Envisioning Afghanistan

MUJIB MASHAL – An Al Jazeera reporter paints a picture of Afghanistan. 

Going to school in the United States’ “academic bubble,” you were exposed to a very unique and, what to many Americans is a myopic culture that portrays Afghanistan through its own, perhaps paranoid, lenses. Yet when you travel to Afghanistan, you look into through a very different window onto the United States. How does this dual experience shape your view of both Afghanistan and the United States? 

On both sides there is a negative feeling towards the opposite group. When the word “Afghan” is mentioned in America, there is a negative connotation; yet at the same time when the word “American” is mentioned in Afghanistan, there is an equally negative reaction. To be in the middle of these two groups — to have both experiences — provides a fascinating perspective. I grew up in Afghanistan, and I was in Kabul when the US bombing there started. Having lived under the Taliban for six years, I was so used to the way of life that regime provided that it had become the normal. So when the United States started bombing, I felt betrayed and invaded like most citizens. Thinking of it retrospectively, I do not agree with how I felt in 2001, but my view at the time was colored by what I saw as normal, and the disruption of that normalcy.

When I was in the United States, and I heard of how people thought of Afghans or Afghanistan as a country, I found interesting that nobody had the context, nobody knew the history. Where the United States is in Afghanistan has a great deal to do with the mess the Americans left in the 1980s when they were fighting the Soviets. Out of the chaos left after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war the Taliban was born. To hear, when I arrived in America, a very simplistic view of Afghanistan as a sudden breeding ground for terrorists was also insulting. Everyone seemed to be pointing fingers, but they did not know why. A country does not wake up one morning to find a man like Osama bin Laden in it: There is context and history behind the problem.

To be able to see the overlap of these two sides was truly fascinating when I arrived in the US.

You mentioned that you bridged these two groups. How did this dual experience shape the way in which Afghans or Americans view you?

When I first got to the US, I felt like I was using my identity as a victim of war in Afghanistan as an excuse for the challenge I was facing academically. I played up my experience, and at least the Americans in my school’s community saw me as that and nothing else: an Afghan victim. In a way they were helping me, because everybody knew from where I had come. My challenges and difficulties were not hidden, and my experience made it so that help was easy to find at school. I spoke very little English when I was in high school: that was a challenge. Culture shock was another challenge. I attended a very exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts — Deerfield Academy — and among these privileged children I truly felt like the odd kid from the dusty streets of Kabul. On the one hand, this identity helped me find the assistance I needed, but it also made it so that I was perceived as a victim and nothing else. Towards my senior year and then in college, I stopped sharing that story because I wanted another identity.

On the other hand, I had to be very careful how I acted every time I went home to Afghanistan. I had to watch my behavior and manners — how I spoke to an elder, how I dressed, how I carried myself and expressed my views on certain topics. Afghanistan has a very gossipy culture, and I did not want to be branded as somebody who had been brainwashed in the West.

One issue about which I can speak clearly is the idea of Holocaust. I had been in an environment and a classroom in which I gained a more nuanced knowledge of the Holocaust. When I went to Afghanistan and the issue would come up, I could say that it is not necessary to deny the Holocaust to express support for the Palestinians, for example. With 90% of the country being Muslim, Afghanistan naturally feels a connection to the Palestinians and supports their cause. Many times this connection leads Afghans to deny the Holocaust, or at least going along with the rhetoric of Holocaust denial. There is not an official stance in Afghanistan denying the Holocaust, but when Ahmadinejad’s argument is mentioned, for example, many people express agreement. Having been in a position wherein I have studied with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, or having taken classes on the Holocaust, going back to Afghanistan, I was in a position to bring that nuance to the arguments I had with my friends on the matter.

You recount how learned you to draw under the Taliban despite the ban on art and music. What specific or enduring moments do you recall that could help paint a picture of childhood in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? 

One of the enduring images in my head is of a scene along the border with Pakistan. During the civil war after the Soviet defeat, a huge number of people migrated to Pakistan. So going to Pakistan was a very ordinary event for Afghans, who would drive just across the border to visit family or friends. On the way back from Pakistan, under Taliban rule, the first thing that one would see was broken cassette tapes, broken musical instruments — drums and guitars — hanging from a tree. This is the first image a traveler would see upon entering the country; this image was  how the traveler was welcomed.

When I was a child, I did not understand the significance of the tree. To me right now, however, it has become very symbolic: as a child, I was deprived of the ordinary entertainment that children around the world — or even Afghan children now — take for granted. Television was banned in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; pictures were banned; there was one radio station in the country called “Radio Voice of Sharia”; kite flying, which is associated with Afghanistan now because of the The Kite Runner, was banned; celebrations of the new year were prohibited because the Taliban thought they were associated with Zoroastrianism. My friends and I had very little entertainment, so we had to channel all the free time we had. One of the things I did was Persian calligraphy. For about four years, I would learn different styles. But after a while I grew tired of this routine: how many styles could I realistically learn?

