(Stub of main portion of my Oct. 1979 trans-Siberian ticket – Moscow to Khabarovsk; 8,531 kilometers.)
Here is a bit more on my pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972-1973, etc.:
If you let your mouse pointer hover over the pictures you will see a brief description.
By Erwin Franzen
(for the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus in the 1980s.)
( My editor insisted that I use a somewhat impersonal style in this
article and did not allow me to write it up as a personal experience,
which, of course, it was. I wrote this after returning to Islamabad from a
two-week trip to Baltistan in January 1988. This is the unedited
ISLAMABAD — In the winter, when the weather is bad in the mountains,
taking a bus on Pakistan’s perilous Karakoram Highway (KKH) can be every
bit as exciting as a game of Russian Roulette.
There is nothing like a rough ride of four and a half hours on the
back of a four—wheel-drive pickup truck on a bitterly cold winter
morning for the traveller to appreciate the awe-inspiring grandeur and
desolation of the Karakoram mountain range, which contains the greatest
concentration of high peaks anywhere and is regarded by geologists as
one of the most unstable but also most fascinating features on the
Along the 100-kilometre dirt road through the wild gorges of the
Shyok and Indus rivers from Khaplu to Skardu in Baltistan one cannot
help feeling that the enormous bleak rock faces, the jagged,
snow-covered peaks poking into the clouds, the eerily frozen waterfalls,
the huge boulders strewn all around and the vast scree slopes must
belong to some distant uninhabitable planet but not to this earth. All
of this spells danger. Under a gloomy, leaden sky, with the sun’s rays
unable to break through thick clouds that hide the high mountain tops,
there appears to be a veiled threat of impending disaster.
From Skardu, a small town in a wide, sand-covered valley at 2,300
metres, the road continues along the Indus River through dangerous
gorges for about 500 kilometres before turning east away from the river
on its way to Rawalpindi. If one travels on a public bus, this trip on
the KKH has to be made in two stages. It involves a seven-hour journey
from Skardu to Gilgit followed by a gruelling sixteen-hour trip to
Rawalpindi on a different bus.
For four days from the end of 1987 until the first day of 1988 heavy
clouds hung above Skardu Valley and hid the many 5,000-metre mountain
peaks surrounding it on all sides. As the small airport in the valley
had no radar, all flights were cancelled. The sky looked as though there
was worse weather to come, so it seemed that there was no choice but to
court disaster and take the bus.
Everyone in the packed, gaily-painted bus appeared to be in good
mood when the journey began on the first day of the new year. The
gloomy atmosphere outside did not affect the passengers for a long
time as the bus sped on the asphalt road to the western end of the
valley, then moved slowly over a narrow suspension bridge across the
Indus and entered the gorge.
Compared with the bleakness of the grey, brown and black tones of
the massive rock formations on its sides, the river was a pleasant
sparkling green colour — almost inviting save for the fact that it was
at times separated from the road by several hundred metres of sheer
For most of the way the road appeared in good condition except for
only one or two spots where part of its foundation had collapsed and
plunged down the precipice into the Indus far below, leaving a gaping
hole. The driver was quite agile and avoided such death traps easily. At
least two small bridges spanning gaping chasms above raging tributaries
of the Indus appeared rather dilapidated. The driver accelerated,
apparently anxious to cross the bridges before they collapsed.
Some eighty kilometres before Gilgit a number of boulders the size of
large cars had broken off from a gigantic rock formation that hung
threateningly above the road. The road was hopelessly blocked. A
maintenance crew was already at work preparing the area for blasting.
A little farther west, high above the road on a steep scree slope
that seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky, two local shepherds
herded their sheep and goats down as quickly as they could. The workers
had signalled to them to come down because the blasting might make the
scree come alive and cause a huge landslide. The shepherds wore roughly
cut pieces of goatskin wrapped around their feet and ankles in lieu of
shoes. They could perfectly well have fit into a Stone Age setting, with
nothing on their bodies to show that they lived in the 20th century.
Luckily for the travellers, the three heavy blasts that were required
to break up the boulders did not bring down any more rocks although
cracks appeared in some huge slabs that hung precariously above the
road. A lone bulldozer took more than two hours to push the debris over
the edge into the Indus. Darkness fell soon after the road was cleared.
The bulldozer then headed west on the narrow road at a snail’s pace,
and the bus driver had no choice but to follow at the same speed for
some time. The driver quickly became irritated. He tried to pass the
bulldozer several times but there was not enough space.
A military officer ran up on the road from behind the bus and knocked
on the driver’s side window. The two exchanged some angry words. The
driver had been ordered to pull the bus up to the edge of the precipice
to allow a military truck to pass. He did so but complained bitterly.
Then the officer also ordered the bulldozer to get out of the way at the
next spot where this was possible.
The military truck sped on ahead, followed quickly by the bus, whose
driver appeared very angry and nervous all of a sudden. He was
determined to pass the military truck, which was already moving quite
fast on this perilous road with rock walls or scree slopes to the right
and a gaping black chasm to the left where in many places parts of the
asphalt had broken off and plunged down into the gorge. The bus driver
used his ear-shattering horn and flashed his lights wildly to drive his
message home to the soldiers.
Finally, they let him pass. But they stayed close behind and flashed
their lights as well, irritating the bus driver even more. His antics
behind the steering wheel became increasingly wild and on several
occasions the bus very nearly went over the edge of the cliff. Two
passengers sitting in the front abreast of the driver angrily warned him
to slow down. Others anxiously mumbled prayers. The angry warnings
seemed to madden the driver even more, and some other passengers urged
everyone to calm down. The atmosphere in the bus became increasingly
tense, laden with a strange mixture of anger and naked fear.
Suddenly, there was another bus in front and the angry driver of the
first bus flashed his lights to signal that he wanted to pass. The bus
in front slowed down but stayed in the middle of the road for some time.
When it finally allowed the first bus to pass its driver was fuming. To
make matters still worse, the other bus also stayed close behind and
flashed its lights. Many passengers on the first bus were terrified but
no one dared to approach the driver for fear of distracting him in this
extremely dangerous situation.
After what appeared to be an eternity, the valley widened and the bus
stopped at a petrol station. When the bus left the station after
refuelling, a teenage boy sat down on an improvised seat next to the
driver and this seemed to calm the man down. Later, he let the boy drive
the rest of the way to Gilgit. Although the boy’s driving was somewhat
unsteady from lack of experience, the passengers were relieved that the
bus was now moving more slowly and carefully.
Next morning, another bus with a few foreigners among the many
passengers left Gilgit on the long journey to Rawalpindi. The driver was
a man of about 50, clearly very experienced and skilful. But on this
trip the road was in very bad condition — and the weather turned worse.
There were scores of spots on the way where rocks of all sizes had
fallen from above and very nearly blocked the road. Often the space left
between the bigger boulders and the edge of the precipice was just
barely wide enough to allow the bus to pass.
Again and again, the bus lurched sideways as it moved slowly over
very uneven terrain past big boulders. Some terrified passengers, who
saw the gaping abyss come up from below their windows as the heavy
vehicle seemed close to the point of rolling over, leaned into the aisle
and looked the other way.
At one point, some rocks rolled away from under the wheels of the bus
at the edge of the broken road and the driver had to quickly steer the
vehicle towards a big pile of boulders away from the precipice. The
boulders tore into the side of the bus, causing minor damage, but
passengers later congratulated the driver on his presence of mind.
After a seemingly endless series of similar incidents, the passengers
felt relieved when the bus crossed a bridge on the Indus, hoping that
the worst was over. But then, shortly before dark, it began to rain.
Water is both a boon and a bane in the mountains. Local villagers
need it for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigation but it also
inevitably brings down boulders and mud, and it causes the landslides
that so often obstruct the KKH.
The bus drove on into the night on the wet road, dodging many more
fresh rockfalls. In one area, the going was slow over a stretch of at
least 20 kilometres where many landslides had completely blocked the
KKH for over two weeks in October. The road was still badly scarred and
the piles of debris on one side did not allow two vehicles to pass each
other along most of this stretch.
After the bus finally crossed the last bridge over the Indus and
headed out of the gorge, the driver stepped on the accelerator. As the
road was still dangerous, some passengers became concerned that the bus
was moving too fast. An Australian woman expressed her worries to a
Pakistani passenger who translated for the driver.
After more than 12 hours on the KKH the driver was clearly becoming tired
and it seemed that he was accelerating because he was afraid to fall
asleep. There were a few more hair-raising moments when the driver
nearly seemed to lose control of the bus in dangerous curves. But he
finally stopped and allowed a younger colleague to drive the rest of the
way to Rawalpindi.
It is by braving such a danger-filled winter journey on the KKH that
one can learn to appreciate the remarkable feat that the building of
this road represented. One can also easily understand how the KKH
claimed at least 500 lives during the 20-odd years of its construction
and many hundreds more in the last eight years since it was opened.
Recently (2010) I was interviewed about my experiences in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Here are my answers:
About writing an autobiography:
… I do hope to find the time to write a book, primarily because I want to tell the story of the lessons I have learnt in my life to my family and friends. I will need a lot of time because I am a very slow writer. I have put some of my thoughts and brief accounts of my experiences on the Internet just in case it is of interest to others, especially old friends with whom I have long lost contact and who might be looking for me and may be curious about what happened to me without necessarily wanting to get in touch. They might not like how my religious and political views have changed.
About Saudi Arabia 1972-73:
The people with whom I traveled to Mecca were my friend “Ali” – whose real name I won’t reveal, to protect his identity, and whom I met on an earlier trip outside Europe — and Ali’s brother and the brother’s family (Pakistani wife, from Lahore, and three small boys). They lived in England and came to Luxembourg to pick me up in December 1972. They had two cars: a VW van with a mattress and gas cooker in the back and a Ford Capri 3000 GT sports car. They had to get to Jeddah by early January 1973, in time to pick up their old mother, who was coming there by plane from London for her first and probably last Haj. After the pilgrimage and putting their mother on the plane back to London they were going to continue their trip to Lahore in Pakistan to visit their family there. They wanted me as a backup driver, and I was all gung-ho about going to Pakistan. But since I could not accompany them to Mecca we were going to drive to Kuwait, where I was going to stay with their eldest brother (they were a family of 12 kids, and “Ali” was the youngest) and I was to wait for them to return after about a month in Saudi Arabia.
