What frenzy is this!

In Kabul, the rainy days don’t always evoke a somber mood. Every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining. The dark clouds hovering menacingly over Afghanistan these days also have a silver lining, albeit elusive and obscure. On Wednesday, as hundreds of intrepid young men and women poured out into the streets of Kabul, defying all sorts of threats and odds, I could see both the dark clouds and silver lining.

Emotions were running high. The mood was incredibly tenebrous as people marched on the streets of Shehr e Naw, the bustling urban center of Kabul, with flags and banners in their hands. Students, activists, academics, journalists – everyone was out there to make a statement. Some of them struggled to hold back tears, the copious tears that were indistinguishable from rain drops descending from heaven.

There was deep anger and outrage, and understandably so. Three days ago, almost 80 Taliban guerilla fighters had ambushed an army outpost in eastern Kunar province, killing 21 Afghan soldiers in cold blood. The soldiers were asleep when they were showered with bullets in the dead of night and put to sleep forever. The ‘defenders of faith’ soon claimed responsibility for the attack, which was clearly the deadliest in last one year.

The American drones killing Afghans or Pakistanis in border provinces cannot be justified as ‘war against terrorism’. Similarly, the bloodshed of Afghans or Pakistanis by Taliban guerillas cannot be termed as ‘jihad’

Any loss of innocent lives must be unequivocally condemned, irrespective of who the perpetrator is. The American drones killing Afghans or Pakistanis in border provinces cannot be justified as ‘war against terrorism’. Similarly, the bloodshed of Afghans or Pakistanis by Taliban guerillas cannot be termed as ‘jihad’. The 21 soldiers killed in Kunar were not terrorists, occupiers or tormentors. They were Afghans.
There is no love lost between the Afghans and US-led allied forces occupying their land, and there is a history behind the animosity and hatred they share for each other. But Afghans are immensely proud of their own soldiers. The families of slain soldiers are equally proud of their martyrs. “I sent my son to defend the country and I am proud of him,” said father of Amir Husain, one of the soldiers killed in the attack. Amir, 35, leaves behind two small children. “I have another son who serves in Afghan army and I will feel more proud if he too gives the ultimate sacrifice for the country,” said the proud father, a Hazara. Most of the soldiers killed in the attack belonged to Hazara tribe, which bears testimony to how deeply patriotic Afghans are, both minority Hazaras and majority Pashtuns.

That brings us to an important question. Why are Afghans baying for blood of Afghans? The answer to this and many other questions was so convincingly and compellingly given by young men and women on the streets of Kabul yesterday. “Pakistan is a terrorism-sponsoring state,” read a poster carried by the activists of Awankend Youth Movement. There were many other posters and banners in Pashtu and Dari language, slamming Pakistan and Taliban. That is the war-cry in this country. Everyone here is pointing fingers at Pakistan for fomenting trouble on this side of border.

Why are Afghans baying for blood of Afghans? The answer to this and many other questions was so convincingly and compellingly given by young men and women on the streets of Kabul yesterday

Even the top-notch politicians, who otherwise make all the incoherent noises, are now training guns at the neighboring country. Condemning the attack by “enemies of Afghanistan”, President Karzai called on the government of Pakistan to crack down on its militant sanctuaries. But, the outgoing President did not deem it necessary to attend the funeral of slain soldiers, giving heartburn to many Afghans. As Noam Chomsky told me in an interview recently (to be published in March issue of Afghan Zariza), “I don’t know what President Karzai thinks he is doing.” Even I have no idea. When the nation is mourning, Presidential protocols should be thrown to the wind. The funeral was, however, attended by thousands of people from all walks of life. Many eyes turned moist when 21 coffins made way into the ground.

The Presidential contenders for April 2014 elections, however, did the miss the opportunity to offer their condolence messages. The slain soldiers were hailed as “martyrs of peace” by Abdullah Abdullah, one of the frontrunners in the race for Presidential Palace. Zalmai Rasool suspended his election campaign for a day as a mark of respect for martyred soldiers. Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai called it “unacceptable”.

Interestingly, the Afghan intelligence officials have squarely blamed Pakistan for orchestrating the attack as revenge for the killing of 23 Pakistani security personnel last week. Pakistan government alleged the hand of Afghan intelligence agencies behind the killings, but the Spokesman for Afghan government dismissed the allegations as baseless. “It is impossible to nurture venomous snakes on one’s soil and wishfully think that they will only bite others”, read the scathing statement. The killings in Kunar happened a day later.

The truth has many layers and there is certainly more to this story than meets the eye. What is unfortunate is the loss of innocent lives on both sides of border.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/02/27/what-frenzy-is-this/blog)

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What the Presidential candidates have to offer!

 

There is palpable buzz, chaotic exuberance, lingering fear, and an elixir of hope. There are no measured steps or calculated moves. It’s a no-holds-barred political showdown.  As their tryst with destiny inches closer, the Presidential candidates are throwing all the caution to winds and quite vigorously gearing up for the grand political spectacle in April this year.  The election campaigning is in full swing these days and the candidates are firing on all cylinders.

In the last few weeks, we have seen some high-voltage, rip-roaring and adrenaline-gushing television debates between the candidates. No, it’s not the race for White House. It’s the marathon for Presidential Palace of Afghanistan. The most difficult political job in the world, perhaps also the most exciting. The manner in which they have spelt out their roadmaps and articulated their thoughts on various pressing issues, with sheer eloquence and sense of purpose, bears eloquent testimony to the fact that this war-weary country has come a long way.Operation Mountain Fire

It is incredibly heartwarming to witness the socio-political metamorphosis in this country, and the way local media is emerging as a stimulus of political and social change and custodian of public interest. A decade back, politics in Afghanistan was defined by anarchy and lawlessness. Warlords used to call the shots. Bullets were synonymous with ballots. Free and independent media was a figment of wild imagination.

