24 September 2012

Afghanistan: unvanquished, untamed and beyond description

There are countries we are resident in and countries we like to live in or at least visit.  No two countries are alike.  And no country is read the same way by two different people.  Close-eyes or the eyes of residents, especially longtime ones, see and read landscapes, physical and social, differently from far-away eyes or the eyes of foreigners.  And then there are eyes that are even further removed, those that have never visited, but are visited by countries in the form of stories, news reports and features, photographs and videotapes.  

All of them, without exception, are narratives that are structured by all the flaws that are wrought by familiarity (and ignorance), cultural specificities (and preferences), the preferred outcomes of political processes (local and global and their intersections), love (and hate) and other factors too numerous to lay out here.

So we have many stories for and of each and every place on earth, some more flawed than others, but all pertinent one way or another to a greater or lesser degree, and each incomplete for nothing is ever fully describable and we are trumped as much by ignorance as by knowledge, as much by lack of vocabulary as by the words at our disposal.

So how can I write of Afghanistan when I’ve never been there?  How could anyone write about anything, though?  My Afghanistan is not yours, and it may be further removed from the Afghanistan of Afghans (today, tomorrow and yesterday) than the Afghanistan of Reuters, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, etc., but it is nevertheless mine, a ‘my story’ of a place that has descended on me through the media. 

Let me recall.

The first time I head of Afghanistan was in May 1978.  Back then, at the age of 12, my grandfather, who was shortsighted, got me to read the headlines of the ‘Daily News’ and also the stories that interested him.  ‘Foreign News’ was a must. That’s how I got to know that in a country called Afghanistan, a man called Daud Khan, the President of that country no less, had been assassinated, along with his family.  The word ‘coup’ would have been mentioned, but I didn’t know what that meant.

I heard of course that the Communists had taken over. That I understood.  When Nur Muhammad Taraki, Daud’s successor was assassinated under the orders of Hafizulla Amin and Amin himself was killed and the Soviets moved in, I was older, slightly, and knew enough to get a sense of what international politics was all about.  I remember Babrak Karmal’s name. It came up in General Knowledge Competitions.  Mohammad Najibullah lasted long enough and in a pre-internet world where Washington posted news, his name came with a tag, ‘Soviet Puppet’.  It didn’t take long to figure out that the USA had its own puppets. 

And so we went through the tired script of the USA and the Soviet union’s proxy wars, how the CIA sponsored the Mujahideen, how the Red Army had to retreat, how the fall of the Soviet Union left Najibullah vulnerable, how the idea of ‘Jihad’ shifted, fratricidal wars, the rise of the Taliban, the support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the opium and heroin trade, the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud just two days before 9/11, the US-led invasion of that country, the struggle to secure resources, the resistance, the endless drone attacks the election of Hameed Karzai, his re-selection subsequently and so on.

Afghanistan memories include the Bamiyan Buddha Statues, which I had never heard of and might have continued to be ignorant of had the Taliban not blown them up.  And there was also Vida Samadzai, Miss Afghanistan 2003, the first Afghan woman to participate in an international beauty pageant since 1974 and the ire she raised with her red bikini. My most recent ‘Afghan Moment’ was in Geneva in May 2012, on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council Sessions.

A panel discussion on human rights violations in Afghanistan, which privileged Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, included a documentary.  Afghans from all walks of life and who had suffered all kinds of losses were given voice and airtime.  They all said they were sick of war. They all said they were sick of having foreigners dictating terms.  The organizers neatly left out the horrendous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the USA and its allies and painted the Taliban as Monster No 1.

Afghanistan, for all this, is still caricature, a creature painted according to ideological bent and outcome-preference, both accompanied by structured silences and silencing, absences and absenting.  It is a country and a political space that is moment-bound.  As such, the narratives tend to footnote the long histories of that region, traceable back to 500 BCE, described by some as ‘A Gateway to India’ and by others as ‘The Central Asian Roundabout’ given its strategic location, the commerce of cultures and the intersections of roads blazed for territory-capture and plunder, as much as for commerce.  Absent from narrative tapestry are also the philosophical and cultural strains left by its Zoroastrian, Macedonian and Buddhist past.

What we have are stories of blood and blood-letting. Deserts and barrenness.  What we see is insanity’s spawn injecting humanity with the poison of hatred, arrogance and vengeance.  It is almost as though Afghanistan has a population of gun-toting thugs fighting each other to prove which gun is most potent.

There are no farmers in this story.  There are no children. There is no tenderness.  No one loves in this Afghanistan.  There is no poetry or pottery, no marveling at the infinite variety of cloud formation, no movement to meditation by the night’s silence.  No one mistakes fireflies for stars or, even if the two are recognized as different, portrays as two versions of a singular reality in the manner of the Sufis.

Jalal ad-din Rumi was not from this land that is now called Afghanistan.  It was not a center of learning.  It is made of two kinds of people, the Taliban and those who happily or otherwise support the USA.  There are no Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimak, Baloch and others.  In this Afghanistan there is an undifferentiated population of madmen and veiled women.

There are Afghanistans though that I have never heard of and the world is not bothering to discover or be introduced to in the world’s insane fixation with black-white logic.  These mountains know, however.  The snow melts and flows, but the Hindu Kush is 800 km long.  The rivers that run through this land have watered the tired earth and much else.  There is scholarship in memory and the telling and re-telling of legend.  There are grandparents who have not lost tongue nor been divested of memory.

And there’s living.  People die, yes, but death is something that can visit only the living.  There are traditions and like all traditions both empower and restrict.  There is resistance and not just to the tyranny of the Taliban or to the terrorism of the United States of America.  There must be tenderness.  Flavors and fragrances are inevitable makers of people and communities. I cannot convince myself that the people in Afghanistan never dream.

There are many Afghanistans and I’ve not visited even one of them.  I’ve seen snapshots and I suspect that snapshots are what most of the world has seen of this beautiful country of ancient ways and modern warfare.  Afghanistan is not a country that’s ‘mappable’ easily, and I suspect that its many mappings have tested and cost numerous cartographers in ways that other countries have not.  Not just because of the violence of course.  It is, after all, a resisting country that is at the same time asserting itself.

Many Sri Lankans backed Afghanistan when its cricket team took on India. Perhaps it’s some anti-Indian sentiment or else a general tendency to root for underdog.  It could be a fascination with the exotic. Lakshman Kadirgamar watching an Afghanistan team in action a few years before he was assassinated famously said ‘they play cricket as though they are fighting a war’.  That’s caricature too.

Afghanistan is a country I would like to visit.  And in the same breath I say ‘I know as much about Afghanistan as I know about Sri Lanka’.  And that, ladies and gentleman is my two-cents on Afghanistan, a country endowed with riches beyond imagination even while it is poor beyond belief. 

Just like ours.

[Published in the 'UNDO' Section of 'The Nation', September 23, 2012]



Ramzeen said...

Your are so very right. To understand Afghanistan one has to born and bred there. How can one make head or tail of their cultural and tribal values? Through foreign eyes they seem brutal/hot-headed/fanatical/barbaric/uncivilized et al. How can Presidents of powerful countries send their men in there to fight a fight that no one actually understands? And each President keeps repeating it: a battle that they can never win.