Beyond the Wasteland

(This is the second part of an essay published in the columns of Counterpunch a year ago. In the first part I had related the story of an Afghan refugee, Jamal, who journeyed perilously from Afghanistan to Norway over a period of 6 years. You can read the first part at

“People everywhere, under very different conditions, are asking themselves–where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?”

John Berger, “Written in the Night” (2002, before the US invasion of Iraq)

If there are any heroes in our modern world, Jamal is surely one of them.

True heroes are usually unsung. Their daring deeds are hidden from the eyes of the world. Nor do they care much for appearances. It sometimes takes a Dostoevsky to make us notice and celebrate the pluck and courage of ordinary humanity. That too after the great writer has been canonized after his death and taught decades later by tweed-jacketed professors with long prefixes to their titles.

Most readers of this article would not have been able to negotiate the terrain that Jamal has. No one with a ‘law-abiding’ baggage of respectability would even consider making so many border crossings without the requisite papers. Nor would we have to.

Our privileges guard us from the need to put our courage to the test. So the huge cowardice of privileged classes ­ globally ­ goes undetected and we carry on living within the apparently secure cocoons of ‘civilization’, ‘freedom’ or some other laudable label, our rationalizations of the rotten world unchallenged.

People like Jamal are infinitely more imperiled. History has prepared them differently. Living deep under the boots of assorted rulers, they have always had to scrounge the stingy earth to survive. As children they had learnt to evade Russian bullets. Thereafter, the marauding mobs of the Taliban came after them. And they fell from that frying pan into an American fire. They were soon seeking shelter from surgically guided smart bombs. Finally, when they could not shoo themselves away from those either, and their homes had been reduced to rubble, their brothers and sisters killed or maimed, their livelihoods lost, they had to learn to bribe petty officials and agents, bow before jailers and police officers and endure their wanton violence, in order to earn their passage to safer lands. Where they are often met with indifference, discrimination, racism and an absence of empathetic understanding that only a certain degree of ‘civilization’ ­ and remoteness from life’s harsher realities ­ can confer on the human spirit. There are of course redeeming acts of kindness, like the one that saved Jamal in Italy. The question is whether they are enough to change the prospects of the hundreds of millions who live through predicaments similar to Jamal’s.

To constantly be able to evade the snare of the law and to not take the daily slurs, insults and humiliations dealt to them by authority to heart constitute the art of patience and restraint that people like Jamal have had to master ­ not for any goal more ethereal than the mere task of everyday survival for themselves. Their lives are obstacle courses from one end to the other, the hurdles they have to negotiate, having been put in their path by ‘civilization’.

Jamal dreams of working one day for the welfare of the children of Afghanistan. He longs to see them healthy and educated.
No “compassion fatigue” there. I realized as I heard Jamal that there was no divergence in his mind between his interests and those of his people.

Nowadays, in the age of false individualism, one hears more and more, from young and old alike, the tiring drumbeat of justifications for self-interest. The young celebrate their narcissism on TV screens, while many university professors and intellectuals are busy carving elegant theories drawn from specious science, holding up selfishness as one of the great virtues of humanity, a gift without which it could not have evolved ­ as poor students of Darwin would have it ­ to this stage of moral perfection.

So, to meet Jamal, of multiple bereavements, and kin to chronic conditions of pain, deprivation and insecurity, and to hear him speak from the depths of his abundant heart about his wishes for the children of Afghanistan, was a breath of fresh air in the stench that consumer civilization has become today. What is remarkable is that he, unlike so many immensely more privileged than him, has not forsaken his dreams in the face of the harsh realities that the world has rudely flung in his face. On the contrary, he is carried by a hearty spirit about realizing at least some of his hopes during the time allotted to him.

Is Jamal shooting darts in the dark at a board that does not exist? Or can his efforts in a world as hopeless as his bring a smile to his face some day? Whether this would happen depends crucially on how readily he will be able to make the return journey back to Afghanistan some day (should he wish to). It also assumes that the journey would be worth making. It also assumes that American bombs would stop raining on them in the future.

Conduct this thought experiment. Jamal traversed a dozen-odd countries “illegally” to make his solitary way to Norway. Do state boundaries mean anything to someone who finds himself hunted wherever he goes? What changes would the world have to go through before he can make the return journey legally, and, importantly, not against his will?

