ARRESTED AT FURRAH.
Perhaps no stranger occurrence in the field of personal adventure in Central Asia has happened for many a year than my entrance into Furrah on a bicycle. Only those who know Afghanistan and the Afghans can fully realize the ticklish character of this little piece of adventure.
My soldier-escort are fine-looking fellows, wearing the well-known red jackets of the British Army, evidently the uniform of some sepoy regiment. Forming around me, they conduct me through the gate of an inner enclosure near by, and usher me into a small compound where Mahmoud Yusuph Khan, the commander-in-chief of the garrison, is engaged in holding a morning reception of his subordinate chiefs and officers. The spectacle that greets my astonished eyes is a revelation indeed; the whole compound is filled with soldiers wearing the regimentals of the Anglo-Indian army. As I enter the compound and trundle the bicycle between long files of soldiers toward Mahmoud Yusuph Khan and his officers, five hundred pairs of eyes are fixed on me with intense curiosity. These are Cabooli soldiers sent here to garrison Furrah, where they will be handy to march to the relief of Herat, in case of demonstrations against that city by the Russians. The tension over the Penjdeh incident has not yet (April, 1886) wholly relaxed, and I feel instinctively that I am suspected of being a Russian spy.
In the centre of the compound is a large bungalow, surrounded by a slightly raised porch. Seated on a mat at one end of this is Mahmoud Yusuph Khan, and ranged in two long rows down the porch are his chiefs and officers. They are all seated cross-legged on a strip of carpet, and attendants are serving them with tea in little porcelain cups. They are the most martial-looking assembly of humans I ever set eyes on. They are fairly bristling with quite serviceable looking weapons, besides many of the highly ornamented, but less dangerous, "gewgaws of war" dear to the heart of the brave but conservative warriors of Islam. Prominent among the peculiarities observed are strips of chain mail attached to portions of their clothing as guards against sword-cuts, noticeably on the sleeves. Some are wearing steel helmets, some huge turbans, and others the regular Afghan military hat, this latter a rakish-looking head-piece something like the hat of a Chinese Tartar general.
Mahmoud Yusupli Khan himself is wearing one of these hats, and is attired in a tight-fitting suit of buckram, pipe-clayed from head to foot; in his hat glitters a handsome rosette of nine diamonds, which I have an opportunity of counting while seated beside him. He is a stoutish person, full-faced, slightly above middle age, less striking in appearance than many of his subordinates. When I have walked up between the two rows of seated chieftains and gained his side, he forthwith displays his knowledge of the English mode of greeting by shaking hands. He orders an attendant to fetch a couple of camp chairs, and setting one for me, he rises from the carpet and occupies the other one himself. Tea is brought in small cups instead of glasses, and is highly sweetened after the manner of the Persians; sweetmeats are handed round at the same time. After ascertaining that I understand something of Persian, he expresses his astonishment at my appearance in Furrah. At first it is painfully evident that he suspects me of being a Russian spy; but after several minutes of questions and answers, he is apparently satisfied that I am not a Muscovite, and he explains to his officers that I am an "Ingilis nockshi" (correspondent). He is greatly astonished to hear of the route by which I entered the country, as no traveller ever entered Afghanistan across the Dasht-i-na-oomid before. I tell him that I am going to Kandahar and Quetta, and suggest that he send a sowar with me to guide the way. He smiles amusedly at this suggestion, and shaking his head vigorously, he says, "Kandahar neis; Afghanistan's bad; khylie bad;" and he furthermore explains that I would be sure to get killed. "Kliylie koob; I don't want any sowar, I will go alone; if I get killed, then nobody will be blamable but myself." "Kandahar neis," he replies, shaking his finger and head, and looking very serious; "Kandahar neis; beest (20) sowars couldn't see you safely through to Kandahar; Afghanistan's bad; a Ferenghi would be sure to get killed before reaching Kandahar." Pretending to be greatly amused at this, I reply, "koob; if I get killed, all right; I don't want any sowars; I will go alone." At hearing this, he grows still more serious, and enters into quite an eloquent and lengthy explanation, to dissuade me from the idea of going. He explains that the Ameer has little control over the fanatical tribes in Zemindavar, and that although the Boundary Commission had a whole regiment of sepoys, the Ameer couldn't guarantee their safety if they came to Furrah. He furthermore expresses his surprise that I wasn't killed before getting this far. The officer of the guard who brought me in, and who is standing against the porch close by, speaks up at this stage of the interview and tells with much animation of how I was riding down the street, and of the people all speechless with astonishment.
