How (some) foreigners see Afghans?

Americans moving their damaged vehicles, Kabul / September 2010

On May 24, last week I was invited to talk about Afghanistan’s development issues  for a small class of graduate students at uOttawa who are being trained to become international development specialists.  The class is actually focused on Afghanistan and is taught by the former director of CIDA in Kabul. My lecture was entitled The “hearts and minds” of Afghans, in which I talked about the history of development aid in Afghanistan, aid dependency, failed state, security issues and how different players since 1880 has been trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghan people by different shapes and sizes of aid carrots. One of the issues I discussed was the colonialistic attitude of some western aid workers in the third world in general and in Afghanistan in particular.

I think one of the reasons why aid strategies in Afghanistan in the past 10 years have been a failure, is the inability of westerners to understand Afghans. The misinformation they had, led them to develop peculiar ideas about Afghanistan, its culture and people. Traditionally the westerners have known the Pashtuns as their partners in all levels of politics, security, development and culture and therefore have this untrue idea that all Afghans are like Pashtuns. Only since 1992 the Tajiks also have been entering their circle, to some extents. The Pashtunwali code of conduct, misogynist beliefs, hatred of others, close-mindedness and religious bigotry are believed to be shared by all Afghans which is not a realistic assumption about the whole Afghan society. I believe only the British and the Soviets had the deepest knowledge of Afghan people and politics as a result of the massive investment they made in understanding Afghans. The British, apart from an army of archaeologist, geographers, linguists, historians, anthropologists and politicians they sent to Afghanistan for fieldwork, they also translated many texts from local languages to English in order to get a sense of how Afghans think about things. Even the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland had a very productive Oriental Translation Fund.

Among the books the British translated is Tabaqat-i Nasiri of Juzjani a key historical text about Afghanistan and the region. The Russians also translated books into their language including all the important works of Faiz Mohammad Kateb (b. 1862-63 – 1931) the court historian who among others, authored Siraj al– tawarikh (Torch of Histories) which is considered to be the authoritative account of Afghan history (this book is translated by Robert D. McChesney a retired NYU professor from Russian into English but no one got interested to publish it, it still remains unpublished). But since the Americans arrived in Afghanistan they have done some things here and there with the high-tech facilities they have, but in terms of understanding Afghans and translating their books, they only have translated one book: My Life with the Taliban a very badly written Pashto dairy by a former Gitmo prisoner Abdul Salam Zaeef into English. Well, one should compare the choice of books made by the British, Russians and Americans, and get a sense of how far Americans go to get the right information about Afghan people.

Anyways, in that lecture, I shared a number of quotes from the international aid workers based in Kabul about Afghan people. These quotes are an example of how much the current army of western aid workers in Afghanistan know about Afghans. These aid workers were interviewed by Jennifer Fluri a geographer in Dartmouth College for one of her academic articles. I just put the quotes here and leave it to you to judge them. I personally agree with most of them, but I don’t think that you can generalize them to all “Afghan people”.

– “It’s extremely conservative, but very welcoming. They respect the fact that I am not Afghan, but [the culture]… well it is kind of crazy. Like the whole Pashtunwali, they will harbor enemies if you ask refuge, and they will turn on you if you screw up (female international development worker, USA, 26).”

– “Afghan culture is a lot about artificial hospitality. People are not very open, though they pretend to be. Afghans don’t appreciate closer interaction with outsiders and always maintain a distance. Hugging and kissing each other is quite superficial as people are not open. Afghans also take refuge in the name of religion and culture when they think that things are not happening the way they would like them to be (male international aid worker, UK, 25).”

– “The best way to describe it [Afghanistan] is Afghans have the emotional level of a 13-year-old. People will not and do not accept responsibility for anything both personally and nationally. It is always someone else’s job to take care of things … expectations are that you (internationals) must take care of things and that you have the capacity because you are a foreigner to take care of things and improve their situation, and now put that in the context of a 13-year-old and you have Afghanistan (female international development consultant, USA, 2006).”

