Article in the National Geographic about the Hazaras of Afghanistan

February 1, 2008

National Geographic magazine has dedicated this month’s feature to a comprehensive article about the Hazaras of Afghanistan by Phil Zabriskie. Here is the link.

cover hazaras NGM

I have not read the article yet, but am a little skeptical about the title: “The Outsiders: Afghanistan’s Hazaras.” I hope Mr. Zabriskie has taken his time to do justice to the subject matter and study well the Hazaras and the many complexities that they offer for serious scholars, anthropologists and political scientists, and that the title is not too telling of the content.
The article devotes a good many paragraphs on how the Hazaras fared under the Taliban -a serious topic which has not been explored in ample detail yet- and how they have fared since.
The article also features Steve McCurry, back in Afghanistan with his camera and deliverying a delightful series of photos. (The reader would recognize McCurry as the photographer responsible for those famously haunting eyes of Sharbat Gula, a photograph titled simply “Afghan Girl” that was named the most recognized photo in the history of National Geographic magazine.)
Maybe I will do a post on the article once I have read it.

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The Case of Perwiz Kambakhsh and Afghanistan’s Ongoing Culture Wars

January 30, 2008

There has been another very disturbing development in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan student of journalism who has been sentenced to death by a primary court in Northern Afghanistan for the crime of propagating “blasphemous” literature: the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament has just delcared its decision to uphold the death sentence. The case will continue on its way through the labyrinth of more courts and legislative bodies, until one of these days it finally finds itself on the president’s desk. Most likely, every court along the way will try their best not to be seen as the one that finally overturned the decision, and hence somehow supported Kambakhsh’s anti-Islamic stance.

By now the justice system here has become myopically focused on the vitriolic content of the distributed literature that was written years ago by an Iranian dissident writer and was put on the internet -it was not even written by Kambakhsh, who is himself a student and an aspiring journalist. Apparently other considerations, such as the very constitutionality of the decision to even try somebody for their opinion is out the window. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was really a craft of compromise when it was agreed upon, makes half-hearted nods both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the same time to a vague and amorphouse category of Islamic principles and values. Now, one of these would have Perwiz Kambakhsh killed, and the other would respect his right to free thought and expression. And this is not even the first of it -soon after the constitution was ratified two journalists were dragged to the courts on similarly drummed up charges of blaspheming and insulting Islam -and it is bound to be not the last of them; unless of course journalists learn their lessons and define their own boundaries of what is allowed and what not, i.e. self-censorship. (Then it will be the turn for bloggers who have been rash enough to abandon anonymity in an environment like this. Maybe some people are already talking about learning them computer heads a good lesson as well -there is already the internet link in Kambakhsh’s case.)

But really, the equivocality of the constitution and the daily barrage on the media and the journalists is symptomatic of a more fundamental fact of the Afghan society: there is an ongoing culture war in Afghanistan. This is the same non-ending culture war that first reached tipping point in 1912 and became a warm war (the spark then was the lovely Queen Suraya’s bare arms in a western dress, and pictures of young Afghan girls in skirts and hats studying abroad in Turkey.) The same ongoing culture war has influenced the course of Afghan political history over the last century. Kambakhsh and other journalists are all victims of this war. In reality, everyone, including those who vye for his blood, know deep down that his transgressions are not grave enough to warrant the death penalty. But what these people also know is that there is more at stake than merely the neck of one or two young journalist (especially that they do not enjoy the same immunities that many other journalists in Afghanistan do, i.e. back-up of their embassies, etc.) So in effect these people are telling the likes of Perwiz Kambakhsh:
“Sorry pal, we know it is a bit extreme to put the hangman’s noose around your neck (figure of speech, in actuality we would prefer for you to be stoned to death) for this – distributing stuff that you did not write and may not even fully endorse, or even understand. You did not even publish it, and it is not proven that you held secret group meetings to proselytize and discuss it. And we are not particularly opposed to Will Durant -whose book is a key incriminating evidence in your case- either. But times are tough and we are in a war. Your death is a small price to be paid for what this will teach others. Next thing and we might even allow the elected MP Malalay Joya back into the parliament, and allow Tolo TV to air Shakira concerts. Now that would be a slippery slope we cannot allow this nation to go down, wouldn’t it? So we hope you will try to understand. And if you don’t, well, too bad.”

For some of these people, it is even a win-win situation whether Kambakhsh dies or lives. If he dies, well, lesson learnt, victory achieved, Islam saved, and journalists harnessed for good. If he lives, it will likely be the president who pardons him- the sentence will likely be upheld in a landslide vote in the lower house, and the supreme court’s only concern would be whether the sentence is harsh enough. Unless and until his legal advisors find a loophole (and one that is acceptible to the clergy too) on the grounds of which they can send the case back down, the president is facing a serious headache. He is damned if he signs off on the death sentence of a young journalist, and he is damned if he does not. In Afghanistan we call that being sandwiched between the two stones of a mill – or a rock and a hard place.


So many jeans!

