(Mohsen Makhmalbaf's remarkable odyssey in Afghanistan has caught the imagination of many a people. This moving account of a human journey and reflections by the renowned Iranian filmmaker has seen many incarnations since its original publication in June this year. We have decided to take the version published in the Novenmber issue of the Monthly Review, alonwith their editorial note. The permission to use this piece is gratefully acknowledged.--Akhbar Team)
Note from the editors of Monthly Review: The chief casualty of any war is a sense of genuine, universal humanity. With the United States now at war in Afghanistan, humanitarian considerations are in short supply—except insofar as they can be used propagandistically to muster further support for a military strike. For this reason we have decided to publish here an edited and adapted version of an essay by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, which appeared in The Iranian (Tehran) on June 20, 2001, and is reprinted as follows with their permission. Makhmalbaf, who is Iran's most celebrated film maker, and was a political prisoner under the Shah, has made such important films as The Cyclist and Kandahar—both about Afghanistan. The intimate portrait of Afghanistan that he provides here should not be read primarily as a political and historical document—in these areas it is clearly inadequate, for example in depicting the role of the United States in forming the Mujahedin in its war against the Soviets—but rather as a deeply moral and humanitarian account of the tragic circumstances of the Afghan people and the callousness of the West. It is thus a vivid portrayal of one of the world's great human tragedies by one of its great artists—imparting a message desperately needed in our times—Eds.
If you read my article in full, it will take about an hour of your time. In this hour, fourteen more people will have died in Afghanistan of war and hunger and sixty others will have become refugees in other countries. This article is intended to describe the reasons for this mortality and emigration. If this bitter subject is irrelevant to your sweet life, please don’t read it.
The World’s View of Afghanistan
Last year I attended the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea where I was repeatedly asked about the subject of my next film. I responded, “Afghanistan.” Immediately I would be asked, “What is Afghanistan?” Why is it so? Why should a country be so obsolete that the people of another Asian country such as South Korea have not even heard of it?
The reason is clear. Afghanistan does not have a role in today’s world. It is neither a country remembered for a certain commodity, nor for its scientific advancement, nor as a nation that has achieved artistic honors. In the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, however, the situation is different and Afghanistan is recognized as a peculiar country.
This strangeness, however, does not have a positive connotation. Those who recognize the name Afghanistan immediately associate it with smuggling, the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalism, war with the Soviet Union, a long–time civil war, famine, and high mortality. In this subjective portrait there is no trace of peace and stability or development. Thus, no desire is created for tourists to travel to or businessmen to invest in Afghanistan. So why should it not be left to oblivion? The defamation is such that one might soon write in dictionaries that Afghanistan can be described as a drug producing country with rough, aggressive, and fundamentalist people who hide their women under veils with no openings.
Add to all of that the destruction of the largest known statue of Buddha that recently spurred the sympathy of the entire world and led all supporters of art and culture to defend the doomed statue. But why did no one except UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadoko Ogato, express grief over the pending death of one million Afghans as a result of severe famine? Why doesn’t anybody speak of the reasons for this mortality? Why is everyone crying aloud over the demolition of the Buddha statue while nothing is heard about preventing the death of hungry Afghans? Are statues more cherished than humans in the modern world?
I have traveled within Afghanistan and witnessed the reality of life in that nation. As a filmmaker, I produced two feature films on Afghanistan within a thirteen–year interval (The Cyclist, 1988 and Kandahar, 2001). In doing so, I studied about ten thousand pages of various books and documents to collect data for the films.
Consequently I know of a different image of Afghanistan than that of the rest of the world. It is a more complicated, different, and tragic picture, yet sharper and more positive. It is an image that needs attention rather than forgetfulness and suppression.
But where is Sa’di to see this tragedy—the Sa’di whose poem “All people are limbs of one body” is above the portal to the United Nations?
News headlines matching a country’s name must always be checked. The image of a country presented to the world through the media is a combination of facts about that country and an imaginary notion that the people of the world are supposed to have of that place. If some countries of the world are supposed to be coveted places, it is necessary that grounds be provided through the news.
What I’ve perceived is that unfortunately in today’s Afghanistan, except for poppy seeds, there is almost nothing to spark desire. Thus Afghanistan has little or no share in world news, and the resolution of its problems in the near future is far–fetched. If like Kuwait, Afghanistan had oil and surplus oil income, it could also have been taken back in three days by the Americans and the cost of the American army could have been covered by that surplus income.
When the Soviet Union existed, Afghans received Western media attention for fighting against Communism. With the Soviet retreat and later disintegration, why is the United States, which supports human rights, not taking any serious actions for ten million women deprived of education and social activities, or for the eradication of poverty and famine that is taking the lives of so many people?
The answer is because Afghanistan offers nothing to long for. Afghanistan is not a beautiful young woman who raises the heartbeat of her thousand lovers. And we know that Sa’di was not speaking of our time when he said “All people are limbs of one body.”
The Tragedy of Afghanistan in Statistics
There has been no rigorous collection of statistics in Afghanistan in the past two decades. Hence, all data and numbers are relative and approximate. According to these figures, Afghanistan had a population of twenty million in 1992. During the past twenty years, about 2.5 million Afghans have died as a direct or indirect result of war—army assaults, famine, or lack of medical attention.
In other words, every year 125,000 or about 340 people a day, or 14 people every hour, or 1 in about every five minutes, have been either killed or died because of this tragedy. This is a world wherein the crew of that unfortunate Russian submarine was facing death some months ago and satellite news was reporting every minute of the incident. It is a world that reported nonstop the demolition of the Buddha statue.
Yet nobody speaks of the tragic death of Afghans every five minutes for the past twenty years. The number of Afghan refugees is even more tragic. According to more precise statistics the number of Afghan refugees outside of Afghanistan living in Iran and Pakistan is 6.3 million. If this figure is divided by the year, day, hour, and minute, in the past twenty years, one person has become a refugee every minute. The number does not include those who run from north to south and vice versa to survive the civil war.
I personally do not recollect any nation whose population was reduced by 10 percent via mortality, and 30 percent through migration, and yet faced so much indifference from the world. The total number of people killed and made refugees in Afghanistan equals the entire Palestinian population, but even among us Iranians our share of sympathy for Afghanistan does not reach 10 percent of that for Palestine or Bosnia, despite the fact that we have a common language and border.
When crossing the border at the Dogharoon customs to enter Afghanistan, I saw a sign that warned visitors of strange looking items. These were mines. It read: “Every twenty–four hours seven people step on mines in Afghanistan. Be careful not to be one of them today and tomorrow.”
I came across more hard figures in one of the Red Cross camps. The Canadian group that had come to defuse mines found the tragedy simply too vast; they lost hope and returned home. Based on these same figures, over the next fifty years large numbers of Afghans will step on mines before their land is safe and livable. The reason is because every group or sect has strewn mines against the other without a map or plan for later collection. The mines were not set in military fashion to be collected in peace. This means that a nation has placed mines against itself. And when it rains hard, surface waters reposition these devices turning once safe remote roads into dangerous paths.
These statistics reveal the extent of the unsafe living environment in Afghanistan that leads to continuous emigration. Afghans perceive their situation as dangerous. There’s constant fear of hunger and death. Why shouldn’t Afghans emigrate? A nation with an emigration rate of 30 percent certainly feels hopeless about its future. Of the 70 percent remaining, 10 percent have been killed or died and the rest (or 60 percent) were not able to cross the borders or if they did, they were sent back by the neighboring countries.
