(Swans - August 15, 2011) One afternoon, sitting in the front row of my class, I was watching the right hand of our language teacher press the chalk hard on the blackboard. He was writing the work of one of our national poets, and I, hypnotised by the movement of his hand, suddenly heard the sound of loud whistles from the corridor. My daydreaming was interrupted as the boys jumped off their seats and ran towards the corridor. The teacher tried to stop them but couldn't. I was but 12 years old at the time.
In the corridor, I too followed the stream of students running out of all the classes towards the main gate exit. Suddenly our headmaster, Satar Dool (Satar with drum stomach), who had gained his nickname because he was too fat, appeared in the corridor carrying a big wooden stick and waiving it attackingly at the students who were running away, with an attempt to shoo them back to their classes. Satar, although a tyrant, that day -- against the mass exit flood of students -- was hopeless.
Normally demonstrations only took place in the morning school shift, when the older students attended class. They were not scared of Satar Dool or our director Roxana. Roxana was a man and, like Satar Dool, had acquired his nickname by boys who thought his green eyes resembled those of a renowned female singer, called Roxana. We, the younger students, attended the afternoon shift and on the contrary were indeed afraid of both Satar and Roxana.
Our school was renowned as being revolutionary. It was the first school that had opened in Kabul back in 1903, and the earlier students were inherently freedom fighters who had led the Afghan people in gaining their independence from Great Britain in 1919.
I too was delighted with the opportunity to miss boring classes, and once out of the main gate, I headed towards home only to be stopped by Ehsan, my best friend. "Hey Bashir, let's go and listen to them!" He was referring to students who were now outside the main gate carrying banners with different colours. Students with red banners in one corner, while those with white banners in another and others with green banners also gathered closely. The white banner group was the largest. The red banner holders, albeit not as numerous as the white, had plenty of student followers. The green banner group were smaller in numbers. Ehsan informed me that the whites were the Maoist group, the reds the followers of Soviet Union, and the greens the Ikhwan al Muslimin. I already knew about two of the groups but heard of Ikhwan al Muslimin for the very first time.
Slogans on the Mao and Soviet Union banners were the same:
Death to the King
Death to feudal
Death to imperialists
Long live the hard working people of Afghanistan
Long live proletariat
Long live workers
And slogans among the Ikhwan al Muslimin group read: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his Prophet."
I had no knowledge of Afghan politics Until Ehsan introduced them to me that day, but I knew many other things that probably Ehsan did not know. For instance, I knew that some men and women frequented the cinemas in dark corners snuggling. I knew that the word mini-jupe was not Persian but French and it was clothes that some girls wore. I knew that our mullah was caught on top of his student one day but before our community could drag him to the police, he escaped, not to be seen on the surface of the earth thereafter. I knew that another mullah who was married to my cousin never allowed his wife to exit their home, saying: "a women leaves her home twice: once on her wedding night, leaving the home of her father and next when she is carried away for burial." I knew that we produced brandy in a local factory because Afghanistan produced the best grapes. Our brandy was served in the Intercontinental Hotel for foreigners and in the Khybar Restaurant and Kabul Hotel for the locals. I didn't know which other restaurant was serving alcohol but my uncle who indulged in drinking mentioned these ones. Alcohol was expensive but if you liked drinking and did not have enough money then you would go to Niko-e Lang, or Niko the lame, a shopkeeper who sold alcohol at a fraction of what the Khybar restaurant charged. Niko's alcohol was homemade -- called plastiky because it was provided in a plastic bag. You had to take it home and pour it in a proper bottle before drinking. Niko was saving money on the bottles.
In those days Afghanistan was famous for its Afghan Black or hashish and the streets of Kabul were packed with hippies who en route to India, stayed overnight in Kabul. I met one of these hippies in a shop once, which belonged to my friend, and for months I could not forget his foul body odour. I assume they never washed. So in those days, Kabul was the centre of sex, drugs, but not rock and roll. Oh, no, no one knew of that, at least I did not know about rock and roll but almost all the intellectuals knew who Bob Dylan and the Beatles were.
That was the year of 1972, just seven years before the Soviet Union invaded our country when the followers of the Soviet Union would become the new rulers. Immediately thereafter they would start to kill the members of Ikhwan al Muslimin but the numbers of Ikhwan al Muslimin would continue to grow. After 1979, both followers of Soviet Union and the Ikhwan al Muslimin fought the Maoist group in Afghanistan with the Maoist numbers declining steadily. So Afghanistan became the centre of another type of politics, that of killing, but before we reach the year of 1979, or the year when the Soviet Union ruled Afghanistan, our life was sweet. Well almost.
King Zahir, our monarch, was educated in France and desired to become an artist or a writer before becoming king. His uncle Hashim Khan, however, prevented him. When the young prince decided to contribute articles to the national newspaper, it was his uncle -- a dictator of those times -- who told him: "Being a writer or an artist is the profession of the lower class people. You are destined to be King, not a lowly artist." On the day that his father was assassinated Zahir was only 19 years old. There was no choice but to be king. He became king but the real ruler of the country was his uncle Hashim Khan, whose desire was to cement the power of the king and ensure the country's submission towards him; for that reason, real national progress was slow. Despite the slow economical growth, Afghanistan had significant social progress. For example much earlier than many nearby Asian countries, women were already allowed to vote. Afghanistan had the first woman Minister in Asia, and the Afghan University was a renowned Educational Institution with professors recruited from the USA, France, and Germany. There was an abundance of public libraries in the capital and the provinces. By 1964, thirty years after Zahir became king, we were granted our constitution with freedom of speech and the press. With the freedom of speech, the political parties freely poured on the streets to demonstrate. Censorship of the press was lifted with print-houses publishing party-owned newspapers. The king was attacked by the street demonstrations and in the papers, by the political groups. They attacked the very authority who gave them freedom of speech, being different from his father and his uncle who had been cruel dictators.
In retrospect, I am not sure if granting freedom to the Afghan people was such a good idea. What to do with freedom that is abused? What is the use of freedom if puppet political leaders are created, inviting the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan? What is the benefit of having Ikhwan al Muslimin who one day refer to themselves as Mujahidin, killing half of the population of Kabul and subsequently a few break away from the very same group and call themselves the Taliban. And then the Taliban and the Mujahidin -- both dark forces of ignorance -- fight each other and become the instrument of terror in the hand of neighboring countries. And what of al Qaeda? Let me bravely state that for the past 30 years, the real cause of suffering for the Afghan people have been these political party agendas.
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About the Author
Bashir Sakhawarz was born in 1960 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He left Afghanistan two years after his country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. He studied in the UK and after graduation worked in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Kosovo, England, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Belize for organizations such as the EU, the UN, the Asian Development Bank, various NGOs, and the Red Cross. He is the author of seven books in Persian. His English works appeared in Language for a New Century, W. W. Norton & Company (2008), Images of Afghanistan, Oxford University Press (2010), and Proceeding of the Ninth Conference of the European Society for Central Asia, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (Nov. 2010). He currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland. (back)