While there is a dispute in the English speaking media after the condemnable attack on the Libanese restaurant La Taverna on the legacy of its owner Kamel Hammade (see here and here), Jeffrey Stern in his piece goes beyond his personal experiences with the restaurant to ask himself about the relationship and behavioural tendencies of westerners and Afghans in the context of Kabul.
I found his text interesting since I am partly under the impression that the issue is hardly commented more recently, the reason lying in the all that goes togehter with the partly withdrawal of foreign forces and the impulse of western media to try and portray a picture not to grim if not successful of the past years of intervention.
All of us who have been working in Afghanistan over the past years or decades have witnessed the sacred sense of hospitality Stern speaks about. Also quite rightly, there is more than one argument to continue and support the Afghans with view to the promises Western governments have made and the risk of seeing lots of programs and endeavours avorted before they can actually reach to a tangible result.
A number of us have had to report in past assigments on foreign military causing grief to the local population, with incidents that have sparked negative results and headlines and contributed to a change on how foreigners, particularly western military but also civilians more generally are perceived by the average Afghan.
Kabul is special in the sense that public encounters carry all kind of deeper effects. Relatively early in the conflict, Barnett Rubin wrote in his blog after an attack on the Serena Hotel: „Collectively we have generated an infrastructure serving only our needs that dwarfs the infrastructure provided for Afghans. The infrastructure is the most visible part of the aid system to Afghans. Projects may mature in a few or many years, but right now Afghans see the guest houses, bars, restaurants, armored cars, checkpoints, hotels, hostile unaccountable gunmen, brothels, videos, CDs, cable television, Internet cafes with access to pornography, ethnic Russian waitresses from Kyrgyzstan in Italian restaurants owned by members of the former royal family and patronized by U.S. private security guards with their Chinese girlfriends and Aghan TV moguls and traffic jams caused by the proliferation of vehicles and exacerbated by 'security measures' every time a foreign or Afghan official leaves the office.“
Western partying attitudes that tend to disregard the local context still exist as of now but have become less frequent for obvious reasons of past experiences. At the same time, parallel worlds where Afghans meet here and foreigners seperately from each other there, have increased. Afghans also are less fond now to celebrate under the eyes of others.
Journalists and writers very often have kept the cultural impacts of such encounters some kind a taboo. First, because it makes us ashamed. Secondly, because it may not have a classical selling point. Thirdly because it could cause unrest. But my point touches neither of these, but more on a cultural reflexion upon ourselves.
William Dalrymple in his full and well documented account on the 'Return of a King' and the first Anglo-Afghan war confronts us with the question of why researchers in all the 170 that have gone by since than leave out the look at Afghan sources and with it the chance 'to see ourselves as others see us'.
Why is it, I ask myself, that Afghan scholarshipers, some of them westernized to some degree, who have studied in the United states and in Great Britain at some of the best universities, say there are not sure if secularisation by itself can solve the state and problems of Afghanistan. It is true also that only a certain and small percentage of the Afghan population is in a day to day contact with foreigners, able to see and judge who 'we' are and what 'we' do as opposed to 'them' and who are able to reflect about themselves.
This is not in any direct relation with La Taverna of course, but we all would probably agree to say that it makes a difference wheather a restaurant of the kind is situated in the fortified parameters of the Wazir Akbar Khan colony or out in Dashte Barchi or even further on the outskirts of town.
There consequently is a socio-historical context to every glas of vine emptied in the circumstances of the highly symbolic year 2014. And though I would subscribe to the tolerance of urban Afghans Jeffrey describes, their remarks that „it doesn't bother“ them how we eat, celebrate or party in Kabul can under certain circumstances mean a refusal tainted by a strong sense of diplomacy we find in most Asian and Asian islamic countries.
