a play in three acts


bratislava! bratislava!

the sun is high in the sky, and the shadows are at their smallest when our traveller leaves for bratislava. he is travelling alone. and light: with a lowepro camera bag slung on his shoulder, a white shirt, a pair each of sunglasses, jeans, and sandals. on the bus, he is sitting behind an excitable young chinese couple who are, on the contrary, travelling rather too heavy. the bus leaves the vienna airport and is soon on the highway that runs parallel to the danube and connects the world’s two closest capitals.

after going through the fish sandwich that is his lunch, our traveller unzips one of the bag’s pockets and takes out a small volume. to anyone else, it might look like a torah, bible, or quran. probably quran, because of the arabic script on its cover. the traveller pauses for a quick second before opening the book to a random page, and starts reading silently. a minute later, he smiles, closes the book, and puts it back in the same pocket. today hafez brings good tidings to his journey.

the traveller notes the german language signs along the road and suddenly begins to wonder what it was about hafez that made his ghazals so appealing to the german sensibility? he tries to look for answers in the surrounding countryside. the green hills, the woods, the architecture of the small towns that the bus passes by one after the other. the ruins of the old roman castle on that hilltop. the closer he gets to the slovakian border, the more he is drawn to the wooded countryside. ‘tales from the vienna woods’ -the traveller recalls a piece of western classical music, but has a hard time reconstructing the tune in his head.

less than an hour later, the traveller spots the conspicuous bratislava castle atop a hill in a city on the danube. with an idiosyncratic weakness for beautiful place names, he begins silently repeating the name. bratislava. bratislava, bratislava. Bra-tees-lava. teeslava. tee-slav-aa. bratislava. what a beautiful sounding name for a place! reminiscent of so many unseen and unheard things. it would make a great name for a film sit in the second world war. the film is about a young tatar soldier who is wounded on the frontlines and falls for the beautiful slavic nurse who cares for him. it is called:
“bratislava! bratislava!”

the traveller cannot finish the script for the film in his head as he is distracted by the countryside and a while later the architecture of bratislava. minutes later he gets off the bus at the station and looks around for helpful signs, signs that only frequent lone travellers can spot. something to indicate that the vendor of a nearby shop can speak english. they cannot. few people can, our traveller discovers, around here. francaise? non. they offer german, but our traveller is as if mute and deaf when it comes to german. russki? this time, it is our traveller who offers a bemused niet. he approaches a magazine stand that has small bottles of on display alongside the latest editions of der speigel. he asks for a map of the city, and then changes some euros to solvakian krones. immediately he stashes one banknote from each of the currency’s denominations for his banknote collection. then takes a map, a bottle of water and starts looking around for taxis.

Courtyard Bratislava Castle

the first stop is the hrat bratislavsky. the traveller and the taxi driver -roman, roman polansky, not really, just roman- communicate an appointment an hour later, at the gates of the castle. the castle is enchanting in a dracula-castle-deep-in-the-woods-of-transylvania sort of way. the traveller walks around, and then the canon starts its tireless clicks. the traveller is taken out of the moment and becomes an observer. almost a tourist. obscene. sometimes, the traveller beings to wonder if it is better to leave the camera at home and travel really, really alone. it would be in many ways better.

an hour passes. the traveller is now staring into a dark abyss. deep down there in the belly of the dungeon a lamp is casting its yellow light on the walls. the traveller tries to imagine this same dungeon a few hundred years back. his ears strain to hear the the agonized cries of those hanging from there feet down there. cries etched in these walls. suddenly a man in a uniform with a flashlight comes in and announces something in slovakian. canons click, one, two, three, and the traveller starts to leave the chamber through a low tunnel.

Castle Well Bratislava

as the sun is sitting over the danube and the castle’s bright orange and yellow turn into a dull grey, a group of young people climb up the hillsides and gather on the castle’s wide walls, looking over their beautiful old city, laughing, being gay and carefree. the traveller wants to linger, but his timepiece bids him to depart. roman may have come and left already. he has not. he is smiling his handsome smile and continues the negotiation that started before their arrival at the castle. seventy euros, he says, for the trip back to vienna. eighty, the traveller says, but with frequent stops on the way. it is a deal -to the contentment of both smiling parties.


the star strewing city, the fairies stop

the canon clicks one more time, and our traveller turns around and tunes in to haji murat beg’s explanations about the fort. he is talking about his time many years ago in afghanistan, our traveller’s country of origin. haji murat beg fought in afghanistan in the eighties. haji is not too tall, but has wide shoulders, and a tanned complexion. he is wearing a black hat and has a lazy left eye. he says that he has seen takhar and konduz. he explains how he was wounded in war in afghanistan and how it gave him the right reason to return home. although nobody’s around, haji is speaking in hushed tones. he seems to not like giving away that part of his history -fighting for the soviets, and against the afghan mujahideen. he may not have given it away even now, had it not given him the right link to the traveller, who happens to be from afghanistan.

as he is listening to haji’s adventures, our traveller is reminded of a similar conversation he was having not more than a month ago with his driver back home, who also fought, in afghanistan, and who was also wounded in a skirmish. he fought against the soviets. he was a mujahid. what would malook say to murat all these many years later -about the common history that they share in a strange way, about their common link, about their being part of a peculiar brotherhood. did they ever fight against each other? were they both hurt on the same day, in the same skirmish? would that not be mind blowingly crazy?