This perilous situation has also been an impediment to any foreign presence in Afghanistan. A businessman would never risk investing there unless he is a drug dealer, and political experts prefer to fly directly to Western countries. This makes it difficult to resolve the crisis that Afghanistan is faced with. This adds to the ambiguity of crisis in a country burdened with such an enormous scope of tragedy and ignorance on the part of the world. I witnessed about twenty thousand men, women, and children around the city of Herat starving to death. They couldn’t walk and were scattered on the ground awaiting the inevitable. This was the result of the recent famine. That same day Sadako Ogato also visited these same people and promised that the world would help them. Three months later, I heard on Iranian radio that Madame Ogato gave the number of Afghans dying of hunger to be a million nationwide.
I reached the conclusion that the statue of Buddha was not demolished by anybody; it crumbled out of shame. Out of shame for the world’s ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness did no good.
In Dushanbeh in Tajikistan I saw a scene where 100,000 Afghans were running from south to north, on foot. It looked like doomsday. These scenes are never shown in the media anywhere in the world. The war–stricken and hungry children had run for miles and miles barefoot. Later on the same fleeing crowd was attacked by internal enemies and was also refused asylum in Tajikistan. In the thousands, they died and died in a no man’s land between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and neither you nor anybody else found out.
A Country with No Images
Afghanistan is a country with no images, for various reasons. Afghan women are faceless which means ten million out of the twenty million population don’t get a chance to be seen. A nation, half of which is not even seen by its own women, is a nation without an image. During the last few years there has been no television broadcasting. There are only a few two–page newspapers by the names of Shariat, Heevad and Anise that have only text and no pictures. This is the sum total of the media in Afghanistan. Painting and photography have also been prohibited in the name of religion. In addition, no journalists are allowed to enter Afghanistan, let alone take pictures.
At the dawn of the twenty–first century there are no film productions or movie theaters in Afghanistan. Previously there were fourteen cinemas that showed Indian movies, and film studios made small productions imitating Indian movies, but that too has vanished.
In the world of cinema where thousands of films are made every year, nothing is forthcoming from Afghanistan. Hollywood, however, produced Rambo about war in Afghanistan. The whole movie was filmed in Hollywood and not one Afghan was included. The only authentic scene was Rambo’s presence in Peshawar, Pakistan, thanks to the art of back projection! It was merely employed for action sequences and creating excitement. Is this Hollywood’s image of a country where 10 percent of the people have been decimated and 30 percent have become refugees and where currently one million are dying of hunger?
The Russians produced two films concerning the memoirs of Russian soldiers. The Mujahedin made a few films after the Soviet retreat, which are essentially propaganda movies and not a real image of the situation of the past or present–day Afghanistan. They are basically heroic pictures of a few Afghans fighting in the deserts.
Two feature films have been produced in Iran on the situation of Afghan immigrants, Friday and Rain. I made two films The Cyclist and Kandahar. This is the entire catalogue of images about Afghans in the Iranian and world media. Even in TV productions worldwide there are a limited number of documentaries. Perhaps, it is an external and internal conspiracy or universal ignorance that maintains Afghanistan as a country without an image.
Tribal Conflicts—Past and Present
Afghanistan emerged when it separated from Iran. It used to be an Iranian province some 250 years ago and part of Greater Khorasan province in the era of Nadir Shah. Returning from India, one midnight, Nadir Shah was murdered in Ghoochan. Ahmad Abdali, an Afghan commander in Nadir Shah’s army fled with a regiment of four thousand soldiers. He declared independence from Iran and thus Afghanistan was created.
In those days it was comprised of farmers and overwhelmingly ruled by tribes. Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, naturally, he could not have been accepted as the absolute authority by other tribes such as the Tajik, Hazareh and Uzbek. Thus, it was agreed that each tribe would be governed by its own leaders. The rulers collectively formed a tribal federalism known as the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga system reveals that not only has Afghanistan never evolved economically from an agricultural existence, it has never moved beyond tribal rule, and has failed to achieve a sense of nationalism.
An Afghan does not regard himself an Afghan until he leaves his homeland. Then he is regarded with pity or suffers humiliation. In Afghanistan, each Afghan is a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek, or Tajik. In Iran, perhaps except in the province of Kurdistan, we are all Iranians first. Nationalism is the first aspect of our perception of a common identity. But in Afghanistan all are primarily members of a tribe. Tribalism is the first aspect of their identity. This is the most obvious difference between the spirit of an Iranian and that of an Afghan. Even in presidential elections in Iran, the candidate’s ethnicity has no national significance and draws no special vote. In Afghanistan since the era of Ahmad Abdali until today, as the Taliban rule over 95 percent of the country, the main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the nine months of Habiballah Galehkani’s rule known as Bacheh Sagha and the two years of the Tajik Burhannuddin Rabbani respectively, Tajiks have not otherwise held power.)
During the making of Kandahar while I was in the refugee camps at the border of Iran and Afghanistan, I realized that even those Afghan refugees who have lived in difficult camp conditions, did not accept their Afghan national identity. They still had conflicts over being Tajik, Hazareh, or Pashtoon. Inter–tribal marriages still do not take place among Afghans nor is there any business conducted between them. And with the most minor conflict, the danger of mass bloodshed prevails. I once witnessed the killing of a member of one tribe, by a member of another, in revenge for cutting in a bread line.
In the Niatak refugee camp (on the Iran–Afghanistan border) which accommodates five thousand residents, it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other. This sometimes leads to mutual aggression. Tajiks and Hazarehs find Pashtoons their greatest enemy on earth and vice versa. None of them are even willing to attend each other’s mosques for prayers. We had difficulty seating their children next to each other to watch a movie. They offered a compromise wherein Hazareh and Pashtoon children took turns watching.
Many diseases were prevalent in this camp and there were no doctors. When a doctor was brought in from the city, the camp residents didn’t give priority to treating those who were most ill. Only a tribal order was accepted. They appointed a day for Hazareh patients and another for Pashtoons. In addition, class distinctions among the Pashtoons prevented them from coming to the clinic on the same day.
In shooting scenes that needed extras, we had to decide to choose from among either Hazarehs or Pashtoons, though all of them were refugees and both suffered the same misery. Yet, tribal disposition came first in any decisions. Of course, the majority were unfamiliar with cinema. Like my grandmother, they thanked God for not having stepped foot inside a movie theatre.
The reason for Afghanistan’s perpetual tribalism rests with its agrarian economy. Each Afghan tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is the natural prisoner of a culture stemming from a mountainous environment and farming economy. Cultural tribalism is the product of farming conditions rooted in the deep valleys of Afghanistan. Belief in tribalism is as deep as those valleys.
The topography of Afghanistan is 75 percent mountainous of which only 7 percent is suitable for farming. It lacks any semblance of industry. The country is solely dependent on farming, as grasslands (in non-drought years) are the only resources for economic continuity. Again, farming is the foundation of this tribalism that in turn is the basis for deep internal conflicts. This not only stops Afghanistan from becoming a modern country it also prevents this would–be nation from achieving a national identity.
There is no intrinsic popular belief in what is called Afghanistan and Afghans. Afghans are not yet ready to be absorbed into a bigger collective identity called the people of Afghanistan. Contrary to the misnomer of religious war, the origin of disputes lies with tribal conflicts. The Tajiks who fight the Taliban today are both Muslim and Sunni—as are the Taliban. The intelligence of Ahmad Abdali is yet to be appreciated for having created the notion of tribal federalism. He was smarter than those who fancy the ruling of one tribe over all others or one individual over a nation—when tribalism and the economic infrastructure was still intact. Pashtoons with a population of about six million make up Afghanistan’s largest tribe. Next are Tajiks with about four million people, and third and fourth are Hazarehs and Uzbeks with populations of about four million and one to two million respectively. The rest are small tribes such as the Imagh, Fars, Balouch, Turkman, and Qezelbash.
