Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Would You Like a Dog?"

from The Places in Between
Rory Stewart
2006
pp. 127-133

I woke the next morning to find Dr. Habibullah trying to wind another empty clarified butter packet around the butt of his Kalashnikov.  The barrel was swaddled in cracker wrappers.  Beneath, yellowing transparent tape, fragments of Hindi, English, and Persian script advertised food factories in Tabriz and Bangalore.  The dawn light shone weakly through the small window and he was struggling to find the end of the sticky tape.  He saw me looking at him and asked, "Would you like a dog?"

"What dog?" I replied.

"There is one outside that they'd give you . . . He's a good dog."

I didn't know how I could keep a dog.  On the other hand, I like dogs.

"Show him the dog, Sheikh," said Dr. Habibullah, addressing a twelve-year-old trainee mullah.

Sheikh led me out of the mosque.  In the dim light people were beginning to emerge from their mud houses, stepping carefully over the patches of ice and pulling their blankets closer around them.  Three old men were already squatting with their trousers down.  They coughed noisily and spat into the damp air.  Women were dipping tin jars in the cold river water at the bottom of the hill.  The sun would not enter the narrow valley for another hour.

On a blanket on a mud roof, a large dog still slept, the night's snowfall dusting his coat.  While I looked at the dog, a small group of boys looked at me.  It was a two hours' walk to their nearest neighbor, so the children spent all their time with their cousins.  When they were fifteen or so, they married their cousins.

A young man called Hussein emerged from a doorway with a hastily tied turban.  "This is the dog," he said.  "Do you want it?"

Hussein walked over to the sleeping animal and kicked it.  The dog opened one eye and looked up.  He closed his eye again, shook his bearlike head, and, still lying on his side, pushed out his front legs, arched his long back, and stretched.  Then he sighed, rolled laboriously onto his front, and stood up.  The village boys backed away so quickly they fell over each other.  He was the size of a small pony.

"He is very strong, very dangerous," said Hussein.  The dog, oblivious to the boys, looked around and then took a few steps stiffly on three legs, holding his front left paw in the air.  Then he lay down again.  His back was shaped like an Alsatian's or a wolf's, but he was much taller and quite thin.  His coat was a deep gold except for the brindle of black hairs, which stood up in the cold air.  Hussein put his foot on the dog's neck, rolling him on his side.  "Okay, come over."

The dog peered at me, craning his neck under the man's boot,.  His eyes were bloodshot and he was missing his ears and his tail.

"Do you want him?" asked Hussein.

"I don't know.  What is his name?"

Hussein shouted over his shoulders, "Does he have a name?"

"No," the boys replied.

"What sort of dog is he?"

"Sag-Jangi,"  Hussein replied, meaning "a dog of war," a fighting dog.

"What does he do in the village?"

"He is here to kill wolves."

"Please take your foot from his neck," I said.

Hussein removed his foot.  I squatted and called the dog.  He rolled upright and lay there with his huge paws in front of him.  I whistled and snapped my fingers.  He was as immobile as a Trafalgar Square lion.  Then one of the boys made a tutting sound and the dog stood up heavily.

"Look how fit and strong he is," said Hussein.

The dog limped slowly over and looked at me.  His eyes were still and yellow like a wolf's.  I gave him my hand to sniff and then cautiously touched his head.  I heard an old man mutter, "That infidel is going to get bitten."

He would not have called me an infidel if he had known I could hear him, but that was how villagers perceived me.  This was a pious Muslim community.  They had built a mosque for a hamlet of six homes, and every man prayed there five times a day and listened to long Koranic readings in the evening.

I backed to the edge of the roof and called the dog again - this time by tutting.  After some consideration, he followed me.  His left foreleg was undeniably stiff.  He rubbed his earless head against my leg.

"What happened to his ears?"

"We chopped them off."

"Why?"

"So he could fight better.  He's very ferocious."

The dog yawned, revealing more gums than teeth.

"What happened to his teeth?"

"Hussein knocked them out with a stone."

Hussein grinned.  He still had his teeth.

"Why?"

"Because he bit me."

"And why has he got white hair on his muzzle?"

"People get white hair very quickly around here."

"How old is this dog?" I asked.

"Five," said Dr. Habibullah, who had emerged on the terrace and was acting in his capacity as a vet.

"He's not.  He's ancient.  He's got a white beard," I replied.

"He says the dog's got a white beard," repeated Dr. Habibullah, and everyone laughed.

"And he's missing his teeth," I added.

"That's not from age - that's because Hussein knocked them out with a stone."

"Look," I said, "he's a lovely dog, but I don't think he's going to be able to walk with me to Kabul.  It's seven hundred kilometers from here and there's a lot of snow and we have to do thirty-five kilometers a day.  Look at how stiff he is."

