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Region | Making Sense of Suffering

by NUSHIN ARBABZADAH

01 Nov 2011 03:09Comments
afghan_art_05.jpgThe land of the brave and the home of the emotionally crippled.

[ comment ] Visiting my father's grave in Hamburg's Muslim cemetery, I discovered that it was close to running out of space because so many men and women of my father's generation had died within months of each other. My father's poet friend was buried within yards of him, close to the grave of a 16-year-old Afghan girl whose brother had stabbed her to death in a case of "honor killing." The high culture of classical Sufi poetry and the despicable custom of honor killing thus lay buried side by side, death serving as the great equalizer of class, age, and gender.

The deceased, both young and old, had one story in common: they all had died in exile, their dream of returning to an Afghanistan at peace dashed for good. I realized that against all the odds, a part of me had always hoped that the suffering of my father's generation would turn out to be for something great and good after all. I had hoped that one day those men and women would be able to return to a peaceful country of which they could be proud. But my hopes were in vain. Afghans had collectively failed to make sense of their suffering, and so it not only continued, it was also handed down to the next generation who inherited their parents' unresolved conflicts.

Back in Kabul, a couple of weeks after my father's funeral, I talked with a German neighbor who had been reporting from Afghanistan for over a decade and knew the country well. Listening to me relate some random story just seconds after mentioning my father's recent death, she exclaimed, "What's all this about? You must allow yourself to cry!" I didn't know how to respond. For as long as I could remember, I had been repeatedly told that to be Afghan means to be brave and fearless. At primary school, we were told that Afghan girls didn't cry. They were brave and grew up to become fearless like lionesses.

When friends and acquaintances came to comfort us in Hamburg, I received the same message. I was told again and again not to cry. "Be strong for your family! Don't cry. Turn your attention to the living." I was asked to accept my father's death as his destiny and not to ask questions. But I had many questions. I needed to make sense of his death. I needed to understand what kind of society allowed for violence to go on for three decades so that even when the world came to its rescue, there was no chance of peace? What kind of society suffered for generations but failed to make sense of its suffering, delegating all responsibility to god and justice to the hereafter? What kind of society banned fundamental human emotions such as fear and sadness, leaving bravery and forbearance as the only personal qualities worthy of being validated? Indeed, what kind of society judged feelings along the lines of worthy and less worthy?

In Kabul, I found it easy to be fearless, and it was the same for everybody else around me (save for those who were not Afghan). I knew that, collectively, we had almost lost a basic human trait, a gut instinct for survival, for avoiding unnecessary risks. I took such risks instinctively, seeking out confrontation where I should have stepped back. I was operating on a kind of automatic pilot that was not unfamiliar -- I had survived in that city in worse times, when rockets were fired every night and explosions took place on a daily basis.

In Kabul, as well, I lost my usual sense of empathy for the suffering of others. There was just too much suffering, endless numbers of people in need of help. The daily threat of death also played a role in making one more selfish. After all, when you know that the next attack could mean the end of your own life, there's no room for anybody apart from close family members and friends. You focus on yourself and those dearest to you. The rest of the people become somebody else's business.

I realized that it was our bravery that had made us a bit inhuman. After all, if you don't allow yourself to feel fear and concern for your own life, how are you supposed to fear for the lives of others? The violence carried on endlessly because the whole nation had become reckless and numb, used to the possibility of death on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Those who survived attacks felt like the chosen ones. Their time had not yet come and they felt special and exceptional. It was like a game, gambling one's life in full knowledge of the potential consequences. To challenge destiny and emerge victorious was exhilarating.

But then we met a group of street children. Their leader was a boy who had lost both of his arms. The children's mood kept switching within what seemed like seconds -- from blank expressions to laughter to heart-rending tears. They were hungry and neglected, the embodiment of Afghans' collective moral failure to protect the most innocent, vulnerable, and helpless of their society: children born into a zone of violent conflict through no fault of their own. We bought the kids bolani instead of giving them money. "But the driver, you give him 20 dollars!" the leading child protested. He was hyperalert and extremely intelligent. He missed nothing, including the rolled-up note that I had quickly handed our driver.

"He earned it because he drove us," I tried to explain the concept of working in return for money in a country run chiefly on foreign subsidies paid to jihadi mercenaries and their leaders and the charity of Western taxpayers. But the child was inconsolable. "You must give us 20 dollars too," he insisted. A young Afghan in our group lost his composure, probably because he felt embarrassed that the kids were behaving disrespectfully in front of "foreign" visitors. "Listen, I would slap you were it not for my feeling sorry for you because you have no arms," the young man said. But the child was unmoved. "If I had arms, I would have cut your throat off," he said, before turning his attention to the rest of the kids. "Let's get hold of a suicide bomber to kill them!" he shouted. The kids laughed and inside me something broke.

These children had already lost a part of their humanity because they were born into a culture that did not allow people to feel hurt or fear or sadness. These emotions are there for a reason. They guide us to make the right decisions in life: to avoid danger, to feel empathy with others, to forge meaningful relationships, and to be human and happy. The only word that still had some kind of resonance with the children was honor, or ghairat, a misguided interpretation of which had brought that teenaged girl death in faraway, peaceful Hamburg.

"Don't you have ghairat?" asked the young Afghan, in a desperate attempt to connect with the children. For a moment, the word worked its magic and the kids retreated, but only for a couple of minutes. They returned, more determined than ever. They were brave and fearless, just like the rest of us. But was this true bravery, or rather simple recklessness that I saw around me? Recklessness, I could only conclude, because it was not accompanied by empathy, by thoughtfulness, by love, or by purpose. To aspire to bravery is the duty of soldiers on the battlefield. Civilians, on the other hand, must be allowed to yield to ordinary emotions -- that's what makes us human.

I recalled an article written in 1911 by Mahmud Tarzi: "Our leaders were so focused on fighting and winning territories that they neglected other occupations such as writing and education. In fact, the occupation of writers and educators were looked down at as unworthy." In any culture, the populace looks up to and imitates the ruling class. In Afghanistan, the ruling class was martial and it was their martial values that were handed down to all Afghans as part of their cultural identity. But the courage required to build empires in the 18th and 19th centuries was no longer needed in the 21st. Afghans were self-destructing because their culture, with its exclusive, extravagant emphasis on bravery and forbearance, denied them an important part of their humanity.

"Let's get hold of a suicide bomber to kill them!" The boy who had uttered those words was at most ten years of age, but the concept of a suicide bomber was already part of his life and vocabulary. Even more alarming was the fact that the rest of the kids, a few much younger than him, seemed to know exactly what he was talking about and were ready to join in his mission. The greatest danger for Afghanistan's future was right there, on Kabul's dusty streets, too small in stature to even be noticed by most. What will become of these kids in five or ten years? I asked myself that question as we drove off, leaving the children behind as the sun went down on the land of the brave, the resilient, and the unconquerable. I knew the answer but found it too painful to dwell on.

To face the truth of our future demands rethinking our entire history and understanding of ourselves. I was not surprised, then, to find that in the land of the brave, it was precisely the emotional courage that effort required which was hard to find. A nation that denies itself its humanity is bound to suffer endlessly because it cannot make sense of its suffering.

Nushin Arbabzadah writes the "Islamic Republic Next Door" column on Afghanistan for Tehran Bureau. She is a former BBC journalist and a regular contributor to The Guardian. Homepage: Graffiti artwork by Ommolbanin Shamsia Hasani. Above: Faith in Circularity Endless Prayers (2007) by YZ Kami.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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