Venice, Vienna, Berlin

Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy.

Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy. (All photos in this post taken by my cellphone)

Venice: The Pilgrimage City

I went to Venice this summer for a two-week summer school on digital visualisation. The workshop was hosted by the Venice International University, a newly-established facility on San Servolo, a nice island in the Venetian lagoon just 10 minutes boat ride outside the main city. The workshop was intense. There were about 20 graduate students and researchers from the US and European universities and me–the only guy from Canada. We learned how to use a number of digital tools commonly used by geographers, planners, and architects in various tasks related to spatial design.

I expected that the summer school would be more “summer” and less “school.” But turned out to be the opposite: everyday from 9am to 5pm we were working in a computer lab at the university with only a launch break at noon. I had to get up at 7am to arrive on time in the workshop using the vaporetto, the water bus moving in the Grand Canal. In the afternoons, sometimes, I was too tired to go out or explore the city. Nevertheless, I went out and explored the city. It was Venice, after all. In that hot weather, it was much nicer to sweat on streets than alone in my tiny hostel room.

We had officially two days off. The first day off was a Sunday and I got on train to visit Basir Ahang, a Hazara journalist/activist living in Padua, a small town near Venice. Basir and I visited all the attractions of this pretty, little city, including the unexpected 9/11 memorial and the city’s university, which is one of the oldest in the world. The second day we were off, we actually were not off: the workshop instructors took all the trainees on a one day long tour of the Venice lagoon stopping by in each island where we had to take photos for using them later in our group projects. There was also a guide accompanying us who knew Venice better than his palm. I had a delicious and overpriced shrimp spaghetti on one of the islands and suffered severely from a very bad sunburn. I didn’t use sunscreen cream because I thought brown people don’t get sunburns. I was wrong.

In Venice, I stayed in a apartment-turned-hostel owned by a young Afghan refugee who has been living in Italy for quite some time. The place was OK but the location was great. It was close to the ghetto, the world’s most renowned Jewish ghetto, and in walking distance from all the attractions central Venice has to offer.

Although in all the three cities I visited in Europe this summer (Venice, Vienna, Berlin), I felt a strong sense of joie de vivre among people, but Venetians, in particular, were laid back and seemed to be very cheerful in comparison to people in Vienna or Berlin whose economic situations are way better than Italy. Canadians too, who are usually work-focused, formal, polite, and quite, look stiff and joyless in comparison to the hot-blooded people I saw in Venice.

Venice is a Pilgrimage city. Somehow, it is like Mashad in Iran where the economy is almost entirely dependent on the millions of tourists who come to kiss the shrine of Imam Reza every year. In Venice, a city of 60,000 people, I was told, 30 million tourists visit each year. During a normal day the winding, narrow alleyways of the city are packed with tourists and street vendors (mostly Bengali) who try to sell fake designer bags to these wandering crowd. In the evening, though, the city suddenly goes to sleep. At around 9pm the tired tourists creep back into their hotels and the shopkeepers of city close down their shops and go home. It’s beautiful to walk around the city at night when the old buildings and the canal look magical in the dim street lights.

The locals, however, along with some of the young tourists in pursuit of fun, go out at midnights and usually gather at a campo, small town squares. At campos, young Venetians come together after work to drink, talk, fight, laugh, and hook up until around 4am. It’s called the “Venetian time”: you go out at 11-12 midnight and have fun until 4am but you gotta get up at 8am for work. This is life for every single night, not only on weekends.

The Afghans I met there were very active. Most are refugees, but all have jobs. One of them, Hamed Haidari, was a young man who owned two restaurants serving Afghan cuisine and was planning to open a bar as well. It was June and the Venice Biennale was on. He somehow had managed to find a place in Giardini, the main venue of the Biennale and set up a food stand selling Afghan food to the hungry artists and tourists who came from all over the world. One day, he took me on a boat tour of the city. His grumpy Roman waiter was driving. We visited many places including Lido, the island where the Venice International Film Festival is held. Mustafa K. was also with us, who is one of the many Afghan filmmakers who have migrated to Italy in recent years.

