CABINET POST

My appointment to the Cabinet as President of the Independent Department of Tribal Affairs (IDTA) came as a complete surprise to me. I had every reason to believe that, when my boss was appointed to form the new government, he would choose me as his Minister of Information and Culture. With my educational background and years of experience, Continue reading “CABINET POST”

GOVERNMENT SERVICE

I was escorted by the Director General of Publications to the Anees establishment and introduced appropriately as the new Editor-in-Chief of the paper. The staff, already aware of my appointment, greeted me warmly. They led me to my office, congratulated me as the new Editor-in-Chief of Anees.

Someone asked if I had a telephone at home. I said: “No”, also adding that we did not even have electricity, other than an extension line from a neighbor’s meter to our home for a few bulbs. There was, at the time, an extreme shortage of power. Thereupon, someone went on the phone and asked a phone service to be established immediately in my name as the new Anees Editor-in-Chief. By the end of the day, both the telephone and electricity were extended to my father’s home where I was staying. This gave me a new insight into the workings and significance of officialdom.

It was a duty of the “Chief”, every day, to write an editorial on a topic of the day. In my case, it was my own takeover at the paper. I think I introduced myself and talked some about the responsibilities of a newspaper to its readers and promised to do my best in my service to the readers. Deep down, however, I did not know to what extent I would be able, or allowed, to run an organ of the public domain. I knew Anees was really a government daily. It printed all the news that it got from the government news agency. It also published articles sent in by members of the public, either original or translations from the foreign press. My past experience had taught me what to avoid or amend in those articles. The news, however, got printed almost verbatim in Dari language. The same regularly got published in Pukhto every morning in the newspaper Eslaah. What worried me was that the news, sometimes came out quite vague, so much so that the readers really did not get anything substantial out of it. For example, the Council of Ministers met every Monday at the Prime Ministry in an all-day session. What the news agency sent out routinely was something like this:

The Prime Minister (name and all official and honorary titles included) presided over a Council of Ministers meeting held at the Prime ministry today. Some important matters were discussed and some decisions were made.

The two-line, two-column, heading of this story took up more space than the text. The two-line story that followed did not add much to the heading. The editor had no authority to ask for any elucidation or clarification, at least for that day and that story. The next day he could reach a Ministry for elaboration, provided the Minister permitted additional information to be given. When I contacted the President of the Press Department on the subject, his reply was not to be hasty about changing things right away, as “we would gradually bring such improvements about.”

The news story about the new Anees Editor-in-Chief appeared the next day saying that yesterday’s Anees had appeared under the name of a new Chief and it was to be expected that the new Editor would bring some improvements in the paper’s contents. Nothing was said about my name and background or the fact that the Government Department of Press and Information had appointed me to the position. This, to give impression that the paper was independent in its coverage of news and other contents.

Anees had a couple of reporters who covered bazaar events, or an occasional government employee interview for the elucidation of an earlier news agency report, and/or photos. These then got published at the discretion of the “Chief.”

There were no city editor, sports editor, society editor, editorial page editor and so on. The paper had a chief editor, an assistant and a few other officials who constituted the editorial board with no fixed assignments. They wrote headlines, subtitled photos, wrote copy and proofread galleys that came from the government print house next door. The main burden of going through incoming texts, whether originals or translations, that eventually got published, rested upon the chief editor who also read and revised the contents of the galleys for any oversight by someone, somewhere.

An example would be that a King must never be mentioned merely as the King, but always as His Majesty the King of…. I remember that within the first year of my appointment to the Anees, a colleague, the recently returned Dr. of Journalism from Germany, who was appointed assistant editor of the morning paper, Eslaah, got sacked for making just that mistake.

The accounts department was responsible for subscriptions, advertisements, and other fiscal affairs of the paper. We hardly had any advertisements. A few that came in, had to do with deaths, property sales, family name announcements, government bids for equipment, supplies, construction requirements and the like, and a rare commercial ad by some city store. We had nothing like classified ads, full or half page commercial ads and the like. I believe the main reason for this was that the entire paper consisted of four pages and it was not considered appropriate for the paper to include special columns for classified ads, or try to increase, the ad contents. Also, as all newspapers in Afghanistan were owned and budgeted by the government, there was no incentive to create revenue through advertisement. Also, adding more pages to the papers meant buying more newsprint and more printing presses from abroad, resulting in further government expense.

So far as I was concerned, in spite of limitations from above, I still could do, and did some little things. One of these was introducing classified ads, at fixed rates acceptable to all. I knew that choosing and announcing “family names” was still a fad in Kabul and would bring a lot of ads to appear in fixed columns every day. The same could be said of public announcements of weddings, funerals, lost and found items and the like, which might soon increase the columns of such ads at the risk of a lesser number of articles, either contributed or sold to the paper. I initiated it and it soon picked up advertisers. We decided to limit it to between two and three columns. Another item that I introduced was a choice of an editorial page design, meant to draw attention to other than the first and fourth pages. My hope was to, some day, be able to publish Anees in eight pages. But this attempt did not draw public attention and we went back to the first page two-column editorials to which I brought an innovation: shorter commentaries by well-known writers rather than always a single long editorial by the Chief Editor. This change came toward my fourth year of work and was well received.

Yet another attempt was to help arouse public attention to the needs of the poor class. This was in my third or fourth month of editorship. I wrote several editorials about the subject and asked my readers for the creation of a Society For Public Services whose members would have the goal of helping poorer citizens in their daily lives. For example, if a poor family’s home developed a leak, then some members of the Society would go to his/her home, check the problem and gather the needed supplies and repair that family’s roof. The idea was to help the needy families and assist them in their effort to remove the problems; not takeover the matter in its entirely, and thereby create bigger and more serious issues for the authorities. I thought I had found a good outlet for the youth to help neighborhoods with their free labor and minimum financial burden on the poor citizenry. I was quite pleased with the feedback I got from the readers.

