My current idea of God in a nutshell

I believe God is everything and everything is God. God is universal consciousness, universal memory. We humans, collectively, are a spearhead of the evolution of universal consciousness, and each one of us is a facet of God’s character. There may or may not be other such spearheads in other parts of the universe. Time is the accumulation of memories in universal consciousness. Time appears to flow in one direction because memories cannot be erased from universal consciousness. I do not believe we as individual human beings are eternal in any way except that we continue existing as memories in universal consciousness. Upon final separation from our physical bodies our individual spirit or consciousness dissolves back into the whole from which it came and of which it always remained a part. It can be said that God grows through us, changes and learns through us — until we may be superseded by a higher intelligence. God is not good or evil in itself but through us God is both. God cannot change our world except through us…

 

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Target Iran

This is the first time I post a link to an article on another site but I think the subject is important enough and is of great concern to me as I am totally opposed to the US empire’s wars and overseas military bases (in fact I would like to see a world without any military forces at all — though I know humankind is not mature enough for that):

Preparing for World War III, Targeting Iran

 

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Fighting the Good Fight – or not …

 

The News World New York City April 29, 1977 edition

Our New York newspaper in April 1977

The following is excerpted and adapted from an entry in my diary for 4 July 2010:

… I have connected with many mostly American church members [= the Unification Church / Movement founded by the late Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon] on Facebook. Some are old colleagues from my time in the USA (1975-1982).

It is almost frightening to see how fanatic and narrow-minded most of them are [in a political sense only; I know the vast majority are really good people in other ways] — from my point of view. When I was in the US, especially during the time (end-1976-1982) I was with the News World (New York daily newspaper launched by members of that church/movement — a forerunner of the Washington Times) and Free Press International, we had the feeling that we were in a war against communism. It was an intense ideological conflict from our point of view, whose seriousness and dangers most people outside our political community within the church failed to understand/appreciate.

 

We needed allies, like-minded people who were also movers and shakers in the political world of the USA, and in other countries, too. The USA was — to us — by far the most important country in the world, and we had to save her from the decadence and depravity that the leftists and communists propagated and encouraged in order to weaken and finally conquer her. America had to become the world’s greatest power by being both morally superior and much better armed and motivated — politically and militarily — than any potential foe or group of foes.

 

And there were always foes: evil empires (Reagan was our hero as president — even though Moon was jailed for a year and a half on his watch, for tax evasion), terrorists, etc. There was a sense of moral superiority, but our morality did not extend to the point where we would have disapproved of mass murder as long as those murdered were — or could be labeled as —  communists or leftists. It was thus quite alright for the US to have bombed Vietnam with napalm and Agent Orange or for Argentine, Chilean and Colombian generals to massacre thousands of suspected leftists and sympathizers. It was fine for death squads to torture and murder thousands in places like Colombia, Brazil or El Salvador — and many others — as long as the death squads could be somehow labeled pro-USA (mostly meaning fascist/oligarchist) and their victims leftist.

 

I was never enthusiastic about this but mostly played along, because, after all, I believed in Moon, his church, his mission and the importance of the USA in fulfilling this mission.

 

Today, of course, I stand more or less at 180 degrees to all that.

 

I feel the church has played a very nefarious political role in the USA by going to bed with narrow-minded, fanatic nationalist, elitist/oligarchic and militaristic politicians, and doing its utmost to promote causes such as those of the worst fascists. The idea from the church’s and also Moon’s point of view — of course — was always that those were people who were on God’s side in the larger scheme of things. They were people who had power, who could perhaps be won over to completely support the work of Moon — the Messiah — and ultimately turn the whole country around so that Moon would be recognized for who he really was. The USA would become — so the American members (we) hoped — the first country to officially recognize and follow the “king of kings.”

