In the story-tellers' bazaar
by tiziano terzani
Peshawar, 27 October 2001
I came to this border town to be closer to the war, to try to see it with my own eyes and get my head round it. But it's like jumping into a bowl of soup to see if it's salty, only to find yourself drowning. I feel I'm sinking in a sea of human madness, which with this war seems to know no end. The days pass, but I can't shake off this sense of anguish. Anguish caused by knowing what is about to happen but being powerless to prevent it. Anguish caused by being a representative of the world's most modern, richest, most sophisticated civilization, which is currently bombing the world's poorest and most primitive country. Anguish caused by belonging to the fattest, fullest race on earth, which is currently adding to the burden of desperation already crippling the planet's thinnest, hungriest people. There is something immoral and sacrilegious about all this, but also, in my opinion, something stupid.
The world situation has grown tenser and more explosive in the three weeks since the Americans and British started bombing Afghanistan. Relationships between the Israelis and Palestinians are in flames, those between India and Pakistan are on the point of breakdown. The entire Islamic world is agitated, and each of its moderate states, from Egypt to Uzbekistan, even Pakistan itself, is coming under increasing pressure from fundamentalist groups. Despite all the footage of missiles, bombs and top-secret commando operations the Pentagon trots out to persuade us this war is just a video-game, the Taliban are still firmly ensconced in power, support for them within Afghanistan is growing, and in every other corner of the world our sense of security is dwindling.
"Are you a Muslim?", a young man asks me when I drop into the bazaar to eat some unleavened bread. "No." "What are you doing here then? We're going to kill you all soon." Everyone around us laughs. I smile too.
They call it Kissa Qani, the story-tellers' bazaar. Twenty years ago it was still one of the last romantic crossroads in Asia, with the widest variety of goods and the widest variety of people. Now it's as a kind of gas chamber, where the air is unbreathable because of the exhaust fumes. The people look increasingly the worse for wear too, because of all the masses of refugees and beggars. One of the old stories they used to tell was about a Neapolitan mercenary called Avitabile, who arrived here with a friend from Modena in the mid-nineteenth century and ended up becoming city governor. To keep things in hand, he had a couple of thieves hanged from the tallest minaret of the mosque before breakfast each morning. Since then the children of Peshawar have been told: "Be good or I'll hand you over to Avitabile". Today the stories you hear at the bazaar are all about the American war.
Some of these stories, like the one about the attacks on New York and Washington being the work of the Tel Aviv secret service, which explains why no Israelis went to work in the Twin Towers on 11 September, and the one about the anthrax in the mail being a CIA operation designed to prepare the American public for an imminent attack on Saddam Hussein, are already out of date. But they still continue to do the rounds, and, what is more, people still believe them. The most recent is that the Americans have realized their bombs will never be able to defeat the Afghans, so they've decided to drop sackfuls of dollars instead. "Each missile costs two million dollars. They've already fired over a hundred. Just think: if they had given us all that money, the Taliban would no longer be in power", said an old Afghan refugee, an ex-commander of a group of anti-Soviet mujahideen who came and sat next to me.
The idea that the Americans are rolling in money and ready to be generous to anyone who sides with them is widespread. A few days ago, several hundred religious and tribal leaders of the exiled Afghan community met in a large amphitheatre in central Peshawar to discuss the future of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. For hours on end these handsome gentlemen with long beards, ideal material for close-ups on Western television, came to the microphone to speak of peace and unity, but there was no passion or conviction in their words. "They're here just to register their names and try to get their hands on American money", said an old friend of mine, a Pakistani intellectual of Pashtun descent. "Everyone looks at each other and asks: 'How much have you had so far?' The Americans are forgetting an old proverb of ours, which says that an Afghan may be hired but never bought."
For the Americans, the Peshawar meeting was the first major step towards what looked on paper like the ideal political solution to the Afghan problem: bringing King Muhammad Zahir Shah back to Kabul, where he would install a government in which everyone was represented, even some Taliban moderates, then getting the new regime's army to hunt down the al-Qaeda men and spare the coalition troops all the trouble and risk of getting involved. But solutions on paper don't always work on the ground, especially when that ground is Afghanistan.