The night prior to departure, the workshop organisers invited all the trainees to a delicious dinner in a beautiful island outside Venice. The next day I flew to Vienna for an exciting 24 hours.

Opera house in Vienna, Austria.

Opera house in Vienna, Austria.

Vienna: The Boutique City

In some neighbourhoods in Vienna, the identical apartment buildings and neat streets felt like I was living in a good-looking animation movie. Everything looked so, let’s say, boringly perfect and clean. There is very little diversity of architectural styles in the city, except for some older churches, and the modern suburban areas, everything looked like they were built at the same time by the same guy sometime  in mid-19th century. In fact, Vienna was the pioneer of modern urban planning and architecture, it was Vienna which inspired Baron Haussmann to destroy old Paris and build a new modern city with standardized buildings and boulevards.

In Vienna, a good friend picked me up from the airport and showed me around the city for the whole day. Later in the day, I met a former roommate from Kabul University dorm who hosted me for the night.

I loved Vienna’s city trams. There were two kinds of them: classic old ones and the sleek new ones.  We rode one of the old ones from somewhere in the city to where the opera house is located.

In the opera house, there was a show going on and flocks of dressed up Viennese were going inside. There was a big projector installed outside where people could watch the show outdoor. A huge crowd gathered there to sit outside and watch the opera live. It was the first time I was seeing a live opera–of curse via a projector. But still it was exciting. After the opera, we had a very big and delicious hot dog that I was told is an speciality of the city.

I forgot to mention: in the morning, when I arrived we visited the cathedral which was right outside the metro station at the center of the city . Then, we visited Cafe Central, the famed Viennese coffee house where the some of the leading European literati and revolutionaries used to frequent there, including Freud, Trotsky, Tito, Hitler, and Lenin, among other legendary bads and goods of the last century. The coffee was awesome and the cake was great and the place looked magical. Perfect for rich, pretentious, schooled, folks.

I visited the royal palace and the gardens around it before visiting the house of Sigmund Freud which was located in a beautiful neighborhood of almost identical 4-5 story apartment buildings. The house is now a museum where you have to pay to see the rooms. We stepped into his apartment’s hallway, took a short look around before stepping out. I am too cheap to pay for such stupid things. It was enough to earn the brag right to visiting Freud’s house.

We then had a beer in an outdoor bar with big projectors showing a World Cup match between two teams that I no longer remember. It was chilly and I found the mach rather lame. I was in good company though.

I was also impressed by the University of Vienna with its amazing architecture and a study room in its library which was too good to be true.

Probably the highlight of my short visit to Vienna was meeting old friends and making a new one: Dawood Sarkhosh the legendary Hazara folk singer. He was too nice to come and meet me in that friend’s house. We had a long conversation about music. He seemed fatigued, but I was excited to meet him.

An areal view of Berlin, Germany.

An areal view of Berlin, Germany.

Berlin: The City Without a Downtown

Berlin is probably Europe’s number one party town. Well, it may sound odd considering Germans’ international reputation for being humor-less and anti-fun, but in Berlin everything is set  for a non-stop wild party from sunset to sunrise. The city is hipster, young, careless, energetic, and remarkably diverse. Reunified after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is now scattered throughout a large urban area with multiple centers, therefore, it feels like the city has no single downtown. There is no such thing as a CBD, even business and government facilities are distributed all around the city. It’s a good thing for the residents: you don’t need to travel far to find a place to drink, dance, eat or just kill time.

One of my best nights in Berlin was a Sunday night which we went out for drink and food with a group of friends from Kabul, Berlin,  and London–another friend from Amsterdam joined us the next day. There was this cozy little bar with loud music and cheap beer where you could drink till mooring and most importantly smoke inside. It was a shock to realise that they allow to smoke inside in 2014. I am not a smoker, but that night I smoked many cigarettes just to think we were in the Berlin of 1970s. The company was great and we spent several hours smoking, drinking and telling jokes–in­ Farsi.