The Pashtoons are mostly in the south, the Tajiks in the north and the Hazarehs in the central regions. This geographical concentration in different regions will lead either to complete and final disintegration or the continued connection from the head of the tribe through the Loya Jirga system. The only alternative to these two scenarios necessitates changes in the economic infrastructure and the replacement of a tribal identity with a national one.
If we can elect a president in Iran today, free from issues of ethnicity, it is because of the economic transformation resulting from oil, at least in the last century. The question is not the quality or quantity of oil in the Iranian economy. The point is that when oil enters the economy of a country such as Iran, that was basically agricultural, it changes the economic infrastructure and the role of Iran becomes significant in political interactions. It becomes an exporter of a valued raw material and in return receives the surplus productions of industrial countries.
This transformation changes the socioeconomic infrastructure that in turn breaks the traditional culture and creates a more modern one, exporting oil and consuming the products of industrialized countries. If we omit money as the symbolic medium, then we have given oil in exchange for consumer products. But Afghanistan has nothing but drugs to exchange in the world market. Therefore, it has turned back on itself and become isolated. Perhaps, if Afghanistan had not separated from Iran 250 years ago, it would have had a different fate based on its share of oil revenues.
The revenue from opium that I will elaborate on later is far too insignificant to be compared to revenue from Iranian oil. In 2000, Iran’s surplus income from the oil price windfall exceeded $10 billion. Total sales of opium in Afghanistan remained at $500 million.
Iran has played its role in the world economy and by consuming the products of others, has understood that we have choices and have thus become somewhat more modern. But for the Afghan farmer his world is his valleys and his profession is farming when drought spares him. Meanwhile a tribal system resolves his social problems. Given that, he cannot have a share in the world economy. How are grounds for his economic and cultural transition to be provided to let him have a share? In addition, $80 billion in the global drug turnover depends on Afghanistan remaining in its present situation without change because if change prevails, that $80 billion is the first thing to be threatened. Hence, Afghanistan is not supposed to realize a considerable profit since that itself may yield change for Afghanistan. Although Iran and Afghanistan shared the same history some 250 years ago, due to oil the history of Iran took a turn that is impossible for Afghanistan to take for a very long time. Opium is the only product that Afghanistan offers to the world. Yet both because of the nature of this product and the insignificant amount of this tainted national wealth, it cannot be compared to oil. If we add the $500 million income from the sale of opium to the $300 million from the sale of northern Afghanistan’s gas, and divide the total by the twenty million population, the result is $40 per capita annual income. If we further divide that figure by 365 days each Afghan would earn about ten cents a day or the equivalent of the price a loaf of bread on normal days.
But the country’s annual earnings belong to the government and the domestic criminal organizations and it doesn’t get divided fairly. This revenue, therefore, is both insufficient to meet the needs of people and too low to bring about significant change in the economic, social, political, and cultural infrastructure.
Why Have 30 Percent Emigrated?
Livestock breeders habitually move to resolve their living problems. Urban residents and agricultural farmers are less likely to move often. The main reason for the Afghan livestock breeders’ mobility is related to the farming seasons. They constantly move to green and warm areas to avoid dry lands and cold weather. Movement is a natural reflex for livestock farmers. The second reason is lack of a fixed occupation. Afghans migrate to avoid death from unemployment.
Upon waking up each day, an Afghan has four burdens to consider. First is his livestock and this depends on drought not being an obstacle. Fighting for a group or sect is his second concern and generally because of employment he enters the army. Earning a living to support his family is another reason why he moves and if all else fails, he enters the drug business. The extent of this last option is limited and the labor options of a nation of twenty million people cannot really be measured with a $500 million account accrued from cultivating poppy seeds. Thus, characterizing the people of Afghanistan as opium smugglers is unreal and applies only to a very limited number.
Immunized Against Modernism
Amanullah Khan, who ruled in Afghanistan from 1919–1928, was a contemporary of Reza Shah and Kemal Ataturk. On a personal level he was inclined towards modernism. In 1924, Amanullah traveled to Europe, returned with a Rolls Royce and made known his reform program. The plan included a change in attire. He told his wife to unveil herself and asked men to forego their Afghan costumes for western suits. Contrary to Afghan male custom, he prohibited polygamy. Traditionalists immediately begin opposing Amanullahmodernizing. None of the agrarian tribes submitted to these changes and rioting ensued against him.
Here, modernism without a socioeconomic basis, is but a non–homogeneous imposition of culture on a tribal society economically dependent on farming, and lacking any industry, agriculture or even preliminary means of exploiting its resources, not to mention prohibition of inter–tribal marriages. This superficial, formalistic and petty modernism served only as an antibody to stimulate traditional Afghan culture, making Afghanistan so immune to modernism that even in the following decades it could not penetrate the culture in a more rational form.
Even today, the preconditions for modernism, which include exploiting resources and presenting cheap raw materials in exchange for goods, have not been created. The most advanced people in Afghanistan still believe that Afghan society is not yet ready for female suffrage. When the most progressive sect involved in the civil war finds it too early for women to vote it is obvious that the most conservative will prohibit schooling and social activities to them. It follows naturally that ten million women are held captive under their burqas (veils). This is Afghan society seventy years after Amanullah’s modernism aimed to impose monogamy on a male dominated Afghanistan, whose only perception of family is the harem. In 2001, polygamy is still an accepted fact by women even in refugee camps on the Iran–Afghanistan border. I attended two weddings among the Pashtoon and Hazareh tribes and heard them wishing for more prosperous weddings for the groom. At first I thought it was a joke. In another case the bride’s family said: “If the groom can afford it, up to four wives is indeed very good and it is a religious tradition as well as helping a bunch of hungry people.”
When I went to the camp in Saveh to record the wedding music for Kandahar, I saw a two–year–old girl being wedded to a seven–year–old boy. I never understood the meaning of this. Neither could that boy or that little girl, who was sucking on a pacifier, have made the choice. Given this portrait of traditional society, Amanullah’s modernism seemed an overwhelming imitation of another country.
Of course, some people believe if a woman changes her burqa into a less concealing veil, she may be struck with God’s wrath and turned into black stone. Perhaps, someone has to forcibly rid her of her burqa so she’ll realize that the assumption is untrue and she can choose for herself.
There is another biased viewpoint to Amanullah’s modernism. In traditional societies, the culture of hypocrisy is a form of class camouflage. In Iranian society, wealthy traditional families decorate the interior of their home like a castle but keep the exterior looking like a shack, out of fear of the poor. In other words, that aristocratic nucleus needs to have a poor rustic shell.
Opposition to modernism is not necessarily expressed by traditional organizations. Sometimes it is a reaction by the poor against the rich. For the poor society in Amanullah’s time, while having horses as opposed to mules was a symbol of honor and nobility, a Rolls Royce was an insult to the poor. The war between tradition and modernism is primarily the same as the battle of the Rolls Royce and the mule. It is a war between poverty and wealth.
Today, in Afghanistan the only modern objects are weapons. The ubiquitous civil war that has created jobs in addition to being a political/military action has also become a market for modern weapons. Afghanistan can no longer fight with knives and daggers even though it lags behind the contemporary age. The consumption of weapons is a serious matter. Stinger missiles next to long beards and burqas are still symbols of profound modernism that are proportionate to consumption and modern culture.
