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Iranian: B3-B4 Limbs of no body
By Mohsen Makhmalbaf

22/10/2001 3:41 pm Mon

The Iranian
June 20, 2001

Limbs of no body [Part 3-4]

By Mohsen Makhmalbaf

The historical image of an imageless country

Afghanistan emerged when it separated from Iran. It used to be an Iranian province some 250 years ago and part of Greater Khorasan province in the era of Nadir Shah. Returning from India, one midnight, Nadir Shah was murdered in Ghoochan. Ahmad Abdali, an Afghan commander in Nadir Shah's army fled with a regiment of 4,000 soldiers. He declared independence from Iran and thus Afghanistan was created.

In those days it was comprised of farmers and overwhelmingly ruled by tribes. Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, naturally, he could not have been accepted as the absolute authority by other tribes such as the Tajik, Hazareh and Uzbek. Thus, it was agreed that each tribe would be governed by its own leaders. The rulers collectively formed a tribal federalism known as the "Loya Jirga".

Since then until the present, a more just and appropriate form of governing has not emerged in Afghanistan. The Loya Jirga system reveals that not only has Afghanistan never evolved economically from an agricultural existence, it has never moved beyond tribal rule and failed to achieve a sense of nationalism.

An Afghan does not regard himself an Afghan until he leaves his homeland. He is regarded with pity or suffers humiliation. In Afghanistan each Afghan is a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek or Tajik. In Iran, perhaps except in the province Kurdistan, we are all Iranians first. Nationalism is the first aspect of our perception of a common identity. But in Afghanistan all are primarily members of a tribe. Tribalism is the first aspect of their identity.

This is the most obvious difference between the spirit of an Iranian with that of an Afghan. Even in presidential elections in Iran, the candidate's ethnicity has no national significance and draws no special vote. In Afghanistan since the era of Ahmad Abdali until today as the Taliban rule over 95 percent of the country, the main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the nine months of Habiballah Galehkani's rule known as Bacheh Sagha and the two years of the Tajik Burhannuddin Rabbani respectively, Tajiks have not otherwise held power.) The people of Afghanistan, however, since the time of Ahmad Abdali, have always been content with tribal federalism.

What does this indicate in comparison to the situation in Iran? Under Reza Shah, tribalism was weakened and replaced by nationalism. In Afghanistan that did not happen. Even the Mujahedin of Afghanistan never fought foreign enemies in a unified manner, rather each tribe warred with foreign enemies in their own regions.

During the making of Kanadahar while I was in the refugee camps at the border of Iran and Afghanistan, I realized that even those Afghan refugees who have lived in difficult camp conditions, did not accept their Afghan national identity. They still had conflicts over being Tajik, Hazareh or Pashtoon. Inter-tribal marriages still do not take place among Afghans neither is there any business conducted between them. And with the most minor conflict, the danger of mass bloodshed prevails. I once witnessed one tribal member killed by someone from another in revenge for curring in a bread line.

In the Niatak refugee camp (border of Iran-Afghanistan) that accommodates 5,000 residents, it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other. This sometimes leads to mutual aggression. Tajiks and Hazarehs find Pashtoons their greatest enemy on earth and vice versa. None of them are even willing to attend each other's mosques for prayers. We had difficulty seating their children next to each other to watch a movie. They offered a compromise wherein Hazareh and Pashtoon children took turns watching.

Many diseases were prevalent in this camp and there were no doctors. When a doctor was brought in from the city, the camp residents didn't give priority to treating those who were most ill. Only a tribal order was accepted. They appointed a day for Hazareh patients and another for Pashtoons. In addition, class distinctions among the Pashtoons prevented them from coming to the clinic on the same day.

In shooting scenes that needed extras, we had to decide to choose from among either Hazarehs or Pashtoons, though all of them were refugees and both suffered the same misery. Yet, tribal disposition came first in any decisions. Of course, the majority were unfamiliar with cinema. Like my grandmother, they thanked God for not having stepped foot inside a movie theatre.

The reason for Afghanistan's perpetual tribalism rests with its agrarian economics. Each Afghan tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is a natural prisoner of a culture stemming from a mountainous environment and farming economy. Cultural tribalism is the product of farming conditions rooted in the deep valleys of Afghanistan. Belief in tribalism is as deep as those valleys.

The topography of Afghanistan is 75 percent mountainous of which only 7 percent is suitable for farming. It lacks any semblance of industry. The country is solely dependent on farming, as grasslands (in non-drought years) are the only resources for economic continuity. Again, farming is the foundation of this tribalism that in turn is the basis for deep internal conflicts. This not only stops Afghanistan from becoming a modern country it also prevents this would-be nation from achieving a national identity.

