Afghanistan: Independence Day & Elections Eve

August 22, 2009

[cross-posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]

Today Afghanistan marks the occasion of its 90th independence anniversary from Great Britain after the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war.
We are nearing the centennial celebrations -now a mere decade away. One hopes that everyone will take this as a challenge, a deadline. That Afghanistan’s 100th independence anniversary will be meaningful, and befitting of a centennial celebration. So that when we do celebrate, there won’t be that nagging hollow feeling in our collective hearts that is there now.

Today streets of Kabul are relatively calm on account of elections tomorrow. Like the proverbial calm before the storm. One senses anticipation in the air all over the place; both of elections -what it really means for all of us, what will it bring about- and of some looming prospect of possible insecurity. Nobody believes it will all be safe and eventless, at the same time as everyone hopes it will be. Security, however, is not the biggest variable in the average voter’s calculus of whether he or she will go to vote. Apathy will be the undoing of voter turnout, me says.

The road to Kandahar and onwards to Quetta in Pakistan is arguably one of the most unsafe, going through Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar and beyond -a kind of highway to certain death by the Taliban if you may. And yet i know people who travel the road regularly to go to Ghazni, Kandahar, Pakistan, and even Herat -the latter requiring them to cross Helmand and Nimroz too. The average person has a mental index of insecurity and a sharp sense of what the tolerable quotient of insecurity is, and within that tolerable quotient, life goes on for most of the people.

The odds, and hence the quotient of insecurity and violent disruption of voting in the 6,000 plus voting stations is pretty low for a lot of people. That’s why security won’t have a major impact on whether most people vote or not. The key variables are whether they care, and whether they think that their act of voting -which as any self-respecting economist of rational self interest school of thought would tell you, is one of the most senseless things to do- will make a real difference. Another key consideration might be how many other people vote so that the average voter in question will be pressured to go along -the herd mentality often is the key driver of a lot of decisions. And of course whether the person is paid enough, or is made to swear on the holy book, etc. Not security though.

Another thing that is made quite a meal out of in the international media over the last week or so and which does not figure as prominently in the average person’s list of worries here is vote rigging and electoral fraud. The BBC, which particularly after its sensationalist coverage of Iranian election’s fallout seems to specialize in blowing these things out of proportion, is already reporting on how many voter’s registration cards its local fixers have been able to buy. This is all a bit nonsensical for the average person here. Draw, if you will, a kind of a mental Maslow’s pyramid of “political” concerns in you mind. For the Iranian electorate, election rigging was a major concern because they are in an altogether different stage of political maturity and the prime concerns, the fundamental political debate fell right on the conservative-liberal fault line in the Iranian polity. Here in Afghanistan, as evidenced by one presidential debate after another, that level of discord and disagreement is nonexistent. Everybody is agreed on the fundamentals -security, economic development, and what will be done with the Taliban. Understandably the question of election fraud is a major thing for the political elite and certain of the contenders who have a lot at stake, which is why certain presidential contenders have gone to the brink of losing their bearings trying to warn against rigging of votes and even threatening riots. The average person, however, could care less as long as it all does not go horribly wrong. This is why a lot of people need to just chill out on this matter. We know we cannot make this one hundred percent clean. That sort of thing still proves elusive even in the us especially with the mechanical fiascos and debold machines that seem to crop up at every election season. Why, then, subject this country to the most zealot standards? Especially when such zealotry can cost the rest of us so much? Chill people, chill. Bigger things are at stake than to be jeopardized by such trifles.

And finally, voter 003907269 -yours truly, that is- is fully intending to exercise his right to vote tomorrow. I can’t quite say why except that i really, deeply want to do this; that i have felt a pang of envy every time i have seen others do it in their countries, and perhaps, because, we need to move on and become a normal country for lack of a better word, even if at the beginning it requires us going through the forms for the heck of it.

voter card and election posters

[cross-posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]


Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud – UPDATES

July 23, 2008

Some updates about yesterday’s demonstrations here against government’s inaction on the Behsud conflict -now that the dust (of the demonstrations, not yet of the conflict itself) has somewhat settled:

Pictures of demonstration via BBC

Kot-i Sangi to Deh-Mazang

According to reports and eyewitness accounts, the demonstrations started in Dasht-e-Barchi area but it was only in Kot-i Sangi that the numbers really began to swell. People in a giant human wave in thousands joined the rally that stretched unbroken between Kot-i Sangi and Deh-Mazang, with the entire avenue clogged (one source put it at 300,000 strong.) In what is surely an unprecedented practice in Afghan public and political culture, the thousands-strong rally proceeded and concluded without incidents. One of the organizers told me that there were around 5,000 women in attendance in yesterday’s rally. An eyewitness recounted that women were leading the demonstrations. Besides the IDPs and former residents of Behsud/Behsood -who were present in the largest numbers- people originating from several other provinces also joined the rally. The constituency, however, is reported to have been primarily Hazara.