When we got stuck at Abu Kemal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, where the Iraqis refused to let us enter their country, my friends had to change their plan and drive down through Jordan and directly into Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz. When they offered me the choice I decided to officially become a Muslim so that I could accompany them, and they were my witnesses at the Saudi Embassy in Damascus where we all got special “pilgrim entry” visas for the kingdom. We arrived in Saudi Arabia at the end of 1972 and stayed in that country until 1 February 1973.
In Mina, the tent city outside Mecca, where we spent at least 2 weeks, many people were very curious about me and invited me into their tents for a cup of tea and to ask me questions about my background and my thoughts about the world of Islam. Some people refused to believe that I was from western Europe and insisted I must be Turkish. The same happened in Medina, where we rented a small apartment in the old Uhud quarter near the main mosque, where Prophet Mohammed’s tomb is located, during the period of 40 prayers after the Haj. The old quarter where we stayed and which seemed like a town from the Middle Ages, was torn down a few months after we left to make way for a project to expand the great mosque of Medina.
I received a big Quran in Arabic and English from the director of the Islamic University in Medina and read a little bit from time to time, including the lengthy commentaries in footnotes by the translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
I remember the big crowds in Mecca and Medina, more people than I had ever seen before. In Mecca we used to wash up in a large underground facility under a square just outside the big mosque before going inside for the Tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, and the walks between Safa and Marwa, and so on. “Ummi” (or mother), as I also came to call my friends’ mother, only spoke to me in Punjabi, though she tried Suaheli sometimes when i didn’t understand. I quickly learned the few words I needed to know in order to follow her instructions. Like many old or infirm people she could not do the Tawaf by herself, and we paid a pair of big, strong men to carry her on a stretcher with a sort of basket in the middle.
After we saw “Ummi” off we stayed a few more days in Jeddah. We lived in the house of a family of Pakistani origin, and my friends suggested that I marry the youngest daughter of that family – who was only 16 at the time – and stay in Saudi Arabia. A Filipino friend of Ali’s who acted as our guide on the Haj had received a scholarship some years earlier to study at Medina’s Islamic University (with the support of King Faisal, if I remember correctly), and my friends thought I could try to get one too and stay behind in Saudi Arabia rather than go with them to Lahore.
I was very impressed by the experience of the Haj and meeting so many people who were mostly very nice to me, but I was not ready at all to get married and to stay in Saudi Arabia. Again, to make a long story short, I accompanied my friends to Kuwait, where we spent 9 days in a big villa doing nothing but eating, drinking fruit cocktails and having fun — then later they dropped me off in Abadan, Iran, and I made my way from there back to Europe on my own, with very little money. Nowadays I wonder how much of my experiences I still remember correctly. I learned some Arabic from my friends and others, and still remember the numbers and quite a few words that I had had to learn, such as the Shahada, etc.
About my attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and whether my experiences there were the most special time in my life:
As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, my interest in those countries comes from the wonderment I felt in my first experience traveling outside Europe, as well as my fascination and awe of mountains. Luxembourg has only low hills, and the first time I saw real mountains was when I went to Austria with my boy scout troop in 1963. I was so fascinated and awe-struck that I stared for long periods of time at Mt. Grimming near Tauplitz, in Styria, without uttering a word.
My first trip outside Europe took me to Teheran, Iran in March 1972. I met Ali there. As I mentioned, his family was originally from Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. He was born and grew up in Kenya. When I met him he was on his way to Lahore, in a car he had bought while studying in the United States. He wanted to share expenses on the trip so he was looking for people who would travel with him. To make a long story short, we traveled together from Teheran to Kandahar, and I had to return from there on my own because I had to get back to my job in Luxembourg. The experience of that short, two-week trip affected me so much that it was almost impossible for me to re-adjust to my workaday life in Luxembourg. I longed for the mountains and the very different kind of life I thought I had glimpsed especially in Afghanistan.
About the contrast between the Afghanistan I saw in 1972 and that of the 1980s:
I entered Afghanistan from Iran on the day after Nowruz (that is, the New Year, 21 March), which was 2. 1. 1351 in the Hejra solar calendar used there. In Saudi Arabia and most of the Islamic world the Hejra lunar calendar is used, so when I went there 9 months later it was the year 1392, because the lunar year is shorter. In 1972 I traveled only to Herat and Kandahar, and spent just five days in Afghanistan. King Mohammed Zahir was still on the throne and a lot of western hippies passed through the country on their way east to India and Nepal. Young boys followed foreigners almost everywhere in the towns to beg for some spare change. It was clear the country was poor and life was hard for most people — but it was a country at peace. I remember talking to young men in both Herat and Kandahar. You could not talk to young women in those towns; though I am told it was different in Kabul. Some of the young men I met were unhappy because they saw no future for themselves, and they hoped to be able to go to the west, perhaps because they envied the seemingly happy hippies they saw. Generally, though, I did not get the impression in 1972 that the country might be headed for serious political trouble. The atmosphere was peaceful, perhaps because people seemed resigned to their fates — I don’t know. At any rate, I liked the atmosphere of the country very much and wished I could have stayed much longer to explore and get to know it.
In the 1980s I did not visit any of the towns of Afghanistan but passed through several villages, some abandoned, mostly within 20 kilometers of the border with Pakistan. I went to the Jaji area in Paktia Province in 1984 and to different areas north and south of Asmar in Kunar Province in 1985 and 1987. At this time, of course, the country was at war — and it seemed almost as much a civil war as it was a war against foreign invaders. Naturally, the mujahideen emphasized the fact that they were fighting the Soviet infidels and those they regarded as their lackeys. But it seemed to me that there must have been substantial numbers of Afghans who welcomed some of the changes the so-called communists were making with the support of the Soviet Union. The mujahideen I was with were mostly fighting the Afghan Army. Of course, my newspaper being of a rather conservative, anti-communist orientation, I felt it would be unwise to mention this. At the time I also felt a personal solidarity with the mujahideen in their struggle against a superpower that had invaded their country. I must point out here that I had very little training as a journalist, and that in any case I had learned the trade from very conservative Americans who had a strong ideological commitment against anything socialist or communist.
I saw some of the damage done by bombing and shelling in villages, and I also saw children who had lost limbs to mines, and refugees who fled the fighting.
Overall I feel my experience and knowledge of Afghanistan is very limited, and I could by no means be regarded as an “expert,” whatever that really means. Nonetheless, as a result of my experiences there I cannot help feeling deeply concerned about the situation in that country as the state of war has continued for more than 30 years now.
To tell the truth, when I first visited that country in 1972 I knew very, very little about Afghanistan and didn’t bother to read up on it even after I got back to Luxembourg. That time I just wanted to get out of Luxembourg — badly. And seeing Afghanistan — even for such a short time — had at least taught me that there were places in the world that were really very different from my country, much more like the places I had read about in the many adventure stories that I had read. — I did not get back to Afghanistan until 12 years later — 1984 — and many things had changed in the meantime, both for me and for that country. 1984 was also the first time I visited Pakistan, and I think I sort of fell in love with at least some aspects of that country at first sight. I went to Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan with mujahideen of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami Mujahideen Afghanistan group. In the western media Sayyaf’s group was known by a different name, but they emphasized to me that this was their real name. Together with a Japanese journalist friend who had lived in Pakistan for 9 years I interviewed Sayyaf himself in a tent in Jaji – I still have the transcript of that interview as it appeared in my newspaper, the weekly Middle East Times, which I had helped to found in Cyprus at the beginning of 1983.
I returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan again in 1985, and that time I also traveled to Baltistan and Hunza, as far as Passu. At that time the Karakoram Highway beyond that village was closed to foreigners. Both in 1984 and 1985 I couldn’t spend as much time on my trips as I wanted because I had to get back to my newspaper office in Cyprus, plus I was short of money – as always. I used my own cheap camera and paid most of my expenses from my pocket because the newspaper was just barely surviving financially. In August 1987, after getting married in Japan, I settled down in Islamabad — my wife stayed behind in Tokyo for the time being — in a house rented by my Japanese friend who had taken me with him on the 1984 trip to Jaji. He could not come to Kunar with me in 1985. In October 1987 I went from the Bajaur tribal area to Kunar Province, again without my Japanese friend, intending to travel into Nuristan. But after a brief battle north of Asadabad (a few mortar rounds, answered from the Soviet and Afghan Army side by many hours of bombardment with rockets, field guns and heavy mortars) the mujahideen I was with refused to let me stay in Kunar and took me back across the border.
About an example of how good the mujahideen were as fighters against the Soviets and the Afghan Army:
In the battle I witnessed in 1987 the mujahideen scored a few direct hits on an army base north of Asadabad from positions in the mountains but extensive minefields did not allow them to even get close to the treacherous Kunar River, which they would have had to cross in order to pursue their assault. There were mujahideen from at least four different and supposedly allied parties in the area but cooperation among them was very limited.
The Soviets, who at the time had several hundred well-equipped spetsnaz commandos (according to the mujahideen) stationed in three mountaintop bases above the major air base of Chagha Sarai, and their Afghan allies retaliated by firing multiple rocket launchers, «Bimsiezda», and heavy field guns and big mortars at mujahideen positions for several hours until long after the rebels stopped shooting.
It was clear that those troops in Kunar had a good idea of the exact location of the rebels’ mortar positions, their „zikuyak” – the 14.5-mm anti-aircraft machine gun nests –, their hidden shelters and even the paths they used because a number of shells missed by less than 30 meters over distances ranging between five and 15 kilometers without the aid of spotter planes, at least none observed by me or the mujahideen I was with.
