Friday, December 19, 2008

The Friday after Eid

The Friday after Eid


Every week has one Friday;

There are 51 Fridays in a year;

Friday is the day before the weekend; Friday is the weekend; Friday is the day after the weekend;

Money can’t buy you any Friday;

There are plenty of Fridays in the war;


Unlike Friday money is not a day of the week;

Money is cash;

Friend of man;

Foe of man; rather man foe of man over money;


Last Friday

Irshad asked his mother if she had received a call from Kabul bank where he has deposited 5000 Afgs to participate in Bakhat, meaning Luck, account. ‘no darling’ said his mother. ‘I am not lucky.’ He told me with confidence in his eyes ‘if I were I would have had 10000 Afg’. Irshad collects money  during a year for Eid times so he can buy presents and have good time. 5000 was all he colleted but he needed 10000 so he deposited the money in the bank to participate in a draw of multiple 5000s. in a desperate attempt to make 10000 Irshad left a note outside the window of his bedroom for Santa Claus. ‘My dear generous Santa Claus, I only managed to deposit 5000 this year but I need 10000 for my Eid expenses. Please be kind enough and bring 5000 for me. I have been real good this year.’ Read the letter.  in the morning he found the same letter frozen in dew.’Baba Nohil doesn’t exist, does it?’ he asked sanjar. ‘you have to leave a note on your door … Santa only read doors … he can’t know otherwise’ said sanjar in an attempt to revive his believe in edgeless frontiers of childhood optimism and probabilities. ‘When can we go to withdraw my money, eid is soon upon us.’ asked Irshad. it was in the afternoon of last Friday that Masseh, Irshad and mother went to the Branch in the commercial area of town so the children could go on a shopping spree after the withdrawal. Both Masseh and Irshad knew what was new for this year’s Eid; they had seen it owned by impatient neighbourhood mates who have already made purchases. Masseh went to Roshan Tower to buy a Spiderman suit. he was feeling rather sticky; he had seen the film the Friday before. Masseh also wanted ‘The Big Book of Action Stickers’; it is stuffed with photos and stickers of planes, cars, pirates and all the good stuff Masseh loves. 


Last Friday

‘Poverty has one cause; the same fourteen hundred years ago and today. God has warned us of it and in his mercifulness instructed us on ways to eradicate it. it is the fourth pillar of our religion. It is Zakat - alms.’  Said the Mullah in Rahmatabad mosque while along the same words were mimic isomorphised in all Kabul mosques. ‘Why didn’t he make money grow on the trees’ whispered the parsimonious. ‘Why did he create poverty?’ whispered in confusion the cynic and ask the negative question ‘Why didn’t he give it a Farsi or Pashto name instead of Zakat so I understand the concept’.  ‘Eid is time of happiness and celebration and the rich must help the poor. The rich must make an animal sacrifice and distribute it among the poor. The rich must give poor wheat as their Eid Wattir. The rich must give poor money so they can join this holy occasion.’ added the mullah.


Last Friday, this Friday, the Fridays before and one Friday

The mullah at Rahmatabad mosque is spending all the afternoon and evening in the mosque nibbling on Hallwa’s and the food provided by the locality. Every Friday a family is offering a feast to smear his belly and keep his mind sound in order to receive the critical piece of mind. Last Friday he was joined by his son in the mosque; someone has got to buy the kid an Eid present.


Last Friday

Abraham started a new career. He sells phone top up cards on the junction. It doesn’t pay off well but it is better than his old job in Iran which had no pay. Abraham is back in the neighbourhood where is known as Powderi. Don’t get it wrong; he is not an addict contrary to the impression one would get from his nickname. Nevertheless powder is used around the junction to refer to Heroin, something sold next to him. Abraham is a fostered child; he was brought up on formula which is a form of powder.  Abraham has six or seven of each Roshan, Itesalat, NTM and AWCC top up cards at various denominations waving it about faces. ‘200 units of Roshan’ said a man as he rolled down his car window.  Abraham took 200Afgs and started to fumble through the collection to find the 200. ‘what are you doing? You have Roshan in your right hand’ said the man in the car. ‘which one?’ asked Abraham. The man chose one and took it. ‘hang on! It is not 200 units. Are you sure it is 200?’. Abraham can’t read, he relies on customer to choose one but also makes a quarrel to ensure the customer is not taking more. 


This Friday

Abraham lost 400 Afgs. He will no longer be able to sell top up cards as the store owner won’t lend him. A customer got a 500 worth credit for 100Afgs. Abraham was not sure; he had got to know the colours and design; ‘the pink one is 500 units, you need a green’.  But there was no way he could be certain.


A couple of days before this Friday

Irshad presented his nephew Zaid with a Baby Baggie and a teddy bear.  He spent his saving for Eid to buy presents for his 8 months old nephew. ‘I wanted to make him happy. I can save more money. I’ll buy what I want next year’ told Irshad to Zaid’s mother. Presents make eid a happy time; some like to have them, another wants to give them, another wants the-others to give them to ‘others’.   

