The Talib with the computer
by tiziano terzani
Quetta, 14 November 2001
I'm writing these lines from a modest inn overlooking the great city bazaar, where a medieval crowd of bearded, turbaned men, enveloped in the modern, bluish haze of exhaust fumes emanating from buses and scooters, mingles with donkeys, horses, wagons and carts. The Afghan border is a hundred kilometres away, and this city, which squats in a basin ringed with pointed, barren, pink-grey mountains, is one of the beaches on which the waves of war are breaking, leaving the usual shipwrecked human débris behind them: the refugees, orphans, wounded and beggars.
You can't even go for a walk without being accosted by bony, begging hands or the vacant stares of women from behind their burqas. I managed to find a room here because the American "tourist" who had been occupying it left for Afghanistan one morning and never came back. The first version of his disappearance was that the Taliban had arrested and hanged him as a CIA agent. The second was that he had been killed in a shooting clash. All the Taliban said was that the corpse was in the hospital in Kandahar, and anyone who wanted could take it away with them. No-one did, and the landlord re-let the room. He says the American wanted to be addressed as "Major", spoke a couple of local languages and flashed his bundles of dollars at everyone. Who knows who he really was and what became of him? It's become impossible to distinguish the facts from fiction, even in a story as minor as this.
Ah yes, the facts. I've spent my whole life running after them, convinced that if I found demonstrable, incontrovertible facts I would also find some kind of truth. Now aged sixty-three, faced with this war which has only just begun and with an unsettling premonition of what is soon to follow, I'm beginning to think the facts are just a front and that the truth they mask is at best like a Russian doll: as soon as you open it up you find a smaller one inside, then another which is even smaller, then another and another, till finally all you are left with is something the size of a grain.
We've been beguiled by the details of so many different facts that we're increasingly losing sight of the whole. What use is it to be kept informed hour by hour of the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif or Kabul if these are presented as victories, and we fail to realize our humanity is suffering some terrible defeats, notably our having resorted to war as a way to resolve conflict and rejected non-violence as the greatest sign of strength?
It's an old saying that the first casualty in any war is the truth. In this one it didn't even get as far as being born. Spies, informers, braggarts and stirrers are now swarming all over the place, particularly in a frontier town such as this. But even their role has been marginalized. Those who really count in this war of lies are the spin-doctors, the communications experts and the public relations people. They are the ones who obscure the fundamental pointlessness of this war and prevent world opinion, particularly in Europe, from taking up a stance which is moral, let alone creative. A group of these scientists-cum-illusionists has just arrived from Washington and settled into Islamabad to "manage" the hundreds of foreign journalists who are now in Pakistan. A super-expert from the inner circle, who until yesterday worked at the White House, has set himself up in 10 Downing Street to assist Tony Blair in his role as advocate for the Americans, as if it were Blair who is U.S. Secretary of State, not Colin Powell.
The truth of this war seems to be so unspeakable that it continually has to be packaged, "managed" and made the subject of some clever marketing campaign. But this is what our world has become. Advertising has taken the place of literature, and slogans now strike us more than any line of poetry. The only way to resist is by stubbornly choosing to think with our own minds and above all feel with our own hearts.
A fortnight ago I left Peshawar and set off to travel through Pakistan in the company of the two medical students I'd met by chance. The idea was to take the political temperature of this "land of the pure" (which is what the word "Pakistan" means). The country was created after the British Empire's partitioning of India in 1947, in order to give the Muslims their own homeland. Now it's on the front line in a conflict where one of the many things at stake is its own survival. My idea was to have a close look at the effects of the war in Afghanistan, which the Americans continue to say is "just the first phase", in order to see what might happen to the rest of the world - our world, everybody's world - when it spreads, as doubtless it will, to Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, maybe Syria, the Lebanon, then who knows where. There are terrorists sheltering in over sixty countries according to Washington, and whoever fails to co-operate with the United States in flushing them out will be treated as hostile.
Is it possible that so few European voices have been raised against the almost suicidal rigidity of the American position? Is it possible that Europe has become this war's second major casualty after the truth?
On our journey we decided to steer clear of all that was official, to avoid the trap of following set routes prepared for the spin-doctors and the luxury hotels being used by the international press with their daily briefings, press releases and opinions of ex-ministers and retired generals. Instead, we decided to follow the logic of the only thread still capable of weaving the odd moment of genuine magic: chance. Thus I went from one chance encounter to another. With the help of my students I travelled hundreds of miles, from one corner of the country to another. I spoke to dozens of people. I was present at the largest gathering of Muslims in the world apart from the pilgrimage to Mecca, and eventually provoked an order for our arrest from the Home Secretary for Baluchistan, who sent his commandos to come and flush us out of the small town of Chaman on the Afghanistan border where we had vainly hoped to spend the night unobserved.