There is no intrinsic popular belief in what is called Afghanistan and Afghans. Afghans are not yet ready to be absorbed into a bigger collective identity called the people of Afghanistan. Contrary to the misnomer of religious war, the origin of disputes lies with tribal conflicts. The Tajiks who fight the Taliban today are both Muslim and Sunni -- as are the Taliban. The intelligence of Ahmad Abdali is yet to be appreciated for having creating the notion of tribal federalism. He was smarter than those who fancy the ruling of one tribe over all others or one individual over a nation -- when tribalism and the economic infrastructure was still intact.

Pashtoons with a population of about six million make up Afghanistan's largest tribe. Next are Tajiks with about four million people and third and fourth are Hazarehs and Uzbeks with populations of about four million and one to two million respectively. The rest are small tribes such as the Imagh, Fars, Balouch, Turkman and Qezelbash.

The Pashtoons are mostly in the south, the Tajiks in the north and the Hazarehs in the central regions. This geographical concentration in different regions will lead either to complete and final disintegration or the continued connection from the head of the tribe through the Loya Jirga system. The only alternative to these two scenarios necessitates changes in the economic infrastructure and the replacement of a tribal idenity with a national one.

If we can elect a president in Iran today, free from issues of ethnicity, it is because of the economic transformation resulting from oil, at least in the last century. The question is not the quality or quantity of oil in the Iranian economy. The point is that when oil enters the economy of a country such as Iran that was basically agricultural, it changes the economic infrastructure and the role of Iran becomes significant in political interactions. It becomes an exporter of a valued raw material and in return receives the surplus productions of industrial countries.

This transformation changes the socio-economic infrastructure that in turn breaks the traditional culture and creates a more modern one, exporting oil and consuming the products of industrialized countries. If we omit money as the symbolic medium, then we have given oil in exchange for consumer products. But Afghanistan has nothing but drugs to exchange in the world market. Therefore, it has turned back on itself and become isolated. Perhaps, if Afghanistan had not separated from Iran 250 years ago, it would have had a different fate based on its share of oil revenues.

The amount of opium that I will elaborate on later is far too insignificant to be compared to Iranian oil. In 2000 Iran's surplus income from the oil price windfall went over $10 billion. Total sales of opium in Afghanistan remained at $500 million.

We have played our role in the world economy and by consuming the products of others, have understood that we have choices and have thus become somewhat more modern. But for the Afghan farmer his world is his valleys and his profession is farming when drought spares him. Meanwhile a tribal system resolves his social problems. Given that, he cannot have a share in the world economy. How are grounds for his economic and cultural transition to be provided to let him have a share? In addition, $80 billion in the global drug turnover depends on Afghanistan remaining in its present situation without change because if change prevails, that $80 billion is the first thing to be threatened. Hence, Afghanistan is not supposed to realize a considerable profit since that itself may yield change for Afghanistan.

Although Iran and Afghanistan shared the same history some 250 years ago due to oil, the history of Iran took a turn that is impossible for Afghanistan to take for a very long time. Opium is the only product that Afghanistan offers to the world. Yet both because of the nature of this product and the insignificant amount of this tainted national wealth, it cannot be compared to oil. If we add the $500 million income from the sale of opium to the $300 million from the sale of northern Afghanistan's gas, and divide the total by the 20 million population, the result is $40 per capita annual income. If we further divide that figure by 365 days each Afghan would earn about 10 cents a day or the equivalent of the price a loaf of bread on normal days.

But, the country's annual earnings belong to the government and the domestic mafia and it doesn't get divided fairly. This revenue, therefore, is both insufficient to meet the needs of people and too low to bring about significant change in the economic, social, political and cultural infrastructure.

Why have 30 percent of the population emigrated?

Livestock breeders habitually move to resolve their living problems. Urban residents and agricultural farmers are less likely to move often. The main reason for the Afghan livestock breeders' mobility is related to the farming seasons. They constantly move to green and warm areas to avoid dry lands and cold weather. Movement is a natural reflex for livestock farmers. The second reason is lack of a fixed occupation. Afghans migrate to avoid death from unemployment.

The Afghans' daily earnings depend on working in other countries. Upon waking up each day, an Afghan has four burdens to consider. First is his livestock and this depends on drought not being an obstacle. Fighting for a group or sect is his second concern and generally because of employment he enters the army. Earning a living to support his family is another reason why he moves and if all else fails, he enters the drug business.

The extent of this last option is limited and the labor options of a nation of 20 million people cannot really be measured with a $500 million account accrued from cultivating poppy seeds. Thus, characterizing the people of Afghanistan as opium smugglers is unreal and applies only to a very limited number.

