Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Four countries in a month

Between mid September and mid October 2011 I visited four countries, physically perhaps not very far from each other, but each with their own unique and very different story to tell...


First stop was the splendid city of Vienna, which once again made me stand and stare speechless at the quiet and dignified grandeur of many of its avenues, its buildings and its public places. I was there to attend the annual conference of the German Anthropologists and there was plenty of food for thought and discussion. Sitting in the anonymous comfort of being at such a large gathering and listening to some excellent lectures I couldn't help feeling that it was only appropriate that Vienna was hosting such an event -- a city with so much history, so much to offer in terms of culture and the arts, hosting a meeting to dicuss what culture and civilisation could mean... it really did seem as if one only needed to look around that astonishing city to be able to fill such terms with sense and meaning...

However, we were a bunch of anthropologists trying to understand not only the high culture that Vienna had to offer but also 'other cultures'. But if anyone had asked me if I understood anything at all about Afghan culture I would have had to shake my head and try to change the subject. More so after this last trip to Herat and Kabul -- the second stop in my travels. I have not been back in Afghanistan in the last three years -- but the change I saw there this time really broke my heart -- I am a coward, I know, but I doubt that I will ever find the courage to go back there again. It is natural to be stunned by a beautiful building or be moved by a fantastic piece of art, but how does one cope with so much unnecessary and totally avoidable tragedy? I know I'm not making sense, perhaps its better to just stop here.

Many things went wrong right from the moment we landed there (with the assassination of Rabbani taking place right on our first day) but still it would have been okay if I somehow could convince myself that no matter what their leaders or the fundamentalists did, the ordinary Afghans are good and innocent people. But unfortunately I can't. There is a lot that does not make any sense to me, and it is not just that I do not trust my understanding of the Afghans I am not sure I understand anyone else any better either. I came back with an overpowering sense of sadness, sadness at the incredible waste, sadness at the destruction of so much that was good, sadness at the loss of innocence of a simple and loving people...

Before I could recover from that I was off to Helsinki to attend another conference, this time of the Finnish anthropologists. And the difference was not just the weather; the quiet unhurried calm of the Finns, which can only come from an assurance and confidence in their futures, made starker the contrast between a world at peace and one at war with itself. More than being able to savour and relish those crisp and clear autumn days in Helsinki, more than being able to enjoy the lovely day out mushroom-picking with old friends in the woods just outside the city, whatever I did there only served to deepen my sense of tragedy at the senselessless and idiocy of most of what I had seen and heard in Herat and Kabul.

So it was good to have a few days off to sort myself out, sitting in the book-filled library of the religion and folklore department in the University of Tartu,enjoying the friendly but not demanding company of my host and his colleagues, living those few days like a student again, responsible only for myself. Being told that my work was good after I had made my presentations, and being left alone at other times to do as I pleased in that pretty little university city, shimmering golden in the autumn sunshine, did me good -- I worked in the library mornings and afternoons, went for walks, visited quaint little museums, chatted with friendly colleagues and students, and just let myself be...

By the time Stephan joined me in Tartu I was back to being able to feel and be happy again. We spent the last two days in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and believe me, it is hard to iamgine a prettier, more lovable city -- Tallinn has everything -- history, the sea, incredibly nice people, intriguingly different sights with amazing stories connected with them, old and new, traditional and modern -- I can't think of a nicer place at the moment.

So much so that by the time I got back home, my faith in human beings again and in the essential goodness of the human heart and the kindness of the human spirit had been more or less restored. But while this therapy worked for me, I wonder what, if anything at all, can work in that beautiful but unhappy land called Afghanistan...


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