Friday, December 12, 2008

it feels like kabul

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Kabul. Please remain seated with your seatbelts on until the airplane comes to a complete stop and the pilot switches off the light. On behalf of Safi Airways I thank you for flying with us’ was a female voice only in English with an Eastern European accent. This was the first time I flew to Kabul at night, the airport used to lack the proper lighting and navigation systems to land aircrafts. The landing was certainly a positive change. The flight was relatively smooth and nice; I didn’t even realise we are about to land. I usually get blocked ears and headache as the aircraft loses attitude but with a couple of tips from Dubai airport medics, whom I befriended, I didn’t feel the attitude. My condition of nasal congestion disrupts blood and oxygen circulation under rapidly changing air pressure. The remedy for which is chewing gum and blowing the nose while it is held tight by two fingers. That is not it; I didn’t realise landing until the final jolt and the deployment of ground breaks. It was pitch dark from the window, even after landing I could not see the airport terminals, while the plane was circling above Kabul mountain peaks I saw nothing. A sleeping giant consisting of four million human microcosms, Asmayee, Zanburak Shah, BalaiSar and other mountain peaks stretches high –just beneath the plane- as though even strangers from the sky are not welcomed. The blanket of dust is suffocating the city like a thick piece of blanket on a child bounded by the nail like mountains, to prevent it to sneak out from under it. I occasionally saw some light. As the plane approaches the runway it comes out from the east. I saw the hydroelectric damn, very illuminated while surrounded by darkness. On Kabul – jalalabad road, there are NATO, UN and other foreign offices. Even for a new comer this is clear, the compounds are as light as the power damn. They are well generator-ed. It scared me a bit, for a moment I realised what it felt like to be taken to a concentration camp. The compounds have big searchlights and high watchtowers, so light and so high that you can tell from the plane. I don’t know why the realisation was connected with concentration camps, as an Afghan I have a rich repertoire of camps; it is not a strange idea to Afghanistan. Perhaps because in my head I associate concentration camps with the west and the compounds on the ground are owned by the westerners too. it feels like a cramp on the leg, except it is on both. I didn’t feel it but I realised what it feels for those who went to concentration camps. It feels hopeless, it is more like a leg cramp but there is no recovery. Hope materialised to me, it is not object like but it certainly is portable. Certainly, it can’t be taken to a concentration camp. Every human has a compact portable hope which is attached to our souls and even if we abandon it; it comes back to us, it is a bit like a boomerang. Hope came to visit those in the concentration camps but it couldn’t get in whenever it touch the barbwires or stepped on a boobytrapped hope turns grey, it hates grey.
The airplane door reclined open. A couple of airport crew brought a few projectors on wheels so the passengers see their steps and the luggage could be unloaded. In the light I saw a few buses and a dozen jeeps. A few heavily armed foreigners were holding a name and the person next to him was holding an American flag. I wandered why the flag was needed, I guess to show passengers they arrived to an American administered territory or perhaps a bit of their taste for patriotism. Some westerners were snatched by the bodyguards and loaded into the jeeps without processing their passports; the rest proceeded to buses for the terminal. As we are to leave a body guard jumped into the bus obstructing the closing door and shouting ‘Mike, Mike, whchya doin’ hir? Come with me’. A bald lad pushed his way out of the crowd and left the bus. At the terminal we all queued up, some western travellers were escorted out by their colleague. Occasionally some people were leaving the queue as their mates found them; they were stamped entrance at the stall in front of the queue. It usually takes around half an hour to be processed but it is too long for Afghanistan to wait. The bald guy, mike, arrived with his friends and walked straight to the head of the queue. ‘hey Mr. Copernicus, why don’t you navigate your way back to the end of the line where you belong.’ I shouted. He didn’t move, I thought he didn’t hear me. ‘excuse me, excuse me’ he didn’t look back, the guy standing next to him in the front of the queue looked back and I asked him to tap on his shoulder. ‘don’t touch me’ he yelled. he pointed Mike to look at me. ‘we are queuing here’ I said. He didn’t respond and turned back his face. ‘You wouldn’t do this in your own country, would you?’ he said but he moved forward and left passport control area. After he left I got in to a conversation with a cop. he asked me why I was upset about it. I tried to explain it is unfair if everybody waits and a few people get special treatment. He said 300 Afs would get me out of the queue. ‘it is for the officer in the booth’ he exclaimed. ‘I’d rather keep my 300 in my pocket and myself in the queue’ I said. ‘You are stingy’ he said. I reserved the explanation that it is a matter of principle not money.
As I walked into the parking area I have already observed some positive changes. Things seem to be in a better order and a few new buildings have been built too. The security is tighter; roads to the airport are blocked by huge concrete barriers. Dust is the same, under the street light it looks like dense fog. The aviation industry is one of the two sectors which have witnessed a post Taliban boom – the second one is telecommunication. Khybar, Ariana, Safi, Pamir, Kam plus another one are the newly emerged airways, in addition there are half a dozen foreign airways which fly to Kabul. Afghan airways have new aircrafts and better trained crew. On the plane I was sitting next to a pilot who was coming back from a training in the UAE. He has been a pilot for over fifteen years, he goes by the nickname ‘Chatakball’ meaning quick-wing. He does not hesitate to introduce himself by his nickname. I functioned as his interpreter when he was conversing aviation with the eastern European crew of the plane. When he was introducing himself to the crew as Chatakball he asked me to interpret his name too. I offered to give him in writing the English translation of his nickname. Many nicknames in Afghanistan turn into first names; quite often Afghans choose their own last names. Chatakball is a very funny man; I said ‘pilots and flight stewards are believed to be repetitive and not that funny; how do you put up with this profession?’ Never let it be said that aviation folks lack a sense of humour! Chatakball is convinced that he is in one of the funnies professions. after every flight, Chatakball fills out a form called a gripe sheet, which conveys to the mechanics problems encountered with the aircraft during the flight that need repair or correction. The mechanics read and correct the problem, and then respond in writing on the lower half of the form what remedial action was taken, and the pilot reviews the gripe sheets before the next flight. Chatakball recited some actual logged maintenance complaints and problems as submitted and the solution recorded by maintenance engineers. Problem; Something loose in cockpit. Solution: Something tightened in cockpit. Problem: Evidence of leak on right main landing gear. Solution: Evidence removed. Problem: landing gear grease volume unbelievably high. Solution: landing gear grease volume set to more believable level. Problem: Number 3 engine missing. Solution: Engine found on right wing after brief search. Problem: Aircraft handles funny. Solution: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious. Problem: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement. Solution: Almost replaced left inside main tire.