There were secret drawing classes offered [Note: art was banned under Taliban rule], and I crossed over from calligraphy to drawing. The children in my drawing class would post lookouts outside the classroom to make sure Taliban were not around. We knew art teachers and artists who went to jail simply for painting something. These classes were risky, but after a while the risks did not seem so inhibiting. Entertainment was very scarce, and I wanted something to do.

You wrote in your article for Columbia University’s undergraduate magazine, The Eye, that after the 2001 US invasion, “Society had to begin from zero again.” Could you describe your perception of the collapse and re-inception of a society that had already been, as you described, “crumbling from within” before the US invasion?

In a way, the routine of law and order that is so ordinary in, say, the United States, was completely absent in Afghanistan. For six years — from 1990 to 1996 — Kabul, a very small city, had about five or six political factions fighting over it. After the Soviet withdrawal left a vacuum  of power, these groups who had been fighting against a common enemy turned against each other. The result was that in a very small city there were basically six different governments, and the city was destroyed. In 1996 when the Taliban took over, there was no system left — no police, no army, no civil servants — and they ruled with an iron fist for another six years without putting that system back in place. Sure, they had a more cohesive and regimented government, but this law and order was achieved through fear. The security that was provided was a double-edged sword: Afghans had to pay for it by being oppressed. Many people today forget that Afghans were thankful for that security in the 1990s, because for six years before that their women were raped, their children were killed. Freedom is the last thing about which Afghans thought when death was hanging so low over their heads. First, security; then freedom.

The Taliban swept through Afghanistan because they brought hope for a more secure country. Yet after they were in power, they did oppressed the population and failed to rebuild the nation. When I write about “the rebirth of a society” I am describing the refocus on building a system, a government, and a police force: the small things that are taken for granted in any other country that has a functioning regime. One of the stories that I have heard — perhaps it is a rumor, but it is very telling of the situation left by the Taliban — is about a moment after Kharzai arrived in Afghanistan to begin his term, when a western official is visiting him in the Presidential Palace. The pair has just finished drafting a new resolution on a computer, but there is no printer in the palace to print the document. The officials have to wait for over an hour as a clerk goes out of the palace, finds a printer in some shop in Kabul, prints the document, and returns to get the President’s signature. This story really shows how after the Taliban were toppled, the state infrastructure was in ruins. In the whole Presidential Palace there was not a single printer.

There is another fascinating story I remember. Between 1996 and 2001, during Taliban rule, Mullah Omar is the leader of the country. Nobody in Afghanistan knows what this man looks like or sounds like. There are no pictures of him circulating, he never addresses the nation on radio. The only time he spoke to the nation was in 2001 when US B-52 aircraft began bombing Afghanistan. I have heard stories that he met with strangers only from behind a curtain. I do not know how true that rumor is, but it is true that the only image of him circulating in the media now made it to Afghanistan after he was deposed in 2001. Imagine having a leader in the US for six years without any American citizen knowing what that leader looks like.

So when I write about a “rebirth,” I mean it in a very certain sense. Growing up in a system where procedure is nonexistent, I did not associate infrastructure with society: everybody just went about their own life. After 2001, structure was beginning to be imposed on this system. By rebirth, I mean the creation of a position of leadership that the people understand, and a system that is designed to ensure the continuity of that position: a cohesive community wherein everyone is not exclusively looking out for their own lives.

Dahr Jamail described how he had to desensitize himself from the violence in Iraq during his time reporting there. How do you desensitize yourself to a country to which you have a very strong link? Can you report objectively on a country to which you have an intimate connection? 

It is a challenge to report on Afghanistan because the news coming out of Libya or Egypt, for example, to me is simply hard news. I can see the facts and report them. But when I see a piece of news coming out of Afghanistan, it stirs much more emotion than news from any other part of the world. I do not think that I need to desensitize myself to be objective. Sometimes, to balance the reporting elsewhere, I need a degree of sensitivity, as long as I am clear and open about my feelings. When a war is over the story does have a tendency to fade from popular attention. Iraq is a good example of that. In March, over two forty people were killed in a series of terrorist explosions across the country, but this story did not make the top of the news in many main stream media organizations. It gets a few lines about the number of people who were killed, but then the world moves on. Afghanistan is getting a good deal of attention right now because operations there constitute an ongoing war, but this very well might not continue once American troops leave.

The US is at a fascinating and delicate stage of an ongoing war: the drawdown stage. More attention will be paid to the situation in this stage than almost any other. It is extremely important  at this point to inject sensitivity to the individual stories of Afghans living through yet another drastic change in their situation. Nobody disagrees that this is a critical stage of the conflict there: what is going to happen to Afghanistan in the next few months or years? I think it is crucial to share the stories of everyday Afghans — to whom I have a deep connection — so that people around the world can better answer this question. But it is a challenge to be mindful while being sensitive.