It is incredibly heartwarming to witness the socio-political metamorphosis in this country, and the way local media is emerging as a stimulus of political and social change and custodian of public interest

Today, Afghanistan is a country that has come out of obscurity and embraced change. The sword of Damocles still hangs overhead but the resilience of people is amazing, almost infectious. When Hassan Nasrullah, the Hezbollah leader from Lebanon, mentioned Afghanistan four times in his powerful speech on Sunday, with reference to the ominous threat of takfirism, he meant that the battle is not over yet. Of course, the battle is on. And, as my Afghan friends often say, with a hint of confidence and optimism, we shall overcome one day.

Right now, the five top contenders for the most challenging assignment in world politics are Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rasool, Qayoom Karzai and Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf. The other candidates are dark horses in the race, so it would be naïve to rule them out completely.

Ahmedzai, who ended up with a meager three percent votes in last elections, has emerged as a frontrunner this time. The former advisor to President Karzai, Ahmedzai is a celebrated anthropologist, having authored many books, including Fixing Failed States: A Frame for Rebuilding a Fractured World. He studied at American University, Beirut and Columbia University, U.S. and taught at University of California and John Hopkins University.

His political vision is both amalgamated and lucid. He seeks to transform the system and devolve financial powers to the provinces, giving them 40 percent of the national budget. In terms of security, he wants to establish rule of law and end discrimination of all manifestations. Unlike Karzai, who has developed cold feet, Ahmedzai is willing to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.

On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he has his priorities spelt out clearly. He wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan. He wants to fight corruption, bring accountability and transparency in governmental and nongovernmental projects. To address the issue of violence against women, he wishes to engage religious scholars and preachers. To develop economy, he wants to attract investments by ensuring foolproof security and incentives to potential investors.

Abdullah Abdullah, who was the main challenger for President Karzai in previous elections before he was forced to beat a hasty retreat following reports of fraud, is another strong contender in the race. An ophthalmologist by training, he jumped the political bandwagon in 1980s when Soviets invaded the country. After the ouster of Taliban in 2001, he was appointed as the Foreign Minister in the interim government led by Karzai, a post he continued to hold in Karzai’s first term as President, before he was axed in 2006.

Ahmedzai wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan

His political vision is of a parliamentary system of governance with devolution of power to provinces. He says he will strengthen the security infrastructure and ensure justice to all. Like other candidates in the fray, he is also willing to end the stalemate over bilateral security pact with the U.S. On the issue of negotiations with Taliban, he says those fighting to decimate the Afghan government will not be spared and those who fight because of political grievances would be invited for peace parleys.

On the question of corruption and nepotism, he wants to introduce meritocracy and rule of law. The trade agreements and development projects, he says, would be monitored by Parliament and Provincial Councils. The institutional prejudice against women would end and they would get adequate representation in political institutions. He wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy.

Zalmai Rasool, a veteran statesman and former Foreign Minister, is a staunch Karzai loyalist and another heavyweight contender. A doctor by training, he served at many prestigious hospitals in France and Saudi Arabia before entering politics and joining as Chief of Staff under King Zahir Shah. In 2002, after years of war, he returned to Afghanistan amid much fanfare and became Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism in the interim government. In the transitional government, he served as the National Security Advisor.  In 2010, he was elevated as the Minister of Foreign Affairs by Karzai, before he stepped down in 2014 to run for Presidential elections, on the insistence of Karzai.

Abdullah Abdullah wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy

His political vision is all about better management and improvement in the current scheme of things. His key campaign themes are moderation, equality and reconstruction. For security, he seeks to pursue diplomacy with neighboring countries to end cross-border terrorism. Unlike his political mentor, he is ready to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.

On negotiations with Taliban, he wants to engage those insurgents who accept the constitution of Afghanistan, and isolate those killing Afghan civilians and security forces. To fight the malaise of corruption, he wishes to bring transparency by appointing officials on the basis of merit. To empower women, he wants to increase employment opportunities for them and give them 20 percent representation in union cabinet.

Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, known as ‘Ustad Sayyaf’, is a conservative leader who has been at the center of many major political events in Afghanistan over last three decades. An alumnus of Al-Azhar University, he was a close aide of Hekmatyar in 1970s, and was put behind bars in 1974 for his criticism of the then government. In 1979, he launched his party Ittihad Islami Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He may be a controversial political figure but he enjoys tremendous public support, and his name was recommended by President Karzai himself.

His political vision is based on people-centric government that seeks to bring rule of law and end the malaise of corruption. He promises to bring visible change in the security environment within four months of his election, and quite interestingly, he is also in favor of the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he wants to engage with ‘good Taliban’ and isolate ‘bad Taliban’ who destroy schools and kill civilians. Among his priorities includes accountability in the political machinery, giving fillip to the culture of meritocracy and eradicating opium cultivation.

Women, he says, would have adequate representation in the government and women’s rights would be respected and safeguarded. Youth will have more job opportunities and focus will be on exploiting the rich mineral resources in the country, modernizing agriculture and improving trade ties with neighboring countries.

Women, says Sayyaf, would have adequate representation in the government and women’s rights would be respected and safeguarded

Qayoom Karzai, the elder brother of President Karzai, is also one of the strong contenders, if not the strongest. He used to run his family business in the U.S. before he returned to Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban. He served as the member of National Assembly of Afghanistan and was also the member of Narcotics Committee in Wolesi Jirga. In October 2008, citing health reasons, he resigned from his seat. He is believed to have played a key role in negotiations with Taliban.