– “They are like children in their capacity. I often think if we can put a man on the moon we should be able to teach an Afghan to think (female international development officer, USA, 2006).”

– “Afghanistan is bereft of skilled workers in almost all sectors, especially management/administration/finance; and what a challenge this presents in trying to help things/people “develop”. And, I would describe behavior and beliefs (to the extent that I understand them) and things that I admire (can’t think of any) and things that I don’t—girls can’t get to school, for example (female international aid worker, France, 2006).”

Fluri, J. (2011). Capitalizing on Bare Life: Sovereignty, Exception, and Gender Politics. Antipode, 43: no. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00835.x



The curse of being a Hazara

Two Hazara kids in Afshar, Kabul / September 2010

Being a Hazara in Kandahar, Afghanistan

An Indonesian Buddhist named Agustinus Wibowo who worked in Afghanistan for more than two years had a great deal of troubles for being mistaken for a Hazara. A report about him says:

The Indonesian Embassy in Kabul advised him to pretend to be Sunni while in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, for safety reasons. Due to his looks, Agustinus said he was often suspected to be a member of the Hazara, a longtime enemy of Kandahar’s Pashtun people.

Although he took care to don a Pashtun-style shalwar kameez, he never forgot to wear a peci to display his Indonesian identity.

However, he said this was often not enough to convince the sometimes hostile locals, who would belligerently question him about his religious affinity.

“Apparently, being a Muslim is not enough. They need to know whether you are Sunni or Shiite,” he said.

He said the Pashtun favored Sunnis and were hostile to Shiites. In certain places, such as Kandahar, Agustinus said, having the “wrong” religion could cost you your life.

Being a Hazara in Quetta, Pakistan

There are more than one million Hazaras in Quetta, Pakistan who have been arriving there in response to hostilities in Afghanistan since mid 19th century. They have been the subject of sectarian and ethnic attacks for years. Now they have began to move to other Pakistani cities in order to save their lives, but will the Pashtun and Baluch fanatics leave them alone in other cities?

On 6 May, six members of the Hazara Shia minority community were gunned down in an incident that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), an extremist sectarian Wahabi organization, later claimed responsibility for. On 18 May, another seven were gunned down, and once again the LJ claimed responsibility.

Last year, 65 Shias were killed in Quetta when a procession became the target of a bomb blast on 3 September. Two days earlier, a blast in Lahore killed 35 others. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s report entitled State of Human Rights in 2010, 418 people were killed in various attacks on Muslim sects, including 211 in suicide bombings last year.

Over 200 Shia have been killed in Balochistan in the last three years, the report said “The Lashkar has given us the deadline to leave the province by 2012 and have warned of further attacks,” said Awab. “Even the police are helpless in this regard as they too have been under attack by these rogue elements.”

“The Hazara and the Shias are a peaceful community and generally well settled,” he added. “While earlier they were victims of kidnappings and robberies, now religious extremists threaten them.”

The matter, according to Aly Khan, has been fuelled by religious differences. “Balochistan Province has Balochs and Pathans in the majority when it comes to ethnicity [while] Hazara are a minority,” he said. “Then come the religious minorities. The Balochs and Pathans follow the Sunni sect, while most Hazara are Shias and most of these are residing Quetta.

Being a Hazara in Iran

In Iran also the two million Hazara immigrants find themselves the victims of a widespread discrimination from the Iranian public and government. Since unlike other Afghans in Iran who look the same as Iranians, the Hazaras have strong Asian features and this distinguishes them in the public as “Afghanis”. Despite of the fact that the

“Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims (like Iranians), they are open to more discrimination than other Afghan ethnic groups who are Sunni (Tober 2007, p. 277).

Tober, D. (2007). “My Body Is Broken Like My Country”: Identity, Nation, and Repatriation among Afghan Refugees in Iran. Iranian Studies. Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 263 — 285

Being a Hazara in Australia

Hazaras escape Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and settle in the other sides of the world, but the wave of hatred follows them anywhere they go.

