mujmash

I write on Afghanistan, South Asia & more for international publications.

A Day of Blue Fingers

My two stories for Harper’s on Afghanistan’s historic election. First, a postcard on the election day:
And here is my first piece, on the fun and frustration of registering to vote:
…As lunchtime drew near and our line still failed to make progress, the anger overflowed. Elderly men tried to rush the classroom where the cards were being issued. “I am old and sick. I can’t stand in line anymore,” said a frail, turbaned man without a single tooth in his lower jaw. “If you’re sick, go be first in line at the hospital,” replied a young man. One of the election workers escorted a mullah to the door of the classroom. Usually clergy are accorded enormous respect in Afghanistan, but this morning the crowd was not having it. “Soldiers give blood,” shouted one person, referring to the dozens of uniformed men who had cut the line. “What does the mullah give?” The mullah entered silently, his head bowed. When he emerged with his voter card, another chant was started: “The unjust mullah! The unjust mullah!” He walked quickly out of the school.

Statement of Afghan Journalists on the Murder of Our Colleague Ahmad Sardar and His Family

د خبرېال احمد سردار او کورنۍ په اړه ېې د افغان خبريالانو اعلامیه

جمعه، د وري لومړۍ نيټه، ۱۳۹۳، کابل
یو ځل بيا د افغانستان د رسنيو کورنی په یوې دردونکي پېښې کې د خپل یو فعال غړي په ضایعه وير کوي.
په سيرينا هوټل د طالبانو د پنجشبې په ډارن او وحشي برېد کې د ېو شمېر نورو بې ګناه ملکېانو تر څنګ یو وتلی او نامتو افغان خبرېال احمد سردار، ميرمن او دوه ماشومان ېې په شهادت ورسېدل، او درېم ماشوم ېې سخت ټپي شوو.
که څه هم افغان خبريالان نه ستړې کيدونکي هڅې کوي چې په سختو حالاتو کې د خپلو راپورونو په ورکولو کې بې طرفه پاته شي خو له دې سره سره بېا هم داسې بوږنوونکي پيښې رامنځته کيږي.

په دې پيښه کې طالبانو قصدا او په بې رحمۍ ملکيان د خپل بريد هدف وګرځول او د ډوډۍ خوړلو په مهال ېې په ښځو او ماشومانو وويشتل.
د طالبانو داسې بريدونه په هېڅ وجه د منلو وړ نه دي او له داسې وحشي بريدونو ېې موخه د رسنېو پام ځانته اړول او د افغانانو تر منځ ترهه خورول دي.
د دې لپاره د افغانستان د خبريالانو کورنۍ په ګډه دې پريکړې ته رسېدلې چې د ۱۵ ورځو لپاره به د طالبانو اړوند خبرونه نه خپروي او د طالبانو د ترهې د خپرولو څخه به ډډه کوي.
موږ له طالبانو هم په دې اړه د توضیحاتو غوښتونکي چې له نږدې څخه د بې ګناه ماشومانو ويشتل څنګه توجیح کيږي.
موږ د خپل همکار او د هغه د درنې کورنۍ اروا ته لاس په دوعا یوو.

د افغان خبريالانو راټولېدنه
سردار محمد داودخان روغتون
کابل


Statement by Afghan journalists
On the Martyrdom of our colleague Sardar Ahmad and his family
Friday, March 21, 2014
Kabul
Once again, the journalism family in Afghanistan mourns the loss of one of its active members in a tragic incident.
In the Taliban’s cowardly attack on Serena Hotel on Thursday, which resulted in the murder of several innocent civilians, Sardar Ahmad, an experienced and renowned Afghan journalist, as well as his wife and two children were martyred. Sardar’s third child was wounded and remains in critical condition.
This incident comes despite the fact that Afghan journalists have assiduously tried to remain neutral in their coverage amid difficult circumstances.
In this attack, the Taliban deliberately and ruthlessly targeted civilians, shooting women and innocent children around the dinner table.
The Taliban carry out such attacks, which can never be justified, solely for the purpose of news-coverage and projecting terror among Afghan citizens. Therefore, the journalism family in Afghanistan, in a collective decision, has decided to boycott coverage of news related to the Taliban for a period of 15 days, refraining from broadcasting any information that could further the Taliban’s claimed purpose of terror. We also ask the Taliban for an explanation of how they justify the shooting from a close-range of innocent children.
We pray for the soul of our respected colleague and his beloved family.