Suddenly one Monday this aspiration was dashed with a call from the President of the Press Department to immediately put a total stop to the “Society” idea. By nightfall, I was informed further that the Prime Minister was very angry. He envisaged that many headaches would arise from such groups for the government and that the Cabinet also went along with him. This took me by surprise. I was not aware that the government would find the idea as something sinister and aimed at endangering Afghan society in any way. The Prime Minister had asked my boss about my identity and background as he did not remember that I had even once gone to see him since my appointment. I was forthwith instructed to go pay my respects to the Prime Minister, and if he asked me questions about ‘my projected Society’, to present my honest opinion and views on the subject. That night I talked to my father about it and he said it was normal protocol and that I should not only go see the Prime Minister, but also pay a visit to His Majesty the King. He knew personally that almost all graduates from institutions of higher education abroad, saw him upon returning home from their studies.

I did make a courtesy call on Prime Minister Shah Mahmood Khan shortly afterwards; found him a kind, warm and fatherly figure who addressed me as his “son”, and expressed pleasure in seeing me. He did not give me a lecture on his family’s sacrifices during the Bachai Saqaw uprising or why we should support the Royal Family for the wonderful way they pursued the cause of peace and security for our nation as his brother had done in the Afghan Embassy in London. He did not broach the subject of the Society and I felt he had already known he had put a stop to the subject through my boss and there was no need for further pressing the point.

I went to him one other time. Then I wanted him to order the Mortgage and Construction Bank to give me a loan without the requirement of first completing 15% construction work on my home. My salary of a 7th level government employee could never enable me to do so. Even the lot was sold to me on a seven-year installment plan by the then Mayor of Kabul during a Street Naming Commission meeting, of which I was a member. The Prime Minister was genuinely surprised that I was actually occupying a level 3 position at a level seven salary. (Several years later, a law was passed so employees with university education could draw the full salary of the positions they held in spite of their real employment levels being lower.) The Prime Minister ordered that I be given the loan as I had requested. It was gratifying, and I thanked him heartily.

I got the loan, but construction could not begin as winter was upon us. When I did begin to go ahead with the construction, the new Mayor told me that my lot was under consideration as the site of the new Soviet Union Embassy and I must wait to see if they choose the site. If they do, then I will be given another lot somewhere in town. I insisted I could not wait and would like a lot near the University of Kabul, an area which was also ready for sale to the public. Thereupon, the City repossessed my land and sold me another lot, on installment again, where I began and completed the first story of a two-story building by winter time. I then moved to my first-ever home and the rest of the family also moved in with me.

My audience with His Majesty the King was next. It took over two hours. King Zahir Shah was soft-spoken, well-informed and had a very impressive personality. He talked at length about his visions and hopes for Afghanistan, the expansion of education, the improvement of the national economy, further development of the infrastructure and attempts toward exploiting the country’s natural resources. He stressed the fact that nations were no longer able to live independent of one another as there were many factors that held them together. Therefore, it was necessary to realize this interdependence and, keeping in mind the good of our own society, take advantage of the situation at hand as the opportunities arose. He mentioned that we were not really in the twentieth century in spite of the fact that it had already passed the halfway mark. Our peoples’ literacy standard was not yet much beyond ten percent. A great deal of hard work was ahead of us and the entire nation was to rise to the occasion and much more help was to be secured from international bodies to hasten our process of catching up with the rest of the world.

There was not much that I could add to what he had already mentioned. I expressed my readiness to do what little I could do in my own field to help achieve our aspirations for Afghanistan.

I think it was still the first year of my editorship at the Anees when I permitted an article get published that stressed the role which women could play in various fields alongside men for the betterment of the country. The next thing I noticed was a dozen or so mulas at my office the very next day claiming that the article contradicted a saying of Mohammad (sal’am), the Prophet of Islam. They also demanded that I point out the author to them so he/she should be taken to court and duly punished for such a grave sin. I told them that I would make inquiries and get back with them on the subject. They left having assured me that they would not stay idle on this matter and would certainly be back. I honestly had not envisioned such an outcome from that article which was published under the name of a woman. There was no mention of Mohammad (s) or his Sayings. All that the writer wanted was that women be allowed to join the other half of the Afghan population in our joint endeavor toward progress. I had already seen hundreds of women working in the fields, side by side with their men. I had also seen the women of the nomadic tribes, toiling away without the slightest feeling of inadequacy or inferiority to their men, in many phases of nomadic life. So what harm could there be if women in the cities entered the society as teachers, doctors and workers in offices, even in the industry when we had the facilities and the environment for them to work?

I immediately contacted the President of the Press Department and apprised him of the situation with the mulas. I also disclosed the identity of the writer of the article to him. He suggested that I refer them to the President when they come next to my office. Sure enough, they appeared at my office the next morning. I told them that Mr. Khalilullah Khalili, President of Royal Afghan Government Department of Press and Information, was waiting to see them in his office that very morning and suggested that they go there for any follow up of the case. They went away grumbling and I never saw them again. But in a couple of days I received a formal directive from the President to, henceforth, forward all articles that came in, to the Directorate General of Information at the Center and only publish those that were returned to Anees with the Department’s official confirmation. I immediately sent in my formal resignation as Editor-in-Chief and arranged to have it hand-delivered the same day to the President. I was summoned immediately to his office and asked to take back my resignation, as what had happened was a clear proof that I could not cope with the situation and the Head Office was not about to act as Anees’ clearing house for disputes over published articles. Upon my insistence that the subject was a religious one and the President himself had suggested he would handle it, and I admitted my limited knowledge in that field, but to have to submit my authority as the directive had expressed, was totally unacceptable. An editor had every right and duty to act responsibly with any matter that he allowed to be published and without that right and freedom, I was not going to run any paper any more.

The President, bless his soul, then mellowed down considerably, assured me that none of my freedoms were being taken away, and that his letter to me was only to serve as a sort of assurance to the religious society that the Press Department had taken the matter in hand so no repetition would occur. In practice, then, I was to continue my work as if no letter exchange had taken place between the Head of the department and myself. I did send some religious articles to the Directorate of Religious Guidance of the Press Department for their opinion for a while but otherwise did not allow the paper to be run by an outside source. What I could not find a solution for, I left for the future. A time for such clearances came, and I was instrumental in bringing them about in the form of a new Law of the Press for Afghanistan, but it was way past my holding the reins of authority in the Anees Daily.

