Meet the Flinstones

17:09, November 04, 2010      

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By Luis Vega

After Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai admitted during a press conference that he had been taking cash payments from Iran, most of the world reacted with surprise and indignation. Nowadays not even the Vatican is seen as pure. Later, clarifying misconceptions, Karzai said he had been taking cash from other friendly governments also like, the United States. In other words, he accomplished the impossible: Simplified tax and foreign aid systems by presidential decree.

No, Afghanistan has not turned into Panama, President Karzai is not General Manuel Noriega, he prefers mild tea to strong coffee, and speaks Pashtu, not Spanish. But Afghanistan, like Panama, is a key location ideal for all kinds of trade that comes through its territory. Sadly its prime location has brought more trouble than riches to the Afghan people who — in contrast to Panamanians — still live in the Stone Age.

Many of its national leaders have been financed from abroad for hundreds of years. Yes, even from Iran. To act surprised by Karzai's revelation reveals lack knowledge of the culture and history of this cash-poor, mineral-rich landlocked nation. It began with Ahmad Shah Durrani, known as Ahmad Shah "Baba" (Father), who first established the boundaries that contain modern Afghanistan. A charismatic leader still revered by the majority of Afghans.

During his era, Afghanistan included Pakistan, India and Iran. All part of conquered territory that still today many educated Afghans see as units of a larger entity. Similar to the Aztlan concept Mexican-Americans know. For Afghans, current maps do not fully reflect their historical and cultural reality but ignore it. Who can blame them? Most are illiterate, and the only concept of history they have comes from stories told by elders around camp fires up in the hills.

"The map doesn't let us see anything, but it does let us know what others have seen or found out or discovered, others often living more than dead, the things they learned piled up in layer on top of layer so that to study even the simplest-looking image is to peer through ages of cultural acquisition," writes Denis Wood in "The Power of Maps." Maps have the ability to guide and misguide us at the same time. Like Cain and Abel, information and misinformation are siblings.

Around the world a few modern nations wage political wars to control the interpretation of maps in battles against people who cannot even read them. Countries go abroad to fight inner demons projected onto real enemies in a cathartic ritualistic deadly dance. Afghanistan is one of these no-win battles. Afghans have not been defeated because to win they only need to outlast an enemy knowing eventually they will be left alone. Russia learned the lesson as did Britain.

Ahmad Shah Durrani, like President Karzai, understood the need to forge local and regional alliances, reward the loyal, vanquish the traitor and change positions to assure survival. That is why he is against the Taliban one day willing to talk with them another; intrinsically nationalistic but open to foreign money; vainly egocentric yet keen to listen to the loya jirga (council). Afghanistan is a land of contradictions not too different from Ahmad Baba Durrani's time.

Nader Sha Afshar, ruler of Persia, freed a young Ahmad from a Kandahar prison eventually making him his personal assistant. His Abdali tribe was favored for their handsomeness and later rewarded for courage and loyalty. After Nader's assassination in a family plot his own men unanimously chose Ahmad as leader because of he embodied tribal qualities and kept Nader's treasure. Under his mandate Afghanistan became the largest Islamic empire in the world.

In 2009, I volunteered for an assignment that took me to Afghanistan. There I was able to briefly travel the country and met locals from different tribes and dialects as part of my job. From them, I learned to understand their worldview, traditions, customs, culture and history through civilized conversations. Afghans are warm open and proud people who fiercely defend their turf.

Some were Afghan-Americans returning to help, while others were Afghans who would like want to move to a place offering better opportunities, and still another was a group of nationals who would never abandon their native soil. Male and female Afghans, patriots all. Engaging in conversation was not always easy but we Latinos have a way of easily mixing with people around the world without much difficulty. Such is the empathy of war and conquest and integration.

My first flight over the country took me to Herat near the Iranian border, Ahmad Shah Durrani's hometown. I could not resist looking out the small plane's window and be impressed by the natural beauty of the virgin landscape. It was like a gigantic version of the Grand Canyon, yet more arid, less hospitable and without hotels or tourists. Deep cobalt blue lakes, picturesque snow capped mountains, vivid green valleys and mostly uninhabited.

I saw villages by river beds with less than 200 residents, many. Also people who had created homes by carving them into the side of mountains, which were not caves but hand-carved dwellings to the core of hills. Similar to what Native Americans built in Arizona made from mud. Also, there were ancient pre-Islamic Buddhist statues, dating back to the second century, destroyed by the Taliban in a futile effort to erase history.

My assumptions the world had left behind the Dark Ages were shattered by what my sight informed me. It was like discovering the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon "The Flinstones" coming to life in front of my eyes. Realizing there are religious fanatics so out of touch with reality they are willing to destroy innocent lives and ancient cultural icons in order to deny their own people freedom. That's what I saw in person.

"'Mirror,' window,' 'objective,' 'accurate,' 'transparent,' 'neutral': all conspire to disguise the map as a ...reproduction... of the world, disabling us from recognizing it for a social construction which, with other social constructions, brings that world into being out of the past and into our present," adds Wood. One thing is to read about it in a newspaper from a safe distance at a Hollywood coffee shop, quite another to be witness and survivor.

The experience made crystal clear the difficult task of radically changing the political and social path of a country stuck in a medieval past, as Karzai's candid confession revealed to the world. There lies the our dilemma: How to define victory in a nation where its people feel defeated by a government they think has not represented their interests in hundreds of years? How can a foreign force attempt to bring Afghans something, i.e. democracy, many cannot even imagine in their lifetimes? These are questions that need to be answered before we make the next move.

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.


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