Dream for a second. A planet without national boundaries, a “borderless world” would surely make that possible. But such a utopia is all too simplistic for a civilization which is founded on bureaucracies that thrive on making human lives complicated. (The British government spends 2 billion pounds a year to control immigration.) It implies, after all, no less than the death of the world system of nation-states, if not that of the state itself as a human institution of long and hoary standing. Too much stands in the way of such a momentous change in human affairs.

But when, if not in the brave new world of globalization, rife with tall talk about the shrinking global village, are we entitled to express such a dream? Global environmental crises make such a vision imperative to embrace. The technology available today makes it possible to realize the dream. Even the impending fiscal crises in rich countries (on account of rising social security payments for ageing populations) in decades to come point towards the desirability of free movement of labor across the surface of the globe. If human hearts are willing.

However, short of this vision of planetary freedom there are others that one can contemplate.

Reduced to dimensions of worldly pragmatism, the issue boils down to the following priority: How soon will the world be ready to allow an Afghan passport-holder, with an obviously Muslim name, to travel freely and unhampered, to any country of his choice, much like a citizen from a rich Western country already does? How many Abu-Ghraibs and Guantanamos, not to speak of the secret torture chambers in countries as different and far-flung as Saudi Arabia and Colombia would have to be closed down before that can happen?

To solve Jamal’s problem is to solve the problem of the modern world. It is to recall the promises ­ of liberty, equality and, importantly, fraternity ­ made at the dawn of modernity. It means, among countless other things, to demand that the war on terror be called off, since it is an escape from the quest for a just, global peace.

Even today ­ especially today ­ one has to start with the humbling recognition that the ideals in the name of which every revolution of the modern world since the French has been fought, today lie all but buried under the caked capitalist earth. The perversion and final destruction of communism means that one has to resume our struggles with baby steps today. The self-appointed guardians of democracy have succeeded in making everyone forget that freedom was not handed out on a platter to commoners and working people by the kings and queens of feudal Europe. The evangelists of democracy today have perpetuated the amnesia that makes people think that democracy was not resisted tooth and nail before a semblance of it was finally granted, that in the US for instance, African-American people won their voting rights after prolonged struggle only 40 years ago.

A common predicament

Since meeting and listening to Jamal last year I got to know several other Afghan refugees living in Norway. We became friends. We cooked and ate together. We would often listen together to songs from Bombay films. They helped me pack my house when I had to move from Norway at the end of this summer. Their stories were all too similar to the one I had heard from Jamal. Lives lived in the shadows, dodging cops and guards both by night and by day wherever they have been–Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden. Each one had been cheated by agents and has had to bribe officials. The loss of loved ones haunts their hearts, even when they have been chased by thirst and hunger.

Norway is a relief, though they continue to be mistaken for Al-Qaeda as soon as their Afghan origins are disclosed. While they are not exactly asked to prove their bona fides, a certain distance quickly develops precisely with the people who get close to them in the first place. Yes, there is food and drink, and television. Even if you know it hides and lies, it is still good fortune to have a window into the world outside. They learn Norsk while they earn small wages as helpers at local establishments. There is the prospect of a job after these internships, hopefully in Oslo or Bergen. Only then might the thought of “starting a family” arise.

To dream is to live. What is remarkable about each one of them is that, like Jamal, they haven’t surrendered the courage that allows them to dream. There is going to be life in the future. The world is not ending. But it will endure not because today’s rulers will ensure that it does, but despite them. Four days before the first elections to the Afghan National Assembly and the Provincial Councils, I called and spoke to them. How was it going to be in Afghanistan now? One of them had just been watching BBC: “This is going to be a democracy only in name. The great powers will continue to run Afghanistan as they always have. They will each back their men in Parliament. Yesterday’s murderers and thieves will be tommorrow’s leaders. But at least people will be getting into the habit of voting.” And what then, I persisted. “America will have to leave one day, like the Russians had to. Katrinas will remind them of their priorities. For Afghanistan the story is far from over. You know, in Kabul musicians have resumed playing and singing.” Immediately after talking to him I happened to read two interviews that the BBC has recently done with musicians in Kabul. I also found out that a young film-maker, after getting trained in Bollywood has returned and made the first commercial film since the fall of the Taliban, “Spring of Hope”.

Elections and the future

I have also been reading reports from Afghanistan filed by observers at UNICEF and Human Rights Watch.