For the Afghan Mujahed, weapons have an economic basis that creates jobs. If all weapons are removed from Afghanistan, the war ends and all accept that if there were no more assaults on anyone, given the sub–zero economic conditions, all of today’s Mujahedin would join the refugees in other countries. The issue of tradition and modernism, war and peace, tribalism and nationalism in Afghanistan must be analyzed with an eye to the economic situation and employment crisis. It has to be understood that there is no immediate solution for the economic crisis in Afghanistan.
A long–term resolution is contingent on an economic miracle and not on a nationwide military attack from north to south or vice versa. Have these miracles not happened time and again? Was the Soviet retreat not a miracle? Was the sovereignty of the Mujahedin not a miracle on their part? Was the sudden conquest of the Taliban not a miracle of its kind? Then why do problems remain? Modernism under discussion here faces two fundamental problems. One is rooted in economics and the second is the immunization of Afghan traditional culture against premature modernism.
Geography and its Consequences
Afghanistan has an area of 700,000 square kilometers. Mountains account for 75 percent of the land. People live in cavernous valleys surrounded by towering mountains. These elevations not only attest to a rough nature, difficult passage and impediments to business, but are also viewed as cultural and spiritual fortresses among Afghan tribes. It is obvious why Afghanistan lacks inter–state routes. The shortage of roads not only creates obstacles for the fighters who seek to occupy Afghanistan, it stops businessmen whose prosperity may become a means of economic growth.
To the same degree that these mountains obstruct foreign intrusion, they block interference of other cultures and commercial activities. A country that is 75 percent mountains has problems creating consumer markets in its potential industrial cities and in exporting agriculture products to the cities. Despite the use of modern weapons, wars take longer and find no conclusion.
In the past Afghanistan was a passageway for caravans on the Silk Road traversing China through Balkh and India through Kandahar. The discovery of waterways, and then airways in the last century, changed Afghanistan from an ancient commercial route to a dead end. The old Silk Road was a passage of camels and horses and didn’t have the characteristics of a modern road. Through the same winding roads Nadir Shah, Alexander, Timur, and Mahmmod Ghaznavi went to India. There used to be primitive wooden bridges, which have been badly damaged in the past twenty years of war. Perhaps today, after two decades of foreign and civil war the people want the strongest party to win and give a single direction to Afghanistan’s historical fate, no matter what. These same mountains, however, are a hindrance. Perhaps, the true fighters of Afghanistan are not its hungry people but the high mountains that don’t surrender. The Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud,* owes its survival to the Panjshir valley. Conceivably, if Afghanistan was not mountainous, the Soviets could have easily conquered it; or it could have been prey for the Americans to hunt down like the plains of Kuwait, and bring it closer to the Central Asian markets.
Being mountainous increases both the costs of war and reconstruction after peace. If Afghanistan was not so rugged it would have had a different economical, military, political, and cultural fate. Is this a geographical misfortune? Imagine a fighter who has to constantly climb up and down mountains. Suppose he conquered all of Afghanistan. He then has to constantly conquer the peaks to provide for his army. These mountains have been sufficient to save Afghanistan from foreign enemies and domestic friends.
Each tribe has defended the valley it was trapped in. When the enemy left, again, everyone saw their valley as the center of the world. The same mountains have made agriculture very difficult. Only 15 percent of the land is suited for agriculture and practically just half of this is actually cultivated. The reason for livestock farming is that the grasslands are on the mountainsides or its environs.
It can be said that Afghanistan is a victim of her own topography. There are no routes in the mountains and road construction is expensive. The roads if any, are either military or narrow paths for smugglers. The only trunk road passes around the borders. How can a border road function like a primary artery in the body of Afghanistan to resolve problems of social, cultural and economic communications? The few interstate roads that existed were destroyed in the war. To whose advantage is it to pay for the costs of drilling these tough and elevated mountains? For which potential profit should this exorbitant cost be borne?
It is said that Afghanistan is full of unexplored mines. From what route are these possibly exploitable resources supposed to reach their destinations? Who will be the first to invest in mines that will generate profits in an uncertain future? Has the lack of roads prevented the Soviets and Afghans from excavating the mines?
On the other hand, Afghanistan is a land of eternal hidden paths that are quite efficient for smuggling drugs. There are as many winding roads as you want for smuggling, but for crushing the smugglers, you need straight ones that don’t exist. You can’t know the infinite number of paths and you can’t attack a path every day. At the most, you can await a caravan at a junction. A smuggler was arrested around the city of Semnan in Iran who had walked barefoot from Kandahar carrying a sack of drugs. He had no skin on his soles when arrested, but kept on walking.
In the mountains of Afghanistan water is more of a calamity than a blessing. In winter it is freezing. It floods in spring and in the summer its shortage yields drought. This is the property of mountains without dams. Uncontrolled waters and hard soil reduce agricultural possibility. This is the geographical picture of Afghanistan: arduous to cross, incapable of cultivation, and with mines impossible to exploit due to transport costs. The fact that some find Afghanistan a museum of tribes, races, and languages is because of the sheer difficulty of its geography. Every tradition in this country has remained intact because of isolation and lack of interference. It is only natural for this rough and dry country to turn to cultivation of poppy seeds to support its people.
In its present state the economy of Afghanistan can keep its people half full without any economic development. Wealth though, rests with the domestic criminal organizations, or gets spent on unstable Afghan regimes, and the people don’t get a share of it.
How do the Afghan people support themselves beyond farming? It is either through construction work in Iran, participation in political wars, or becoming theology students in the Taliban schools. Over twenty–five hundred Taliban schools, with a capacity between three hundred to one thousand students each, attract hungry orphans. In these schools anybody can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, read the Qur’an, memorize prayers, and later join the Taliban forces. This is the only remaining option for employment. It is because of this geography that emigration, smuggling and war remain as occupations and I’m wondering how the Northern Alliance is going to meet the needs of the people after a possible victory over the Taliban? Will it be through continued war, development of poppy seeds, or prayer for rain?
On the Iranian border the UN pays $20 to any Afghan volunteering to return to Afghanistan. They are taken by bus to the first cities inside Afghanistan or dropped around the borders. Interestingly, due to lack of jobs in Afghanistan, the Afghans quickly come back and if not recognized, go in line again to get another $20. The jobless Afghans turn every solution into an occupation. And as much as war may be a profession, few Afghan leaders have died pursuing it.
Continued war provides opportunity for the U.S., the Russians and the six neighboring countries to give aid to forces loyal to them. This largesse is normally aimed at continuing a war or balancing power, but in the case of Afghanistan it merely creates jobs. Let’s not forget that there’s been a two–year drought and livestock have died as a result. The mortality is predicted by the UN to be one million within the next few months. The war has nothing to do with this. It is poverty and famine. Whenever farming has been threatened by a shortage of water, emigration has increased, and wars have worsened.
The average life expectancy of an Afghan has been calculated at 41.5 years and the mortality rate for children under two years of age was between 182 to 200 deaths per 1,000. The average longevity was 34 years in 1960 and in 2000 was pegged at 41. The reality however is that in recent years it has gone down to even lower than what it was in 1960.
I never forget those nights of filming Kandahar. While our team searched the deserts with flashlights, we would see dying refugees like herds of sheep left in the desert. When we took those that we thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realized that they were dying of hunger. Since those days and nights of seeing so many people starving to death, I haven’t been able to forgive myself for eating any meals.