His political vision is focused on economic development and reforms in current Presidential form of government. Unlike his younger brother, he says he will sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. without any caveats. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he also wants to engage only with ‘good’ Taliban who show willingness to join the peace process. The Afghan High Peace Council, which has been negotiating with Taliban on the behalf of government, will be changed into an independent body if he comes to power.

To combat corruption, he wants to cut the red tape, bring transparency and increase the wages of government workers. To empower women, he promises to include them in his grand plans and promote the businesses run by women. For economic development, he wishes to build infrastructure such as railroads, airports and factories. Promoting trade and generating employment is also high on his agenda.

Now, the ball is in the court of voters, majority of them youth. As they say, youth hold the key to 2014 elections and they will decide who should lead the country forward. May the best person win.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/02/17/what-the-presidential-candidates-have-to-offer/blog)

It’s all out war in Kabul!

Weekends in Kabul can be real fun. It was no different yesterday. Kite flying and horse riding at Tappe Nadir Shah, street photography in Shehr e Naw, shopping at Gulbahar City Center, brunch at Serena Hotel. It was a fabulous day till all hell broke loose and joys turned into melancholy. This city can be so ruthlessly unpredictable. You think it’s peaceful and calm and then suddenly a storm erupts and you are forced to eat your words. Yes, all the talk about Afghanistan bouncing back is no fluff. The war-weary country has embraced change after groping in the dark for decades. But, it remains a tinderbox that it has always been and the people continue to live on the razor’s edge. I realized it lastnight.war crimes ii

At around 7 pm, we were driving home after a rip-roaring day, if I may call it so. I was telling my friends how safe Kabul has become and why it is important for the international forces to withdraw and hand over the reins to local Afghan security forces. As we reached the 15th street of Wazir Akbar Khan, a highly-fortified diplomatic enclave of Kabul and home to many embassies and high-end restaurants, a friend warned me about the unpredictability and fickleness of situation in Kabul. You never know what happens when and where, he said.

As the car turned right on the 15th street and was barely 30 meters away from my residence, we heard a massive explosion, following by heavy burst of gunfire

As the car turned right on the 15th street and was barely 30 meters away from my residence, we heard a massive explosion, following by heavy burst of gunfire. My friends looked at me and I looked at them. We parked the car inside, and I turned to security guards. “Is it some crazy festival tonight,” I asked. “No Sir, it is a terrorist attack nearby,” said one of them. There was a moment of silence, interrupted by the deafening sound of gunfire. We realized it was too close.

Someone called to inform it was near Spinney’s, a high-end departmental store, barely 100 meters from our place. The U.S. embassy, which is at a few kilometer distance, immediately sent out alarm calls. Soon we received a confirmation that it was a suicide attack and target was a popular Lebanese restaurant, La Taverna du Liban. The owner of the restaurant, Kamal Hamadi, a Lebanese national, was among the 21 killed in the attack. The Head of IMF’s Kabul office and four UN employees were also killed.

The restaurant is barely 50 meters from our place on the same street. We rushed to the spot but the roads had been cordoned off and there was total chaos. The cops said three terrorists had ambushed the restaurant, which is popular among foreigners. One of them detonated his explosives outside the gate of the restaurant and the other two barged inside.  Carrying AK-47 rifles, the two terrorists went on murderous rampage, firing indiscriminately at everyone. The operation was on till 10 pm, before ambulances arrived at the spot.

The American Embassy, a number of European embassies and the NATO headquarters are all in close proximity; the Norwegian Embassy is in the same lane

Journalists were not allowed too close to the restaurant as police feared one of them might still be holed up inside. Some media organisations got emails from Taliban claiming responsibility for the attack. The statement said they have targeted “a foreign restaurant where foreign invaders were having dinner.” According to the cook who escaped miraculously, the bombers screamed “Allah-u-Akbar” before blowing themselves up.  So, their intention was clear, and it could have been any one of us.

This is unarguably the most popular Lebanese restaurant on 15th street catering to large number of expats living in this locality. The American Embassy, a number of European embassies and the NATO headquarters are all in close proximity. The Norwegian Embassy is in the same lane.

It was the second major attack on foreigners in less than two weeks. On January 4, there was an explosion outside an American military base in Kabul.

Even though the international forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year,  16000 US led allied forces will be staying back to train Afghan forces and for counter insurgency operations after 2014. On the other hand, the stalemate over the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement continues and it has generated lot of debate in recent months. Just after the agreement was passed by Loya Jirga – a grand council of Afghan tribal elders, political leaders and lawmakers – last month, Taliban issued a damning statement, warning of its repercussions.

With historic Presidential elections in Afghanistan just two months away, there is a likelihood of more such audacious attacks. It is an all-out war. “Welcome to Kabul,” says my friend, as we take a stroll on the deserted 15th street a day after the attack.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/18/its-allout-war-in-kabul/blog)

How the ‘lone survivor’ was rescued in the 2005 Operation Red Wings in Kunar

 In the summer of 2005, a team of Navy SEALs embarked on a difficult mission to neutralize a Taliban leader Ahmad Shah inside his hideout in the mountains of northeastern Kunar province, closer to Pakistani border. The team decided to abandon their mission after being discovered by a few Afghan goat herders. But before they could cover the difficult mountainous terrain to safety, the insurgents opened indiscriminate fire at them. Three Navy SEALs were killed on the spot while the fourth one, Marcus Luttrell, managed to escape in a badly wounded state.  Some locals helped him and treated him in that condition.