About how I met Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in 1984, the man who introduced Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan and helped him to set up his first base there (I met Sayyaf two months after Bin Laden was with him):
My Japanese journalist friend, who had lived in Pakistan since 1975 and who had been to Jaji in 1983, found out in Peshawar that Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s men had taken over that area and had driven the Afghan Army out of one base there, which the mujahideen called Sarai. He is the one who organized the trip to Jaji for the two of us that time, through a man named Abdul Hannan, who had connections with different mujahideen groups. Soviet and Afghan Air Force planes had repeatedly bombed the positions of Sayyaf’s men for more than two months before we went there in late August 1984. We did not expect to meet Sayyaf himself there, but a few days after we arrived we were told that he had come and was willing to meet us in one of the tents, supplied by a Saudi relief agency, that the mujahideen had pitched in a pine forest on the slope of a hill just 2 kilometers behind the Durand Line – the border. He met us there with some of his lieutenants, and we interviewed him at considerable length. His English was very good. He spoke with confidence of overcoming the Soviets “because God is helping the mujahideen,” and of having detailed plans to establish a “pure Islamic system” of government. He also predicted that “someday you will see the power of the Soviets vanquished, and all of those poor countries now under their domination will be free — they will get their freedom as a result of the freedom of Afghanistan.”
About the importance of Jaji, Paktia Province, where Osama Bin Laden set up his first base in 1984:
Jaji is strategically important because it is located just inside Afghanistan near the point where the Pakistani border comes closest to Kabul. I described Jaji this way in my first report from there in 1984 — I shall quote this: It is a beautiful area, with many springs and brooks of sparkling and delicious water from the mountains. But many people had to leave their villages here for a dreary existence as refugees in the steaming hot lowlands of Pakistan, where there is no clean, fresh water. Hardly one of the more than a dozen villages I passed through on a 60-kilometre trek from a resistance camp just inside Afghanistan, on the way to the frontline, seemed to have escaped the bombing, rocketing, shelling and strafing by Soviet and Afghan forces – Babrak Karmal’s forces. Many houses sustained heavy damage, leaving their inhabitants without shelter for the harsh winter in these highlands.
Strategically, the Jaji area, less than 80 kilometres by air southeast of Kabul, was vital for both mujahedeen and the refugees because it is one of the main avenues for traffic between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The struggle for control of this area, therefore, was constantly intense, as the Soviets and the Babrak Karmal regime tried to prevent the Muslim fighters from bringing food, ammunition and supplies into the country.
They were facing an uphill struggle in this terrain. After September 1983, when the resistance forces overran the government base of Sarai after three months of heavy fighting, they have pushed their powerful enemy out of all of Jaji except for one base of two square kilometres in an area called Chownee. Morale at that base was by all accounts very low. Some deserters died on the way trying to flee from that base, on the minefields in the surrounding area. —
About a photo I took where a guerrilla aims a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at my head:
That picture shows 6 mujahideen in a tent in Jaji in 1984. They were preparing to go on a long trek from there to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. One man in the front of the picture on the right was actually a defector from the Afghan Army, who had escaped from the Sarai base before it was captured and joined the mujahideen. The guy in the background pointing his RPG launcher at me was, of course, just trying to look funny for the photo.
About the religious conviction of the mujahideen and what role it played in their struggle:
I must say I was impressed, sometimes, by the religious fervor of some of the mujahideen – though they were by no means all like that. In 1985, some of Yunus Khalis’s men I was with in Kunar Province tried very hard to teach me some Pakhto (with „kh” as in the northern dialect) and some basics of Islam, even though they could not speak English. In 1987, also in Kunar but further south, the Yunus Khalis men there once ran for close to an hour over treacherous terrain just to get to a small mosque in time for the evening prayer. Even though I wasn’t carrying any weapons like they did I was barely able to follow them and totally exhausted when we arrived.
I felt that their religious convictions may very well have helped those men to be strong enough to face an enemy with greatly superior firepower, equipment and training. If a mujahed was seriously wounded, in most cases he was doomed, because the others could not provide medical aid. One mujahed in Kunar in 1987 stepped on a mine and bled to death because the others could not help him. I saw him only after his body was already wrapped up in a blanket. But I am sure very many mujahideen died like that after being wounded, because no one could help them. I am also sure that this is still happening today in Afghanistan to the Taliban and other insurgent forces, probably a lot more than in the 1980s because the Americans today are a much more powerful and dangerous enemy than the Soviets ever were. What is interesting in this is that the Americans themselves also generally hold quite strong religious or quasi-religious convictions, and they are clearly well aware of how important those are in keeping up the morale of their troops in the field. I have met American Army chaplains (not in Afghanistan, of course) who seemed to play a role similar to that of communist political commissars, but probably much more effectively because of the enormous potential power of religious belief. Few things can help people overcome the fear of death as much as religious belief. But at the same time few things can drive people to commit atrocities without remorse on the scale that religious conviction has done. Probably the only thing that comes close in this sense is a conviction of racial superiority like that of the Nazis.
About what I think of Sayyaf’s activities today, as a member of the Afghan parliament, etc.:
I know very little about what Sayyaf has done since I met him in 1984. I have read the Wikipedia article on him, and some other accounts that accuse him of having ordered massacres and of having helped the fake journalists who murdered Ahmadshah Massoud in 2001. But I have not heard from him or anyone connected with him, and don’t know his side of the story at all. I know that he always had good connections with the Saudis. I have grave doubts about the role that the Saudi government has played and is playing in the world, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular. It seems like they are playing both ends, supporting the propagation of radical Islam on one hand while keeping strong military and economic relations with the US on the other. I can only guess that this is because they feel they need both in order to preserve the House of Saud. About whether the West should cooperate with people like Sayyaf, I don’t know. I believe the US-dominated foreign military intervention as it is now must end as soon as possible. Perhaps a peacekeeping force could be put together with the help of neighboring Islamic countries, and then a wholly new political process should take place that would include the Afghan insurgents. These are just my feelings but I don’t know anywhere near enough about the situation to be able to give any kind of advice on what can be done to bring peace and good fortune to Afghanistan.
About my memories of Pakistan:
In December of 1987 I spent two weeks in Baltistan observing the work of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and for a number of years after that I felt that I had to return to that area to help with development programs and get a chance to hike a bit in those awesome mountains. I have since read the book Three Cups of Tea, about an American by the name of Greg Mortenson, who was in Baltistan a few years after I left and who has built many schools for both boys and girls not only in that area but also in Hunza, Afghanistan and the Pamirs – much more than I could have hoped to accomplish. That book is now my favorite. —
Getting back to your initial question, yes, I do have a special attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But whether it was the most special time of my life: I would have to say no. It was special and a unique set of experiences for me in some ways but it was not the most special time. I feel there were many very special experiences, mostly very different from each other and unique in some ways — but none stands out as the most special of all.
About my stays in Pakistan, in 1984, 1985 and 1987-88, I have to point out that they amounted to a combined total of barely six months, and I spent most of that time in Islamabad and Peshawar — so that was not so long. I found most people I met there quite friendly and hospitable, and I liked the atmosphere in the towns very much. I found most places I saw very beautiful because there was a lot of green all around, especially in Islamabad. I very much enjoyed walking in the Margalla hills, for example, and along Rawal Lake.
Another thing I enjoyed very much was the food. I often ate food I bought from people in the street or in cheap eateries, and almost always liked everything. The only time I ever felt sick from food was when some British people I met in Skardu, in Baltistan, gave me some British shepherd’s pie — I ate it out of politeness but hated it from the start and vomited afterwards…
Also, during my third stay of exactly five months in 1987-88 I started drinking the water in Islamabad and Peshawar straight from the tap and never had any problem. And, of course I loved seeing the big mountains in northern Pakistan, even though I didn’t get a chance to do any real hiking in them as I was always short of time and money, and not adequately equipped for that type of thing. On the negative side, apart from seeing the juxtaposition of opulence and miserable poverty and disease, which is sadly, of course, not at all unique or unusual, one of the most difficult aspects of life in Pakistan for me was what I would call the “absence” of women from street life in the countryside, and that was the same in Afghanistan. I find the presence of women extremely important and comforting. In the cities you can see women in the streets but in the countryside it seems almost like they don’t really exist or at least they are always hidden because you cannot see their faces. I don’t know of anything more beautiful than the face of a beautiful woman — though I am not and have never been a womanizer at all; it is just one of the greatest pleasures to see them. Pakistan has many really beautiful women, but you don’t see them in the countryside.
It is very hard for me to pick out one particular point that I liked most about Pakistan; I think every country has a certain “feel” to it, and I just liked the “feel” of Pakistan very much, even though I am also aware of its dark side, which I could not ignore. I have hope that the country’s problems can be overcome someday.
About what I think the most tragic outcome of 9/11 was, and whether I see a glimmer of hope for the world:
I think that the reaction of the United States to 9/11 was much worse for the world than 9/11 itself. The so-called war on terror, to me, is a war of terror. Humankind’s addiction to violence and war has worsened very much because the USA tries hard to make them look clean and neat even while inflicting great suffering and damage on other countries and wasting enormous resources that could be used instead to help resolve the problems that generate terrorism in the first place. – I do see glimmers of hope as more and more people in the United States and elsewhere are slowly coming to realize that military means cannot resolve the world’s problems. I was inspired when I saw how people around the world expressed solidarity with the American people after 9/11, but then, tragically, the feeling of empathy was lost as the US embarked on what was really a campaign of revenge. Recently, after a series of natural disasters struck various places around the world, it seemed that a new spirit of empathy and solidarity started to emerge. I only hope I am not just dreaming…
asadab.DO [For information: This was originally written on a small NEC PC-8201 laptop with less than 32 kilobytes of usable RAM. This is scanned from a printout of the original, unedited version that I typed up in Peshawar]
ASADABAD — KUNAR PROVINCE (18-22 October 1987 — written on 1 November) [1987 in Peshawar, Pakistan]
[from my article in the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus]
TARI SAR PLATEAU, Afghanistan — Mujaheddin commander Ajab Khan, a short, wiry man with a vaguely bird-like quality in his movements and speech, is perched precariously on a rocky outcrop. In rapid Pakhtu, he is speaking into the microphone of a red plastic walkie-talkie. Next to him, Pazlimalek, a tall, seasoned fighter at 25 with a thick beard, leans on a flat rock and peers through binoculars into the Kunar Valley far below.