We do two kinds of stories at Al Jazeera, where I work. One is the quick news story — a fast, 400-500 word article summarizing an evolving situation — and then we do features, which require much more in-depth reporting. In the features, I can afford to be more sensitive — not opinionated, since Al Jazeera is an objective news organization — and dig deeper into issues. I do both of these kinds of stories. I am practiced enough to be able to do the shorter news stories, to put the facts on the page. On the other hand, I have learned that in the feature-length articles, I am able to bring in analysis to explore an issue from multiple angles. Nobody can say that he is totally objective, because the decisions he makes on which analysis to include says a lot about the character of the reporter. As long as there is somebody else arguing for the opposite position of that analysis, the whole story will be related effectively.

Of course I feel very strongly about certain issues: the American soldier’s shooting spree in Kandahar, for example. Sixteen people, nine of them children, were murdered. I am going to cry when I report on that story; I cannot take it as just another news story. I am not going to say that my emotions do not to influence my coverage, because they do. But at the same time, why should I try to keep away such sentiments that could humanize the victims? As long as I am open about what I am doing, I do not see any problem: everyone deserves to be humanized, especially the victims who have been largely ignored in western media.

In a country where, for the last three decades, there has been very little stability — caused, in large part, by external groups — how can Afghanis achieve peace? Should external groups be involved in this process, or is it important for it to be an internal process?

Achieving peace will be a difficult process. Because Afghanistan is a very poor country — it is located amidst very intrusive neighbors: Pakistan, Iran, India — some sort of support from the outside will always be necessary to provide a barrier to these countries that have meddled in Afghan affairs for decades, and which have established their own stake in the country. Whether that support comes from the US or another country is not the most important issue. At the same time, much of the internal conflict is a reactionary conflict. Many people took up weapons to fight intruders. Yes, there is a strong Taliban element, who will continue to fight no matter what happens. But there is a good fraction of the insurgency that base their actions on the desire to protect Afghanistan from foreign incursion. It is a tricky question of balancing the support Afghanistan needs in the region against groups that are proxies of nations like Pakistan, India, or Iran, and reconciling the internal groups fighting against any external support. Outside support needs to be so limited that it appeases the factions fighting against it, while at the same time it needs to be effective. The immediate challenge is convincing Afghans that some level of American support and involvement will be necessary in the near future.

Afghanistan occupies a geopolitical intersection between Europe and Asia proper, giving the country a unique identity compared to its fellows in Asia or the Middle East. How is Afghanistan viewed in the rest of the region? 

 Afghanistan really does not qualify as the Middle East. It is Central-South Asian, and borders a number of Asian countries as well as a number of Central Asian countries. Culturally and linguistically, Afghanistan is much closer to India and Pakistan than the Arabic Middle East. The only thing that binds the country to the greater Middle East is Islam — Afghanistan is 99.9% Muslim. Because centers of the Muslim faith are located in the Arabic Middle East, Afghans feel a very close connection to that region. It is also much easier in the West to categorize Afghanistan as Middle Eastern than to delve into the nuanced geopolitics.

Thus, Afghans are viewed on a shifting spectrum. Their pivotal geopolitical position draws a great deal of attention from tense regional neighbors: a great deal of the country’s internal problems are due to its geographic position. Pakistan, for example, wants to have control over Afghanistan’s domestic political arena so as not to allow any Indian influence in its backyard. Pakistan has been trying desperately to ensure that goal by arming proxy groups within Afghanistan that are favorable to their desire. India, of course, does not want an anti-Indian leadership in Kabul. Iran is in an equally difficult position. It certainly does not want American military power on its doorstep. However, Tehran has never been friendly with the Taliban. As a country that sees itself as the traditional protectors of Shia Muslims, it has seen the Taliban — hardline Sunnis — as a threat.

You write that “In Afghanistan, more than ever, there is a need for archiving and memorializing.” History can often be interpreted as a leisurely, static discipline that only looks backwards. For someone who has combined oral-history with journalism, do you believe that history and historical study is urgent in Afghanistan in a way that it is not elsewhere? 

History should be “urgent” in all countries. I use Afghanistan as an example to discuss this point. The reason I think the study of history is particularly urgent in Afghanistan is twofold. First, for the last thirty or forty years, Afghan history has been the history of the ordinary citizen suffering; many of the people who suffered are in their sixties and seventies. They have tremendous stories to tell, but those stories are at risk of being lost because the prominent view of history is one of top-down study, only the history of the chief political players. But if the history experienced is one of suffering, the need to make the archiving also about the individual suffering is much stronger. Second, memorializing helps one move forward. Unless one puts an event or a period in the realm of the past, it is very difficult to move on and build something new. If there is no way to put the tremendous suffering one has experienced behind in a way that it is listened to and understood, it is impossible to go forward. It is crucial to ensure that this history will be studied, read, analyzed — to show those who suffered that their experience was not in vain.  

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MUJIB MASHAL is an Online journalist for Al-Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar. He was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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