 

Today, I see on Facebook and elsewhere that American members seem not to have changed at all — not to have learned anything new at all. They are still fighting an intense ideological fight against the political “left” [and socialism  / communism] and the Islamic (primarily) “terrorists” [real and imagined] — and they still believe the USA is not armed well enough — both ideologically/morally and militarily — to fight its enemies.

 

What I don’t understand is how powerful this — to me, mythical, but to them very real — Satan and his legions still are. I thought Moon had conquered and subdued him [according to his own words], and Moon’s sons in spirit world were completely turning that realm upside down. How come, then, that this so-called Satan and his minions still have so much power that the world continues to be the mess it is — and spirit world seems in no better shape?

 

I have my own answer, of course, and I don’t believe in a spirit world as the Moonies describe it at all. To me, God has created and always played both sides, and we humans are very much part of both sides — “good” and “evil,” just as we are part of God [in essence I believe we humans, collectively, are a spearhead of God’s own evolving consciousness, which grows through us — although as individuals we are just temporary existences and will dissolve back into the whole when our bodies die].

 

The so-called “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” in the Bible — that very name says it all: to God, originally, there was no good or evil, there was no moral sense. God himself or rather itself (to take away the gender) only “discovered” a sense of “good” and “evil” through us humans. He/she/it “discovered” how useful (from its own larger perspective) and — yes — exciting it could be to divide us between “good” and “evil.” 

1-The News World 19771218

The News World in December 1977

1-Noticias Del Mundo 19820611

Our Spanish sister newspaper launched in 1980 – Noticias Del Mundo

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A collection of postcards I sent to family from abroad and other souvenirs

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My Facebook album “Souvenirs

1973-01-04 Mecca and the nearby tent city of Mina (stayed there 2 weeks +)

1973-01-04 Mecca and the nearby tent city of Mina (stayed there 2 weeks +). The bottom right photo actually shows Jebel Arafat, a few kilometers past Mina, the site of a high point during the pilgrimage.

 

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About my first journey to Japan, across Siberia, in 1979

1-trans-siberian-rail-ticket-stub-october-1979-c

(Stub of main portion of my Oct. 1979 trans-Siberian ticket – Moscow to Khabarovsk; 8,531 kilometers.)

I traveled across the southern part of Siberia on the trans-Siberian train in October 1979 during Soviet times — from Yaroslavski station in Moscow to Khabarovsk, where all foreigners had to get off to spend a night, and then from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka east of Vladivostok. I loved the Lake Baykal area most, where the train passes a stone’s throw from the lake shore near Slyudyanka, with the snow-capped Sayan Mountains on the Mongolian border to the south. Beautiful. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post under the links to “Photos:” for more on my impression of Soviet Russia during that 9-day journey across the vast land).

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The trans-Siberian was part of my first trip to Japan. It took me exactly two weeks to get from Luxembourg to Yokohama, from 6 to 20 October 1979 — 11 days on trains. I was ushered to Japan on the Soviet Morflot passenger ship Baikal by the remnant of Supertyphoon Tip, which a few days earlier had been the largest and most intense tropical cyclone ever measured (it’s described in Wikipedia and in a 1998 report I have from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

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We left Nakhodka about midday on 17 October 1979, crossed the Sea of Japan (or Eastern Sea), then passed through Tsugaru Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido before turning south off the Pacific side of Honshu, headed for Yokohama. The weather was really beautiful and the sea was calm until some time after we passed Hakodate on Hokkaido Island in the afternoon of 18 October, entering the Pacific Ocean. The sky darkened, the sea got rough — I got seasick fairly quickly — and soon all passengers were asked to go below deck because the ship’s crew was going to lock all hatches. No passenger was allowed on deck any more. The captain’s announcement did not say anything about us heading into a big storm but it was obvious from the rocking and creaking of the boat that something like that was afoot.

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Not long after that I spent about 24 hours passing back and forth between the bed in my cabin and the toilet across the corridor, my body seemingly turning inside out from extreme seasickness. Around midnight of the 19th the storm eased up, and the Baikal steamed at full speed towards Yokohama Bay, which we finally entered around 6 a.m. on the morning of the 20th. The Baikal’s nice sunroof aft on deck was almost completely chewed up, as if a giant had bitten off pieces of it.