Between 1986 and 1989 the Afghans had about twenty–two million sheep. That is one sheep per person. This has traditionally been the main wealth of a farming nation such as Afghanistan. This wealth was lost in the recent famine. Imagine the situation of a farming nation without livestock. The original tragedy of Afghanistan today is poverty and the only way to resolve the problems is through economic rehabilitation.
If I had gone to support the Mujahedin, instead of the true freedom fighters who are ordinary people struggling to stay alive, I would have come back. If I were president of a neighboring country, I would encourage economic relations with Afghanistan in lieu of political–military interventions. God forbid if I was in the place of God, I would bless Afghanistan with something else that would benefit this forgotten nation. And I write this without believing it will have any impact in this era, which is very different than that of Sa’di’s when, “all men are limbs of one body.”
Dr. Kamal Hossein, the UN Humanitarian Adviser for Afghanistan affairs from Bangladesh, visited our office in the summer of 2000 and told us that he had been reporting quite futilely to the UN for ten years. He had come to assist me in making a movie that perhaps would awaken the world. I said: “I’m looking for that which will affect.”
It must be added that Afghanistan has not so much suffered from foreign interference as it has from indifference. Again if Afghanistan were Kuwait with a surplus of oil income, the story would have been different. But Afghanistan has no oil and the neighboring countries deport its underpaid laborers. It’s only natural when occupational options fail—as explained earlier in the text—the only remaining choices are smuggling, joining the Taliban, or falling down in a corner in Herat, Bamian, Kabul, or Kandahar and dying for the world’s ignorance.
Once, I happened to be in a camp around Zabol that was filled with illegal immigrants. I wasn’t sure if it was a camp or a prison. The Afghans who had fled their homes because of famine or Taliban assaults had been refused asylum and were waiting to be returned to Afghanistan. It all seemed legal and rational to that point. People, who for any reason enter a country illegally and are afterward refused, get deported. But these particular people were dying of hunger. We had ended up there to choose extras for my film. I asked the authorities and found out that the camp could not afford to feed so many people and they hadn’t eaten for a week. They had only water to drink. We offered to provide meals. They wished we’d go there every day.
We brought food for four hundred Afghans ranging from one–month–old babies to eighty–year–old men. Most of them were little kids who had fainted of hunger in their mothers’ arms. For an hour, we were crying and distributing bread and fruits. The authorities expressed grief and regret and said that it took a long time for budget approvals and kept saying that the flow of hungry refugees was far greater than what they could manage. This is the story of a country that’s been ravaged by its own nature, history, economy, politics, and the unkindness of its neighbors. An Afghan poet who was being deported from Iran back to Afghanistan expressed his feelings in a poem and left:
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.
The stranger who had no piggy bank, will leave.
And the child who had no dolls, will leave.
The spell on my exile will be broken tonight.
And the table that had been empty will be folded.
In suffering, I wandered around the horizons.
It is me who everyone has seen in wandering.
What I do not have I’ll lay down and leave.
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.
The Role of Drug Production
In modern day economy, every supply is based on a demand. The production of drugs everywhere meets the need for its consumption. This universal market includes both poor and advanced countries such as India, the Netherlands, and the United States. According to UN reporting in 2000, in the late 90’s about 180 million people worldwide were using drugs. Based on the same report, 90 percent of illegal opium, as well as 80 percent of heroin, is produced in two countries, one of which is Afghanistan. Why? Although Afghanistan earns half a billion dollars from drug production the actual turnover for these drugs is $80 billion. In transit to the rest of the world, the mark–up stretches 160 times. Who gets the $80 billion?
For example, heroin enters Tajikistan at one price and exits at twice that much. The same goes for Uzbekistan. By the time drugs reach consumers in the Netherlands, they cost 160 to 200 times the original price. The money ends up with the various criminal organizations that manipulate the politics of those countries en route.
The secret budget of many Central Asian countries is supplied through drug traffic, otherwise, how can smugglers who walk all the way from Kandahar for example, be the prime beneficiaries of this wealth? How can we at all consider them the true smugglers of drugs?
If it weren’t for the extremely high drug profits Iran, for example, could have ordered a half a billion dollars worth of wheat to Afghanistan as an incentive to stop planting poppy seeds. Yet the $79.5 billion profit is far too valuable, for the drug smugglers and their allied forces, to dispose of poppy seeds. Ironically, the Afghan drug producer is not himself a consumer. Drug use is prohibited but its production is legitimate. Its religious justification is sending deadly poisons to the enemies of Islam in Europe and America. This reasoning is nicely paradoxical given the economic significance of drugs on the governmental budget of Afghanistan.
The total drug turnover in the world is $400 billion and Afghans are the victims of this market. Why is Afghanistan’s share only 1/800 of the total? Whatever the answer, the market needs a place with little civil organization, but which is a cornucopia of drug production. If there were roads in Afghanistan instead of obscure paths, if the war ceased and the economy flourished, and if other incentives replaced the half a billion dollars, then what would happen to the $400 billion market?
The secret budget of Central Asian countries is supplied through drugs. That explains the strong incentive for the world to remain indifferent towards Afghanistan’s chronic economic condition. Why should Afghanistan become stable? How could it possibly compensate for the $80 billion directly generated from its soil? Drugs are an interesting business for many. Just a few months ago when I was in Afghanistan, it was said that every day an airplane full of drugs flies directly from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf states. In 1986, when I was doing research for the making of The Cyclist, I took a road trip from Mirjaveh in Pakistan to Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It took me a few days. When I entered Mirjaveh, I got on a colorful bus of the same kind that you might have seen in The Cyclist. The bus was filled with all kinds of strange people. People with long thin beards, turbans on the head and long dresses. At first, I wasn’t aware that the bus roof was filled with drugs. The bus drove across dirt expanses without roads. Everywhere was filled with dust and the wheels would sink into the soft soil. We arrived at a surreal gate like the ones in Dali’s paintings. It was a gate that neither separated nor connected anything from or to anything. It was just an imaginary gate erected in the middle of the desert. The bus stopped at the gate. There then appeared a group of bikers who asked our driver to step down. They talked a little and then brought a sack of money and counted it with the driver. Two of the bikers came and took our bus. Our driver and his assistant took the money and left on the bikes. The new driver announced that he was now the owner of the bus and everything in it. We then found out that together with the bus we had been sold.
This transaction was repeated every few hours and we were sold to several smugglers. We found out that a particular party controlled each leg of the route and every time the bus was sold, the price increased. First it was one sack of money then it went up to two and three towards the end. There were also caravans that carried Dushka heavy machineguns on the backs of their camels. If you eliminated our bus and the arms on camelback, you were in the primitive depths of history. Again we would arrive in places where they sold arms. Bullets were sold in bags as if they were beans. Kilos of bullets were weighed on scales and exchanged. Well, how would the world’s drug trade take place if such places didn’t exist?
I had gone to Khorasan and along the border was looking for a site for filming. By sunset the villages near the border would be evacuated. The villagers would flee to other cities for fear of smugglers. They also encouraged us to take flight. Rumors of insecurity were so widespread that few cars passed after sundown. In the darkness of the night, the roads were ready for the passage of smuggling caravans. According to witnesses the caravans are comprised of groups of five to one hundred people. Their ages range from twelve to thirty years. Each carries a sack of drugs on their back and some carry hand–held rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs to protect the caravan.
If drugs are not flown by airplane, they go in containers and if otherwise, they are carried by human mules. Imagine the enormity of events these caravans pass through from one country to another until for example, they reach Amsterdam. Again, imagine what fear and horror they create among the people in different regions to maintain that $80 billion trade.
