The Google search engine’s autocomplete feature is a good way to assess public opinion in an informal fashion. I wanted to know what the world thought about the main four ethnic groups in Afghanistan. This was the result:
In the opening line of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says that her book is an “attack on the current urban planning and rebuilding” (p. 3). She wrote this in the 1960s, when large-scale urban redevelopment projects were transforming the shape of American cities. However, Death and Life is not just a battle cry from the 1960s, it is a book of novel ideas and insights that are still relevant to the urban experience. At the height of centralized urban planning practices in New York led by Robert Moses, Jacobs was the flag bearer of U.S. urbanists who fought against his destructive projects (e.g. Cross Bronx Expressway) in city councils, editorials and on the streets. In the end, Moses managed to finish most of his projects and fundamentally transform New York City. Despite this, Jacobs carried on her struggles by writing this book, one that half a century later still continues to influence how the public and the planners perceive and produce city spaces.
Jacobs’ main purpose is to challenge the mainstream planning principles of her time: superblocks, car-oriented mobility solutions, separation of land uses, lack of attention to density and overlooking racial issues. As an alternative approach, she proposes a number of key solutions to make cities work better: (a) a district should be mixed and serve several primary functions; (b) blocks must be short and walkable in order to maintain a dynamic street life; (c) urban buildings should be diverse in terms of age, physical condition, functions and rentals; and finally, (d) neighbourhoods should be crowded and dense to create a sense of community and safety.
Jacobs puts a great emphasis on street life. Sidewalk interactions, she argues, are essential to enhance racial and class integration. She even wants streets to serve as playgrounds. Children should be able to “fool around” on streets, instead of playing “recognized games” in the parks. (p. 85) She is particularly against the Corbusian notions of open spaces and big parks. Jacobs, instead, proposes small neighbourhood parks and playgrounds, spaces that could be easily accessed and constantly used.
Death and Life, in particular, attacks urban planners and their established principles. That was why, in response, they reacted by counterattacks and mockery: Lewis Mumford (1962), in his New Yorker review, called her book “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies,” while a reviewer for the Journal of the American Institute of Planners accused her of naïveté and contemptuously added: “The enchanted ballerina of Hudson Street, with a chip on her shoulder, would throw the baby out with the bathwater” (Hoppenfeld, 1962, p. 136). These harsh reactions were partly because of Jacobs’ position as an outsider: she had no formal training in planning and she had never finished college.
Today, Jacobs’ ideas about walkability, safety, mixed-use development and density are being practiced in many cities, including her hometown of New York, where its outgoing mayor has been pushing for bike lines, neighbourhood revitalization and pedestrian-only areas in downtown. With the increasing influence of new technology on how we behave, consume and work, it is not only the planners who transform cities but an array of other agents who are shaping the urban experience: software developers, health agencies, small business, large corporations, local authorities, security institutions and, most importantly, ordinary citizens. This is a significantly more collective and participatory form of planning which Jacobs advocated.
The car is no longer a universal object of desire. In response to environmental and health concerns, an increasing number of cities in the world are redefining their transportation strategies to accommodate cyclists. Apart from bicycle-sharing projects in North American cities, there are cities like Copenhagen where 55% of urban trips are done on bicycles (Tagliabue, 2011). The city is no longer “a wonderful mechanical toy” built for cars (Jacobs, 1993, p. 23). The city today, thanks to Jacobs and other urban advocates like her, are more human-friendly, healthier and more inclusive.
Death and Life is rich for its insightful ideas about the social and economic dynamics of city neighbourhoods. It suffers, however, from the lack of a rigorous methodology and theoretical basis: it seems that Jacobs has based the entire book on personal observations and anecdotal evidence. Her most important contribution, in my opinion, is participatory urbanism, a kind of approach in planning process that values the people’s interest and engagement. This is her lasting legacy in city planning. Therefore, one could argue that she lost the battle against Moses, but won the war.
Hoppenfeld, M. (1962). The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs [Review]. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 28 (2), 136–137.
Jacobs, J. (1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House
Mumford, L. (1962, December 1). “Mother Jacobs’ home remedies.” The New Yorker. Accessed October 18, 2013: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1962/12/01/1962_12_01_148_TNY_CARDS_000269697
Tagliabue, J. (2011, Sep. 13). “In City of Cyclists, Pedestrians Feel the Squeeze”. The New York Times. Accessed October 22, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/world/europe/in-copenhagen-pedestrians-feel-squeezed-out-by-cyclists.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[Originally published on OpenDemocracy's Cities in Conflict section.]
