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Region | My Heedless Afghan Home


07 Oct 2011 18:19Comments
am-arbabzadah_med.jpgIntroducing a new column on the Islamic Republic next door.

[ comment ] This column will not change your life, but it might change your mind about Afghanistan. Let me introduce myself. I grew up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation, when the mountains belonged to the mujahedin and the valleys to the communists. The war carried on and my family sought refuge in Europe. My story is a typical Afghan story of war, forced exile, and then learning to give up hope for peace in my ancestral homeland. Like many Afghans, I am full of questions that I feel must be answered to make sense of the Afghans' seemingly endless capacity for self-destruction. This regular column is dedicated to such questions. I will try to answer them in a ruthlessly critical and honest manner.

Daily reports of violent deaths and injuries are a recurrent topic of discussion among Afghans. The news is spread via Facebook and Twitter, uniting those in exile and on the ground in despair and bewilderment. In my recent trip to Afghanistan, I asked a non-Afghan security expert why he thought the violence still went on after millions of deaths. I was prepared for the usual long and convoluted lecture emphasizing the complexity of the situation -- the foreign interference, the corruption, the tribalism. But the answer he gave me was simple: "It's because Afghans lack foresight."

The next day, I had an encounter that suggested the validity of this uncomplicated conclusion. I was walking down a street in Kabul, dressed in hejab. To my astonishment, I found myself being groped by a young man. Judging by his smile, instead of anticipating retaliation and worrying about the consequences, he was pleased with himself. His lack of foresight had led him to assume that I would walk on, feeling ashamed rather than angry. But instead, I stopped and confronted him. To cut a long story short, he ended up having to run away. Next, it was up to me to have foresight and do some risk assessment. I knew that the groper's sense of honor would compel him to take revenge, especially since the occasion of his "dishonor" was public. So I decided to avoid the street altogether, foreclosing the cycle of honor and dishonor, revenge and counter-revenge in which our Afghan culture habitually compels us to engage.

Throughout my trip, similar unnecessary interpersonal conflicts kept breaking out. In a shopping mall, a young man told my friend and me that he needed to confiscate our camera. My friend rightly asked him to show his credentials before taking our property. He refused and there was an argument, played out in front of bystanders. Once again we decided to leave, avoiding further escalation.

The ability to resolve a conflict peacefully is not only no longer a part of everyday Afghan culture, some people actively precipitate conflicts by acting unreasonably, impulsively, and disregarding the likely negative consequences of their actions. They leave their victims with two choices, endure being bullied and retreat or retaliate and create more conflict. For a society with multiple religious, ethnic, and ideological divides, this inability to restrain aggressive impulses is highly dangerous. Little wonder, then, that Afghans lived in a state of perpetual anxiety about violence either caused by their loved ones or affecting them. Cellphones rang constantly as people checked on their friends and family members.

After three decades of war, the people I met in Kabul were more or less used to life-threatening situations. I, too, had switched to the "bravery" mode, often taking unnecessary risks. The laissez-faire attitude was contagious and delivered a compelling thrill. Every day that finished with one's body intact felt like victory over destiny, a sensation similar to the excitement of gambling. I slumbered through dangerous situations, feeling proud of myself.

But then there was the shocking Intercontinental Hotel attack that awakened the sensible European in me. I went to my hotel's manager to ask about escape routes. He was confident and took me to a door that led to an adjacent building considered safe. "We have a key to the door," he beamed. But when he put the key into the hole, the door wouldn't open, no matter how hard he tried. I realized that in all likelihood, no one had ever tried out the key to ascertain if it actually worked. I looked at the manager, astonished. He was ready with an alternative: "Well, you will have to kick in the door, then." I imagined my pint-sized self, dodging bullets and kicking in the hard metal door. I would have been dead in no time, joining thousands of other accidental martyrs. "Well, if it's your destiny to die, you will die anyway," the manager concluded by way of consolation. The characteristic lack of foresight was on full display in this encounter and I realized that it was an epidemic of fatalism that made Afghans prone to falling victim in uncountable numbers to preventable deaths.

On my return to the United States, while awaiting a domestic flight, I watched a line of passengers preparing to fly to Tel Aviv. Every single passenger, from ultra-orthodox old men to teenage girls in shorts, was meticulously scanned and searched before boarding. The contrast between such methodical preventive security measures and the laxity of attitudes back in Kabul was striking. I recalled reading in an article that Afghans had an abnormally reduced survival instinct. This startling fact was also illustrated in a report about the Afghan army, which noted that fully half of soldiers' deaths occurred in road accidents rather than combat.

Taking unnecessary risks is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that Afghans must have by definition, given the trauma they experience daily. But then again, judging by the tombstones at the Christian cemetery in Kabul, several European families had also died in road accidents which, by contrast, took place in the legendarily peaceful decade of the 1960s. The account by A. C. Jewett, an American engineer, of his time in Afghanistan during the 1910s is full of stories of unnecessary risks, violence, and injuries; Jewett spent much of his time nursing head wounds suffered by his Afghan employees. There seems to be something timeless and inveterate about the Afghans' lack of risk assessment and propensity for violence.

Back in the United States, I chatted to my friend in Kabul about the laissez-faire attitude toward violence and security. "Believe me, we have improved. What you saw was order and discipline, at least compared to the past," he finished our Gmail chat, adding his favorite emoticon: a smiling face with its tongue out.

see also | Frontline coverage of Afghanistan

Nushin Arbabzadah will be writing a regular column on Afghanistan for Tehran Bureau. She is a former BBC journalist and a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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