It all began in a tea-shop in that fascinating centre of old Peshawar which is still the story-tellers' bazaar. Seated next to us on a dusty, threadbare mat was a man of about thirty, with an extremely bushy beard and a strangely gentle but steady gaze. He was drinking kawa, an infusion of unfermented leaves, out of a little enamel pot which was black with dirt and dents. We looked at each other, struck up a conversation, and the afternoon slipped by in a trace with the other regulars all gathered round us, hanging on our every word. I don't know if everything Abu Hanifah told me was true, but to judge from a series of checks I carried out with the help of my students, I think it must have been. He told me he was born thirty-five or thirty-seven years ago in the province of Ghazni in Afghanistan. He said that he was in charge of two hundred and fifty Taliban, that he fought in Kashmir against the Indian Army, that he had been recalled to Afghanistan once the bombings had started, and that he had arrived the night before in Pakistan with a small group of his men for a mission. I asked him everything anyone could wish to know about the Taliban, and his replies were swift, precise and politically well-informed, just like those of a Chinese or Vietcong political commissar used to be.
He said they weren't scared of bombs or missiles (the shells of the Cruise missiles were already being used to build minarets), that the war would only really begin once the American troops had hit the ground, and that the Taliban would never be completely wiped out of Afghanistan because "to be a Talib means to have studied in a madrassa, and there's someone like me in every single family in the country". He said that not even the death of the current Taliban leader Mullah Omar would change things. The shura or supreme council of sages was made up of a thousand Mullah Omars, and any of them could take his place. He said that every city and village had its own local organization representing the shura, and that this would remain in force and continue to constitute the true authority for the people even when the Taliban were forced to concede territory to the enemy in order to regroup and attack them later on. Perhaps he was misguided, but he seemed utterly convinced.
The impression I had of this man was not that of an ignorant fanatic imbued with superstition like the young jihadi I had met in the villages outside Peshawar, who truly believed that miraculous hands would appear in the sky at just the right moment to prevent the American bombs from falling. Their minds were closed and predisposed by indoctrination to hatred. His wasn't. He knew the Americans had formidable weapons, but said that ultimately the most powerful weapon of all was faith. He was thoughtful, well-informed about world affairs and generally aware. More than a soldier, he struck me as being like a monk in some fighting order, as perhaps our Knights Templar were once upon a time.
I asked Abu Hanifah how he could come and go in Pakistan, a country which previously had had such close links with the Taliban but which now had allied itself with the United States against them. How could he, now the enemy in the war against terrorism, openly take tea with me in a Pakistani city? He laughed, as did those around us. This is the reality. Despite the official about-turn and General Musharraf's dramatic pro-Washington stance, deep down Pakistan remains profoundly ambivalent in its attitude to the war. The government in Islamabad knows that the Pashtuns believe they are one nation, whether they live in Pakistan or Afghanistan. To antagonize them would mean risking a civil war along a two thousand kilometre border. That risk will grow if Afghanistan ends up being divided into two, with the Northern Alliance controlling Kabul and the North (which in any case are not inhabited by Pashtuns) and the Pashtun Taliban controlling the South.
Despite the recent purges ordered by Washington, Pakistan's entire state apparatus, especially its armed forces and secret services are, as Islamabad well knows, full of elements linked by a double thread to the Taliban. They gave birth to the Taliban, they helped them come of age, and they share with them a common ideology and religious faith. It's certainly no coincidence that a fire destroyed every file on the Taliban and their leaders' histories, along with maps of their positions and caves, on the very night General Musharraf announced under pressure from America that he'd sacked his head of secret services. If the Americans had got hold of those documents, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar would have been much, much easier.
Besides, Musharraf knows the American war in Afghanistan has created strong sympathy for the Taliban, and that the myth of Bin Laden, "hero of the oppressed poor" and "symbol of the Muslim revolt against the arrogance of the infidel superpower" is gaining ground with the masses. He knows that this could turn things against him at any moment. The fundamentalists have already described him as a kaffir, an infidel, one who "eats American dollars".
