Hardy Seafarers Suffer from Lack of Respect, Ocean

ZARANJ, AFGHANISTAN ( — As the dust and smoke of battle settled across Afghanistan, all eyes turned to the triumphant Northern and Eastern alliances, but there is another courageous Afghani confederation whose contributions have been all but lost in the proverbial fog of war. These are the poor, proud tribesmen in bright yellow slickers and waterproof hats, turned up at the brim, of the Sou’wester Alliance.

They are Afghanistan’s forgotten warriors.

Sou'wester tribesman
Sou’wester tribesmen in their bright, waterproof hats, which are known as “sou’westers.”

Believed to be more than 500 in number, Sou’westers (also known as “Southwesters” in languages that have no apostrophe), inhabit the arid, inhospitable plains of southwestern Afghanistan near the Iranian border. Though the land’s topographic deficiencies would discourage a lesser people, the tribes of the Alliance are, like their very poor fathers, and their very poor fathers before them, seafaring fishermen. Lacking an ocean, they ply the brackish, ankle-deep waters of the Gaud-i-Zirreh marshes in a valiant — some would say desperate, others would simply say “odd” and let it go at that — search for the cod, the haddock, and the prized Atlantic swordfish.

It is a difficult life.

And now the war, and its aftermath, have worsened the plight of the Sou’westerers by stripping away their most prized possession: their dignity.

“We are the poorest of the poor, and yet we are treated like dirt,” says Aman Eshan, who is the leader, or “captain,” of the ethnic Mary Celestes. “We were not invited to Bonn for peace talks. Our elders were not included in the new government. Only because we are of the Sou’west, and not the Northern, Alliance, our contributions are meaningless.”

The response of Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is typical of the disdainful Northern Alliance leaders. “Contributions? What contributions?” Dostum sneers. “The Sou’wester Alliance did not fight with us. They did nothing. As usual.”

“We were at sea,” explains Eshan.

“We are a landlocked country! We do not have a sea!” Dostum insists.

Hearing this, Eshan throws up his hands. “So now you understand what it is like for us,” he says.


Named for the rough-weather “sou’wester” hats popularized by the Gorton’s fisherman and Van Gogh, the Sou’wester Alliance is comprised of five distinct, yet closely knit, ethnic tribes — the Mary Celestes, the Gloria Anns, the Andrea Jeans, the Dorothy Alexanders, and the Stella Maries. Although to a person they lack light hair, Nordic builds, and ruddy complexions, they claim their ancestors came from Nova Scotia and were shipwrecked in Zaranj after getting lost during a storm off the Grand Banks.

Land held by Sou'wester Alliance

Many outsiders, pointing to the absence of a navigable waterway between the North Atlantic and Afghanistan, have claimed this is physically impossible. But Red Cross field director Craig Velorum, who in 1989 spent six months with the Sou’westers while in the Peace Corps, offers one explanation that plausibly accounts for the tribe’s unusual story: “Do you have any idea how much opium those people smoke?”

Sou’westers themselves have never doubted their legacy. Doubt of any kind, in fact, is anathema to the Sou’westers, who have no word for “skepticism” in their language, but have 642 different ways of saying “I have fish guts on my jumper.”

Occasionally, a young man of the tribes, suddenly overwhelmed by the prospect of eternal futility, will wake up screaming that there is no ocean, has never been an ocean, and will never be an ocean. Usually this is a brief outburst, and not repeated. But every year, four or five young Sou’westers decide to turn their backs on their heritage and seek a better life. Most of these men take up lobstering.

Secluded as they are beyond the Rigestan Desert, the Sou’westers have, for generations, attracted little attention from Afghanistan’s spinning wheel of rulers. King Zahir ignored them. The Soviets never discovered them. But the Taliban were different. Philosophically, the Sou’westers opposed the Taliban’s attitudes toward women. Theologically, they disagreed with the regime’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. And personally, they didn’t appreciate the way Taliban leaders always referred to Sou’westers as “fruitcakes in raincoats.”

So last May, long before Americans were involved, the Sou’wester Alliance voted to fight the Taliban. Just as soon as the fishing season was over.


The summer catch, however, was dismal, and the dearth continued into the fall. With their holds empty and no fish in sight, and only six inches of water beneath their hulls, the Sou’wester fleet decided to press its luck by staying at sea through October and November. “Hurricane season,” Eshan says with a shudder. But they risked it, hoping against hope to make that one glorious haul.