A couple of months ago the Afghan minister of immigration went to Australia to ask the Australian government to deport the Afghan asylum seekers because he argued that Afghanistan is safe for these individuals. In Australia 70 percent of Afghan immigrants are Hazaras. Even the non-Hazara refugees in Australia asked the immigration officials to deport their “fellow Afghans”. Australians were confused with the level of hostility from the non-Hazara Afghans and how the Afghan government was defending the rights of its citizens.

An eye-witness account of the meetings between the Afghan minister and Australian officials is to found in Persian here.

One Hazara asylum seeker took his life in an Australian camp after realizing he would be deported. I don’t blame him. A report on ABC’s website asks: “They survived rape and torture … will they survive Australian detention?

Foreign embassies in Kabul and tax evasion

In Afghanistan if your monthly salary is 5000 afs ($100) or less, you don’t pay any income taxes. If it’s more that 5000 afs you pay 2 percent in tax, if you earn more than 12,500 afs you pay 10 percent in tax, if you earn 100,000 afs, ($ 2000) and more, you pay 20 percent as income tax. But does everyone really pay his taxes?

There is a report on BBC Persian’s Afghanistan service website (published on May 23) about the trouble of Afghan government to collect the taxes from the local employees of the foreign embassies.

According to the protocols, the embassies are not required to collect the taxes of their local staff, but they are obliged to provide financial information about their local employees to the host government.

Some embassies cooperate with the Afghan ministry of finance, but according to this report, most of them don’t. The US embassy which has 1,200 local staff never cooperates in this issue with the government; neither does the Canadian embassy which employs 50 Afghans with an average monthly salary of $1000. One of its employees is quoted to say: “No one likes to pay part of his money as tax”.

The UK embassy, DFID, and German embassy have said that they collect the taxes of their employees and pay it to the government, but the finance ministry officials have told to BBC that they have never received any tax money or financial report from these places.

The point is that these western missions in Kabul are so vocal about the state-building and reforming the Afghan government institutions, they claim they have reformed the taxation system of the government, and keep lecturing us about the virtues of paying taxes. But in fact, they fail to cooperate with the very tax system they’ve helped build.  The US government (that in 2010 alone, collected more that $1,000 bn in income tax from its citizens), in particular should better know that Afghanistan cannot survive without a proper tax system.

According to this report, the annual revenue of Afghanistan from income taxes of the government and non-government workers is about $ 100 millions, if these embassies cooperate this amount can considerably increase.

I know some Afghans believe that, why they should pay taxes to a government which doesn’t provide public services? They are right to some extents, but let’s be honest, the government (in spite of all the corruptions) is trying to do some things here and there by the aid money it receives from the world. If we pay taxes, from one hand, the government will start to become financially self-sufficient and on the other hand, the officials will act more responsibly. I think that the government people steal the aid money, partly because in the bottom of their hearts, they believe this money is not Afghanistan’s money, it comes from the “infidels” as free donations, so they don’t feel guilty of stealing it. As one proverb says “the money which is brought by wind, will be taken by wind” (literal translation). If we pay our hard-earned money as taxes to this government, we will be more likely to hold the officials accountable, and also they will be feeling more under pressure to stay clean. … At least it’s a good wishful thinking, isn’t it!?

“Aid for insurgency or insurgency for aid”?

Daikundi in the eyes of a girl from Nili, the provincial capital (Photo: Muzaffar Ali)

I come originally from Daikundi province – my parents were born there, though I have never been lucky enough to travel to that place. This time when I’m back to Afghanistan, I will definitely visit Daikundi and other parts of Hazarajat.

