Ten years ago, Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – was under a social, cultural, political and economic nightmare. Ten years ago, New York-based photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed Talibanistan overland from east to west, from the Pakistani border at Landi Kotal to the Iranian border at Islam qillah.
Those were the days. Bill Clinton was enjoying his last stretch at the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar – hitting the front pages only occasionally. There was no hint of 9/11, or the invasion of Iraq, or the “war on terror”, or the rebranding of the AfPak war.
We tried everything, but we couldn’t even get a glimpse of Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden was also nowhere to be seen. But we did experience Talibanistan in action, in close detail. This is both a glimpse of a long-lost world, and a window to a possible future in Afghanistan. Arguably, not much has changed. Or has it?
Now let’s go back to the future again.
KANDAHAR – The art direction at the ministries of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seemed to come courtesy of an involuntary Salvador Dali; lopsided paintings, dossier-free desks but with a walkie-talkie on, mute telephones, maps in psychedelic prints. Schizophrenia was the rule; the embassy of the Emirate in Islamabad, for instance, had a map of the “Democratic Republic of Afghanistan”.
Abdul Haiy Mutmain’s office was true to form. Ten years ago, Mutmain was the Minister of Information and Culture in Kandahar – the Taliban Central. In the absence of the loquacious, peripatetic Ahmad Wakil – Mullah Omar’s official spokesman – Mutmain was the real game in town. “Elections? What elections? They are incompatible with sharia. Thus we reject them.”
Like the handful of Western correspondents immersed in Talibanistan 10 years ago, a long time before 9/11, I was dying to meet the one-eyed legend Mullah Omar. Fat chance; he was more mysterious than The Shadow, even in Kandahar. He had only been to Kabul twice – and left in a hurry. His three wives still lived in Singesar, his native village, a dusty basket of mud-hut compounds where no girls had ever been to school – after all there was no school; only Omar’s own madrassa, little else than a tent with a soiled floor filled with mattresses for the pupils.
He had never been photographed, never had met with foreign diplomats (and that is still true to this day). His famous “orders” still came on pieces of wrapping paper or cigarette matches. Beside his working desk, he kept an aluminum trunk full of Afghanis, and another one with US dollars; these constituted the Afghan Federal Reserve.
It was easy to feel in Kandahar how the Taliban initial agenda was to restore peace in the country, disarm the population, impose sharia law and defend the country’s “Islamic integrity”. Kandahar felt like a giant madrassa. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard – still alive at the time – would have called it the degree zero of culture (the Islamic remix). The key cultural activity was to drink mango juice. A giant billboard on Martyr’s Square – Kandahar’s Times Square – exhibited a Mullah Omar dictum: “Don’t be divided between tribes and ethnic groups; this is like the division between Jews and Christians”.
Every conversation with a Taliban higher-up at the time implied the recurrence of the same theme; we don’t have money because we’re victims of an international conspiracy; thus, we cannot develop the country. It did not help to point out that for the price of a tank they could easily pave the horrendous Kabul-Kandahar highway.
The Taliban official line in 2000 was to fight for international recognition (only Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates had really recognized them; even Saudi Arabia had backed down). Mutmain used to complain non-stop about the threat of sanctions, and about the “negative” role of both the US and Russia; Mullah Omar had vented that “America and Russia have got together to form an anti-Afghan alliance”. Mutmain insisted, “The UN does what the White House wants.” And contrary to all evidence, he also insisted, “We don’t have any prejudice against Shi’ites.”
This was his notion of democracy; “The term ‘democracy’ has many meanings. In our country it means to protect the lives, property and culture of our people. Our country wants this type of government.” And that led to the Taliban definition of culture; “People here are Muslims, this is a religious country. We are against customs that go against the religion of Islam. We protect Islamic and Afghan culture.” He always refused to elaborate.
The work ethic on Taliban ministries was monolithic. Bill Clinton might launch a showering of missiles, Iran might threaten to invade, drought might exterminate most of the population; but the ministries only worked from 8 am to 12 am. Then there were prayers and a long siesta. And in late afternoon, a major Turban Get Together in front of Mullah Omar’s White House in Kandahar. No sign of Omar himself, of course, or of his famed guest, America’s Public Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden.
Where is Osama?