The gathering of Afghan journalists
Sardar Mohamed Daud Hospital
Kabul

On what campaigning in the absence of modern political parties looks like in Afghanistan:

…he lack of political infrastructure leaves candidates scrambling last minute to raise funds, open offices in the capital for the campaigning period of two months – or more, if they make it to a runoff, which this election will most likely go to considering how divided the vote is. The candidates essentially give the provincial and district-level branches of their campaign as franchises to local influential figures who campaign in return for cash or positions in the future government. Without political structures in place, campaigning has increasingly taken a transactional role, where local media and influential figures try to find the best bargain in return for their clout.

- The (Media) Race to Become Afghanistan’s Next President

Twelve years ago, Ishaq gave two rooms in his house to start the first girls’ school in his small village in northern Afghanistan.

In December, I attended the school’s first graduation and met Ishaq’s daughter, Nazifa, a midwife at the village clinic who studied at the school.

"I have been teaching for about 20 years. The girl’s been working for only a year, and already she makes twice as much as I do,” smiled.

Here is theie story: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/8/even-at-graduationtimeafghangirlsovershadowedbyboys.html

That story is compliment to my long piece on the tough balancing act that Afghan female politicians have to play: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/8/for-afghanistan-afemalevicepresidentialcandidate.html

I was on NPR’s Morning Edition to discuss my Harper’s Magazine article, The Pious Spy. Here is the Audio.

In Pakistan, a New Push for Education

In my latest, from Peshawar, I report on Pakistan’s “education emergency”.

A couple excerpts:

..more recently, the federal government announced a National Action Plan – essentially, an amalgamation of several provincial plans – that hopes to enroll 75% of out of school children (primary school) by 2016.

“They have basically moved the goalpost on the UN Millennium Development Goal by a couple years,” one official told me. “It’s possible, but you have to give it the requisite resources.”

In the new plan, 80% of the target students will be enrolled in public schools, 10% in private schools, and another 10% in religiousmadrassas. Formally allocating such a share to themadrasas at a time when some of them remain controversial has raised questions.

Most madrasashave maintained their dignified place as apolitical centers of religious learning, appealing to communities not only for “the low costs involved, but also in their pedagogy…mostmadrasasgo beyond theory and involve youngsters in action such as protests, lectures and sermons”. But some have been accused of promoting militancy and sectarianism. According torecent studies, the curriculums “instill a sense of superiority” that fuels sectarian tensions. “Examination of the syllabi and curriculum of the Pakistanimadrasasshows that in the name of refutation, potent criticism of other sects and religious minorities, hatred towards other sects, and a siege mentality are imparted, from the very beginning of the schooling,” the scholar Zahid Shahab Ahmed found. The government has not been able to put in place structures that monitor the activities and curriculums of thesemadrasas.

“They [the government in Khyber Pakhtunkwa] have allocated Rs. 1 billion tomadrasas [in the education budget this year],” Sardar Hussain Babak, the former education minister and current parliamentary leader of the Awami National Party, told me. “And I asked them how is it possible to audit so much money - there is no monitoring system.”

and later in the piece:

"…twenty percent of the teachers on average are absent in KP every day,” the secretary says. “Rs. 56 billion (or roughly $500 million) out of Rs. 85 billion ($785 million) total education budget is allocated to teacher salary – that means, out of every three rupees we spent on education in KP two are on salary, which leaves little for development or infrastructure. If that absenteeism is monetized – put a number to it – that comes to Rs. 11.2 billion (about $100 million) every year that just goes down the drain.”

The Language of Militancy, the Music of Resistance

In my latest dispatch on Beacon, I write about music in northwestern Pakistan: how the language of military and militancy in creeping into cultural productions, and how there is a growing scene of “resistance music” to counter the extremism and orthodoxy.

Here are a couple excerpts:

Last year, the lyrics of a certain Pakistani Pashto song playing on Afghan television channels caught our attention. Amid a crowd of men in colorful shirts - some of them grinding on each other - a voluptuous model spins to highly electronic beats, singing:

“Don’t chase me, I am a trick, I am a trick
I am a suicide blast, I am a suicide blast”

In September, I traveled to Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, on assignment forThe Wall Street Journal covering the rising militancy’s impact on the rich culture of classical music there. When I crossed the border from Afghanistan at Torkham Gate, “I-am-a-suicide-blast” was in the back of my mind. After getting my passport stamped, I found a seat in a shared Toyota Corolla and I made sure I sat shotgun because I wanted to hear the driver’s collection of songs.

