Nepal has always been a perfect country for the Peace Corps: rugged isolated terrain, a friendly government and people, and real needs in the outback that Peace Corps Volunteers have been meeting for decades now, ever since President Kennedy started the program.
I was there with the US Embassy for nearly seven years and recall only one instance when activities of individual volunteers created a bilateral problem with the Government of Nepal. That was over the subject of virgin peaks.
A virgin peak is a mountain nobody has yet climbed. Back about twenty years ago there were still a few big ones left, and most of them were in Nepal. The Japanese for some reason or another had developed an attitude, almost an obsession, about conquering virgin peaks. The Nepalese, sensing that they had a marketable commodity here, slapped a big tax on any foreign mountaineering group that wanted to deflower one of their hitherto unclimbed mountains that rose above a certain height. This did not deter the doughty Japanese, who formed special clubs in Osaka and Yokohama and places like that where fit young men trained arduously for years and money was raised and off their finest went to Nepal to be the first to raise a flag on Peak X.
And when they got to the top, as often as not, they would find a sign to the effect, “Kilroy was here” or some such. Some Peace Corps Volunteer posted in a nearby village had already strolled up and gotten there first. It got so bad that the Foreign Ministry called me in and asked me to do something about it.
Which I did. I reasoned with the Peace Corps management and they reasoned with their volunteers and from then on any volunteer who wandered up to the top of a mountain was careful not to leave any visible record of his or her passage. Problem solved. I wish all our problems with other countries could be solved as easily.
It occurs to me that this business of placing a premium on virginity is a harmless enough folly when it applies to merchandise, like a new automobile, or to something merchandisable, like an unclimbed mountain. Apply it to the female of our own species, however, and I find the practice objectionable, anti-humanist in the extreme. And yet this principle has been at the center of an ethical system that has held sway without question in large parts of the world for a very long time. In many of the areas dominated by Hispanic and Middle Eastern cultures, the pattern has been that a young female is a valuable commodity, to be married off for the advantage of the family she leaves when married, but the transaction can only be consummated properly if the merchandise is unsullied, ie if the bride-to-be is a virgin.
The only saving grace to the system of virgin brides is that there is often a way around the rules. As an example, let me recall an incident that occurred while I was serving as a junior officer at our embassy in Damascus, Syria:
In the summer of l953 the Department of State granted me a long overdue home leave, which entailed our being away from post for about three months. We had to decide among other things what to do with our three servants, the indomitable Subhi (cook), the quietly competent Mary (nurse and baby-sitter), and Leilah (drudge). We arranged to take Mary with us, and parked Subhi with friends at the Embassy, Walter and Rosemary Campbell. We also loaned them Leilah. Leilah came from a nearby village, and was remarkable more for her shape than her intellect. She was like a diamond in a pack of cards, pointed and narrow at both ends, but enormous around the buttocks. Still, she worked hard and didn’t complain. Her only problem was that she came from a very conservative Muslim family in an equally conservative Muslim village.
Leilah wanted to be a good girl, but the temptations of the big city proved a bit much. A male member of her family saw her in a downtown drugstore, without a veil, making a phone call, presumably to a boyfriend. Shortly after that a deputation of village males arrived at our front door, and told Subhi they had come to take Leilah back to the village. Leilah promptly retired to Subhi’s room in the cellar where she put as much of her as would fit under his bed. Subhi is a man of great force of character and presence of mind. He provided various assurances and persuaded Leilah’s relatives to leave.
We related all this to Walter and Rosemary before we left, assuring them that as far as we could tell, everything had been restored to an even keel and could be expected to stay there. We were wrong.
The first thing Rosemary said on our return was “My God, are we ever glad to see you! I am so tired of eating squab all the time”.
Evidently Leilah was observed again in public, and her family decided the only thing to do with her was marry her off, right away, before some unscrupulous male took advantage of her. So a second deputation came to town, this time to Walter and Rosemary’s house, and carted her off despite Subhi’s best efforts to dissuade them. A suitable groom was designated and an early date set for the wedding. Subhi was not invited.
Early in the morning after the nuptial day, Subhi heard a scratching at Walter’s door, and found Leilah there, exhausted and terrified. She explained that she was no longer a virgin, and that this fact would have been discovered on the wedding night, and she would have been killed. So she bugged out in the middle of everything, and there she was pleading with Subhi to save her.
Well, when the next deputation came to town, Subhi was ready. Leilah was nowhere to be found, and Subhi demonstrated diplomatic skills that a United Nations Secretary General might envy. He placated the entire village and found another potential groom, since the first one was not interested in a second try. A new wedding date was fixed, several weeks away. Subhi repaired to Damascus, to train Leilah in her new role.
Evidently there is a technique in the Middle East, whereby the bladder of a pigeon, if properly removed from its owner, can be used to simulate a maidenhead, establishing a spurious virginity in a damsel who no longer has that status. It is a somewhat tricky operation, however, and takes practice. Subhi was a dedicated teacher, it seems, and Leilah, if dense, was a highly motivated pupil. So for several weeks my friends the Campbells found themselves living largely on a diet of squab.
Shortly before we returned, Leilah went back to the village and was honorably married. We never saw her again, but presume she is still living happily ever after. Subhi returned to our employ, and served us with ingenuity, loyalty and grace for the balance of our tour. We employed another maid–a Christian this time, from the same village as Mary’s.
After we finally left Syria, Subhi became the housekeeper or den mother or local manager for the half dozen Marines that were posted to the Embassy as guards. When I visited Damascus about ten years later, he had built himself an indispensable niche in the Embassy hierarchy, in that role. He had once been a prosperous Palestinian landowner, with extensive orange groves. Some people are indestructible.