"Nonsense," said Dr. Habibullah.  "We know these dogs - he's not old, it's just a cold morning.  He comes from a very famous line of dogs . . . all raised here.  He's one of the biggest dogs in the province.  You're very lucky they're offering him.  He's killed many wolves."  I didn't ask whether that was before or after he lost his teeth.  "This is a very poor village.  They can only afford to give him one piece of nan bread a day.  If you took him you could get him meat.  He'd be much stronger.  He's a great dog for you.  In any case, you're going to walk alone in the mountains;  you'll need him to protect you against wolves and the Hazara."  As an Aimaq, he believed the Hazara were untrustworthy and violent and certain to kill me.

"Why did you touch the dog?" asked Sheikh, the twelve-year-old trainee mullah.

"I like dogs.  Does no one ever touch him?"

"Of course not.  He's an unclean animal.  Our Prophet tells us not to touch dogs - particularly when we pray.  We must do special ablutions if we have touched a dog."

"Where is that in the Koran?"

"I can't remember exactly," said Sheikh, "but it's there."

"I thought you were a 'Hafiz' - that you had memorized the entire Koran . . ."  Sheikh had come here from an even more remote village to study with the mullah.  He recited passages for the village in the evening.  In honor of this, he had been allowed to join me and the adult guests at dinner.

"I have mentioned it," Sheikh replied.  "I can recite it in Arabic from end to end - more than one hundred thousand words.  But I don't speak Arabic, so I don't understand precisely where the individual pieces are."

A small group of bored, dirty children were shouting at the dog.  One of them threw a stone and hit his flank, but he didn't react.  I wondered how it felt never to be stroked.  His movements were somehow ponderous; there was no eagerness, no playfulness, and no curiosity.  I couldn't decide whether he was very depressed or very old or both.  He looked over his shoulder and saw me.  The stump of his tail moved slightly and he took a slow step toward me.

When Dr. Habibullah said good-bye, he added, "Do you know about Dr. Brydon?  He was English.  We killed you all, but we left him alive to ride to Peshawar . . . I think Afghans shall send you alive like Dr. Brydon."  Half an hour later, having given some money to the villagers, I left with the dog.

I called him Babur, which means tiger, because of his brindled back and because we were taking Babur's route.  Babur the dog followed me up the shoulder of the first hill, which was deep purple and sat like the plateau of Chist neatly framed by the surrounding hills.  It was called "the Hindu's mountain" and the headman told me a Hindu village had once been at the top.  He had no idea when.  Historians were not sure what Ghor's religion had been before its conversion to Islam.  This name suggested it had been Hindu.

We turned a corner and Babur's village was hidden from sight.  For as long as Babur had been alive, had had seen nothing but those six mud houses and the high pastures where the villagers moved into their tents for the summer grazing.  He spent his days beside the sheep in the same pastures every year with his giant paws in front of him, waiting for the wolves.  He had never been more than a day's walk from the place, and he had never seen a motorized vehicle, electricity, or a village of more than six houses, still less a school or a clinic.  The same was true of the women of Rezak, who, I was told by their proud husbands, had not even visited the village two hours' walk away.  Only the men had had some exposure to other places.  Babur would never see his home again.  After ten minutes' walk, Babur met the cold wind on the crest, lay down, and wouldn't move.  Only a piece of stale nan bread convinced him to descend the slope.

After another half an hour of sniffing and trotting farther away from his village, he lay down again and looked at me steadily, narrowing his yellow eyes.  He would take no interest in the bread.  When coaxing failed, I grabbed the orange nylon string they had tied around his neck and hauled, dragging his 140-pound frame along the gravel.  To my relief, after a couple of feet he stood up heavily and after shaking his head roughly, walked behind me, more slowly now.  But by forcing him on, I had finally confirmed that he was coming with me.  As if in acknowledgment of our new relationship, he no longer took any interest in the smells around him and we walked for an hour without pause until we met a man on a white horse, accompanied by a herd of goats.

"Hey, boy," shouted the man on the horse, "come here."  No one had talked to me like that before.  He apparently assumed that I was a very low-grade Afghan villager because I was walking with something as unclean as a dog.  "When's the dog fight?  What does the dog do?  Where are you taking it?"

I replied politely that there would be no dog fight, that Babur didn't do anything, and that I was taking him to Kabul.

"What are you talking about?" The man thought I was talking nonsense.  Afghan dogs are not pets.  They are for hunting, for protecting sheep from wolves, or for dog fights.  Babur's size made him a promising gladiator; and the man on the horse wanted to match him against his own dog and start some betting.

It was not as though this man didn't like animals.  Over his horse, he had thrown a large kilim saddle blanket with thirty bands of color that must have taken six weeks to weave.  But a dog was religiously polluting, dirty and dangerous.  Later, Afghans were variously to describe Babur as big, stong, ferocious, useless, tired, or decrepit.  I called him beautiful, wise and friendly.  Afghans would traditionally only used such adjectives for a man, a horse, or a falcon.



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