Mahmoud Yusuph Khan repeats this to his officers, with comments of his own, and they look at one another and smile and shake their heads, evidently deeply impressed at what they consider the dare-devil recklessness of a Ferenghi in venturing alone into the streets of Furrah. The warlike Afghans have great admiration for personal courage, and they evidently regard my arrival here without escort as a proof that I am possessed of a commendable share of that desirable quality. As the commander-in-chief and a few grim old warriors squatting near us exchange comments on the subject of my appearance here, and my willingness to proceed alone to Kandahar, notwithstanding the known probability of being murdered, their glances of mingled amusement and admiration are agreeably convincing that I have touched a chord of sympathy in their rude, martial breasts.
Half an hour is passed in drinking tea and asking questions. Mahmoud Yusuph Khan proves himself not wholly ignorant of English and British-Indian politics. "General Roberts Sahib, Cabool to Kandahar?" he queries first. The Afghans regard General Roberts' famous march as a wonderful performance, and consequently hold that distinguished officer's name in high repute. He asks about Sir Peter Lumsden and Colonel Sir West Ridgeway; and speaks of the Governor-General of India. By way of testing the extent of his knowledge, I refer to Lord Ripon as the present Governor-General of India, when he at once corrects me with, "No; Lord Dufferin Sahib." He speaks of London, and wants to know about Mr. Gladstone and Lord Salisbury--which is now Prime Minister? I explain by pantomime that the election is not decided; he acknowledges his understanding of my meaning by a nod. He then grows inquisitive about the respective merits of the two candidates. "Gladstone koob or Salisbury koob?" he queries. "Gladstone koob, England, ryot, nune, gusht, kishrnish, pool-Salisbury koob, India, Afghanistan, Ameer, Russia soldier, officer," is the reply. To the average reader this latter reads like so much unintelligible shibboleth; but it is a fair sample of the disjointed language by which I manage to convey my meaning plainly to the Afghan chieftain. He understands by these few disconnected nouns that I consider Gladstone to be the better statesman of the two for England's domestic affairs, and Salisbury the better for the foreign policy of the Empire.
All this time the troops are being put through their exercises, marching about the compound in companies and drilling with their muskets. Some are uniformed in the picturesque Anglo-Oriental regimentals of the Indian sepoy, and others in neat red jackets, peaked caps, and white trousers with red stripes. The buttons, belts, bandoleers, and buckles are all wanderers from the ranks of the British army. The men themselves--many of them, at least--might quite as readily be credited to that high standard of military prowess which characterizes the British army as the clothes and accoutrements they are wearing, judging from outward appearances. Not only do their faces bear the stamp of both fearlessness and intelligence, but some of them are possessed of the distinctively combative physiognomy of the born pugilist. The captain of the Governor's guard has a particularly plucky and aggressive expression; he is a man whose face will always remain pictured on my memory. The interesting expression this officer habitually wears is that of a prize-ring champion, with a determined bull-dog phiz, watching eagerly to pounce on some imaginary antagonist. Seeing that his attention is keenly centred upon me the whole time I am sitting by the side of his chief, he becomes an object of more than passing interest. He watches me with the keen earnestness of a bull-dog expectantly awaiting the order to attack.
Mahmoud Yusuph Khan now attempts to explain at length sundry reasons why it is necessary to place me, for the time being, under guard. He seems very anxious to convey this unpleasant piece of information in the flowery langue diplomatique of the Orient, or in other words, to coat the bitter pill of my detention with a sugary coating of Eastern politeness.