The mere fact that Bin Laden has challenged the United States is enough to make him a hero in the eyes of the people. Wherever I have been this fortnight, I have seen posters of him at the newstands, his face on the backs of buses and trishaws, in the windows of private cars and plastered on the carts of itinerant ice-cream sellers. You can buy tapes of his speeches in every bazaar. I've heard expressions of anti-American hatred which just a few months ago would have been inconceivable, even among the well-heeled Pakistani bourgeoisie, the kind of people who send their children to study in America, who have economic links with the United States and support President Musharraf because "he had little choice with Bush's pistol pointed at his head". "Now there's a little Osama in all of us", an elegant, bejewelled lady from Lahore high society explained to me without a hint of irony at a dinner one night.
It was Abu Hanifah who caused me to go to Lahore. He explained to me that his mission in Pakistan was to take part in the annual gathering of the tablighi jamal. So I followed him. It was staggering. More than a million and a half men (not a single woman as far as I could see) had come from all over Pakistan and various parts of the outside world to a valley called Raiwind about thirty kilometres from Lahore to gather in the shade of enormous white canvas tents. Together, in a constant cloud of yellow dust thrown up by the wind, they prayed five times a day, listened to the speeches of the elders, and reaffirmed the amazing bond of Muslim brotherhood which we Westerners find hard to understand, prone as we are to think increasingly in terms of "mine" rather than "ours".
The tablighi are a curious, disciplined, powerful organization. They are Islamic missionaries who technically are devoted not to the converson of infidels, but to the spiritual reformation of Muslims who have "fallen under the influence of Western materialism". Each member of the organization gives four months in a year free of charge to working with this mission. In small groups, without reading the papers or watching television for fear of being distracted, they travel all over the country, stay in the most remote villages and re-instruct the people in the "original ways of Allah". Through this work they've created an extensive network of contacts, and now wield enormous influence not just in Pakistan, but also in various other parts of the world where they are represented. Their secret is to stay out of the limelight. The tablighi don't seek publicity. They don't want to be written about. They don't allow themselves to be photographed or filmed, and their leaders don't grant interviews.
The tablighi claim to stand for non-violence, and say they don't want to get involved in politics. For this reason they are not to be confused with the extreme Islamic party fundamentalists, who are demonstrating against the government and openly supporting Osama and the Taliban here. And yet after spending hours and hours in that immense, disciplined congregation of men, all of whom were wearing white caps or turbans and reeling off their prayers, it struck me that there was an obvious convergence of interests, an implicit solidarity between the tablighi, Osama and the Taliban. This needs to be understood properly, because by extension it involves every single Muslim in every part of the world.
Osama's objective is first and foremost political. He wants to liberate Islam's holy places from presence of the infidels and the reigning dynasty, which he has called corrupt. In other words, he would like to seize power in Saudi Arabia. His secondary objective is to lead that country, whose inhabitants for example are popularly referred to in Pakistan as "sex and alcohol", back to a purer and more spiritual form of Islam. And because he sees the Americans as protectors of the existing Saudi regime and corruptors of the Islamic world in general, he has declared his jihad.
The tablighi have little or nothing to do with the political side of all this, but they do have a great deal to do with the religious side. They too want to return to a more spiritual Islam, and in this they are fundamentally sympathetic to Osama and the Taliban. But there is more to it than that. Like many other elements in the Muslim world which are not necessarily fanatical or extremist, the tablighi also have a more general, existential aspiration which is simply to live a life which is different to ours, to live according to other principles and remain outside the international mechanisms which they see as being dominated by exclusively Western laws and values.
In the course of the conversations I've had in Pakistan over this past fortnight with many Muslims of all different kinds, I've noted people continually referring to a particular type of violence they feel they are victims of. The cause? Confrontation with the West. Rightly or wrongly, many see globalization as an instrument of our atheistic and materialistic civilization, which through market expansion is growing ever richer and more powerful at the expense of their world. Not without a certain paranoia, even the most cultivated Muslims in this country see every western move, including the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to V.S. Naipaul, as an attack on Islam.
Hence their defensive reaction, and retreat into Islam as a form of refuge. Religion becomes the ideological weapon against modernity, which is seen as a form of westernization. For this reason even moderates such as the tablighi who do not want to be jihadi end up sympathizing with the Taliban and Osama against the West.
This is the problem we face. It can't be solved by bombs, nor by going round the world overturning regimes we don't like and replacing them with old exiled kings or coalitions of convenience stitched together in some far away capital. Osama may be turfed out of Afghanistan, the Taliban routed and reduced to hiding out in mountains and stirring up guerrilla warfare, but the basic problem remains. Bombs only make it worse.
