Inshah Malik | 7 September 2021
On 21st July, on the eve of Eid-e-Qurban—a festive occasion in Afghanistan, I picked out an Afghan dress purchased with a Kashmiri friend of mine—Asma—last year when she was still working in Afghanistan. In choosing that dress, I must have subconsciously wanted her around, she was a whiff of home and a painful reminder of my own origin in the battered valley of Kashmir, only 500 kms from Kabul yet so far away, in the imagination of many Afghans today. A normal land route to Kashmir would be an eight-hour long cumbersome bus ride that would involve crossing an international border and a Line of Controls (LOC). These crossings have now become harrowing nightmares, for the level of contest and militarization that permeates in the region. Alternatively, a journey by air would be 5.5 hours travel from Kabul to Delhi and from Delhi to Srinagar. Since a limited number of Kashmiris can acquire passports and travel documentation for traveling from Kashmir to India and then outside of India, in that sense two Kashmiris meeting in Kabul was nothing short of a miracle. Thus, my fondness for Asma and her dominating my thoughts for the entire morning, as I prepared for the day of celebration ahead of us.
I dressed up, as the occasion required, and when I appeared in the living room, my Afghan friends had already gathered around the coffee table. We all sat closer, gazing through the glass window at the rugged mountains in the distance. My partner brought us a chocolate cake to mark the occasion, it tasted delicious or as I suspect now our gathering added a dash of rich sweetness to it. Of course, not to forget, the region has one of the best baking traditions in place. Shabina, a dear Afghan friend of mine heaved a sigh, I looked at her, knowing too well even though her heart was filled to the brim, she will choose not to express her emotions. At a young age of 25, she commands a demeanor of an experienced old soul. Her hazel eyes changing colour, is a rather more useful indicator of the upheavals of her inner world. This time, to my surprise, she said, “this beautiful group of friends, this familiarity, this love, it will all fall apart, we will be scattered in different parts of the world, as if borne by a wild wind.” As someone familiar with world politics, who has seen her own home [Kashmir] overnight transported into a neo-colony of an authoritarian Hindu state, India. I was not perturbed by the likelihood of life or [lives] changing overnight. Familiarity turning to dust and clouding the memory as the only consolation. From my own bag of tricks, I tried to wax philosophical to console her but we both knew intuitively something was coming towards us.
After serving as an Assistant professor and a consultant researcher for about two and half years, for many months now, I was trying to leave the country, mysterious yet political events prevented me. However, a few days before Eid-e-Qurban, finally I had all my ducks in a row. I turned to Shabina, who was now visibly contemplative, reflecting on my ability to now deciding to leave I said, “every time I had previously tried to leave this country, something always prevented me”, she raised her head and stared at me, with a twinkle in her eyes, “you didn’t want to leave”. At first, I was amused by what she had said but her sentences often left me pondering about how experiences have contributed to this simpler intuitive knowing which has populated Dari with such colloquial expressions. These expressions signify patterns of human connection that create an exquisite grammar for recognizing a human soul. It is so neatly kept in the language and references to these poetic depths, crafted around experience, come in handy in navigating this social world.
For the next few days, I mustered some courage to look around in the house which was now familiar like home. I began looking for what needed to go and what would stay in the event of me leaving Kabul. I organized everything as per a neat logical pattern, something we often fail doing with non-material belongings. I asked my partner to raise the items up to my face and based on if I say a yes or a no, he will throw the items into the boxes labelled “to go” and “to stay”. As I made these choices rather randomly, I caught myself unconsciously putting my favourite stuff in the “to stay” box. After a few days when I checked the box again, my mother-in-law’s handmade white dress was there, Asma’s favourite Afghan dress gifted to her by Ahmad, a beautiful leather skirt, and a still packed lotion; a marble box gifted to me by Masi and a Turkmen rug from Atefa. The box was nothing but a reflection of a social world, that I intently created as a home, in the event of loss of my own.
