An Afghan Travelogue

Some excerpts from a recent account of Afghanistan by a visiting American (headings by me).

Women in Kabul

“Of course it isn’t accurate to say that I saw no women. Frequently…I saw emerging from towering walls, whose gates were always guarded, vague moving shapes enshrouded in cloth from head to toe. They were women, obliged by Afghan custom never to appear in public without a chaderi, the Muslim covering that provides only a tiny rectangle of embroidered lace through which the wearer can see but cannot be seen. We were told by educated Afghan men, most of whom despised the chaderi, that the imposition damaged the health and the eyesight of the women, but it persisted. At the age of thirteen all females were driven into this seclusion, from which they never escaped.”

Women and Veil in Kabul

The country mullah had spotted her, a woman without a chaderi, and felt obliged to assault her for this violation of a faith. He and his companions… bore down upon her screaming and cursing. Before I could protect her the three mullahs, their beards and hooked noses making them caricatures of religious frenzy, had swarmed upon her and were beating her with their fists. What was worse — then and in retrospect — they began spitting at her, and rheum from their lips trickled across her terrified face.

An Execution in Ghazni

When the soldiers reached the stake, they inexpertly drove several nails into it — and lashed the prisoner’s hands to these nails, at the same time securing her ankles to the bottom of the stake. When they stepped back, the dirty white chaderi fell completely over the bare feet and the prisoner was wholly masked. She was still free, however, to look out upon the world of hate-filled faces. I turned to watch the mullahs and did not see what happened next, but I heard a thudding sound and a gasp. I looked around quickly…to see that a rather large stone had struck the woman and fallen at her feet. The gasp must have come from her. Now the men at my right, the ones who had eaten with me and brought me to the scene, knelt to find stones…they began throwing at the shrouded figure. From all sides stones whizzed toward the stake, and most struck, and it was obvious that punishment for adultery in Afghanistan was severe…

An Execution in Ghazni (contd.)

Later that day the traveler recounts the stoning to his Afghan companion and guide (who was not with him at the stoning). His companion buries his face in his hands and, cries, “What a terrible disgrace! My poor country!” When the American asks why they didn’t stop it, his companion replies with reality, “If they tried to stop it, …Sahib, the men you watched today and their brothers in the hills will kill you and me [and the rulers]. They’ve done so in the past. In Kabul we have perhaps two thousand educated Afghans who know that things like this must end. In Kandahar maybe five hundred. But in Ghazni none. We’re outnumbered 12 million madmen to three thousand…”

A Beheading in Kandahar

A couple of days later the duo travel to Kandahar, where the American sees another public execution, this time of a murderer, who by Afghan tradition is handed over to the murder victim’s family to do as they please. In this case the victim’s father severs his captive’s head with a scimitar in a public square.

Grim business, Taliban rule, you say to yourself shuddering.

Now a confession. I did say a ‘recent’ account but didn’t say how recent. Sorry for the let-down, but this was nothing to do with the Taliban. This is set in 1946, when the Taliban were not even a glint in the ISI’s eyes (The ISI itself was still a few years from being a glint in anyone’s eyes. And Pakistan was yet in the future!).

I just finished James Michener’s “Caravans”, a novel on Afghanistan. A few months ago I happened to come across a dog-eared copy of this paperback, for sale at our local library. It lay disregarded all this while until I finally got to it a couple of days ago. The story line is not particularly notable, but the factual observations by Michener are worth their weight in gold. He writes that he personally witnessed the stoning death described above,and the mullah-sanctioned revenge killing was witnessed by a friend who took photographs he shared with Michener. The other stuff is pretty accurate as Afghanistan was in 1946 (says Michener). Michener lived in the Khyber Pass in 1952, and toured Afghanistan extensively in 1955. Caravans was published 1963.

Of some poignant significance is the exchange between the hero, Miller, and his companion, Nur, shortly after the Ghazni incident. After Nur says, “we’re ountumbered 12 million madmen to three thousand…”, Miller persists, “Will things go on like this indefinitely?”

“No”, Nur said firmly. “Across the Oxus people just like us used to behave the way you saw today. Public executions supervised by mullahs were common in places like Samarkand. But the communists from Moscow and Kiev said they had to stop. The chaderi was outlawed. Women were freed. Miller, we have ten years to halt these terrible things. If we don’t Russia is going to come down and stop them for us.”

In his elegant letter of resignation in protest of continued American military engagement in Afghanistan, State Department official Matthew Hoh characterized the American fate in Afghanistan as a “Sysiphean mission”. His beautiful piece of imagery which inspires me to wonder if another Labor of Hercules, the “Apples of Hersperides”, might be equally apposite in a different sense — Atlas joyously throwing his burden on Hercules and scooting off (while our Hercules is exploring ways of adding more burdens on his own shoulders!). If the aim was to “bring Afghanistan into the 20th century” (assuming it was ever anyone else’s business), the Russians in the 70’s and 80’s seemed to be attempting exactly that — universal education, lady doctors, muting mullah-power, etc. The US could have stood and watched as the hard work and heavy lifting was being done — at an adversary’s expense! Instead, the United States stood shoulder to shoulder with the mullahs, bringing Stingers to the stoners, as it were, and bringing the Russians to a standstill.

Michener could not have conceived then, nor does he indicate, that the US would ever get tangled up militarily in Afghanistan. In the “Note to the Reader” at the end of the book he writes, “the vigorous struggle between America and Russia for Afghanistan’s affection…goes on unceasing with ultimate victory uncertain. An overriding fact is this: Russia abuts on the northern border with seven hundred unguarded miles, while the United State is nearly eight thousand miles away.”

Geography is rather stubborn that way. Culture and anthropology are too.

Time for President Obama to take an afternoon off to read Caravans, declare, “Michener Accomplished”, and bring the troops home.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com

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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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