Here is a measure of the complexity of the cultural and political mosaic that
is Afghanistan: Osama bin Laden, the suspected terrorist mastermind who is now
the target of U.S. military planners, is an outsider to the country -
protected by a Taleban government that appears to represent a minority of
Pashto-speaking Afghans from the region bordering Pakistan, who themselves may
be a minority of that extraordinarily diverse land.
To many Afghans, Mr. bin Laden's presence is a bitter irony: He is a wealthy
Saudi, stripped of his nationality, hiding out in a desperately poor,
mountainous country that normally has little love for the Bedouins of the
Arabian Desert. . Indeed, many find Mr. bin Laden as alien to his current
surroundings as a Portuguese fisherman might be amid Turkish herdsmen in
Central Anatolia. . Mr. bin Laden's outsider status is only one of the
complications facing the United States as it plans military retaliation for
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington.
With its many ethnic and religious divisions, the country seems closer to a
pre-modern warlord state than a modern nation. Whoever might try to conquer
this Afghanistan would have to adjust to its endless diversity. They would
have to deal with a profound sense of communal identity and solidarity.
Loyalty is expressed toward the family, then to the community, including its
religious orientation, then the city or province and, last, to the country.
As a cultural historian of the Iranian world, I traveled extensively in
Afghanistan from the late 1960s until the communist takeover in 1977. Since
then, in addition to my work as art critic for this newspaper, I have studied
the history of that part of the world and published many monographs in
scholarly journals. And I remain in contact with Afghan exiles.
The most important and least understood cleavage is between the Pashto
speakers, who are mostly Sunni Muslims and have recently been looking to
Pakistan for backing, and the Persian speakers - Shiites who look to Iran. .
The Pashtuns are officially declared to be the majority in Afghanistan, but
some observers believe they are substantially outnumbered by Persian speakers
- including those Pashtuns who have long forgotten their own dialect, which is
one of the most archaic and difficult Iranian languages.
The Taleban - self-styled students of theology, whose name is the Persian
plural of the word for a "student" of the Koranic text - managed to triumph
over other factions in the chaotic aftermath of the Russian retreat from
Afghanistan in 1989. But by some estimates, they may represent as little as 10
percent of the population. They dominate a land that is a patchwork of human
and religious communities.
The largest single common denominator is Persian in its Dari form, "the
courtly" speech of the Afghan elite. It has always been the language of
culture and literature and is today, as in the past, the country's
intercommunal language. Where spoken as a vernacular, it varies as much from
the courtly form as a broad Scottish accent does from mellifluous Oxbridge
Under the monarchy, toppled in 1973, and during the republican interlude that
preceded the Communist takeover of 1977, a precarious cohabitation was in
place. The top positions in the administration, the military, the judiciary,
were held by town-dwelling Pashtuns largely Persianized in their way of life
as in speech. The royal court itself, of pure Pashtun stock, spoke virtually
Their connections with their Pashtun kinsmen living in the southeastern
highlands were loose. In only one main city, Kandahar, did one hear Pashto
widely spoken on the streets. There, the Pashtun majority represented roughly
75 percent of the city's neighborhoods -roughly, that is, because Afghanistan
is not the place where statistics are an exact science.
On the eve of World War II, there had been efforts to transfer Pashtuns to
other parts of the country, in particular in the area of Herat, the great
Persian metropolis wrested from Iran in the mid-19th century with British
backing. But they often backfired. . The Persian culture prevailed. A
generation after the migrations of the late 1930s, the Pashto speakers
established in cities became Persianized in many of their customs in their
speech. The capital, Kabul, is a good illustration of this process. .
Persianized or not, the Pashtuns ran the show. They still do. The Persian
speakers - called "Fars," or "Farsiwan"- occasionally played a role if they
followed the Sunni path of Islam. It made little difference whether they were
from the northern Khorasan region with its cities of Herat, Balkh,
Mazar-i-Sharif; from Badakhshan, also in the north; from Sistan, south of
Khorasan; from the vast highlands of Hazarajat, in the heart of the land, or
from the capital, Kabul, one of the oldest Persian-speaking cities in the
world. They are now excluded from power.