A most welcome change did come about when the then Prime Minister left office for, what the papers called ‘health reasons’ and Sardar Mohammad Dawood, his nephew, came to power. I remember so very vividly that I was returning from the Parliament House on my Government-given bicycle and had just turned right into the Foreign Ministry Drive going to my office, when a convertible, following me, passed me and stopped a few meters ahead of me. I immediately recognized Sardar Mohammad Dawood as the sole occupant of the car, got down from the bike and saluted him knowing he had stopped to tell me something. He returned my salaam addressing me as “brother”. He said he saw me in the Parliament that morning and asked that in any article about his speech to the Parliament, as well as in all forthcoming stories about him, the press should mention him only as Shaghalai (Mr.) Sardar Mohammad Dawood, thereby eliminating any mention of his Titles. I immediately assured him that his order would be obeyed to the letter. He said goodbye and drove on to turn around and out of the Gardens, and I merrily rode on to my office. I cannot say how relieved I felt that I shall no longer have to ascribe two lines of a two-column story just to mention the name and titles of the Prime Minister and then another line or two on the subject matter of the news! But I knew that I had nothing to do with it. It had taken the person of a new Prime Minister to bring such a change about.

By the time I arrived the next morning, the Interior Minister, who was the principal of my high school not many years ago, was on the phone and was warning me for the grave disrespect that I had shown to the new Prime Minister. He wanted that I immediately stop the distribution of yesterday’s paper and correct the mention of Prime Minister’s name and give all his titles or else face any and all consequences. I assured him that what I had done was all right and there was no need to change anything in the paper or stop its distribution. That made him very angry and I have no doubt that on that day I made a personal antagonist in the person of the Interior Minister.

I soon set up the first photography lab on the premise and procured the necessary equipment for it with the help of Asia Foundation. We were thus able to take shots of events ourselves and print them along with the news which we ourselves acquired from the various sources. It made Anees more appealing as we no longer limited ourselves only to the Bakhtar News Agency material. We increased our reporter staff who daily went on separate beats to various government departments in search of news and we had other reporters who just went about town and gathered human interest stories and photos.

Our circulation went up from under two thousand to nearly five thousand in three years and that meant a great leap in our readership which did not escape notice.

A year later I was elected as one member of a group of seven Afghan officials who were invited on a first-ever cultural visit to India. It turned out to be a five-week trip. We were given a grand tour of India, most of it on the special train that the Indian Prime Minister used when he chose to travel by train. We were received at the border between Pakistan and India and finally returned via the same border. In New Delhi, we had a private visit with Prime Minister Jawahir Lal Nehru in his official residence, were hosted by the Mayor at an open lawn dinner, stayed at Hyderabad House, an official government guest house, toured various tourist sites among which was the Red Fort. There we saw a “sound and light” show about India of the past. At one place the commentator, speaking of the Afghan conquests of India by Ahmad Shah Baba, the King of Afghanistan in the 1750’s, spoke of him and other Afghan conquerors as looters, who came down to India mainly after wealth and riches. The wealth of culture and Islam that the Afghans brought down to India was totally overlooked. Right there in Delhi the Qutub Minar, depicting a monument built by Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak, is still a living proof of what the ‘invaders’ from Afghanistan left for posterity.

Later, on the first leg of our journey after Delhi, we reached Lucknow and went to the historic Aligarh University where Farsi, Arabic and Islamic Studies were being taught for scores of years. We found that the Indian Government had just recently stopped education in Persian language. Not only that, but they had also vastly reduced the number of Muslim teachers and replaced them by Hindus. Some of these Muslim teachers complained to us of ill-treatment by the authorities. I sent home an article to Anees voicing the complaints of these teachers. It was immediately passed on to New Delhi by the Indian Embassy in Kabul and I was approached for the identity of the teachers. I was not going to create any additional hardship for Muslim teachers at the hands of the authorities and refused to give any name. Thereupon, the Indian Government sent a retaliatory note via its Embassy asking Anees to publish it. It said, briefly, that no Muslim teachers had been replaced by Hindus and that the complaint was merely false. Upon my return home, I was asked by our Foreign Ministry to publish the official reply of the Indian Government as it was only fair. I did. But could those teachers voice their complaints and expect better treatment from the Hindu authorities so soon after Partition (1947)? Again, perhaps one or two teachers might have some special reason to exaggerate the matter of ill-treatment, but on this occasion, a whole group of them had come to us, Muslims from a near neighboring country, with the hope that, maybe, we could let their grievances be heard through the media. I never heard anything more on this subject and could not find out whether the Muslim teachers of Aligarh received a fair deal as a result of that disclosure or were punished collectively.

During the course of our visit in India, a member of our delegation, who, no doubt, was specially chosen by the Prime Minister, used to write to him often. We were not sure what he wrote about but some of us made a point to speak carefully when he was around. Not that we were a group of people with different political viewpoints as, at the time, the old Constitution did not allow political parties and we all were government employees and the head of our delegation was a Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Ali Ahmad Popal. But we used to have light-hearted discussions on various subjects and sometimes, we dealt with subjects dealing with the future of our country. On occasion, the presence, among us, of this member put a damper on such discussions. We saw things we were not used to, we were exposed to ways of life that surprised us and we wondered whether the greatest democracy of the world could survive such diversity as we witnessed in India. Most important of all was the matter of co-existence between Muslims and Hindus at a time when the great loss of humanity (some seven million souls) was still fresh in peoples’ minds everywhere. We had visits with some ex-Rajas and former Nawabs who had recently lost their kingdoms, but who still enjoyed certain privileges. We saw libraries, educational establishments, museums, archeological sites, musical and theatrical productions and visited with some film industry personalities in their work environment.

Next year, 1955, I was summoned to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Mohammad Naim the brother of the Prime Minister, and was informed that I was to go to Moscow with one other companion from the Ministry of Education, as guests of the Russian newspaper Izvestia. The visit was to coincide with the USSR celebration of the October Revolution. We left Kabul on the fifth of November, but were stranded for three days in Termez, a little border town on the Russian bank of the Amoo (Oxus) river due to bad weather. By the time we finally left Termez for Tashkent and Moscow, the Kremlin Fete had come and gone. We toured the European half of that huge country, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In Georgia, while I was photographing a beautiful coastal section of the Black Sea, there suddenly appeared two Russian border guards, out of nowhere, and simply took my camera from me saying something in Russian which I did not understand. Our guide then intervened and, producing some document, retrieved my camera. The guards, gave us a stiff military salute and disappeared from the scene.