It didn’t happen. By early December, with the weather turning bitterly cold, the tribal captains realized it was time to haul in the lines. It was a painful homecoming.

“As we came in to port, I could not bear to see the looks on our wives’ faces when we again returned with nothing,” recalls Ramad Ushari, skipper of the Gloria Ann. “Fortunately, I did not have to do this, as our wives were wearing their burqa slickers, but I was not pleased by how much body language came through all that covering.”

Sou'wester wives
Although they do not fish, Sou’wester wives, inexplicably, also suffer from lack of respect.

The disappointment was manifest. Once again, the Sou’wester families that depend on fishing were devastated. Once again they would have to rely on humanitarian aid. As to what caused the poor catch, Northern Alliance leaders blamed the lack of native ocean fish. But Sou’wester elders, relying on years of experience, suspect something else.

“Overfishing,” declares Gadir Modor, captain of the Andrea Jean. “And I do not think the commercial boats are to blame, but the weekend anglers who look only for trophy fish. They are a scourge.”

So much so, Modor says, that he sent a request to Hamid Karzai, who heads the Afghan government, asking that he support an emergency law limiting saltwater sport fishing in the country.

“The government got back to me and promised that such a law would be passed, ‘When a mackerel swims in Afghanistan,'” says Modor. “So at least there is hope.”


In the local tavern, the Salty Dog, the oilskins and slickers give way to traditional knit sweaters, and the air is woven thick with the smoke of pipes and the yarns of fishermen. But as they prove every day of their existence, the fishermen of the Sou’wester tribes are distinct. They are kind, sincere, and above all, honest, which is why these men do not tell tales of “the one that got away” from them. Instead, they recount the stories of the ones that got away from other boats.

Kalil, a lobsterman of the Dorothy Alexander, has attracted a crowd around the bar as he recounts a recent bit of news. “I heard that last month, Hasharam, of the Gloria Ann, speared a 20-foot sword and was dragged into the water,” Kalil says, as the Salty Dog patrons, who know Hasharam well, fall silent. “I heard that Hasharam managed to pull the beast halfway onto the boat before its nose broke off and it disappeared. Hasharam lost his left leg, and now uses the broken sword to stand on!”

When the whistles of amazement and soft murmurings of “Poor Hasharam” fade away, Hasharam himself, who has sat listening respectfully, stands up on two good legs to clear the air. “No Kalil, I am sorry, but I saw no swordfish,” he says. “Only marsh reeds. And sand. But I heard that you, Kalil, found a 40-pound lobster in one of your pots, and when you cut open its belly, you found inside a Great White Shark, still alive, that bit off your head!”

Prize catch
“It is just a cardboard cutout, but it reminds us of who we are,” says one Sou’wester captain.

The listeners look from Hasharam to Kalil, then back to Hasharam.

“But perhaps this is not true,” Hasharam concedes.

And so it is always with the Sou’westers. Not a man will boast that he himself has pulled in even a flounder, but they are certain their brothers, on more fortunate boats, have prospered from great catches. It is this hope that keeps them going back to what they think of as the sea. And it is this same sense of hope that Aman Eshan says he will soon carry with him to the Afghan capital.

“As soon as we are done mending our nets and cleansing the scales and blood from the gunwhales, we will go to Kabul and demand a seat in the government,” says the Mary Celeste captain as he sits on a decaying old lobster pot, mending a frayed cord. And what seat in government does he covet?

The thought causes Eshan to pause, and suddenly a smile creases the weather-worn face, and his eyes glow as brightly as the bioluminescence that populate the oceans of his mind. “The Ministry of Marine Fisheries,” he answers.

Afghan observers, however, doubt such a wish will be granted. “The truth is, those people don’t know a hawk from a handsaw,” asserts Geoff Hoon, Britain’s Defence Secretary. “Until they stop acting so strangely, until they discontinue the crazy talk and their irresponsible, inexplicable ways, they are never going to get anywhere.”

Asked if this wasn’t a rather harsh assessment of the Sou’westers, Hoon frowns.

“Actually, I was referring to the Northern Alliance,” he says. “Who the hell are the Sou’westers?”

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