Friday, July 11, 2008


Nuristan (also spelled Nooristan) is a fascinating and beautiful land. A province in northeastern Afghanistan, but so unlike the rest of the country.

(None of the photos in this one post were taken by me, as I have yet to visit the area. I've included them to give you a better feel of what the area and its people are like.)

A US soldier, part of the NATO commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), on patrol in the mountains of Nuristan

The land is covered in rugged mountains and one of the few places in Afghanistan that is wooded. The province hugs the border with Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Before the present name of Nuristan was used, it was known as Kafiristan, "Land of the Kafirs (non-believers)", due to their resistance to convert to Islam over the centuries.

The people look different, more European, many people have blond or red hair and blue or green eyes. Some people believe they are descended from a wave of Indo-European migration from Central Asia. If that is the case, it happened a long time ago, as Alexander the Great reported the same view as he was crossing the Hindu Kush Mountains on his way to conquer India in 300BC. Alexander was also amazed when the locals claimed their main town of Nyas was founded by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The people showed their grape vines and locally made wines to prove it. Plans for DNA testing have never materialized, and until then their background remains a mystery. However, they are very closely related to the also mysterious Kalash of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Children of Nuristan

A 19th century explorer wrote about his visit to the area:
The houses of the Kafirs are often of wood, and they have generally cellars where they kept their cheeses, clarified butter, wine and vinegar. In every house there is a wooden bench fixed to the wall with a low back to it. There are also stools shaped like drums, but smaller in the middle than at the ends, and tables of the same sort, but larger. The Kafirs, partly from their dress and partly from habit, cannot sit like other Asiatics, and if forced to sit down on the ground, stretch out their legs like Europeans. They have also beds made of wood and thongs of neat's leather: the stools are made of wicker work.

Their food is chiefly cheese, butter and milk, with bread or a sort of suet pudding. They also eat flesh (which they like half raw); and the fruits they have, walnuts, grapes, almonds, and a sort of indifferent apricot that grows wild. They wash their hands before eating, and begin by some kind of grace. They all, of both sexes, drink wine to a great excess: they have three kinds, red, white and dark coloured, beside a sort of the consistency of a jelly, and very strong. They drink wine, both pure and diluted, out of large silver cups, which are the most precious of their possessions. They drink during their meals, and are elevated, but not made quarrelsome, by this indulgence. They are exceedingly hospitable; the people of a village come out to meet a stranger, take his baggage from those who are carrying it, and conduct him with many welcomes into their village. When there, he must visit every person of note, and at each house he is pressed to eat and drink. The Kafirs have a great deal of idle time; they hunt a little, but not so much as the Afghans; their favourite amusement is dancing. Their dances are generally rapid, and they use many gesticulations, raising their shoulders, shaking their head, and flourishing their battle axes. All sexes and ages dance.

Sadly in 1896, the region was finally brought down to their knees and forced at gun point to join what was then the Kingdom of Afghanistan and convert to Islam. Since then, their ancient tradition of wine making has disappeared. They do still retain some of their traditional habits, like putting their dead in intricate wooden carved coffins above ground, a lingering mark of their pagan past.

However three valleys did escaped the forced conversion to Islam because they happened to be located east of the Durand Line and laid in what was then British India, present-day NWFP of Pakistan. Among the three valleys are the Kalash people.

Nuristan has always been resistant to governments. They were one of the first to fight off the Soviets, then the weak Afghan government that followed. Even today, there are plenty of US military firefights in the area. When, or even ever, this place opens up and becomes safe for travelers, it can be a trekker's paradise. Until then, it will remain isolated as it always has been.

What does this area have to do with me? There is a good possibility that I will be able to visit the area. USAID is trying to see if it is possible.

A number of schools were built after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but they were built quickly and without thought and now they are already starting to fall apart. In fact one had already collapsed. USAID is very disappointed with the implementing partner organizations that built them and is wanting their own structural evaluation of schools before the implementing partner could hand them over to USAID and then on to the Ministry of Education.

The rebuilt school in Gaverdish, Nuristan. The original school building collapsed under a heavy snow load in the winter of 2004-5. The school was rebuilt in the same fashion. A structural evaluation needs to be done before it is handed over to USAID and the Ministry of Education.

The original Gaverdish school while under construction and before the exterior plastering was done exposing the traditional 'Timber Laced Stone Masonry' method of construction.

This type of construction done in Nuristan is called 'Timber Laced Stone Masonry'. It's the traditional building method of not just Nuristan, but that of Kashmir in northern Pakistan and India.

I've been in touch with a number of people who have done extensive research on this type of construction from Berkeley, California to Switzerland. And they all say, if done right, this type of construction is safe for high seismic zones. I agree with them that it is more ductile than conventional concrete buildings. But I'm having a hard time accepting it works without a method to calculate the behavior or the results of some kind of testing. It's not clear to me how overturning forces are transferred to the ground. The heavy floor and roof loads, which are covered in gravel, scare me.

A PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team, a unit of ISAF) makes its way into the Titin Valley, Nuristan, Afghanistan

It's an interesting task and I hope USAID finds a way for me to further investigate this by allowing me to visit the area. Not to mention it would be a fascinating opportunity to visit this mysterious and isolated land.

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