Saturday, August 6, 2011

Kabul, Napoleon, Chicken Skin

I first heard of Napoleon from War and Peace, the novel by the great Russian author Tolstoy. War and Peace deals with the events of the years 1805 to 1812, the period when the name of Napoleon made its mark on the lives of the people of Europe, and in many other parts of the world. At the beginning of the novel we hear that the Russians are worried about the news of the Napoleonic conquests in Europe, and fear that the French army will invade their country as well. This finally happens in the latter part of the novel. Napoleon and his army penetrate as far as Moscow. War and Peace is the story of the consequences of war after the French Revolution, seen from the Russian point of view.
In this sense, one could see The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, who is originally from Afghanistan but lives in America, as a smaller version of War and Peace. The Kite Runner also attempts to increase our awareness of the hardships of war, and to record historical events for future generations. It is only ten years since the end of the Taliban rule. We are still in a state of war, and the memories of the war are still fresh. But this book records many valuable insights and facts for future generations. War and Peace reminds us of the value and significance of peace.

Knowing the value of peace

In our country we have experienced many years of unrest and ongoing bloodshed, and the value of peace is something we appreciate more than ever. For more than three centuries Afghans have lived with political instability, coups d’état, dictatorships, occupation and terror. Our recent history is full of bloody events, few of which have found their way into the history books. What young people like me know about this past is general information that has been passed on under censorship; it is for the most part biased, inaccurate, and does not go into detail. We still don’t know exactly what went on in our country in recent decades, or why we are in the state we are in today. We and our fathers fought for our country for years, yet strangely this is something we cannot be especially proud of today. After nine years of bloody fighting we chased the Soviet troops out of the country, but nowadays many Afghans, especially the young ones, regret the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and criticise the mujaheddin for their jihad, because they believe that the retreat of the Red Army and the collapse of Dr Najib’s regime left the country worse off than ever.
We have a great number of dead and war wounded to lament, and we ask, ‘What was it all for?’ It’s a question asked by all disappointed people who hate war.
Of course, there is a small minority of warlords and traitors to their fatherland who play an important role in these crises, who still actively interfere with political business today, and see a benefit for themselves in continuing the violence. After years of playing all sides off against one another they know how to maintain their role in Afghan politics and continue to manage affairs in their own interest. They are the power mafia, and eradicating them is the key to Afghanistan’s security – a key that we are not going to lay our hands on all that easily.
Our generation, which doesn’t really remember the civil wars and the Taliban and more or less knows only Karzai on television, longs for a better future in order to get on in life. But there is no basis from which they can make this progress. The international community has still not found time to devote to young people and nurturing their talents. Its priority is the fight against the Taliban, reducing the production and smuggling of drugs, and the restoration of security. While in the realms of science, literature and the arts young Afghan talent is simply fading away, the Afghan government and the international community are caught up in the contradictions of day-to-day affairs and present no long-term perspectives.

Afghans for democracy or for the Taliban?