Seconds earlier, the heavy blast of the driving charge of an 82-millimetre mortar reverberated through the rugged mountains and valleys to the east of the fast-flowing, slate-grey Kunar River. Then a small cloud rose from some low hills across the river, just above Shigal Tarna, a garrison of a few hundred government troops.
“Down five millièmes,” suggests Pazlimalek, and the commander repeats the message into his microphone. The next mortar bomb, fired by one of two mujaheddin positions in the mountains near the border with Pakistan, explodes on the road that leads to the base of the Soviet-backed dushman, the enemy. The second mortar also places a bomb close to the road.
“Allahu Akbar — God is great,” shouts the commander. Pazlimalek suggests a further slight shift in the aim of the mortars. Soon, the cries of “Allahu Akbar” multiply as, one after another, three clouds of smoke from mujaheddin mortar bombs rise in the middle of Shigal Tarna itself.
Later, the mujaheddin fire a few 107-millimetre rockets from a single, man-portable tube — the Bimyak — and, following some adjustments in the aim of the weapon, rejoice when two of the missiles hit a large house in a village by the Shigal River upstream from the army base. People in the village, the families of pro-government militiamen from other regions who were resettled there to occupy houses left behind by refugees, can be seen running for cover.
Throughout the firing by the mujaheddin, the heavy thump of a large-calibre artillery gun can be heard from the government base, followed by the explosions of its shells in the mountains to the east. The gun, well hidden under earthworks in Shigal Tarna, fires roughly one shell a minute.
On a different frequency than that used by the mujaheddin, the radio crackles with the excited voice of the commander of Shigal Tarna base. Later, another voice speaks in rapid Russian.
Suddenly, the air above Tari Sar Plateau is filled with a sort of swishing sound that is followed within seconds by a series of powerful explosions. Flashes can be seen on a mountainside across the lower Shultan Valley, and soon clouds of smoke cast shadows over the pine-covered slopes.
“Asadabad, Bimsiezda,” Pazlimalek tells three foreigners who watch the spectacle from the vantage position on Tari Sar. Bimsiezda is the Afghans’ term for one of several modern versions of the famous Stalin Organ multiple rocket launcher that was dreaded by invading German soldiers on the Soviet front in World War II. Asadabad is the capital of Kunar Province and the site of Chagha Sarai military base, roughly 10 kilometres to the south of Tari Sar Plateau and about twice that distance from the Pakistani border.
[I had brought two other Europeans with me to this place in Afghanistan: Eugenio, a one-eyed Italian adventurer – he had a glass eye that replaced one lost to a stray bullet – and Jacques, a French ex-Foreign Legionnaire. I ran into them separately in Peshawar after each of them had tried in vain for weeks to find a mujaheddin group that would take them across the border. I then took them to my contact Engineer Es Haq in University Town, who arranged the trip for us after they presented themselves as journalists like me – which they were not.]
High above Asadabad, on two mountain plateaux to the east and one to the west of the Kunar River, Soviet Spetsnaz commandos have established small permanent bases that are regularly supplied from the valley by helicopters, mostly at night. Four helicopters were parked on the tarmac of an airfield at Asadabad when the fighting around Shigal Tarna began, Pazlimalek claimed that each of the three mountain bases, Soder Sar, Mechellay Sar and Shahbazay Sar, housed about 300 Soviet commandos. According to Ajab Khan, the Spetsnaz have a Bimsiezda on Soder Sar, only a few kilometres to the south of Tari Sar mountain and clearly visible from the highest peak above this plateau.
The mujaheddin count 13 rockets in the first salvo. A second salvo blasts the same mountainside across the valley with nine rockets but all fail to hit the mujaheddin mortar and Bimyak positions.
Commander Ajab Khan was well aware that the Soviets, together with the Afghan government forces, could lay a heavy rocket and artillery barrage over the entire area under his men’s control, including Tari Sar mountain. They could also call in Mi-24 helicopter gunships and Sukhoi-25 ground attack jets to blast the mountains and valleys all around, as they did just two months earlier in August. Compared with the firepower at the disposal of the communist enemy, that of the mujaheddin seemed truly pitiful.
Normally, the mujaheddin would continue to fight no matter how much retaliation they had to expect from the Soviets. But this time, the commander felt responsible for the lives of the three foreigners, the first to visit this area since Ajab Khan and his men established their bases on the massive rocky ridges along the upper Shultan Valley about two years ago. He decided to call off the attack on Shigal Tarna at about 1:30 p.m. and save his remaining mortar and rocket ammunition for future operations.
[Actually, in retrospect, I don’t think Ajab Khan broke off the attack because he was concerned about us 3 Europeans. I found out a bigger attack was to take place a few days later with a larger force. A week or two after these events I met the well-known American correspondent Kurt Lohbeck (since deceased) at the American Club in Peshawar, and when he heard I had been north of Asadabad he told me he went there a few days later and filmed a major offensive by the mujaheddin towards the Kunar capital in which they came close to capturing the town. I could not believe it and asked if I could see his film, but he said he had already sent it to New York for editing. It then occurred to me that most likely the mujaheddin had sent me and my companions out of the area because they wanted to give Lohbeck exclusive coverage of whatever operation they planned — Lohbeck himself may have asked for it — because he was a much more important witness than we were. I have never since been able to find any information about the battle for Asadabad that Lohbeck said he filmed, and the town was captured only a year later — months after Soviet forces withdrew from the area. — Also, our mujahed guide Mohammed Kaftan was unhappy when he realized Eugenio and Jacques were not journalists as they had claimed, because they did not have cameras, never took notes and were only interested in getting Kalashnikov assault rifles from the mujaheddin so they could join them in fighting. They did get the Kalashnikovs but were very disappointed they couldn’t use them when we were under artillery bombardment far from any enemy soldier. Kaftan is the one who insisted on sending us back over the mountains to Pakistan].
While some mujaheddin based on a mountain to the north fired random shots from a heavy single-barrel 14.5-millimetre anti-aircraft gun as a diversionary tactic, the commander had a few of his men lead the three foreigners down into the Chowgam Valley below Tari Sar Plateau. From there, the party proceeded over several ridges back to the mujaheddin camps in the upper Shultan Valley. But although the mujaheddin stopped firing early in the afternoon, the riposte from the Soviets and the Afghan army continued for several hours until long after sunset. A slow but steady rhythm of heavy mortar, artillery and rocket fire continued to rock the Shultan Valley, coming from the nearest Soviet commando base on Soder Sar Plateau to the south-west, Shigal Tarna to the west and Asmar to the north-west. Two of the Bimsiezda rockets tore holes into the mountainside only about 10 metres above one of the mujaheddin’s Zikuyak 14.5-millimetre machine-gun positions.
The operation cost the life of one mujahed, who stepped on a mine near the east bank of the Kunar River and apparently bled to death after losing both legs. His body was later carried on a mule for burial in the Bajaur tribal area of Pakistan. The number of casualties on the other side of the river was not known but mujaheddin reported that one helicopter made at least two return trips between Asadabad and Shigal Tarna, presumably carrying wounded people to a hospital in the city.
The mujahed who became shaheed, martyred, had triggered the fighting somewhat earlier than planned when the mine exploded under his feet. Firing had started along the Kunar River before the mujaheddin mortars and the Bimyak, carried by mules on treacherous paths up the mountains, were in position. Soldiers in Shigal Tarna raked the east bank of the Kunar with bursts of heavy machine-gun fire and one tank blasted the lower slopes of Tari Sar, while mujaheddin near the river responded by firing rocket-propelled grenades and rifle bullets.
In the Kunar Valley, there is a striking contrast between the military situation to the north of Asmar and that to the south between Asmar and Asadabad.
In the north [north of Asmar, where I went with another group of Yunus Khalis mujaheddin two years earlier, in August 1985], the mujaheddin control a number of villages along the river itself and have laid siege to the government garrison of Barikot near the border with Pakistan. In a major offensive during the spring of 1985, a division-sized Soviet force [in hindsight I’m sure I was misinformed about this — there is no way the force could have been that large] backed by an estimated 100 warplanes and helicopters fought its way up the narrow dirt road along the Kunar to relieve the besieged garrison at Barikot, using airborne Spetsnaz commandos to destroy as many as nine anti-aircraft machine-gun posts that the mujaheddin had set up on mountain peaks overlooking the valley. The Soviets managed to bring Afghan army reinforcements to Barikot but as soon as the main Russian force returned to the south the mujaheddin retook control of almost the entire stretch of road between Asmar and Barikot, established fresh machine-gun nests in the mountains and resumed their siege of the border garrison. In May last year, Soviet jets destroyed an important bridge across the Kunar River between the villages of Sao and Neyshagam north of Asmar in an effort to deny the mujaheddin an easy way to cross to the west bank with their mules laden with heavy arms. According to Pazlimalek, the mujaheddin have since stretched at least three cables across the river and use rafts to transport heavy weapons and ammunition, and they are trying to repair the Sao bridge as well as another one at Narei further north.
South of Asmar, however, the Soviets have made a strong commitment to keeping the Kunar Valley under direct control and it is extremely dangerous for the mujaheddin to try to cross the river. The east bank of the river is heavily mined, and the Soviet commandos in their mountain bases above Asadabad are ready to intervene at any time should the mujaheddin threaten any part of the valley. Due to the possibility of surprise attacks on mujaheddin strongholds by helicopter-borne Spetsnaz forces, the guerrillas keep guard posts with watchdogs on all the strategic high points above the Shultan Valley as well as in some of the villages in other side valleys of the Kunar.
The majority of the original inhabitants of most farming villages on both sides of the Kunar Valley have fled to Pakistan since Soviet forces pushed into this extremely rugged region more than four years ago, using heavy bombardment to terrorize the population. Many of the men from those villages are now mujaheddin. After the Soviets asserted control of the valley, tribesmen who were willing to work with the government that was installed during the invasion in December 1979 were resettled in some villages, occupying abandoned houses and farmlands.