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A Japanese coastguard or customs boat pulled up alongside and officers came on board the Baikal to check our passports.

When I first got down to the pier at Yokohama I suddenly felt very dizzy and for a moment, inadvertantly, I rocked back and forth to keep my balance as if the ground under my feet was like the boat in the typhoon…

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(This is how I remember the trip, 35 years later — it’s a little blurry now)

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About photographs, or lack thereof ….

….

Nowadays I regret very much that it took me very long to realize it would be a good idea to buy a camera and take pictures during my travels. My father always had a camera and took a lot of photos, and he also shot quite a bit of film of our family with a small wind-up 8-mm Yashica camera that he bought at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. Despite this it didn’t occur to me that I should get a camera of my own to take along on my travels.

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I did buy a cheap Polaroid camera shortly after I arrived in New York City in March 1975 and took a few pictures in Central Park that I still have — nothing very interesting. In 1982, again in New York, I took a few more pictures in the Chinatown area with another Polaroid. 

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I finally bought my first 35-mm camera in 1984 during a short trip to Luxembourg to renew my passport while I was living in Cyprus. It was a Yashica, fixed-focus — very simple and cheap. But I took a lot of good pictures with it in Cyprus, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Japan — where I bought an Olympus OM-10 with a 35-70 lens at Camera-No-Doi in Tokyo in 1987. This Olympus served me well in Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Luxembourg, though I never learned how to use all its features. Since 2003 I have been using digital cameras, including a Fujifilm Finepix S2950 that I got for my 60th birthday in early 2011 — nothing fancy but I’m quite happy with it, though still shooting mostly on automatic…..

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Here are links to my posts on my travels, and to some of my photo albums:

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https://erwinlux.com/2009/08/30/under-fire-in-afghanistan-some-time-ago/

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https://erwinlux.com/2005/07/11/my-first-journeys/

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Here is a bit more on my pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972-1973, etc.: 

https://erwinlux.com/2010/04/30/afghanistan-saudi-arabia-pakistan-my-story-1970s-80s/ 

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https://erwinlux.com/2005/10/20/journeys-spiritual-and-physical-since-1975/

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https://erwinlux.com/2006/12/09/memory-of-california-thanksgiving-1975/

 

My last trip into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, in 1987

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Photos: 

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/erwinlux

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miscellaneous albums

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On my 9 days in Soviet Russia (8-17 October 1979)

From an email to a friend:

About my first trip to Japan, I was not pressed for time and thought it would be more interesting to go by train and boat (rather than flying). Also, I wanted to see with my own eyes what the Soviet Union looked like. At the time, in New York, I worked for a Moonie (=followers of the late Korean Christian sect leader Sun Myung Moon) anti-communist newspaper where all of us regarded the USSR as the big enemy, the ‘evil empire.’ I was on my way via Japan to Bangkok/Thailand, where I wanted to work as correspondent for that newspaper.
At the time also, the leader of our religious movement Sun Myung Moon himself kept saying he wanted to go to Moscow to hold a ‘freedom rally’ in Red Square, and all of us Moonies were supposed to prepare for that (it meant the liberation of the USSR). I was quite skeptical of his chances of doing that but I wanted to get my own impression of the country first.
Well, on the train in West Germany headed for Moscow I met a man who was a Communist Party official from Tselinograd, Khazakh SSR. He spoke German and we talked quite a bit all the way to Moscow, which took 2 days. Later, I corresponded with him for a number of years until his wife wrote back to me one day in 1990 that he had died.
I was surprised to find that the undercarriage of the whole train had to be changed at Brest on the Polish-Soviet border, a process that took a couple of hours. It was, of course, because the rail gauge is different – wider – on the Soviet side.
I thought, well, if the Soviets launched a major offensive against western Europe, as us anti-communists feared, they would face a problem bringing enough supplies from the hinterland to their troops on the front line if every train from their country was held up at Brest and other places like that. They would represent bottlenecks. Road and air transport wouldn’t be enough for the logistical job required. Also, those places would make valuable targets for air strikes from the west.
I didn’t see how the wheels were changed because a Soviet border guard took me off the train when he found a book (supposedly) of Khrushchev’s memoirs in English in my luggage. I was kept waiting for awhile in an office at the border and was asked to sign a paper agreeing that I could not take that book into the USSR and in effect allowing them to confiscate it. They asked a few questions but were generally polite. I actually had a lot of other stuff in my luggage that I had reason to be more worried about than that book, but they didn’t check very thoroughly at all.
In Moscow I once walked into a sort of cafeteria for local workers, listened closely to how the other customers ordered bread, sausage and beer in Russian, and ordered the same in Russian (at the time I still ate meat). I didn’t feel that anybody noticed I was a foreigner.
The country looked poor and generally quite shabby to me, not at all like a great superpower. There were other incidents during the trip and especially in Khabarovsk where I did things normally forbidden but nothing happened and I didn’t have the impression that I was being watched very closely. Near Novosibirsk I saw roughly 3 dozen armored personnel carriers on a train in a shunting yard, and when I heard a few months later in Bangkok that the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan I thought those vehicles I had seen in Siberia might have belonged to a contingent getting ready to move down to Uzbekistan in preparation for the invasion.
A few years later, of course, I would come under artillery, mortar, tank and rocket fire from some of those Soviet forces and their Afghan allies in Afghanistan myself – and see a lot of destroyed Soviet APCs, tanks, field guns, etc. – and also many dud bombs lying around (yes, many failed to explode, probably because of the negligence [or even deliberate sabotage] of disgruntled workers in Soviet munitions and other factories, producing mostly shoddy goods).
Really, no, to me the Soviet Union didn’t look like a big military power threatening the west, though it took some time for that realization to sink in.
Already at the end of 1976 in New York I had read the book La Chute Finale by the French demographer Emmanuel Todd, predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union as a result of worsening economic problems, discrepancies between
the Russian heartland and the vassal states, etc. – and I had written a commentary about it (under a pseudonym) that appeared in our paper The News World in early 1977. (I still have a clipping of that commentary, one of the first pieces I wrote that appeared in print). 

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More on God

Above Satpara Lake Baltistan late December 1987

… More about my idea of “God” (see post below on death and here about my view of God  ): I believe God, this one spirit or universal consciousness has basically divided itself into innumerable small parts by bringing about (in whatever way) what we regard as the physical universe with all the individual consciousnesses within it, each tied to a body of some kind or another.

We are really all one ― each one of us living beings and inanimate things is a part of this God ― but through our bodies we have the illusion of being separate from one another. When the bodies of us living beings fall away we return to where we came from and become one again completely with God ― the universal spirit. It is only the short-lived body of ours which makes us feel separate.

I cannot think of another way in which the world could be “just.” No concept of heaven and hell and good and evil that I have known would ever satisfy my sense of justice. For years I thought (the late Korean Rev. Sun Myung) Moon’s Divine Principle had the answers but I have concluded that it doesn’t. It is no better than some other ideas that do not satisfy me at all.

God is absolutely responsible for everything that happens in the universe — from the greatest, most beautiful thing or event to the most horrible monstrosity or atrocity — but we all share that responsibility because we are all part of God. God as a whole has thrived on the differences and divisions among us that lead to conflict — especially in us humans, the spearheads of the evolution of his consciousness in this world — and on both the good and the evil things we have been doing to each other in our bodies, which make us feel separate. But his/our consciousness is evolving. God is learning with us, through us.