Upon our return home three weeks later, I went to see the Deputy Prime Minister and asked him how detailed a report of our visit would he recommend for our readers. He responded by questioning what kind of treatment we had received during the visit. “Cordial,” I responded “and very official, and there were instances when we thought we were being shown ‘models’ of ordinary Russian life which seemed a little far-fetched.” The Deputy Prime Minister said to offer our readers a candid picture of what we saw and be careful not to ‘antagonize’ our hosts.

Our report took seventeen days at over two full columns per issue. Within a month, I was approached by the Russian press attachee’ to permit the publication of the report somewhere in Iran in the form of a pamphlet. My hesitation to give an affirmative reply over a period of several months, finally gave the Embassy a clear idea that their suggestion did not really appeal to me. The subject was then dropped altogether.

Reflecting upon my work in Anees, I have a rather pleasant memory: We put out a special winter edition one year in which we voiced our opinions and those of some of our readers about the harsh conditions affecting the poor in the capital of Afghanistan and expressed hope that some aid be rendered to them by the city authorities and the public. On that occasion we received some positive comments from our readers but nothing noteworthy happened. The following year we repeated our attempt amid fears that perhaps the authorities may read negatively in our repeat effort. Was I ever alarmed, when arriving at the office, the next morning, I received a call from Sardar Mohammad Naim asking me to see him in his office promptly. I went, totally expecting an adverse reaction to our feature of the day before. Come what may, I was prepared to give him my honest opinion of the horrible conditions that the poor tolerated during our Kabul winters and cite instances –not reflected in our news columns — of freezing to death due to extreme cold and lack of properly protected shelter. As I was ushered in, I saw yesterday’s Anees on his desk. The first thing the Deputy Prime Minister said after the normal greetings, was to sit down at the coffee table and jot down a short letter from him to the editor of Anees (myself) expressing his appreciation for the special ‘winter edition’ and accepting his offer of a personal check for ten thousand Afghanis as his contribution to the deserving poor. I then heartily thanked him for his generous donation and assured him that it will greatly help our fundraising for the poor and the needy that winter.

We featured the letter that same afternoon and placed the check in a special account with the Da Afghanistan Bank and invited the citizens’ assistance in this humanitarian cause. Within a month we received over 500,000 Afghanis in that account and we presented the whole sum to the Afghan Red Crescent Society for distribution in cash and kind that winter.

When I became the Chief Editor of Anees, one new name that I heard was that of Noor Mohammad Taraki. He was then the Director of the Bakhtar News Agency and in charge of gathering and distribution of foreign and domestic news to the newspapers and Radio Kabul. In my first few days at the Anees, he called me and talked to me about how to handle a news item and advised me about official policy. I do not exactly remember what the item was. I never saw him in person but not long after that, it was announced that he had been appointed as the Press attachee’ to the Afghan Embassy in Washington D. C. The next time I heard about him was that he had told someone in the New York Times of his opposition to monarchy in Afghanistan. That became the reason for his dismissal from the Embassy. Upon returning home, it was stated that the King bore no grudge against him and he was not punished. Neither was he given a job in the government. Later he opened a translation agency and worked for foreign customers mainly.

During my service at Anees we were also dealing with the Pukhtoonistan question and the matter of the US interest in SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) and Baghdad (later to be renamed CENTO when Iraq left) Pacts. At the time the US favored a policy of containing the Soviet Union and blocking her penetration southward toward India and the Arabian Sea. The Baghdad Pact would effectively accomplish this task. Turkey, Iraq, Persia (Iran) and Pakistan were in. Afghanistan’s participation would close the gap in containing USSR’s regional advance. However, Afghanistan was a weak country and needed help from every quarter for her development and both Russia and the US were giving us economic help in our developmental plans at the time. We could not alienate anyone. We were further afraid that US military assistance would not reach us if, and when, we needed to defend ourselves against a sudden attack from the Soviet Union. Our neutrality was our best weapon in any confrontation between the Eastern and Western blocs.

But the US policy at the time was that a country was either with the US or against her. Neutrality had no meaning in the US foreign policy. This was bound to be the subject of incoming articles from our readers as well as getting mentioned in the Afghan press editorially. Anees was somewhat freer in the eyes of the Press Department as it was given the appearance of a non-governmental paper reflecting public opinion. The US Embassy felt that Afghanistan was too critical of the US and its Information Center even complained to me about it. Our position was that the US showed no interest in our complaints that they were militarily equipping Pakistan in spite of their full knowledge of the tension existing between us and Pakistan ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Great Britain agreed to the division of India into Pakistan and India without allowing for the demands of some eight million Pukhtoons and Baloochis that they had gradually captured, over a period of about 150 years, from Afghanistan during their occupation of India and their Forward Policy which was aimed at taking over territories to the north of the subcontinent, up to and including, Afghanistan, in an attempt to block the southward advance of the Tsarist Russians toward India, “the jewel of the British Empire.”

(It is ironic that at the time of writing these notes — April 3, 1998 — I should be reading an editorial in the Frontier Post of Peshawar by a Sher Aman, through the Internet (afghan-web.com /aop) touching upon the same subject. The writer, in his criticism of the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,said,:

“Renaming the NWFP is a demand not restricted to the ANP only. It underscores the resolution of Pakhtuns at large who through generations suffered but refused to submit. This name Pakhtunkhwa, in fact, is a mere compromise but that too failed to get the assent of the big brother. The name fails to meet the general aspirations of the Pakhtuns, the right name being Pakhtunistan…

“The Punjab sons and daughters deny the Pakhtuns their legitimate right to be called by their own name. They must know that had the Pakhtun elders believed in compromises, the non-muslim British were altogether willing to grant them a separate Pakhtun state, of course, a consolidated one encompassing the tribal areas and political agencies, Baluchistan Pakhtun territory and the two districts of Attock and Mianwali which until 1927 were a part and parcel of the NWFP…

“Pakistan’s opposition to the return of King Mohammad Zahir Shah, is a known fact. Pakistan failed to see that this gentleman at three consecutive occasions refused to act against Pakistan, which eventually cost him his kingdom. Now the two beneficiaries, Pakistan and USA, are sitting at ease playing the flute while Afghanistan is burning….”