Each year, for one week in September, Kabulis celebrate Martyrs Week. The image war which ensues on the streets, buildings and public spaces of the city is highly political, and has in recent years become increasingly violent.
In 2002 Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) declared the 9th-15th of September a “Week of Martyrs” in honour of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a mujahedeen leader assassinated in a suicide attack on September 9, 2001. Each year, the Martyrs Week ceremonies unearth the same debate amongst city-residents: who really is a martyr, and who a war criminal? To which there is little agreement, one ethnic group’s martyr is another’s war criminal. The disparate meanings of martyr, this perpetual debate, are typically expressed on the streets of Kabul in a form of ‘image war’, a war which over the past two years, has taken a particularly violent turn.
The man on the car window
Each year on the Week of Martyrs, streets, squares and public buildings in Kabul are adourned with posters of men killed in one of the many wars Afghanistan has experienced over the past 40 years. Typically the week provokes groups of men, occasionally armed, to take to the streets with big portraits of their favoured martyr, driving recklessly in SUVs to attract public attention. Since the week coincides with the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death, his supporters, the Tajiks, tend to dominant the streets. Their ceremonial parades create fear in the city and usually end in bouts of sporadic violence. Last year, these poster-carrying convoys caused a dozen injuries and at least two deaths after armed conflict in the Hazara neighbourhood of West Kabul.
This year, according to Afghan news sources and social media, the caravans of cars belonging to Tajiks, careered through the dusty streets of Kabul in belligerent fashion, carrying pictures of their slain leader and the official flags of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992-2001), the Mujahedeen government. In addition to some traffic incidents on several spots in the city, they also physically confronted groups of Pashtuns the natural advsersart of their “National Hero”.
The Massoud supporters also attacked Zhwandoon, a Pashtun TV station in Kabul which has recently broadcast documentary videos from the civil war accusing Massoud of committing war crimes during the 1992-1995 conflicts in the capital. According to TV officials, the Tajik men tried to install posters of Massoud on the office building of Zhwandoon TV, coming into conflict with the TV station’s security guards. The conflict was broadcast immediately on TV and showed a loud crowd quarrelling amid the sound of arm fires. The broadcast provoked further conflicts, as a group of young Pashtuns attacked the cars carrying posters of Massoud in the city and began installing pictures of Amanulla Khan, a Pashtun king who was dethroned by Tajik villagers in 1929, on public places.
A country of martyrs
Afghanistan has, at least since 1979, experienced near ongoing war under different regimes, the country’s war victims and criminals are both high in number, and diverse in background. Afghanistan, like many post-conflict countries, has failed to implement a transitional justice mechanism to put try war criminals, or at least, seek some sort of reconciliation. Many of the former communist, Mujahedeen and even Taliban officials remain in power in the current government and some were even elected as members of parliament.
This rather complex situation has turned Afghanistan’s recent history into a taboo. Last year, the Ministry of Education decided to stop teaching Afghanistan’s post-1973 history to school children. In new school books there is no mention of Soviet invasion, communist rule, Taliban brutalities, NATO occupation, nor the millions of war victims and refugees, . Such forgetting of Afghanistan’s recent violent history has served to exacerbate this martyr/criminal complex; such is likely the case for any country with such a great number of ‘martyrs’.
September’s events were just one indication of how this war-weary city is divided on the basis of ethnic and religious grounds. It is not only on occasions like the Week of Martyrs, however, that the city’s hidden tensions surface on the streets. Image war is a permanent in Kabul city.
On the streets of the Afghan capital, it is all too common to see cars decorated with images of different ethnic and ideological icons, such as slain Islamic fighters, Ahmad Shah Massoud (Tajik), Abdul Ali Mazari (Hazara), Haji Qadir (Pashtun) and of course the living powerful such as President Hamid Karzai and his two vice presidents. One interesting trend in car window propaganda is the sight of forbidden faces such as Dr. Najib (1987-1992) murderd by the Taliban in 1996, the last president of the communist regime and once director of its notorious intelligence agency. Seemingly, it is no longer a taboo to show public sympathy for communist ‘martyrs’. Daud Khan (1973-1978) the first president, a Pashtun nationalist who was assassinated by communists in 1978 coup is also a widely visible face on cars, so is his nephew, Mohammad Zahir (1933-1973), Afghanistan’s last king who was dethroned by Daud Khan’s own coup.
