Kabul Days (31)


Kabul Days (31)
by Hossein Shahidi

PARTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38

Customs, Habits, Traditions

Wednesday, 18 June 2003
First the good news that the two journalists from the Aftab weekly who had been detained for the ‘Sacred Fascism’ article are free. In fact they were released late last night, apparently after the UN contacted the Afghan Foreign Ministry, who then contacted the Interior Ministry. In addition to counting on international support, the writers may also be benefiting from the fact that what they have written specifically targets powerful figures outside the government and in some cases even opposed to it. In any case, it would help everybody if nothing worse than last night’s detention happens to them. [In fact, contrary to news reports, the two were still in prison, from where the manager had been interviewed by the press. It seemed at the time that they might in fact be safer inside prison than outside it. For more details, see Thursday’s diary below.]

It is difficult to judge the impact of the article that was published a week ago. Several fairly senior officials I have met had not read the piece and did not know where they could get the newspaper. A friend, from a family of journalists, had not seen the article either. One educated person who had read it had taken the word ‘fascism’ in the title to be from the same root as the Persian word faash, which means open or exposed.

I woke up at around 5am to the sound of military planes flying overhead. The procession continued until midday, indicating that something big was happening down south. A radio news bulletin just now said that an American convoy had been attacked near Assadabad in the eastern province of Kunar, further up from the usual scene of clashes in the south.

Now a few stories about women’s rights in Afghanistan I’ve heard over the past few days. First, the tale of a young woman who married a successful Afghan businessman living in the US. Soon after the wedding the bride’s family discover that the man has an American wife and two kids. The furious family reject the man’s suggestion that he would keep his young Afghan wife in Pakistan; insist that this cannot go on; and that the man has to choose one wife or the other.

All this happened about two years ago and the man has not been heard from since 9/11. Getting a divorce is going to be as traumatic as carrying on with the suspended marriage. The young woman has said that she’s not going to marry again anyway, this being part of the traditions within their community.

The other day, I heard of an educated woman who managed to get a job with a Western company for $250 a month, which is a respectable salary here, and maintain her family, with an unemployed husband who spends his time smoking dope. One day the man beats up his wife badly – he may have done so before, but less severely, I don’t know – accusing her of having an affair with the foreign manager of the company, saying that’s how she’s kept her job.

In spite of receiving advice that she could complain and have the man locked up or at least away from the family, the woman decides to stick it out, presumably for the sake of the children. Meanwhile, the man’s condition’s getting worse, to the extent that he gets high on drugs and dances naked in front of the children. The poor woman tells the manager of the company about her misery, upon which the manager hands her one month’s salary and tells her she no longer has a job there. So much for defence of human rights by its presumed champions.

Yet another woman wins a scholarship to the US, but is refused a visa because her family left Afghanistan in 1984, when there were no Taliban in power, so they must have left the country willingly, says the visa person. The fact that millions of Afghans left Afghanistan while there was a communist government in power, fought against by the American-backed Mujahedin, seems to have become part of ancient history with no bearing on current events.

Thursday, 19 June 2003
The two journalists charged with insulting Islam are still in detention, but the manager, Seyed-Hossein Mahdavi, who’s from Afghanistan, has been giving interviews to government-owned newspapers. He has defended his right to publish, but says he respects the government’s right to question him if there’s a complaint. He also says he’s happy that instead of being beaten or killed, offending journalists are summoned by the authorities and adds that he’s proud to be the first person to test the new system.

Mr Mahdavi says he is a devout Moslem and what he’s written has been in the service of Islam, although he may have made mistakes. A Reuters report, by an Afghan journalist, said the journalist was believed to be ‘from a branch of communism’. I found the word ‘branch’ particularly amusing because of its religious connotations.

There’s no news yet of the paper’s editor, Ali-Reza Payam-Sistani, who’s also in detention. Even his full name is not reported, or known, by everybody. His wife, though, has given an interview saying she and her husband are intellectuals, believe in freedom of thought, and have become refugees in Afghanistan because they had no freedom in Iran. She rejects the suggestion that she and her husband are supporters of Mojahedin-e Khalq. Asked if writing articles such as her husband’s may not offend the people’s sensitivities and backfire, as was the case when the communists were in power, the lady protests, asking ‘how long does Afghanistan want to remain a traditional country?’

Since coming to Afghanistan, I have found the use of the adjective ‘traditional’ for the country as misleading as the other favourite word used by so many: ‘religious’. I have found the Afghans to be no more religious than many other people I have come across – including Americans. Also, what is criticised in Afghanistan as ‘unacceptable traditions’ are in fact customs and habits.

The distinction occurred to me in one of our workshops when the participants mentioned examples of traditions such as hospitality and the Nowrouz celebrations. A moment’s reflection shows that such practices are indulged in with premeditation and ceremony and for the purpose of bringing about happiness. ‘Bad traditions’, such as beating up one’s wife, on the other hand, are spontaneous results of anger and are often followed by regret.

