«Los afganos aman las flores, a pesar de que no tienen agua para regarlas…» así comienza una de las crónicas que solía gustarme de Jon Lee Anderson sobre esos pequeños anhelos románticos en medio del fanatismo religioso y bélico. En estos momentos de zozobra para la población afgana, inevitablemente la recuerdo mucho. Puede leer el texto en español en la página de crónicas latinoamericanas: https://bit.ly/3zfAPyT
«Afghans love flowers, even though they don’t have water to water them…«
thus begins one of the chronicles that I used to like most by Jon Lee Anderson, on religious and warlike fanaticism amid little romantic longings. In these times of uneasiness for the Afghan population, I inevitably remember it a lot and I have translated it to share it in English.
By Jon Lee Anderson
If a mujahideen – one of those Muslim warriors who fought against the Soviets and Taliban – goes to a photographic house to have his portrait taken, he tends to pose with a bouquet of plastic flowers, and behind him there is usually a backdrop painted with fields. of flowers. When I returned to Afghanistan in 2001 and saw Mullah Naquib, a Muslim priest, I specially remember a flower garden in the middle of a terral inside his house. Their bodyguard, a tough man, dressed in black and tanned by the sun, he used to call me to admire them and expected for my pleasant reaction to each one. He use to take me from flower to flower, among rose bushes, daffodils and dahlias. Then I went into the house to talk to Mullah Naquib, and after a while one of his henchmen appeared with a silver chest tied with a ribbon, like those ties with which girls tie their hair. Inside there were some daffodils, those delicate white flowers that have a yellow heart. Naquib picked them up with such a happy face, sniffed them, and handed them to me as his guest of honor. I smelled them too, and we immediately started talking about the flowers.
I did not have an explanation for this male fondness for flowers in society as rough as the Afghan is. There is in this country a romanticism that is not known at all in the West, that cuts through its entire culture and transcends the barriers of the sexes, our understanding of what a man should like and what a woman should like. There is a kind of ambisexuality in Afghan culture: a lot of its music and poetry is about acclaiming the beauty of nature, mountains and rivers, evoking the splendour of bygone times. There is also a great ritual in everyday greetings: the guest spends minutes saying back welcome greetings in which they ask for family, travel, health, and one always says well, well, well. It is customary to arrive slowly at what is the subject of the meeting. Tea should first arrive with a plate of nuts or candies or raisins brought from the market or the host’s garden. That is the de rigueur Afghan hospitality. Flowers only appear when they are in season, and in these visiting ceremonies they are treated like a surprise orchestra arriving at a birthday party.
Afghans are very sexy
There is a wicked joke in Afghanistan: they say that when crows fly over Kandahar they cover their butts with a wing, just in case. Afghans from other regions thus joke about the high rate of pedophilia that exists among Pashtun men – the majority tribe of Afghanistan, especially from the eastern and southern parts of the country, where most of the Taliban came from. Although it is frowned upon, child abuse happens frequently. One of the first populist moves by the Taliban was to punish mujahideen commanders accused of rape or pedophilia. Homosexuals were killed in the most cruel way: they sent tanks or bulldozers to bury them under mud walls. Pedophilia was a concern of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, who decreed that his commanders could not have hairless youths in their hosts.
This is not just the case with the Pashtuns: Afghans are generally closer to ambisexuality than Westerners.
They have a fondness for pubescent boys, a tradition called ashna. Some of them are the real objects of desire on the part of mature men. One of my interpreters in northern Afghanistan explained to me how it worked. Part of this tradition comes from the separation of the sexes: men cannot easily relate to women (wives are not supposed to be seen), and, furthermore, the one who considers himself heterosexual can only marry if he pays a dowry Mandatory, one that prevents a young man from marrying, especially in wartime, because you cannot work and save money. Thus the separation of the sexes lasts longer, and friendships between men become very close. There is a kind of homoeroticism in society, and these behaviours can be very confusing for a Westerner. The men bathe together in the public steam baths, and they have certain manners that we Westerners would see as effeminate: they kiss between friends when they meet, they give each other full-length hugs, and it is not uncommon to see Afghan men walking down the street. street hand in hand.
Young people often fall in love with the most beautiful boy in the neighbourhood, usually a minor, and it is a tradition to try to seduce him. One of my interpreters had learned English just to impress a guy who had come to town, and the two ended up together. It was his ashna. The one who was my interpreter, the seducer, did not consider himself homosexual. He used to tell it quite naturally and even with a certain reverie, and he spoke as much about the beauty of man as of woman. One day, when we were already in Kabul, a photographer from France came to cover the war. He was very handsome, and Afghan men who saw him were dying for him. What is more, my interpreter used to joke that I was in love with him. But there was some truth to his statement: he stared at him, played with his hair, and every conversation was about follow him to the end of the world. The Frenchman was just trying to be tolerant.
