Veil and Ventilation
Saturday, 26 April 2003
My bed-time and early morning reading for the past couple of days has been the Afghan women’s monthly, Sabawoon. Over the past few months that I’ve been seeing the magazine, one of its features has been front cover pictures of blondes, not the Hollywood type, but blondes all the same, attractive and middle-aged. Last month it was the former Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, described in a very short piece as an example of a successful woman.
Although the magazine has a female editor, the publisher and deputy editors are male, and this might explain the choice of pictures. Afghanistan’s women’s journals in general, even those published by politically active women, have more in common with the family journals in England, rather than with the western feminist newspapers. They carry reports on Indian movie stars who are loved in Afghanistan, as well as many pieces on the virtues of family life, and define family stability as one of the most important benchmarks of ‘civil society’.
The front cover of Sabawoon’s latest issue carries a picture of the former TV presenter, Zakiya Kohzad, a very attractive and slightly plump lady, now in her fifties, who’s living in the US. The caption on the front cover describes her as the ‘presenter whose news reading memory was unrivalled’. Ms Kohzad, who’s been interviewed by the magazine, is remembered fondly by many Afghans even though she left television and Afghanistan when the faction fights began in 1992. Her front cover picture and two other pictures on the inside pages are rather melancholic, because of life in exile. She says in the interview that unlike her past, smiling TV image, she’s been on tranquilisers since leaving Afghanistan. Still, she continues with some artistic work, including reading poetry at Afghan cultural events.
This issue also carries an interview with an Indian movie star; a report on an Afghan woman TV performer; a feature on one of the most popular Afghan musicians and singers, Farhad Darya; and an English language profile of Pierce Brosnan. There are also pieces on weddings in Iran and France; several pages on flower arrangement and cooking; a report on Afghan refugees in Pakistani jails. A huge headline saying, ‘Men should not read this page’, appears above a piece on menopause and failed pregnancies. In contrast, the picture of a body builder displaying his muscle formations appears without any warning.
The reason I got into writing this review of Sabawoon is its lead article: a long piece on the Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamloo’s experience of making cultural documentaries, most of which have disappeared, and writing dialogue for the some commercial movies, that have not added much to his reputation. The piece has obviously been taken from an Iranian publication, with some minor adjustments to make it accessible to an Afghan audience.
In the afternoon, we had a very interesting training session with the Afghan TV presenters discussing everything from the appropriateness of an anti-drugs film showing people shooting up – it can give people ideas, can’t it? – to Donald Rumsfeld’s chiding of the American journalists last night, saying that rather than reporting what had happened, they were always trying to find out what is going to happen tomorrow.
I spent some time searching for information about the shape and physical size of Sultan Mahmoud Ghaznavi – who ruled between 998 and 1030 - but did not find any. There is, however, plenty of information on his 16 or 17 invasions of India - a ‘mission’ he had pledged to perform once a year. The wealth captured from India and other lands that Mahmoud invaded turned his hometown Ghazni into a rich and powerful city. It also became a major cultural centre because some of the wealth obtained from the invaded lands consisted of their brightest minds - such as Abu-Rayhan Biruni, ‘one of the greatest scientists of all times’ – in the same way that the Americans and the Soviets took over the German scientific establishment at the end of the Second World War. [The description of Biruni is from George Sarton’s Introduction to the History of Science, quoted in Wikipedia’s entry on Biruni.]
Iranians, of course, remember Mahmoud mostly for his inability to appreciate the importance of Ferdowsi’s work in writing Shahnameh, but Mahmoud’s treatment of Biruni was a lot better. Taken along by the king on his Indian campaigns, Biruni studied the land and its people and wrote a book, in eighty chapters, Critical study of what India says, whether accepted by reason or refused. Biruni’s other works cover mathematics, astronomy, geography, anthology and metallurgy.
Sunday, 27 April 2003
Today I learned that Sabawoon, the name of the Afghan women’s magazine I was talking about yesterday, means dawn. Leafing through the issue which has Mrs Ciller’s picture on the front cover, I came across a feature on the Iranian semi-blonde singer, Googoosh, and an interview with the jet black-haired Samira Makhmalabaf, who’s been working here with her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, making films and teaching cinema. So the magazine does observe some colour balance, even if you have to look for it.
Last Thursday at Sahel-e Sabz, I had lunch with three colleagues, two of them our visitors from Delhi and New York. When the bill arrived, an Afghan colleague and I struggled briefly over paying it and he ended up the winner and went to the cash desk and paid up. By the time we were leaving, though, my friend, Jamshid, who had been serving us came to me and pointed out that my lunch had been billed separately because I had arrived later than the others. My Afghan colleague made an attempt to pay for me but I resisted, successfully; took my wallet out and gave the cashier a fifty Afghani note – my meal usually comes up to around 35 Afghanis.