The martyrs are alive
Cars have thus become a mobile and emergent means of propaganda, political expression via windshield. However, these car posters have other important functions too: they are used as a pass. In the diplomatic zone of downtown Kabul, most streets are only open to vehicles belonging to high level officials, others are stopped by the Afghan security. In order to pass through the check points, some people who own expensive cars, decorate their vehicles with images of ethnic heroes to indicate they belong to a powerful man or significant political party. There have been a great number of incidents wherein police officers, in attempting to stop these kinds of vehicles, have been physically assaulted by armed men within the cars.
As the international security forces are packing up to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the country is getting prepared for the next year’s presidential elections, deep-seated ethnic rivalries are on the rise again. The pre-election political coalitions so far seem to be clearly formed on ethnic and linguistic lines. The men displayed on Kabul cars, though long dead, are well alive in Afghanistan’s collective conscience and political scene. They still structure the political organisation of the country. The Quran’s poetic metaphor “martyrs are alive” (2:154), is best applicable to these living martyrs on the streets of Kabul. They are the poster boys for a multi-layered conflict which continues to haunt the country.
An interesting local news from Siraj al-Akhabr newspaper, Vol. 3, Issue 11, February 11, 1914:
Important Robbery: A few days ago, in Chindawul area of Kabul, a group of burglars broke into the house of Mirza Mohammad Sharif Khan, a custom official in Dhaka border. They stole two-three hundred thousand rupees in cash, jewellery and other precious items. Mirza’s salary is 150 Kabuli rupees in a month!
And you still think that it was Karzai who invented corruption in Afghanistan?
Years ago, I heard it from someone in Kabul.
People in Afghanistan, belong to one of the following three groups:
- Al-Qaeda (Taliban, insurgents and other terrorists)
- Al-Faeda (“the profit”, government officials, aid community, foreigners)
-Al-Gaeda (“the fucked”, the rest of the country)
Needless to say, I belong to the last group.
The future historians of Afghanistan, can sum up the entire history of the last decade in these three words. So deep!
A large group of male and female students from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Kabul University have been in hunger strike and in a sit-in protest near the parliament building since May 20. They number around 70 and all of them are Hazaras. So far, about 30 of them have been hospitalized. Not only the international media has ignored the event, even the non- Hazara Afghan media, in particular Tolo and Ariana TVs have turned a blind eye on the ongoing protest which has been the central topic in Afghan blogsphere and social networking sites for the last week (interestingly, the owners of both TV stations are Shia, but they are very cautious to keep away from anything related to the Hazaras).
The students protest against ethnic discrimination, corruption and the “illiteracy” of the teaching staff in the faculty, and in particular, they demand the removal of Farouq Abdulla the dean (the same guy who physically assaulted a Hazara female student in 2011) and Faisal Amin one of the faculty members from the university. It’s the first time that a student protest is centered on the reformation of universities rather than on political or religious issues which have been more common in the past.
Unlike other faculties at KU, about 80 percent of the students at Social Science faculty (who got admissions through a national entrance exam, Konkor) are Hazaras. This faculty which houses the departments of Philosophy and Sociology, Archeology and History, has been the main destination for many Hazrara students who come mostly from central provinces.
According to the students, the professors have been systematically trying to fail the Hazara students en mass and repeatedly so, in order to make them drop the university. The majority of teachers don’t have a degree higher than a BA from KU, therefore, their knowledge of the subjects they teach is extremely limited. They use failing grades as a weapon against students who appear to know more than themselves.
This kind of corruption is a common issue in all the 14 faculties of KU, but the students at Social Sciences are naturally more vocal, as they are (supposed to be) the future philosophers and social thinkers of this country, for whom, reasoning and questioning would be part of their job description.
According to sources close to Arg, Hamid Karzai has summoned Osman Baburi the deputy Minister of Higher Education for an explanation. Baburi who is a notorious anti-Hazara figure from Herat, accused the students of being dishonest and took side with the university’s corrupt profs and administrators. Karzai, apparently believed him.
Authorities from Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee have visited the protestors and have shared the findings of their investigation about Kabul University, confirming that ethnic discrimination is a widespread issue there and profs tend to grade the students based on ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliation.
Different groups of politicians and activists from every ethnic group have given the students a visit for solidarity, among them, the speaker and many members of parliament, community activists from NGOs and some journalists. A group of musicians and poets even organised a nuit blanche on Thursday night at the site of the protest.
According to recent news, groups of students in Daikundi and Herat have organised rallies in support of the Kabul students. This is becoming a national issue.