One day, we spent in Potsdam, a small town one hour train ride outside Berlin where we found an Afghan restaurant owed by an Ismaeli Hazara family from Kabul. They offered all 7 of us free Afghan food, because we had a celebrity with us who just blew their minds. Later, we visited the Sanssouci Palace, the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia who is credited for bringing potato to Germany. My friends joked that I had to take a photo on his grave because I’m  a “potato expert” for having written an article on the history of potato in Afghanistan. I took a selfie there, his grave was full of potatoes, instead of flowers.

I spent several days and nights exploring the city, seeing the  touristic sights, and getting lost. I found Berlin to be a very lively place, a city open for fun and business. Things are cheap there. I saw bottles of wine sold for 2 Euros in a supermarket. In Canada, the cheapest wine is 8-9 dollars.

I would probably go back to that city. I spent the week in a friend’s apartment who with his very nice partner made a great deal of  efforts to make sure I was having a good time. I’m very grateful for their hospitality.

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Two book reviews

I recently had the pleasure of reading the following two wonderful books and reviewing them for CJC and JCG (click on the journal titles below to see the texts):

The Production of Modernization: Daniel Lerner, Mass Media, and the Passing of Traditional Society. By Hemant Shah. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011. Canadian Journal of Communication (2014). Vol. 39, Issue 2, pp. 297-299  

The Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest Under Planetary Urbanization. By Andy Merrifield. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Journal of Cultural Geography (2014). Vol, 31, Issue 02, pp. 249-250

I’ll be back soon with a post on my trip to Europe.

A cinema article in Spanish

spliced-histories-64-anos-de-cine-afgano

In 2008, I worked for a group of three German filmmakers/women rights activists in Kabul to organise the Second Take, a film festival in Kabul with the central theme of gender and society. There were films by and about women from different countries. In addition to helping the organising team, I was also asked, at the end, to write a review of the festival and the films.

In absence of clear instructions from my good friend Sandra, the editor, I wrote a rather long article reviewing every single film in the festival,dedicating one or two paragraphs to each. Not what I would liked, but this was the structure Sandra wanted.

Anyway, that article got translated into Spanish and was published in Spliced histories: 64 años de cine afgano (2010), a book on Afghan cinema edited by Sandra and published by Asociación de amigos del cine experimental de Madrid. Today, by accident, I came across an electronic copy of the book.I would like to thank Sandra, after almost four years, for the efforts she put in helping me write that article. The entire book is available in PDF here.

Reports from Kabul

Sher Darwazah mountain, Kabul, Dec. 2011

1. First of all, Mohseni is alive! The news of his death, turned out to be untrue. I tracked down the rumor though, and it was originated from a joke during a tea session in a private college in Kabul. However, it was true that the mullah was seriously ill at that time and was taken to Iran, and then, to Germany for treatment. He was also absent in the last Loya Jirga – which is one of those Karzai parties where Mohseni is usually sitting on the first row. The news of his illness coupled with his absent from the Jirga, was the main reason causing the rumor of his death, and people thought that God might have done us a favor and has taken his present back. To our bitter disappointment, on the day of Ashura, he appeared on his TV, just to prove that he is not going to leave us anytime soon. I am sorry for spreading the rumor of his death on this blog.
2. Last month, I had a short overland trip to Takhar. It was my second time in that province. I was not able to see considerable progress in the city since 2009. But in Herat, where I have been staying for the past three weeks or so, the city has changed a lot since 2010. Herat is the city where I lived under the Mujahedin and Taliban governments, that is why I always measure the effectiveness of the post-Taliban system, by looking at this city.
3. In the taxi from airport to Dasht-e Barchi in West Kabul, all the squares along my way were covered in black and red fabrics, commemorating the Muharram, which is the most important Shia ritual, in honor of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. I had mixed feelings seeing all the Kabul streetscape overwhelmed by Muharram signs: on one hand, I was happy to see how tolerant our Sunni Afghans have become, but on the other, I was nervous that all these may provoke hostile sentiments from the Sunni community. On the day of Ashura, when a suicide bomber killed more than sixty Shia worshipers, and a hardliner Sunni commander from Nimruz took the responsibility, I came to this conclusion that second feeling was right, for religious tolerance in this country, we still need a very long time.
The most irritating thing in the media coverage of the attack was the way every reporter emphasized that there has never been sectarian violence in Afghanistan. This is not true. Part of the current Afghan conflict is sectarian; there have been several Shia-Sunni wars in the past in Kabul during the Ashura ceremonies. The bloodiest were in 1803 and 1832 which forced the Shias of Kabul to either convert to Sunni or do conceal their religious beliefs and perform the ceremonies in secret places. Only in the post-Taliban era, the Shias have the freedom to appear on streets and practice their religious ceremonies. I still don’t understand why the foreign journalists and some of the so called analysts think the history of Afghanistan starts from 2001 AD?
4. Kabul, at first glance, looks like a boom town; you see several new townships being developed in northern and southwestern suburbs. New apartment blocks are being erected in the city and many roads are being paved or repaired. The best of these repaired streets is the Dar ul-Aman road which is surprisingly well-designed and well-built. The present mayor of Kabul is apparently making a lot of efforts in ordering the city and making life easier for Kabulis.
5. I got sick here, I am not sure if it’s because of the cold weather, polluted air or dirty water… or the all three. I think I’ll be better in a few days.
6. I have taken so many good photos, but the slow internet doesn’t allow me to upload them here. May be some other time.
7. I have been using my free time to write a couple of articles about the city of Kabul (domestic architecture, public space) and Afghan cinema for DW radio, Dari service. Actually the one on public space (in Dari) is going to be published in an new online journal edited by my friends in Kabul. I’ll be back soon.