If a foreigner came to a Mujahideen camp, they had a habit of grabbing his testicles. It happened to me only once, on a battlefield in northern Afghanistan, outside Kunduz. A mujahideen came to greet me, asked me for a cigarette, and behind him came a man, a typical warrior, and grabbed my testicles. The rest of the mujahideen laughed. I chased after him and kicked him twice, but he pulled out his machine gun to threaten me. There were a few tense seconds, in which I rebuked him and suddenly he left. The mujahideen witnesses excused his behaviour by saying that he had grown up in war, that there was nothing they could do. I was very angry and wanted to report him to his commander, but he was not in the camp. However, for Afghans there is a difference between these customs, and what a lifelong homosexual man is.
I saw very few women’s faces during the months I was in Afghanistan. They wear burqas, those rigorous head-to-toe wraps that were mandatory for the Taliban. You never see women when you enter those fortress-houses of an Afghan man. Almost nothing is known about their married sex life, but men talk about sex all the time and are very curious about how it is done in the West. One night in a hotel in Kandahar – without power, but with generators and satellite television – all the men stayed the whole night watching hard German porn on TV. Then you have to imagine the notions they have of our sexuality and of Western women. They knew nothing about caresses or erogenous zones, and they see oral sex as a very strange, primitive and dirty behaviour. The general idea of sex, as I understood it, is that the woman they marry is only to procreate. There is a part of Afghan society, especially in Kabul, with some Western customs, and which understand about giving pleasure to a woman, even seeing a woman’s naked body. But it seems that, at least for rural people, there is no sexual pleasure in married life. It seems to be reserved for the ashnas.
I once saw an ashna in Kandahar: he was a boy twelve or thirteen years old, who looked like a very pretty girl. It was very provocative and sexualized. He had the delicacy of one of those boys who are chosen to sing in choirs, and he was sitting like a girl, on his bent legs. He was neither one nor the other, but a sexual being, and he was there to be admired. It was so strange and paradoxical, like a very sensual bouquet of flowers. And he was with Mullah Naquib. I never asked anyone if it was his lover, his ashna. The boy had no apparent role, except to be by his side. He was almost like a Barbie, flirtatiously blinking and speaking in falsetto. Mullah Naquib was a family man with children of all ages around him. He wouldn’t, I think, in front of his children, but who knows. I never asked him.
Afghans are photogenic
I came to Kandahar in 2001, when the Taliban had fled from it. Photographer Thomas Dworzak and I stayed at the only hotel in that dusty, half-destroyed city: the Noor Jehan. The appearance of the hotel had nothing to do with its name. It was the name of the famous princess who inspired an emperor to build the Taj Mahal in India. The Noor Jehan was now a seedy hotel: behind it was a garbage dump. Ahead, a row of bakeries. And across the street, all the Kandahar photography houses. It was funny: its windows displayed the portraits of its clients, and photographs of celebrities such as Bruce Lee, Leonardo Di Caprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with the hero and martyr of the mujahideen Ahmed Shah Massoud, the deposed Afghan king Zahir Shah and some Indian movie stars. The funny thing is that the Taliban dictatorship had abolished photography, and that in these photo houses there were mostly portraits of Taliban warriors.
The Taliban posed in front of curtains set in flower fields. They were bearded, wore black turbans, bouquets of plastic flowers, and real weapons. Now, in the cabinets, they looked retouched in gaudy-colored aluminum frames. Some Taliban were alone and others with some friend. Some stiff and others shaking hands affectionately. Afghans flocked to the windows in front of Noor Jehan to see these photos. It was strange that there were portraits of the Taliban because their leader, Mullah Omar, had imposed a Koranic ban on depicting the human image. I didn’t understand anything until Said Kamal, the owner of the Shah Zada Photo Store and a specialist in retouched portraits, explained to me that after the Taliban ordered the closing of the photography houses, they realized that they needed photos for their passports. if they wanted to travel.
There was then an exception to Mullah Omar’s edict. Said Kamal was supposed to take only passport photos and not display any human portraits in his display case, but he never fully obeyed the rules: Said Kamal kept photographing Taliban warriors in his studio. They used to come into his studio with eyes intensely outlined in black kohl, which made them look like silent movie stars. But Kamal also took clandestine photographs of ordinary citizen marriages. Now that the Taliban had fled Kandahar, Said Kamal dared to display the photos in his display case. Those photos had been left uncollected, and they were there just to attract customers. We then decided to dress up in the Afghan outfits and have our picture taken. Said Kamal thought it was great. Thomas Dworzak looked so like an Afghan that, the next day, photographers took his portrait out of the window.