Few civilians live in the villages of the lower Shultan and Chowgam valleys just to the east of the Kunar, in the areas under mujaheddin control. Some families whose houses are still intact remain in the area despite frequent fighting nearby, growing maize and wheat, tending orchards and raising cattle, sheep and goats.
Some children were playing in a field at Gaweja village as mortar bombs, rockets and tank shells passed high overhead, exploding in the mountains to the east. The children belonged to the only family that remained behind in the village, and they seemed almost oblivious to the din. All other families had long fled. Just across the valley, the village of Wan was completely abandoned. Scattered bomb craters and gaping holes in most of the houses, which were built of rocks and mud, provided mute testimony to the tragedies that must have forced the people out.
Considering the Soviets’ enormous advantage in firepower and equipment, and the very rough conditions under which the mujaheddin continue to live and fight their jihad (holy war) in this region eight years after their country was invaded, it comes as a surprise to witness the courage and determination of these fighters. The most active group of mujaheddin in the Kunar Valley, both north and south of Asmar, appears to be the Hezb-e Islami (party) of Maulvi Yunus Khalis, an aging but tough leader who was recently named chairman of the seven-party Ittihad-e Islami Mujaheddin Afghanistan (Islamic Alliance of Afghan Mujaheddin) based in Peshawar. Maulvi Khalis is expected to lead a mujaheddin delegation which will attend the debate on Afghanistan in the United Nations General Assembly beginning on 9 November.
The three foreigners who visited the Shultan Valley for five days to watch the attack on Shigal Tarna in late October were impressed by the fervour with which the mujaheddin practised their faith. Islam is a very demanding religion. To pray five times a day in the Islamic way is not easy, especially under difficult conditions such as those encountered in the jihad in this rugged land. At one point, on the day before the attack on Shigal Tarna, a small group of mujaheddin raced at breakneck speed over very treacherous terrain for well over an hour just in order to reach a mosque in an abandoned village in time for the maghreb (sunset) prayer.
After eight years of a terrible war against a superpower in Afghanistan, it is perhaps no wonder that only a fervent commitment to their religion, Islam, can provide the mujaheddin with the courage and determination to carry on their difficult struggle.
END OF ARTICLE
Excerpt from my diary entry for Thanksgiving Day 28 November 1996:… Today being Thanksgiving reminds me of my most memorable Thanksgiving Day in America 21 years ago (it was also my first Thanksgiving there since I arrived in the States on 6 March 1975). That year, 1975, Thanksgiving Day fell on 27 November, a day earlier than this year. The day began, for me, in a boxcar of a freight train about 10 kilometers or so east of a town called Tracy, which is somewhere to the southwest of Stockton, California. It had been my third and last ride on a freight train in California (the first ride had taken me from Roseville outside Sacramento, where I had spent 3 days without a roof over my head, to a railroad yard only a couple of miles away, and the second ride was from that yard to Stockton at night).
With me in the boxcar outside Tracy was a man whom I had met in Sacramento (at the Salvation Army soup kitchen) a few days earlier and who had given his name as "Bob Robinson," from West Virginia (if I remember correctly). We had tramped together. He had been on many freight trains and could tell many horror stories about life as a hobo. He said he also once spent 8 years in jail in Louisiana on charges of armed robbery. And he said he had fought in Korea. I estimated his age at 40-45. And he also said he’d been a boxer.
We had gone from Stockton to a place called French Camp, hitch-hiking and walking, planted onions in a field together with some Mexican workers for a few bucks. Then we went on to the small town of Lathrop and spent the next two cold nights out under the stars on a nearby swath of tumbleweed-strewn wasteland. I bought bottles of cheap red wine here and there along the way, and he drank most of it (he wanted the stuff but said he had no money, so since we were traveling together I bought it for him). We hoped to be able to catch a freight train going south through Lathrop, but the ones that passed were all going too fast. No way to catch them. "Bob" (he also called me Bob because he could not memorize my first name) had persuaded me to come with him to Indio, southeast of Los Angeles, for the winter, where he had previously worked in lumbering and where he thought we might both find temporary work.
The third night at Lathrop, on the eve of Thanksgiving, we saw some workers preparing a freight train for a trip. There were two nice boxcars, one with both doors wide open — just right. Bob got in while I went to get my backpack and his bedroll. When I came back there was no sign of Bob. It was pitchdark inside that boxcar. When I called him there was a muffled sound as if someone moaned in pain. I got in and the moaning intensified. There was something big on the floor under my feet and when I touched it I realized that there were several big and heavy wooden boards lying there. It turned out that they had been standing upright when Bob arrived, leaning against the wall of the boxcar and fastened there. Bob had apparently loosened them and they fell right on top of him. I pulled them off to the side one after another. They were so heavy that I could only lift one side of one of them at a time. I couldn’t see Bob’s face but he must have been miserable. He complained of excruciating pain in one leg and one side of his pelvis/hip. And he stank of excrement. His pants were full of shit. I assumed that the heavy load must have pressed on his abdomen, forcing his feces out. Luckily I had a spare pair of pants in my backpack. So I used handkerchiefs and paper tissue and a small towel to clean up his legs and buttocks in the dark after carefully pulling off his soiled trousers (he couldn’t move one of his legs at all and couldn’t even turn on his hips).
He cried in pain. Very slowly I inserted his legs into my spare pants and then covered him with his blankets. He asked me to take him to a doctor. I would have had to carry him, of course. The workers outside were long gone (we had waited till they left before approaching the train). There was an engine at the far end of the train but I didn’t know whether it was manned at this point. I was a bit hesitant to take him to the town because I was an illegal alien in America, liable to face a brief jail sentence and deportation if caught, and we had already committed an offense by just getting on the freight train in the first place. Moreover, I was upset with Bob at the time because he had broken into a trailer home that day trying to steal something. That trailer belonged to a nice middle-aged couple from Missouri (which they pronounced something like "Mazarra") who had invited us in that morning for a cup of coffee when they found us creeping out of our hoarfrost-covered beddings amid the tumbleweeds. They had told us they planned to drive to Stockton that day, and they left the trailer sitting there. It was not very big but it contained, among other things, several bird cages with various small birds in them, and 2 or 3 dogs.
I gave Bob his wine that evening. He usually took only a few gulps but I later found out he had emptied the bottle this time while I had gone for a walk. I returned to our camp when I heard the Missourians’ dogs barking. Bob came back from the trailer. He was drunk. He confessed that he’d smashed a window with his fist, trying to break in, but gave up when the dogs went crazy. I told him we couldn’t stay together after this. I would not go with him to Indio — and anyway, we had to get out of this area fast because the Missourians would call the police when they returned. Not long after that … [continued on 30 November 1996, Saturday:] … we saw the fateful train with the open boxcar and decided to take one last ride together.
The train started moving before I could make up my mind to take Bob to a doctor. We didn’t go very far, though. Probably less than half an hour. The train stopped in what appeared to be an uninhabited area, because there were no lights except a small one outside a low building nearby that seemed to be empty. At the far end of the train I could see the engine leaving. We were alone in the dark.
In the morning I saw that we were on one of several railroad tracks, and that a road ran beside them — although there was a low fence in between. Bob was still in bad shape. I picked him up carefully and carried him to the fence by the road. Somehow I managed to get him over the fence. He moaned a lot and appeared on the verge of passing out at one point. He clearly was in great pain when I moved him. I brought our luggage. We found out that Bob was able to stand on one leg, and so we stood there, Bob leaning against me, waving wildly at the first car that came up on the road. It sped off. After a while a second car came, and its driver was less afraid than the first one. He rolled down his window and I told him we needed an ambulance as my companion had broken his leg in a bad fall. The man drove off, and sure enough, not much later he came back with an ambulance. Bob was put on a stretcher and I rode in the front of the ambulance with the driver. He told me that they came from a clinic in Tracy.
At the clinic Bob was immediately cleaned and x-rayed. The doctor told me he had suffered a complex fracture of the hipbone and had to be transferred to a bigger hospital in Stockton. I told Bob that our ways had to part because I couldn’t accompany him to Stockton, then wished him good luck. At this point I had only 9 (nine) dollars to my name, and there was nothing more I could do for him …
[continued 1 December 1996:] … I decided that it was time to fulfill a promise I had made to my friends at the Going-Up Press printshop (I’m not sure I remember that name correctly) in Washington D.C., fellow members of the Unification Church, when I left them 16 days earlier on 11 November 1975: to visit a Unification Church center in the San Francisco area on my intended trip around the world. My central figure (boss) at the printshop, Mr. George Edwards, and my friends at "Upshur House," a former Libyan Embassy building on Upshur Street in D.C., had asked me to do that. One of them had hidden 10 dollars in a small plastic bottle of "holy salt" that I had in my luggage (to supplement my meager fortune of 30 dollars), and another had given me a space blanket for cold nights out under the stars plus the good advice to take Interstate Highway 40 instead of I-80 as I had planned. I-80 passes through mountainous Colorado, which is why I favored it (I always loved mountains), but he (he was a giant of a man named Dennis Taylor — a very good brother) looked at my sleeping bag and said I would freeze to death if I slept outside along I-80. He suggested that I take I-40 instead, which runs through North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California. I’d followed his advice and made it from D.C. to the Los Angeles area in 5 days (San Fernando Valley, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Santa Barbara and finally as far as Arroyo Grande on Route 101 [south of San Luis Obispo] where I spent my first night in California 15-16 November 1975 — I ended up staying in California until 31 January 1976 — exactly 2½ months or 77 days — my favorite state).