It is fascinating to see how Napoleon managed to scale the heights of power, to ride the waves of the Revolution and become Emperor of France. He invaded other countries under the banner of freedom, and in many countries he was welcomed by the people. Just as the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan was welcomed by the people. We welcomed the American attack because it freed us from the Taliban. Several years on, Napoleon was confronted with the negative feelings of people who believed that the slogan of freedom was just a pretext to occupy their country. The same people who welcomed his invasion took up arms to drive him out. I believe that the Afghans have still not reached this point and for the most part still support the presence of international troops in their country, because their presence means the retreat of the Taliban after a series of bloody wars. The simple fact is that we are tired of war and hate the Taliban.
Throughout their history Afghans have always been sensitive about their independence and their dignity, and still are so today. But why are they not now rising up in jihad, despite numerous air strikes by coalition forces and major losses of civilian life? Why, after the presence of 150,000 foreign soldiers in their country for the past ten years, do they not feel as if their country has been occupied? What is the difference? Although from the point of view of the traditionally Muslim population there is no difference between Americans and Russians because both are non-Muslims.
The difference is to be found among Afghans themselves. The Afghans, who have put behind them a bitter period of war and bloodshed accompanied by slogans of jihad, are waiting, weak, exhausted, and burdened with a huge weight of historical experience, for peace; they want finally to come to rest. People mostly regret that they allowed themselves to be drawn into war and have understood that, even in the worst cases, peace is better than war. The warlike people of my country have become extremely peace-loving. In some provinces the populace is being urged on day and night by foreign agents to wage ‘jihad against the infidel’, yet the number of my countrymen who are influenced by propaganda and pressure into joining these warmongers is astonishingly small. And these are mostly people who will take up arms and join the Taliban for a monthly salary of $300, because the majority of Afghans are unemployed and cannot bear to see their children go hungry.
It appears that the government and coalition forces have also understood this, and are keen to make it advantageous for lower-ranking Taliban to lay down their weapons. The behaviour of the current, weak government as well as rampant corruption play a major role in strengthening the Taliban, who receive support from neighbouring countries and should on no account be regarded as the protagonists of a national movement. The central government has been spectacularly unsuccessful in establishing justice, securing the most basic needs of the people and creating jobs for them, and as a result it does not enjoy their support. The government thinks that supporting the warlords and the ethnic leaders would be sufficient to gain the loyalty of the people, and that it does not need to exert itself any further to alleviate their hardship and meet their needs. Furthermore, we live in a sensitive region here, and we do not have good neighbours. Our neighbours like to see Afghanistan in a constant state of war and insecurity. In the past, too, they have supported the warmongers in our country.
All that Afghans have experienced of democracy to date are fraudulent elections and a threatening attitude whenever they exert their freedom of expression; nothing more. Yet they still support this imperfect democracy and prefer it to the Taliban regime. The simple fact is that we are tired of war and hate the Taliban. But we are in urgent need of help if we are to continue along this road.

What progress has been made?

In 2003 I met an itinerant fortune-teller. From time to time he appeared at the doors of our houses with his paraphernalia to tell our fortunes. He was a middle-aged man, a strange and impressive figure. For fifty afghanis he would read your hand and give you general information about your future. One day he knocked on our door. When I opened it, I was surprised to see him standing before me. In a imperious tone he said, ‘Give fifty afghanis and hear your future.’ I offered no resistance, complied, giving him fifty afghanis, and he examined my left palm. Then he said, ‘You will get a good wife, you have much travel ahead of you, and will be rich.’ I liked the sound of that, and asked him for more details. He replied that I would soon find and marry my future partner. The travel and the large amount of money, however, were still a long way off. Perhaps in ten years’ time, or much longer. I asked, ‘What will be the greatest difficulty in my life?’ He considered, and replied, ‘You will not have any very great difficulties in your life. But take care that you do not lie. Lying will create great difficulties for you.’
With these general phrases he made an impression on me. He even claimed to be able to tell me the name of my future wife, if I gave him more money. But this I did not do. Perhaps simply because I lacked the courage. He said that in addition to telling fortunes he was also able to resolve certain problems. He even claimed to be able to conjure up spirits. Later I heard that a girl in our neighbourhood had bought an amulet from him to help her get the man she loved. Six months later the two really did marry. The soothsayer was even supposed to have helped a woman find a lost necklace, and to have softened the heart of a man who did not love his wife.
After this visit the soothsayer came to our door once more, on a hot summer’s day, and then disappeared for a while. On my wedding day I thought of this man and of his words: that I would soon find my future wife. I did indeed find my wife sooner than I had thought I would. That day the soothsayer reminded me very much of the wise Melchiades in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquéz. There was a magic in the fortune-teller’s demeanour that had the ring of truth.
I did not see the fortune-teller again until, one pleasant spring evening in 2009, my wife showed me a visiting card. It belonged to a man called Amir Asad. He claimed to be able to solve all problems. So the card belonged to the same soothsayer. He no longer went from door to door; he had his own practice, he had had visiting cards printed, and he employed a secretary, a maid, a bodyguard and a driver. Clients had to make appointments a week in advance, and a visit now cost five hundred afghani. The changes in his life and in his work were quite astonishing.
A fortune-teller who went from door to door touting his wares for fifty afghani had now attained this standard of living. He occupied my thoughts for several days, and I tried to write a story about him. About the changes in his life; about his magical personality, which he had adapted to the modern world. In so doing I realised that the story of the astonishing changes in his life reflected the changes that had also taken place in my life, and in the lives of many Afghans. All of us have changed. Here in Kabul we all have televisions and mobile phones in our homes. The economy has improved. We have become acquainted with Facebook, Twitter, Thomas Anders and Taylor Swift; we have greater respect for women, and we acknowledge their rights as autonomous people more than we used to do. Yet catching up with the modern world and making far-reaching changes takes a long time. The changes in the lives of Afghan people have mostly taken place in the big towns and not in the countryside. In Kabul we are changing our way of life with tremendous speed, leaving behind us traditions and customs that are tainted with superstition, whereas the people in the countryside still feel bound to the old traditions and reject change.
Ten years on, more children and young people go to school; every year many more students apply for a place at university; in other words, Afghans are becoming better educated and more self-confident. But they need continued support if they are to be able to rebuild their country. Initial changes have been made, but they must endure. After ten years of presence in and support for Afghanistan, those helping us must not get impatient and believe that they have achieved little. They must not forget that this progress has been made at tremendous cost, both in terms of people’s lives and in material help.
Wherever you look you will see improvements. The fortune-teller is expanding his activities; he has decided to open more offices in Kabul, and says he has decided to set up a website in both languages (Dari and Pashtu). I am sure that when there is peace throughout the country he will extend his activities to other provinces.