As is increasingly popular in this part of the world, the driver – whose fellows addressed him as Qari sa’eb, a religious title for someone who has memorized the Quran in its entirety – had a small-screened DVD-player installed where the sound system usually is. And in the songs that I shuffled through – a large collection of soundtracks from Pashto films put on a USB stick for a very small fee, he told me – I stumbled on another one right away: “Bomb, bomb, bomb, girl bombard me with your love,” sang Raheem Shah, a popular Pashto singer.

And then:

image

There is also a second genre of Pashto music in Pakistan that has come to prominence in the past decade: “resistance music”. Young bands that largely play music part-time fuse local instruments and beats with western rock inspirations. Their lyrics are usually secular – even disparaging of orthodoxy. In this kind of music, there is little to no money.

The story of one band called “Yasir and Jawad,” whose music – the little that is out there – I have enjoyed over the past couple years, says a lot about the struggles of being a musician in today’s Pakistan.

The three band members, all Pashtuns from the northwest, met at university in Lahore. At first, there was two: Yasir Khan, from Waziristan, played the Rubab – which he had learned from his driver when he still lived in Waziristan – and Jawad Iqbal, from Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, played the guitar. They started with instrumental covers of western bands – Guns and Roses,Norwegian hard rock etc. Distributing their music online, their following grew rapidly.

Their meeting in 2010 of Wali Orakzai, their vocalist, was a coincidence.

Coming from Orakzai agency in the volatile tribal areas, Wali used to be a singer. But he took a conservative turn before he arrived at university. He grew his beard long and quit music. Instead, he would sing religious chants – without instrumental accompaniment. One evening, “Yasir and Jawad” were to perform an instrumental version of a nationalist Pashtun song called “Mozh yo de Khyber zalmi [We are the Youth of Khyber]” at a university function. It just happened that Wali was also slotted to perform the same song, but vocals only. Yasir and Jawad managed to convince Wali to do the piece jointly. That was the beginning of the trio.

“He agreed to come jam with us, but he said he would not record things,” Jawad recalls.

You can read the full story here on Beacon: "Girl, Bombard Me With Your Love" 

More beautiful music from “Yasir  and Jawad”:

In today’s The Wall Street Journal, I have a piece about how the intensifying militancy in northwestern Pakistan is choking the rich culture of Pashto music. 

The piece includes a video of Gulzar Alam, the renowned Pashto singer that I profile, performing one of his best - and most poignant - songs: Faryad. Lyrics by Ajmal Khatak, a leftist poet/activist prominent in the 1960s/70s. Rough translations below:

O god of great powers,

I have a wish – can you hear it or not?

I burn to your dark evenings,

but can you see anyone’s burning heart?

In the face of your floods and storms,

I have a sigh to release your way

In the name of your choppy rivers,

my eyes are brimming – I want to release the tears –

before moving my lips also becomes blasphemy

before crying to you also becomes blasphemy.

O god of great powers,

I have a wish – can you hear it or not?

I burn to your dark evenings,

but can you see anyone’s burning heart?

I am obedient to your heavy decisions,

but I am at loss of what law to follow?

You shove your Korah down the earth,

but I have to accept mine over my head.

Your wish is my wish, my lord –

I can even tie rocks to my desires

But to see other snakes on the treasure

I am a human after all– how can I sit quiet?

My heart is brimming, I can’t restrain anymore

broken mouth is better, but I can’t sew it. 

Poetry of Betrayal

image

In my latest for Beacon, I write about whatever happened to the question of transitional justice in Afghanistan over the past decade. Did the failed focus on perpetrators also undermine the “victim-centric” efforts?

