An old question, one that fascinated Rudyard Kipling in his cautionary fable about nation-building via land war in Asia, “The Man Who Would Be King,” that has come up again recently is: Are Afghans white?
At the moment in the U.S., Afghans are not eligible for affirmative action, being classified by the Office of Management and Budget as one of the white peoples of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; in contrast, their cousins from just east of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, are officially Asians and thus eligible for racial preferences on government contracts and low interest Small Business Administration minority development loans.
In January 2017, the lame duck Obama Administration tried to start the process of rectifying this grave injustice that there are Third World immigrants who aren’t legally privileged over white Americans by creating the Middle Eastern and North African race category. But the Trump Administration couldn’t see why they would want to do that, so they let the Obama plan lapse.
I’m not aware of whether the Biden Administration has revived the Obama Administration’s plan. Probably somebody should ask Ol’ Joe about whether they will become eligible for affirmative action before inviting in all these Afghans.
Strikingly, the question of how white are the various peoples of Afghanistan comes up repeatedly in Rudyard Kipling’s famous short (but longish) story that he wrote when he was 22 in 1888, “The Man Who Would Be King.”
Ex-British Army sergeants turned Gentlemen At Large Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery in the 1975 movie) and Peachey Carnehan (Michael Caine) inform Kipling (Christopher Plummer) that they …
… “have decided that India isn’t big enough for such as us. … The country isn’t half worked out because they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that without all the Government saying — ‘Leave it alone and let us govern.’ Therefore, such as it is, we will let it alone, and go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own. We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore, we are going away to be Kings.” …
“Neither drunk nor sunstruck,” said Dravot. … “We have decided that there is only one place now in the world that two strong men can Sar-a-whack.
A reference to the White Rajah of Sarawak, adventurer James Brooke, who founded a kingdom on the coast of Borneo which he and his descendants ruled from 1841–1946.
They call it Kafiristan. By my reckoning its the top right-hand corner of Afghanistan, not more than three hundred miles from Peshawar. They have two and thirty heathen idols there, and we’ll be the thirty-third.
Kafiristan (“land of the infidels”) was a pagan country practicing animistic Old Hinduism until the Emir of Kabul invaded it in 1896, eight years after Kipling wrote, and told the men they could be put to the sword or the knife. Most chose circumcision and conversion to Islam. Kafiristan is now known as Nuristan (“land of the enlightened”).
Red Kafirs of Nuristan
… The Red Kafirs, so-called to distinguish them from the Black Kafirs, whom some ethnologists regard as having negro affiliations, are sometimes credited with an origin which legend traces to Arabia, while on another view it has been suggested that they are descendants of the soldiers of Alexander. The most probable theory is that both racially and culturally they preserve a strain of the same stock as the Aryan invaders of India. Although they have been converted to Islam, they retain a number of pagan customs, in which some would see traces of ancient Greece, It is probable, however, that the resemblance is no more than generic, and that the strange customs reported of them are a debased survival of beliefs of the primitive Arya. Thus it is said that although they believe in one chief god, they also recognise forty or fifty other deities, to whom sacrifices are offered on high places, while the dead are placed in sacred groves. One of the most interesting features of their customs is a song and dance ritual in connexion with a central altar. Dead heroes are commemorated by wooden equestrian statues, which are sometimes accompanied by figures of an attendant and the hero’s wives seated behind on chairs. The general character of these statues and their technique have been made the basis of a suggested connexion with the statues of Easter Island, and thought to point to one possible source of the ‘Aryan’ strain which some would see in Polynesia.
Old time anthropology was full of both romantic (sons of Alexander) and wild speculations (maybe they are related to the Polynesians of Easter Island!), but ultimately tended toward the genetically correct: yeah, the Red Kafirs are probably Aryans.
The people there are indeed whiter than most in Afghanistan.
For example, here is senior Afghan politician Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, who was convicted in California in 2019 of defrauding the U.S. government of over $100k in Social Security benefits.
If you told me he was the Moldovan ambassador, I’d believe you.
“It’s a mountainous country, and the women of those parts are very beautiful.”
My impression from looking at the handful of online photos of Nuristanis is that the light-eyed girls are promising of growing up to be beauties, but their harsh lives tend to dim their luster.
“But that is provided against in the Contrack,” said Carnehan. “Neither Women nor Liquor, Daniel.”
“And that’s all we know, except that no one has gone there, and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find — ‘D’ you want to vanquish your foes?’ and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dy-nasty.”
The only thing wrong with Kipling’s short story is that at 14,400 words, it should be ten times longer to fully flesh out his epic plot. Kipling was so creative that he had a hard time sitting still to write novels.
The screenplay by John Huston and his Oscar-nominated secretary Gladys Hill enlarges upon young Kipling’s theme, borrowing some lines from other Kipling stories and making up new one. For example, as far as I can tell, this speech is the work of Huston and Hill:
Here are excerpts touching on the racial theme:
… “Dan, they’re an all-fired lot of heathens, but this book here says they think they’re related to us English.”
… “Then ten men with bows and arrows ran down that valley, chasing twenty men with bows and arrows, and the row was tremenjus. They was fair men — fairer than you or me — with yellow hair and remarkable well built. Says Dravot, unpacking the guns — ‘This is the beginning of the business. We’ll fight for the ten men,’ and with that he fires two rifles at the twenty men and drops one of them at two hundred yards from the rock where we was sitting.