September 4, 2007

I have an urgent proposal for the Afghan government: in the interest of national security, make it mandatory for all its senior employees to take crash-courses in the art of public speaking, with an emphasis on brevity. This morning…

But alas! I am not allowed to dwell on the negatives…

So we are back to gloating over Herat. It is so easy to take electricity for granted here, but thinking back to Kabul, the fact that Herat has regular power supply with no, none, zero blackouts in my three days here -thanks to separate deals with both Turkmenistan and Iran- seems such a blessing. Remote villages located at distances of as great as 40 kilometers from the city have electricity on a regular, round-the-clock basis, even if they don’t have paved roads all the time.

Both today and yesterday afternoon a group of us visited the shops in Bazaar-e-Malik (roughly “The King’s Bazaar”.) This is like Herat’s equivalent of the Chicken and the Flower streets -put together; except that here you can find the real stuff, at prices a lot better, and with the green tea and sweet “Halva” flowing non-stop to, literally, sweeten the deals. And of course the streets are a lot wider, which, only if you have ever been to the Flower street, you could appreciate. The main trade of the Bazaar-e-Malik in Herat is in carpets, waistcoats, shoes, and Burqas. Upon seeing a couple of the latter as we were driving past them yesterday, a Khareji among us wondered aloud: “So how come so few people actually wear jeans if there are so many shops selling them?”

(to be continued… )


Four Things I Love about Herat

September 3, 2007

Plans changed, and instead of going up north I am in the west – in Herat. All the happier for it too. I have always wanted to come to Herat, and here I am, blogging from Herat, listening to the Doors, nibbling on the season’s finest grapes, and with a breath-taking view of the Herati skyline dominated by the Friday mosque out in the distance.

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The first thing that catches the attention of a newcomer to the city is the broad, well-paved and preserved, and tree-lined streets of Herat. At least that is what caught my attention coming from Kabul with its permanently congested and pot-holed roads as our noisy convoy with its escorts zipped through the long drive from the airport into the city via Injeel district. For all his faults, the former Emir has done admirable work with the streets of Herat. His forced destruction of multi-story buildings that were built too close to the road and his broadening of the city’s main streets into 60-meters-wide thoroughfares bring to mind the same serious-minded implementation of “imminent domain” that is so needed in Kabul’s alleyways. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why some here tend to wax nostalgically about the Emir.

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Then it is the history. It is there in the huge citadel, the magnificent Friday mosque, the strikingly beautiful Minarets that are all in such heartbreaking state of disrepair, the tombs of Gawhar Shaad and Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, the historic four gates of the city, the square with a Soviet tank and statues in memory of the brave Heratis of the 24th of Hoot all over it, and on and on…

When a city has been around since 2,500 before common era, it is fair to say that it collects quite a bit of history’s dust on it. And while it is tragic that the historic sites here are falling apart and see little efforts at preservation, this poverty actually adds to their magnificence and grandeur.
Tall, unpretentious, humble and yet humbling, unadorned, un-ticketed, aloof -and around for only a short while more. Like heroes. Like beauty.

I had tears in my eyes when I saw the minarets. I imagined them as five tall and beautiful goddesses all condemned to gradual death by an angry Zeus. Seeing them, one is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, this is the first time you have seen them, and you must take a picture with them while they are still there. On the other hand, damn you if you dare to take out your nifty digital camera and affix your ugly mug in the foreground of that azul sky and the beautiful goddesses.

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Third comes the wind. No, the famous story about the wind of a hundred and twenty days is not some fairy tale. The gales here are strong enough to push you off the rooftop of your hotel. This is why the moment you step out of your vehicle you see why it is that all the trees here appear like little green leaning towers of Pisa. Eating on a rooftop last night I could not help but laugh at the way the wind-inflated thighs of my Khareji colleague’s trousers appeared like those of a Sumo wrestler – he was wearing a ‘Peran Tambon’ (and yes that is the proper name for it; forget Shalwar Qameez.) The wind is enlivening here. It invigorates you. And unlike Kabul’s afternoon winds, the wind here does not bring along with it vast quantities of dust.

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After the streets and the history and the wind, it is the Heratis that make Herat great. Their endearingly idiosyncratic Farsi accents, their Persian features and polite manners, their relative cosmopolitanism, their industrious and entrepreneurial spirit, their love of and patronizing of arts and literature (evident in their frequent use of poetry in speech), and the fact that until things got really bad with security here, the city’s parks were filled with families out picnicing at night! I seriously like that.

I arrived here yesterday morning, and spent most of yesterday outside the city and in the countryside. Speaking with people. One old man had served in the Afghan national army with people from Jaghori, the district where I come from, back in the day – perhaps 1950s. He showed me an ancient “Hawz,” an ancient domed structure where water collected from streams was kept for drinking. The structure was falling apart. It had been around for 300 years, around the same length of time that 6 generations ago his great grandfathers had moved into Herat from one of the “Mashriqi” (eastern) provinces. He also showed me ancient houses bombed to rubble by the Soviets.

He walked around his village with me and talked at length about why it was so important for people of my generation to join hands together and to rebuild the country. And then he invited me to be his “Mehman” with such genuine sincerity that I felt bad for having to refuse.

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I will be in Herat until Thursday. From tomorrow on things are going to be rather busy. This is why I will go out and absorb more of Herat this very afternoon. Till another post.