Here are a couple excerpts:

"…in Afghanistan, the hope for alleged war criminals of more than three decades to be tried was long compromised as unrealistic. The initial set-up after the US invasion in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban distributed power among figures with controversial pasts. Human rights campaigners say transitional justice - and even restorative justice, where the focus is on the needs of the victim and not necessarily the punishment of the perpetrator – never became a priority. The indifference prevailed despite the fact that, in a national survey with a sampling of over 6000 Afghans in 2004, about 70% described themselves as victims of the abuses. Even the international community – particularly the US and representatives of the United Nations – did not show interest in any immediate process of justice. Instead they privately argued for letting time marginalize the controversial figures. The international community’s lack of a clear agenda hugely impacted the work of human rights organizations on the ground, who are largely dependent on funding from donor nations. Hamid Karzai, without a clear power-base of his own to begin with and increasingly preoccupied with displaying his independence from the stigma of foreign presence, further embraced the strongmen to limit the trouble they could stir for him and his fragile government

The reality, ten years later, is that the time given to the figures also allowed them resources, which facilitated the consolidation of their power-bases – for many of them along ethnic lines - and sanitized their images, increasingly bringing them back to the mainstream fold. Foreign dignitaries were happy to appear in photo-ops with these figures, and president Karzai increasingly made them into his circle of elder advisers. The agenda of “gradual marginalization” was never a serious one - or if it was, it was never followed through. The only glimmer of hope, that too natural, has been the emergence of better-educated, more open-minded children of these strongmen. But they are still covered in the shadows of their fathers.

What is astounding, to me, is the silence of the victim-centric argument in public discussions. The process of remembering, archiving, and memorializing – so essential to a people’s struggle to leave behind a dark past - got nowhere. I can’t think of one national-scale memorial that has been built in the past decade to honor the victims. The excessive focus over launching formal processes aimed at perpetrators  - and its subsequent crushing through legislation – has stripped the victims off their agency. Mobilization of victims was always going to be a difficult task – in Afghanistan there is no consensus over perpetrators as the abuser of one presents himself as the hero of another. But no one could take away a victim’s right to his/her story – that he was abused, tortured, that her loved one was killed. Without structures promoting the sharing of these narratives and without guarantee of safety for those who share,  the power of the narratives of suffering has been lost; the potential of turning these stories into action – even at individual level – has been lost…

I go on to tell the story of a betrayed poet, and a victim who says “I burn every time I see my brother’s killer on television”

You can read the full story here: 

http://www.beaconreader.com/mujib-mashal/poetry-of-betrayal-afghan-elections-and-transitional-justice

PHOTO: I took the photo last year, on the banks of the Helmand River.

In my latest for Beacon I have details of what happened in the marathon negotiations between Karzai and Kerry over the Bilateral Security Agreement.
Here is an excerpt:
"The negotiations between Kerry and Karzai initially focused on specifics such as US support for the Afghan security forces. In the past, Afghan security officials had expressed a desire to attach a wish list for military hardware to the agreement, but that was later scratched and turned into a blanket request of support. Also discussed was the issue of contractors as well as military bases - to which Karzai has not shown strong opposition in the past. 
With Kerry having already stayed in Kabul longer than he expected – postponing his meetings in Europe – the two sides realized the urgency to agree on the major issues. At least on one occasion Karzai and Kerry walked out for a one-on-one session late in the afternoon. When the teams convened again after the one-on-one, most of the issues had been sorted out, it is believed. Kerry and his team left for the US embassy, where the Secretary spoke to the staff about “a very long – very, very long day; long night last night too” before returning to the palace for dinner and more talks.”
You can read the full article on Beacon: http://www.beaconreader.com/mujib-mashal/tough-karzai-patient-kerry-24-hours-of-negotiations

In my latest for Beacon I have details of what happened in the marathon negotiations between Karzai and Kerry over the Bilateral Security Agreement.

Here is an excerpt:

"The negotiations between Kerry and Karzai initially focused on specifics such as US support for the Afghan security forces. In the past, Afghan security officials had expressed a desire to attach a wish list for military hardware to the agreement, but that was later scratched and turned into a blanket request of support. Also discussed was the issue of contractors as well as military bases - to which Karzai has not shown strong opposition in the past. 

With Kerry having already stayed in Kabul longer than he expected – postponing his meetings in Europe – the two sides realized the urgency to agree on the major issues. At least on one occasion Karzai and Kerry walked out for a one-on-one session late in the afternoon. When the teams convened again after the one-on-one, most of the issues had been sorted out, it is believed. Kerry and his team left for the US embassy, where the Secretary spoke to the staff about “a very long – very, very long day; long night last night too” before returning to the palace for dinner and more talks.”