It seems that a new and genuine grassroots movement is taking shape directly in response to the everyday problems of the ordinary people. Unlike most of other rallies in Kabul, they are not funded by foreign NGOs and they don’t care about fancy slogans attractive for international media. Their demands are simple and real: knowledge and the equal opportunity for everyone to pursue it.
All photos from the official Facebook page of the student protest.
Posted in Education, Hazaras, Politics, Street, Uncategorized, Women | Tagged Discrimination against Hazaras, Faisal Amin, Farouq Abdulla, Hazara students, Kabul University, Osman Baburi, student hunger strike kabul, student protest | 12 Comments »
For those of you who can read German, I’m sharing the links to the three articles I have written for Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB). They were in Persian and then translated into German and published in BPB’s especial dossier on Afghanistan.
1. Zeitgenössische afghanische Kunst [Contemporary Art in Afghanistan]
2. Die Stimme vom Hindukusch: Die traditionelle Musik Afghanistans [The voice of Hindukush: Traditional Music in Afghanistan]
3. Das traditionelle Handwerk Afghanistans [Traditional Craftsmanship in Afghanistan]
I am hoping to expand the one on Afghan contemporary art into an English academic article. But that would require further investigations on Afghan art history since 20th century, on which, the sources are extremely scarce and scattered. In particular, the artists who were/are involved in shaping what we call “Afghan contemporary art”, are not very enthusiastic in sharing information… which is not surprising.
Anyways, I’m off to my #RealWorld problems, enjoy reading German!
Posted in Art, History, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged Afghan contemporary art, Afghan craftsmanship, Afghan modern art, Afghan traditional music, Ghulam Mohammad Maimanagi, Khadim Ali | Leave a Comment »
After many first that and first this in Afghanistan in the past couple of years (which is becoming annoying), here is the first video game produced in Kabul, now available to use in Apple products. It’s strangely called “Line Man in Texas” and the story is set in a typical American south landscape but at the beginning of the game on the title scene, there is an Afghan flag in the background.
The producers of the game, a group of young Afghan computer programers returned from Iran, have told the BBC Persian that for better competition with other mobile games, instead of an Afghan landscape they choose to set the story in a familiar American setting.
But to be honest, if they had replaced the cowboy in Texas on a horse, with a Talib in Kandahar on a motor bike, there was a great chance that the game would go viral.
But these returnees from Iran are too Americanized to understand that.
Another blasphemy case in Kabul. This time, a friend of mine, Taqi Bakhtiari the author of the novel Gomnami [Anonymity] is being threatened to death by phone, text, in person and even on social networking sites. The main person behind the death threats is Sayed Mohsen Hojjat, a Kabul-based clergyman close to Ayatollah Asif Mohseni.
The gang of extremists has threatened Taak Books, the publisher, and the booksellers of Kabul as well. According to this BBC Persian report, It’s difficult to find a copy of the book in the city as the booksellers don’t sell it anymore.
The book which was published in fall 2012 in Kabul is about an Afghan refugee in Iran who enrolls in a seminary in Isfahan. In the seminary, the master who is an Ayatollah rapes him. He gradually realizes that the world of religion is not what they say it is. He starts reading non-religious books and loses his faith. He returns to Afghanistan as a godless man. (A plot line which is familiar to all Afghans who have been to Iran during the war years. Not everyone was raped, but the majority came back with strong anti-religion feelings. )
I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t judge the content or the quality of the novel. But what I know is that Taqi is a gifted, imaginative and courageous writer, who is not afraid to write down his ideas and imaginations and publish them. The kind of writer which is very rare in Afghanistan.
Since the threats got serious, he and his family have been living in a secret place in Kabul, and some friends even believe that he has fled the country. He can’t be reached.
Taqi Bakhtiari is in his late 30s and Gomnami is his second novel after Balway-e Khuftagan. Born in Jaghuri, Ghazni province, he has a Bachelor degree in journalism from Balkh University and has worked for an American company in Kabul for the past several years.
The DW-Dari has published a picture of Taqi’s half-burnt book that the unknown Islamists have thrown into his home and a picture of his lovely red Corolla with its windshield smashed and these words painted upon it: “The son of Salman Rushdie. Godless Infidel.”
Presenting the fantastic Turkish “Safak” belly dancer every night except Mondays from Dec. 14th to Dec. 23rd at the Pamir Supper Club. Cover charge Afs. 75.
- The Kabul Times (Vol. XV, NO 215, December 12, 1976, p. 3)
Good old days at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, eh!