Martin Gerner, freelance journalist & correspondent, reports from Afghanistan
Samstag, 25. Januar 2014
Us and them
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.
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.