It seems more accurate, and helpful in finding remedies to the unacceptable practices, to describe them as habits which could be given up, just like smoking, if one’s serious about it. Traditions, on the other hand, are a body of generally happy, life enhancing practices that hold a community together. What has happened to Afghanistan, and to some extent Iran and similar societies, is that their good traditions – which are usually costly in the short-term but beneficial in the long-run – have been shattered because of war and poverty. Bad habits – which are cheap in the short-term but produce long-term ills – have appeared or grown instead.

On another hot day, ending in a clear, cool but very windy evening, let me report on the progress of the masterpiece that’s Hashem Jan’s transformation of the UNIFEM garden. What was running the risk of becoming a rubbish dump is now green all over, thanks to huge amounts of newly placed turf. The flowerbeds are getting cute borders of bricks placed next to each other at a sixty-degree angle, their tips forming a zig zag edge all round.

Hashem Jan’s also made us two new flower beds right outside the windows of two of our rooms. At first, I thought the flower beds should have been placed right up against the wall, but Hashem Jan explained that they would not then have been visible from inside the room, through the window. Flawless aesthetics.

Friday, 20 June 2003
Carefully maintained lawn covered in glorious sunshine, jazz music and the smell of barbeque in the air, a large bowl of watermelon on its way to the serving table, men in bathing trunks and women in bikinis relaxing by the pool or swimming in it – such was the scene at the United Nations International Community Association, UNICA, today. Outside on the baking streets of Kabul there were few men and even fewer women. The city was quiet and the air clean and the distant mountains could be seen again.

Further uptown, at the Intercontinental Hotel, around one-hundred women from across Afghanistan had set up a colorful and beautiful display of their products. These range from the traditional needle- and bead-works and garments, all the way to semi-industrial items such as wood and metal carvings. The exhibition is a huge improvement over a much smaller one held during the 8 March celebrations. There is a greater variety of goods, the quality is better, and the display is much more organized and cheerful.

The women themselves look genuinely pleased with their efforts. In March, they looked as if they had been forced to turn up and look over goods that few people wanted to buy because of poor quality and high prices. This time, they have already sold a lot even though the exhibition started only at mid-day and word of mouth has not yet gotten round.

The women have been remarkable, producing much improved versions of any item they have been shown by our Indian marketing consultant or anyone else. Among other things, one woman has produced individually named leather folders for each of the five Canadian and American women who have come to advise the women produces on design, packaging and marketing. Another Afghan woman made leather pen holders for each member of the delegation a day after she had seen one of them saying how much she liked the pen-holder her friend was hanging round her neck. I would not be surprised if Afghan women themselves soon start teaching lessons in all these areas.

Later in the afternoon, we had Solmaz, Massi and an Afghan poet, Parto Naderi, over at our house for tea and biscuits. Much of the conversation centered on the detained journalists, Mir-Hossein Mahdavi and Ali-Reza Payam-Sistani. As if the accusation of having insulted Islam were not bad enough, it now seems that the two could also be seen by various detractors as Shia activists – although Mr Mahdavi’s article attacks Shia as well as Sunni clergy – or being agents of the Iranian government – even though Mr Sistani is a refugee here, saying he fled Iran because of lack of freedom. There is also the accusation of communism I mentioned yesterday, although Mr Mahdavi has said he is a devout Moslem trying to purify the faith.

Sunday, 22 June 2003
The latest episode in the detained journalists’ saga is a statement by the most senior UN official here, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, who says the two must be released because of Afghanistan’s commitment to freedom of speech, as well as procedural and substantive flaws in their detention. The procedural issue may well be what the Ministry of Information has also mentioned, namely that the Ministry should have had a chance to investigate the matter, before the men were detained. The substantive issue is probably one which deals with whether the article did in fact contain anything offensive to Islam.

The procedural issue is unlikely to be easy to resolve, because according to press reports, the arrest warrant was signed by Mr Karzai himself. It is unlikely to have been otherwise, for even small transactions within government departments cannot be carried out without ministerial or presidential signature. If Mr Karzai reverses his order before the case has been through the legal channels, he will be seen by his opponents as nothing more than an errand boy for international powers. If he sticks by his order, he will be seen by the international community as a man who has reneged on an international commitment.

The criticism of substance is also likely to raise serious issues. Who is to judge what is offensive to Islam? Afghans who have suffered so much in a struggle for the preservation of what they regards as their Islamic heritage – even if that struggle has also involved shedding the blood of other Afghans who declare themselves committed to Islam – or foreign officials who are at the very least not known as Islamic scholars, even if there are no suspicions about their personal faith and piety?