Just as I sifted through the items, I wondered if Shabina would call this a sign from the universe, a premonition that I will return. An emotion swelled in me reaffirming my return is destined, and it is as clear as the ecclesiastical full moon usually shows in the Kabul skies. Yet the sinking feeling of loss kept reemerging, for weeks now, a slow war was simmering in the north. In the evenings, Masi’s impassioned discourse would give me a sense of education on country’s diverse ethnic and tribal realities. His lectures were never ahistorical, an astute self-taught intellectual, Masi’s passionate engagement was different from his contemporary international colleagues. It was rooted, connected and political yet not abstract or polemical. Conversations with him would make me acutely aware of the books resting on the side-table of the living room, as if these had barely attempted to define a country for last 3o years. How can a country or its people ever be defined? It’s a historical entity, a complex amalgamation of ever-changing human forces, and every new decade has crafted an international discourse erected on a rapid amnesia about this country’s past. In front of the historical forces, it appears like a child’s attempt on building a sandcastle by the seashore. The diverse identities, religious expressions, spiritual movements, and musical traditions all point to a rather cosmopolitan past that is unable to fit into a modern identitarian existence, be it a nationalistic or a religious identitarian one. For this reason, I was barely amused, when Ahmad, who is a skeptic of the power that religious leaders wield in the country, told me that his five-year-old on his first day to school called “Mili Sorood” (National anthem) as “Muli Sorood” (Radish anthem), of course angering his teacher and prompting her to ring in the parents.
Of course, I didn’t have such an awareness when I first arrived in the country in 2018. The acute reality of a disconnect between the international community (of which I was invariably a part) and Afghanistan became gradually and painfully clear to me. I taught a difficult class, as a faculty in a local private university, most of my students worked in various ministries, international and local humanitarian organizations. The faultlines even in the classroom were neatly crafted across ethnicities, urban/rural background, English/native languages, and gender. Even in academic spaces, cutthroat competition to get the degrees and promotions was promoted against the curiosity and courtesy that should signify an academic culture. As the only female professor, I struggled to stay relevant, most theories and ideas of the western context would cut no ice with the students, traumatized by a daunting political reality. They would see hope in what they learned but bomb blasts, death, and violence on one side, and dollars, armored SUVs, and high paying positions of a “high-class” life on the other, signified utter hopelessness of life lived within such extremes.
In addition to this, as a consultant my email inbox was filled with “call of request for proposals” entitled “Barriers for women’s access to Justice in Afghanistan” or “Adolescent girls toolkit on sexual violence”. It would be plastered with the text that is basically copied from other similar conflict zones where definitions are used to understand human agency. I would often wonder, if all it takes to be successful in rebuilding a country is copy-paste, which wouldn’t even qualify as a skill, I wondered what my doctoral degree was for, especially what role do local intellectuals get to play? But I didn’t get here this fast. I came from a rigorous academic training; I was a blue-eyed academic who had herself soared up, from a middle-class family of another war zone [Kashmir]. I was trained to detest generalizations, so I had thought to myself, this is an ideal place to introduce research and train young Afghan students. I know, it sounds naïve, I am infected by an exceptional positivity, “a hoping against the hope, if you will”. However, I was in for a ride but that’s a story for another time.
The entire week unfolded at a snail’s pace; the boxes laid scattered in the house, it seemed like they would take an eternity to clear out of the apartment. Three French Journalists, one of whom was friends with my apartment building owner, rang him up. They were living in an old Kabul house with a wonderful garden but seemed eager to move into an apartment, for better security. Later in the day, they all showed up at my apartment, we chatted away while sipping tea, it became clear to all of us, things were moving in a direction that everyone anticipated, a serious escalation in the war. Don’t get me wrong, we were very aware that we were already in a war zone. But this intuitive knowing, the heavy air, the body language, the eyes, and hands were all in tandem with a vibe that I had never felt in Kabul from last three years of my life here.
It had been many weeks now that most foreigners who were prominent on the social scene and in the popular gatherings, were now gradually leaving Afghanistan. Many high-profile Afghan artists, designers, doctors, and writers had also through different processes found their way out of the country. A wealthy Panjshiri friend of mine, Hamid, moved to Holland a year ago would often say, Afghanistan is a “shithole” and no one can save it. As much as such statements posed a challenge to my academic sensibilities. Such statements were often on an earshot, overhearing private businessmen talk about how “genocide” was the only solution to bring about a democratic transition and “make money”. Or trying to have a straight-faced conversation with senior diplomats of various countries, who in more candid moments would drool over “how much land and resource is being wasted by these chimpanzees (reference to Afghans) and how much resource was still inaccessible to the visionary world leaders. I had noticed, my susceptibilities towards such horrible statements had decreased, by the end of my three years in Afghanistan, I was able to hear such statements without blinking my eyes.