His own linguistic abilities being unequal to the occasion, he sends off somewhere for a dusky Hindostani, who shortly arrives and, in obedience to orders, forthwith begins jabbering at me in his own tongue. Of this I, of course, know literally nothing, and, ever swayed by suspicion, it is easily perceivable that their first impression of my being a Russian spy is in a measure revived by my ignorance of Hindostani. They seem to think it inconsistent that one could be an Englishman and not understand the language of a native of India. After the interview the twelve red-jackets that appear to constitute the Governor's bodyguard are detailed to conduct me to a walled garden--outside the city. Before departing, however, I give the strange assembly of Afghan warriors an exhibition of riding around the compound. The guard, under the leadership of the officer with the bull-dog phiz, fix bayonets and form into a file on either side of me as I trundle back through the same street traversed upon my arrival. Accompanying us is a man on a gray horse whom everybody addresses respectfully as "Kiftan Sahib" (Captain), and another individual afoot in a bottle-green roundabout, a broad leathern belt, a striped turban, white baggy pantalettes, and pointed red shoes. Kiftan Sahib looks more like an English game-keeper than an Afghan captain; he wears a soiled Derby hat, a brown cut-away coat, striped pantaloons, and Northampton-made shoes without socks; his arms are a cavalry sabre and a revolver.
Outside the gate, at the suggestion of the young man in the bottle-green roundabout, I mount and ride, wheeling slowly along between the little files of soldiers. The soldiers are delighted at the novelty of their duty, and they swing briskly along as I pedal a little faster. They smile at the exertion necessary to keep up, and falling in with their spirit of amusement, I gradually increase my speed, and finally shoot ahead of them entirely. Kiftan Sahib comes galloping after me on the gray, and with good-humored anxiety motions for me to stop and let the soldiers catch up. He it is upon whom the commander-in-chief has saddled the responsibility for my safe-keeping, and this little display of levity and my ability to so easily out-distance the soldiers, awakens in him the spirit of apprehension at once. One can see that he breathes easier as soon as we are safely inside the garden gate.
A couple of little whitewashed bungalows are the only buildings in the garden, and one of these is assigned to me for my quarters. Kiftan Sahib and the young man in the bottle-green roundabout give orders about the preparation of refreshments, and then squat themselves down near me to gladden their eyes with a prolonged examination of my face. The red-jackets separate into three reliefs of four each; one relief immediately commences pacing back and forth along the four sides of the bungalow, one soldier on each side, while the remainder seek the shade of a pomegranate grove that occupies one side of the garden. By-and-by servitors appear bearing trays of sweetmeats and more substantial fare. The variety and abundance of eatables comprising the meal, are such as to thoroughly delight the heart of a person who has grown thin and gaunt and wolfish from semi-starvation and prolonged physical exertion. The two long skewers of smoking kabobs and the fried eggs are most excellent eating, the pillau is delicious, and among other luxuries is a sort of pomegranate jam, some very good butter (called muscal), a big bowl of sherbet, and dishes of nuts, sweetmeats, and salted melon seeds. After dinner the young man in bottle-green, who seems anxious to cultivate my good opinion, smiles significantly at me and takes his departure; he turns up again in a few minutes bearing triumphantly an old Phillips' Atlas, which he deferentially places at my feet. Opening it, I find that the chief countries and cities of the world are indicated in written Hindostani characters. In this manner some English officer has probably been the undesigning medium of giving these Afghans a peep into the configuration of the earth they live on, and their first lesson in geography.
I reward the young man by asking him whether he too is a "kiftan." He acknowledges the compliment by a broad grin and two salaams made in rapid succession.
After noon a messenger arrives from Mahmoud Yusuph Khan bringing salaams and a pair of stout English walking-boots to replace my old worn-out geivehs; and a cake of toilet soap, also of English make. Both shoes and soap, as may be easily imagined, are highly acceptable articles. The advent of the former likewise answers the purpose of enlightening me a trifle in regard to matters philological; the Afghans call their foot-gear "boots" (the Chinese call their foot-wear "shoes," and their gloves "tung-shoes," or hand-shoes).
