A Man and a Gift
In 1979, I joined a small group of adventurers who traveled to the Hindu Kush in the North Western Territories of Pakistan. Of all the Himalayan regions, this area has never become popular among vacationing hikers. Having spent ten days in the region, I was saddened by this awareness as the scenery was spectacular. However, hiking was tough with the few trails being steep, unstable and, in many places, precarious. A lack of guidebooks and very few guides added to the problem.
Additionally, an influx of Jihadi's in the last four decades has made the region less desirable. This shift occurred a year after my visit, following the Russian invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. Fighters, opposed to the Russians, took over large cave systems in the area which subsequently became safe havens for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Over forty years ago, the area was populated by farmers and merchants who had lived by traditional Muslim and Hindu values for over a thousand years. The local's lives were simple but during particularly harsh winters bordered on survival.
During our visit, we were shepherded by a government guide who flew with us from Rawalpindi to the area's one airport in Gilgit. We had reservations at the one hotel in town.
The country surrounding Gilgit was stunning but harsh. Rock cliffs and deep canyons separated the snow covered peaks. Many mountains were difficult to see as the valleys between them had such steep and deep sheer walls. The narrow valley floors were broken into small fields. In some, farmers grew green leafy vegetables, root crops, wheat, and grass for hay. Other fields had become orchards, the fruit trees' branches doubling as hay drying racks.
Our group was transported around the region in two old open-backed Land Cruisers. We were thankful to have two locals driving us as many roads ran along ledges, which had been hewn out of sheer rock faces. Often, the drops off the side of the road made our hearts stop as our tires inched along the very edge.
One day, we visited a local farming village. Our guide took us on a tour before indicating we had two hours to explore the area. I left the main part of the village and wandered along the outer edges of fields that ran next to rock piles at the foot of a cliff. After a mile, I crossed paths with a man who I guessed was in his late 20's.
He said, "Hallo, how are you, today?"
I answered, "Fine." But I immediately stopped and turned around. "Excuse me, you just spoke good English. I haven't met any other local people who can speak a word."
"Hi, yes, my name is Hassan. I won a scholarship to Karachi University when I was eighteen and graduated with an Engineering degree. As part of my studies, I learned English."
"Are you visiting here for a few days?"
"No. I live here again."
"Where's your job?"
"Whenever the village watermill breaks, I fix the problem and the village elders give me what they can as payment."
"I would have thought your degree would get you a job, anywhere."
"I am the wrong caste. I was born to a low caste family. Nobody wants someone from my caste to work for them as an engineer. My degree has no value. I hoped my caste wouldn't prevent me from finding work, when I had the degree. But tradition runs deep."
"That's terrible. Aren't you frustrated? You have so much knowledge and cannot find any way to apply what you learned."
"I'm frustrated. At times, I've been angry, but what can I do? Thankfully, my mother has welcomed me back home. Our family has no money to send me to another country where I may get a job. We are poor and will stay poor. I love my parents and my brothers and sisters. I will stay here and help my family."
He showed me the watermill with its pair of three foot diameter grinding stones. He engaged the gears, which allowed water, flowing through a nearby channel, to turn several shafts and then the upper stone. The mill was so crude and yet had been in operation for decades with only occasional need for Hassan's skills. We stood hunched over in the little hut, built to protect the mill from the weather. The top of its roof stood five feet off the ground. He had recently repaired the hut's dry stone walls and slate roof. The hut's size was perfect for farmers who sat on their haunches as they ground their wheat kernels.
We talked about his chances of ever leaving the village as we made our way to his parents' farm. He introduced me to his mother who was busy over an open fire, cooking dinner. His younger brothers and sisters ran in and out of the one room farmhouse. His oldest sister swept the mud floor and tended to any of the children when they needed something.
I checked my watch and realized I should return to the group. Before, I said goodbye to Hassan's mother, she insisted I wait while she darted up into storage, which lined part of the rafters. She rummaged in boxes for several minutes before she came down and presented me with a gift. Hassan translated for her, she wanted to thank me for taking time to talk with Hassan as he rarely had the opportunity to practice his English. I tried to softly refuse the gift, but she was most insistent.
I glanced at the gift, a withered brown ball with leathery skin, which fit in my open hand perfectly. The ball was misshapen and I had not the first idea what I was holding. So I thanked her profusely and walked outside with Hassan. We headed back to the village where I rejoined my group.
As we drove away, I waved farewell to Hassan while people made suggestions as to what the gift was. We all agreed the object had been grown and had an intense musty sweet aroma. Someone thought cutting into the ball would reveal the truth, but I wanted to preserve its pristine state. Later, the entire group sat in the hotel lobby making guesses.
Our guide was equally mystified. I agreed to him taking the mystery object and asking a friend. He returned smiling 15 minutes later. He pronounced it was an apple. In an instant, the complexity of the object's aroma fell away, at the heart of its smell was pure apple. The pungency and mustiness wrapped its beautiful scent in layers, which totally disguised its apple essence.
Apparently, farmers stored this particular variety of apples as long-term rations for when the winter snowed them in for long periods.
I was struck by the generosity and kindness Hassan's mother had shown me. This apple had been part of the family's emergency supplies, and yet she had given the apple to me, a total stranger who probably had more resources at his fingertips than they saw in one complete year.
The thought of eating my gift apple turned my stomach, but equally the thought of throwing it away was also inconceivable. Finally, I gave the apple to the hotel maid who cleaned my room each day. She was delighted to carefully place it in the pocket of her apron. Smiling, she patted the apple gently, as she headed to the next room.
The gift imparted a beautiful and humbling memory. However, thinking about Hassan has left me feeling sad but also with some deep concerns. I recognize I could have done nothing in the circumstances, but I still wonder.
Fast forward 22 years and the world witnessed the horror of 9/11. What if Hassan had still been a frustrated engineer living in such a remote part of north-west Pakistan? What if he fell under the influence of a radical cleric? He was an educated but unfulfilled young man in a faraway region? Traveling to Afghanistan was only a couple of bus rides. Like Hassan, Osama bin Laden was an engineer. They shared some similar ways of thinking and planning.
I pray I am wrong, but I do wonder. Who do we pass on the street or alongside a field who has the potential to become a monster? The circumstances were there, I hope Hassan's heart and mind were not. I prefer to think Hassan's mother's kindness and generosity with the apple demonstrated for him a path, no matter how dismal, which led to a more compassionate and non-destructive life.
Her act touched my heart and I hope it touched Hassan's too. The choice of kindness can be found in any environment where people come together and open their hearts to address problems together.