History doesn't repeat itself. But confronting ourselves with today's views of Afghans can equally help us understand the present context and our position in it. One can easily find good reasons to criticize Hamid Karzai for instance for the missing logic in his policy, for his double minded games and lack of rationale. But if Shah Shuja has up until recently been seriously misinterpreted by western authors and critics, the same might possibly go for Karzai, who more than once in the past from his standpoint has had reasons to act the way he acted and if all facts were on the table. For as long as we are unable to take in account how we are perceived by the others, we will solely witness us the way we like to see ourselves.
The trial that I am witnessing this morning is located in Mahmud Raqi, the capital of Kapisa province. The geography limiting the dispersed small city of approximately 40,000 inhabitants is surrounded by karst mountains, a good one and a half hours drive from Kabul. Though a reasonable distance from the capital it may sound, we are deep in the countryside, far away from any tared asphalted road. The car hops along dusty gravel roads. As we drive into the province, Afghan radio
stations report on an suicide attack in Kapisa's district of Nijrab. We don't have to go that far for the court trial, but the incident that comes to us as fresh news this very morning shows the fragile state of an area from which ISAF troops have retreated months ago already. French troops in fact were stationed in the area previously on behalf of the security assistance force. They withdrew months ago on order of president Nicolas Sarkozy, then president.
The culprit to appear today is a French heritage in a way. Passing in the hands of ISAF and ANA troops as these moved into a zone previously held by insurgents, the security forces emptied the jails and took the man into state custody. Now, he stands in the middle of a justice chamber, accused of murder by a local court that deals with civil and criminal matters.
The accused is a bearded man in handcuffs and perhan tambon, the customary local dress.
The court deliberations takes place in the office of the judge, not in the court room surprisingly. A narrow place. The judge sits in a corner behind his desk, elevated. The rest in the room sink into plush sofas at the three sides of the room. The prosecutor holds to a stack of files in his hands. The culprit sits in the middle of the room, guarded by a policeman, who tiredly looks to the ground. He has freed the culprit of his handcuffs earlier on. They now dangle from his hip.
Tea is served. "We normally don't do this in court," says the judge with an ambiguous smile. What is normal at court in Afghanistan? The judge looks neat. He wears a black vest, is hair accurately combed. Is seems in a mild mood for the day. Just because a foreigner assists the deliberations?
A fan rotates from the ceiling. The judge eyes all parties present at regular intervals. The prosecutor is asked to read out loud the charges against the culprit. He is not proficient in reading. His finger follows each of his words on the paper. The indictment is written by hand, with purple thumb prints, taken from alleged witnesses. The accused is said to have killed a relative over a dispute involving personal and professional honor. Money was at stake also, my neighbor whispers.
The culprit dares to interrupt with a low voice. He can't follow the deliberations in Dari and asks for an oral translation in Pashto. It is granted to him. Then he gives his version of the facts. The judge shakes his head. The victim was shot in the throat, he corrects the culprit, surely not able to put down a testimony as the accused claims, he says in a firm voice.
The prosecuter asks for the man to hang him. From the ohter side of the room an older man interferes, sitting on a brown plush sofa next to me. What were the exact circumstances of the murder, he wants to know? Two of his companions write down with care what is being spoken in the room. The three men call themselves monitors and are working on behalf of IWA (Integrity Watch Afghanistan), an organization that campaigns for transparency at different levels of society. The monitors are independent observers for all courts in the Kapisa districts, they say. Heads of local shuras , headmasters, doctors. "Our presence makes the judge to act with more care" says one of the monitors, not without pride. "Until recently, many people in the district did not dare to go to court." Often the real witnesses would not be heard, claims one of them, or there was no trust in fair procedures. „People here now take their donkey to travel miles to court or with their motorcycle to present their case whereas before they used to be reluctant“, says Ali Mashalafroz, who coordinates the IWA office in Kapisa. "Before the wars“, adds a collegue at his side, „there wouldn't be compulsory defendents either". It is, they murmur, about putting pieces together again.
The monitors all have in their hand a questionnaire with 21 categories. It contains questions such as: Has the local police documented the case? Has there been a medical or forensic report?