About four o'clock I am visited by a fatherly old khan in a sky-blue gown, and an interesting Cabooli cavalry colonel, with pieces of chain mail distributed about his uniform, and a fierce-looking moustache that stands straight out from his upper lip. Sweetmeats enough to start a small candy shop have been sent me during the afternoon, and setting them out before my guests, we are soon on the most familiar terms. The colonel shows me his weapons in return for a squint down the shining rifled barrel of my Smith & Wesson, and he explains the merits and demerits of both his own firearms and mine. The 38-calibre S. & W. he thinks a perfect weapon in its way, but altogether too small for Afghanistan. With expressive pantomime he explains that, while my 38 bullet would kill a person as well as a larger one, it requires a heavier missile to crash into a man who is making for you with a knife or sword, and stop him. His favorite weapon for close quarters is a murderous-looking piece, half blunderbuss, half pistol, that he carries thrust in his kammerbund, so that the muzzle points behind him. This weapon has a small single-hand musket stock, and the bell-mouthed barrel is filled nearly to the muzzle with powder and round bullets the size of buckshot. This formidable firearm is for hand-to-hand fighting on horseback, and at ten paces might easily be warranted to blow a man's head into smithereens.
The colonel is an amiable old warrior, and kindly points this interesting weapon at my head for me to peer down the barrel and satisfy myself that it is really loaded almost to the top! Like Injun-slaying youngsters in America, the doughty Afghan warriors seem to delight in having their weapons loaded, their sidearms sharp, and their bayonets fixed, and seem anxious to impress the beholder with the fact that they are real warriors, and not mere make-believe soldiers. The colonel wears a dark-brown uniform profusely trimmed with braid, a Kashgarian military hat, and English army shoes. In matters pertaining to his wardrobe it is very evident that he has profited to no small extent by Afghanistan being adjacent territory to British India; but his semi-civilized ambition has not yet soared into the aesthetic realm of socks; doubtless he considers Northampton-made shoes sufficiently luxurious without the addition of socks.
The mission of these two officers is apparently to prepare me gradually for the intelligence that I am to be taken back to Herat. So skillfully and diplomatically does the old khan in the cerulean gown acquit himself of this mission, that I thoroughly understand what is to be my disposition, although Herat is never mentioned. He talks volubly about the Ameer, the Wali, the Padishah, the dowleh, Cabool, Allah, and a host of other subjects, out of which I readily evolve my fate; but, as yet, he breathes nothing but diplomatic hints, and these are clothed in the most pleasant and reassuring smiles, and given in tones of paternal solicitude. The colonel sits and listens intently, and now and then chimes in with a word of soothing assent by way of emphasizing the subject, when the khan is explaining about the Ameer, or Allah, or kismet. Mahmoud Tusuph Khan himself comes to the garden in the cool of the evening, and for half an hour occupies bungalow No. 2. He betrays a spark of Oriental vanity by having an attendant follow behind, bearing a huge and wonderful sun-shade, into the make-up of which peacock feathers and other gorgeous material largely enters. Noticing this, I make a determined assault upon his bump of Asiatic self-esteem, by asking him if he is brother to the Ameer. He smiles and says he is a brother of Shere Ali, the ex-Ameer deposed in favor of Abdur Bahman. His remarks during our second interview are largely composed of furtive queries, intended to penetrate what he evidently, even as yet, suspects to be the secret object of my mysterious appearance in the heart of the country. The Afghan official is nothing if not suspicious, and although he professed his own conviction, in the morning, of my being an English "nokshi," his constitutionally suspicious nature forbids him accepting this impression as final.
During this interview two more natives of India are produced and ordered to assail my long-suffering ears with the battery of their vernacular. They are an interesting pair, and they evince the liveliest imaginable interest in finding a Sahib alone in the hands of the Afghans. They are vivacious and intelligent, and try hard to make themselves understood. From their own vocal and pantomimic efforts and the Persian of the Afghans, I learn that they are sepoys in charge of three prisoners from the Boundary Commission camp, whom they are taking through to Quetta.