From ‘grease my palm’ to ‘oil-fill my bellybutton’: corruption has penetrated the political, economic, judicial and social systems so thoroughly that it has ceased to be a deviation from the norm and become the norm itself. Corruption had existed ever since Taliban regime was toppled but it has reached a historically record breaking level. Ordinary Afghans are well aware of this, the majority of the country is sorry, not because it existed but they are not in a position to benefit from bribery. Corruption has become so endemic that it is perceived as normal. Nothing is possible at the same time everything is possible. When a job comes to a standstill it doesn’t mean there is a problem with the job, it is time to grease up some bellybuttons. If one is prepared to pay as much as needed then anything could be done. Shortcuts are introduced if one is willing to compromise. I could have thought of any word as synonyms for bribery but not compromise. A friend who has just set up a real estate agency had to participate in a week long training at the ministry of finance to learn the basics of the trade. At the end the attendants were given a log book to register their deals on which they have to pay a 1 percent tax. After thorough training the tax lawyer brought another book. It is called the shortcut book, trades registered in this book wouldn’t be taxed. The lawyer said, thorough training on the shortcut will be held in his private centre for which he left some business cards. Farsi and Pashto languages are rich with euphemisms for bribe. My favourite and all time fresh is ‘Shirini’, the sweetener. It is generally used when you got something done. In other words shirini is post bribery bribe. It might sound confusing but for ordinary Afghans it makes perfect sense. I went to register to vote the other day. The guard at the gate didn’t let me in. Apparently, I was late. After brief conversation he told me to go in and check for myself; not very surprisingly the registration centre was open. I came to inform the policemen at the gate. They laughed and said; of course, they were aware. If they let everybody in the place would get over crowded and a sabotager might slip in. as I was leaving the registration centre with my voter card a policeman called me asking for ‘the sweetener’, I wondered what for. He said for your card. Don’t be surprised. At least I had something done, these days ordinary citizens pay bribes as much to be left alone as to get something done. They call it ‘Kharcha’, ‘paeesi chai’, ‘jawani’ and many more which are basically *bribe of survival*. Exactly this has changed everything; everyone attempts to be in a position to take a bribe as oppose to a sucker. Bribe takers are at the highest rank of the society where everybody inspires to be. Bribery in security forces and especially in police has reached a new height. I have always lived nearby Qargha damn in the western outskirts of the city. I often go there alone or with friends at night. I just returned from the damn; these are eid days and one would expect a buzz but the damn and surrounding areas are quiet, sort of scary. I used to hang out by the water, watching fish and the stars. Tonight was beautiful with the stars, the moon and patchy clouds, however, I didn’t feel comfortable. There are plenty of new guest houses, restaurants and recreational centres. At the quietness of night I only saw the reflection of my headlights on the windows. Next to the road leading to Qargha damn is a new refugee camp, I paused to count the number of tents but my guess is around 300. They are displaced from Helmand in the last few months due to intense fighting. Security has been tightened around the camp as Helmandis can’t be trusted. They look much like Taliban. It is simple; if they look like Taliban then they are Taliban. A few weeks ago French reporter who came to make a story about the camp was kidnapped but found inside a well nearby. Police check points are all around the camp, as a result more police on the way to the damn. On my way back the sentry at the third checkpoint said
- Haji, happy eid. I see you are having fun while I keep a look for you on the Taliban. Do you have a cigarette?
- I don’t smoke, mate.
- Then give me the cash and I will get it myself. I will freeze to night if I don’t smoke.
I don’t carry my wallet around in Kabul. if something happen it would only get me into further trouble. Fumbling through my pockets I found some money.
- Take this but this shouldn’t come under any bribe name.
I was wrong. At the next stop the police asked me for money and I said I don’t have any, showed them my pockets inside out. I heard him talking with the police in the previous checkpoint on the radio. He said ‘you had some for the other guy’. He wouldn’t let me pass unless I get him some cigarettes. I had to call somebody and get him bring some cigarettes. While waiting for the cigarettes to come I had a chat with the policeman.
- The other checkpoint keeps an eye on the Helmandis, what do you do?
- I keep the dogs away.
For a moment I thought he was joking or Dog was a police name for Taliban. Then he pointed to a pack of dogs by the road. There were some thirty dogs mooching on what is left over from Eid. According to the policeman the dogs in the winter get unruly and aggressive. they often chase and often attack cyclists at night. I have noticed dog gangs have grown significantly in size, not as much in the centre but outside city centre they run in packs. My parents had to set my dog free after I left Kabul. The dogs on the street were spending most of the night barking behind our door. Dawod likes to drive at night, it is easy to get around a safe medium from dogs. I have not noticed dogs around during the day, I have heard they disperse in the nearby mountains but I plan to chase them one night. Story circulates that there are dog walkers; homeless who sleep with dogs using them to keep warm in the winter. Dogs also offer them protection during the day when they retreat to the mountains and at night when they are stroll the empty dark streets.