The country is recovering from a quarter-century of bloodletting. Tank shells, bomb craters and bullet holes mark the landscape. Red Stones warn against uncleared minefields. Of the estimated 100 million anti-personnel landmines that lie unexploded somewhere on and under the earth, 5-7 million are in Afghanistan. One for every four people living there. (Or shall we say one for every four personnel living there? The truth is that the bulk of deaths from landmines are precisely not personnel deaths.)

Thousands of child soldiers have been demobilized. 5.5 million students are back in school, playing volleyball, learning carpet-weaving or some other marketable skills. In one village, people with their bare hands have built a school for their children. Doctors, nurses and medical attendants all over the country continue to work with sacred dedication.

Human Rights Watch reports that the parliamentary elections were held in an atmosphere of great fear. 582 of the 5800 candidates are women. But images of their faces cannot be displayed for publicity and information on billboards. (In Kabul the most popular candidate appears to be a “woman in yellow”.) They are constantly being threatened, both by the Taliban, who have made a vigorous comeback in the southern and eastern parts of the country, and by the commanders and warlords, most of whom are themselves candidates in the election, having enriched themselves from the growth in the poppy economy during the past few years. The Taliban executed a woman last month because she was taken to be an American “spy”.

My mind returns to my Afghani friends in Norway.

Here are people who have continued to fight with their backs to the wall. When human brutalities have hurled them face down to the earth they have sneaked a view of the clear blue sky above and behind them, mustered the faith to slowly stand up, dust their clothes and walk fearlessly towards new unknown horizons. These are new horizons not just for them but for all humanity. With their very lives and attendant harsh choices they wordlessly challenge the reigning mythologies of modernity. How far do the promises of liberty and prosperity extend? Who is in and who is out of their range? What happens to those who are left outside? Does the West still remember the French revolution and the Enlightenment?

They have not had the opportunity to read history. Their learning is all unlettered, drawn from the pains that have left residues on their faces. But their innate vitality is fierce and unmistakeable. Life is never bleak to them. Having never suffered any loss of reality, they know nothing of anxiety and depression. They have no fear of suffering. They have never had time or opportunity to consider themselves desperate. The engines of necessity and its child, raw hope, have pulled them from one point in their journeys to the next.

The most remarkable quality that I recognized in them was a resilient dignity that makes them stubbornly unwilling to put the blame for their misfortunes on others. They know nothing of self-pity. When the case for it–given the gruesome barbarity inflicted on them in rapid succession by the Soviets, the Taliban and the Americans–is so easy and obvious, they refuse to pin the ultimate responsibility anywhere except at their own doorstep. “We have been divided too long among ourselves and have for decades betrayed our own people. Afghan people–whether they are Pashtoons, Hazaras, Uzbeks or Tajiks–have shared the same fate, even when we have imagined it to vary from one tribe to the next”, one of them said.

The elections may ultimately pave the way for the unity that has been missing from Afghan history.

There are many candles being lit in the emergence from decades of darkness. There is the courageous 21-year-old editor of one of the two dailies that are published from Mazhar-e-Sharif, who is writing columns asking for the government to ensure the security of candidates and the integrity of the electoral process. A Koochi nomad in Eastern Afghanistan is arguing for greater representation of the interests of the nomads in the National Assembly. Sabrina Sagheb is a member of the national basketball team. She has lived the first 23 years of her life in Iran. At the age of 24, she is the youngest candidate to stand for the national elections. She campaigns without the security of bodyguards. She is in fact the “woman in yellow” whose posters are all over Kabul.

UNICEF reports that an ex-military commander wishes to turn his soldiers into carpenters. There are Mullahs who are defending women’s right to health, Councils of Elders that have been encouraging women to register for voting. Despite open threats from the Taliban, plenty of women are standing for the elections. The fact that 25% of the seats are reserved for women means that after the elections there will be a higher fraction of women legislators in Afghanistan compared to the proportion in the US (15%) and the UK (17%), the presumptuous guardians and prosyletizers of democratic faith.

There is more than just irony in that statistical comparison. It underlines the remarkable courage that Afghani people, especially women–supposedly paralyzed by the customary burkhah–have shown in their struggles against multiple oppressions. There is in the making here a possibly different trajectory of modernity from the tyranny of corporate consumer society that hides behind lofty, age-worn slogans, hegemonizing every society that it can and brutally desecrating and pulverizing those it cannot. Some time will need to pass before it starts becoming clearer that the American dream will have to contend with more sustainable, egalitarian and universal visions for the future of our beleaguered species.

ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA is a free-lance writer. He can be reached at











We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005