I asked an official in Taibad about the number of killings committed by the smugglers. The figures say 105 were either killed or kidnapped in two years. Over 80 have been returned. I quickly divided 105 by the 104 weeks of the two years. It equals one person per week. I reckoned that if these numbers render a region so unsafe that people prefer not to stay in their own villages and flee to other cities by night, how do we expect the people of Afghanistan to stay put? In the past twenty years, they have had one killing every five minutes. Should they stay in Afghanistan and not migrate to our country? How can we think that if we deport them, the lack of safety in Afghanistan will not bring them back? I inquired of the officials stationed on the roads about the causes for kidnappings and killings. Apparently, the caravans on the Iranian side of the border deal with the villagers. When an Iranian smuggler does not pay money on time, he or one of his family members is kidnapped and they are returned once the money is exchanged. Again, I realize that this aggression also has an economic basis. Near the Dogharoon border the customs agents were saying that the region had been unsafe for eight years but the papers had been reporting about it for only two years. The reason for the relative wave of openness is related to the new situation of newspapers in Iran.
*Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan, was murdered by unknown assailants on September 9, 2001.—Eds.
Emigration and its Consequences
Except for seasonal movement with his livestock, the emigrant Afghan farmer never traveled abroad until about two decades ago. For this reason, every trip, even a limited one, has left serious marks on the fate of Afghans. For example, Amanullah Khan and a group of students that had traveled to the West for studying, became the pioneers of Afghanistan’s unsuccessful experiment with modernism. The emigration of 30 percent of Afghanistan’s population in the recent decades however, has not been for academic pursuits. War and poverty forced them to leave and now, their large population has exhausted their hosts. The emigration of 2.5 million Afghans to Iran and 3 million to Pakistan has created grave concerns for both countries. When I objected to officials in charge of deporting Afghans that they were our guests, the reply I heard was that this twenty–year party had gone on too long. If it continued in Khorasan, Sistan, and Baluchestan provinces, our national identity would be threatened in the said regions and we would face even more intense crises such as demands for independence of those areas or even increased insecurity at the borders.
Unlike Pakistan, which prepared Taliban schools to train Islamic Mujahedin, Iranian society did not plan any schools to train Afghans. During the making of The Cyclist, I used to go to Afghan neighborhoods to find actors. At that time, one of the Afghan officials told me that they expected the Iranian universities to accept Afghan students so that if the Soviets left Afghanistan, they would have ministers with at least bachelor degrees. Otherwise, with a bunch of fighters you can wage war but not govern the country.
Later on, a few Afghans were accepted in Iranian universities but none of them are willing to return home today. They state their reasons as being insecurity and hunger. One of them mentioned that the highest level of living in Afghanistan is lower than the lowest level in Iran. I heard in Herat that the monthly salary of Herat’s governor (in 2000) was $15 per month. That’s fifty cents a day or 4,000 Iranian rials. Because of widespread Afghan emigration, human smuggling has become a new occupation for Iranian smugglers. Afghan families that reach the borders have to go a long way to arrive in Tehran and since their arrest is likely in Zabol, Zahedan, Kerman or any other city en route, they leave their fate in the hands of pickup–driving smugglers. The smugglers request 1,000,000 rials for every refugee hauled to Tehran.
Since in 99 percent of the cases, the Afghan family lacks this much money, a couple of thirteen to fourteen–year–old girls are taken hostage and the rest of the family is secreted into Tehran through back roads. The girls are kept until their family finds jobs and pays the debt. In most cases the money is never provided. A ten–member family with a ten million rial debt has to pay the interest as well after three months. Consequently, a great many Afghan girls are either kept as hostages around the borders or become the personal belonging of the smugglers. An official in the region related that the number of girl hostages in just one of those cities has been approximated at 24,000.
A friend of mine who was building a house in Tehran told me about his Afghan workers. He had noticed that two Iranian men showed up once in while and got most of their money. When asked, the Afghans said that they were brought for free on the condition that they pay the smugglers later. They also saved a part of their money to take back to their families in Afghanistan in case they were deported. The situation is a bit different for refugees in Pakistan.
Those who come to Iran are Hazarehs. These people are Farsi speaking Shiites. The common language and religion inclines them towards Iran. Their misfortune is their distinctive appearance. Their Mongol features subject them to quick recognition among Iranians. The Pashtoon who goes to Pakistan, however, blends in with Pakistanis because of common language, religion and ethnicity. Although the Shiite Hazarehs find Pakistan more liberal than Iran, job opportunities in Iran are more appealing to them than the freedom in Pakistan. It means that bread has priority over freedom. You must first have food in order to search for freedom.
As a result of not finding a suitable occupation, a hungry Sunni/Pashtoon Afghan is immediately attracted to the theological schools ready to offer food and shelter. In fact, unlike Iran, which never dealt with Afghan refugees in an organized manner, Pakistan promoted, organized, and put into play the Taliban government for a variety of reasons. The first is the Durand line. Before Pakistani independence from India, Afghanistan shared borders with India and serious disputes ensued between the two over the Pashtoonestan region. The British drew the Durand line and divided the region between the two countries, on the condition that after one hundred years, Afghanistan regain control over the Indian part of Pashtoonestan as well. Later on, when Pakistan declared independence from India, the Indian half of Pashtoonestan became half of Pakistan. According to international law, Pakistan was supposed to cede Pashtoonestan back to Afghanistan some six years ago. How would Pakistan, which still has claims over Kashmir agree to give half of its land area to Afghanistan?
The best solution was to raise hungry Afghan Mujahedin to control Afghanistan. The Pakistan–trained Taliban would naturally no longer harbor ambitions of recovering Pashtoonestan from their patron. No wonder the Taliban appeared just as the one–hundred–year deadline drew to a close. From a distance the Taliban appear to be irrational and dangerous fundamentalists. When you look at them closely, you see hungry Pashtoon orphans whose occupation is that of a theology student and whose impetus for attending school is hunger. When you review the appearance of the Taliban you see the national political interests of Pakistan.
If fundamentalism was the reason for the independence of Pakistan from Gandhi’s democratic India, the same applies for Pakistan’s survival and expansion at the expense of Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s significance for the world prior to disintegration of the Soviet Union was based on its being the first defensive stronghold of the West against the communist East. With Soviet disintegration, to the same degree that the Afghan fighter lost his heroic position in the western media, Pakistan also lost its strategic importance and came face–to–face with an employment crisis. According to the rules of sociology, every organization buys and sells something. Given this definition, armies sell their military services to their own or other nations and governments. What was Pakistan’s national occupation in the world in relation to the West? Playing the role of an apparently eastern army but being possessed of a western internal conviction and selling military services to the United States. With Soviet disintegration, the demand for Pakistan’s military services for the West also diminished.
To which market then was Pakistan to present its military services and maintain this vital national occupation? That is why Pakistan created the Taliban: to have covert control of Afghanistan and stop the Afghans from demanding the cession of Pashtoonestan. The fact that Pakistan, first and foremost, faces an employment crisis, is rooted in this reasoning. If as a filmmaker I cannot make my films in my homeland, I’ll go elsewhere for my occupation. Armies are the same way. For any big war effort, enormous reserves of a nation’s energy are directed towards forming military organizations that dispense military services. Once the war is over, these units look for other markets to maintain their services. If they can’t find a market, they become discouraged and either stage a coup d’etat or transform into economic foundations. Examples of the latter are found in countries that have used their military organizations to control traffic or help with agriculture or road construction.