It may seem odd to us, but there's an astonishing number of people in the world today who don't aspire to be like us, who don't pursue our dreams or share our expectations or desires. A sixty-year-old cloth trader I met at an assembly of tablighi missionaries put it quite simply: "We don't want to be like you. We don't want to watch your television or your films. We don't want your freedom. We want our society to be governed by the sharia, the Koranic law. We don't want our economy to be ruled by the law of profit. When I have sold enough to meet my needs at the end of a day, I send my next customer off to buy from my neighbour, who I see has sold nothing". I looked around. What if all that huge gathering of men - they said there were a million and a half on the last day - what if they all felt the same way?
I was curious. I'd lost sight of Abu Hanifah in the crowd, and asked the cloth trader if I could come and visit him at his home. He gave me his address. He was from Chaman, a small town on the border exactly halfway between Quetta, capital of Baluchistan in Pakistan, and Kandahar, the spiritual home of Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. Chaman is practically closed to foreigners. The only way of getting there is in a convoy with a police escort and a special permit issued in Quetta. This is how I ended up at this inn.
I went for a first stroll to get my bearings, and discovered I was near the city hospital where civilians wounded in the American raids on Kandahar arrived daily. It was here that I got to know "Abdul Wasey, 10 years old, Afghan, hit by a Cruise missile, fractured leg", as the handwritten notice hanging on the peeling wall behind his dirty, dusty bed said. He was very pale, and thin as a rake. Dangling from the end of his bed was a brick tied with a rope to his heel to prevent him from moving his plastered leg. The other leg, all skin and bone, was like a broomstick. Abdul had been playing cricket with friends in a park when they were hit. The other seven died. His father brought him here with his fourteen-year-old brother who was keeping him company. The father had gone back to Afghanistan. The hospital was full. Every bed had a story to tell, but I felt my curiosity was unwelcome. Anyway, what use was it to know that the Cruise missiles which killed Abdul's friends and ripped off his leg, as well as those of all the other poor wretches who had made the long journey to this grimy provincial hospital as their last hope and now lay there motionless and silent, what use was it to know those missiles fell where they did because of "computer errors"? We should just stop making them.
The convoy for Chaman, on the occasions when it does actually leave, departs from Quetta at ten in the morning. The idea was to take a small group of authorized journalists to the border post, let them stay there for a couple of hours and then bring them back to Quetta. The Pakistanis are not especially keen to publicize the many forms of traffic across the border, and rumour has it they encourage little boys in the refugee camps to throw stones at visitors to keep them at a distance. I detest this kind of guided tour, and as soon as we set foot in Chaman my two students and I disappeared. The locals were hostile, and we didn't manage to reach our cloth trader's house. We were saved by one of the little ambulances belonging to Abdul Saddar Edhi, the "saint" of Karachi, which go back and forth across the border to collect the wounded. In the afternoon I managed to meet a delegation of Taliban, to whom I submitted an application to go to Kandahar the next day. But I wasn't allowed to spend the night at Chaman. The police found us, and after they'd kicked the students a few times and with a bit of diplomacy on my part, we were allowed to go.
Here too chance gave us a hand. We were on our way back to Quetta, with a jeep-load of commandos following behind to keep us in sight, when right at the top of the Khojak Pass our car got a puncture. This meant a ten-minute stop, and gave me the most majestic, unforgettable vision of Afghanistan and the absurdity of what the West with the U.S. at its head was trying to do to us. The sun had just set, and a pale half-moon began to turn silver in the pastel sky above a range of mountains. Sometimes pink, sometimes violet or ochre, barren but somehow alive, they were like the waves of a sea frozen by eternity. On a peak nearby, a dozen or so lorry drivers had laid out their prayer mats in the dust and, like scraps of black paper against that backdrop of immensity, they bowed rhythmically towards the West, in the knowledge that at that same moment millions of other Muslims were performing the same gesture, facing the same way and with the same thoughts directed to the same ineffable god who held them all in the kind of communion which we no longer experience.
I thought of my last Sunday in Florence after 11 September, when I went round the different churches just to hear what was being said. The answer was nothing, and I came away very disappointed. From San Miniato to Santo Spirito and Santa Maria Novella, the priests all read out the same passages of Scripture and discussed the same generalities, with not a single reference to today's life or the anxiety people were feeling for what was going on in the world. Here in Pakistan, the mosques thunder and sometimes rant every Friday, but at least they unite the faithful and give them something to think about and devote themselves to, even if it is on occasions misguided. Our church prefers to maintain its silence rather than break the ranks of political orthodoxy and speak out convincingly for peace.
I watched the endless sequence of mountains as they quickly grew dark. I wondered how on earth the Americans could hope to find the cave where Osama was hiding in that moon-like labyrinth. There are supposed to be at least 8,000 such caves, each with tunnels which can stretch for miles, with many entrances and many different levels. And even if they find him? Under the terms on which it's been declared, the war will not end here.