Probably the Americans were only interested in containing the Soviet Union at the cost of the welfare of all adjoining countries. The Afghans thought their plight did not bother them and if they were to remain neutral, they were somehow allied to the Russians and the US had every right to equip Pakistan and disrupt what the Afghans called the balance of power between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The situation was all the more disturbing to the Afghans that they could not even buy military equipment from the West. Vice President Nixon came to Afghanistan and was approached on the subject of Afghan concern, but the Afghans heard afterwards that he was non-committal about Afghanistan in his appearance before the US Congress. Later still, when the Afghan Prime Minister visited the US, his appeal for an equal status with Pakistan in the matter of military equipment fell on deaf ears. Afghanistan and Pakistan continued their war of words which gradually went beyond that to some ugly actions. A mob in Kabul, burnt the Pakistani flag at the Pakistan embassy. Pakistan burnt down the Afghan flag atop the Afghan Consulate General in Peshawar.

Mediation by the Saudis and Iranians reopened diplomatic ties after the Afghan Deputy Prime Minister raised the Pakistani flag over the Embassy in Kabul. I attended the ceremony in Peshawar when Dr. Khan Saheb, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s brother, raised the Afghan Flag at the Afghan Consulate General in Peshawar on behalf of Pakistan. I brought back my eye-witness report of the ceremony and whatever else I noticed in Peshawar to the Afghan Deputy Prime Minister. He read it with deep interest and then suggested that I present the report to the Prime Minister also. But I found him rather cold about what he read. I never did find out his reason.

Pakistan blockaded Afghan goods a couple of times and then reopened Afghan traditional use of the Karachi Port facilities after considerable delays and considerable pilferage of Afghan goods some of which never even reached destinations in Afghanistan.

My editorship of Anees pleased my father a lot. I found this out when I asked him about his opinion on the possibility of my taking up another job at the Helmand Valley Authority in Lashkargah, southwest Afghanistan. Mr. Abdullah Malikyar, the head of the HVA had gathered around a group of highly educated young men with a view to develop the Helmand and Arghandab river valleys in southwestern Afghanistan. (HVA was to prepare an area for the settlement of some of the Afghan nomadic population, especially as Pakistan had closed the regions south of the so-called border to thousands of nomads who traditionally spent their winters in the northern reaches of the sub-continent. Unfortunately, the project did not have the initial success as the first part of land reclaimed turned out to be too saline for agricultural purposes and it took a rather prolonged effort to harness some portions for agriculture.)

At about that time, I was being considered as the head of mass media work at the HVA. Dr. Abdul Qayoum, Deputy Head of HVA, whom I knew from before, was to acquire my services for the HVA. This he tried to do over a luncheon engagement at the Kabul Hotel. I was told I would receive a handsome salary, an office in the American sense of the word, the latest printing and communications equipment and the use of a car for trips back and forth in the region and when I visited Kabul. It was an attractive offer and I was tempted to take it, but told Dr. Qayoum that I would have to think about it some more. I discussed the offer with my father and his response was that he preferred to see my name as the Chief Editor of Anees every day on the paper over any amount of money I may get as salary or any official car for my transportation. I chose to please Father. The Government authorized the purchase of a Russian car for less than a hundred thousand Afghanis for the Editor’s use in my third year at the newspaper, and I stayed on for yet another year at that post.

I got promoted to the position of Director General of Publications in the Press and Information Department of the Government and not many months later, was made the Information Officer (press attachee) of the Royal Afghan Embassy in London. In my new post, I established a monthly news magazine, Afghanistan News in English, German and French editions for general dissemination through our Embassies all over the world. In London, my office was responsible to answer any queries that came in on matters relating to Afghanistan. I also published a pamphlet for Afghan Tourism about Afghanistan and annual progress reports on the Five-Year Plan under the title, Afghan Development. In that capacity also, I joined the entourage of Sardar Mohammad Dawood during his official visit to the United States in 1960. Unfortunately the visit was not a success and the Afghan Prime Minister returned empty-handed and determined to plunge into a military and economic relationship with the quick-to-please Soviet Union. We could hardly see it then, but it turned out to be the beginning of the end for Afghanistan as we knew it and as we were hoping for it to develop into a country striving to join the world society as an equal member some day.

Bamian

Bamian
bamian

I was inducted into the Boy Scout Organization when I was in the second elementary grade. The school is­sued me and some of my classmates the entire outfit. We had drills for a month or so and then we participated with other boy scouts in the Students’ Annual March Continue reading “Bamian”

My special Friend

From time to time, Uncle, a friend of the family, whose office was close to my school, condescended to let me ride his buggy with him. I sought this ride only when I knew I would be late for school or when the weather was inclement. I usually walked to school, about a half an hour away from our home.

When I was in the fourth grade, Father agreed to buy me a bike, provided I prove to him that I could ride safely. So I decided to learn the thing. My first training experience was a dreadful one. One Friday morning I borrowed a neighbor’s bike. I had already arranged with my special friend, whom I would call F here, to teach me to ride it. He had chosen a steep dirt road in a very quiet area of the city known as Chaman-e-Huzoori. We went there and walked to the top of an incline. The bike had a carryall rack behind and about eight inches below the seat, so that if you sat on it, your hands would reach the handles and your feet would touch the ground. ‘F’ suggested that I sit there, hold the handlebars and, while keeping my feet dangling above the ground, let the bike roll downhill to the flat bottom of the road. I was to keep the handlebars straight and balance myself so as not to lean to either side. He assured me that he would be holding on to the base of the rack at all times. In case I lose my ba­lance, he would not allow the bike to fall. All I had to concentrate on was to guide the bike down the slope.

