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The Ghosts of Balkh


David Weir

This week for me and many others who love Afghanistan has been a struggle. It's difficult to express our feelings about the situation in English; it would be much easier in Dari. That language encourages the intimacy of connection and the pain of loss in ways it is awkward to do in English, as wonderful as our language is in other ways. English is a language of the brain; Dari is a language of the heart.

When you encounter a friend in a village in Afghanistan, you both stop where you were headed to embrace, hold hands and inquire about each other's heart, body, mind, family, and onward. It can be a long list and if you've not met recently, these greetings may take a while.

But when you really stop and think about it, what is it that matters more in life than how we feel about each other? Money? Fame? Power? Possessions? Accomplishments? Awards? I don't think so.

In Dari you are able to say "my heart loves your heart" in a way that does not necessarily imply romantic love but does connote how much you truly care for each other. It doesn't sound odd at all.

Meanwhile, in America all too often such an encounter starts with "How are you?" And ends with "Fine." It sounds flat, unsatisfying.

In fact, it is so unsatisfying to me that I try, and I know this is weird, to adapt something of Dari greeting rituals into talking with my friends. Each person is made of such specific qualities I value that, for me at least, there have to be specific words I use only for them.

But even more than that I always try to say what I mean and to mean what I say. So if I say "I love you" what I mean is that I love you.

When I write about the news, my goal is always to locate what is hopeful about otherwise crushing developments if I can, but in the case of Afghanistan right now this is difficult because it is so personal.

There are reports onTaliban efforts to convince the international community that the group has fundamentally changed. I doubt that. It's true that Taliban leaders are pledging to extend amnesty to government workers, respect the rights of women, and preside over a peaceful transition of power. using social media to spread their message of the “new” Taliban. As the New York Times reports, their audience isn’t Afghans. It is “global elites.” Richard Stengel, who now reports for MSNBC and once managed the U.S. Department of State’s efforts to counter Russian and ISIS disinformation and propaganda under the Obama administration wrote in The New York Times:

They attend conferences, visit capitals, publish op-eds and hold news conferences. A tweet last week from a Taliban spokesman shows a Taliban official responding to a question about free speech in Afghanistan. His reply was, ‘This question should be asked to those people who are claiming to be promoters of freedom of speech.' The question, he said, should be asked of Facebook.

Stengel added: “That should get a few likes.”

There is historical precedent for what happens when military forces assume power, and that record is soaked with the blood of innocents. There is no reason to assume that anything will be different now. As media savvy as the Pakistan-trained Taliban leaders may be, rank and file Taliban soldiers are usually nineteen or twenty years old. Many grew up in refugee camps after the Soviet invasion. They know nothing but war.

Stories are emerging that suggest the past is, indeed, prologue. Amnesty International reports that in July Taliban fighters tortured and killed Hazara men, members of an oppressed ethnic minority that had made progress during the last twenty years of liberalization. In the weeks since the U.S. pulled back, there are reports of demonstrators killed, along with journalists and their relatives. A woman who told Taliban fighters she had no food to cook for them was beaten to death in her home, according to a CNN report.

Millions of Afghans are now trying to flee. President Joe Biden suggested that between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans might be at risk. I suspect the real number is much higher. It’s not overblown to say the majority of the country’s 38 million people now face danger and suffering.

Such pain is not only written but, in a visceral way, imprinted on the country’s historical record and in the psyches of its people. Afghanistan has been criss-crossed by conquerers throughout its recorded history: Alexander the Great and his Macedonians, the Greco-Bactrians, Kushans, Indo-Sassanids, Kabul Shahi, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Kartids, Timurids, Hotakis and Durranis.

In their oral histories, Afghans most often bring up the Mongol invaders, starting with Genghis Khan in 1221. They talk about him and others as if they are still around the next curve of the road. For example, just north of the town of Taloqan is a magnificent mountain known as کوه بز سیاه, which translates as Black Goat Mountain.

broken image

I was in my twenties, a Peace Corps volunteer like so many others. When riding in the back of a truck packed with people, goats and chickens, I spoke with a man who recounted stories of the Mongols that have been passed from father to son over the past thousand years or so.

"When they rode in last time, they cut off the heads of a million people," he said, repeating a version that I had heard many times. This was when I learned that history, in Afghanistan, as well as many other parts of the world, is not linear.