In the broader world, every once in a while, wars are fomented to create demands for military materiel and take government purchase orders. Let’s go back to the issue of emigration. Unlike Iran, Pakistan used Afghan refugees as religio–political students and founded the Taliban army.
Before the Soviet invasion, an Afghan was a farmer. With the Soviet attack, each Afghan turned into a Mujahed to defend his valley. Organizations and parties were formed. With the Soviet retreat, every sect or group began fighting another. Six neighboring countries, the United States and the Soviet Union each sought their own mercenaries among the military groups. The civil war intensified so much that in two years, the damages were greater than in the longer period of the Russian presence. People were fed up with civil war and when Pakistan dispatched the army of the Taliban holding white flags with the motto of public disarmament and peace, people welcomed them. In a short time, the Taliban had control over most of Afghanistan. It was then that the Taliban’s Pakistani roots went on display.
The Taliban have always been criticized for their fundamentalism but little has been said about the reasons for their appearance. Although the Herati poet who had come to Iran on foot, returned to Afghanistan on foot, the orphan who had walked to Peshawar in Pakistan, returned to conquer Afghanistan driving Toyotas offered by the Arab countries.
How could Pakistan, which had subsistence problems with its own people, afford to feed, train and equip the Taliban? With the help of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates—who as Iran’s competitors had previously created tensions in Mecca—and who were looking for a religious power that could compete with Iran’s. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, who once felt their modern interests were threatened by the motto of return to Islam, thought that if there is to be any return to Islam, why not return to a more regressive Islam like that of the Taliban. If there’s a contest for returning and the winner is one who regresses the most, why not go back to the most primitive state namely Talibanism!
Who are the Taliban?
According to sociologists, the nation’s demand for security from its governments is greater than any other consideration. Welfare, development, and freedom come next. After the Soviet retreat, the outbreak of intense civil war created nationwide insecurity and the country was placed in extremely perilous straits. Each group aimed at providing its own security through continuous fighting. None of them however were able to provide safety for the nation. The mocking irony of this period was that every one tried to insure security by making the country unsafe.
The Taliban, with their claim to be harbingers of peace and their strategy of disarmament, quickly succeeded in winning popular consent. The unsuccessful efforts of other groups were centered on offering war and insecurity. In Herat, I inquired about the Taliban.
The reply I heard from the shopkeepers was that prior to the Taliban their shops were robbed daily by armed and hungry men. Even those who opposed the Taliban were happy with the security they brought.
Security was established in two ways. One was the disarmament of the public and the other severe punishments such as cutting the hands of thieves. These punishments are so harsh, intolerable, and quick that if the twenty thousand hungry Afghans in Herat saw a piece of bread before them, nobody would dare take it. I saw truck drivers who had traveled to and from Afghanistan for two years and had never locked their vehicles. Nothing was ever stolen from them either. Afghans were in need not only of financial security; practical safety and freedom from harassment have always been concerns as well. I heard different stories about how prior to the Taliban people’s lives and chastity were violated by other tribes and sects. Disarmament and execution by stoning, however, have reduced the number of such violations.
Today, when you enter Afghanistan, you see people lying around on street corners. Nobody has energy to move and no arms to fight with. Fear of punishment stops them from committing crimes. The only remedy is to stay and die while humanity is overtaken by indifference. This is not Sa’di’s time when “all men are limbs of one body”.
The only one whose heart had not turned to stone yet, was the Buddha statue of Bamian. With all his grandeur, he felt humiliated by the enormity of this tragedy and broke down. Buddha’s state of needlessness and calmness became ashamed before a nation in need of bread and it fell. Buddha shattered to inform the world of all this poverty, ignorance, oppression and mortality. But negligent humanity only heard about the demolition of the Buddha statue. A Chinese proverb says: “You point your finger at the moon, the fool stares at your finger.” Nobody saw the dying nation that Buddha was pointing to. Are we supposed to stare at all the different means of communication rather than at what they are intended to convey? Is the ignorance of the Taliban or their fundamentalism deeper than the earth’s ignorance towards the ominous fate of a nation such as Afghanistan?
For filming the starving Afghans, I called Dr. Kamal Hussein, the UN representative from Bangladesh. I told him I wanted to get permission to go to north Afghanistan (controlled by the Northern Alliance) and Kandahar (controlled by the Taliban). It was decided that a small group would go and eventually just two of us (my son and I) received approval to travel with only a small video camera. We were to be permitted to go to Islamabad, Pakistan and take a small ten–passenger UN airplane that flew once a week to the north and once a week to the south.
It took two weeks for the UN office to call and inquire when it was convenient for us to depart. We were ready but they said that it would take another month. “Since it will get colder in a month and more people will be dying, it would make your film more interesting,” they said. They recommended February. I asked, “More interesting?” They replied that perhaps it would provoke the conscience of the world. I didn’t know what to say. We were silent for a while. Then I asked whether or not we could go to both north and south. The Taliban didn’t agree. They are not too fond of journalists. I made a promise to only film those dying of hunger. Again the Taliban did not approve. I explained that I needed another invitation from the UN to re–enter Pakistan. Later, I received a fax stating that I had to go to Pakistan’s embassy in Tehran. I was happy because I had previously obtained a visa to Pakistan from the embassy to bring costumes for Kandahar from Peshawar. I visited the embassy and, at first, was not received warmly. After a little while I was called and a very respectable lady and a gentleman directed me to a room. I spent twenty minutes in that room with them—fifteen of which they talked about my daughter Samira and her international success in cinema. While they avoided the main issue they asked why I applied through the UN for a visa and told me that it would have been better to have applied directly to them. In addition, they were not in favor of a film that misrepresented the Taliban government. They preferred that I go to Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. I felt like I was in the embassy of the Taliban.
I asked if they had seen The Cyclist and told them I had made a part of it in Peshawar and that it is not a political film. I told them that my intentions were humanitarian and that I wanted to help the Afghans—especially with regards to hunger. I told them that my film was about the crisis of employment and hunger. They said that we have 2.5 million Afghans in Iran. Why not film them? It was useless to continue the discussion. They kept my passport and I was kindly asked to leave. A few days later, I received my passport with a statement saying that I might have a visa to go to Pakistan as a tourist, but not to film, nor to go to Afghanistan. When I left the embassy, all of what I have read or heard about the Taliban passed before my eyes.
I remember being escorted out of a Taliban school in Peshawar as soon as my Iranian identity became known. And I remember a day in Peshawar, while filming The Cyclist, when I was arrested and handcuffed. I don’t know why every time I intend to make a film about Afghanistan I end up in Pakistan!
People tell me to be careful. There is always the threat of kidnapping or terrorism at the borders. The Taliban are reputed to assassinate suspected opponents en route between Zahedan and Zabol. I keep saying my subject is humanitarian not political. Eventually, one day when we were finished filming near the border, as I was walking around, I came across a group that had come either to kill or kidnap me. They asked me about Makhmalbaf. I was sporting a long thin beard and wearing Afghan dress. A Massoudi hat with a shawl covering it and half of my face made me look like an Afghan. I sent them the other way and began running. I could not figure out whether they had been dispatched by a political group or if smugglers sent them to extort money.
