Saturday, 10 May 2014

Afghanistan revisited...

Ten years after my first visit to Afghanistan in 2004, there is nothing spectacular to report. The country limps forward, the bombs and the natural disasters notwithstanding. Whether the situation there is better today than it was ten years back is hard to say. 

Stephan and I have been back a few times in this period. Although we started in Kabul, in the last years we have spent most of our time in Herat, in the western part of Afghanistan close to Iran. Stephan has helped to set up Faculties of Science in Herat University as well as in Mazar-e-Sharif. He has also facilitated some of the brighter students to come to study for higher degrees in Germany, and has sent teachers from German universities to teach some courses there through the German Academic Exchange Programme (DAAD).  Whether all of this will make a lasting difference only time will tell.

I was last there in September 2011 for about two weeks. Some events that occurred during that trip made me decide that I really did not want to go back there any just hurt too much – the bitter-sweet memories and the  terrible feeling that despite all our good intentions and our best efforts, there was not much that we could do there to help.  Besides, there was the never-ending and unrelenting saga of senseless violence and killing: on the day of our arrival, one of their former Presidents was assassinated in this home in Kabul. Two days later a German tourist set off from Herat after breakfast in the morning and never returned.  Another bomb exploded somewhere in the city a day later – we saw the smoke from the university, but such things had become so commonplace that it did not take long before we could carry on with our classes. On the day after we left, a bomb was hurled at the bus in which the security personnel of Herat airport was travelling to get to work, leaving all 17 of them dead!

The first poster that had greeted us on our arrival at Kabul airport was ‘Welcome to the land of the brave’ with a picture of an Afghan soldier in full combat gear. An even larger poster greeted us on our way out ‘Welcome to Afghanistan’s largest family – Roshan’. Those posters were very telling, for as we would find out bombs and mobile phones were perhaps what mattered most in Afghanistan. There is a brand new solar energy park coming up just beyond the new airport terminal building. Multicoloured apartment blocks were coming up everywhere. There was even a brand new ‘Kabul Paris Wedding Hall’.

Inside the terminal complex, I went to check out the loos (as I am convinced that the condition of public toilets is a good indicator of progress) only to have to wade through a sea of urine to reach the choked toilets, not one of which had a door with a lock that actually worked. If that wasn’t enough, as I was making my way out, I found  a cleaning woman standing unabashedly outside the door demanding a tip! Reminded me of the time at some Afghan airport when the security lady, after having discovered some A4 batteries in my handbag, told me that she would pretend not to have seen them if I paid her 10 dollars! 

Our onward flight to Herat had got delayed for no better reason but that the pilot had not arrived! It did seem if some things took longer to change than others. But the Afghan landscape had not changed – it was still absolutely spectacular – bare rugged mountain systems separated by deep narrow valleys running like veins across an uneven brown terrain.

At Herat airport, one uses small ramshackle wheelbarrows to cart luggage. Old men and little boys wait around wherever they can either selling boiled eggs or looking for customers for a quick ‘shoe polish’. Why aren’t they in school at this time of the day, I wondered. Because they need to earn their living, our Afghan friend Habibzai told me. Habibzai had paid his porter boy 10 Afghani (about 10 Rupees), and the chap then proudly bought a boiled egg for 2 Afghani and happily ate it. Seeing the longing in the eyes of the other little boys, Habibzai went up to the egg-seller and asked him if he had eaten an egg himself. When the boy shook his head, Habibzai offered to buy him one. But the boy refused. By then the other fellows had also gathered around them. Habibzai asked them if they would engage in an `egg-fight’ with him; they agreed. The idea was to hit the tip of the opponent’s egg with the tip of your egg and crack it. You got your opponent’s cracked egg if you won. Habibzai kept losing till each of the boys had won an egg each. The glee and relish with which the boys ate the eggs they had won was to be seen to be believed. That was quite a lesson in the Afghan sense of honour for me – they would not accept anything for free, no matter how poor, for they were not beggars; but had no problems in taking what they believed they had rightfully won in fair play.

But the gap between the world of the poor porters at the airport and those whose luggage they carried was still huge. There were many more cars in the street of Herat than in our previous visit. There were many new posh high-end restaurants where the rich and powerful enjoyed life. A few fancy new hotels had come up too – surely there must be some demand. The Aga Khan Trust had helped to completely renovate at a huge expense the Herat City Citadel built by Alexander the Great and it was scheduled to be opened later in 2011. The Trust also ran a music school in very idyllic surroundings where students learnt to play instruments like the Rubab, the Dilruba and the Doatara besides percussion instruments and vocal music. Several NGOs were active in the city involved with many different activities, much like in Kabul. And for reasons that I won’t go into, all NGOs seemed to have much more money than they knew what to do with.