Coming to Kabul jan

Tapa-e Maranjan, Kabul / Sep. 2010

Soon I’ll be in Kabul, the city I love the most and I hate the most. I know I’ll miss Ottawa the moment I enter a public toilet in Kabul – of course if I was lucky enough to find one. Or when hitting the slums of West Kabul to find a room for rent. Or when I can’t sleep at night because of the cold weather…. But what really worries me is the trouble of getting a job, especially with my Hazara name.

I am not sure if I love Kabul more than I hate it. But I am sure that there is something in Kabul that pulls me in, a strong sense of attachment and attractiveness.  This city is dirty, dusty and dreadfully over-populated, however, these are not the reasons I hate Kabul. In fact, I hate the people of Kabul, not the city of Kabul. I don’t hate its dusty streets, dirty toilets, loud restaurants, ugly houses, smelly taxis,  cold winters and dark nights. I hate its people, the corrupt politicians, embarrassing president, useless MPs, bad cops, evil mullas, bitchy women, racist government bureaucrats, illiterate uni profs,  lying shopkeepers and the fucking foreigners who think they are Alexander the Greek walking on “the graveyard of empire” – at least some of the foreigners.

Kabul is the symbol of all our failures, the city of unfulfilled promises and unfinished business.  A symbol of our century-long failed quest for modernity. This city is a naked exhibition of our soul: shattered, tired, messy and misunderstood. And that’s why I love it.

The 7th of October

CNN broadcasting live a historical moment. Photo: AFP

Today is the 7th of October. Ten years ago this day in 2001, the US forces attacked the Taliban bases in Afghanistan. That day will remain as one of the most important moments in our history. Not only it changed the historical course of our country, but our lives as well.

Yesterday the 6th of October I defended my MA thesis at uOttawa and officially graduated. On the 6th of October 2001, I could have never imagined to be doing what I was doing yesterday. It all became possible for the events of the next day.

The Afghans should be grateful to America for removing the Taliban from Afghanistan. If G. Bush ever did one right thing in his presidency, it was the attack on Taliban. I think we owe him a thank you note.

Where I was on September 11, 2001?

Falling man on 9/11 (photo: Richard Drew / AP)

On 9/11 day Afghanistan was in shock (of joy and sorrow) for Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination from two days earlier, so the terrorist attack in the US was not a big deal for ordinary Afghans, especially considering this fact that it was Taliban time, and people had no TVs and therefore had no idea about the magnitude of the attacks and dramatic scenery from New York.