"And they will be back," he added. "Just on the other side of Black Goat Mountain there are hundreds of thousands of Mongols waiting to strike.” He was referring to the Uzbek population of Takhar Province in what has long been a largely peaceful agricultural area.

A few hundred miles to the west of Takhar, during a visit to Mazār-i-Sharīf , where the tomb of the brother-in-law of the prophet Mohammed stands, a monument to a man many believe was cheated by assassination of his role as Shia Islam's leader, much the way we regard Bobby Kennedy, I heard similar tales about the Hazara population living in a nearby isolated valley. "They will ride in here soon, so watch out."

Nearby are the ruins of Balkh, a legendary city in the pre-Mongol era, with some of the most ghostly remains I have ever visited. Somewhere in my boxes in storage may still be the shards of pottery I collected at the site, which appeared to be many centuries old.

Balkh is where historians confirm that Mongol hordes did in fact decapitate many residents when they struck, and if the eerie winds whistling through the area are not the voices of those long dead, my ears must have betrayed me.

broken image

Among Afghanistan's intractable problems is the stark reality that it less an actual country than the cobbled together homeland for at least seven major tribal groups. Besides the Uzbeks and the Hazara, there are the Tajiks, Pashtus, Turkomans, Baluchis, and Nuristanis, plus four or five smaller groups, including the nomadic Kochi. Each has a long and often a troubled history.

The Hazara, for example, once held autonomy in their region. Bringing the Hazara under control of the Afghani emir in the late 1800s resulted in 60 percent of the population being exterminated. As the history repeated by the man I met on the way to Mazar-e-Sharif shows, they didn't go down without a fierce struggle.

The name of the country means "Land of the Afghans," which is what the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, call themselves. That name leaves every other group out, which complicates matters politically.

My point here is that Afghanistan has plenty of internal problems without outsiders like the British, Russians and Americans getting involved. No foreign occupier ever stays for long anyway, because the local people simply won't tolerate that.

And once the foreigners leave, the Afghans get back to normal. What this means is that they have to sort out their internal differences now they are not under the nominal control of any foreign power, unless you count the influence of Pakistan, which armed, and, some say, created the Taliban to head off the possibility of a threat from the border they share with Afghanistan.

After decades of operating mainly as a guerrilla army, the Taliban now must figure out how to govern what many believe to be an ungovernable land. Not only are the traditional tribal loyalties an issue, the big cities, especially Kabul, have modernized over the past 20 years and millions of women are now educated.

Will the Taliban throw all of that progress away and chop off the head of the modernizing society they've inherited? Or will they grow into the moment and embrace the future?

Like centuries of would-be conquerers, the Taliban may find themselves prey to forces outside their control. Taliban leadership faces threats not only from their own weaknesses, but from radical Islamists who bear them no loyalty, like ISIS-K, believed to have orchestrated the suicide bombing that killed 11 Marines and U.S. Navy medic at the Kabul airport.

The ghosts of Balkh have been waiting a thousand years for answers to those questions.

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Ruins of the house of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, known as the poet Rumi, in Balkh

On Friday, my despair over Afghanistan was countered by an outing to a favorite nearby town with a special friend. It was a slightly smoky day in the Bay Area from the distant wildfires but the smoke stayed high while we stayed low.

We stopped at a coffee house for a spell and then she drove us through an ancient tunnel to the edge of the sea where you can smell the salt in the air. I loved being at this place and I loved the company I was keeping.

All of this reminded me how important it is to celebrate beauty and hope and the love of friends even as we mourn the horror and sadness of the world around us. Everything is connected, and all I know at this point is to try and stay centered and balanced to avoid letting the dark obscure the light in my own life.

At the end of the day, as the sun shrank as an orange disc in the western sky, the smoke chose to stay high, but down at the surface where good friends dwell the air smelled sweet, very sweet.

David Weir is a journalist who has worked and published at Rolling Stone, Salon,, The New York Times, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York, New Times, SunDance, and many other publications and sites. He is a co-founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the author of four books.

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Brian's Ghostly Playlist

Ghosts In The Wind ::: Richard Thompson

History ::: Joseph Arthur

Trampled Rose ::: Robert Plant & Allison Krauss

History ::: Mos Def & Talib Kwell

Everybody Knows ::: Leonard Cohen

Lost Songs of the Silk Road (The Saga of the Rising Sun) ::: Ghazal

Soldier’s Things ::: Tom Waits

Ghosts ::: Albert Tyler