Finding Peace in Afghanistan

Monday Magazine | October 20, 2004
Going to Mazar-e-Sharif was like coming up for air. It was the perfect antidote to the dusty chaos of Kabul, with its loud, polluted and dangerously traffic-clogged streets. The city, just south of the Uzbekistan border, has also long been a religious and cultural centre, and it still retains that sense of history.

There is a 15th-century mosque in Mazar and it something to behold. The city radiates out around it, making it all the more stunning against the backdrop of dusty grey and mud-brown buildings. Its brilliant blue domes sit like a mirage with barren mountains hovering in the distance. The walls are done in intricately patterned tilework, and the whole thing sits on a sunken bed of white marble.

One of the buildings is the shrine of Ali. Ali was the fourth caliph, a relative of Mohammed, and many believe that his body was carried to Mazar after he was assassinated in 661, although some claim that he is buried at a different shrine in Iraq. His death led to the great schism in Islam, the split between the Shia and Sunni, but the shrine in Mazar is sacred to both groups.

I arrived just before dusk and wandered barefoot around the mosque, a luxury accorded to me because I am a man (women can go one day a week and they are never allowed inside), before sitting down on the steps near the back wall. I could hear the rhythmic chanting and drumming of the Sufis inside, while men of all ages sat scattered about and children ran and rolled around on the clean marble surface.

When the chanting had finished, men streamed out as the call to prayer went out from a loudspeaker affixed to the top of one of the domes. A long carpet had been laid down and they lined up on it in rows. My Afghan companion, Sahil, suggested we leave, as it seemed rude to sit there while everybody else prayed. I got the feeling that he felt a little guilty that he was not praying himself. We did watch from a distance for a short time as the rows of men stood, bowed and prostrated themselves in unison. Sahil said they were lucky to be such good Muslims.

We walked away in the dark and turned down a busy sidestreet. Old Russian-built taxis weaved in and out of human traffic and between battered horse-drawn carts. The air was thick with charcoal smoke from the kebab shops, and a different Afghan song blared through a tinny speaker from each one. We sat on one of the carpeted outdoor platforms and ordered lamb kebabs and green tea. As we ate, Sahil and I talked about the current state of development and future of his country.

Afghanistan is a hard place to not be cynical. Removing the Taliban from power has not solved the underlying problems of ethnic strife, poverty and warlordism. Many of the warlords that fought each other mercilessly, and committed atrocities against civilians in the early ’90s, now have positions of power within the government. The remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda also routinely launch attacks against civilians and aid workers. The Americans are propping up many of the warlords, whose militia soldiers were in the front lines of the battle to oust the Taliban.

At the same time, the U.S. and other international security forces are all that prevent the country from sliding into another civil war.

Yet, the international community is regarded with deep suspicion by Afghans who have become wary of foreign interference. The American dominance over the country is grudgingly accepted as the least of a number of evils. Most Afghans prefer domination by the U.S. to Pakistan, whom they blame—with good reason—for fuelling much of the violence during the war and for supporting the Taliban. They have a saying that goes roughly like this: It is better to be a slave to the master, than a slave to the master’s slave.

There is also growing resentment toward the United Nations and other international organisations. Some Afghans ask why foreigners live in relative luxury while much of the money promised after the fall of the Taliban has not been delivered and the vast majority of the population still lives in dire poverty.

Politicians agitate for aid money to be directed through government ministries instead of the international organisations whom they accuse, with some justification, of waste. But the government itself is notoriously corrupt.

Doing development work in Afghanistan often seems like pushing a very large boulder up a steep incline. It can sometimes make you question why you are here. But I am constantly reminded by the kindness and sincerity of ordinary Afghans.

The day after my visit to the mosque, my friend and colleague, Monika, and I left our guesthouse on the outskirts of Mazar to walk into town. It was about 11:30 in the morning and the sun was beating down mercilessly on the dusty road. As we walked in a heat-induced daze, we saw a stooped old man coming toward us. He was one of those timeless looking Afghans—turban, long, white beard, deep creases in his face like he had just stepped out of the Arabian Nights. I said “Salaam” as he approached and he smiled and took my arm to stop me from walking. He fished around in his pockets, brought out two fresh apples and handed one to each of us. I thanked him and he waved his hand as if to say, “It’s nothing.” Then he turned and continued on his way.

As I bit into the apple, all the negative thoughts I had about Afghanistan just melted away. M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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