Rustam’s Throne

Issue Title

Rustam’s Throne

By Christopher Merrill July 1, 2019

This is part of X issue on X, edited by X.

This story took place in northern Afghanistan, where I traveled in the spring of 2016 on a cultural diplomacy mission for the U.S. Department of State. The roads are dangerous: between improvised explosive devices (IEDs), erratic drivers, and a general lack of traffic police (TARFFIC was what I saw emblazoned on one police car), I knew I was taking my life into my hands whenever I climbed into a car. In the provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif, my interpreter warned me not to fasten my seat belt, since this would signal to any Taliban we encountered that I was a Westerner. For a day trip to Samangan, a central province north of the Hindu Kush Mountains, I was advised to wear a set of loose-fitting Afghan clothes delivered to my guest house, a light-green shalwar and kameez, which were very comfortable, and the two-hour drive south on the road to Kabul, across deserts, through canyons, along rivers and fields, with poppies blooming and traces of the full moon visible in the blue sky, lulled me into the peaceful state of mind that in my experience sometimes presages catastrophe. I covered the war in Bosnia, including the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern history, and whenever I found myself thinking nothing much was happening, which is not unusual in a war zone, all hell would break loose, often within a matter of minutes.

Our destination just outside the provincial capital of Samangan town was the hilltop Takht-i-Rustam, the Throne of Rustam, a mythical king who appears in Ferdowsi’s 10th-century epic, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. The throne was in fact a 4th-century Buddhist stupa carved from a single rock atop which lies a harmika in the form of a small square building, which once housed the Buddha’s relics; a trench twenty-five feet deep surrounds the stupa, and this was where monks would walk in mindfulness, circumnavigating the stupa, paying attention to their every step and breath. “When we practice walking meditation,” observes the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Ticht Nhat Hanh, “we arrive in each moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders.” This was what I tried to keep in mind on a warm spring morning as our group, which included several doctors, circled the stupa with families out for a stroll, watched over by Afghan Army soldiers.

Samangan’s centrality to Buddhism, which diminished with the Arab Muslims’ arrival in the 7th century and ended before Ferdowsi wrote, is little known today to anyone beyond a small band of scholars and Buddhist adepts. Hence Ferdowsi transformed the stupa into a throne for Rustam, “the preeminent hero of the legendary section of the poem,” in the words of Dick Davis, whose translation of Shahnameh was my introduction to the Persian national epic. The story goes that when Rustom’s horse vanished while he was napping one day in Samangan, a border region at the time, the local king promised to find it. Rustam thus spent the night, during which the king’s daughter, Tahmina, stole into his room to pledge her love to a man believed to possess godlike abilities. To win her hand, according to my traveling companions, Rustam had to complete three heroic tasks: pull a large tree out by its roots, leap across the abyss to the stupa (a distance of some twenty feet), and slay a monster. The marriage was consummated that night, and when Rustam’s horse was returned to him in the morning he left, never to see his wife again. In Ferdowsi’s telling, the stupa commemorates their marriage, which produced a son nine months later, whom Rustam was destined to kill before learning his identity. After the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 Takht-i-Rustam became the most important Buddhist shrine in Afghanistan.

Down the hill we walked to the catacombs, a series of rooms carved from the earth, in which for centuries monks lived, merchants sold their wares, ghazals were recited. Our group was made up of doctors and poets, and as we wandered down the long cool corridors, accompanied by a guard armed with a Kalashnikov, a guide explained that in the war against the Soviet Union the mujahedeen, holy warriors, had camped in these caves, the smoke from their fires darkening the ceiling. (This was, alas, the only useful historical information he provided.) My hostess posed for a photograph with her fiancé in a recessed niche lined with graffiti, where Buddhist statuary was once displayed, and then they ushered me out into the sunlight. They made a handsome couple—she was a gifted young writer, he had just landed a job in the Ministry of Energy and Water—and they cooed over a family picnicking under a willow tree along the narrow irrigation ditch, as if in anticipation of what their own marital bliss might bring them.

Any misgivings I had about the wisdom of traveling in the countryside during the fighting season vanished when we started driving to Mazar-i-Sharif, and I was thanking my lucky stars for this visit to the stupa and caves when a taxi coming from the other direction tried to pass a truck. It was obvious the driver could not make it back to his lane in time to avoid a collision, and since each car was traveling at least sixty miles an hour I had but a second or two to think my life was about to end. The sound of the crash, which my interpreter later said was louder than the suicide car bombing he had survived, was the last thing I remembered; when I came to, someone speaking in Dari was pulling me from the car. Perhaps he assumed I was Afghan.

My hostess and her fiancé were slumped over next to me in the back seat, unconscious; the moaning driver was bleeding from his head, and as I staggered out of the car, aching everywhere, I saw that a large crowd had gathered. Who knows how long I was out cold? Both cars were totaled. The doctors from our group, who had followed in another car, went to work on the injured: one was cradling a small boy in his arms, another laid my hostess down on the side of the road, a third tended to her fiancé. The driver of the other car, who appeared unhurt, was shouting and shaking his fist at the crowd, which, I guessed, must have held him responsible for the accident. It looked like a fight might break out, and then a policeman stepped between the driver and the crowd. A shot was fired by one of the soldiers watching from across the road. When had they arrived? Nothing made any sense to me. Concussed, with cracked ribs, a wrenched neck, and my back in spasms, I was in better shape than our driver, who had compound fractures of his arm and leg, and my hostess and her fiancé, both of whom had concussions and broken arms. Nor would I ever learn what became of the boy, who was still unconscious when two of the doctors in our group helped me and our driver into another car to drive us back to Mazar-i-Sharif.