I have always been curious about the developments in Daikundi. My knowledge of Daikundi is limited to what I heard from my parents, my Daikundi-wal roommates in Kabul University dorm, my other friends from Daikundi and of course the history books. The national media (let alone the international ones) rarely mention Daikundi. Just occasionally I come across photos and blogposts about Daikundi on the web. I recently found Wazhma Frogh’s blog, she is a women rights activist and travels frequently to provinces, the post about her trip to Daikundi is really interesting and for me, heart-breaking too. She describes the physical character of Nili, the provincial capital and the depth of poverty striking that forgotten land and people.

Daikundi, along with Bamiyan, are the safest places in Afghanistan; in the former, the country’s first and only female mayor is working and in the latter, Afghanistan’s first and only female governor is deployed, but still it seems that these places, in particular Daikundi doesn’t merit any attention. The government’s exclusion of Hazarajat from development plans is understandable, because the people are Hazaras, no one expect more from this government. But why the international aid agencies are not willing to help these people in humanitarian and development aids? Some of these agencies misuse the peacefulness and open-mindedness of Hazaras and distribute talking bibles in their villages to “save” them from their miseries. These savors should know that if they do the same in any other parts of Afghanistan, the people would cut their heads and shove them somewhere in their bodies. This is the ultimate shamelessness to manipulate the poor to sell them some fairy tales while they have already enough of their owns. Most of the international aid agencies working in Afghanistan are either funded by individual donations or taxpayers money. In either way they have an ethical obligation to justly distribute the aid to all people in need. They should revise their politicized aid policies.  That school teacher in a small town in the US who donated $5 to charity after seeing a sad picture of Afghanistan on the news, will not forgive the aid agencies in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, if they only obey the politicians.

The photo above is taken by my cyber friend, Muzaffar Ali. He is a very good photographer based in Daikuni, working for the UN. His photography is my only source of visual knowledge of homeland, so far (to see his collection of photos from Daikundi click here). The UNAMA has an office in Daikundi, but I assume the only thing they are doing there is taking photos of these people to show them in New York, and raise more money to spend in Kabul and Kandahar.

Habibia high school in the 1910s

The first Habibai building

Amir Habibull Khan (r. 1901-1919) was the first Afghan king who introduced the western style education in Afghanistan. In 1904 he established the Habibia High School in Kabul that in later years played a great role in educating the political and academic elite in Afghanistan. The Constitutionalist Movement partly emerged from this school, so did the majority of Afghan presidents (including Karzai), ministers, politicians and scholars. The great Afghan historian Faiz Mohammad Kateb was among the teachers in the school; so was Richard N. Frye an acclaimed American scholar of Central Asian culture and history and the current  Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard University who taught at Habibia from 1942 to 1944.

An American engineer named A. C. Jewett who worked in Kabul between 1911-1918 has provided a short but candid description of the school in its early days. The engineer worked for the Afghan Amir in his road-building projects. He has written a fascinating book about his experiences in Afghanistan that I will review it here in future.

Engineer Jewett writes:

There is a Habibullah College in Kabul. The teachers are Hindustani Mussalmans who have been through the English schools in India, but the Amir has to bribe boys to go to school and there is very little discipline. After they graduate they are asked whether they wish to be doctors or engineers, and then begin their professional careers by being paid seventy rupees a month. It is optional with them whether they do any work or not. Of course, they are all above working. They know a few things by heart and can parrot them off; practical knowledge they have none. A grammar-school boy could put them to shame in any branch of learning. Still, it is a start. Some one told me they have an English book, Secrets of the English Court, and are reading it in school. (Not just the sort of literature one would select for young Afghans!) Those who can read prefer English novels. They must have some curious interpretations of some of the rubbish they get (pp. 112-113)

An Afghan student in Habibia on January 3, 2002 (Photo: Mario Tama/LIFE)

Habibia in 2005, after the Indian reconstruction (photo: Mustafa Kia/Flicker)

Initially the school was built in a garden in Shahr-Ara area, but in late 1960s it was relocated to its current location in West Kabul in a large new campus built by the Americans. Since the collapse of the communist regime in 1992 the school has lost its academic credibility as well as its equipments and infrastructure. In civil war it was severely damaged. In 2005 the Indians repaired its walls and installed some new doors and windows for it. Today, from that influential institute of learning we read in history books, only a name has remained for Habibia. Like so many other things in Kabul.