Afghans love music
There was a time when Afghanistan was the only place in the world where there were guerrillas fighting a foreign invader. My first trip there was at Christmas 1988. Then I reached the Argandhab Valley, a few kilometers north of Kandahar, when the Soviet Union was withdrawing its troops after ten years of invasion. I stayed in the Mujahideen camp of Mullah Naquibullah, better known as Naquib. Kandahar was like a war landfill, with bombing roars every day. In the midst of this noise in the camp, one day we received the news that music had been abolished. Two Maulavis, those Islamic scholars chosen by Mujahideen commanders to preside over religious law, Sharia, had issued the edict. I didn’t realize how much music was worth to Afghans until Mullah Naquib sent me and one of his men to visit the Maulavi open-air courthouse.
The judges alleged that the rise of the crime was due to listening to recorded music. The music had to be turned off to control the population. But that prohibition was too much. Like the rest of Afghans, the kandaharis are very musical.
I drove there in a truck driven by a young man who was listening to tapes of pitiful love songs at full volume. One of the Maulavis judges took out a piece of paper and verified the news: there was a new edict for all the Mujahideen commanders in the region. The judges alleged that the rise of the crime was due to listening to recorded music. The music had to be turned off to control the population. But that prohibition was too much. Like the rest of Afghans, the kandaharis are very musical. They dance, play folk instruments, sing. Back at camp, the driver intentionally turned the tape into the tape deck at an even higher volume than before. He knew that Naquib was a more or less tolerant mullah. He was not going to pay much attention to the Maulavi edict and was going to allow his mujahideen to play his music on the condition that it was only in the camp and at a moderate volume. Meanwhile, Mullah Naquib informed the judges that he would abide by the order. Years later the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, and decreed the abolition of music throughout the country.
That was not going to be my last tune in Afghanistan. When I returned to Kandahar at the end of 2001, I visited Naquib again, who invited me to the Argandhab Valley where I had met him thirteen years before. Naquib was now a controversial figure: they said he was involved in the Taliban’s flight from Kandahar, but they blamed him more for the strange escape of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. The next day, Naquib guided me to the garage of his residence, where he had two late-model 4 × 4 trucks. We got into a pearlized Toyota Land Cruiser, limited edition VX, heading to Argandhab. The truck had all the luxuries, including a CD player with a digital display.
Its true owner had been the escaped Mullah Omar, whose Naquib now owned ten of his cars without being able to explain why. On the road, Naquib turned on the music. I asked him if the CD equipment was his or if he had come with the truck. Naquib confirmed to me that he had found it in Mullah Omar’s car. «Are you saying this all belonged to the man who jailed people for listening to music?» I said. Naquib shrugged. He told me it seemed so. The song we were listening to, he said, was a popular Afghan tune insulting General Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord of Mazar-i-Sharif. The chorus read, «Oh, Afghan Killer.»
-What would life be without music? Naquib said looking out the window.
Afghans are flirtatious
Men of the Pashtun ethnic group are very jealous of their personal appearance. Many of them line their eyes with black kohl and paint their toenails with henna, and sometimes their fingernails. Others dye their hair, and it is normal to see sober-looking old men with long beards dyed such a garish orange that it resembles the dyed hair of London punks. Even the biggest, bearded, and armed men wear shawls, which are colorful high-heeled sandals. I realized that to be really chic in Kandahar one has to wear a shawl size smaller, which means taking shorter steps and almost staggering about. The mujahideen seem like the perfect fools for a carnival: when they are not at war, they are putting on makeup. Or tickling each other. And all this cosmetology happens in a place that is less a country than a war field.
When you ask them what year they are in, the Afghans tell you 1381. It is the Muslim calendar. Going to Afghanistan is like going back centuries and as if war were a natural state. In the markets, they sell scrap mortars and even pieces of US Cruise missiles. The tents are made with boxes of ammunition or rifles. In Jalalabad, a boy sold cluster bomb fuses to use as sparklers. There are mines everywhere, and there is nothing more precious than weapons. Opium is Afghanistan’s main crop, and quite a few Mujahideen chiefs are heroin dealers. In Kandahar, vendors offered Super Osama Bin Laden Kulfa Balls, coconut candies packaged in pink and purple boxes covered with images of a Solomonic Bin Laden, surrounded by fire, tanks, cruise missiles and warplanes. Much of the country does not have electricity, running water, or telephone networks. Neither trees nor water. Dust clogs throats, covers hair and skin, and people who protect their faces with headscarves or turbans have learned to live with it. There are only artisanal wells, and, perhaps, a river.