More than eight years later, the harrowing incident is again in the news, thanks to Lone Survivor, the cinematic adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch. The action thriller, which has already created stir across the world, is releasing tomorrow, January 10.

Afghan Zariza went back to that sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside mountains to look for the family who helped the only survivor of that deadly military operation crawl back to life and freedom. No hustle and bustle, no movement of traffic, no market and no roads. The villagers stare at you with distrust and suspicion, which is partly annoying and partly justifiable. The old scars and wounds, it appears, have not fully healed yet. They tread cautiously, respond to queries warily, and refuse to divulge details about anything related to America and Taliban. The area has been a traditional stronghold of Taliban and people here remain loyal to the guerilla forces.

After running helter-skelter for hours, we come to know the person we are looking for has moved out of the village. He now lives with his family in Asadabad, the capital city of Kunar which is 30 km from Qalacha village. Qalacha is a small, nondescript village in Dara i Pech district, also known as Manogay district. It grabbed the international headlines 8 years ago after that deadly operation.

We head to Asadabad city, capital of Kunar province, nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains, 13 km northwest of Pakistan and 80 km northeast of Jalalabad. After some hard slogging in a big city located at the confluence of Pech River and Kunar River, we manage to find his house. A young man of 26, sporting neat peran tumbaan, traditional Afghan dress, opens the door and greets us with courteous Pashtu expression. He introduces himself as, Gul Mohammad, the son of Mohammad Gulab, the man we are looking for.

“Sangayay,” (how are you) he asks. My colleague replies: “Khayuu,” (we are fine). Quite unexpectedly, he does not grill us with more questions and invites us inside his small house.

Gulab, he says, is in the U.S. since October. “He often travels there on the invitation of the U.S. soldier he had saved eight years ago,” says Gul. His first visit to the United States was less than three years after that incident when Luttrell was writing his book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. Gulab has a special mention in the book that went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

More than eight years later, the harrowing incident is again in the news, thanks to Lone Survivor, the cinematic adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, releasing on January 10

After some interesting chitchat and light banter with his son Gul Mohammad over a cup of sugar-free green tea, a serious conversation picks up. Gul vividly recalls that horrifying episode that turned their world upside-down.

In June 2005, US Navy SEALs came in helicopter to Dara i Pech district of Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan. Calling it Operation Red Wings, the four-member reconnaissance unit had their task cut out: to hunt down the local Taliban commander Ahmad Shah. Despite meticulous planning, the mission went kaput and three members of the unit were gunned down in an ambush.

Some goat herders passing through the mountainous area spotted them, which threw the team of Navy SEALs led Navy Lt. Michael Murphy into a tizzy and forced them to retreat to a defensive position. The change of plan and miscommunication with base led to a deadly ambush, in which all the unit members except Luttrell were killed.

The lone survivor hid himself in a crevice and crawled almost seven miles before he was spotted by Mohammad Gulab, father of Gul Mohammad. Gulab, a Pashtun, who risked his own life to save the U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell. The officer was paralyzed from the waist down, and his body was riddled with gunshots and shrapnel wounds. Gulab, like a true Samaritan, looked after the wounded U.S. soldier for five long days, before Luttrell penned down a note mentioning his location. The note was ferried by one villager to a nearby U.S. military camp, after which a rescue team arrived and took Luttrell.

“It was 8’o clock in the morning when my father saw him, pleading for help,” says Gul. Moved by his plight, Gulab offered him shelter in his small house. He immediately called up his friend who was working with Afghan Red Cross as medic. Unmindful of the repercussions it could have had, the medic went out of his way to treat the wounded U.S. soldier. “It was my duty to treat the patient and it does not matter whether he was an American or an Afghan,” says the medic, who goes by his first name Sarwar. Despite threats from Taliban to hand over the wounded soldier, they did not cave in. “Taliban sent many letters asking to hand over the soldier, but for Pashtuns, it is important to serve a wounded person, irrespective of who he is,” he says.

His words are echoed by Malik Shina, a village elder. “Pashtuns have a rich tradition of hospitality and protection; that man had asked help from a Pashtun family so there was no question of backstabbing him,” says the 80 year old man. He said everyone in the village took their gun and supported Gulab to protect the wounded soldier. “We are not afraid of the Taliban. They still threaten us, but we don’t care because this person came to a Pashtun home and we had to protect him.”

“It was a harrowing experience for my father and our family,” says Gul. “The three U.S. soldiers had been killed and Luttrell was badly wounded, barely able to stand on his feet. The wounded soldier had crawled to the house of Mohammad Gulab with his gun.  “My father felt obliged to help him, because it is a Pashtun tradition to help anyone who comes to your house for sanctuary, be it your friend or your enemy.”

Gulab was interrogated by the U.S. military officers before they came to know he was the savior.  A local journalist, Rohullah Anwari, who was perhaps the only reporter tracking the news that time, was caught by the angry U.S. soldiers when they came to pick Luttrell from the house of Gulab. He spent 10 days detained and questioned.  “I was interviewing the wounded soldier in the house of Gulab when they came and bundled me in a gypsy,” recollects Anwari.

As a reward for their magnanimity, Gulab’s family used to get 2,000 USD every month from Luttrell, however, it stopped coming after three years. “After three years, my father left for U.S. to help Luttrell with the book he was writing on the whole incident, and then he came back to Afghanistan,” Says Gul.

“But, we faced many threats from Taliban for saving the wounded U.S. soldier, which forced us to move from that area to Asadabad city, the center of Kunar province,” says Gul. They family continues to live there and own a house too.