I told Ali an old family friend about my misfortunes with police on the way to Qargha dam. Contrary to expectations he did not slam the police and tried to explain to me why it is a natural thing to do. Ali too goes by a nickname - ‘NaswarPak’ sniff gulper. Ali the sniff gulper is a platoon commander at the 129 Thunder regiment. His platoon provides protection for army installations, forward bases and garrisons, moreover he is to keep the troops in the base and detain fugitives. Ali lets the troop escape the base for days in return for some bribe. he call the bribe sniff. Whenever a troop is leaving he demands some sniff; no doubt Ali is a sniff lover but that is not what he means. The thing I found shocking is how Afghans create their own morality and justification for what they do. What is going on today is open thievery yet there is strong moral position to justify it. since my arrival I have been fascinated with social morality. As human beings we morally oppose suffering of any sort, be it to another fellow human or animal or whatever feels pain; that is why no reason could justify people like Hitler, Stalin, Osama and others of the same calibre. The other day I met four old mates and told them my fascination with the morality in Kabul. The conversation led to a discussion about Hitler and interestingly nobody opposed him morally instead I was bewildered how they were amazed with Hitler’s determination and rightfully enmity to Jews. There was little information about Germany, war or Hitler; the arguments are crowded with a lot of misinformation. Exactly this point is problematic when you are trying to be pragmatic and talk about daily life. Coca cola is perceived to be good for stomach-ache or Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by Americans or to have normal sexual relation a man needs four women; the last point is in Quran and scientifically proven. You can’t have a conversation about it; it is either this way or any other view point is simply misguided. Often the underlying reason for such statements of fact lies somewhere else. When someone comes out to argue one man can only be sexually satisfied by four women, quite often the arguer is not a horny person. He believes so because his grandfather had four wives or Jews are monogamist or his wife has period today.
The reason for the persistent corruption is not that Afghans are genetically programmed to pay bribes or they are morally twisted, but that the state sees them as its vassals rather than its masters. The job of Afghan law enforcers is to protect the interests of the state, personified by their particular boss, against the people. in the face of persistent corruption Afghans turn to God for assistance; Taliban are now playing the representatives of God. Story has it Little Ahmad wanted 1000Afs badly and prayed for two weeks but nothing happened. Then he decided to write God a letter requesting the 1000Afs. When the postal authorities received the letter addressed to God, Afghanistan, they decided to send it to President Karzai. President Karzai didn’t know what to do with it and forward it to President Bush. Bush as God’s rep on earth was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed his secretary to send Ahmad a 100 Afs note. Bush thought this would appear to be a lot of money to a little boy in a place where they never have money. Ahmad was delighted with the 100AFs and sat down to write a thank you note to God, which read: Dear God, Thank you very much for sending the money, however, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it through Bush and Karzai offices and, as usual, those crooks deducted 900Afs. Thanks, Ahmad.
Electricity: the power situation is dire. It has been almost a week since I have been here but there is no electricity, it comes and goes for less than a minute and it is very weak; it can’t be used to switch on the television. While in London one would hardly consider lack of electricity as something which would affect your life like security does. The security is not deteriorating but electricity is equally important. There is a growing kidnapping industry which targeting Afghan. On average more than three Afghans are kidnapped every week. Hundreds of businessmen have been kidnapped; a number of them have been killed. Taliban threat is serious. I am going to Islamabad via ground and I have to think real hard not to get caught. Burglary is on the rise, throughout my neighbourhood one end of streets are blockaded in order to direct the traffic into the main road. Burglars general avoid main road and their favour route of escape is through back streets.
One can’t make a lot of adjustment to adapt to insecurities while some serious changes need to be made into lifestyle in order to accommodate to the darkness and cold. I have to cut on the number of hour I work, read, play and stay awake in general. I spend at least three hours every night chilling in my bed, wondering off into the world of my imagination. I can’t stay out of my bed after 9pm; it is cold and dark and it is too early too sleep. My watchful eye sometimes follows the gigantic beam from NATO searchlight in the newly built garrison close to my place. Nato searchlights provide lighting for the main street, but I would rather stay at home when it is late, the dog pack from the neighbourhood doesn’t like me much. Houses on the hillside closer to the garrison enjoy 24/7 power. I suppose the base want to grease their bellybuttons to create a friendly human shield. The government has announced that the city should expect a minimum of three months blackout. The hydroelectric damns are out of water and talks to import power from central Asia collapsed. Somebody didn’t make enough money and called the deal off. Cable Poles were installed all the way to Kabul and cable work had started. Some poles have already been sawed off. I suppose I should work on chilling out. It is something I don’t mind to do. Thinking is fun, although I won’t get to enjoy, enjoying is physical. Thinking brings a feeling of satisfaction sometimes accompanied by a settled thrill. I am happy in general. Life is engaging nevertheless there is not much for interaction. The outside has little effect on our happiness, the secret lies in our perception and making use of it. some don’t need much to make use of it.
Kabul: west Kabul; lack of electricity mean no water for these houses. Hundreds have been forced to leave due to severe water shortage. A phenomena not new but has never forced them out.
Kabul (1): a westerner followed by his Afghan escort is cutting in front of the line to leave passport control.
Kabul (2): security has been tightened around the airport. Concrete barriers have replaced the stop sign.
Kabul (3): Eid requires every Muslim family to sacrifice a sheep. Not good for the sheep, good for me. I got to organise quite a few barbecues.
Kabul (4): signs of 90s civil war are still visible in central Kabul.
Kabul (5): these kids work on eid days in order to make 120Afs or no food for their family.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Talks with Taliban