In our primitive days, when we were totally unable to understand the reality of our ultimate oneness, God gave us myths including the Bible and all the scriptures, which were propagated by people inspired by “Him” (or “Her,” “It”) to awe us and make us fear, and to herd us together as groups and make us fight each other for his own pleasure. To explain this: I believe the deepest parts of our nature are the emotions, which we share with God, our source. Yes, I believe God has the same emotions, though from a universal perspective, since his “body” is the entire universe.

Now, I think, the time may be coming when those myths are no longer useful. It is time that we humans outgrow them and look for the truth behind and beyond them. Most of all I hope we can truly become aware of the reality of our original and ultimate oneness.

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Life After Death

I have thought about the concept of a spirit world. Do I believe there is a world of spirit where we/our souls go after we die? Do I believe we have a spiritual body in which our soul/spirit resides for eternity and which resembles our physical body as it is when we are young and healthy? — No, I do not believe this! — This does not mean that I believe it is impossible.

I think that when we die – when our physical body dies and decays – our spirit dissolves in the ocean of universal consciousness, which is what God is to me. However, there remains a residue of a memory within God – a memory of us as we were when we were alive. As I have written before (see below about time and here about my view of God ), I believe time – the “flow” of time – is really an accumulation of memory or memories within God. It expands ad infinitum, which is probably also why our universe seems to expand. When we die, then, the memory of our life remains as part of this ever-growing universal memory. In this way we will continue to exist – but we cannot create new things or learn or grow because we will no longer be conscious as a separate entity. We will be fully assimilated or merged into the whole whence we came, a grain of salt dissolved in the ocean – still salt and still contributing our specific flavor to the ocean – at least to the tiny part of it that we have been able to influence during our lives – but no longer a separate entity and no longer able to expand our influence.

I may be wrong, of course, but it would be very hard if not impossible for me to return to a belief in a spirit world like that described by Unificationists and others such as Swedenborg.

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From a post I wrote in 2008 (elsewhere):

Time – an accumulation of memory in universal consciousness; not entropy

Recently I read an article by a scientist who proposed that the “flow” or “arrow” of time is basically the growth of entropy, including decay. When you pour milk into a cup of coffee, for example, it would be extremely difficult to go back and separate the milk from the coffee. The same applies if you try to rebuild an organism that has completely decayed.
I propose a different explanation, though I don’t have the scientific knowledge to back it up: the direction of the “flow” of time is determined by the accumulation of memory in universal consciousness. Everything is memory / universally stored  information, which keeps increasing with the passage of time and can never decrease (otherwise time would “flow” backwards). Even the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that seem to fill our universe may be a store of memory. We carry the memory of our ancestors within us – even though we are mostly not aware of it. Memory is the imprint that everything leaves on universal consciousness or god (see my posts about god/universal consciousness below). – Unlike the scientist who believes the flow of time is the growth of entropy, I believe that entropy is only something like a side effect – it is inevitable and it always distorts or degrades memory to some extent, but it is not a dominant aspect of reality.

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Miscellaneous photos

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Dangerous bus ride on Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway in winter -January 1988

 

Men in Khaplu village end Dec. 1987

By Erwin Franzen
correspondent
(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 version)

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 earth’s surface.

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 i mpending 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 cliffs.

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.

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KKH Gilgit-Skardu road, August 1985 – taken on my first trip on this highway. 

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Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – my story 1970s-80s

With Yunus Khalis mujahideeen on bridge near Bargam north of Asmar, August 1985 (4th from left).

With Yunus Khalis mujahideeen on bridge near Bargam north of Asmar, Kunar, August 1985 (4th from left).

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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): 

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf -left- Jaji Paktia Afghanistan late August 1984

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf -left- Jaji Paktia Afghanistan late August 1984

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:

The guy on right is aiming a bazooka at my head -Jaji Paktia Afghanistan 1984

The guy on right is aiming a bazooka at my head -Jaji Paktia Afghanistan 1984

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…

Passu Cathedral peaks above Hunza Valley late August 1985

Passu Cathedral peaks above Hunza Valley late August 1985

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