The Narzary Hotel in Herat was marked as a ‘white hotel’ in the security rankings, and hence looked like a high-security prison from the outside – totally barricaded off with sandbags and metal barriers. Inside in the lounge with massive upholstered sofas, there were large well-kept aquariums with many tiny shiny colourful fish -- just to make the contrast even greater. It felt rather eerie. We were told not to go out unless it was absolutely essential, and even then never alone, only in groups. We also had a satellite phone with us, with which we were supposed to report back to some central control station – each one of us separately -- at a fixed time every day.  It really felt as if we were under constant surveillance. I  defied those orders once and went on a trip of the city with some of the girl students – every street corner had a story to tell – this is the supermarket where a bomb went off last month, this is the house of my friend whose brother is a Taliban fighter, that was the place where there was heavy shooting recently -- the landmarks had rather frightening associations. It didn’t really feel like we were sightseeing – I thought it best not to insist on going again.

On one occasion we were invited for a meal to the house of one of the students, Salma. She had just got her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and had joined the department as an Assistant. Salma is one of 5 sisters and 3 brothers. Her father was a Mullah and during the Taliban era. During that time, he had opened a pharmacy, only for women (because he saw how much they suffered), despite stiff opposition from the Taliban. Salma’s eldest sister Saleha was a qualified practising doctor and she ran the pharmacy at present with the help of one of the younger sisters who was also studying medicine. At some point, Saleha asked permission to ask a question which was bothering her for a long time: ‘Why was it that despite the fact that the West is spending so much money on Afghanistan, nothing was changing on the ground? Why was it that the poor in Afghanistan are still exactly where they were, even after so many years of support from the West?’ And she saw that every day in the pharmacy she said. `Did the West not care what happened to their money?’ she wanted to know. Nobody had any convincing answers.

Clearly that family was very special, and it was not just the food that was impressive there that afternoon. I did visit Saleha’s clinic the following day – the atmosphere inside was to be seen to be believed – there were at least a dozen women patients cramped up in that little space, waiting for their turn to consult Dr. Saleha, but without their veils and burkhas, they not only looked prettier, but also freer and happier. It looked like a little private refuge for women where they could relax and feel even a little pampered, simply because that tiny space was completely out of bounds for men.

My brief was to try and talk to the girl students in the university and to discuss their problems. I did try but could I really help even a single one of them? I am not sure. On the contrary, probably I did more harm than good by raising their expectations, by encouraging them to ask questions and to not accept what they don’t like. The situation for women in Afghanistan has possibly worsened in the last years. When I had first gone to Herat in 2006, while girls and women did cover their heads with scarves, most did not wear full-length burkhas, by 2011 almost all women were wearing burkhas on the streets in Herat. Then, I had sensed some expectation for change in the air, with the passage of time all such hopes have gradually dried out...
But in terms of sheer numbers, there were many more girl students in the Science Faculty than at the beginning. What is more, some of the students from the first batch (that had joined in 2006), had finished their studies and were already working in 2011. Most of them had become school teachers: I was told that being a school teacher is about the only job that educated Afghan women are allowed to do without being told off by their husbands and fathers. Reminded me of the horrible incident when 250 girls had set fire to themselves in Herat simply because they did not see any way forward. Not because they did not know what they wanted to do, but because most of them would be given no choice, they would not be asked at all. 

A few of the luckier ones such as Salma had also found jobs in the university. But even then, what were her prospects? Two of the brightest students from the first batch at Herat were both called Soraya, so we called one Soraya B and the other Small Soraya. After finishing, Small Soraya had a small job in the Faculty office but paid her entire (meagre) salary to attend a course to learn English at a private institute with the aim of going abroad for further studies.  Soraya B’s dream was to work at NASA. She was very clever and by far the best in her batch. Her English was already so good that she had got a scholarship to go to the US to study but her parents did not allow her to go because she was not married, and there was the question of the family’s honour which was obviously more important. Her equally smart brother had been allowed to go, however, and was already in the US.

A third girl student also had a similar name, Somayeh. She was also bright and very quick, but she was a Hazara. In a world dominated by Pashtuns and Tajjiks, the Hazaras had it tough. Religious difference made it more difficult as the Hazaras were Shia while most other Afghans were Sunni. We met Somayeh in Kabul on our way back. She had got married and had become a very active blogger (on issues of Hazara nationalistic politics) of considerable repute – so the divisions between these groups were only getting more rigid.

Sitting in the pretty garden of the well-appointed DAAD guest house in Kabul on our way back gave me time to think over things. The subdued but expensive decor of the guest house seemed an apt metaphor for the many contradictions that plagued my thoughts. The guest house was like an oasis of peace in the middle of a desert filled smoke and strife -- Kabul. What we had tried to do in Afghanistan also seemed a bit like that – we had tried to do what we could under the difficult circumstances, but not compromising on many other considerations such as our own personal safety. And therefore, although we had done as much as we possibly could, the impact had just not been enough to bring about any systemic change.  A lot of energy and money had been invested in reviving the university in Kabul and also in that in Herat, but at the end of the day, nothing much had changed. Not just in the system but also for the students themselves -- most of them were still left fending for himself or herself, with no clear prospects for their future after they got their degrees at the university. It was not even clear that they were better equipped to cope with their lives than they were before.