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, attended the Saudi meeting and said there was no discussion of peace talks. Taliban has not yet admitted of talks with the government. Zaeef said Karzai's government missed an opportunity when it failed to engage the Taliban in talks three years ago. Since then, he said, the Taliban has grown stronger. He added, the Taliban had no hope that the American rule would collapse in Afghanistan but now they do. While Taliban forces appear to have gained the upper hand across large swaths of Afghanistan, they are not yet a unified force and by no mean they want to talk with Kabul. Dissension and dissatisfaction on both sides and among western countries could provide an impetus for talks.
Karzai's government held secret talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahedin leader now labelled a terrorist by American and Britain, through members of his family who regularly visit Kabul.
As a mujahedin commander against the Russians, Hekmatyar was supported by the CIA and Pakistan. In the civil war which followed the Soviet withdrawal, he continued to be backed by the Americans and Pakistanis despite being blamed for atrocities. The warlord later fell out with the Americans and based himself in Iran, from where he directed attacks on Afghans and Nato.
Pakistan has a central role in Taliban talks, the session in Saudi Arabia included several Pakistani officials, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif, who now leads the largest opposition bloc in Pakistan’s Parliament, has been a vocal advocate of negotiating with Taliban commanders in his country. he is not alone many other Pakistani fictions has urged Afghan government and western allies to enter dialogue with Taliban. Pakistan see Taliban as an instrument to insert influence over Kabul.
Britain is stepping up pressure for a political and diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, a move set in sharp relief by the commander of UK troops who warned that the war against the Taliban was not going to be won.
The message is being delivered with increasing urgency by British military commanders, diplomats and intelligence officers, to Nato allies and governments in the region.
The deepening concerns reflect what British defence chiefs are saying privately. The conflict with the Taliban has reached "stalemate", they say. They also express increasing frustration with the weakness and corruption of President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul.
British officials are exasperated with the Karzai administration, the slowness in building up a national army and corruption in the Afghan police force.Violence in Afghanistan has risen to its worst level since 2001, when US-led forces overthrew the Taliban.
Aid agencies say the Taliban and associated groups are controlling more territory and it is increasingly difficult to provide the population with their humanitarian needs, let alone physical security.
The US has also changed its position on talking to the Taliban. Soon after Mullah Omar's regime was overthrown in 2001, the then US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, declared that it would never again be allowed to seize power in Afghanistan. "Those who have been defeated would like to come back but they will not have that opportunity" he said. Since then, with the Taliban resurgent as the US-led "war on terror" shifted to Iraq, American officials have been much more receptive to the idea of talking to the Taliban. David Petraeus, the US general credited with reducing violence in Iraq by winning over insurgents, is now overseeing the multi-national mission in Afghanistan. He is expected to introduce some of his Iraqi tactics into the conflict.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

