When I was growing up in Kabul, weddings were mixed gatherings. Men wore suits, women were in fashionable dresses. Couples danced together and wedding parties were seen as a break from the pain of daily hardship and war.
I recalled all this the moment I saw the terrible pictures of Sunday’s dead, blasted to pieces by a suicide bomber. He walked into the wedding hall; so far, 63 dead, 180 wounded, and ISIS claiming responsibility. One of the photographs shows a pile of blood-stained shoes, all worn by the victims at the popular “Dubai Wedding Hall”. Condemnation of the “inhuman” attack – they always use the same word – has been uttered by everyone, including Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who expressed his fury on Twitter. So what’s new?
Well, an extraordinary poem, for one thing, posted in Persian on Facebook by an anonymous young Afghan man. He’s outraged that the president will host Afghanistan’s hundred years of “independence” today with a banquet close to old King Amanullah’s palace – for American, EU and UN diplomats, along with the usual Afghan ministers and acolytes. Here are the first lines of the unknown man’s poem, which I’ve translated into English:
“The victims are coffin’d; and they’ll be buried.
A body here, another two there; six children from one home; fourteen in a single village cemetery.
The coffins will be re-sold – just this evening. But where can we take their shoes?"
In the Islamic world, bodies are buried in shrouds. Their coffins are taken back to the mosque for re-use.
The poem continues:
“Take the shoes to the tables of celebration for our ‘independence’,
just a stone’s throw from the Dubai Wedding Hall, to Amanullah’s Palace!
Tomorrow night, there’s a celebration. The president will be there. And the ambassadors. The US. Europe. The United Nations.
Tomorrow night there’s a party. It’s a party where they’re selling our flag…
We should take these shoes, and arrange them across their dinner table.
Perhaps then we would be seen – in the middle of the red and green [of our flag]…
That we are the black colour of our independence.
What a flag! What a celebration! What an independence!"
There’s an irony to all this. In the new, so-called “democratic” and “free” Kabul, weddings are now all segregated. A couple arriving together must each go to a different hall. Women cover themselves with large scarves to conceal their bright clothes and make-up. The corrupt political class, with their vast wealth and property, hold extravagant wedding parties with much security. But the average couple now has to save and borrow to cover the cost of a wedding. It’s a strange thing, but in Afghanistan their happiness must be condemned to death.
The irony, of course, is that on 19 August, the Afghan cabinet celebrates a national holiday that American-supported Afghan governments have usually been keen to observe. It marks the end of the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war in 1919 and the signing of the treaty that ostensibly gave Afghanistan full control over its internal and external affairs. The helpless Afghans pin their hopes on words like this, just as we used to hope poetry, music and a literature of resistance would pave the way to justice. On Facebook, the anonymous poet captures this pain and the immense sense of loss.
In the late 1980s, it was the rockets fired from the hills above Kabul by the then Mujahideen forces which used to kill and wound Kabul residents at weddings, inside schools, bus stations or on the roads. The slaughter of civilians was indiscriminate and used as a tactic against the Soviet-backed communist regime of Dr Najibullah which was then in power.
At the time, I viewed the mujahideen as God-fearing defenders of Islam against the “infidel” communist government, and I justified all their brutality and violence. In the west, they were praised as “freedom fighters”. In Kabul, we believed that our suffering would be rewarded by support from the west to restore that famous “independence” and “freedom”. We used to wait for United Nations resolutions with the hope of seeing an end to the bloodshed that was all around us.
The trajectory was different. After the mujahideen rockets came the Taliban. Then US bombs – which would mistake a wedding for a terrorist gathering. And now ISIS.
Everyone speaks of their anger, including the current rulers. Shedding tears in public is now part of the theatre and the on-going political drama which is Afghan life. What has changed since the 1979 Soviet invasion? The promised “freedom” has come in the façade of fake elections and failed governments. The much-loved independence has arrived in the form of a different kind of freedom: few tariffs on trade, little accountability by those who control the country, and further bondage to the World Bank and the IMF.
Back in the early days of war, there was a sense of resilience and pride, however naively, amongst the Afghans that one day their country would be on the path to stability and – again that favourite word – progress. Now, a sense of utter fatigue and cynicism dominates the Afghan mind.
Instead there is what I can only call a regression in thinking – after the absence of the basic freedoms my generation fought and died for. There is even a Taliban mentality inside the government – a peace treaty has emerged with the Taliban which includes a deal that will reassert men’s right to connect their patriarchal “honour” with the size of a woman’s scarf.
In this context, a suicide bomber targeting a “gathering of Mushrikeens [non-believers]” – in other words, Shia Muslims – in the words of the Sunni Muslim ISIS, is nothing but a murderer’s curse.