The idea that, after a thirty-year exile in Rome, the old king should now play a part in the country's future, is the kind of illusion to which those who try to solve the world's problems round a table are prone, the kind of demand made by diplomats who never leave the comfort of their air-conditioned offices. You only have to go and talk to the people to realize that the old king enjoys none of the prestige which Western diplomats, especially the Italians, accord him. The fact that he appeared in public or visited a refugee camp is taken as a sign of indifference towards the sufferings of his people. "All he had to do was have his photograph taken with a rifle in his hands and fire a shot in the air at the time of the Soviet invasion, and they would respect him today", said my friend. "And he's never made a pilgrimage to Mecca, which would have given him a bit of religious clout in the current climate."
Apart from the old king, the other man the Americans were counting on in their game was Abdul Haq, one of the most respected commanders in the anti-Soviet resistance who kept clear of the subsequent civil war. "He's not here. He's gone to Afghanistan", people said during the Peshawar conference, alluding to a mission which was supposed to be decisive. The idea was clearly that Abdul Haq would use his prestige and huge influence over so many of the old mujahideen, who had thrown their lot in with the Taliban, to prise some regional commanders away from the regime of Mullah Omar. Then he would lead the Pashtun detachments in a march on Kabul, once it had been taken by the Northern Alliance, whom the Pashtuns and Pakistanis had no wish to see in power.
Abdul Haq's mission was short-lived. The Taliban were on to him from the moment he entered Afghanistan. Within a matter of days they captured him, and in the space of a few hours had executed him as a traitor, along with two of his followers. Despite all their electronic equipment and super-helicopters, the Americans were unable to save him.
The assumption behind all this American manoeuvring for a political solution was that the Taliban would crumble, and that pressure from the bombings would create a power vacuum. None of this has happened. On the contrary, every indication suggests the Taliban are still in office. They capture Western journalists who venture beyond the frontier, and to discourage any similar attempts make known that they have neither space nor food to accommodate others. "The investigations are underway. Everyone will be judged according to the sharia or Koranic law", they say, just like any other sovereign state might. The Taliban pass decrees, issue press releases refuting false information, and continue to challenge American might, giving no ground and promising death to any Afghans who side with the enemy.
Not just. The fact that the Taliban are now being attacked by foreigners means that even those who had little or no sympathy with their regime are now siding with them. "When one melon sees another melon it takes on the same colour", the Pashtuns say. Faced with foreigners who are once again being seen as invaders, the Afghans look increasingly to be of the same hue.
The Americans were already under enormous international pressure because of the stupidity of their smart bombs, which continue to fall on defenceless people and once again have hit Red Cross supplies. In these first three weeks, the aerial war has proved to be a complete failure, the political war an insult. The Americans began the Afghan campaign saying they wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive". Soon that became wanting to capture or kill the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in the hope that this would undermine the regime. But all they have managed to do so far, apart from causing hundreds of civilian casualties, is to terrorize the urban population whose cities had already been reduced to rubble. The United Nations estimate that the bombs have caused three quarters of the inhabitants of Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad to flee. This means that at least a million and a half people are now homeless, reduced to wandering about in the mountains, in addition to the six million who again according to the United Nations were at risk for lack of food and shelter even before 11 September.
"These are the innocent people we have to think about," says an international official, "people who don't have anything to do with terrorism, who don't read the newspapers or watch CNN. Many of them don't even know what happened to the Twin Towers."
What they do know, however, is the bombs, the bombs which wreak havoc day and night, which kill and shake the ground as if in a perpetual earthquake, the bombs dropped from silver aeroplanes pirouetting in the bright blue Afghan sky, the bombs which are British and American. It is this which forms the Pashtuns', the Afghans' and in general the Muslims' hatred of foreigners. This hostility is more and more apparent on peoples' faces as time goes on.
I had gone to the bazaar because I wanted to see how many people would join the pro-Taliban demonstration which regularly follows noonday prayers in old Peshawar. However, my Pashtun friend informed me that the number of demonstrators no longer meant anything. "The really serious ones don't march, they sign up. Go to the villages instead", he told me.
So I did. For a day and a night, in the company of two university students who seemed to know everyone and everything in that region, I got to see a world whose distance from ours is not to be measured in terms of miles but in terms of centuries, a world we must understand thoroughly if we want to avoid the catastrophe we now face.
The region I went to is two hours by car from Peshawar, half way to the Afghan-Pakistani border. The locals do not recognize this border, not even as the brainwave of some British official more than a hundred years ago. The same people live in the same mountains on either side of this unnatural division. They are the Pashtuns, also known as Pathans. They are in the majority in Afghanistan and the minority in Pakistan. They are Pashtuns first, Afghans or Pakistanis second, and their dream of a Pashtunstan, a state comprising all Pashtuns, has never completely waned. The Pashtuns are the most feared warriors in Afghanistan. It is they whom the British were unable to defeat. "A Pashtun loves his rifle more than his own son", they used to say. The Taliban are Pashtun, and Pashtun, almost without exception, are the regions where the American bombs now fall. "My father has been a liberal and a moderate all his life, but since the raids he too has been speaking like a Taliban. He says there is no alternative to jihad", one of my students said as we were leaving Peshawar.