Halt at Deh-Mazang

By mid-morning the rally had arrived in Deh-Mazang on its way towards the center of the city and offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. And then it stopped.
There are varying and conflict accounts of why the rally stopped. I will list all of the accounts that I have heard- many of which cannot be substantiated:

1. The president personally ordered the rally to be stopped, calling on all of the government’s security forces (including the ANA) to halt the progress of the march in Deh-Mazang. Based on yesterday’s presidential order calling on the Kochis to temporarily evacuate Behsud, and indications of compliance from the Kochis, the government had earlier asked for the rally to be cancelled, and when this was not done, it took measures to stop it before it reached the city center. Security and peace in the city was cited as one of the reasons for the rally to stop.

2. The leaders of the demonstrated struck a deal with the government and called off the demonstrations. Again unconfirmed, this is a variant on version # 1 above, albeit this one implies that the government offered some sort of deal or was able to persuasively sell its solution of temporary evacuation of Kuchis out of Behsud to the leaders of the rally. Other variations of this account go further and blame the demonstrations organizers and leaders as having been “bought off” and co-opted and thereafter calling upon the people to go home. The leaders spoke to the rally and invited them to stop the march, stating that should the government not keep its promises or continue its policy of inaction in Behsud, a bigger rally will be organized in the future and that will go onwards towards the city center to make its demands heard.

3. According to an unconfirmed report by ANSO (Afghan NGOs Security Office), when the demonstrators arrived at Deh-Mazang area and close to the Kabul Zoo, ‘violence’ and ‘armed demonstrators’ were reported. ANSO: “There are various unconfirmed incidents of violence being reported, including a report of armed demonstrators in the area of the Kabul Zoo. NGO should suspend all movement in the city.” I have not been able to corroborate reports of violence or armed demonstrators through any other sources and all of the media (TV, radio, print -including even the BBC Persian Webpage which has finally decided to break its implicit gag-rule over the matter) are unanimous on the non-occurence of any incidents in yesterday’s rally.

Besides the 3rd account which is unlikely in view of the media reporting of the event, it is likely that a combination of 1 and 2 was at play in halting the rally at Deh-Mazang -a carrot and stick approach, if you may.

(More to come on yesterday’s demonstrations.)

For now, here are links to pictures of the event and some reporting:

1. Exclusive pictures from the demonstrations

2. After Progress in Talks, Mohaqiq Ends Hunger Strike, Calls Protesters Back Amid Emotional Scenes


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.


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.


Last day in Herat

September 5, 2007

Last day in Herat. After a long day’s work, went to the shrine of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Was taken by the meditative peace of the place and the confluence of giant white turbans. Remembered verses from Khwaja’s “Munajat Naama.” Held up my hands, touched the discolored marbles, then put both my hands to my face.
In and out. It was getting dark.
Entered the Friday mosque and saw the rows already formed. Shoes in hand, ran across the tiles and took my place in the last row. Prayed in my own heretical and syncretic way – with hands now open on my sides, now over-lapped.
In and out. Late for a dinner.
Have an ealy flight tomorrow. But have not yet examined the citadel up close. Having read Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game,” cannot leave Herat without visiting the citadel. So got to get up very early. Hence the shorthands.


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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.


Earliest Islamic Building in Afghanistan

April 20, 2007

Haji Payindi / No Gunbad Mosque
Haji Payinda Mosque (also known as Masjid-i Nou Gunbad), Balkh, Afghanistan.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Volker Thewalt. For more of Dr. Thewalt’s photos of Afghanistan’s historic monuments -taken during the years 1969 thru 1974- visit http://www.bamiyan.de)

The World Monuments Watch recently added Haji Payinda mosque to its list of 100 most endangered sites around the world. Following is a brief description given on WMW’s website about the historic and architectural significance the site, and what is being done to preserve it:

Thought to be the earliest Islamic building in Afghanistan—and one of the earliest structures in the eastern Islamic world—the Mosque of Haji Piyada at Balkh was built in the ninth century, only 200 years after the birth of Islam and shortly after its introduction into Central Asia.

A square mosque measuring 20 by 20 meters, Haji Piyada is also known as the Mosque of Noh Gumbad, for the nine cupolas that once covered its sanctuary. Although the cupolas have long since collapsed, the arches that once supported them still stand, albeit precariously. The arches, like much of the remaining interior surfaces if the mosque, are covered with exquisite, deeply carved stucco designs that exhibit a unique blend of imported Abbasid artistic elements and local traditional styles.

Of unmatched art historical value, the Mosque of Haji Piyada is threatened by looting, high humidity, and erosion, which are taking their toll what has survived. Urgently needed measures to safeguard the site against further damage include the construction of a fence around its perimeter to prevent illicit excavations and the consolidation of surrounding walls to protect against harsh weather conditions.

Decades of war and civil unrest in Afghanistan have made maintenance of the site all but impossible and have stripped the country of the capacity to carry out even basic conservation projects. It is hoped that Watch listing will not only highlight the need to preserve this extraordinary building, but also provide a laboratory for training a new generation of Afghan conservators.