Over a year before 9/11, Bin Laden was already a mass hero. For a Syrian businessman, a Malaysian student or a Pakistani entrepreneur, he was a fanatic; but for the poor, urban, radicalized youth across AfPak, he was iconic – a corrected version of Muhammad as Warrior-Prophet, a supposed Antichrist capable of defying America. I had seen Osama bin Laden images, T-shirts, videos and cassettes all the way from Peshawar in Pakistan, the Islamic Rome, to Kandahar; they were also being smuggled from Kashmir to Java, from Palestine to the southern Philippines.
I had learned everything to be learned about Bin Laden in Peshawar, the Mecca of Afghan exiles and Pashtun fierceness, through endless kebab and Kabuli rice dinners sitting cross-legged over tribal carpets washed with endless coups of green tea. Those solemn Pashtun elders reclined over cheap made-in-China velvet cushions were real Scheherazade masters at weaving a hypnotic narrative – a lethal, high and low-tech version of the Thousand and One Nights.
They would dabble on how Bin Laden was tall, shy, charming, generous, eating sparsely, sleeping even less, lending his clothes and distributing suitcases full of cash. How Bin Laden first fell in love with Peshawar in late 1979, right after the Red Army had entered Kabul. How he came to live in 1982 and soon set up the first hostel for the Arab jihad warriors, along with his former master Abdullah Azzam. How they had recruited a true Islamic Foreign Legion. How this was the best of possible worlds – where no one thought of fighting the Saudi monarchy or the American Grand Satan.
How in 1988 he set up his data bank including all the jihad warriors and the nebulae of volunteers who flowed through the training camps; that was “al-Qaeda” (“the base”). How Bin Laden fired his first anti-American projectile in Somalia, in 1993. How he moved to Sudan, then to Afghanistan. How he issued his declaration of jihad against America, in 1996. And how delocalized, interconnected cells across the world had adopted the spectacle of terror to seduce sections of those poor masses deserted from the Great Capitalist Banquet.
Over a year before 9/11, America was already imposing to the world’s psyche the image of Osama bin Laden as an inexplicable, pathological criminal; the degree zero of terror. But the Peshawar elders were already telling me, in their own way, that Bin Laden, recluse as a hermit, was in fact more like the degree zero of the Reconquista, Islam’s shot at reconquering its primacy. I could not help feeling both versions were false.
And then, in Kandahar, he might be just around the corner, sharing a kebab dinner at the White House with Mullah Omar…
Even in Kandahar it was clear that for the Taliban what really mattered was not a pan-Islamic jihad; it was to control their land. It was also more than evident that Talibanistan had no system. Everybody monopolized authority. Nobody accepted alien authority. Deobandi culture hates the public sphere; it is only interested in the meticulous respect of dogma. After all, the state is considered impious ever since the British conquered India in 1857.
So minimalist exceptions were positively delicious. Such as the young, polite and well-educated official at the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Kandahar – little more than a brick shack in the city’s suburbs, close to the airport whose claim to fame at the time was as landing site for the hijacked Indian Airlines at the turn of the millennium; the official insisted the best thing I could do in Kandahar was “to get out of here as soon as possible”.
Well, I had already seen the degree zero of culture at the University of Kabul as well – once one of the 12 best in the world, as many professors reminded me. There were absolutely no women students; that was “anti-sharia”.
In fluent Spanish, the extraordinary man responsible for the library, Muhamad Kabir-Nezami, guided me through an archive whose names – in this wasteland – sounded like jade idols: Marx, Freud, Gibbon, Spinoza, Bernard Shaw. Kabir-Nezami told me that after much Taliban blood and fury, the library had managed to preserve only 20% or maybe 30% of its books; he could not say how many were left.
A group of eminent professors gave me the full extension of the tragedy. The university had been literally demolished. “We started the reconstruction from scratch – books, electrical system, water supply”. Some non-governmental organizations had helped. But there was no international help for the reconstruction. Nothing happened because of the United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed at the end of 1999.
The university was managed at the time by – who else – a maulvi (priest), Muhamad Monin. When he insisted that “the professors teach the meaning of a free press”, the professors themselves – present at our meeting – looked at each other with infinite melancholy. But then one of them finally contradicted the maulvi. A real debate, in Pashto, raged on – an unnamable heresy as far as the Taliban are concerned. Pressed by the professors, the maulvi finally had to admit, “the university is affected by the current political situation.”
I felt depressed for days. This was what the degree zero of culture was all about; a group of eminent professors at what was once one of the best universities in the world subjected to the sermons of a mediocre madrassa student who never finished the equivalent of primary school.
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