Eleanor Arnason, 7/18/08 • I encountered a remark yesterday on an economics blog that I read — not faithfully, but often. It’s a kind of remark that I’ve seen fairly often: the person who says, “The invasion of Iraq was wrong. But attacking Afghanistan — that miserable, primitive, backward country that does bad things to women — was a good idea.”
Eleanor Arnason writes about science fiction, science, politics, economics, art and bird watching in her blog.
There was a story on the Internet in the past week about an American plane that strafed an Afghan wedding party — mostly women and children — then turned and came back and strafed the party two more times, picking off the survivors. The reporter covering the story interviewed an Afghan man, who was sitting with his 12-year-old son, one of the two bridegrooms in the double wedding that never took place. The man said, “My son is the only member of my family I have left.”
It’s hard for me to understand how events like this improve life for the Afghans, a poor people who have already — thanks to the Soviet Union — endured years of a terrible war, followed by civil war and the Taliban.
However, I wanted to address the description of Afghanistan as a primitive place. I was there for six weeks in 1959, as a naive young woman of 16, traveling with my family. I liked the country a lot, though I was disturbed by the Afghan attitude towards woman.
I certainly did not learn a lot about the country, being there only six weeks and speaking only to people who spoke English. The landscape is beautiful — stark, brown mountains above green valleys, a dust haze at the horizon, and overhead the most amazing pure blue sky. I didn’t see the women, since they were completely veiled; but the men and children are as beautiful as their country.
Remember that this was long before the Taliban. The two great statues of the Buddha still stood in their niches in Bamian. We went there and my brother and I climbed to the top of the Great Buddha and stood on his topknot. (The tunnels dug by the workman still exist, and it wasn’t that difficult to go up them. We weren’t climbing the Buddha himself.) The country has been Moslem for a long time, though one region — Nuristan — did not convert till the 19th century. Before the arrival of Islam, Afghanistan was a major center for Buddhist culture; and the Buddhists left a lot of marks on the landscape. There were stupas and pillars on top of mountain ridges, when I was there. The Moslems had left them alone for centuries. I assume they are gone now, due either to the Taliban or war.
The Kabul Museum had a remarkable collection of art found in Afghanistan: Greco-Roman bronzes, amazing Indian ivories dug up by French archaeologists at Begram, an ancient trade city which now a US base (as Babylon is now a US base). I am pretty sure there were Chinese ceramics. There may have been coins from Bactria, the kingdom founded in northern Afghanistan by Greek followers of Alexander the Great. As far as I know, Bactrian archaeological sites have never been excavated or even found. But the coins are considered the best coins ever made by the ancient Greeks.
I know there was Gandharan art in the museum. Gandhara, now known as Kandahar, was a center for early Buddhist art, which was influenced by Greco-Roman art brought east along the Great Silk Route. The style spread into India, where it influenced Hindu art; and it spread with Buddhism to China. To the best of my knowledge, those robes the Buddha and Kuan Yin wear are Roman togas, which south and east Asia got from Afghan art.
The thing to remember about Afghanistan is, it sits on the Great Silk Route at the place where the Route forms a T. From there, the Route goes south to India, west to the Mediterranean and east to China. All the trade of Asia went through Afghanistan.
The region to the north was not a void. There were kingdoms and major cities there. The Sufi poet Rumi was born is Balkh in northern Afghanistan. The great philosopher Avicinna was born in Bokhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, north of the Afghan border. His father was from Balkh.
Herat in north-western Afghanistan was a part of the ancient Persian empire, the one conquered by Alexander the Great. A citadel built by Alexander the Great is still in the city, per Wikipedia; and there is a famous Mosque there, which is on UNESCO’s list of world monuments, unless it’s been blown up recently. In the medieval period, after the conversion of Persia to Islam, Herat was a great center for miniature painting; and the regions that are now Afghanistan produced many famous Persian-language poets.
Babar the Great, conqueror of India, was born in the one of the Timurid kingdoms north of Afghanistan, but ended in Kabul, which he loved and where he is buried. He didn’t like India, which he conquered more or less by accident, while plundering to get the money necessary to maintain his kingly state in Kabul. The most remarkable thing about Babar is his autobiography. Except for a work written by his grandson in imitation, it is the only autobiography written in the Islamic world until modern times. I’ve read the first half. It is wonderful and fascinating document, full of love, wine, poetry, Sufi sages, Persian princelings, Mongol generals and war. Lots of war. And melons. According to Babar, the melons that his native kingdom produced were better than the famous melons of Bokhara.
At this point, we are up to the 14th or 15th century. Afghanistan has been more of a backwater in modern times, due — I imagine — to changes in world trade. Modern trade has been dominated by ships and Europe or the US. The region north of Afghanistan was conquered by Russia. The region east and south was conquered by Great Britain. Only Persia to the west remained independent, at least in name. And Afghanistan, though the British tried twice to conquer it.
I know very little about the culture of modern Afghanistan. According to Wikipedia, Persian poetry is still important. There are still Sufi, though the Taliban does not like them. I have no idea what else survives.
Basil Davidson encountered a learned mufti in sub-saharan Africa — I think he was the Mufti of Bobo, a wonderful title — who was still mulling over the fate of the medieval caliphates and who could talk about the entire history of Islam in the Middle East, Africa and Iberia as if it had just happened. Maybe Afghanistan is primitive and devoid of history in the same way that Africa is to many people in The West; and maybe there are Afghans as rooted in their past and as knowledgeable of it as the learned mufti. I know the people I met all remembered Alexander and Genghis Khan, as if they had passed through recently.