Europe seemed a long way away from that pass in the mountains of Asia, just as I'm sure what's going on here feels a long way away in Europe. But it's not like that. What is happening in Afghanistan is very close indeed. It affects us. Not just because the fall of Kabul is emphatically not the solution to Afghanistan's problems, but because this is "only the first phase". Iraq, Somalia and Sudan are all much closer.
What will we do when Bush decides he wants to go and bomb those countries? Have we reckoned with the Muslims who live among us and who might for the moment be indifferent to the war in Afghanistan, but who might also become less so if we go and bomb their homes? Do we want to be a party to Israeli-style killings of all those the CIA decides to put on its blacklist?
In my opinion it would be far wiser for Europe to signal its dissent now, speak with one voice rather than letting its individual governments play their several roles of satellites to Washington, and like a true friend and ally help America find a way out of this snare.
Some days ago, an Urdu newspaper argued convincingly that all the countries which are now in one way or another urging the Americans to get involved in Afghanistan, are doing so because deep down they hope America will come unstuck and its credibility as a major power be challenged in the process. Iran, China, Russia and above all Pakistan have good reason to resent them and to be profoundly disturbed by this new military presence in the heart of central Asia. This is not at all the position which Europe finds itself in.
However, at the same time Europe cannot remain completely indifferent to the possibility that behind the screen of this international war on terror, the United States may pursue its own plan of bringing about a new world order which will advance the national interests of America alone.
The present U.S. administration consists mainly of Cold War veterans, chief among whom is the Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. This alone is enough to suggest that such a temptation is real. It is this team which has links to the interests of the arms industry, which has always opposed arms limitation treaties and is now demanding they be abrogated. It is this team which has said in the past that nuclear weapons are made to be used and not locked up forever in silos.
America has looked upon the gradual reduction of its military expenditure with some unease since the end of the Cold War and with it all genuine threat. It has done all it can to identify a new enemy, in order to justify scrapping its old weapons in favour of a whole new set of "smart" systems which are adequate to wage the technological warfare of the 21st century. A prime candidate for the role of enemy was North Korea, till it turned out to be literally starving and therefore hardly likely to mount a serious challenge to America's might. Then it was the turn of China, but it proved difficult to make a convincing case for Beijing being able to threaten anywhere other than Taiwan, seeing as at that stage it didn't even have a long-range bomber. Then came the Islam hypothesis, an enemy America would have to defend itself against in the newly-invented "clash of civilizations".
The massacre of 11 September has made Islam an extremely credible enemy, and has allowed America to launch an entire political programme which would otherwise have been unacceptable. The enemy has now been identified as the terrorists, and the demonization of those Washington defines as such has already begun. The first to pay the price are the Taliban ex-mujahideen and Osama bin Laden, whom, lest it be forgotten, were America's own invention from the days when it needed their help to fight the Soviet Union.
Europe cannot follow America along this path without stopping first to think. It must go back to its own history and experience of diversity in order to find the strength it needs for dialogue, rather than engage in any clash of civilizations.
Among other things, the greatness of a culture lies in its permeability. It would be a start if they stopped attacking one another with aeroplanes full of innocent citizens or dropping bombs by mistake on people who are guilty of nothing.
Even Islamic fundamentalists such as the Taliban can change in their own way. If they had been recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan when they took power in 1996, maybe the Buddhas of Bamiyan would still be there now, and maybe the red carpet would not have been rolled out for Osama bin Laden in quite the way it was. Even the Taliban live in this world, and they too have to adapt to it in their own way.
When I went to the Afghan consulate in Quetta to apply for a visa for Kandahar, the Taliban official who received me had a brand new computer on his desk. Perhaps he was following the latest reports of his country on the Internet, to get some idea of how long he would be in his post now that Kabul had fallen.
On my way back to the inn, I stop off at the hospital to say hello to Abdul Wasey. The corridor is full of Afghans who have just arrived with more wounded. In the bed next to Abdul's there is now a man aged around fifty, whose stomach has been ripped open by shrapnel. He sees me hand Abdul a couple of things I have brought him. With an effort he summons up the breath he needs and shouts out: "First you bomb us, then you come and bring us biscuits. Shame on you!".
I don't know what to do. I try to find within me some kind of justification or at least some words. Then I think of the French, German and Italian soldiers who will soon join this war, and I understand that now, as I near the end of this life in which I have always seen people killed or wounded by others, it will be my turn to see the victims of my own bombs and my own bullets, here in this hospital or elsewhere. And truly I am ashamed.
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