forgotten … Like the Armenian genocide… Someday I would try to write about it and people would say, who cares what the Soviets did to Afghanistan? Write about now, boy.
These thoughts idled inside me like carp at the bottom of a muddy pool. Then a passage from Musa Dagh sounded in my mind, something I had run across the day before.
Bagradian and the 700 or so remaining villagers were in their trenches on the fortieth day, awaiting the Turks’ final assault. Suddenly shells came screaming up from the distant sea and blew up the Turkish encampment. An Allied ship sailing by had seen the Armenians’ banner calling for help and come to their rescue.
Bagradian, by this time a starving near-corpse in rags like all his men, realized that he was saved, that he would live in Paris again, in an elegant flat overlooking the Seine, within walking distance of the great cathedrals, among “cultivated” people, in comfort, with plenty to eat and a soft bed to sleep in every night …
But those forty days on Musa Dagh Mountain had changed him. “Whatever trace of emotion he could find in himself,” the chapter concluded, “could be described as a nagging desire to be alone… But it would have to be such a solitude as there is not. An unpeopled world. A planet without animal needs or movement. A cosmic hermitage and he the only person in it, gazing out at peace without any past, present and future.”
From that hollow in the rock, I could see hundreds of feet to the tops of distant cliffs and out for countless miles down the valley. It looked like an unpeopled world, and within it I seemed to exist purely as animal needs in timeless suspension under pouring sunlight. But it would not do. I didn’t live in nature. I lived in history and history therefore lived in me. Even here at the bottom of a canyon in a stretch of sparsely populated mountains, I seemed to hear a dim uproar of human sighs resonating through the bulk of this weary planet. No solitude could be enough.
Copyright 2017 Tamim Ansary. All rights reserved.