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Afghanistan: the dark side of the moon

A lunar eclipse causes a near panic in Kabul.
Afpak lunar eclipse 2011 6 16Enlarge
The earth's shadow passes over the moon, behind the crescent on top of the minaret. (Christopher Furlong/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — Unexpected loud noises are apt to cause consternation to those who have spent time in Afghanistan. Last New Year’s Eve I went to Boston Common for First Night fireworks with two friends, both of whom had worked in Kabul.

At the first sparkling volley, the three of us almost hit the ground.

So it is not surprising that I jerked awake last night slightly after midnight, heart pounding, mouth dry, badly disoriented. My house is situated in a mosque-rich environment, and from at least five loudspeakers in my immediate vicinity mullahs were wailing the arzan, or call to prayer, at the top of their voices. On the streets outside my gate dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men had responded, and were shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

I thought for a minute that Harold Camping might have just been off by a few weeks, and the Rapture had come to my adopted town. I did not see any ascending bodies, however.

Then I wondered uneasily whether the Taliban had taken Kabul. No more television, no more restaurants, and no more music other than an endless call to prayer. There would, of course, be other disadvantages if the fundamentalists were to assume power, but my sleep-deprived brain could not come up with any.

My last semi-coherent thought was that the war was at last over, and I should just throw on some clothes and go join the revelers.

Luckily, a friend of mine sent me a text message just about then. “Don’t worry about the mullahs arzaning,” he wrote. “It’s something to do with the moon.”

Had I not been so tired, I might have gone out to my balcony to investigate. But knowing it was not the end of days, I just turned over and tried to go back to sleep. No luck. The cacophony went on forever.

This morning I finally got the story. Several Afghan journalists at a workshop I was giving asked if I had heard the noise. Apparently all of Kabul was awake all night.

“Yes,” I said. “What was it?”

“Some one took the moon,” said one of them. “The mullahs were asking for it back.”

I was a bit puzzled, until a slightly more scientific-minded colleague stepped in and explained that there had been a lunar eclipse: the earth, sun and moon were all in alignment, and the moon had spent three hours slowly sliding in and out of the earth’s shadow.

Kabul’s mullah’s spent every second of those three hours beseeching Allah for forgiveness for their sins, and keeping me awake. The men on the streets were providing moral support.

I checked the Internet for information. The lunar eclipse, like all those in recent history, had been thoroughly documented before, during and after. The information has been available for months, probably years.

But how dull, really, compared to the visceral fear that the moon had simply disappeared.

“Did they really think the moon was gone?” I asked my journalist colleague.


“No, he laughed. “But they did several hundred years ago. Now it’s a religious tradition.”

One of the less charming ones, I thought uncharitably, my head aching from lack of sleep.

Over the past week I have been meeting with many young, brilliant Afghans, working in business, government, civil society. They are doing their best to push, drag or coax their sometimes reluctant country into the modern age.

They battle the government over corruption, their parents over social mores, and the mullahs over just about everything else. So far the results have been mixed.

I just hope they manage to move the place forward just a bit before the next big lunar event. Otherwise I’m investing in earplugs.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/dispatches-afpak/afghanistan-the-dark-side-the-moon

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