I was in Herat, it was a normal evening in the madrasa, and most of the boys, as a tradition, were listening to BBC Persian radio – as it was one of the few sources of news from outside world.  I was not listening that night; I was in my room reading or relaxing. All of sudden, I realized everybody was rushing towards the radio in the courtyard.   No one knew what was going on, “the world trade center is being attacked”, someone said, “what is that”? I asked. “How should I know, the radio is saying.”

It took some time to realize what was going on, because at first the reporters were also confused, they were caught in surprise, they had to report it live without papers, and there were a lot of stumbling- which was interesting as it was the first time seeing the smooth-talking Iranians were so lost and confused and made silly mistakes.

I think that night we went to bed, without really understanding what was going on, just knew it was a terrorist attack. As Afghans who grew up in war, we couldn’t understand why Americans were making a scene out of an explosion; it was a normal thing we believed. A decade later, now I think it was not a normal thing. That was a fate-changing event for me and many millions of Afghans, who were taken hostage by the Taliban group.

Last year I wrote an article for the uOttawa’s English language newspaper to address a question I was frequently asked by Canadians. When they know I am an Afghan, they simply ask: “do you hate America?” I say no, I don’t belong to Taliban or their sympathizers who lost their power, as a result of the US military intervention in Afghanistan. As all non-Taliban Afghans, I am thankful to America for saving us from the Taliban tyranny. The 9/11 event was a tragedy and we are sorry for all who lost loved ones on that day, but for Afghans, especially the women and ethnic minorities, 9/11 happened to be the end of their miseries and the beginning of a better tomorrow. I am almost sure that if 9/11 hadn’t happened, I would be dead by now. The Taliban would have killed me.  I survived the Taliban only because I was a skinny teenage boy who was luckily didn’t look like his fellow Hazaras. My family was not rich enough to have afforded escaping  the country, so I am sure  the Taliban would caught me one day or another.

Anyways, this is the article I wrote (and sorry for the stupidly optimistic tone, it was two years ago!):

……………………………………….

Afghanistan: Occupation or liberation?

From an Afghan’s point of view

AFTER EIGHT YEARS of war in Afghanistan, anti-war movements in Canada and elsewhere in the West have started to raise a crucial question: is Afghanistan a librated country or an occupied one? Many answer the question themselves, coming up with a resounding answer: yes, Afghanistan is an occupied country. But it seems that few are willing to hear how Afghans feel. They are the subjects of this war—how do they feel about the soldiers from 42 different countries on their land? Do they feel occupied or liberated? As an Afghan, I want to examine the confusing line between occupation and liberation of Afghanistan.

In his short essay “Republic of Silence”, Jean-Paul Sartre gives a personal account of life under the German occupation in France during the Second World War. For him, occupation first and foremost is the limitation of freedom. “We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk,” he recalls.

We are already familiar with situations like Nazi-occupied France, Soviet-occupied Czechkoslovkia, and the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip; legally, ethically, and politically there is a general consensus on the occupation of these countries. However, the situation in Afghanistan is more complex: is it right to say “American-occupied Afghanistan”? Is it possible to compare what Nazis did in France to what NATO forces are doing in Afghanistan?

As an Afghan who was a victim of the Taliban regime before 2001 and a witness to the American presence after that year, I believe that it is not fair to do so. For me (and for many Afghans) the American B-52 bombers flying in our blue sky on Oct. 7, 2001, were regarded as saving angels rather than occupying devils—we felt liberated rather than invaded with their bombs hitting Taliban bases around the country. Since 2001, we have been practising almost all our rights, “beginning with the right to talk”—a universal right we had been longing for for years.

Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban, and that means a lot. I remember those October nights in 2001 when American aircraft were bombarding Taliban military bases on the outskirts of my hometown Herat, in western Afghanistan: everyone was rushing to their roofs, pointing to barely visible aircraft, cheering and yelling out of joy, mixing the sound of their laughter with that of explosions. Strange but true, those moments were the moments of liberation. With each bomb, another link in the chain that had bound us for years was broken. War and violence are familiar phenomena for Afghans, but the Taliban regime was an experience unlike any other in our recent history.

