Sunday Levity: Moving the Saint

Omens, portents and miraculous powers on the Afghan frontier

A century ago, it was the British who were engaged in relentless conflict in the Pashtun lands. At the turn of the twentieth century, air power was first introduced into the conflict (which the Pashtun tribesmen thought was against the rules of the game).

‘We played the game strictly according to the rules of cricket,’ said Wing Commander James, who came to the Frontier as a pilot in 1936. ‘In other words, if we had to punish for a raid or kidnapping, we’d fly over the village two days before, giving forty-eight hours notice, warning them to take their children, cows, goats and wife, and not to come back until the government said it was safe.’ The warnings — in the form of paper (which the tribesmen in general could not read) dropped over the villages — were the evidence which gave the Faqir of Ipi his accredited powers of being able to turn bombs into paper…

In the days of no radios, those on the ground used to communicate with the pilots by a system called the Popham Panel. Large letters were laid out on the ground to indicate to the pilot what kind of distress they were in…

The British wanted to make an airfield in Parachinar in Kurram, but the only place where a good landing strip could be laid down was occupied by the grave of a local saint. The political officer at that time, Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan (Khattak), was requested by the British to do something about the grave, but to be careful not to upset the feelings of the local people. Once Friday he went to the local mosque and asked the Mullah to interpret a strange dream he had had: ‘I dreamt that the Saint was requesting me, “Please remove me from this place, I don’t want to be here anymore”‘ This happened three times; finally the Mullah said the meaning was clear: ‘The Saint must be moved.’ Within six months the airfield was laid down to everyone’s satisfaction.[Victoria Schofield/Afghan Frontier]