The lone survivor hid himself in a crevice and crawled almost seven miles before he was spotted by Mohammad Gulab, father of Gul Mohammad. Gulab, a Pashtun, who risked his own life to save the U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell 

Though most of the people in their own village supported them, they had to face vicious public backlash from other areas. “It was not easy to deal with the anger and outrage after that incident, as many locals labeled us American stooges,” says Gul. “Most of the people here are fiercely against America and they believe American aggression is responsible for all the problems we are facing today.”
Luttrell, who was awarded the Navy Cross in that 2005 ‘Operation Red Wings’,  recovered from his injuries and was sent to Iraq. The leader of his team, Mike Murphy, whose remains were found during a search and rescue operation on July 4, 2005, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz, also killed in the operation, got the Navy Cross too, making them the most decorated SEAL team in the history.

As a sequel to unsuccessful Operation Red Wings, a fierce offensive was launched throughout Kunar province in August 2005, called Operation Whalers. For 11 straight days and nights, U.S. marines engaged the Taliban guerillas in a fiercest military fight. The dreaded Taliban leader Ahmad Shah was critically wounded in the ambush.

Eight years later, the province continues to be the stronghold of Taliban, and a sword of Damocles continues to loom over people living here.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/09/how-the-lone-survivor-was-rescued-in-2005-operation-red-wings-in-kunar)

A new dawn or an aberration?

Syed Zafar Mehdi

In the summer of 2009, there was a palpable buzz in Kashmir about a young tear-away pacer called Abid Nabi. The tall and muscular 22-year-old was drawing comparisons to many cricketing greats like Javagal Srinath and Waqar Younus. After getting amnesty from Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for playing in a rebel cricket league (ICL), he was back in the hunt and aiming for stars. “My dream to play at the highest level lives on,” he told me in an interview that time, with oozes of self-belief and excitement. He harboured the hopes of becoming the first cricketer from Kashmir to play for India. Nobody else had achieved the feat before, so he was raring to go and break the jinx.

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It is baffling why no one from this cricket-crazy region has played the international cricket, despite the exciting pool of talented young cricketers. In the past, players like Abdul Qayoom Bagoo, Mohuiddin Mirza and Abdul Rauf had been in the reckoning but nobody could break the shackles. Abdul Qayoom once told me in an interview that his prime came around the time when armed militancy was at its peak in Kashmir valley and state cricket association was in shambles. “I needed backing, which was not there”, said Qayoom, who captained the state team for many years and later donned the mantle of J&K team coach as well. Under his captaincy, the state team the first and only time managed to cruise into knockout stage of Ranji trophy in 2002. Like others, Qayoom was excited for Abid Nabi, who he thought would go on to play at the top level.

 

In the sub-continent, cricket is a religion and cricketers are worshipped as deities. In Kashmir, the fanaticism assumes a different dimension and meaning. Every boy on the street wants to be the next Shahid Afridi or Sachin Tendulkar. But, call it the irony of fate, no cricketer from Kashmir has hitherto played at the highest level. “The dismal performance of our state team in the Ranji trophy is the biggest factor,” confides Shuja Husain, opening batsman for Budgam Cricket Club (BCC). He is seconded by many players, coaches and cricket administrators I have over the years interacted with.

Some blame it on ‘non-seriousness’ among players, some blame it on the ‘climatic conditions’ that allow cricket activity only for six to seven months round the year. One veteran cricketer told me a few years ago that the ‘mess’ was because of the infighting and inter-factional rivalries in the state cricket board, headed by a powerful politician, who is as famous for his politics as for his flings. “The right people are not in the right positions in association,” a former cricketer told me on conditions of anonymity. Some felt the need to raise the bar, while some felt the need to upgrade the infrastructure at par with international standards. Some said the selection procedure at state level has been far from admirable, because of which good players keep warming the benches.

One former state level player, who I interviewed last year, spoke at length about the lobbies’ active in state cricket body and lack of any specific criteria for selection of players at zonal level, which has hampered the chances of players from smaller state like J&K. “There is definitely a rampant bias in selection at zonal levels. Skippers of zonal sides mostly favor their own boys, and players from Kashmir are almost always left out,” he said.

Asked if any player from Kashmir were to play at the highest level, Ashwini Gupta, a former state player once told me that it would be the “best thing to happen for game in Kashmir”. So, has the time come?

After being in the reckoning for many years, Abid Nabi seems to have vanished, like many other promising cricketers in the past. Now all of a sudden, the arch lights have turned to a young player from Bigbihera, a small town in the southern Kashmir district of Anantnag. Parvez Rasool, the 24 year old talented bowling all-rounder, will be part of a 15-member squad that will tour Zimbabwe to play five ODI matches from July 24. Coming from a family of cricketers (his father and brother have played professional cricket), Rasool has represented his state J&K from under-14 level. Legendary Indian cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi, also Rasool’s coach and mentor, feels the boy has the “temperament to succeed at the highest level”.

Rasool made his first-class debut for J&K in 2008-09. In the 17 first-class matches so far, he has scored 1003 runs and taken 46 wickets, which is pretty decent for someone who has grown up playing cricket in paddy fields. However, he caught the attention of cricket pundits and selectors last season after a string of impressive performances in Ranji trophy, India’s main domestic cricket competition. In seven Ranji matches, Rasool scored 594 runs with two centuries, and took 33 wickets to finish as the third-highest wicket-taker among spinners in the tournament, and also the top run-getter and wicket-taker for his side.

Soon, he received the news of his selection for India ‘A’ squad to play against England in a one-day warm-up game in Delhi, the first cricketer from Kashmir to make it. It was a curtailed match, so he did not make much of an impression. It was then against Australia, while playing for Board President XI earlier this year, Rasool hit the headlines. He returned with impressive figures of 7/45 and scored swashbuckling 36. Then, he got an offer from Pune Warriors team to play in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) this season.

Soon after the news of his selection broke out, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter were abuzz. Local newspapers in Kashmir were replete with stories and pictures about the new star. To score a few brownie points, state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted his wishes to the young cricketer and the leader of opposition party Mehbooba Mufti went all the way to his home to congratulate his family. He became a poster-boy overnight.

Kashmir, where cricket is a political statement, the support for the Pakistani cricket team is a part of popular folklore. Historians say it has to be seen and understood in the context of their larger political aspirations and their detestation for anything to do with India. So, it would be interesting to see how Kashmir embraces its new star. While he now represents the hopes and aspirations of one billion people who are crazy about the game, back home, a daunting task lies ahead for him to create his fan base. Will the people in Kashmir switch loyalties now to Indian cricket team? “It’s a stupendous achievement and we are really proud of him, but we would still want Pakistan to win against India,” says Aqeel Bhat, a young club cricketer in Kashmir.

An unassuming boy-next-door and a practicing Muslim, he refused to sport the logo of a liquor brand on his Pune Warriors shirt in Indian Premier League (IPL), perhaps taking inspiration from South African star Hashim Amla. The road to success and fame, however, has not been smooth for this latest sensation from Kashmir. In October 2009, while representing J&K team in an under-22 tournament in southern Indian city of Bangalore, Rasool was detained by local police after traces of explosives were allegedly found in his kit bags. He was released after a few days for lack of evidence, not the first Kashmiri to have faced such a situation in an Indian state. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said he was made a “scapegoat” and “arrested mistakenly”. Rasool’s brother Asif accused the Bangalore police of “high handedness”. “The police had used a sniffer dog for detection of any explosive material in their bags. Since there was a copy of holy Quran in the bag, my brother objected, which actually prompted his arrest,” his brother said to media. After a few days in the lock-up, he was back in the nets, bowling those vicious off spinners and lofting the bowlers over mid wicket.

The journey from the horror of lock-up to the limelight of dressing-room looks straight out of a typical Bollywood blockbuster. But, for him, it’s a reality he has lived, and a baggage he will always carry with him. As Rasool gets ready for a fresh innings of his life as the first cricketer from conflict-marred Kashmir to play for India, the big question is: is this a new dawn for cricket in Kashmir or just an aberration?

Mahdism, a revolutionary doctrine

Participants at the Tehran-hosted International Conference on Mahdism enter the conference hall. (file photo)

 
By Syed Zafar Mehdi
 
 
Iran Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani told the recently held International Conference in Tehran that “a new Middle East is being formed as a result of the ongoing wave of Islamic Awakening”. The two-day conference, held June 24-25, was attended by a galaxy of scholars and intellectuals from across the world. A Christian scholar from Lebanon rubbing shoulder with a Muslim scholar from Morocco, discussing the various interpretations of the concept of messianism, is a sight to behold. A total number of 37 research papers were presented in four commissions during the conference.

 

Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Hosseini stated that a society based on Mahdism doctrine is a society where justice, welfare, progress and knowledge prevail.

The idea of a messiah or savior or redeemer is common to all major religions and traditions of the world, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.

In Islamic context, the concept of messianism (Mahdism) revolves around an eschatological figure who will rise and establish a system built on the foundations of justice, peace and social order. In Iran, the concept of Mahdism is deeply entrenched in the popular politico-religious discourse.

The concept emerged as a phenomenon in Iran in the 16th century under Safavid rulers. Since then, it has played a dominating role in shaping the religious and political dynamics in the country.

The Mahdism Doctrine conference, now into its 9th year, seeks to engage with the world on the thought-provoking concept of Mahdism and its relevance in the present times.

The philosophy of Mahdism has tremendous influence on the Iranian foreign policy. To borrow the words of British Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm, the concept can be broadly divided into two categories: passive and revolutionary. In the passive Mahdism, you immerse yourself in prayers and hope for the savior’s reappearance from occultation.

In the revolutionary Mahdism, you stand up and participate in the process of change. Iranian concept of Mahdism, as propagated by Imam Khomeini and later by Imam Khamenei, has revolutionary contours. It calls upon believers to strengthen their faith, individually and collectively, and set the ground for the savior’s reappearance.

In unequivocal terms, The Holy Quran and Prophetic traditions have predicted the glorious triumph of the forces of right over might and the establishment of a society built on the foundations of justice and righteousness. The wait and anticipation for that bright tomorrow continues, and as Imam Sajjad (as) said, “The greatest success is to wait for the reappearance of Imam”. (Al Ihtejaj vol.2 Pg.154. Kamaaluddin vol.1 Pg.320)

Awaiting or anticipating is primarily the result of two main conditions: not satisfied with the status quo and expecting things to change for good. A waiter is never tired of waiting because he knows the wait, however prolonged and distressing, is worth it.

He keeps waiting with an elixir of hope to see and participate in the process of change. But, merely being disgruntled with the status-quo is not sufficient. A person has to step out of the comfort zone, strive hard and prepare the ground for visible and fertile change to happen.

In the present circumstances – with the moral bankruptcy, endemic corruption, grinding poverty, scourge of illiteracy, ignorance, misrule and barbarism reaching the climax – what should an awaiter await for? In more precise terms, what are the responsibilities of a person waiting for the turn-around?

It is important to enjoin others to pursue good deeds (amr bil maruf) and advocate against sinful practices (nahi anil munkar). Extending the helping hand towards poor and marginalized in our society and bridging the yawning gap between haves and have-nots is an essential part of mahdism. We have to be aware of the sinister plots and conspiracies being hatched by the enemies of humankind. An important part of ‘awaiting’ and ‘preparing’ for messiah also includes non-cooperation and resistance against tyrant rulers and corrupt regimes world over.

There is a clear instruction in Holy Quran for believers waiting for the change. “And say to those who do not believe that you act as much as you can. We are also trying. You all wait and surely we all are waiting.” (11:121-122)

But, what does this wait entail and what are the believers waiting for. The narration attributed to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) makes it amply clear. “The world will not perish until a man among the Arabs appears whose name matches my name.” (Sahih al-Tirmidhi, V9, P74)

Looking at the state of affairs today, the discourse around the reappearance of Imam Mehdi (as) and the areas of ground-setting responsibility has assumed lot of significance.

With the world sinking into the proverbial abyss and people across the world grappling with myriad self-inflicted worldly problems, the responsibility on our shoulders increases manifolds. Imam’s occultation, however, does not mean he has abandoned us or that we must despair about the present state of affairs. Imam Ali (a.s.) said: “Await for the reappearance and do not despair of the divine mercy. Because the best deed in the eyes of Allah, the Great and the Mighty is to wait for the Reappearance. It is the duty of those who are believers.” (Al Khisaal, vol2, Pg616)

We are witnessing social, political and cultural disorder across the world today. Morals and ethics have diminished alarmingly. Nagging poverty and financial difficulties have resulted in poor quality of life. Illiteracy and educational backwardness has sent us back to dark ages. The forces of imperialism have become menacingly stronger than ever.

Human rights abuses have become the order of day. Weak and voiceless continue to be oppressed and subjugated by mighty and powerful. In such a depressing scenario, when the darkness of despair prevails everywhere, there is an elixir of hope. The hope lies in the divine intervention.

The hope is the divinely guided leader. ‘Awaiting’ is not a stagnant or sluggish phenomenon. It means constantly striving for perfection, trying to raise the standards of living, trying to fight the demons inside us, trying to fight the monsters in society, and working hard to prepare a fertile ground for Imam’s arrival.

Allah (swt) says in Holy Quran, “O’ Muhammad (pbuh), you are but a warner, and for every community, there exists a guide.” (Quran 13:7). There will always be a divinely gifted guide for people in every age. For us, the people of present age, it is Mehdi, the messiah, the saviour.

What are our responsibilities and duties as believers to prepare the ground for his reappearance? A tradition attributed to Imam Hasan Askari (as) exhorts people of present age to remain vigilant and aware and participate in the process of educational change. “Be aware, if somebody teaches an ignorant, guides a misguided, instills the teachings of Ahlebait, then on the day of Qiyamat, he will be with us. We will give him a seat next to us wherever we may be.” By this narration, it is amply clear that during the period of Imam’s occultation, among the biggest responsibilities on our shoulders is to teach and train ourselves and others and bring reformation in society.

Such ‘reformers’ enjoy a supreme position in front of Allah. Imam Ali Naqi (a.s.) extols the virtues of these ‘reformers’. “Had there not been such scholars in the period of occultation who call people towards the Ahlebait (a.s.), guide towards them, defend their religion with the proofs of Allah, protect weak believers from the devilish designs, deception of the tyrants and tentacles of the enemies of Islam, then surely all would have deviated from the religion of Allah.” (Mahajjatul-Baizaa, Vol. 1, Pg. 32)

Now, there are certain strategies and approaches one must adopt to work towards awakening and progressive change. The strategy has to be simple and well-defined. Grooming children from the elementary level, teaching and training them in the basics of religion and science, imparting lessons in Islamic ideology and philosophy, developing scientific temper in them, making them understand the purpose of existence and the rights and responsibilities as members of the community, explaining how Islam is not just a religion but a complete way of life, stressing on the need to pursue quality education, the need to analyze and interpret unreservedly, the need to inquire and argue fearlessly, the need to debate and discuss passionately, the need to exchange ideas generously, etc.

The approach has to be thoughtful, forward-looking, progressive and result-oriented. It must ensure the gains of education are properly utilized to raise children who are educated, informed, aware, enlightened and active. The objectives of this education and reformation have to be long-term and clearly defined. It must lead us closer to our God, closer to the ultimate truth.

Considering that we are anxiously waiting for someone who is a righteous and virtuous messiah; it’s important that we familiarize ourselves with the ideals of deliverance and act on them in letter and spirit. To prepare the ground for his reappearance, we have to develop a reformist spirit in ourselves and others so that the society undergoes change.

That is possible only through wholesome education. To protect and safeguard our society from social infirmities, ethical degeneration, cultural disorder, ignorance, misrule and anarchy; it’s important to educate ourselves and others around us. If we remain trapped in the vortex of ignorance; social anomalies, cultural dilemmas, and orthodox beliefs will continue to hinder our personal growth and that of the society. As Allah says in Holy Quran, “You are the best nation brought forth for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah”. (3:110)

Once the ground is set, the seeds of the promised rule of Mehdi (as) will sprout in such a society and our agonizing wait shall end.

 

Jab We Met!