They seem very anxious to do something in my behalf, and want Mahmoud Yusuph Khan to let them take me with them to Quetta. I lose no time in signifying my approval of this suggestion; but the Governor shakes his head and orders them away, as though fearful even to have such a proposition entertained. All the time the sepoys are endeavoring to make themselves understood, every Afghan present regards my face with the keenest scrutiny; so glaringly evident are their suspicions that the situation becomes too much for my gravity. The sepoys grin broadly in response, whereupon the pugilistic-faced captain of the Governor's guard remonstrates with them for their levity, by roughly making them stand in a more respectful attitude. I dislike very much to see them ordered off, for they are evidently anxious to champion my cause; moreover, it would have been interesting to have accompanied them through to Quetta. Understanding thoroughly by this time that I am not to be allowed to go through by way of Giriskh and Kandahar, and dreading the probability of being taken back into Persia, I ask permission to travel south to Jowain and the frontier of Beloochistan. The Afghan-Beloochi boundary is not more than fifty or sixty miles south of Furrah, and while it would be difficult to say what advantage would be gained by reaching there, it would at all events be some consolation to find myself at liberty.
The interview ends, however, without much additional light being shed on their intentions; but the advent of more sweetmeats shortly after the Governor's departure, and the unexpected luxury of a bottle of Shiraz wine, heightens the conviction that my own wishes in the matter are to be politely ignored. The red-jackets patrol my bungalow till dark, when they are relieved by soldiers in dark-blue kilts, loose Turkish pantalettes, and big turbans. I sit on the threshold during the evening, watching their soldierly bearing with much interest; on their part they comport themselves as though proudly conscious of making a good impression. I judge they have been especially ordered to acquit themselves well in my presence, and so impress me, whether I am English or Russian, with a sense of their military proficiency. All about the garden red-coated guards are seen prostrating themselves toward Mecca in the prosecution of their evening devotions. Full of reflections on the exciting events of the day and the strange turn affairs have taken, I stretch myself on a Turkoman rug and doze off to sleep. The last sound heard ere reaching the realms of unconsciousness is the steady tramp of the sentinels pacing to and fro. Scarcely have I fallen asleep--so at least it seems to me --when I am awakened by my four guards singing out, one after another, "Kujawpuk! Ki-i-puk!!" This appears to be their answer to the challenge of the officer going his rounds, and they shout it out in tones clear and distinct, in succession. This programme is repeated several times during the night, and, notwithstanding the sleep-inducing fatigues of the last few days, my slumbers are light enough to hear the reliefs of the guard and their strange cry of "Kujawpuk, ki-i-puk" every time it is repeated.
As the sun peeps over the wall of the garden my red-jackets reappear at their post; roses are stuck in their caps' and their buttonholes, and fastened to their guns. A big bouquet of the same fragrant "guls" is presented to me, and a dozen gholams are busy gathering all that are abloom in the garden. These are probably gathered every morning in the rose season, and used for making rose-water by the officers' wives. During the forenoon the blue-gowned old khan and his major-domo, the mail-clad colonel, again present themselves at my bungalow. They are gracious and friendly to a painful degree, and sugar would scarcely melt in the mouth of the paternal old khan as he delivers the "Wall's salaams to the Sahib." Tea and sweetmeats are handed around, and Kiftan Sahib and Bottle Green join our company.
Nothing but the formal salaams has yet been said; but intuition is a faithful forerunner, and ere another word is spoken, I know well enough that the khan and the colonel have been sent to break the disagreeable news that I am to be taken to Herat, and that Kiftan Sahib and Bottle Green have dropped in out of curiosity to see how I take it.
The kindly old khan finds his task of awakening the spirit of disappointment anything but congenial, and he seems very loath to deliver the message. When he finally unburdens himself, it is with averted eyes and roundabout language. He commences by a rambling disquisition on the dangers of the road to Kandahar, apologizing profusely for the Ameer's inability to guarantee the good behavior of the wandering tribes, and the consequent necessity of forbidding travellers to enter the country.