Truth is not to come from one day to the other, the monitors are aware. Their presence, they hope, would render the hearings at courts more transparent. In the absence of independent media or civil society activists, the monitors fill in to observe the course of justice that suffers the caractersitic deficiencies of an Afghan state.
Eventually, weeks later, the filled-out questionnaires of the monitors will go to Kabul, where they are evaluated. In funding the monitoring, international donors such as the World Bank, the United Nations Misson, French and international organization hope to push ahead the course of transitional justice and bring some kind of order deep into the Afghan province. As always, this is above all a hope.
After the first two hours of delibarations, the trial is postponed. I may get an interview with the judge, I am told. Finally, the answer is negative. Permission has not been granted by the supreme court in Kabul, I am informed. The supreme court in Kabul officially supports the trial monitoring for the Kapisa and Bamiyan provinces. But off the record the institution does not like the justice system to be exposed as a corrupt limb of the Afghan state institutions.
We wait over lunchtime for the trial to reach to a sentence. But time is getting late without a decision. We are scheduled to return to Kabul before dark. Back in the capital, a call from Ali Mashalafroz, the Kapisa coordinator, reaches me. The accused has inherited of 18 years behind bars. He has escaped the death penalty. A judgment owed to the transparency of the observers? The 'Communal Trial Monitoring Project', in the years ahead, wants to change the course of justice in more than just two of 36 Afghan provinces, IWA's Yama Torabi, the head of the organization, says. He hopes for more funds in the years to come. But first of all, Afghanistan needs to go through the uncertainties of 2014 – described by many as its most crucial year.
In the year 2000 my father died of cancer. He was born in 1937 (or 1315 corresponding to the Afghan-islamic calender). When my father died, he left behind a notebook with photographs
of his father, my grandfather.
My grandfather was born in 1893 (or 1271). He fought in the World Ward I 1914-1918. With or against his will - the documents don't make mention of it. He was 21 years old then, in the trenches of the Western Front (battle of France, Belgium/Ypern) and a little later on the Eastern Front (Bukowina).
In the photographs my grandfather left behind (he was authorized to take photos on the front, a document states) is this photo of a bullet that had penetrated his leg. The bullet was later removed. It is with me now.
The French call Wolrd War I „la grande guerre“, the big war. It was the first time men and amunition came together to reach unprecedented levels of kinetic power and destruction.
70 Million soldiers fought in WWI. Nearly ten million died. Mostly young, unmarried soldiers. Among them thousands of soldiers with Islamic identities from the African and middle Eastern colonies of the European imperial posessions. Every eigth soldier did not make it home. The years of WWI and later in WWII were, as an Afghan sociologist remarked, more stable in Afghanistan than in Germany in various respects.
In 2014, Afghanistan goes into a year of new uncertainties, the international forces withdrawing,
and a hundred years after I discovered the bullet of my grandfather.
This is an independent blog on Afghanistan. I have been working regularly in Afghanistan as a freelance reporter and correspondent mostly with national German media in the past ten years. I've also been a trainer for a new generation of Afghan journalists and with organisations of the Afghan civil society, last not least an guest author with AAN Afghanistan Analysts network. All photos on this page are from the author, unless signaled differently. Reproduction in any illegal form is prohibited. This blog comes in English and in German language.
Dieser Blog versteht sich als ein unabhängiges Informations-Angebot zum Thema Afghanistan. Als freier Autor und Korrespondent arbeite seit Anfang 2004 regelmäßig am Hindukusch für deutsche Medien und ARD-Hörfunk, daneben vor allem auch in der Ausbildung afghanischer Journalisten/
-innen und der afghanischen Zivilgesellschaft. Der Blog versucht u.a. Stimmen von Afghanen stärker in die Debatte einfliessen zu lassen. Fotos in diesem Blog stammen sämtlich vom Autor soweit nicht anders gekennzeichnet. Das Reproduzieren oder die Verwendung in anderen Formen bedarf der ausdrücklichen Zustimmung.