‘Now what is the trouble between you two villages?’ and the people points to a woman, as fair as you or me, that was carried off, and Dravot takes her back to the first village and counts up the dead — eight there was. For each dead man Dravot pours a little milk on the ground and waves his arms like a whirligig and, ‘That’s all right,’ says he. …
“At the levee which was held that night on the hillside with big bonfires, Dravot gives out that him and me were gods and sons of Alexander, and Past Grand-Masters in the Craft,
Kipling served as the secretary of the multicultural Masonic lodge in Lahore, so the Kafiristanis are Masons too.
and was come to make Kafiristan a country where every man should eat in peace and drink in quiet, and specially obey us. Then the Chiefs come round to shake hands, and they was so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends.” …
… n‘By virtue of the authority vested in me by my own right hand and the help of Peachey, I declare myself Grand-Master of all Freemasonry in Kafiristan in this the Mother Lodge o’ the country, and King of Kafiristan equally with Peachey!’ At that he puts on his crown and I puts on mine — I was doing Senior Warden — and we opens the Lodge in most ample form.
… Then he asks them about their villages, and learns that they was fighting one against the other and were fair sick and tired of it. And when they wasn’t doing that they was fighting with the Mohammedans. ‘You can fight those when they come into our country,’ says Dravot. ‘Tell off every tenth man of your tribes for a Frontier guard, and send two hundred at a time to this valley to be drilled. Nobody is going to be shot or speared any more so long as he does well, and I know that you won’t cheat me because you’re white people — sons of Alexander — and not like common, black Mohammedans. You are my people and by God,’ says he, running off into English at the end — ‘I’ll make a damned fine Nation of you, or I’ll die in the making!’
“My work was to help the people plough, and now and again to go out with some of the Army and see what the other villages were doing, and make ’em throw rope-bridges across the ravines which cut up the country horrid.
In Kipling’s story, Peachey is very much the junior partner to Daniel:
Dravot was very kind to me, but when he walked up and down in the pine wood pulling that bloody red beard of his with both fists I knew he was thinking plans I could not advise him about, and I just waited for orders.
In Huston’s movie, however, Caine is more the cynical brains of the operation, while Connery is dumber but more great-hearted. One of the oldest tricks in the movie-writing book, which nobody knew better than John Huston, is to make your hero sympathetic by making him not quite smart enough for the predicament he is in. (By the way, this reminds me of how weird is the conventional wisdom that if people ever admitted Charles Murray was right about IQ that the public would then immediately hate blacks viciously. Having seen a number of movies during my lifetime, I’d like to point out that that’s not actually how humans react.)
Apparently, some critics at the time objected to Caine’s performance, although the last time I saw the movie, I thought it was even better than Connery’s, which is high praise indeed.
“But Dravot never showed me disrespect before the people. They were afraid of me and the Army, but they loved Dan. He was the best of friends with the priests and the Chiefs; but any one could come across the hills with a complaint and Dravot would hear him out fair, and call four priests together and say what was to be done. …
“‘I won’t make a Nation,’ says he. ‘I’ll make an Empire! These men aren’t n——; they’re English! Look at their eyes — look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They’re the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they’ve grown to be English. I’ll take a census in the spring if the priests don’t get frightened. There must be a fair two million of ’em in these hills. The villages are full o’ little children. Two million people — two hundred and fifty thousand fighting men — and all English! They only want the rifles and a little drilling. Two hundred and fifty thousand men, ready to cut in on Russia’s right flank when she tries for India! Peachey, man,’ he says, chewing his beard in great hunks, ‘we shall be Emperors — Emperors of the Earth! Rajah Brooke will be a suckling to us. I’ll treat with the Viceroy on equal terms. … When everything was ship-shape, I’d hand over the crown — this crown I’m wearing now — to Queen Victoria on my knees, and she’d say:— “Rise up, Sir Daniel Dravot.”…
“‘There’s another thing too,’ says Dravot, walking up and down. ‘The winter’s coming and these people won’t be giving much trouble, and if they do we can’t move about. I want a wife.’
“‘For Gord’s sake leave the women alone!’ I says. ‘We’ve both got all the work we can, though I am a fool. Remember the Contrack, and keep clear o’ women.’
“‘The Contrack only lasted till such time as we was Kings; and Kings we have been these months past,’ says Dravot, weighing his crown in his hand. ‘You go get a wife too, Peachey — a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter. They’re prettier than English girls, and we can take the pick of ’em. Boil ’em once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come as fair as chicken and ham.’
‘These women are whiter than you or me, and a Queen I will have for the winter months.’
But [spoiler alert] … despite the evident whiteness of the Kafiris, nation-building doesn’t quite work out for Daniel and Peachey.
My recollection from Huston’s autobiography was that even in the good old days of 1973 it was impractical to shoot a movie in Afghanistan. But, he liked the racial irony of the story, so he arranged to have it shot in a part of Turkey that is highly Caucasian so he could obtain extras who looked right. But that fell through, so he wound up in Morocco where the locals are more swarthy.
Huston had been intending to cast as Daniel’s intended bride (felicitously named “Roxanne” in the movie) the daughter of Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, Tessa Neal, but at the last moment he decided she was too ultra-European looking to fit in with where his movie was headed. So he wound up asking Sir Michael’s wife Shakira, an Indian-descended Muslim from Guyana, to play Roxanne. Lady Caine can’t act, but John Huston had a few tricks up his sleeve to help her through her role.
Anyway, Kipling’s take on racial nature and nurture couldn’t be accommodated in the movie, but it remains relevant.
Ridley Scott had The Clash’s Joe Strummer, whose father was born in Peshawar, sing the original lyrics of the theme song from Man Who Would Be King in his Black Hawk Down: