Sunday, August 7, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Afghanistan

Every Olympics, I feel more frustrated than usual that Americans know nothing about the world. Why do Americans CHOOSE to ignore so many wonderful things that could enrich their lives, instead isolating themselves in their own bland communities that all look identical?

I decided to write a little bit about every country in the world for the duration of the Olympics. The first country on the alphabetical list, Afghanistan, is fascinating. Most Americans view it through the lens of US wars, thereby perceiving it as some backwards place of religious extremism, where people ride camels and live in tents. A few know about the proxy war with the Soviets, when the US, pushed by Congressman Charlie Wilson, funded the mujahideen (including Osama Bin Laden and Taliban founder Mohammed Omar) in a victorious fight against the USSR. While the victory contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, congressional refusal to fund rebuilding and education programs after the war are a big reason the Taliban was able to rise to power.

What a shame to view Afghanistan from that standpoint only, when it offers so many fascinating attributes. Here is a land that has had advanced urbanization since 3000-2000 BCE, around the time that the Greeks were rising to prominence. The country's written history can be traced back to around 500 BCE, when it was part of the Achaemenid Empire, the First Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, an empire that emancipated the Jews from Babylon and conquered ancient Egypt. While Europeans outside of the Greek sphere were barbarians with no writing systems and no organized way of life, the people living in what we now know as Afghanistan were living under a highly sophisticated centralized system, with post offices, road networks, a professional army, and civil services.

The capitals of many empires have been located within current Afghan borders. The Silk Road, the trade route network running from the Mediterranean to China and the Indies, ran through the area.

The Silk Road - red is land route, blue is sea
Because of its strategic importance on the Silk Road and globalized trade, war has been a frequent part of its history, and for all the tribal wars that have been fought there, outside invaders have probably interfered more. Globalization is nothing new. War for business interests is nothing new. But war isn't the only thing that has happened there, so when you look at Afghanistan and see only ugliness, it could be a reflection of what's inside you. Look for the good in things. I'm not saying ignore the bad things. Just look for the good things, too. Because they are always there, and they are wonderful, and they can help fix the bad things.

See, you absolutely cannot understand what is happening today without understanding what happened in history. And you absolutely cannot understand what is happening today if you think that you are better than everyone else because you are an American.

Have I been there? No. But it is on my list of Top Ten Places to Travel to When Things Are Stable So Stop Your Damn Fighting. I haven't met many Afghans in my life, and most I have met have been journalists, so they aren't representative of the population. I respect them immensely, though. In places like Afghanistan, journalists are true heroes who risk their lives to report the truth.

Places I'd love to visit in Afghanistan, among others:

Band e Amir National Park:

Archaeological Remains of Bamiyan Valley, where the 4th/5th century Buddha statues were before the Taliban assholes blew them up:

Bamiyan monk caves
Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Mazar-i-Sharif:

Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam:

Herat Citadel, newly restored:

Capital: Kabul
Major cities: Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif
Population: 30.55 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 3
Medals in history: 2 bronze
Languages spoken: Pashto, Dari, more than 40 minor languages
Heroes: Rumi (Persian poet), Al Biruni (mathematician, scientist, father of anthropology), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (anti-imperialist)
Bad guys: Taliban
Persecuted groups: Hazara- the Hazara have suffered some of the worst persecution and massacres in human history. ISIS and the Taliban continue to target them today.

Must read:

The Great Game - about the struggle between the British Empire and Russia for control of Central Asia. It has everything - spy stories, murder mysteries, historical can't understand Afghanistan without understanding the contents of this book. It reads like a novel, so you have no excuse.
The Kite Runner - coming of age story set in Taliban times.
The Road to Oxiana - travel story published in the thirties when the historical treasures of Afghanistan were more accessible.

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