On 25th July, I finally procured a ticket, and as I went strolling through the city, the mood had continually changed, people in general were busy putting their documentation in place, long swarms of people from different provinces would gather outside the passport office, covid-19 test centers, and ticket offices. Additionally, more so than in the previous years, gunshots in the distance had become a norm. For many months now, people were rearming themselves, in hopes to protect themselves if a heightened Taliban assault was to grip the city. Many months ago, Kabul had erupted into a chorus of gun fire, organically orchestrated for an impromptu celebration of an Afghan UFC fighter, Wahidullah Nazhand’s win. Many local experts argued this was a moment well exploited by the Kabulites to show the armed power they possess, sending a message across to the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan, that they won’t fall short of anything to protect their life and the values they now possess. After all, Kabulites are urbane, the message seemed to convey that Kabulites are not soft, if a war was imposed upon them, they would retaliate. On my way back to the apartment, I couldn’t help but notice, so many people as usual were about their business, ice cream parlors were a full throttle attraction amidst covid-19.
I was now ready to depart from Kabul on 31st July, a city I have in equal parts come to love and hate, love that it was vibrant, pulsating with human connection, filled with cryptic wise women and men hardened by a life lived in the war, and hate that it was violent, cutthroat, almost mental in the same ways as post-world war Ireland, run by gangs and murderers. The city’s administrators were running a full-on extortion business, fixers were a preferred way to get bureaucratic business done even for those who were supposedly fighting for “democracy and rule of law”. Before visiting Afghanistan, such a city was accessible only in the post-world war literature. What such literature always emboldened was a protagonist. And Kabul is one such city that transforms the more passive subjects into protagonists, the events unfold at a lightning speed, meaning, theories and ideas shift just as day turns to night.
I spent my last night in the city, in an old Afghan house, an architecture reminiscent of a glorious past that is now scrambled between high rise buildings unable to breathe. The house opened into a back garden, pomegranates and apricots were hanging from the trees. The house cat had five kittens, while the cat masqueraded with a sense of authority and belonging, the kittens were still a bit timid for a human interaction and I could hear the neighbor’s rooster intermittently. In the evening, all my friends gathered to say their goodbyes. We talked at length about ways in which our friendship has cemented, and a common motif of our conversations had always been war in our homes. Masi had just returned from Herat, he seemed a bit mellow but tried to use the gathering as a distraction, he didn’t speak of the war. Lyla, an Australian war reporter, discussed how, in the provinces war was taking an ethnic turn and how Hazaras were being persecuted in Bamiyan. How there is some underlying consensus that Afghanistan is a land of Pashtuns and that such a view is now backed by the international community. What would be the fate of a democratic progressive Afghanistan, amidst neighboring ideological states, Isn’t the world moving towards a rather horrid consensus, that at the cost of minorities rights, majoritarian dominated autocratic rule must be imposed on the people? Trump and his right-wing nationalist politics had ascertained and backed this plan, not only for Afghanistan but also for Kashmir. He and his team offered full backing to the Hindu right-wing Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to unilaterally go ahead and annex Kashmir, while evading the Indian constitution as well as the will of the people of Jammu & Kashmir.
Late in the night, we gathered around for a sumptuous meal, Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian and Chinese, all types of cuisine indicated the influences that have formed an Afghan person’s worldview. Not unlike the politics that shapes the people in the region, through a consistent bombardment of regional powers’ interests, proxy wars, and politics of identity, Afghans have rarely had a moment to organize their own ideas and sift them apart from those imposed on them from outsiders wishing to control them. For instance, the idea of democracy or Sharia law, both are modern reformulations of ancient concepts. Nazar, a Pashtun Islamist friend of mine once recalled, when he was teaching the Islamic law to a bunch of village men, he said when he shared with them that “women in Islam had rights,” they would mock him and say Islam promotes many dishonorable things and where the customs of Pashtuns are in contradiction with the Islamic law, it’s always the Pashtun law that dominates. As per the Sunni interpretation of the Islamic law, women are eligible to 4th of their father’s property, yet in Afghanistan, women’s right to property is almost non-existent, he told me. During the time, when I conducted a research on the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, it surprised me, even basic religious law in favour of women was hardly observed. Afghanistan is still a deeply feudal society and while formal economy and infrastructure has developed in last twenty years, it is so only in concentrated city centers, crafting and shaping a strong class politics. Nearly 70% of the country is still poor as we speak.