Afghan culture immunized against modernism

Amanullah Khan who ruled in Afghanistan from 1919-1928, was a contemporary of Reza Shah and Kemal Ataturk. On a personal level he was inclined towards modernism. In 1924, Amanullah traveled to Europe, returned with a Rolls Royce and made known his reform program. The plan included a change in attire. He told his wife to unveil herself and asked men to forego their Afghan costumes for Western suits. Contrary to Afghan male custom, he prohibited polygamy. Traditionalists immediately begin opposing Amanullah's modernising. None of the agrarian tribes submitted to these changes and rioting ensued against him.

Here, clearly modernism without a socio-economic basis, is but a non-homogeneous imposition of culture on a tribal society economically dependent on farming; lacking any industry, agriculture or even preliminary means of exploiting its resources, not to mention prohibition of inter-tribal marriages. This superficial, formalistic and petty modernism served only as an antibody to stimulate traditional Afghan culture, making Afghanistan so immune to it that even in the following decades, modernism could not penetrate the culture in a more rational form.

Even today, the premis for modernism that includes exploiting resources and presenting cheap raw materials in exchange for goods, have not been created. The most advanced people in Afghanistan still believe that Afghan society is not yet ready for female suffrage. When the most progressive sect involved in the civil war, finds it too early for women to vote, it is obvious that the most conservative will prohibit schooling and social activities to them. It follows naturally that 10 million women are held captive under their burqas (veil).

This is Afghan society 70 years after Amanullah's modernism that aimed to impose monogamy on a male dominated Afghanistan, whose only perception of family is the harem. In 2001, polygamy is still an accepted fact by women even in refugee camps on the border of Iran/Afghanistan. I attended two weddings among the Pashtoon and Hazareh tribes and heard them wishing for more prosperous weddings for the groom. At first I thought it was a joke. In another case the bride's family said: "If the groom can afford it, up to four wives is indeed very good and it is a religious tradition as well as helping a bunch of hungry people."

When I went to the camp in Saveh to record the wedding music for "Kandahar", I saw a two-year-old girl being wedded to a seven-year-old boy. I never understood the meaning of this. Neither could that boy or that little girl, who was sucking on a pacifier, have made the choice. Given this portrait of traditional society, Amanullah's modernism seemed an overwhelming imitation of another country.

Of course, some people believe if a woman changes her burgha into a less concealing veil, she may be struck by God's wrath and turned into a black stone. Perhaps, someone has to forcibly rid her of the burgha so she'll realize that the assumption is untrue and she can choose for herself.

There is another biased viewpoint to Amanullah's modernism. In traditional societies, the culture of hypocricy is a form of class camouflage. In Iranian society wealthy traditional families decorate the interior of their home like a castle but keep the exterior looking like a shack, out of fear from the poor. In other words, that aristocratic nucleus needs to have a poor rustic shell.

Opposition to modernism is not necessarily expressed by traditional organizations. Sometimes it is a reaction by the poor against the rich. For the poor society in Amanullah's time, while having horses as opposed to mules was a symbol of honor and nobility, a Rolls Royce was an insult to the poor. The war between tradition and modernism is primarily the same as the battle of the Rolls Royce and the mule. It is a war between poverty and wealth.

Today, in Afghanistan the only modern objects are weapons. The ubiquitous civil war that has created jobs in addition to being a political/military action has also become a market for modern weapons. Afghanistan can no longer fight with knives and daggers even though it lags behind the contemporary age . The consumption of weapons is a serious matter. Stinger missiles next to long beards and burghas are still symbols of profound modernism that are proportionate to consumption and modern culture.

For the Afghan Mujahed, weapons have an economic basis that creates jobs. If all weapons are removed from Afghanistan, the war ends and all accept that there will be no more assaults on anyone, given the sub zero economic conditions all of today's mujahedin will join the refugees in other countries. The issue of tradition and modernism, war and peace, tribalism and nationalism in Afghanistan must be analyzed with an eye to the economic situation and employment crisis. It has to be understood that there is no immediate solution for the economic crisis in Afghanistan.

A long-term resolution is contingent on an economic miracle and not on a nationwide military attack from north to south or vice versa. Have these miracles not happened time and again? Was the Soviet retreat not a miracle? Was the sovereignty of the Mujahedin not a miracle on their part? Was the sudden conquest of the Taliban not a miracle of its kind? Then why do problems remain? Modernism under discussion here faces two fundamental problems. One is rooted in economics and the second is immunization of Afghan traditional culture against premature modernism.