a letter from Obama to Ahamadinejad

Dear Mr. Ahmadinejad,

I learnt of your letter to me when my chief of staff Emanuel Rahm informed me that we had to send three dollars to the post office to cover the postage [due]. Next time, please put enough stamps on the letters you send me. I had a hard time with my wife, Michelle, over this. She asked why we had to pay postage due on a letter from someone who calls us 'the Great Satan' and collaborates with the likes of Hugo Chavez. You know that in the States, it's the wives who have the last word. It's not like in your country, where one can shut them up by giving them a sharp whack over the head.

Dear Mahmoud, I hate to tell you that your letter caused us quite a bother. The White House translators couldn't or wouldn't translate it, saying it was a job for the department of religious propaganda. Eventually we had to ask for the help of our friends the Israelis who know Persian better than us and even maintain trade relations with you guys on the quiet.

In your letter, you congratulated me on 'taking' the majority of the votes in the election, which I found quite puzzling. You should know that, in the U.S., presidential candidates do not 'take' votes but receive them from the public. People here do not go to bed on the night [of the election] and then wake up in the morning to find out who has seized the presidency... I have been told that, in one of your elections, a candidate took an afternoon nap, only to discover that, [while he was sleeping,] he had been eliminated from the running and someone else had won the election. Is that a true story?

Mahmoud, darling, in another part of your letter you asked my country to pursue a policy based on 'justice, respect for the rights of human beings and nations, friendship and non-intervention in the affairs of others.' Frankly, this surprised me, because if you are alluding to executions, you guys execute as many people as we do. However, in this country, a capital case is debated for 17 years on average, while in your country, 17 is the age of some of those who are executed... As for intervention in the affairs of others, [you have a point:] We Americans do invest considerable funds [in Afghanistan] in order to enable the children there to attend school. [We also invest funds] in order to prevent Russia from imposing its will on Georgia, and so on. But you guys also intervene in the affairs of others – only instead of sending children to school you strap explosive belts around their waists. A few days ago, the media reported that a three-month-old baby had joined an [Iranian] suicide squad.

Dear Mahmoud, I have no patience to read nonsense and respond to it, so next time you feel like talking to me, please call me on the phone – only please don't make it collect.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Free expression can’t be conditional: A Response to a Commenter

In my previous post titled ‘There is no limit, it is coming for us!’ I wrote about the unquestionable power extremist has been given by Islam; I was writing in the context of the latest parliamentary decision to ban music from parties and wedding ceremonies. My argument was primarily concerned with the freedom of expression; I contended unless we raise our voice the transgression of few self-called leaders into our lives is going to continue. I believe Islamic extremism will bully us no matter who we are and irrespective of our willingness to confront the phenomena or not. A reader wrote the below comment:
“kabul was isolated from the rest of the country in the 70s and 80s culturally. The answer to your anger towards a potential ban to music is not to diss what most afghans cherish, regardless of your stance. your just creating an aristocratic secularism that most disagree with. most people would disagree with a ban on music, and most people would disagree with your stance. amanullah's rule came to an end because he lacked respect for people. changes need to be made by steps, not by people who feel their countrymen are susperstitous bumkins.”
It is clear from the argument structure and the English writing of the comment that the commenter is a western Afghan if not a westerner; but interestingly the comment is very similar to what I hear on daily basis from Afghans from politician to people on the street, the need to progress step by step and not to ‘insult’ ‘people’. I would like to respond by explaining the central point of my argument, the free expression.
I believe it is necessary for Afghans to keep evaluating their progress, to connect with its pain and to its past. And thus to cultivate a sense of humility and empathy; much needed in a society raged by anger created by Islamic violence. The fallibility of human nature means that the simple Afghan principles of generosity, compassion and modesty are sometimes discarded in favour of outward appearance, wealth and the quest for power. I feel that distortion in practice must be confronted. Moreover, only by challenging fixed ideas of correct and incorrect behaviour can institutionalised hypocrisy be broken down. Often, those who err from the norm are condemned and marginalised, regardless of right or wrong, so that the community will survive. However, such survival is only for the fittest, and the weak are sometimes seen as unfortunates whose kismet is bad. Much store is set by ritual rooted in religion – though people’s preoccupation with the external and not the internal often render these rituals meaningless.
We need to be provocative and relevant. If one expresses opinions freely it provides courage and self confidence, irrelevant of the society the individual live. We can present truths and dare to take risks whilst living with their fears. We lack free expression in Afghanistan that is why the most talented youth and the future of the country have become idealists and romanticists. I am annoyed often by Afghan’s over-optimism which I think is a byproduct of their unwillingness to challenge hypocrisy. Free expression enable us to tell life is ferocious and terrifying, that we are imperfect and only when we embrace our imperfections honestly can we hope.
We shouldn’t be so afraid of offending people, that is what democracy is but there is a fine distinction between offending and harming, to speak at all these days, to attempt to tell any kind of truth means offending someone. The words which carry no offence of any kind may carry as little meaning.
Contrary to what the commenter suggests healthy society is not formed when member reach anonymity or when all individual are equipped with the best idea. Society is a melting pot where conflicting groups put ideas forward, revise idea, are knocked off and then they seek new ideas. We need courageous people who are not afraid to speak their minds and can upset the rest of the society by challenging their principles as well as practices. This does not automatically lead to aristocracy as suggested by the commenter. I am not part of the government to drive the change and determine the steps and the speed of the change neither I intend to be; I believe modern government in Afghanistan is a failure and given the sociocultural structure of Afghanistan it is going to be a failure. The failure of well resourced western intervention to build a state in Afghanistan explains the difficulty of building a government in Afghanistan. I genuinely believe that the exchange of offensive ideas and the confrontation of offensive ideas is what make a vibrant society. The only type of regime which can subdue Afghanistan is a Taliban style Emirate but that is not acceptable for international community. Taliban managed to bring the country under control and tackle corruption. I do not diss the values Afghan cherish but I diss the liberals in Afghanistan, the self dubbed leaders and the Islamist fanatics. I oppose hypocrisy and corruption in principle and I believe the self proclaimed leaders, the Islamists and the liberals who make up the technocrats of the government are corrupt and hypocritical. Step by step change means nothing, the Islamists and the leaders claim a step by step progress so they can justify their corruption. The Islamists can continue their rule if they keep change at bay and silent protesters by painting them as a group which opposes steady change. The liberals are collaborators with the Islamists and so are the westerners, they are hypocritical and they oppose people who cry for justice and truth.
We need to explore our emotions behind religion. Society need to find ways to explore ideas seen as dangerous such as misgivings about Islam and the leaders. Even the very open minded people in Afghanistan oppose free expression which offends the so called leaders. Malali Joya, a strong critic of warlords, has been strongly criticised by open minded liberals. Afghanistan needs to establish a stream or channel which is inherently provocative, it is often called free media in the rest of the world and I am angry to see how it is curbed in Afghanistan. Free media actively prompt the humanist point of view to a society still gripped by religious absolutism.
Authorities also discourage change by urging to adopt a ‘STEP BY STEP’ approach. There is something potentially dangerous about a large number of people, a communal group, charged by the immediate need to change. Free expression and free hearing might move the group to go behind the traditional reasoning imposed by Islamic fanaticism, to affect them emotionally, to inspire them by love and hope, by ideas which subvert the arrangements which hold the state together. Or simply they rearrange the speed of the pace they want change.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