I hitch-hiked from Tracy in the general direction of the San Francisco Bay area, hoping to visit the Unification Church center in Oakland and then try to head north again towards Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada — my original destination when I came across the Atlantic on 6 March 1975. After one very brief ride with a young hippie-type couple I was picked up by a man in his mid- thirties (my guess) who drove a big pickup truck. His name was Tom …. — I think — and he said he was from Ohio. He told me he was planning to buy a horse, or horses (don’t remember which) in this area, and then he asked me if I knew Jesus. I told him that I had joined a Christian movement on the East Coast and that I was planning to visit a church of that movement in the Bay Area. In the course of the conversation I admitted to him that I had sort of lost my way in the search for God and wasn’t praying anymore. I might have mentioned to him that the movement I had joined was the Unification Church, which did not ring a bell in his mind, but I certainly did not say anything about Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon, whose name would almost certainly have rung a bell for him. He asked how much money I had on me, and when I said 9 dollars he took a 20-dollar bill from the top of the sunshade above the windshield and handed it to me. He dropped me off on a bridge that crossed the freeway leading north to Concord, saying he had to look at some horses in nearby Livermore and would be back in about an hour. He said he would take me to Concord if I didn’t get a ride until he came back.
Some time after he was gone a car passed me and went down the ramp but stopped just short of the junction with the freeway. A young guy got out, waved to me and shouted, "Do you want a ride?" I picked up my pack and ran down towards him, but on the way I suddenly had a funny feeling that something was wrong with this guy and the way the car stopped where it did. The guy was on the passenger side, and another young man was in the driver’s seat. The car had no rear doors, so the first guy had had to get out to let me in. I dismissed my ill feeling and handed him my backpack when he reached for it. That was my mistake.
Instead of letting me into the car he simply threw my pack into the back and got right back in himself. Almost immediately the driver stepped on the gas and put the engine in gear. I jumped, trying to get on top of the guy who had taken my backpack, but found myself actually hanging between the car and its open door, with one hand on the roof and one on the door (when I told this story to others later they said I had made that up based on Hollywood movies). But as the car began to pick up speed I quickly realized that I was risking my life. Luckily I let go before it was too late. I fell flat on my belly on the freeway, and my glasses fell off my nose. By the time I had put them back in place the car was gone too far for me to be able to read the license plate.
I was unhurt, except for a couple of scratches, so I walked back up to the top of the bridge. The backpack contained nothing valuable to anyone but myself. It was almost all I possessed at that point. It was also a symbol of my past. There was a notebook in which I had written down my ideas and feelings, my philosophy, letters, and my first Divine Principle book, given to me by my spiritual mother, Noriko S. (of Japan).
I still carried a few things in my pockets: my passport, some Polaroid photos I’d taken in New York and my wallet with 29 dollars. That was all. I had symbolically lost my past. And I should have begun a new life at this point. But this type of situation had occurred before and would recur many more times without me ever really succeeding in making a new start — changing my life. I was never able to really cut off from my past, though I tried many times.
Anyway, Tom … came back in his pickup truck, and I told him the story. He said perhaps that was a sign from God that I should go back to the Christian movement I had left and stay with them. Just before he dropped me off in Concord he took two 20-dollar bills from his sunshade, handed them to me, and then took my hand and said a short prayer to Jesus, asking that the Lord guide me.
From Concord I took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train to Berkeley, went to a telephone booth and looked up the Unification Church in the directory. It was listed. The address was on a street or avenue (don’t remember the name) just off Hearst Street, which lines the nice University of California campus. When I went to the house I was told it was a day-care center or some such thing and the Unification Church had moved out some time (6 months?) ago: new address unknown.
I walked around the campus for awhile, checking out the trees and shrubs to see if there was a good place to sleep without being seen. Then I bought a 20-dollar sleeping bag in a shop downtown and returned to the street where the Unification Church had once been located. I thought I would now try to realize my original plan to go back to Stone Age in the woods of British Columbia. But one of the things I had lost when my backpack was stolen was a book I absolutely needed for that purpose: a wilderness survival guide. So I went to a bookstore near the campus and looked at the books there. They had several interesting ones.
As I was looking through one of those books two well-dressed young men walked up to me and greeted me. I was a bit suspicious because I thought they might be from the Immigration department (INS) looking for illegal aliens like me, or perhaps from the FBI or the CIA or who knows what. They said they were students and told me about an outfit called the Creative Community Project that brought young people from all kinds of backgrounds together to share ideas and experiences with the aim of promoting inter-cultural communication and understanding, and working together to build a better future for all. They mentioned that there was a beautiful farm where young people could study and work together. The idea of such a farm did not alarm me because I had worked on a sort of farm at Barrytown, on the Hudson River near Kingston and the Catskills in New York State, where the Unification Church held its workshops in a building that later became (as of September 1975) the Unification Theological Seminary. We had gardens on that 250-acre property and I had helped to grow corn there, etc.
The two in the bookstore invited me to a free Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and cake at their community place on Hearst Street, and I happily accepted. Being a bit short of money as I was, a free dinner was certainly welcome. After they left it occurred to me that they seemed vaguely familiar. Not because I had seen them before, but there was something in their faces and in the way they talked that was familiar: they seemed like members of the church that I had known back on the East Coast. One of the two, whose name was Trimble, from Minnesota (he was later kidnapped and reportedly became an enemy of our church — deprogramming other members), was just like some other brothers from the Midwest that I had known in New York. Another thing that was funny was my own feeling and attitude. I am by nature a rather pessimistic, melancholy person. And I had just been robbed of my most precious possessions. And I had nowhere near enough money to buy the necessary equipment to survive in the wild in British Columbia or even to make it up there — except if I was very lucky hitch-hiking (in Sacramento I had been stuck for 3 days without getting a ride). And yet I felt happy. I didn’t worry too much about where I would sleep that night or the next.
I went to an ice cream parlor and enjoyed a nice hot fudge sundae (I think — at least that’s what I used to like in New York). Trimble, the "student" (I think his first name was Jeff, but I’m not sure), came in and reminded me of his earlier invitation to the Thanksgiving dinner — at Hearst Street, number such and such, at 18:00 hours. Well, come 18:00 I went to the place. From the beginning I felt something as if I was not going to a strange house but actually coming home. Coming home, indeed. I had never seen the place before but the people’s faces were familiar — somehow. There were many young people. We gathered in a circle in a big room and began to sing songs. I knew the songs. I had sung them all in Barrytown, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., etc.
I turned to a sister next to me and asked: "Is this the Unification Church? — I’m a member." She put a finger across her lips and indicated that we should talk after the singing and prayer. We had a great dinner, during which I learned, from the same sister and out of earshot of the others, that this was indeed the Unification Church.She asked me not to use that name, however, because there was too much bad publicity about it. She told me that Rev. Moon had approved the use of the name Creative Community Project.
We were all invited to spend a weekend at the farm at Boonville, 120 miles (200 km) north of San Francisco in the coastal hills — a 750-acre property. Of course I would be happy to go, I said, and signed up. We were to be taken there by bus the following evening — Friday, 28 November 1975. After it was all over I went out to try to find a place to sleep. Though I had been a member on the East Coast for some 8 months, nobody here knew me and they couldn’t let me stay at the center.
That night I walked up a road lining the upper side of Berkeley campus, looking for a place to crash and at the same time enjoying the view across the Bay to the lights of San Francisco … (continued 2 December 1996) … Suddenly I was illuminated by a car’s high beam. It was a patrol car. A police officer came up to me and asked to see some ID. His partner stayed in the car. On the spur of the moment I decided to show him my Luxembourg passport. He leafed through it, looked at the American visa and handed it back to me. Apparently he didn’t know that I was supposed to have an I-94 immigration dept. form attached to a page in the passport, which gave my date of entry into the United States and specified how long I was allowed to stay. I had thrown that form away months ago when it expired with no possibility of renewal. He then told me that I was not allowed to sleep outside near the campus, and he and his buddy left in their patrol car.
People at the church center had given me directions to the local YMCA, where they said I could spend the night for little money. I went there and got a cheap bed for the night. The next day I went up to Boonville, the 750-acre farm, which was called Ideal City Ranch. It’s a beautiful place. I went on to spend about 5 weeks there, attending workshops and helping with the farm work. Then I spent another month or so in San Francisco, mostly witnessing to people in the Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Square area (met many New Yorkers there) and once selling roses on the street. I lived in the church center on Washington Street near a small park (Lafayette Park?) in Pacific Heights (?). Only once did I manage to bring a guest to a workshop in Boonville: a German girl by the name of Elisabeth H., who studied in Massachusetts and whom I met at the Wharf. She hailed from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, I think, and was a practicing Catholic. She joined the (Unification) Church in Oakland later. I met her very briefly 7-8 months later in Washington, D.C., in a McDonald’s, I think. She was on her way to visit her folks in Germany. She said the Oakland Church leaders, Mose and Onni Durst, had given her permission to do that. This surprised me, as we were in the midst of Rev. Moon’s most important campaign in the States: we were preparing for the big Washington Monument rally on 18 September of this Bicentennial Year 1976.
Anyway, so much for the story of Thanksgiving Day, 27 November 1975, when I returned to the church after a 16-day absence. I never saw or heard from Elisabeth again.
Adapted from a 1999 e-mail exchange with an ex-moonie in British Columbia/Canada whom I knew in San Francisco 24 years earlier:
… You know, when I came to America in March 1975, the place I wanted to go was actually British Columbia? I never made it to BC because I met the (Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s) Unification Church in the States. I never even crossed the border into Canada. I have some distant relatives in Vancouver, who have lived there since the mid-50s. In 1974-75 I believed that modern civilization would be wiped out by a nuclear war in 1979 and that the only land areas of the world that would be more or less spared from the dangerous fallout would be in the southern hemisphere, because it contained few worth-while targets for nuclear strikes. But only very tough people used to surviving in a rough and wild environment could make it.
So my plan was to put myself through a test: try to survive for at least one year alone in a wilderness area. The place I wanted to do that was an area somewhere to the north of Hazelton or New Hazelton in central British Columbia. Why that place? I don’t know — I just selected that spot when I looked over a detailed map of BC. If I survived, then I wanted to go south to Patagonia (Argentina-Chile) and basically wait there for the end of the world as we know it. –
[[Thinking back to March 6, 1975, the day I arrived in New York on my first trip to North America — I wrote the following lines in April 1994: … Yes, this big city really conjured up the feeling that it was doomed, and the entire civilization that created it was doomed. It would all be annihilated in the nuclear war that I saw coming within a few years’ time. That holocaust had to happen — and I actually wished for it to occur. Because I felt that something was fundamentally wrong with this civilization. More than that, something was fundamentally wrong with humankind.