We finished eating, the aroma in the house, the light, the smoke from the cigarettes and the hot air that we struggled to keep out with a cooler blowing wind into our direction. The sounds emanating from the dark corners of the garden outside allowed me to truly sense the fright that engulfed the place. I had for last three years lived in a secure guarded apartment with all its facilities, I had no idea what vulnerabilities come from being in the line, being the ordinary, the no one, fighting for nothing and no one’s war. I am still largely clueless about what life is like for ordinary Afghans. I visited a few provinces, sat, and ate freshwater fish by the lakes where large number of men in there extremely colourful attire would gather, women were still missing in the public spaces outside of these city centers. Even in Kabul, ordinary women were hardly seen after 5 pm so much for a war of twenty years. For a lot of Afghan people, increasingly the only position that can keep them safe is to remain ordinary. The disengagement, the dimming down the noise, the drawing the curtains, keeping all the noise and information overload outside the house, so even if only for an hour they can experience what normal life could be. As I would usually brim with “ideas” and would often be ready to shoot all the theories I had learnt, analysis I made to offer “life changing” important information, my Afghan friends would so candidly discourage me, please live, and enjoy. This is all a game, and we are merely on a game board. There is no right or moral side in this game, there is the powerful side and the powerless one. These sides can easily shift depending on who offers resources to arm whom and why.
As we finished our meal, Shabina in her lively spirit played a beautiful song, as it blared through the speaker and before I knew we were all dancing to a Qatagani (a local music), trying to forget, these are indeed the last days of everything people had normalized for themselves, in the last twenty years. It was again the time for a reset on the game board.
Away from Kabul, I was observing the 3rd anniversary of annexation of Kashmir on August 5th, the deck of cards flipped after a few days on August 15th, with the fall of Kabul or handing over of Kabul or selling off the Afghan allies to the Taliban or what the Afghans call handing over the “Sarnavisht” (those who are accorded to write destines) to the Taliban, in a matter of few days all provinces fell. The American-trained Afghan army had no will fight back, they saw nothing in the corrupt political establishment that they could defend. Those who wished to defend had no takers, it was decided that a blood-less handover of power will do it this time. Even the government erected by the Americans had no will for fighting the Taliban; President Ghani fled with a helicopter and cars filled with cash, later the local TV a few Taliban guards said, “there was money scattered in the corner of his office too, while rushing out perhaps he was unable to take it”. The Afghan people who fought America’s war are fearful for their lives, the evacuation policy has not prioritized them. The remaining 35 million Afghans no longer have access to their bank accounts (as the US has retained country’s assets to pressurize the Taliban), they have no way to understand what jobs they would be returning to, whether women or men. The minorities as usual are petrified, the former vice president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Shah Masood’s son are organizing a revolt in the northern Panjsher valley, this time with support from the French and the Indians. The Taliban have already received a list from Pakistan of “potential Taliban leaders who Pakistan sees as enemies” to eradicate, indicating the place Pakistanis have in the game, China and Russia have kept their embassies open in the country.
The world is facing a moral dystopia, the men who topped the “most dangerous terrorist lists” for decades have come to become recognized political actors, the “narrative of war on terror” no longer has inherent signal proactively defining the clear enemies of the west. The narratives of nation-building and America’s support for such has been abandoned by current president Joe Biden, and the discourse of women’s rights was also stacked, as it no longer serves American interests, conservative western politicians have made enough money from the war. If conservative, right-wing forces of all religious persuasions are the default rulers of the world, then Taliban in such a dynamic may make sense too. It would be best this time to drop the façade of human rights, women’s rights, and other progressive ideals, that largely religiously conservative and right-wing forces in Israel, America, UK, and Europe are invoking against the Taliban. The unfortunate lesson to be learnt about America’s endgame in Afghanistan especially for those who truly worry about the world’s collective progressive future, is that the ordinary civilians in the region have been rendered as expendables, who are inheriting political systems that will only prolong their situations of lack of rights and dignity, in that the international community is culpable and shamefully so. I still wish Shabina wasn’t so wise when she predicted that all of us friends would be dispersed and scattered, and I wish I didn’t know her predictions are rooted in her country’s painful history of displacement, which has been an outcome of oiling of a precarious war-machine that should never have existed in the first place.
Inshah Malik is a Political Theorist and a Gender Studies Scholar. She is the author of Muslim Women, Agency, and Resistance Politics: The Case of Kashmir. She can be reached @inshah_malik on Twitter.
 Eid-ul-Adha or Eid e Qurban is a festive occasion that commemorates Prophet Abrahim’s (who Muslims revere) willingness to sacrifice his own son for the love of God.  An ethnic group from Indian annexed former state of Jammu & Kashmir.  Afghan Dialect of the Persian language.