The road ran through sugar cane plantations. Large, freshly-painted slogans were daubed on the walls dividing up the fields. "Jihad is the duty of the nation." "A friend of the Americans is a traitor." "Jihad will endure until the Day of Judgement." Strangest of all was the one which said: "The Prophet has ordered jihad against India and America". No-one questions whether or not India and America actually existed 1,400 years ago at the time of the Prophet. But it is this blinding mixture of ignorance and faith which is so explosive and which, with its highly simplistic and fundamentalist version of Islam, creates that devotion to war and death which we have perhaps rather too recklessly decided to take on.
"When one of our people is blown up by a mine or torn apart by a bomb, we pick up the pieces, the scraps of flesh and the broken bones, place them in a turban cloth and bury the bundle in the earth. We know how to die. But the Americans? The British? Do they know how to die?" From the far end of the room another bearded man, remembering where I said I was from when I introduced myself, opens an Urdu newspaper and reads aloud a short news item saying that Italy too has offered to send ships and soldiers. At which point my interlocutor makes his challenge more personal. "And you Italians? Are you ready to die like that? Have you too come here to kill our people and destroy our mosques? What would you say if we came and destroyed your churches, if we flattened your Vatican?"
We're in a sort of very basic village surgery six or seven miles from the Afghan border. On the dusty shelves there are some dusty medicines. On the wall there's a green and black flag with a sun in the middle on which is written the word "jihad". Some ten young men have gathered around the "doctor". Some are war veterans, others just off to fight. One has recently come back from the front and tells us about the raids. He says the Americans are cowards because they shoot from the sky and flee, and won't fight face to face. He says that Pakistan prevents refugees from entering the country and that many civilians wounded in the raids on Jalalabad are now dying on the other side of the border for want of the most basic treatment.
The atmosphere is tense. Here, even more than in the bazaar, everyone is utterly convinced that the West is engaged in a conspiratorial crusade to destroy Islam, that Afghanistan is only the first target and that the only way to fight back is for the whole Islamic world to respond to the appeal for a holy war. "Let the Americans come. Let them. Then we'll be able to get some decent quality shoes off the corpses", one of the young men says. "War is very expensive for you, but it costs us nothing. You will never defeat Islam."
I try to explain that the war in progress is against terrorism not Islam. I try telling them that the target of the international coalition led by America is not the Afghan people but Osama bin Laden and the Taliban who shelter him. None of them are convinced. "I don't know who Osama is", says the doctor. "I've never met him, but if Osama came about because of the injustices in Palestine and Iraq, you'd better believe that those now being committed in Afghanistan will produce many, many more Osamas".
I need no convincing on this point, and the proof lies here before my eyes. This surgery is a recruitment centre for the jihad, and the doctor is heading up a group of twenty young men who will set out for Afghanistan tomorrow. Each will carry with him a weapon, some food and some money. There are groups like this in every village. The doctor talks of several thousand mujahideen who are ready to leave this region, technically in Pakistan, in order to fight alongside the Taliban. Training? All of them have had two months' instruction in how to use weapons and guerrilla warfare techniques, the doctor says. But what really counts is the religious instruction they have received in the madrassas, the countless little Koranic schools scattered all over the countryside. They took me to see one. It was heart-rending.
Some fifty boys and a handful of girls aged between three and ten, all pale, emaciated and wasting away, were sitting on the ground in front of little wooden tables, incessantly chanting verses from the Koran. In their own language? No, in Arabic, which none of them understand. "But what they do understand is that if they learn the entire Koran off by heart they will go to Paradise, and their families with them up to seven generations!" This is what the young man who was their teacher explained to me. He was thirty-five years old, married with five children and a heart problem. His brother was head of the local mosque. He said that despite his poor health he too would soon be off to fight. He was only waiting for the Americans to come down from their planes and start fighting on the ground. "If they don't stop bombing, we'll form little teams of men who'll place bombs and plant the flag of Islam on American soil. If they're captured by the FBI, they'll commit suicide", he declared, smiling like a man possessed.