In my view the earth and in fact the entire universe was a harmonious whole, like a gigantic organism within which every part played a certain role and all parts were complementary to each other. Only man did not fit into this harmonious whole. Man was like a malignant cancer that, though originating from the whole, spread uncontrollably and destroyed other parts of the organism. Man alone was going against the purpose and design of the universe, and modern human civilization represented a cancer that had grown to such proportions that it threatened to overwhelm an entire planet. It had to be destroyed. Actually, because of its inherent contradictions it was bound to destroy itself. But I believed there could be, there had to be, a new beginning — because the universe had brought forth humankind and it was meant to exist, but it clearly had somehow gone wrong. Modern civilization would be destroyed but there would be survivors in different places. Those people would have to live in nature and start anew, but they would have to avoid the original mistake that made man go in the wrong direction. I felt that those survivors had to become completely one with nature, one with the spirit of the whole, the essence of the universe. And they should never ask the question “why?.” To me, this was the root of all the problems. We had to attune our hearts and minds to the harmonious whole of the universe without ever asking why things were the way they were and why we were what we were.
Asking “why?” somehow meant that we separated ourselves mentally from the whole — and that was what caused humankind to go astray. Our ancestors in Stone Age had made this mistake, and the survivors of the expected nuclear holocaust would have to go back to Stone Age to try again. I was on my way to Stone age … ]] – I was alone. I told people, including my parents, about my idea, and of course everyone thought I was crazy.
In early March 1975 I said goodbye (forever, I was sure) and flew to New York (cheapest flight across). I planned to take a train to Montreal the next day and hitch-hike west from there, looking up my relatives in Vancouver for a brief visit and then heading up to the woods north of Hazelton. But in New York City I ran into lots of moonie street preachers, and even though they seemed really crazy I accepted an invitation from one of them, a Japanese lady 10 years older than I, to listen to a lecture. I thought their idea of uniting religion and science sounded kind of interesting and, since I had time (and I knew it would be getting warmer in Canada), I agreed to go to a 3-day workshop at a farm/training center (now seminary) in Barrytown on the Hudson River northeast of Kingston/NY.
Well, after 3 days came the 7-day, then the 21-day workshop, and I was hooked, more or less. I completed a 40-day workshop as well, then worked with the movement in Boston and New York City, went down to Atlanta a couple of times in a big truck to pick up fundraising product (peanut brittle, mostly), which we dropped off for mobile fundraising teams in the Carolinas, the Virginias, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Then I worked in a church-owned printshop in Washington, D.C. After 3 weeks there, in the first half of November 1975, I felt I needed a break. I wanted to travel to the west coast and around the world, and rejoin the church somewhere else. I told my friends I would rejoin within 2 years, and I promised to visit a church center on my way in California.
So I left, with about $ 40 in my pocket and no plane ticket home or anything like that. All I had was the address of a friend in San Rafael, Marin County/California, who had left the church and whom I wanted to visit. I hitch-hiked down to North Carolina and across to the Los Angeles area on Interstate 40, then north on Highway 101, always sleeping outside. In San Rafael, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I spent a few days with this ex-moonie friend, and he later dropped me off in Sacramento, from where I wanted to travel north to BC, going back to my original plan.
I tried to hitch-hike north for 3 days — no success. Then I met some hobo at the local soup kitchen and he talked me into going south with him to Indio, near Los Angeles, where he was sure we could get jobs during the winter (I could always go to BC later on). Anyway, we wound up riding freight trains but got only as far as Stockton. Later, not far from there, he got badly hurt on one train, breaking his hip bone, and I had to take him to a hospital in Tracy. I couldn’t stay with him: I was an illegal alien (that’s another part of the story).
Later the same day, Thanksgiving Day, I was robbed of all my possessions except my passport and a few dollars near Livermore, then a fundamentalist Christian guy gave me $ 60, and I was about ready to look up the church again. I couldn’t find the church center in Berkeley, but in the evening I ran into two young guys who invited me to a free Thanksgiving Dinner at a place on Hearst Street near Berkeley campus. That turned out to be the Unification Church, under a different name (Creative Community Project)….
After spending more than a month at the church’s farm in Boonville/Mendocino County and another month “recruiting” and selling roses in San Francisco I was sent with a group of over 30 other members on a bus (the “Dumbo” the elephant bus, which we had used as a mobile coffee shop at Fisherman’s Wharf to invite potential recruits) to New York. We drove south and then east along Interstate Highway 10. From El Paso we went northeast to Dallas via Abilene.
In Dallas we started the Bicentennial God Bless America cleanup campaign by picking up garbage in one or two streets and doing our best to get some television coverage of our efforts (we had done the same earlier in San Francisco). We did the same in Birmingham/AL, Raleigh/NC, Richmond/VA, Washington DC and New York City, then headed to Barrytown for a 21-day workshop.
[Here comes a very long sentence:] … I stayed in the movement through Moon’s big Yankee Stadium (June 1976) and Washington Monument (September 1976) rallies, joined The News World (a new daily newspaper founded by church members) in New York City in late 1976, came back to my country Luxembourg for 3 months in 1979, traveled some 8,000 miles by train from here to Nakhodka in eastern Siberia and then by boat to Japan in October 1979 [through the northern edge of Supertyphoon Tip for 24 hours off the Pacific coast of Honshu Island] to visit my spiritual mother (the Japanese lady I had met in March 1975) there, went down to Bangkok to try working as a correspondent, was called back to New York a few months later, spent half of 1980 and all of 1981 in New York working for The News World and Free Press International, then in 1982 traveled around Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Czechoslovakia (just 3 days – in prison in Ceske Budejovice (Budweis)!), did research in New York City for an emigré Russian writer for 3 months, was arm-twisted by church member friends in the US and Luxembourg to go to Korea in October 1982, where I was matched and blessed to a Japanese sister, then went to Cyprus at the beginning of 1983 to help start The Middle East Times weekly English-language newspaper, went to Pakistan in 1984 and over the hills into Afghanistan (I had first visited that country from Iran in March 1972, when it was at peace) with a bunch of mujahideen warriors fighting the Soviets there, did the same again in 1985, also went alone up the highest mountain (10,000+ feet) in then very much war-torn Lebanon that year, and to Israel, then moved to Athens, Greece with Middle East Times in 1987, then spent a month with my wife in Japan, where we got married both legally and in a Shinto ceremony at a temple near her tiny hometown in Miyazaki Prefecture of Kyushu Island, then I went off to Pakistan and she back to her work in Tokyo, worked as correspondent for both Middle East Times and Sekai Nippo in Islamabad and Peshawar, went again into Afghanistan with mujahideen (came under artillery fire every time I went), then spent some time in the winter in wild and dirt-poor Baltistan (home of 28,000-foot K2 mountain), went back to Japan in late January 1988, started my family there, took my wife back to Greece in late May, worked for Middle East Times in Cairo, Egypt, in early 1989, then our first child, a son, was born outside Athens, and we went off to Cairo again, where I worked as managing editor of the local edition during most of 1990, then we spent 10 months in Larnaca, Cyprus, and finally, at my wife’s insistence (upon Rev. Moon’s instruction to all “blessed” families), we came here to my country in October 1991. A second son was born to us here in 1994 and a daughter in 1996.
… I have stopped thinking of myself as a moonie. I don’t know how I could describe my state of being at this point. In some ways I’m still a full member — though a very passive one — and in other ways I am probably as skeptical as you can get about not only this organization but all religion. My wife remains a loyal member, and I support her and cooperate with the movement to a limited extent. Our two boys have what is called fragile X-chromosome syndrome and are seriously mentally handicapped. The girl is perfectly normal. We didn’t find out about the origin of the boys’ problem until late 1997.
As a youth in the 1960s in my hometown, Esch-sur-Alzette, I was always very insecure and confused about what I wanted to do with my life. Being the oldest of six children, I was so confused that I could never be an example to my younger brothers and sisters. My father, who was born in 1911 and who worked as a welder and mechanic in the iron mines and steel mills on both sides of the French-Luxembourg border, was very authoritarian in his younger years but mellowed very much with age. He had been hardened by experiences during and after the last war, when he had joined the German air force as an enthusiastic volunteer (he was crazy about airplanes and flying) after the Nazis invaded and occupied Luxembourg in 1940. He worked for the "Luftwaffe" as a mechanic in occupied France and Germany, was captured by the Americans in Bavaria at the end of the war, and escaped from a POW camp. On his return to Luxembourg he was promptly thrown in jail and sentenced to eighteen years at hard labor for collaborating with the enemy — but he volunteered to join a prisoner bomb and mine disposal squad, survived four years of doing that dangerous work, and was freed. He never regained full civil and political rights in Luxembourg.
Well, I guess, hearing my father talk about his experiences I realized that I was a real wimp. I read adventure books about faraway places and felt the urge to travel. In 1972, at the age of 21, for the first time, I was allowed to make major decisions about my life and to manage my own money. Up to that time I had always given everything I earned to my parents, and I got pocket money (I earned my first small salary as an apprentice at my hometown’s Arbed Belval ironworks in 1966-67, then switched to the "lycée" [junior high school] but left after passing a mid-level examination ["examen de passage"] a little over 2 years later and went to work in a bank from September 1969).
All of my brothers and sisters, incidentally, became independent at a younger age. From the beginning of 1970 I worked for Luxair airlines as a reservations clerk and had limited free travel. With my parents’ permission I flew to Vienna and Paris in 1970 and to London and Ivalo, Finland in 1971. On that last trip I hitch-hiked for a few days in September around the northern tip of Finland and Norway, covering about 670 kilometers and sleeping outside in a cheap sleeping bag, with a large sheet of plastic as my only protection against rain. One sleepless night out in the middle of nowhere near the northern end of Norway I was totally soaked and frozen in driving rain and strong wind — it was to be the first of many similar experiences.
