“I dreamt of disappearing in the mountains”

My dream was to live as a nomad in Afghanistan, disappear in the mountains and never return to Belgium“. So reminisces Belgian adventurer Jean Bourgeois, as he sits in the new Moesgaard Museum and looks out the window.

He has donated his photos and film recordings from Afghanistan to the museum’s Ethnographic Collections, and on this day in 2013 he has come to Denmark to write captions for all the many pictures.

The material bears witness to his lifelong fascination of the Afghan nomads. Nevertheless, it was an entirely different interest which led him to Afghanistan in the first place.

Jean Bourgeois in the park at Moesgaard Museum. Photo: Hanne Christensen, 2013

Jean Bourgeois in the park at Moesgaard Museum. Photo: Hanne Christensen, 2013

From mountain to caravan

Jean Bourgeois was formerly a keen mountaineer, and in 1966 he joined an expedition to Afghanistan in order to climb the highest mountain in the country, Nosiak, which is 7,492 meters high.

The climb became a truly dramatic one, and in fact several members of the party lost their lives. Jean himself miraculously survived an avalanche and managed to get down the mountain alive, in spite of a broken leg.

At the bottom, he saw a travelling nomad caravan, and the sight impressed him so deeply that he decided to return to Afghanistan later to live with the nomads.

Two years later he realised the dream, as he returned with his wife Daniella and went travelling with the nomads.

A hard life

Jean initially had a romantic idea of life as a nomad, but the harsh reality soon became clear:

If they fall ill, it’s over“, he explains today. “There are no hospitals or clinics. They are buried where they die and the caravan continues. Only the strongest survive, and every other child dies within the first few years of life“.

Hence, although Jean and Daniella had prepared carefully for their new way of life, they soon encountered problems:

As the months passed, we gradually realised that we were not strong enough to live as nomads. We fell ill and had to return to Belgium after five months in order to receive treatment. Still, when we recovered we returned to the nomads“, Jean explains.

Jean in Afghanistan. Photo: Daniella Bourgeois, 1968

Jean in Afghanistan. Photo: Daniella Bourgeois, 1968

Respect or death

Health issues were not the only perils they encountered, however. Only a few days after they had joined the nomads, a group of armed men suddenly appeared in their tent.

That could have been the end of the adventure, but Jean kept his nerve. He looked at the men and calmly said: “If you kill us, there will be no more trouble“; then he pulled the 9 mm pistol which he always carried, pointed at the men and continued: “But one of you will die with us“.

It turned out to be the correct reaction. By showing courage and vigour, Jean won the respect of the nomads and they became friends.

He explains that the nomads are proud people and so respect is crucial in their culture:

We showed them respect, but we also had to demand respect in return,” he says. “It’s no easy thing to gain respect among the nomads, but we succeeded. Without respect, you’re already dead“.

Still he admits that his courage was spiced with a little luck:

They knew nothing about Belgium except that we make fine weapons. One day they pointed at my gun, asking if I knew how to use it. An eagle was sitting on a branch one hundred meters away from us. Impossible with a pistol. But I took aim, allowed for the wind and the distance, and took the shot. The eagle dropped dead. It was pure luck, but it made me almost a legend“.

An encounter with the Afghan army

The nomads whom Jean and Daniella were travelling with lived in Pakistan during the winter and trekked up the Afghan mountains in summertime.

Much of their income came from trade and they smuggled goods into Afghanistan without paying taxes. The Afghan army tried to stop them, but it was no easy job, as the nomads were impressively armed and knew the ins and outs of the mountains.

In the end, the army came out on top, however:

We were lucky to encounter the nomads towards the end of their nomadic existence.Three years later, it was all over. The army defeated them and they had to give up on their traditional way of life“.

The adventure had also come to an end for Jean and Daniella. In 1972, Jean published a book about the Afghan nomads which the government in Afghanistan resented, as it clearly showed that a large share of the Afghan population was de facto outside of their control. The couple was consequently denied entry into the country and they have not been back since.

Revisiting the nomads?

That may change now, hoever. 45 years have passed since Jean last travelled with the nomads, but on this day in the museum he declares that he is planning to go back and give it another try as soon as he can raise the money.

The area he wants to visit is presently controlled by the Taliban, but that is no hindrance for a seasoned adventurer:

The timing may not be perfect, but if I don’t do it now, it will probably never happen. Perhaps some of the young people we met back then are still alive. I want to complete the story“.

Above, Jean Bourgeois’ short film about the Afghan nomads. Below you can see a selection of his photos and read more about the lifestyle of the nomads.