He dwells piously and at considerable length upon our obligations to submit to the will of Allah, not forgetting a liberal use of the Oriental fatalist's favorite expression: "kismet." For the sake of argument, rather than with any hope of influencing things in my favor, I reply:" All right, I don't ask the Ameer's protection; I will go to Kandahar and Quetta alone, on my own responsibility; then if I get murdered by the Ghilzais, nobody but myself will be to blame." "The Wali has his orders from the Padishah, the Ameer Abdur Eahman Khan, that no Ferenghi is to come in the country." "Tell the Wali that Afghanistan is Allah's country first and Abdur Eahman's country second. Inshallah, Allah gives everybody the road." The old khan is evidently at a loss how to meet so logical an argument, and the colonel, Kiftan Sahib, and Bottle Green are deeply impressed at what they consider my unanswerable wisdom. They look at one another and shake their heads and smile.
The chief concern of the khan is apparently to convince me that it is only out of consideration for my own safety that I am forbidden to go through, and, after a brief consultation with the others, he again addresses his flowery eloquence to me. He comes and squats beside me, and, with much soothing patting of my shoulder, he says: "The Wali is only taking you to Herat to obtain Ridgeway Sahib's and Faramorz Khan's permission for you to go through. Inshallah, after you have seen Herat, if it is the will of Allah, and your kismet to go to Kandahar, the Ameer will let you go." To this comforting assurance I deem it but justice to the well-meaning old chieftain to signify my submission to the inevitable. Before departing, he requests the humble present of a pencil-sketch of the bicycle as a souvenir of my visit to Furrah. During the day I get on quite intimate terms with my guard, and among other things compete with them in the feat of holding a musket out at arm's length, gripping the extreme end of the barrel. Tall, strapping fellows some of them are, but they are not muscular in comparison; out of a round dozen competitors I am the only one capable of fairly accomplishing this feat.
Many of the soldiers carry young pheasants about with them in cages, and seem to derive a good deal of pleasure in feeding them and attending to their wants. The cages are merely pieces of white muslin, or mosquito-netting, about the size of a pocket-handkerchief, enclosing a four-inch disk of wood for the inmate to stand on. The crape is gathered and loosely tied at the corners. It is carried as one would carry anything suspended in a handkerchief, and is hung on the limb of a tree in the same manner.
Late in the afternoon of the second clay my scarlet guard marshal themselves in front of the bungalow, and Kiftan Sahib and Bottle Green bid me prepare for departure to Herat. The old khan and the colonel, and several other horsemen, appear at the gate; the soldiers form themselves into two files, and between them I trundle from my circumscribed quarters. The rude ferry-boat is awaiting our coming, and in a few minutes the khan and the colonel bid me quite an affectionate farewell on the river-bank, gazing eagerly into my face as though regretful at the necessity of parting so soon. My escort favor me with the, same lingering gaze. These people are evidently fascinated by the strange and mysterious manner of my coming among them; who am I, what am I, and wherefore my marvellous manner of travelling, are questions that appeal strongly to their Asiatic imagination, and they are intensely loath to see me disappear again without having seen more of me and my wonderful iron horse, and learned more about it.
Several horsemen have already crossed and are awaiting us on the opposite shore. Kiftan Sahib and another officer with a henna-tinted beard are in charge of the party taking me back. Besides myself and these two, the party consists of eleven horsemen; with sundry modifications, their general appearance, arms, and dress resemble the make-up of a Persian sowar rather than the regular Afghan soldier. The sun is just setting behind those western mountains I passed three days ago as we reach the western shore, the boatmen are unloading the saddles and accoutrements of our party, and I sit down on the bank and survey the strange scene just across the river. The steep bluff opposite is occupied by people who accompanied us to the river. Many of them are seizing this opportune moment to prostrate themselves toward the Holy City, the geographical position of which is happily indicated by the setting sun.
Prominent among the worshippers are seen side by side the cerulean figure of the khan, and the colonel in all the bravery of his military trappings, his chain armor glistening brightly in the waning sunlight. A little removed from the crowd, the twelve red-coats are ranged in a row, performing the same pious ceremony; as their bared heads bob up and down one after another, the scarlet figures outlined in a row against the eastern sky are strangely suggestive of a small flock of flamingoes engaged in fishing.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005