Today, as we were leaving Sahel-e Sabz and another colleague had paid for all of us, Jamshid came to me and said very apologetically that what I had given the cashier the day before had not been 50, but 10 Afghanis. I handed him a 50 Afghani note and apologised. This was a minor incident but it drove home the point that even though all the staff at Sahel-e Sabz treat me as a friend, and even from time to time offer me a treat, the logic of business does not allow for undue generosity. I also took it as a good reminder that no one can be taken for granted, that all our movements are being watched carefully, as they should be, and that we are very likely to be taken to task for any misdemeanours.
Which brings me to the top Afghanistan story on the BBC’s website this morning: the temporary closure of Kabul’s ‘only’ Irish pub – as if the city needed many such establishments but had been let down. The pub was opened about a month ago in central Kabul, a couple of doors from a mosque. A friend told me that at the beginning the pub was frequented by Afghans as well as foreigners, but Afghans were later told to keep out after they had had a go at the western women.
A few days ago we received a security alert asking everybody to keep away from the Irish pub, because there had been ‘reliable intelligence’ that it was going to be bombed last Thursday. There was no bombing, but the pub has closed temporarily, taking it to the top of the world news – where there is not talk of the dozens of people who are killed or maimed everyday by landmines; the millions of children who are malnourished; and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children who are following the foreigners on the streets of Kabul, begging.
The Afghan colleagues I have spoken to find the idea of such a pub in Kabul offensive to their country, especially in the circumstances in which they find themselves. The same feeling is expressed towards the Chinese restaurant with mini-skirted waitresses.
This is a land with deeper Islamic roots than any non-Arab Moslem land. Moslem conquerors came here in the first decades of the expansion of the faith and stayed on, and have survived in the form of many, many shrines all over Afghanistan. At least two shrines – in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif - are attributed to Imam Ali who historians say never came here. You can therefore imagine the fervour about the Islamic figures who did make it to Afghanistan.
Last week, there was a seminar commemorating Abu Refa’a, one of Prophet Mohmammad’s direct disciples and one of the commanders of the Moslem troops who came here nearly 1,400 years ago, and whose grave is in Kabul’s ‘Righteous Martyrs’ Cemetery’. The seminar ended with a series of appeals for honouring Abu Refa’a, including restoring his mausoleum and naming a major street after him.
Yesterday I spoke of Herat’s semi-autonomous governor, Ismael Khan. Because of its location, Herat has traditionally been out of reach of the powers that have been able to capture other parts of Afghanistan. The province was one of the calmest parts of Afghanistan during the early 1990s faction fights, and one of the most liberal during the early years of the Taliban. But nowadays, there are regular media reports of human rights abuses in Herat, including stories of girls who commit suicide after being forced into marriage. Although there is no doubt that such tragedies should come to an end, I have seen no evidence to suggest that Herat is much worse than the rest of Afghanistan in this respect.
So why do we hear so many such reports about Herat, with the implication that its local government is one of the worst in the country? The answer has to do with geography. Looking at the map, it becomes clear that Herat sits right across the route of a planned pipeline for taking natural gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan and perhaps India. The planned pipeline is very similar, perhaps identical, to the one that the American company UNOCAL was trying to lay across Afghanistan with the cooperation of the Taliban, before Ben Laden’s group blew up two American embassies in Africa and Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on their bases. UNOCAL pulled out. Then there was September 11, followed by the fall of the Taliban, and now all sorts of powers are back in town to follow what so far has been no more than a ‘pipe dream’. The scent of natural gas has made its seekers a lot more attentive to women’s rights in Herat than elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Monday, 28 April 2003
Eleven years ago today, 28 April 1992, the Afghan Mojahedin who had defeated the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the PDPA, also known as the communist party, officially took charge of the country. The PDPA had come to power fourteen years earlier, following a coup on 27 April 1978 in which the then head of state, Mohammad Daoud, was killed. Mohammad Daoud himself had come to power in an earlier coup, in 1973, when he overthrew his own cousin, Zahir Shah, who has now returned to Afghanistan, without an official title, but is referred to as Baba-ye Mellat, the nation’s father.
The Mojahedin who overthrew the PDPA fought amongst themselves for four years, until 1996, when they were driven out of power by the Taliban in, who in turn were bombed out by the Americans in 2001. Some of the Mojahedin are in the present government, still fighting each other, sometimes politically, sometimes with guns; others are outside the government but have their own local power bases; and still others are so far outside the government that they are fighting it, alongside the Taliban who would like
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