Women and the oppressed

‘Around midday I go to the house of a widow. It smells of food. I ask her: “What have you cooked?” She says: “Our neighbour is sick. He can only eat chicken. I can’t afford to cook proper food for my children. I let the neighbour give me the chicken skin; I cook it, and we eat it.”’
This was written last year by an independent Afghan human rights commission in a shocking report about the situation of Afghan widows. The report states that the majority of Afghan widows, of whom there are many in this society, sell their bodies, do hard labour for little money, and still are on the point of starvation, their children forced to go without even basic necessities.
Afghan women are, generally speaking, still subject to deprivation and oppression. In rural areas there are no health services available to them. They bear a child every year, have no right to education or work, suffer constantly from hunger and do not know how they will be able to feed their children. The traditions and customs that have held sway for centuries still endure, and these deny women any rights whatsoever. However, at the same time the situation is improving in the cities. More and more girls and women are going to school, finding work, and are increasingly courageous in defending their rights. But one cannot generalise about these improvements, either; rather, they are sporadic and slow.
In the past forty years many Afghan women have lost their husbands in the uprisings and wars. For women in Afghanistan, life without men is unimaginably difficult. How can an uneducated woman with six children earn enough to live on when she has rent to pay and is not allowed to seek work freely?
Many Afghan women, especially widows, who have suffered for years from hunger, undernourishment, anaemia and lack of vitamins, tend to die of simple, curable diseases, or in childbirth. Many men regard their wives and daughters as inferior people. In rural areas it is customary for the men to eat first and the women afterwards. Girls who grow up in this kind of atmosphere have a degraded sense of self. They genuinely believe that they are worth less than men and cannot muster the courage to stand up for their rights.
The international community and the so-called Ministry of Women’s Affairs have not succeeded in improving the situation and lives of Afghan women. Their sole achievement is that more and more women in the large towns have access to public health services and fewer die during childbirth. Afghan women make tremendous sacrifices in the raising of their children, and all their hopes rest on their children’s future. They want happiness for their children to help them forget the bitterness of the past. Will their children have a better future than they will?

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
June 2011

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