Update (April 1, 2014): In an earlier version of this post I mistakenly mentioned that the school was initially built in Pul-e Bagh-e Umomi, it actually was built in Shahr-Ara.  On a separate note, Professor Richard Frye of Harvard who had taught at Habibia passed away on March 27, 2014.

MPs: no guns inside the Parliament

On Friday May 20, when the Indian prime mister along with Hamid Karzai went to the Afghan parliament for delivering a speech; the MPs were really pissed off. Because that morning, according to a BBC Persian report, the Karzai bodyguards made all the MPs to receive a security pat-down before entering the room. It was embarrassing for them, but for some it was double embarrassing, since the bodyguards seized their handguns.

During the speech, the MPs were obviously irritated but kept shut up, the day after they spent hours denouncing the treatment they received from the government; however the talks led to one good conclusion: MPs shouldn’t bring guns inside the room. The hot-blooded as they are, it is very likely that in moments of verbal disputes one may pull the trigger and cause  a historic scene for school books. The PMs have several experiences of hitting each other with water bottles, very similar to pillow fights that the children play.

The parliament pays for one armed bodyguard for each MP, however the rich ones, have several bodyguards of their own, armored vehicles and still bring guns inside the building.

This lack of trust is evident in all levels both among the Foreigners-Afghans and Afghans-Afghans, and creates uncomfortably awkward situations. The American pilots killed by an Afghan colleague a couple of weeks ago, probebly makes Americans to search Afghan officials before the meetings. And that is too much for some, I remember in Ramadan of 2009, I was invited to US embassy for an Iftar party, outside the main gate we had to wait like 10 minutes until your name was called and you would be allowed to enter, register and then to be escorted to the place of gathering. Among the invitees was General Zahir Azimi the spokesman for Ministry of Defense, who was so uncomfortable for having to wait in line with  young idiots like me. After a few minutes, the general lost his nerves, he kicked his foot on the ground, said something in thick Herati accent, and stormed off toward Massoud Sq. to get on his chauffeured car back home. It was so sweat to watch that! but as doctors say, too much sweetness is not healthy, and I agree.

The garbages in Kabul

Kabul city, September 2010

In Jebrael, a small well-managed neighborhood in west of Herat city, people pay a monthly fee to a private contractor who collects their garbages. That area is a Hazara quarter, so it is very natural that they should take care of themselves because the government trucks will not come even close to their homes in a million years. However, there is one thing that Kabul a city with a non-functioning municipality, can learn from Jebrael: privatization of public services.

In Kabul tons of garbage is produced each day, but the City is not able to collect even half of it with the 80 trucks it has. So what to do? The municipality has already privitised some city services, like the bus system – which didn’t get any better for inadequate vehicles and bad management.  Probably they should also try it on other services as well, like the garbage collection. The city of Toronto has recently decided to privative some public services, starting from garbage collection.   Of course Toronto – with all the resources it has, is not comparable to Kabul in anyway, but from  a managerial point of view, it works better for the City to privatize the tasks like garbage collection,  and focus more on planning, regularisation of housing and urban re-development projects, enforcing these regularization and fighting corruption.

Because in this case people would “pay” to this private contractor and expect them to take responsibility for the public sanitation of the city. Right now, the “safayee” money that residents pay, is so small and even that small amount gets lost in the corridors of corruption in the municipality.  The real problem in Kabul city (and whole Afghanistan at large) is that people are used to heavily subsided and free public services since the King Zahir, on the other hand government is weak and corrupt and can’t afford these services. So if the private monsters take over these works, they will deliver services and ask the “price” for it from the people, and the municipality should act as a regulatory body who controls the things.