There is no limit, it is coming for us!

The Afghan parliament has passed a bill making it a criminal offence to play music in parties and wedding ceremonies. For awhile a couple of years ago I believed that the battle for music was won by emergence of up to a hundred radio station across Afghanistan playing regional and Afghan music, but after the legislation I was disappointed. A latest article in Kabul weekly tackles the voyage of TV programs into entertainment domain. Barely 10-15 per cent of shows aired on the country's stations are about the major problems facing Afghanistan today. The airing of a single "Round Table" and one serious report per week on any popular Television station proves that television stations in this country are becoming ineffective. This change is materialising under the pressure from authorities and religious figures. There is no limit for the sphere of life where Islamists will adamantly venture. Something experienced under Taliban. Once disguised Islamists in Karzai administration brought women and media under control then they will address how to build our houses and how to walk in public.

For those of us who grew up in Afghanistan or for this mater any other conflict zone, during the years of wars; the shadow of that slaughter has remained as a dreadful warning of what men will do in the name of God. Communalist politics have become a powerful force, in the form of the extremist Islamic ‘Trivialism’ which is wrongly nicknamed ‘Fundamentalism’, there is nothing fundamental about the Islam practiced in Afghanistan, it is primary concern is with footwear, beard and things of such calibre and they don’t have any fundamental value; things like love, respect, happiness and freedom are fundamental to me. The ignorant youth recruited by Sayyaf, Mazari, Massood and Gulbodin killed, destroyed and tortured the public indiscriminately. For several years the capital was deprived from reaching any residents’ basic needs from food and water to electricity. Residents had to travel on bicycles or on foot to the outskirts of the city where the warlords had established their bazaars. On the way back anything could happen from getting captured by another ethnic group and being used as PoW to do hard labour; but that was if the commander of the checkpoint is a nice person which was rare, warlords in an attempt to intimidate their rivals were recruiting the most brutal commanders who would use methods such as dead dancing which is cutting of the victim head and then pouring hot oil on sever neck. Travellers often were caught in fires from two belligerents aimed at them. One wonders whether any lessons have been learned.

No, in the depressing condition of Afghanistan people turn to religion for the answers to the two great questions of life: where did we come from? And how shall we live? But on the question of origins, Islam and all other religions are simply wrong. No, the universe was not created in six days by a superforce that rested on the seventh. Nor was it churned into being by a sky-god with a giant churn. If you look around everything is a creation of science today and science clearly disproves God and religion and Islamist make equal use of science as those who believe in science. And on the social question, the simple truth is that wherever religion, with their narrow moralities gets into society’s driving seat, tyranny results. The Inquisition result. Or the warlord of the early 90s or their slightly better version the Taliban.

And yet Islam continues to insist that they provide special access to ethical truths, and consequently deserve special treatment and protection. And they continue to emerge from the world of private life, where they belong, like so many other things that are acceptable when done in private between consenting adults but unacceptable in the town square, and to bid for power. I sometimes wonder if the idea of private does not exist in Islam, there are things which exist and things which don’t exist. Ideas and beliefs do exist and Muslims will not hesitate to display their belief in the form of banner or poster on their car. Things which don’t exist, such as sex. it is never talked about and never referred to, as though it doesn’t exist.

