Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Afghan Encounters in Europe or: How My Grandma Saw King Amanullah – Part 1

Thomas Ruttig 3 min

Summertime, vacation time. But an Afghan analyst finds it difficult to get away from his chosen subject even then. Sometimes, even pure chance leads him back on track – as on a short trip through Switzerland and Germany. Travel notes from Thomas Ruttig.

I. La Gruyère, Switzerland

This little town in the Fribourg Alps, known for its famous cheese sits picturesquely on the top of a hill, medieval walls and castle and all. On the central market square, just by the little chapel, is a gallery selling paintings on glass. Up some steep steps, in the second floor, a giant book with photos sits on a table: ‘The Long Road East’. The face of the boy on the book’s front page looks familiar. Not the chequered shirt but the headdress. Yes, it is a – karakul hat.

As it turns out, Massimo Cruciani, the now white-haired gallery owner, a former Cinecittà set photographer, had come through Afghanistan in the 1960s, on the hippie trail. Through Greece, Turkey and Iran, he and a friend, Giovanni Proietti, and their Volkswagen Beetle enter Afghanistan in Islam Qala, near Herat, in 1969. They continue on the ring-road through Kandahar to Kabul, on what Adriano Croci, in his foreword, describes as chase of ‘a myth, or two’. They visit Kargha, Bamian, Ghazni, Mazar, stay in Kabul’s Shahr-e Nau and eat at Khyber Restaurant. As many others in those auspicious years, they also chase a cheap smoke.

Cruciani remembers ‘a road mostly asphalted a year prior, when King Zahir Shah decreed the beginning of the age of “tourism”’ that was ‘kept alive by the many hippies aspiring to heaven, by imprudent travelers from the “I was there” school, and by irrepressible seekers of a grail “to seize” from every possible and impossible angle of the planet’. In Kabul, they encounters a country ‘coping between the USA and the USSR’ that ‘seems to have kept a hold on its independence’, with ‘Russian taxis and American-made busses’. People – other than what they experienced in Turkey and Iran – keep their distance. ‘The Afghani [sic], essentially a mountain man, looks with interest at foreigners who come from afar, respecting them and expecting the same in return. […] Our smiles are not returned and we can’t tell how much our presence is welcome.’

Hence, one thinks, the boy with the light-coloured eyes and the skeptical look under his Karakul hat.

The book (which still can be purchased) contains some 50 broad-format, rare 1960s black-and-white photos from Afghanistan and also some from Greece, Iran (the white-turbaned ulema in front of a Coca Cola billboard!) and India. It also contains poems and extracts from (never published in full, unfortunately) ‘Notes on a Journey’.

Coincidentally, a friend brings me a DVD after my return home. ‘Der Traum von Kabul’ (The Dream of Kabul) is a contemporary documentary about young Europeans who made the same trip to Afghanistan by bus – there was a regular connection between Munich and Kabul then – or by the already mentioned Volkswagen which became famous as ‘fuluks’ in Afghanistan. It features British folksingers Julie Driscoll and Donovan as well as German Bommi Baumann, one of the original hash(ish) rebels, later a leading member of West Berlin’s 2 June urban guerilla group. With the police at their heels, Baumann renders, he and his friends heard about Afghanistan from returning friends and decided to escape to the Hindukush for a while.

Far from all stories ended well. There is the young Austrian already branded by hepatitis caught from unclean injection needles. And the very young blond girl with her perhaps 2 year old baby that she keeps as high as herself. At the end of the movie, a voice from the off states that she ended up ‘in the harem of some Pathan’. Cruciani’s photos also show young women and men fixing in Kabul’s cavernous probably zero-star Noor Hotel (anyone remembering where exactly itt was?)- and one wonders what has become of their Kabul dream.

To be continued (including my grandma encountering King Amanullah)

Massimo Cruciani: The Long Road East (Italian/English), publisher: Sasha Lara Cruciani, Perugia 2002, contact: [email protected].
Some of Cruciani’s pictures can be found here.

Wilma Kiener and Dieter Matzka (dir.), Ein Traum von Kabul (in German), available at amazon here.


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