Istarafshan Castle Statue

the mud-yellow and blue-domed fort looks as if a mosque from a distance. it is not. it is not even a full fort. it is a recently rehabilitated part of the ancient fort, its grand entrance only. the grand entrance to the ancient timur malik fort in istarafshan, in today’s northern tajikistan. as they walk around the hilltop and come to a mound of ruins, haji explains how the soviets demolished the old fort in an attempt to bury history. being an important sign of tajik nationalism, the timur malik fort symbolized the resistance of the tajik people to outside transgression, haji says. it had to be razed. and it was. thanks god, haji continues, now everything is changed again. they came, and they went. the fort stands tall once again, and so does the tajik nation. the traveller is struck by this man’s pride and sense of history. that thing that isaiah berlin once admired in churchill – his sense of history. his ‘historical imagination’. being able to see history not as confusing, unrelated fragments, but as a continuous whole. being able to put together the ‘bigger picture’ out of the pieces of the puzzle. a historical meta-narrative. the traveller and the haji move on.

isfara is a strange locale in many ways. to get there, our traveller has to pass through an enclave of another country, kyrgyzstan, for a few kilometers. in the span of those minutes, he is, technically, trespassing an international boundary, without proper papers. and then there are islets of isfara itself inside kyrgyzstan. our traveller is at once ‘bewitched, bothered, and bewildered’ by all this. bewitched by the beauty of the surrounding countryside, and the ever present beauty of place names. isfara. ispara. ista-para! istarafshan. istarawshan. sitara-afshan! upon some investigation into the origins of the place names coupled with his love for archaic farsi our traveller discovers that isfara is really an abrogation of the ancient name ista-para, that is, the istada pariyan, the stop of the fairies (presumably when the legendary beauties were making their way down from the storied ‘qaaf’ or caususes mountains to khorasan, to appear in the dreams of farsi poets). and istarafshan? well, the ancient city has been strewing stars (sitara afshan) for more than two and a half millenia that it has been sitting there at a most sumptuous spot in the beautiful ferghana valley. and bothered? well, bothered by the senselessness and arbitrariness of international boundaries that divides peoples, histories, nations, cultures, families, kin and kindered spirits from each other. and bewildered, well, besides a real sense of bewilderment and awe that goes with travelling to new and unseen places, ‘bewildered’ will complete the verse from that soothing sinead o’conner song. and our traveller likes that song, and these kinds of word plays.

i’m wild again, beguiled again
a simpering, wimpering child again
bewitched, bothered, and bewildered
am iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

it is close to sunset when our traveller hits the road again, back from isfara to khujand. he is told that there is a massive body of water en route (the kayrakkum reservoir), sometimes called the ‘tajik sea’ because of its vastness. a stop, even a short one, is recommended. a stop our traveller makes. a longer one. with the altitude around here, the sea -more a vast lake- must be one of the highest in the world. it is as if on a mountaintop. the traveller is struck with wonder at the thought of soviet industry, and its not so quixotic quest to harness nature. it has happened at least here -a narrow gorge is selected, it is clogged with tons of concrete and ingenious engineering, and with tall mountains on two sides, the river syr darya has backed up and is transformed into an endless body of standing water. truly awe inspiring.

Kayrakkum Reservoir Tajikistan

the sitting sun tinges the sky over the mountains a reddish orange and small wavelets lap at the feet of our lone traveller. he has kicked off his shoes and even put away the lowepro bag. sitting on a rock with his feet in the water, he gazes over the expanse of water at the mountains on the far side of the lake. the water, the mountains, the sitting sun and the red sky, the vastness of all this and the smallness of himself inspires our traveller. it wakes a familiar old desire in him. an ancient desire. a pre-historic desire. awe-struck, he washes his face, his hands upto the elbow, then pulls his hand over the front of his head, then over his feet. he walks over the gravel to a patch of grass nearby, faces the water, the mountain, and the deep red-orange sky and stands, kneels, bows, touches his forehead to the ground in meditation and prayer. the act fills up our traveller’s heart to the brim.


over a pass of scarlet flowers

even though our traveller is wearing a jacket, and even though it is mid april, the oncoming breeze from deep in the valley feels cold. unduly cold. he must make a move. at this altitude, and wish the breeze blowing crisply, he may catch a cold. and those clouds, if they are so inclined, will snow here, not rain. welcome to one of the remotest corners of Afghanistan cut off from the rest of the country for most of the year’s months -welcome to badakhshan. our traveller takes once last look over the pass and makes for the vehicle, which is already breathing heavily from having just cleared the pass. really? can it snow at this time of the year? look at those green slopes beyond the rocks, dotted with scarlet little flowers. looking at the blood-red flowers all over the mountainside and travelling in a heavily panting, heavily swaying, and heavily plated vehicle our traveller bemusedly remembers an old verse:

لالهء این چمن آغشتهء رنگ است هنوز
سپر از دست مینداز که جنگ است هنوز

looking at the pass one last time, our traveller spots a piece of white cloth slowly appearing at the juncture of the two slopes. it slowly mophs into the shape of a turban and then the head and body of an elegant old man appear over the pass, holding a stick in his hand and travelling on a donkey. our traveller turns around, slings off the lowepro and takes out the untiring, loyal, sturdy black canon; mounts the massive lens appearing as if a real canon mouth, and starts snapping: click, click, click. the old man passes a hand over his gray beard and decides to forgive the transgression of our traveller. our traveller is delighted and grateful. he has found the closing image to his play in three acts based on selected highlights from his recent travels.

pass jurm bdk


~ by safrang on May 2, 2008.

One Response to “a play in three acts”

  1. zysqnipd ivdfm ibvuk mpjseg lcnouej pfjwanel lpqz

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