Let me go back to the issue of security. The Taliban, under the auspices of public disarmament and implementation of punishments such as amputation of the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, and execution of opponents have brought an apparent security to Afghanistan. If there is fighting somewhere, Shariat Radio (Voice of Taliban), which only has a two–hour program daily, will not announce it just to maintain a sense of national security. They say, for example, that the people of Takhar welcomed the Taliban—but you know it means that the Taliban attacked and conquered Takhar. The rest is just news about Friday prayer, or the amputation of the hand of some bandit in Bamian, the stoning to death of a young adulterer in Kandahar, or punishment of some barbers who cut a few teenagers’ hair in the western style of infidels. Whatever it is, with all the punishments and propaganda, a sense of national security suffuses Afghanistan.
Afghanistan lacks the economic strength for the Taliban to create public welfare, yet the Taliban are the only government that can bring security to the country. Those who fight the Taliban bring threats to security and those who support them reason that Afghans must rule in Afghanistan. Whoever is to become the ruler of Afghanistan must first bring security to the nation. Any kind of war gives way to insecurity and because Afghanistan is inclined towards tribalism, with the coming of anybody to power, security is again threatened. It is better to first recognize whoever aims to rule Afghanistan, so that he can save Afghanistan from its hunger crisis and then move on. The same group finds criticism of the Taliban irrelevant to the lack of freedom in Afghanistan, because an insecure and famished nation seeks welfare more than freedom and development.
In reply to the question of what the Taliban are, it must be said that politically, the Taliban are an instrument for government supported by Pakistan. Individually, they are starving youth turned students and trained in Taliban schools in Pakistan. They first entered the premises for a loaf of bread and later exited to occupy political–military positions in Afghanistan. As viewed by one political group, the Taliban are protagonists of fundamentalism in the region, from the viewpoint of another political group, they are the same Pashtoons who have been the only rulers of Afghanistan since the time of Ahmad Abdali. Today, they have reasserted 250 years of their power after an era of internal chaos. They claim that in the past quarter millennium, except for a nine–month period when the Tajiks ruled and another two years when the Tajik Rabbani governed, the Pashtoons have always had control, and Afghanistan needs their experience in governing.
I hardly understand these issues. My job is to make films and if I have delved into these matters, it is because I want to write my script based on a more precise analysis. The further I go though I find the case more complicated. When the United States found it necessary, it retook Kuwait from Iraq in three days. Why, however, with all its touting of modernism, does it not initiate an action to save the ten million women who have no schools or social presence and are trapped under the burqa? Why doesn’t it stop this primitiveness that has emerged in modern times? Does it not have the power or does it lack the incentive? As I’ve already said, unlike Kuwait, Afghanistan lacks precious resources and surplus income.
I hear another answer too. If the United States supports the Taliban for a few more years, the Taliban will present to the world such an ugly image of political Islam that it will make everyone immune to it—just as everyone in Afghanistan was made immune to modernism by Amanullah Khan. If the revolutionary and reformative interpretations of Islam are equated with Taliban’s regressive interpretation, then the world will become forever immune to the expansion of Islam. Some people find this analysis too shabby a cliché. They tell me to let go and I will.
The Most Imprisoned Women in the World
Afghan society is a male–dominant society. It can be claimed that the rights of ten million Afghan women who make up half of the population in Afghanistan, are less than that of the weakest unknown Afghan tribe. No tribe is an exception in this regard. The fact that Afghan women, according even to the Tajiks, don’t have the right to vote in elections is the least that can be said about them.
With the coming of the Taliban, girls’ schools were closed, and for a long time women were not allowed in the streets. More tragically, even before the Taliban, only one out of every twenty women was able to read and write. This statistic indicates that Afghan culture denied education to 95 percent of women, and the Taliban deprived the remaining 5 percent. Realistically then, should we ask: did the Taliban change Afghan culture, or, was Afghan culture the cause of the Taliban’s appearance?
When I was in Afghanistan, I saw women with burqas on their heads begging in the streets or shopping in second hand stores. What caught my attention were the ladies who brought out their hands from under the burqas and asked little peddler boys to polish their nails. For a long time, I wondered why they didn’t buy nail polish to use at home? Later I found out it was the cheapest way to do it. Buying nail polish was more expensive than a one–time use. I told myself again that this is a good sign that women under burqas still like living and despite their poverty, care about their beauty to that extent. Later on, however, I reached the conclusion that it is not fair to isolate and imprison a woman in an environment or a certain costume and be content that she still puts on make up.
An Afghan woman has to maintain herself so that she won’t be forgotten in the competition with her rivals. Polygamy is quite common among young men too, and has turned many Afghan homes into harems. Although the marriage allowance is so high that getting married means buying a woman, I saw old men, while I was filming, give away ten–year–old girls, and with the marriage price that they received consider marrying other ten–year–old girls for themselves. It seems that limited capital is exchanged from one hand to the other to replace girls from one house to the other. Among them there are women who have an age difference of thirty to fifty years with their husbands.
These women mostly live in the same house or even the same room and not only have they surrendered but they have also gotten used to these customs. I had brought a lot of dresses and burqas from Afghanistan and Pakistan for my film. Many of the women who agreed to be in the film as extras after strenuous and lengthy persuasion, requested that we gave them burqas instead of money. One of them wanted a burqa for her daughter’s wedding, and I, fearing that burqas may become popular in Iran, didn’t give any to anyone. Once when we had asked some Afghan women to be in the film, their husband told us that he was too chaste to show his women. I told him that we would film his women with their burqas on but he said that the viewers watching the movie know that it is a woman under the burqa and that would contradict chastity.
Time and again I ask myself, did the Taliban bring the burqas or did the burqas bring the Taliban? Do politics affect change in culture or does culture bring politics? In Niatak camp in Iran, the Afghans themselves closed down the public bathhouse reasoning that anyone who passes along the walls knowing that the opposite sex is naked behind those walls, is engaged in a sin.
At present there are no woman doctors in Afghanistan and if a woman wants to see a doctor she has to bring her son, husband, or father, and through them talk to the doctor. As far as marriage, the father or brother, not the bride, say yes.
According to Freud, human aggression stems from human animalism and civilizations only cover this animalism with a thin veneer. This thin skin splits at the snap of a finger. Violence exists in both East and West, what is different is the style not the reality of its existence.
What’s the difference between death by decapitation using knives, daggers, or swords, and dying by bullets, grenades, mines, and missiles? In most cases, criticism of aggression is really the disapproval of the means of aggression. The death of one million Afghans as a result of injustice in the world is not regarded by the world as aggression. The death of 10 percent of the Afghan population by civil war and war with the Soviets is not perceived as aggression, but the decapitation of someone with a sword will long be the main headline of satellite TV news.
It is naturally fearsome and horrible to see a person being decapitated but why doesn’t the death of people every day by land mines give us the same feeling? Why are knives aggressive but not mines? What is criticized in the modern West is the form of Afghan aggression, and not the substance. The West can create a tragic story for a statue, but for death by millions it suffices with statistics. As Stalin put it: “The death of one person is tragedy, but the death of one million is only a statistic.”
Since the day I saw a little Afghan girl twelve years of age, the same age as my own daughter Hanna—fluttering in my arms of hunger—I’ve tried to bring forth the tragedy of this hunger, but I always ended up giving statistics. Oh God! Why have I become so powerless, like Afghanistan? I feel like going to that same poem, to that same vagrancy and like that Herati poet, get lost somewhere, or collapse out of shame like the Buddha of Bamian.
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot
The same stranger who had no piggy bank, will leave.
And the child who had no dolls, will leave.
The spell on my exile will be broken tonight.
And the table that had been empty, will be folded.
In suffering, I wandered around the horizons.
It is me, who everyone has seen in wandering.
What I do not have, I’ll lay and leave.
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.
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