I did lose my balance several times but was saved from falling by ‘F’ as he pulled the bike back to a stop and I dragged my feet on the ground. This went on till we reached the bottom of the road. Then we walked back to the top of the road and again began the same procedure. On the second attempt he told me to put my feet on the pedals without turning them and simply keep my balance with the handlebars. Again, he was to hold on to the bike to help block my fall. Armed with his assurance, I again let the bike roll along comfortably downhill. My hands firmly gripping the handle­bars, I tried to keep the bike straight. At one point I suddenly noticed that the bike had picked up speed and was heading towards the steep shoulder of the road. I yelled for help and only heard ‘F’s distant laughter. In­stantly I let my feet touch the ground in an effort to avert my fall. The bike dragged me down the shoulder to a ditch where I fell in stagnant water and became covered with mud and filth. Dozens of yards away ‘F’ sat on the top of the road laughing his head off. He had lied to me and had purposely let go of the bike the moment I began the downhill ride. It took the rest of the allowed time on the borrowed bike for me to get my hands, clothes and the bike reasonably cleaned and for him to finally compose himself, after his hysterical mirth, at my expense.

Fortunately I was not injured. Neither was the bike damaged. I was angry with ‘F’ for the dirty trick he had pulled on me. Still I was glad that I had been able to keep my balance for many yards and had not fallen right away. So, there was hope. Thereafter, I practiced alone near our home very early in the mornings. I fell many times and was bruised on several occasions. The bike also showed telltale scratches in many places but its kind owner told me not to worry.

Finally there came a day when I announced readiness to demonstrate my ability to ride a bike. I had still not learned how to get on the bike easily and needed a high spot from where to sit on the seat, put one foot on the pedal, move the bike away and start pedaling with both feet. This was no serious matter and, in time, I would learn it on my ‘own ‘ bike. The date was set. We walked to a section of the road where there was a big boulder sitting by a ditch which I could use to sit on the bike seat. From that point the road sloped in a straight line to the next thoroughfare almost a mile away. There were no alleyways to create possible obstacles. At that moment, the entire length of the road was empty except for a pedestrian several hundred yards down the road. Once seated on the bike, I pedaled for a few yards. The bike took over on its own momentum. All I had to do was to sit tight, look straight ahead and try not to fall. I began daydreaming about the same ride on my own bike one day soon. It would be so much fun! All of a sudden I became aware that I was heading for the only pedestrian on the road who was some fifty yards ahead of me. I panicked. I knew that I was going to run him down in a moment and tried to turn the handlebars ever so slightly toward the middle of the road. The handle­bars would not turn. I think I was afraid that any attempt to turn the handlebars drastically would cause an imbalance and a fall and the inevitable failure of my test. Spell-bound, I just screamed at the top of my voice hoping that the pedestrian would turn around, see me coming and jump out of my bike’s way. No such luck. The front wheel went right between his legs causing both of us to hit the dirt. He disengaged himself somehow, got up and angrily demanded why in the world I had run him down when there was so much empty space on the empty road. I could only say I was very sorry and that the incident was not intentional. He continued to brush the dirt off his clothes and growled about taking me to the nearest police station for appropriate punishment. I pointed back to my father and the neighbor and explained as best I could that this was my test ride and that I had most probably failed it on account of our accident.

By the time Father reached us, the man had cleaned the dust off his clothes and his hands with a handkerchief. Fa­ther apologized for the mishap. To my surprise, the man accepted his apology and went on his way still grumbling about irresponsible kids playing with people’s lives.

If looks could kill, I would have been finished at that moment. I was dead certain that there was not going to be a bicycle for me for a long time to come. Our neighbor quiet­ly appropriated his bike, checked it for damages and, saying goodbye to Father, went on his way. Father handed me my books and we started to walk on to school. After a while, he said that at my stage of progress, I would be a menace to everyone on the road. It would have been far better if I had fallen in the ditch or on the road rather than hitting an unaware, innocent pedestrian. Indeed, why had I not done so?

Four months later, I had my bike, a secondhand one, and rode it daily to and from school without any mishap.

‘F’ was quite a mischievous person then. He was an expert prankster and caused trouble at the first opportunity, anywhere so long as he could get away with it.

Prior to our going to our different schools, there was this occasion of our being enrolled as pupils with an Arab imam (a religious person leading prayers in a mosque) when he purposely splattered black ink on his white trousers, got up and yelled, “Teacher, teacher, Khalid, haza!” in Arabic, pointing to his trousers at the same time. Our teacher understood the situation for what it was not. I promptly got slapped for having stained ‘F’s trousers. I reported the situation to my parents. Grandmother banned me from going to that class again. The incident also ended my chances of learning alphabet and basic Arabic. I also lost my almost daily contact with ‘F’ for several years as we soon went to different schools in different parts of the city. By the time we graduated the elementary parts of our schools, something happened to his school and he and some of his classmates got transferred to my school where we continued as classmates until high school graduation.

Our association had thus been re-established and we were friends again. But he was still his old self and would do his tricks whenever he had a chance.

Once he caused me to be cursed and shouted at abusively by a total stranger: He saw a man using the roof of an old storage depot for much-needed relief. He promptly threw some rocks and pieces of sun-baked bricks at the man and then immediately ran down the stairs and out of the house to me. Blabbering that there was a run-away kite stuck to a roof beam, he literally dragged me into the house and up the stairs to the roof in no time. I looked but saw no kite. He said it may have fallen on the roof of the abandoned building. I peaked over a buffer wall at the roof below and was the immediate recipient of a barrage of curses, profanity and threats from a man on that roof. I turned to ‘F’ and saw him laughing to his heart’s content at the trick he had played on me.

I liked ‘F’ in spite of all his tricks and we remained buddies. He was often good to me but God save anyone around him when he felt mischievous, even though quite good-naturedly!

Once, the two of us went to an Ashura (annual Shi’a observance). A preacher was honoring one of the martyrs of Karbala. At one point, I thought I saw him touch his bare head with both his palms, in grief for that religious per­son’s martyrdom. Instantly, the audience, some of them already weeping, began slapping their heads lamenting the loss. ‘F’ began lightly touching the back of the head of the man sitting in front of him. I found this quite rude and was about to tell him to stop when the recipient of the slaps turned around, noticed a grin on ‘F’s face and shouted, “Why don’t you slap your own head?” Several faces turned in our direction. ‘F’ had no recourse other than to compose himself and begin to slap his head. I did likewise. The incident passed quietly.