You can read the full article on Beacon: http://www.beaconreader.com/mujib-mashal/tough-karzai-patient-kerry-24-hours-of-negotiations

As some you may know, I have started contributing to an exciting new platform, Beacon. You can directly subscribe to one of us from a list of about writers from around the world for a monthly fee of $5 and you get access to all of us. There is some time left in the free trail, so I urge you to check us out: http://www.beaconreader.com/mujib-mashal
My latest piece on Beacon is a dispatch from Peshawar’s historic Qissa-Khwani Bazaar, where the cravens between Delhi, Kabul, Baghdad, and Samarkand would stop in the ancient times. I write I about the colorful experience of watching a movie in the Picture House Cinema there. It involved long waits, many joints of hashish, and some spontaneous dancing. Here is a little excerpt:

Every time a song ended, the crowd – now numbering at about 100 – cheered in anticipation of the movie, but were disappointed when another identical song followed. About fifty minutes into the wait, a young man dressed in white shalwar-kameez, his hair parted in the middle, made his way to the stage and climbed in front of the white screen. He began dancing - a feminine dance, twisting his waist and even bending his knees to shake his behind. The crowd clapped and whistled. Then the lights went out, the young man came off stage, and a shaky image projected onto the screen. The crowd cheered its loudest cheer so far.
- Joints and Dance: Moments of Relief in a Peshawar Cinema

The story had a happy ending. But, sometimes, the changing harsh reality dictates otherwise: two days after my visit to the cinema, a suicide blast in the same Bazaar, by the Kohati gate, killed over 80 people.
 

As some you may know, I have started contributing to an exciting new platform, Beacon. You can directly subscribe to one of us from a list of about writers from around the world for a monthly fee of $5 and you get access to all of us. There is some time left in the free trail, so I urge you to check us out: http://www.beaconreader.com/mujib-mashal

My latest piece on Beacon is a dispatch from Peshawar’s historic Qissa-Khwani Bazaar, where the cravens between Delhi, Kabul, Baghdad, and Samarkand would stop in the ancient times. I write I about the colorful experience of watching a movie in the Picture House Cinema there. It involved long waits, many joints of hashish, and some spontaneous dancing. Here is a little excerpt:

Every time a song ended, the crowd – now numbering at about 100 – cheered in anticipation of the movie, but were disappointed when another identical song followed. About fifty minutes into the wait, a young man dressed in white shalwar-kameez, his hair parted in the middle, made his way to the stage and climbed in front of the white screen. He began dancing - a feminine dance, twisting his waist and even bending his knees to shake his behind. The crowd clapped and whistled. Then the lights went out, the young man came off stage, and a shaky image projected onto the screen. The crowd cheered its loudest cheer so far.

- Joints and Dance: Moments of Relief in a Peshawar Cinema

The story had a happy ending. But, sometimes, the changing harsh reality dictates otherwise: two days after my visit to the cinema, a suicide blast in the same Bazaar, by the Kohati gate, killed over 80 people.

 

The Little Poet

I had a nice little surprise today.

Last year, in one my reports out of Helmand, I mentioned a sweet little poet:

To pass the time, Mr. Rody called up his 8-year-old nephew – a prodigy of sorts who acts in radio dramas – to recite for us a couple of the poems he had composed. On a recent trip to the barber, the little boy’s hair had been cut shorter than he had wanted, inspiring a humorous poem that chastised the barber for “stealing and plucking away all his hair.”

“The barber told me he would pay me not to recite that poem on the radio,” the boy, Basheer Ahmad Basharmal, said with a grin.

-The Aging Detective and the Brown Shawl

So today, I stumbled on a video on facebook - of Basharmal reciting one of his poems!  It’s about “the gun” and how it’s “killing my Afghans from me”. And he has a poignant line:

"May your black mouth be broken, you turned into a snake

With your teeth of ignorance you are killing my alem [intellectuals]”

Her dream.

“My dream,” she told the visiting Turkish ambassador whose country funded the school building, “is to have a hospital here in our village, next to the school. A hospital where my own graduates who go on to medical school will return to as doctors.”

When she was a young girl, she tells me over watermelon she has chopped up for us in her office, her father sent her to school in Jawzjan on horseback. The village frowned upon it. Now, she is the principal of the Asiabad Girls School, in Sar-e-Pul province, and she has about 630 students. Last year, they graduated their first class and this year they will graduate their second. Among her students are her grandchildren – including the little one in the picture.

In this country, this holds truer than ever: educate a girl, educate a society.