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Limbs of No Body: The World’s Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy

Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy

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.

Afghan Aggression

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.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 06 (November)
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