A very important question of substance also involves the specific accusations of blood-letting and financial and moral corruption against named individuals. At the very least, one would have thought, they should have the right to sue for libel. Going to court, though, is unlikely to be a favoured option by them because it is more likely to further spread the accusations, than dispel them. Also, the people named in the piece have fought each other in the past and cannot be expected to form a united front against the imprisoned duo.

The men cannot be kept in jail forever, but they cannot be released soon or easily either, not least because their lives would be in greater danger outside prison, even if they have protection from the UN or something like that. One likely end to the story would be for the two men to be released and sent abroad – a very sad outcome for Mr Mahdavi who came back to his homeland of Afghanistan after many years of exile in Iran, and for Mr Sistani who had sought refuge here, his wife says, after facing restrictions on his freedom in Iran.

On to the streets of Kabul, which used to be split down the middle with rows of concrete blocks. These always looked like a safety hazard. You would regularly see individual blocks moved out of line, having been hit by a vehicle, and almost certain to be hit by another vehicle especially after night-fall. Over the past few days most of the blocks have been removed, and drivers have been asked on radio and television to observe the regulations even in the absence of the blocks of discipline. The streets do look tidier, but not all drivers are fastidious about staying in their respective lanes. Perhaps head-on collisions are going to replace hitting the blocks.

There are still a few stretches of the concrete blocks at what appear to be very busy intersections. One such spot is the place where the ‘Hand-glider’ spends his time, collecting charity from passing vehicles. At another intersection nearer where we live, there are speed bumps on both sides of the road, just before you reach the intersection. Each speed bump provides one man with a platform to station himself and ask passing vehicles for payment.

One of the men appears to have lost the use of both legs and spends his time sitting on the street, almost in front of the oncoming traffic. The other man, who has one leg and walks on crutches, simply stands by the speed bump right in the middle of the road. I cannot help fearing that one day - or rather one night – something bad is going to happen to these men.

Monday, 23 June 2003
About 150 women producers representing Afghanistan’s 32 provinces have gathered in Kabul for an exhibition of their products – about which I’ve already written – and to take part in a conference about design, packaging, finance, marketing and so on.

The conference, at the Intercontinental Hotel, was due to start at 9am, but we were there at 8 to make sure things would work smoothly. And just as well, because there was some last minute organisation, such as getting more chairs and setting up some displays around the conference hall. We also discovered that one of the ministers who was due to speak would not bring along his Western-educated advisor as interpreter and I had to step into the breach.

I covered for the minister, but it then became clear that our team of young interpreters would not be able to cover the questions and answers, so I ended up staying at the podium from around 9:30 till around 11. Later on, it turned out that I would also be needed in the afternoon to interpret for the delegation of North American businesswomen. That meant another 90 minutes, taking the audience through product development, design, micro-finance, shipping and marketing, and so on.

The delegation members, who work with women’s businesses in many countries, buying gifts and decorative items, are really nice and helpful and have given the participants at the conference a lot of encouragement. Out of around 500 items, they have identified about 50 that could make it to the North American market with minor modifications and around 20 that could go there immediately. They said the Afghan women’s technical skills and initiative were unique among the women they’d met, and I don’t think they were exaggerating.

One curious point in the presentation was that any price quoted by the Afghan producers would have to be multiplied by 7 to be turned into the price on the North American market. The gap is made up with the costs of packaging, handling, transport, customs and duties, and marketing, plus the wholesalers’ profit – 25% - and that of the retailer. It was further explained that transport costs from Afghanistan are exceptionally high. A similar disparity exists between the prices of narcotics in Afghanistan and in the West.

Most of the products are, inevitably, textile-based, but those from two provinces included intricate wood and stone carvings. The wooden works - figurines of men and animals and some stone carvings, including one with the Stars and Stripes and the American eagle – had come from the north-eastern province of Nuristan, or the Land of Light, the last region in Afghanistan to have been converted to Islam, just over a century ago.

Some other stone carvings had come from the central province of Bamyan, in the Hazara heartland, site of the famous Buddha statutes that were blown up by the Taliban. This may explain why two of the stone carvings from Bamyan were Buddhas. Another one was a Greek-style bas-relief of the heads of a man and a woman. Speaking of the Buddha, the Japanese have been spending some money to prevent the further destruction of the Bamyan statutes, explaining that this was the area from which Buddhism had traveled to Japan. The Hazaras do have East Asian features, and when one Japanese journalist was interviewing a Hazara delegate in the conference, it was difficult to say they were from different parts of the world.

Asking people to switch off their mobile phones is as much of a ritual at public meetings here as it is in the West. What I found really interesting today were identical mobile phone-related signs put up by a department of the Afghan Ministry of Communications called ‘fast post’, and an ultrasound clinic. The pairing is most intriguing, but it’s nothing compared to the message, posted on the wall of our local mosque, which says: ‘Please keep your mobile phones switched off during prayers.’



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