Persian speakers of the Shiite branch of Islam, which includes a vast
proportion of the urban population in the north, have always been
conspicuously absent from official positions. But even among the Shiites there
are nuances. . Those who get the worst of the deal among the Shiites are the
Hazaras. They represent one of the great enigmas of Afghan history. Their
features single them out at a glance, even within the highly diverse ethnic
mix of Afghanistan. Their narrow eyes, broad noses, their shorter build and
yellow complexion bring them close to the populations of Nepal and Tibet than
to any of the surrounding groups. The Persian they speak is strikingly
In Kabul, the Hazaras represent a vast underclass who take the jobs that other
groups refuse - as bearers, street sweepers and other common laborers. On the
eve of the Soviet invasion, through gritty, hardworking determination, some
were beginning to hoist themselves into a small lower-middle-class. They ran
very modest hotels and chaykhanas, or
"teahouses," the Kabul equivalent of the lowliest coffee shop.
Other important groups remain excluded, first and foremost the Turkic-speaking
communities in the northern countryside. They include Uzbeks, the most
numerous in the center of the Khorasan region; the Turkmen to the West, and
the Kazakhs who sought refuge in the northeastern tip of Afghanistan when the
Red Army occupied Central Asia in the 1920s. . Steeped in the ancient
traditions of this part of the world, the Kazakhs are active in commerce,
speaking Persian when communicating with strangers and staunchly refusing to
use Pashto. Their exact numbers are unknown. . The various Turkic speakers are
believed to make up 20 percent or more of the population.
Religious differences cut across the patchwork of linguistic groups,
complicating the picture further. In Persian-speaking Herat, Sunnis and
Shiites are probably represented in equal numbers. The people of Badakhshan
also speak Persian, but as members of the Ismaili subdivision of the Shiite
faith, they are a world unto themselves.
The Panjshir Valley - also Persian-speaking and largely Sunni in its
mountainous redoubts - is a tough, pugnacious place. This was the home of
Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary guerrilla leader who was assassinated early
this month, reportedly by supporters of Mr. bin Laden and the Taleban. All
these different religious and ethnic factions have suffered at the hands of
the dominant Pashtun regime of the Taleban. Afghan refugees have carried
unverifiable reports of massacres in Hazarajat after its conquest by the
Taleban, in the area of Yakka Awlang, and near the city of Bamian, whose
residents are said to have been enraged by the Taleban's destruction of the
large, twin statues of Buddha there.
Within the Pashtun group that holds the reins of power, many have suffered,
too. A cultivated Pashto-speaking urbanite in Kabul does not have much in
common with the gun-toting tribesman from the southeastern mountains who have
gathered around the Taleban clerics.
Also wary of the Taleban are the Pashtun elite of Ghazni, 120 kilometers (75
miles) southwest of Kabul. This city, part-Persian and part-Pashto speaking,
was once the great capital of the eastern Iranian world under the sultans of
the Ghaznavid dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is the hometown of a
famous 12th-century Persian poet, the Sufi mystic Sanai.
Kabul itself, which had been undergoing an intellectual renaissance in the
early 1970s, is now devastated - its fine archaeological museum a
half-destroyed, empty shell. Herat in the northwest has suffered untold
Famine is everywhere. This week, the BBC World Service was interviewing a man
who had just arrived in a refugee camp at the limit of the Pakistan border
area, now out-of-bounds to foreigners. In a few sentences uttered with the
Persian accent of Khorasan (the interviewer did not identify his community or
the language he spoke), the exhausted voice said something about the people
along the roads, too weak to move.
None of this greatly bothers Mr. bin Laden, whose silence about the famine and
drought in Afghanistan has been deafening. Referred to by many Persian
speakers as "that Bedouin" - a phrase that echoes ancient memories of the
early eighth-century Arab invasion in Khorasan, he would not have
manysympathizers should it come to a showdown.
The Taleban would not be there, many Afghan refugees will tell you, without
the subsidies of Saudi Arabia and the logistical support of Pakistan, eager to
please extremists among the Pashtuns on their side of the border. And, the
Afghans add, these two states would never have acted without America's
Afghan refugees warn that the country's many diverse communities all share one
point in common: a fierce pride and sense of dignity. If these traits are
respected, foreign troops could be perceived as liberators. The Russians, who
treated the people brutally and are remembered for their atrocities, failed to
recognize this reality. The Americans are also likely to be blamed if, in
their zeal to punish Mr. bin Laden, they kill innocent civilians who have been
suffering under a Taleban government that so many of them dislike.
Submitted by Kaushik Sunderrajan
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