It was a known fact that any act of mischief by a Sunni during such observances would bring a reward of severe punishment by the authorities to say nothing of what could happen at the hands of the aggrieved Shia’s themselves and justifiably so.

We did not know why some people were Shi’as and some Sunnis, even among our own classmates. We saw nothing wrong in being either a Sunni or a Shi’a. We were all brothers in Islam and very good friends in our schools. In our own homes, our fathers would read the tales of the battle of Karbala during the Ashura. In my home, both Mother and Grandmother wept during the readings. Even Father’s voice would become hoarse on occasion. I thought Yazeed was a really bad Amir for he had ordered the siege of a small group of peaceful men, women and children, so close to a body of water, yet not allowed to get a drink just to sustain life. Most of the besieged were related Mohammad (sal’am) the Prophet of Islam and the progeny of Bibi Fatema, his daughter, and Ali (k.a.w.), his cousin and son-in-law. Yazeed caused the most tragic martyredom of all of those who either braved a many thousands strong army in battle or when anyone of the besieged ran for water and got martyred in the process.

We, young ones, saw and felt no animosity between our Sunni and Shi’a classmates. Ashura, to us, was a holiday and a time of grief mostly for our elders as the descendants of our Prophet were martyred by some cruel people. We were cautioned to remain serious and calm and not to frolic out in the streets for it was a time of sorrow for the loss of so many good lives all those years ago. And we all, whether Shia or Sunni, generally observed those days of sorrow. After the annual commemoration, life returned to normal and the matter was left alone until the next year.

It was not that only ‘F’ was the source of mischief in our class. Perhaps all of us were, at times, a little mischievous. But none of us did it out of meanness. Even when our acts bothered one of us, we made friends again soon and the thing was forgotten. There was this one occasion when it turned out that I joined ‘F’ in an act of mischief for which both of us got immediate punishment:

One day ‘F’ and I started a contest of who could throw a stone the farthest from a lookout rock on the slopes of Asmayee at the back of our home. Apparently, some of our stones reached the construction site directly below us. The workers stopped and took shel­ter. The owner of the site, ‘Uncle’ appeared and we could hear the workers shouting at us to stop. It was futile. We had gone berserk and felt crazily superior. Next, he sent several workers after us. We could make them retreat by throwing more stones at the ones who came close to us. But we elected to run down and away from them. Unknown to us, some workers had come up on our uncovered flanks. They fell upon us and one of them caught ‘F’ and began dragging him down the slope. The workers recog­nized me as a family member and felt no need to drag me along. They probably thought that, in the first place, I would not start the stone throwing on my own, and in the second place, being rather small, it was not my stones that reached the site. But I struggled to have ‘F’ re­leased, stating that we had hurt no one and should not be punished in any way. Another worker then simply hauled me onto his shoulder thus making any struggle useless. I knew we were in big trouble and would, most probably, receive a beating. When we were brought down in front of uncle, ‘F’ received several hard slaps on his face and was banned from the area for good. As for me, he simply raised me, shoulder-high, and dropped me flat to the ground on my back. The fall could easily have broken my back. Why had he not just slapped me too or sent me home for punishment by my parents? Of course, if he had, my parents would have disciplined me severely for our irres­ponsible act that day. I knew our actions were wrong and deserved punishment, but I thought my ‘uncle’, acted cruelly to drop me as he did.

I remember yet another epi­sode when, ‘F’s mischief got an innocent classmate beaten and cursed by a passerby in the covered bazaar of Puli Khishti. We were returning from school in the direc­tion of the old city. Five of us were walking along. Two of us, the classmate who got beaten and I, lived in a diffe­rent part of town. When we entered the crowded covered bazaar, two of us had to follow the other three. ‘F’ was in the middle, one classmate to his left and the victim to his right. Suddenly I noticed ‘F’s right arm shoot out behind our classmate and box an unknowing passerby whom we were about to overtake. The man, abruptly turned around, grabbed our friend by the shoulder and star­ted cursing and beating him for ‘his’ unprovoked punch. His language was extremely abusive. Not satisfied with the curses and beating he had already given our shocked friend, he began calling for the police. Our poor classmate was pleading with him and swearing that it must have been some­one else who had done such a horrid thing. The man would not let go. Two of us entered the scene and tried to ap­pease the man. He would not listen. Right then, ‘F’ seemingly stepped out of the crowd that had already ga­thered around and began accusing our classmate harshly for ‘his’ un-called-for stupid act. He made kind, consoling remarks to the man and was able, some­how, to release our classmate from the man’s hold and shove him out into the crowd. F made some adverse remarks about the kind of education that the boys were then receiving in schools. The man grumbled his agreement and claimed that the good days were gone forever when boys received their education at the hand of imams in the masjids (mosques) throughout the land and no such foolishness was encountered. Finally he went on his way and the crowd dispersed. Moments later and away from the scene of the incident, ‘F’ started laughing at the success of his most cunning trick.

Hearing the truth from the real culprit, our classmate promptly turned around and headed home. The rest of us blamed ‘F’ for his callousness and the pain he had caused both the poor man and our innocent classmate. This was all a joke to him at someone else’s expense and he was not at all sorry. I wonder what he thinks now of that long ago and far away episode!

We were all quite young then and, perhaps, feeling the first irresistable bursts of the energy of our youth, burned it off at the first opportunity no matter how mis­guided or misdirected.

Some of this energy was later transferred to sports when we played field hockey, soccer, volley ball and, still later, basketball.

We quarreled and fought among ourselves from time to time throughout the years, but with less and less physical harm as we grew older.