I know plenty Afghans who are champions of freedom and have dedicated a lot to the cause but they can’t come out with a criticism of the root problem so is the problem with the western support. The west supports democratic values but not dares to scrutinise what Islamic politics mean. The government and their fanatic authorities’ paint up a democratic face to the west but explain their tyrannies by Islamic justification. At the end we are all playing with the politics of communalism and by it is nature it is doomed to failure. Whether you want to confront religion or not, it is coming for you and it is good to be prepared and start thinking about our response.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hypocrisy: The cover for the failures of Islamic Politics

I was talking with a friend in Kabul over the phone earlier today as he was walking out of Indra Gandhi Paediatric Hospital in Kabul. My friend signed in her daughter who is seriously ill into Indra Gandhi hospital a few days ago but she has not received the appropriate treatment and the hospital condition is dire. He could not get his daughter to Charsad Bistar hospital which is slightly better condition because it does not admit children. He was on his way to ISAF hospital where a foreign friend offered to help him get his daughter signed into the hospital. ISAF hospital is not open to general public and the condition is very good as it is for treating foreigners. After I got off the phone I was thinking about the hospitals in Kabul and there is one thing strikingly similar about all Kabul hospitals: they are founded and funded by foreign countries. Indra Gandhi Hospital, obvious enough from the name, was established and mentored by Indians. Charsad Bistar was founded by Russians. It is modern and big and rival any US funded public building. ISAF hospital is run by NATO and the administration rotates between European nations. All these hospitals were built at the time when the Afghan government developed close ties with the country of sponsors. Kabul hospitals date back to fifty years and it shows how the country always relied on foreign support. Afghanistan has always relied on foreigners to sustain some sort of government. It was true fifty years ago and it is true today. Doud Khan leaned toward USSR in the 70s because he needed money to bridge 70% deficit in his government budget; huge chunk of Afghan governments came from abroad and the reliance has been increasing ever since while the politics of Afghanistan is pervasively becoming ‘Islamic’ which means militancy and violence has been encouraged though Jihadi ideology. Jihad in its essence is xenophobia, Jihad is nurturing an attitude of hatred toward foreigners and they do not have to be non believers. Jihad in Afghanistan has been mostly concerned with massacring the next village or the other tribe. Below I will try to analyse how Jihadi groups, which are strongest ever in Afghanistan today, are subdued to Americans and international community.

I argue that Jihadis and Islamic politics which means no state affair could be contrary to the principles of Islam, as stated in the Afghan constitution, is based on hypocrisy. Islamic politics are so vulnerable to interpretation that it lacks any principle. Afghan politicians interpret Islam in the way to suite their purpose; it could be argued that Islam as a state mechanism provides a cover for tyranny. Afghan Jihadi leaders have killed thousands fighting an opponent because they believe the opponent has links with a foreign state while they are also supported by a similar foreign government. Islamic politics is not the only source of evil in Afghan society; the society inherently is closed and rejects any change except when it is forced up on it.

Change is an important concept of any society. Change means to exclude everything that is predictable. This means that only events that could not be expected in accordance with the prevailing state of knowledge qualify as change.

Afghanistan is a tribal society and tribal morality gave rise to a closed society, which confers rights and obligations on members of the tribe and discriminates against outsiders. Tribal morality doesn’t recognise certain fundamental human rights. Rights differ based on tribal, ethnic or religious affiliations. Afghan society, being a tribal society, is built on the absence of change. In such a society, the mind has to deal with one set of conditions only: that which exists at the present time. What has gone before and what will come in the future are perceived as if they were identical to what exists now. There is no need to distinguish between thinking and reality. This traditional mode of thinking has only one task: to accept things as they are. Islamist can get away with their actions until they admit they are devoted muslims which appeals to the status quo. The public would not challenge them because that is a change. This supreme simplicity extracts a heavy price: it generates beliefs that may be completely divorced from reality. Abdul Rassool Sayyaf commander who is famous for beheading ethnic Hazaras and then pouring boiled oil on their scored necks to watch what he called ‘dead dance’ is driving in a smart car in Kabul today. Perhaps the reason Afghan society does not protest actively against such gruesome action is they are detached from reality. The traditional mode of thinking can prevail only if members of a society identify themselves as part of the society to which they belong and unquestioningly accept their place in it. a better term than traditional or tribal to explain Afghan society is to call it ‘organic society’, a society in which individuals are organs of a social body. This explains why a women is killed if the husband is taunted about her. Paighure is tribal code and it is to punish a woman if she is misperceived by some other person in the society. She is not an individual but rather an agent of the society/tribe. Afghan society being an organic society does not function along side a working government. Afghan society is vulnerable to forms of social organisation that had a better grasp of reality.

Change as it occurs in Afghan society causes uncertainty. There are two ways to deal with uncertainty: we can accept it or deny it. the former leads to a critical mode of thinking; the later to a dogmatic mode. Each approach has its merits and drawbacks. The state of affairs in Afghanistan constantly changes, people are confronted by an infinite range of possibilities. Understanding what is going on from the haze of possibilities requires critical thinking. Critical thinking has a major drawback that it does not satisfy the quest for certainty. In a rapid changing place like Afghanistan critical thinkers can rarely provide answers because of the amount of uncertainty. On the other hand Islam and Islamic politics offers certainty through dogmatic thinking. The dogmatic thinking gives people the illusion of certainty but it distorts reality. Islamic leader despite their atrocities continue to appeal to society as oppose to any other form of politics because they are dogmatic in their action and Islamic in their ideology.