At the Khaibar Pass

There is nothing spectacular

or even dramatic

in the climb

or the mountains

but

the air is almost tense in its

silence

so insolently indifferent

to me

and my times

here: all is awe and hush

far beyond the Pass : Kabuls and Samarkands,

all that the urban imagination conjures in nostalgia,

the mainsprings of conquest,

that flooded

the fat lands this side of the Pass: Delhi and Agra

the irresistible lakes of journey’s end

the ear

strains to hear,

and almost does,

the distant din of battle

the clang and clamour of men at war

steel ringing on steel

cries of death

and victory

of hooves galloping hard from Ghor

for the secret treasures of the Ganges

kingdoms rising as swiftly as the stroke of a scimitar

and vanishing as swiftly

these putty-coloured mountains

seem to suggest with supreme indolence,

you

who would stride and strut and swear

look on us and wonder.

They say

there was an Empire once. And that recently.

On which the sun never set.

Today its legacy is a toy rain,

some cement blocks in tidy heaps

(to stop German tanks, if you please)

and

some insignia and escutcheons scratched

like military badges

on the shoulders of wayside rocks:

fading and exotic memories of Gurkha and Sikh,

plump, open-mouthed, lizards

sitting so still

they could be part of the regimental emblem.

Like wind they came, like water they left,

the thousands of soldiers, the thousands of years,

passages long gone, long forgotten

in this catacomb of desire and history.

Afridi and Shinwari

and before them

old Tahtarra

watch from eagle eyes

oh conqueror gaze on these and wonder

oh traveler be warned and step softly

the hills seem to know and the air whispers

this evanescent journey

this mad rush

will continue

will remain as desperate and as passionate

as of yore

but to this end we must come:

silence beyond and silence behind;

to this end

teasing imagination leads us;

and leaves us.

The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity

Published in Daily Times, March 20th 2019.