Once I was involved in a one-on-one with a neighbor boy. We spared nothing. Punches, slaps and kicks and blows were exchanged freely. He was physically stronger than I, and I was about to be beaten when a chance kick touched him in a soft spot and changed everything. The fight stopped abruptly as he doubled over to the ground. I got scared. He did not cry or weep. He just ordered me to go away. I went home. Minutes later, the seriousness of my action hit me. I ran out to the street to find and help him. He was not there. I ran to his house only to find that he was not there either. What could have happened? Next, I ran to a mulberry garden, a few blocks away. How relieved I was when I saw him, pale and weak, leaning against a tree! I went to him, expressed my deepest regret and offered any help possi­ble. For a long while, he just looked at me. Then he said that he was hurt badly, that he was angry at our fighting in the first place and that in a fight anything could happen. He said he was glad to be alive and said their must never again be such a fight between us and that we would remain friends.

That, too, was a lesson that I tried very hard not to forget. From then on, during moments of extreme anger, if I have slapped someone, I have regretted it almost immediate­ly and have done everything possible to make amends. I have never let myself be involved in a physical fight.

With the Nomads

Grandmother had a distant relative who had been married many years before to a nomad chieftain. This relative had lost both her parents in infancy. Someone in the family had given her away to the barren wife of a Dowlazi (Dowlatzai) semi-nomadic tribesman. The Dawlazis lived in a village of that name near Kandibagh. She was Continue reading “With the Nomads”

A Taste of Power

Power seems to be addictive. Power also seems to drive the powerful crazy. Power has been shown to blind the powerful to see the reality, has turned them deaf to hearing the plight of their nations, has stunned their senses and sensibilities to feel the needs of the people they rule over. These observations unfortunately are true even with the attempts of the powerful to sugarcoat their rule by fancy names such as democracies and republics, and kingdoms with or without constitutional checks. Examples of these are rampant. Take the family rule in Saudi Arabia, the personal rule of leaders in the so-called republics such as Libya or other governments ruled by so-called presidents who act and rule like kings and emperors. Look at governments also where in a republican regime, the son succeeds his father (Syria and North Korea) and then look at the latter where even a communist system has become hereditary. Study tens of cases where people have returned from polling stations with the feeling that their votes are inconsequential due to rigging and interference by the powerful, the wealthy, the military, the police and the clergy.

Then look at Iran where the clergy, for its own survival, has created a new system of government it calls republic and which system, under a constitution, is headed by a president who himself is enslaved by the super clergy called “The Supreme Leader” without whose agreement people cannot run for office. Is it democracy when one person at the top, yet outside the executive, serves as the super dictator with unlimited power?

Then look at Afghanistan. This country seems to be in perpetual misery ever since the invasion of its soil by a superpower neighbor almost thirty years ago. Ever since, many governments came to be in this rugged country. And each failed and failed drastically. The communists failed because of their subservience to the then Soviet Union and not their own nation and because they violated the religious values of the masses; the Mujahidin failed because of their personal thirst and claim for power and their infighting for greed and lust for power that resulted in civilian casualties of thousands upon thousands of the innocent citizens; a new reactionary government of the young clergy called Taleban failed because of its ignorance and lack of experience in governance and lack of understanding of needs of the society and human rights in the dawn of the 21st century.

The world led by the United States then decided to bestow the gift of a democratic system on Afghanistan with the hope that this would not only stop suffering of the nation but would also win the US an ally in one of the most strategically important regions of the world. Furthermore the US believed this would result in a defeat of terrorism. The government that the US and the world brought about in the country and helped with billions of dollars in aid and more than 60,000 foreign troops failed too, to achieve the goals set for it by the world at large. It failed because of a multitude of reasons among them insecurity, corruption, a snail pace development and little change in the lot of the people. The country remained under occupation while it is called independent. How can a country be independent when the survival of its government is tied to the existence of foreign armed forces on its soil?

Now, the head of that government is standing up for reelection among a group of other aspirants of power. Well aware of his shortcomings, well aware of lack of sufficient progress during his tenure, first as head of a transitional government and later as the elected president of the country, he has disparately embarked on schemes and plans in order to cling to power. Perhaps he is aware that historically in certain countries and certain situations, a system where the nobility colludes with the clergy has been able to sustain influence and maintain power. In Afghanistan there is no more the classical nobility. The nobility died out with the demise of the last king of Afghanistan. However, a new group, a new form of nobility because of its brute fire power, has filled the gap. This group consists of the warlords, who within and even outside the government were able to maintain their militia, their body guards and their weapons. These have brazenly used their power to rule in their respective areas of influence without fearing interference by the prevailing laws of the country or its police or justice system. And the clergy, though not well organized, is represented widely in the legislature. President Karzai has reportedly colluded with the new nobility, the warlords, promising them continued membership in his government notwithstanding the great body of evidence that exists against their conduct during the war and even to date. He has also gone along with the demands of the clergy. Examples of this can be seen in the support he has recently secured to receive from two infamous warlords, Dostum and Fahim. However, President Karzai should realize that the nation can now understand schemes of the politicians for achieving power and can distinguish selfish warlords and clergy from true servants of the country. Unholy alliances may ruin chances of victory for the politicians who rely on them for the purpose of winning at any cost.

Now if Ahmadi Nezhad can win reelection in a nation that is in the grip of a dictatorial system and a clergy that continues to hold on to power by imposing restrictions on personal liberties of the citizens, why would Karzai be fearful of losing? As a matter of fact President Karzai was one of the first world leaders who extended a heartfelt congratulation to Ahmadi Nezhad for his reelection and calling his victory a victory for the Iranian nation. Now he should be hopeful himself for winning elections in his own country.

Examples exist in our world where the most inefficient, the most selfish, and the most corrupt have won what they and even the world have called democratic elections. Under extremely adverse conditions that prevails in most of the third world countries, with rampant illiteracy, poverty, ignorance and unfamiliarity with what is referred to as democracy and democratic ways, there is little chance for just elections where the will of the nation could be reflected in their votes.

However, the real winners in any election are those who stand for election not because of their addiction to power or their love to achieve it, but for genuine determination to serve the country and win themselves a worthy place in human history as leaders who served their nations selflessly and effectively.

The Outdoors

I was fond of the outdoors and experienced both pleasant and painful situations. Mostly, however, they were enjoyable experiences.

Prior to school, I played with the neighborhood boys. From time to time there would be some girls who would participate with us. Continue reading “The Outdoors”