And what of those very few lucky ones who after finishing their studies at the university there, even managed to get a scholarship to come for higher studies to Germany? A few have survived and gone back with their degrees. Some of the male students have brought their families over and have somehow managed to stay on. But for most, the difference between what they knew and what they were expected to know, coupled with the cultural shock of leaving the security and familiarity of their homes to arrive in a completely unfamiliar, foreign and sometimes, even uncaring, world, was just too much to cope with. For the men, it was perhaps easier to accept and admit having failed and to return home when their initial scholarship periods came to an end – after all they would have saved some money from their stipends and could always go back and use their Germany-trained tag to start something by themselves back in their own country.

But what about the girls?  I know of a pretty, young, unmarried Afghan girl who, on being offered a scholarship, had resigned her job as an assistant in the university, and had decided to come to Germany to study for a Masters in a science discipline, against the wishes of her family. But at the end of two years in Germany, she had not even acquired the requisite level of knowledge of German to be able to get admission into a university. Staying alone in her hostel room, not being able to speak German well enough to be able to make new friends, not being able to talk about her problems with her family back home and with no prospects of ever getting the degree she had hoped to get, what was she supposed to do? Her stipend was long over, she had used up all her savings, her visa had not been extended, she had been advised to go back, but could she? Would her family accept her back? Would she ever be able to get a job again in Afghanistan, even one similar to the one she had resigned and given up to come to Germany? Would she ever find an Afghan man who would be willing to marry her, although he could never be sure what she might have done as a single unmarried girl all those years in Germany?

More than anything else it was these personal stories that were becoming more unbearably disturbing for me – all the more because I was not able to do anything to help.

Ironically however, it was the developments in the personal life story of one Afghan man that finally made me decide that I did not want to have anything more to do with that country anymore. Although he is Afghan, this man, say Mr. X, had moved with his young family to Germany and has lived here for almost 30 years now. He as well as his children (who grew up in Germany) speak German fluently and they are all German citizens. I had always looked up to him and his family as good examples of how Afghans who had come to live in Germany, could learn the best from both worlds, and become  better human beings.  However, recently Mr. X, who had been spending a lot of time in Afghanistan in the last few years teaching at a university, told us of his decision to take one of his girl students as his second wife. After all it was allowed in his religion. That she was probably younger than his own children, that his first wife was still alive and would perhaps be very unhappy, that his own children could perhaps object, that most Germans didn't normally have two wives at the same time...all these arguments didn't seem to have any impact on his decision. For me, the reaction of the young girl student to the proposal was even more shocking: it seems she was very happy because she believed couldn’t have made a better match; she was very proud to be the wife of an Ustad, as University teachers are called in Afghanistan, who cares how old he was or how many wives he already had. So he married her, they have a nice home in Afghanistan now and they even have a baby together. It is clearly a case of ...and they lived happily ever after, but this episode has sealed the Afghanistan chapter for me, at least for some time to come, don’t ask me why...  


  1. Remarkable account on the ground situation in Afghanistan.Here is a land that has stayed for most part of its recent
    history under the shadow of the gun. A wonderful and friendly people have been scarred by the brutal events that unfold
    before them at disturbing frequency.Yet hope survives and perhaps better days await this rugged land as a new generation
    turn their back on achieving their ends through violence. Your write up painted a very dismal picture but one does feel confident
    that amidst everything girls like the Sorayas have done remarkably well.and may well be the new face of Afghanistan deciding the course of the nation in the near future.I am sure the likes of the Ustad of Herat would one day become an aberration as old archaic traditions in the garb of honor are revealed for what they actually are ---- medieval machismo.and discarded. I am sure one day you will find enough reasons to visit Afghanistan a third time. .

    1. Bhaskar, thanks for trying to focus on the positive aspects. I have been to Afghanistan many times already in the last years, not just twice. I wish I could be as hopeful as you, but right now, I see only black

  2. In underdeveloped societies the weaker sections within the society are generally exploited and mistreated. In many cases, the exploited sections don't even realise or understand the injustice meted out. Very few of those who do understand dare to protest. Very few of those, who do protest, survive the wrath of those in power. In the Indian subcontinent the weaker sections are visible in several avatars - females, dalits, religious minorities and so on.

    Gender based exploitations do happen among the educated and economically well off. Even then I believe that economic development together with universal education is the panacea to all the ills of exploitation, exclusion and inequality. Dishonest people will always be there. The Afghan-German in your story, though well educated and rich, is dishonest. The pride of the young lady, about her union with a much married Ustad, is disturbing but that is because she is ignorant of the underlying exploitation.

    1. Thanks for you thoughts, Sanjay. But I would not call Mr. X dishonest. He was not lying to anybody. He had told his family about his decision to marry a second time before he did so. No, he has not done anything that is not permitted under Islamic law. That is not the point.

      The point is about how different people react differently when there is a clash of world views, when a person who you thought was very much like you (and shared your values) suddenly turns around and does something completely unexpected. That is when one begins to doubt one's own ability to know and understand others. After what happened, I am convinced that despite all my efforts there is still something very basic about the Afghan world view (at least about the world view of the few Afghans I have met) that I do not understand. Therefore, rather than judge them on the basis of my incomplete knowledge about them, I think it is better for me to just not say any more.