To better understand Afghanistan since the beginning of the war, one should first understand Afghanistan before it. The Taliban were a religiously fundamentalist and politically racist group that ruled the country through barbarism and brutality. As a totalitarian state, the Taliban controlled the entire human being—not just their bodies but also their souls and spirits. Basing their actions on a radical religious ideology, they banned everything associated with life’s pleasures: dancing, listening to music, kite-running, shaving beards, cutting hair in a fashionable way, wearing Western clothes, photography, cinema, and television. Moreover, women were banned from walking out of their houses without a male relative, going to school, talking to strangers, and walking in high heels. When I was a schoolboy, it was part of everyday life to see those who disobeyed these rules being hanged on traffic lights or being whipped in the middle of street. Afghanistan under Taliban was a burning “hell on earth” as Afghans say. Considering all this, one can understand why the people of Afghanistan warmly welcomed the American bombs hitting the Taliban in October 2001.

Article 42 of “The Laws and Customs of War on Land” in the Hague Conventions of 1907 state that “territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army.” By definition, an occupier must be considered a “hostile army.” In the Afghan case, which one is the hostile army: the coalition forces or the Taliban fighters? A national poll of Afghanistan conducted jointly by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD (the German public broadcaster) in September 2009 asked Afghans their opinion on the Taliban. The results suggest the vast majority of Afghans considers them to be the hostile army, and also illustrate that hostility to the Taliban remains very strong throughout the country; only four per cent of Afghans want them back, and 90 per cent say they are opposed to the Taliban.

Of course, no one wants foreign soldiers in his or her country—neither do Afghans. But we need them to be there in this critical time. Over the past eight years, huge progress has been made regarding the quality of life in Afghanistan. You would have to be blind not to see the huge difference in Afghanistan before and after 2001: under the new government, we have free media (20 TV channels and hundreds of print media); millions of girls are going to school; women can work as ministers, members of parliament, judges, journalists, and police officers; and there is an elected parliament with an elected president. I did all my school homework before a gleaming oil lamp, but my siblings are doing theirs surrounded by electricity and computers. It is evident that Afghan land can also grow the plant of democracy.

But why is only news of bombs and bloodshed broadcast on TV? The answer is simple: because other stories are not news for Western mainstream media. They only cover the insurgency, which is limited to southern Afghanistan where Pashtuns are living. Pashtuns—an ethnic group forming about 42 per cent of the total Afghan population—are the group that Taliban belongs to. International terrorists and Pashtun men from both sides of Afghanistan-Pakistan border area form the majority of the current Taliban, and cause trouble in this part of the country. For the most part, the rest of the country is peaceful and people live in comfort.

During the past eight years, Afghanistan has been struggling to establish democratic institutions with generous helping hands from other nations—institutions such as an independent judiciary, parliament, police, army, and free media to improve the young democracy. Of course there is corruption in the administration, inadequacy in the army, and civilian casualties in NATO attacks, but for most of the population these are not catastrophes of democracy, they are signs of the time: a time of transition from a painful past to a prosperous future, a transition from a republic of terror and tyranny to a country of peace and prosperity. These are the birth pangs of the Afghan democracy. Afghanistan’s dark days are over: what we are experiencing now is the dawn of a bright, new day. We are in a process of building a nation and forming a state and appropriately have problems to struggle with.

Sartre called France under Nazi occupation the “republic of silence,” and after the liberation of his country, wrote a prayer for France that I think fits Afghanistan as well: “May this Republic to be set up in broad daylight preserve the austere virtue of that other Republic of Silence and of Night.”

Amen.

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The link to the original source.

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

 

Marathon

The next 12 days will be hectic. I have to revise the three chapters that the prof has commented on, I have to prepare a presentation for the international development class where I’m invited to as a guest lecturer, I have to submit the first draft of the chapter 4 on the West Kabul war, I have to write that grant proposal, and if there was any time left I  also should plan the Quebec City trip for mid June. So for now, I am saying good-bye to my baby blog until I’m free from this stable, also known as school.