The westerners introduce only a caricature of the “values” they have back home to Afghanistan; the democracy is the dirty farce we are forced to wittniss in general elections, the free market is the loose borders through which the neighborer stuff the country with their outdated garbages, all the money-lending governmnet banks, like the Bank-e Zeraati (agriculture) and Bank-e Rahni (mortgage), are closed and the people are told to go to Kabul Bank! it is a free market after all. Privatization is selling the government properties  under-priced to your brothers….

It’s more than one year that I’m in Canada, I don’t see anything like that in this country, they have free market, they have a capitalist system, they are privatizing the public services, but also they have the laws and regulations for all these. Libraries are full of law books, they have rules for literally anything, and they enforce these laws. Afghanistan comparing to Canada, looks like a wild jungle. Of course, I hate to say the west should do this and do that for us, while it’s our country and we should take care of it. But what can we do?everything is under the control of the westerners particularly Americas, we can’t afford even a lunch for our solders let alone anything else. An american private can order an Afghan general, Karzai looks like a lazy first-grader in front of the principle, when meets a US official, we are a colonized country, even though they don’t write such in newspapers. Thus, I expect the westerners to take responsibly for most of the problems we have now in the sectors of governance and economy in Afghanistan.

I think the west namely the US, should have taught us the rules before pushing us into the game. We are playing the games we don’t know the rules, those few who know the rules, keep fooling the nation and manipulating the entire system.

I am not against privatization, in some cases and circumstances I find it very helpful, like the Kabul’s solid garbage collection, but we have to set the rules first.

Elaha Sorur to rock Europe

Elaha Sorur in Delhi 2011, (photo courtesy of Elaha Sorur)

Elaha Sorur is going to rock Europe on June 4, 2011. She will perform in Copenhagen and possibly other European cities as well. The 22 year old Afghan singer became  a national sensation after shining in the Afghan Stars, a TOLO TV music contest show in 2009 (the Afghan version of American Idol). Although she couldn’t won the first place and landed on third, Elaha proved to be more successful in music career comparing to her male rivals in the show. She has been releasing hit singles in the past two years and her music videos are all over the Afghan TVs and Youtube.

She is more than a female singer, being educated in Iran, she is like a role model for post-taliban generation of Afghan girls. She is self-confident, outspoken, fashionable, beautiful and politically aware. Her song, Sangsar (“stoning”) about Afghan women is very provocative  and strong-worded which was admired by many in Afghanistan particularly the women activists.

She has been studying music and English for the past 9 months or so in Delhi, and at the same time working on her debut album. I’ve listened to a couple of tracks from her new album and I have to say they are great. There is a rock song called Divanagi (“madness’) that I liked the most. I believe Afghanistan is too small for her, she can better pursue her music career in the West and even try her luck in fashion industry as a model.

Anyway, I recommend her concert to anyone close to the venue in Denmark.

Kabul at sunset

I think it was the evening of  September 23, last year when I went to Cinema Ariana to watch a very bad movie called The Black Tulip. After the movie, I walked from Forushgah to Shah Doshamshira bridge to catch the bus to West Kabul. On my way to bus station, I felt lost in the flooding river of crowd pressing me from all sides, it was like impossible to walk through all those cars, carts, men, women, porters, vendors, bicycles, motor bikes which intermingled under a thick blanket of sunset dust. It was the time when everyone especially the laborers, clerks, street children, beggars headed towards home and used the last minute chance to get the best bargains from fruit vendors who constantly shouted some repetitive words. In that crazy environment, I saw an old man standing on the edge of the Kabul river and praying with a relaxed and care-free attitude, it was impressive to watch him how he found a moment of solitude in  the middle of that massive hysteric chaos.

I tried to take better photos, but everybody was pushing me, so all my efforts resulted in  these shaky blurry shots that you see three of them here:

Pul-e Bagh Umomi, Kabul / September 23, 2010

Praying on the edge of Kabul river, Kabul / September 23, 2010

Shah Doshamshira mosque, Kabul / September 23, 2010