This journey was no less eventful. One doctor recounted treating victims of an improvised explosive device, the other bemoaned the quality of medical services in his country, and then they realized the injured driver was slipping in and out of consciousness. To stabilize him, they pulled into a village of mudbrick houses, commandeered a two-room clinic, and ordered the proprietor to gather supplies. They helped the driver onto the examining table, bandaged his head, and fashioned a sort of splint for his leg, which would require surgery. Then they started him on an IV drip with a bag of saline solution to hang from the car window, gave me aspirin for my throbbing head, and off we drove toward a blackening sky—which augured not rain but a sandstorm that within minutes forced us to the side of the road, where we waited for it to pass.

What more can go wrong? I thought.

Unaccountably, I recalled the legend that Mahmud of Ghazni, the Sultan of the Ghaznavid Empire, which in his time encompassed Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and Pakistan, offered Ferdowsi a gold piece for every couplet he wrote, which is why The Shahnameh is the longest epic composed by a single author. The Sultan thus sent him 60,000 gold pieces upon completion of his work. But the courtier entrusted with the treasure regarded Ferdowsi as a heretic and replaced the gold with silver, which so angered the poet that he gave it all away. The Sultan condemned Ferdowsi, who spent much of the rest of his life in exile, poverty, and despair; when the Sultan finally realized his error and tried to make good on his pledge, the poet was dead.

Eventually we came to the new hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif, which was in a dilapidated state, with injured and dying men and women lying on the floor in the main corridor, some in bloodied clothes. I was relieved when the doctors sent me back to my guest house—where this story might have ended but for the diligence of my good-natured hostess. She suggested that I give my final lecture the next day at a technical university then visit the city of Balkh, near the Uzbek border, where the Sufi poet Rumi, or Mawlānā, as he is known to Persian speakers, was probably born, in 1207. I remember nothing about my lecture, not even its subject, and a photograph of me with the students and faculty brings nothing to mind beyond the fact that I was indeed there. My memory of the day begins later in the morning in a car with a poet-anesthesiologist stopping at a roundabout to pick up three more poets, including an expert on the history of Balkh, a center of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and then Islam. This city was destroyed twenty-one times, said the poet, and launched into colorful stories about its most famous conquerors, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. I cannot vouch for the veracity of his stories, since he chain-smoked cigarettes filled with hashish and my notes remain inscrutable. But I do remember the poets describing adventures here during the Taliban era. The local commander was a hard-drinking man who looked the other way when students came from Mazar-i-Sharif to party.

There were soldiers on every corner, where we toured the city garden, a blue-tiled mosque, the tomb of the first Afghan female poet, and a Zoroastrian shrine. Then we drove to the ruins of the madrassa where Rumi’s father, an Islamic jurist and mystic, taught until the Mongol invasion put his family to flight—an odyssey that took them eventually to Konya, Turkey. The Turkish government had razed the houses surrounding the madrassa to build a museum, and as we circled the half-dome my thoughts drifted to a symposium on Rumi, hosted by the International Writing Program in Konya, which took as its starting point lines translated by Coleman Barks:

Inside the Great Mystery that is,

we don’t really own anything.

What is this competition we feel then,

before we go, one at a time through the same gate?

The symposium, titled The Same Gate: A Poetic Exchange, brought together writers and scholars from America, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey for a series of discussions about Rumi, which were both tense and thrilling. The Iranian exiles distrusted the Persian literature professors from Tehran, two Afghans suspected a third of having ties to the Taliban, and everyone wondered what the Americans wanted. When one exile accused the professors of reading Rumi through their government’s religious lens, they countered with long disquisitions and recitations of ghazals, ably translated by another exile, whose good humor deflected many arguments. For the questions raised each day—what is the poet’s relationship to religion, women, his friend Shams? Can the music of his verses survive translation? How shall we interpret his use of the word love?—were fraught. After the last session, I called on Rumi’s granddaughter twenty-two generations removed, who reinforced her message of peace with a simple gesture, teaching me to say goodbye in the Sufi way by clasping my hand like an arm wrestler then kissing it. Through the window I saw her ancestor’s shrine shimmering in the heat. And in the madrassa in Balkh I wondered why I had been spared passage in Samangan through the same gate that awaits us all.

From there we drove to a windswept plain a mile or more wide and hiked to the top of a mound of ruins—part of a wall that once surrounded another city, long since vanished. In the center was an incongruous sight: a swing set, a camel, and a hut in which men were smoking hashish in a turquoise bong. They offered me a free hit, since I was a foreigner, which I declined, fearing its effects on my concussion. The poet-anesthesiologist explained my situation, which did not seem to surprise or faze them. On the drive back to Mazar-i-Sharif, he encouraged his friends to recite ghazals, Rumi’s and their own, improvising translations for me. “Note to future historians,” Charles Simic said: “Don’t read old issues of The New York Times. Read the poets.” A nation’s true history may well be inscribed in a poem recited in a Toyota:

You said it was the last time, yet again.

The history of yesterday is repeated again.


You ran another red light:

You knew it was wrong, and yet you did it again.


When you left, you destroyed my life.

What remains is wasted again.


When I need a drink of your eyes,

A bottle becomes my friend again.


I’m tired, stressed out, depressed—do you know why?

The history of yesterday is repeated again.

    We were following the route taken by the Northern Alliance and U.S Army Special Forces, by foot, on horseback, and in trucks, in the first major offensive of the Afghanistan War (later celebrated in the feature film, The Twelve), stopping on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif to stretch our legs and photograph, surreptitiously, Qali-i-Jangi, a nineteenth-century military garrison used after the city’s liberation to house Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners of war. This was the site of an uprising in November 2001, which led to the deaths of nearly 500 prisoners and a CIA contractor named Johnny Spann—the first American casualty in what has come to be known as the Forever War. As the poet observed: “The history of yesterday is repeated again.”

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