So, in 1972 my real traveling began. In March of that year I flew to Teheran, Iran, which was the maximum distance I could fly for free based on the length of time I had worked for the airline. I knew practically nothing about Iran. At the Asia Hotel downtown I met a young man from Kenya, of Indian Muslim ancestry, who invited me to go with him to Lahore, Pakistan, in his car, a huge Ford Galaxie 500 that he had bought in Missouri and shipped across the Atlantic to England, where his family lived, and then driven to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to Mecca before coming to Iran. "Ali" (this is a pseudonym) wanted to split expenses on the trip. I accepted, though I didn’t think I could make it all the way to Lahore because I had only two weeks’ leave from work.
The two of us ran into an American ex-soldier, a giant of a guy named Bob (X), who was on his way overland to Australia, and he agreed to join us for the trip to Lahore. We drove north across the Alburz Mountains to the Caspian Sea and then east. In the mountains west of the town of Bojnurd we got stuck in a heavy blizzard that raged for some 18 hours. We were almost out of gasoline and ill-equipped for the cold, so we huddled together and shivered through the night in the car. Late the next morning Iranian soldiers came on skis and brought bread, dates and cheese to us and the many other travelers who were stuck in the snow. An avalanche had blocked the road ahead for several hundred meters, but the soldiers managed to clear a path that people could walk to get to the other side of the blocked area. Some 30 hours after we got stuck in this place, with the road likely to be blocked for another day or two, we decided to try driving down that dangerous path — and by sheer miracle we made it to Bojnurd in one piece, though the Galaxie’s steering gear was damaged and had to be welded back together. This was to be only the first though perhaps the most dramatic of a series of adventures on this trip.
We lost Bob in Herat, Afghanistan, and continued to Kandahar in the south without him. Ali and I stayed 2 days in Kandahar, then he drove on towards Kabul and I had to take a bus back to Iran. At Tayebad on the Iranian side of the border I was quarantined for 24 hours because I didn’t have cholera vaccination. In Mashad I slept with several other men on the floor of a small room in a poor area of town (I’d met one of the men in the street late at night when I arrived and he had invited me because there were no hotels around). I had just barely enough money left to fly Iran Air back to Teheran’s Mehrabad Airport, where I could catch the weekly Lufthansa flight back to Germany the next day, and since I was worried that I might miss the flight if I went the long way back by road or rail, I decided to take the plane.
I wound up spending a full day and night at Mehrabad, shaken by severe diarrhea and stomach cramps, and unable to sleep, with no money left to go anywhere else or buy food or medicine. I was still lucky to get a seat on the plane out the next day. When I got back to Europe I felt that the little adventure had somehow changed me in a fundamental way.
I found it extremely hard to re-adjust to the workaday routines in Luxembourg, even though I had been away only 2 weeks.
In September 1972, a month after smashing my first car in an accident on the French side of the border, I left my job at Luxair and flew to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, with my last free ticket from the company. I thought I might stay in Cayenne but found on my arrival that it would be very hard to get a job or a place to stay other than in one of the rather expensive hotels in town. In my pocket I had a letter from Ali inviting me to Munich, where he thought the two of us could do some business together and make a lot of money in the wake of the Olympic Games. I felt I needed more money anyway in order to get started in South America, so, after only three days in Cayenne I flew back to Paris and hitch-hiked to Munich.
I did work in Munich but also spent a lot of money at the Oktoberfest while I was waiting for Ali to show up, and less than 2 months later I was broke. I hitch-hiked back to Luxembourg in November, spending at least one night out in the cold next to a German Autobahn highway where nobody was willing to give me a ride until the following day.
Within a week or two after I got back to Luxembourg I got a letter from Ali inviting me on a trip by car to Lahore, Pakistan, to visit some of his sisters and other relatives there. He wrote that he and his brother Mahmood (=pseudonym) and Mahmood’s wife and their three small boys were coming from England in two cars, and they needed me as a backup driver because they were pressed for time and would have to drive through the nights. It turned out that they had to pick up their old and arthritis-plagued mother at the airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on a certain day in early January 1973 and to take her to Mecca and Medinah for her first, and probably last, Haj — the full Islamic pilgrimage.
According to their tentative plan, we would drive as quickly as we could to Kuwait, where I would stay with their eldest brother Moazzam (=pseudonym), then they would race across Saudi Arabia, pick up their mother and perform the Haj with her, see her off at Jeddah on the flight back to London about a month later and come back to pick me up in Kuwait for the final leg of the trip to Lahore. I was gung-ho, of course. The two cars were a Volkswagen van with a big mattress and a gas cooker in the back, and a powerful Ford Capri 3000 GT sports car.
We left Luxembourg on 19 December 1972. Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey. We crossed the Bosporus by ferryboat (there was no bridge as yet) and stopped at the famous Pudding Shop near Sultan Ahmed mosque in Istanbul. Somewhere in the mountains south of Ankara, at night, with Mahmood and his family sleeping in the back of the VW and Ali far ahead downhill in the Capri, I lost control of the van in a nasty curve and skidded off the road to the edge of a deep, black precipice. I managed to stop at the very last moment, and I think one of the front wheels no longer touched firm ground. It was really a close call. I found Ali waiting just around the bend. He must have realized how dangerous the curve was, but he hadn’t seen the near-miss. Mahmood and his family didn’t wake up, and I didnt’t tell them about it.
After that we kept going through the night, to Aleppo in Syria, where we arrived in the wee hours of 24 December 1972, and then east towards the Iraqi border. It was a harrowing drive in the night to Raqqa, some 200 kilometers east on the Euphrates River, with dozens of trucks coming towards me on the narrow road, one after another, blinding me with their high-beam headlights that they apparently could not dim. At dawn just past Raqqa, the sun came up right in front and blinded me completely. I had to give up and let Mahmood take over. When I woke up a few hours later, the windshield was gone: a stone that fell from a truck had smashed it. We had to improvise, making a new windshield with sheets of plastic that quickly became covered with scratches. At Abu Kemal on the border with Iraq our journey ended for the time being. The Iraqis refused to let us enter their country, insisting we had to get visas. Mahmood and his family stayed behind with the VW while Ali and I raced the nearly 500 kilometers of mostly miserable road back to Aleppo in the Capri.
At Aleppo we found out that we had to go to the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus, another 400-odd kilometers away to the south. In Damascus we learned that it would take about 2 weeks to get the visas. Impossible. No way we could get to Kuwait and then Jeddah in time. There was only one way to go: directly south through Jordan to Medina and then Mecca and Jeddah. But that meant I could not go with them, since I was not a Muslim and would not get permission to travel with them to the holy places in Saudi Arabia. Ali said I could go back to Europe on my own, or, if I agreed, I could officially become a Muslim and go with them. I chose to become a Muslim.
We raced back to Aleppo and from there all the way back to Abu Kemal, because we couldn’t reach Mahmood by telephone and the Capri with its low ground clearance would never have made the shortcut across the desert via Palmyra. And again we drove the two cars to Aleppo and then to Damascus. Ali and Mahmood became my witnesses at the Saudi Embassy, and I was given an official pilgrim’s visa for Saudi Arabia under the name Omar Hussein. This is how I became a Muslim.
We drove to Jordan. At the border, before leaving Syria, we had to pay a special tax that we were told was levied on all pilgrims who had received their Haj visas in Damascus.
In Amman, the Jordanian capital, we met a friend of Ali’s whose name I don’t remember. We drove on to Ma’an and then Aqaba but found out that we wouldn’t be able to cross into Saudi Arabia from that Red Sea port. We had to backtrack the 100-odd kilometers to Ma’an and then head for the border at Al Mudawarra. My personal impression was that the people I met in Jordan were more suspicious of me than the Syrians had been, sometimes hinting that I might be an Israeli spy. This is exactly what Saudi officals at Al Mudawarra did, too. We spent the night of 29-30 December 1972 at the Saudi border post. The officials found a radio-electronics kit that I had bought in Luxembourg for a friend of Ali’s in Kuwait. When they realized that it was possible to build a tiny radio transmitter with it they refused to let me take it into Saudi Arabia, saying that I might use it to transmit information to the Israelis. They didn’t even let me send it by mail, so we had to leave it at the post, where Ali’s friend in Amman could later pick it up. …. to be continued ….
A little more… -Excerpt from a message to a friend Jan. 2004: …
Talking about the Middle East, I wonder if I ever sent you my little story of how I went on the Haj. I haven’t written the whole experience down yet but I have the beginning of the tale in some autobio notes I wrote a few years ago and may continue someday. I got only as far as late December 1972, on the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. You can read it in the attached text file. I spent over a month in Saudi Arabia after that. My friends wanted me to marry a 16-year-old Pakistani girl by the name of Noha (=pseudonym) in Djeddah and then try to get a scholarship to study at the Islamic University in Medina, etc… But I was not ready for that and wanted to continue traveling with them. We then spent 9 days with their eldest brother Moazzam (=pseudonym) and his friends in Kuwait (in the villa of the Radwan (=pseudonym) family – former postmaster general of Kuwait), then Ali dropped me off in Abadan, Iran, to fend for myself, saying I could not come with them to Lahore because I was not serious enough about being a Muslim and their family there would not like that. So I "celebrated" my 22nd birthday alone (and nearly broke) in Abadan, then tried unsuccessfully to get a job working on a ship in nearby Khorramshahr, and finally somehow made my way back to Europe by train and hitch-hiking via Teheran and Istanbul, etc. at the end of February 1973. This was a little over 2 years before I met Moon’s Unification Church in New York. In the summer of 1973 I went to England and worked at Heathrow Airport, then as a bus conductor in xxx, Lancashire, where I rented a room in a house that belonged to Ali and his family — and spent a lot of time with them. They were not mad at me for not being a good Muslim — they actually didn’t take it all that seriously themselves. I still keep in touch with them, and Ali still lives in xxx but travels a lot on business. He has visited me in Luxembourg twice in recent years. +++