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Ageless Afghanistan

A novel written nearly half a century ago offers uncanny insight into today’s Afghanistan.
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Children playing in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountain range, in a scene that could be from today or a century ago. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

For the perpetually shortsighted among us, and I include myself in that number, Afghanistan’s history began in 2001. The U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban fundamentalists also wiped the slate clean, giving this ancient, complex land the enviable chance to reinvent itself.

Of course the international community was poised to help. At the Bonn conference in December, 2001, concerned nations got together to redesign Afghanistan, composing a shopping list of steps that would take a woefully backward society and transform it into a modern democracy in five years or less.

It did not work out quite that way. Close to a decade on, Afghanistan seems further away from democracy than ever, and even its forays into modernity can often be seen to be slipping. Nor has the international community made great strides in understanding the culture and values of the country they are trying to reform.

But take heart: judging by a novel written in 1963, ‘twas ever thus.

James Michener’s “Caravans” is a slight book, compared to the enormous bricks this well-known author produced in his prime. It does not delve into Afghanistan’s prehistory, or give us a multi-generational picture of the country. What it does do is raise, on almost every page, eerie echoes of the problems and challenges that Afghans, and their international partners, are facing today.

From the opening scene, where the acting U.S. ambassador growls at the narrator, a young State Department officer, “I’m here to help a nation climb out of the Dark Ages, and that’s the job I’m trying to do,” the Afghan-savvy reader understands that with this book it’s Back to the Future.

It’s all there: the fierce, bearded mountain men, the much-feared mullahs. The educated Afghan elite, newly returned for Wharton or Oxford, despairing at the chasm between what they want to achieve and what is possible.

Anyone who thinks that Afghanistan’s problems began with the Soviet invasion or the advent of the Taliban should give the book close scrutiny.

Burqas -- in this book called “chaderi” – were obligatory on the streets of Kabul in 1946, the year in which Michener sets his novel. An employee from the U.S. Embassy, an American woman, is pursued on the street by angry mullahs, spat upon and struck because she was not wearing a shroud. And this was more than 30years before the Society for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virture appeared with their wire whips to chasten the overly bold.

The narrator witnesses the stoning of a woman accused of adultery in Ghazni, decades before the term “Taliban” was used as anything other than a term for religious students.

Of course the book is askew in some ways; it hardly mentions non-Pashtuns, and gives the impression that the major divisions in Afghan society are between the modernizers and the traditionalists. Today’s deep ethnic divisions and growing tensions are simply not addressed.

But there are chilling and prophetic scenes, as when Mark Miller, the narrator, has just returned from the stoning.

“Will things go one like this indefinitely?” he asks his educated Afghan aide, Nur Mohammad.

“No,” replies the Afghan. “We have ten years to halt these terrible things. If we don’t … Russia’s going to come down and stop them for us.”

Michener was not far off.

Ten years after he published his novel, the king was overthrown by his cousin, Daud Khan, in a coup that most people believe was at least tacitly approved by Moscow. Daud Khan, in turn, was tossed out and killed in 1978, and the new rulers were both closer to the Soviet Union and more determined to drag the country, kicking and screaming if need be, into the 20th century.

We are supposed to believe that this was a golden time in Afghanistan, when hippies flooded the country in search of easy weed, Afghan girls wore mini-skirts and went to the movies with boys, and the country was on the threshold of joining the larger community of nations.

Last year a photo essay made the rounds – an exercise in rose-colored nostalgia called “Once upon a time in Afghanistan …” It portrayed burqa-free girls shopping for records in Kabul shops, men and women studying together, and Kabul as a gracious, tree-lined capital where peace and harmony reigned.

But the photo I remember best is one that shows all too clearly what was really going on in the country. A nurse, an Afghan woman, in a crisp white uniform and starched white hat, has gone out to the countryside to inoculate children against cholera. She is striding towards the door of a typical Afghan mud hut, where the bearded, turbaned man of the house is either out to greet her or barring her way. In his eyes you can read all the suspicion, anger, and fear of change that distinguish Afghanistan’s less enlightened populations today.

By the late 1970s, Afghanistan was in an uproar, as the forces of reaction sought to neutralize those elements – the government first and foremost – that sought to destroy Afghan culture and tradition in the name of “modernity.”

The unrest reached such a pitch that the Soviet Union was motivated to invade, to shore up its puppet government and keep Islamic fundamentalism from spilling over into its Central Asian republics.

We all know how that turned out. More than nine years and a million deaths later, the Soviets withdrew in ignominious defeat, which was soon followed by the collapse of their entire system.

Afghanistan sank into civil war, where competing commanders took turns victimizing the population until the Taliban, hailed at first as a liberating and cleansing force, put an end to their predations.

“Caravans” does not paint a gloomy picture of Afghanistan. Michener seemed to actually love the place, and doubtless predicted a brighter future than has actually befallen this tragic country. He most likely thought the educated elites would win, and did not reckon that the bearded mountain men would maintain such a hold on the country.

But he wrote a book in which seeds of disaster are all too obvious. Read it … and weep.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/news/regions/asia-pacific/afghanistan/ageless-afghanistan