 

It was a weekend, when I normally wake up late. My phone suddenly rung up, and to my pleasant surprise, a familiar voice was on the line. I jumped out of the bed, rubbed my eyes, cleared my throat and with a tinge of excitement greeted my Principal Maam. “Beta, we are organizing an alumni meet towards the end of month, will you be coming,” she asked. I have never said ‘no’ to her, and there was no way I could have turned down her request this time, notwithstanding myrigid and rigorous schedule. “Will try, Maam,” I said. Photo0119

For the next few days, I tried to fix my schedule accordingly to make sure I don’t miss the historic event and a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends, teachers and acquaintances. It was a first ever alumni meet, so naturally everyone seemed excited about it. On the morning of March 30, we left Delhi for Aligarh. The long and delightful drive on the new Yamuna Expressway was in stark contrast to our earlier arduous trips to Aligarh through other routes. We reached Aligarh in the afternoon, and it actually felt like home-coming.

As the car halted at the main gate, gatekeeper Aslam appeared out of nowhere to let us in with a broad grin. We shook hands and parked the car in the corner of new, majestic school building. It was prayer time and the beautiful sound of Azaan reverberated in the entire campus. We immediately rushed to prayer hall and the congregation prayer attended by all the students was reminiscent of the good old days. After the prayers, we were escorted to dining hall for lunch. On the menu was the sumptuous chicken biryani, and the aroma was tempting. The magic in Nafees bhai’s hands, despite age catching up with him, remains intact.

541335_10200374452498403_1198921630_nAs we made ourselves comfortable on the dining table, we saw Shabab Sir and Haider Sir making their way inside the hall. All of us immediately stood up and greeted them. As they joined us for lunch, it was a déjà vu moment for many of us. Soon, we saw many other teachers and staff members including Qamar Sir, Nadeem Sir and Ikram Sir rushing in. They were followed by Ansar bhai, Ehtisham bhai, Shafat bhai, Zakir bhai, Zeeshan bhai and others. It was lovely to see all of us together under one roof after so many years.

After the lunch, the rip-roaring cricketing action unfolded in the field. It was a nerve-racking clash between traditional rivals, Teachers XI and Old Boys XI. Teachers XI skipper Haider Sir won the toss and elected to bat first. Our skipper Owais, who was fully charged up, took the ball and ran to his bowling mark. The field was well set. I was at point, Zia bhai was keeping the wickets, Asher bhai was at log off and Jasim was at long leg boundary. Thanks to some big hitting by Raza Sir, who was in his elements, Teachers XI posted the decent score of 84 on the board. Watching the match from sidelines was Principal Maam, who cheered and applauded every run and every wicket. Jasim and I came out to open the batting for Old Boys XI. Jasim returned to pavilion on the very first ball, followed by Asher bhai. It was left to me and Zia bhai to build the innings and later other batsmen contributed handsomely to chase the score quite convincingly. Once again, after years, Teachers XI faced defeat at the hands of Old Boys XI and we kept the tradition alive.Photo0125

After the scintillating game of cricket, we played volleyball and football after ages. For a moment, we forgot that we were grown-ups now, working in different fields and some of us even having kids at home. Time whizzed past and it was prayer time again. After the evening prayers, we changed into formals and rushed to the stunning new auditorium in school building for the main programme of the evening. It was wonderful to see such fantastic infrastructure and facilities in place now, since we had to literally toil a lot in our days. In the new school building, I saw my picture and name on the board of toppers, and it was a moment of unbridled joy and pride.

The evening programme commenced with the recitation of Holy Quran, followed by slideshow of pictures from the past, which turned each one of us nostalgic inside the dim-lit auditorium. Every slide was greeted with thunderous applause. Some of us were called on the stage to speak about our experiences at MUCA and expectations from our younger brothers there. The highlight of the programme for me was an awe-inspiring, eloquent speech by my senior Zia Haider in his inimitable style. Asher bhai, Jasim, Safi, Habib, Owais, Anwar, Shariq, Tasawwur, Kamal and others also spoke about their bitter-sweet MUCA experiences, leaving audience in peals of laughter and tears.644349_10200945495303538_2027298147_n

Raza Sir in his marvellous speech, filled with interesting anecdotes, reminisced about the past and how MUCA has evolved over the years from a small seminary into an extraordinary institution of learning. Naheed Maam, the Principal, thanked students and teachers for making the event a memorable affair, and her emotional words almost left many of us in tears. Haider Sir, the man behind the entire show, said the idea of an alumni meet was first proposed by Safi Akbar, my friend and classmate. As a token of love, mementos were distributed among the old boys, who took a solemn pledge to make their alma mater proud.

After the programme, we got an opportunity to meet and interact with our beloved teachers including Zehra Maam, Nahida Maam, Waheeda Maam, Zulfiqar Sir, and Hindi Maam. We exchanged pleasantries, shared smiles, clicked pictures and had dinner together. Finally, after a tiring day, we rushed to the dormitory in new hostel building and slept. Early morning, as the rays of sun pierced through windows, some prankster sprayed cold water over us, reminding us of our own pranks during our days there. We got up, took shower and rushed to dining hall for the breakfast. To our surprise, the Sunday menu was still the same. It was my favourite puri halwa and sabzi and we relished it totally.Photo0183

After the breakfast, some went to common room for a movie, some rushed to sports room for a game of table tennis, some assembled in the playground for a game of football and some ventured out of the campus for a walk. I went out to meet some old friends in university. Later in the day, most of us left back after two wonderful, unforgettable days.

It was a reunion that brought us all together after so many years, and it was fantastic to see everyone, despite their stringent schedules and other preoccupations, take out time for the alumni meet. We missed many of our friends and teachers who could not make it owing to some unavoidable circumstances.

It’s back to work now, but we shall meet again in the next alumni meet, next year. I hope it’s an even better, bigger and impressive gathering then.

P.S, We are Aligarians for life.

Zafar