The madrassas teach little or nothing apart from memorizing the Koran. But this education, pitiful though it may be, is the only one available to the poor families of the region. What they produce is the young men heading off now to join the jihad.
Wherever we stopped in those hours, I heard speeches full of fanaticism, superstition and certainties based on ignorance. And yet as I listened to these people, I wondered to what extent we too, however learned and well-informed we may be, are not also primed with what we think is knowledge, and do not also end up believing the lies we tell each other.
Seven weeks since the attacks on America, the promised evidence to show that Osama Bin Laden and (indirectly) the Taliban were to blame for the events of 11 September has still not materialized, but their guilt is now taken for granted. We too are taken in by words. We too believed the aim of the US special force's first operation in Afghanistan really was to find the Taliban's command centre, without stopping to think that, as my friend put it, "there is no such centre, or at most there may be a mud hut with a prayer mat and a few carrier pigeons, now the Taliban can't use their radios for fear their conversations will be intercepted by the Americans".
Is the fanaticism of these fundamentalists not like our own arrogant belief that we have a solution for everything? Is their blind faith in Allah any different from our blind faith in science and technology, in our ability to exploit nature for our own purposes?
It is with certainties such as these that we are now heading off to fight in Afghanistan, employing the most sophisticated means, the most invisible aeroplanes, the longest-range missiles and the most lethal bombs, to avenge an act of war committed by someone who was armed only with a paper knife and an unflinching determination to die.
How can we fail to realize that in order to combat terrorism we've been reduced to killing innocent people, rousing in so doing a beast which used to lie dormant? How can we not see that we've taken a step in the wrong direction, that we've put our foot into quicksands, and that if we keep on going like this we'll just get further and further away from being able to escape?
After talking to the fanatical jihadi I spent the rest of the night talking to myself, sleeplessly trying to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Certainly, a society which produces young men as narrow-minded and willing to die as this has little to recommend it. But is our own society any better? And what about America, a society which alongside the heroic firemen of Manhattan, is capable of producing the Oklahoma City bomber, the people who attack abortion clinics and maybe even - the suspicions are growing - those who put anthrax into envelopes and send it to half the world?
The society I had just been observing was charged with hatred. But is ours any less so, now that out of revenge, or maybe just to get our hands on the natural resources of Central Asia, we're bombing a country which twenty years of war have already reduced to an enormous ruin? Is it conceivable that in order to protect our own way of life, we have to create millions of refugees and bring death to women and children? Can some definitions expert please tell me the difference between the innocence of a child killed in the World Trade Centre and that of one killed by our bombs in Kabul?
The truth of the matter is that the children in New York are our children, those in Kabul, like the other 100,000 Afghan children who according to UNICEF will die this winter if supplies do not arrive immediately, their children. And their children no longer interest us. We can't watch a little Afghan urchin waiting for a loaf of bread on television every evening at dinner-time. We've seen it too many times before. It no longer grabs our imagination. We've got used to this war, too. It's no longer newsworthy. The newspapers are recalling their correspondents, the television stations shedding staff and cutting their satellite links from the roofs of five-star hotels in Islamabad. The circus is moving elsewhere, on the lookout for new stories. This war has received too much attention already.
And yet Afghanistan will continue to haunt us, for it is the litmus test of our own immorality, our claims to civilization, our inability to understand that violence can only generate violence and that only a force for peace not the force of arms will be able to solve the problems we face.
"Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed", runs the opening paragraph of the UNESCO constitution. Why not try to find a solution within us which isn't the brutal and banal one of more bombs and more deaths? We've acquired such great knowledge, but know so little about our own minds and even less about our consciences, I said to myself as I tried to ward off the mosquitoes.
Mercifully the night is short. At five o' clock, a metallic voice from a loudspeaker starts intoning from the top of a nearby minaret. Others respond in the distance. We depart.
The television is already on in the hotel foyer when I get back for breakfast. The first item of news at dawn is no longer the Afghan war, but the fact that Washington has announced "the largest arms contract in the history of the world". The Pentagon has ordered a new generation of highly sophisticated fighter planes from Lockheed Martin, three thousand of them at a cost of two hundred billion dollars. They will be ready in 2012.
To bomb whom? I wonder. Then I think of the little boys in the madrassa who will be exactly twenty in 2012, and I remember something the mad doctor said: "If the Americans want to fight us for four years, we're ready. If they want to fight us for forty years, we're ready. If they want to fight us for four hundred years, we're ready".
And are we ready? This really is the moment to appreciate the fact that history repeats itself, and every time it does the price gets higher.
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