There was a drought for seven years. In some parts of Afghanistan, you see children walking down the street carrying about twenty liters of water that should last for three and a half days. Mullah Omar, one of the richest men in Kandahar, had never been outside his village and had a pet cow. Hardly anyone has read a book in their entire life, and many don’t even remember how old they are. There are no toys. I don’t recall seeing women in a couple of months. They do not have pets. Animals are beasts of burden or only serve to eat. There is nothing squishy or soft about Afghanistan. So you do not know what to say when you bump into some warriors in shawls, passing a flower and commenting on its aroma in the middle of this lunar landscape that is a battlefield.
Afghans are very smiling
In 1989, in Jalalabad, I was with the Mujahideen in a fortress at the very moment it was bombed by the Soviets. The bombs landed very close and we fell to the ground. After the outbursts, there was a deafening silence. Minutes later, only one man was crying. Outside there were some mujahideen surrounding a crying man who had been injured by a splinter, and they were laughing because it had fallen on his penis. We evacuated him in a van amid screams of pain. They had all had that impulse to laugh at what happened to him, as if it had been just a man’s thing. It seemed so comical to them. That time when a mujahideen grabbed my testicles, everyone was laughing, not caring that it was an act of violence. That is usually the level of humor in Afghanistan. The war has led to a kind of brutalization of their society. Afghanistan is a prime example of how a civilization can rise and fall: a few decades ago it was a place praised for its harmonious crossroads of cultures, tolerance and coexistence. The millennial country where Alexander the Great built Ay Khanoum, one of the most imposing cities of its time, is now a battlefield: a land populated with bunkers and trenches for tanks and anti-aircraft machine guns. Afghanistan’s treasures have been looted or destroyed. And it is very true that civilizations can evaporate and succumb like quicksand.
Afghans are hospitable
Being a foreigner in Afghanistan is like being in the zoo and being the animal. You become a curiosity. There is a kind of mass hysteria, and they are like mobs that follow you. In the street they yell at you in unison the only phrase they know in English: How are you? How are you? Some come to jump in front of you, or to pinch you or to throw a pebble at you. They appear to be nothing more than annoying and harmless acts, but can sometimes be the beginning of an assault. Once, in Faizabad, I was talking to a bookseller in a bazaar and suddenly he hit me in the face with a stone. It belonged to the bookseller’s son, a fifteen-year-old who was behind him, and who was trying to hide. I complained to the father, and he reacted as if saying not to worry, that he was going to pull his ears. I remember that I was enraged, that I grabbed a stone (or I don’t remember if it was some books), and I threw it at the boy, and I asked his father to admonish him: he had stayed still during this scene, but he told me that he understood my anger, and that it was my right to punish her son. But he didn’t do anything either. It was very strange.
There were times when you had to behave like them. Only then did you earn respect, with power and arrogance. When we went out for a walk in Faizabad, those of the Northern Alliance sent a policeman to scare off the curious with a cable or a club, and, incidentally, to monitor the foreign press. You become a curiosity, and out of nowhere Afghans can start throwing hail and stones at you. In the background of their culture this is how they kill adulterers. This aggression comes, I believe, from the fact that Afghans have been indoctrinated to see the outsider, the non-Muslim, as a kafir – that is, an infidel. For a devotee of the Qur’an, there is nothing worse than that. He who does not have faith or god is a soulless being, and therefore deserves to die.
A British journalist almost died like this entering Kandahar. He was about to be massacred by a mob and it was the same: he was chatting in a friendly way with some Afghan refugees, and some kids started throwing stones at him. In the end a mob had him on the ground trying to crush his skull with bricks. There were about fifty people around him, until he, bleeding and almost fainted, was able to take a stone and throw it at you. Only when he reacted in his defense with this aggression, did they stop the rain of stones. If you don’t react, nobody stops them. If you dress like them – which I did for a while – you only get them to look at you less. But you are still a foreigner.
Afghanistan has been the only place in the world where I have had to hire men to protect my life. And I hired so many men I could have put together my own militia. Between xenophobia, banditry and the brutalization of this society, foreigners must travel accompanied by armed men. Just out of curiosity, I began to wonder what it would take to become a warlord, a warlord. Ten thousand dollars. Nothing more. It was enough to buy a couple of high-lux pickups, Russian Kalashnikov rifles, and a hundred armed men for a month. In order not to spend more later, we would become a mafia: we would go to merchants and business owners to ask for money. Then you ran into another warlord, and you won the battle. It was not difficult to build a private army in Afghanistan. This is how you survived.
*Translated by Lucero Rodríguez G. Ellerby