Life and legacy of a revolutionary poet

 

 

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Some goodbyes are never said easily. I vividly remember that somber rainy morning, exactly two years ago, when raindrops gently mixed with teardrops.  My uncle, who taught us how to fight against odds, had lost the biggest battle of his life. His tragic and untimely death left us all shattered but gave us a new resolve to carry forward his unfinished mission.

Of course, life is a fleeting shadow and death is inevitable. We all have to depart someday. So, I will not mourn his death. I will celebrate his life, his legacy.

Prof. Syed Mohammad Raza, ‘Raza Uncle’ or ‘Raza Sir’ for many of us, was an acclaimed scholar and poet of Kashmiri and Urdu. His contribution to Kashmiri literature, especially Kashmiri poetry, will be remembered for a very long time. He taught Urdu at Kashmir University for many years.

Prof. Raza’s love for Kashmiri language, history and culture was unmistakably reflected in his works. In our ‘noon-chai discussions’, he would often lament over the slow and painful demise of Kashmiri language. He wanted Kashmiri youth, including myself, to emulate the likes of Mahjoor, Rehman Rahi and Amin Kamil.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode

He was perhaps the best-known expert on Ghalibyat in Kashmir. He was tremendously influenced by the works of Mirza Asadullah Ghalib. Once, while in Delhi for a conference, he literally dragged me to Ghalib’s grave in Nizamuddin.  Then, we spent hours in the adjacent Ghalib Academy, searching for rare manuscripts.

Apart from being a prolific writer, Prof. Raza was also a voracious reader. There was hardly any space to sit in his small living room at his ancestral home in Budgam. The collection of books ranged from biographies of renowned scholars and poets, contemporary world history, Islamic history, Kashmir politics and poetry books.

He would so passionately talk about Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx, Locke, Avicenna, Confucius, Foucault, Iqbal, Ghalib, Maududi and Khomeini. There was never a dull moment with him around. His scholarly temperament was infectious and his intellectual pursuits were mighty. Literary people tend to be tad serious and somber but his sense of humor was razor sharp, which often had us in splits.

Prof. Raza was also perhaps the best-known marsiya nigaar (one who writes elegiac poems in the memory of the martyrs of Karbala) in Kashmir. He perfected the art of writing nauhas (elegies) in Kashmiri language. During the month of Muharram, he would appear on local television channels to recite nauhas and host special commemorative shows on Muharram. He was greatly influenced by the works of Mir Anees and Mirza Dabir, the two greatest exponents of marsiya nigari.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode. Despite the floods and heavy rain, thousands of people participated in his funeral, which included many eminent literary personalities of Kashmir valley. Rain and tears were virtually indistinguishable as people slowly marched towards the graveyard.

I had flown from Kabul just a few days before his death. We had planned to visit many places and work together on many projects but it turned out to be our last meeting. I lost a friend, philosopher and guide. But, as Thomas Campbell said, to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. He lives on.

 (First published in The Witness magazine)

 

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Al-Quds Day: Rallying for the liberation of Palestine

Syed Zafar Mehdi

“And for those who after having been treated badly bring about justice themselves, against them no action can be taken. Action will only be taken against those who are unjust to people and who without reason become violent on earth. These are the ones who will receive painful punishment.” (Surah Ash Shura: 41-42)

For the campaigners of truth and justice, International Al-Quds Day (Yaumul Quds Al-Alami) has an extraordinary historical significance. Al-Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem. It is an affirmation of our solidarity with the oppressed and subjugated people of Palestine in their struggle for the liberation of Jerusalem, the third holiest sanctuary for Muslims. It is an expression of unwavering commitment to end the Tel Aviv regime’s horrendous atrocities in the occupied territories of Palestine.

Al-Quds Day was first observed in 1979 in Iran by Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, soon after the Islamic Revolution. Since then, the day is observed across the world every year on the last Friday (Jumatul Wida) of Ramadan to express solidarity with Palestinians and to protest the Zionist entity’s illegal occupation of Jerusalem. It also calls for the political unification of Muslims, cutting across the ideological divide, for the cause of justice and righteousness. Last year, Al-Quds Day demonstrations were held in 770 major cities in more than 80 countries across the world.

The holy month of Ramadan granted Muslims a historic victory in the Battle of Badr. It is the month in which the holy city of Mecca was conquered and cleared of idol worshippers (mushrikeen). It is the month in which all the Abrahamic scriptures, including the Holy Quran, were revealed. It is the spirit of this month that inspired our brave forefathers to struggle in the way of Allah and overcome insurmountable odds. So it is highly appropriate that the last Friday of this blessed month is dedicated to the struggle of Palestinians and all other oppressed people of the world.

The idea of Al-Quds Day solidarity rallies was conceived by Ayatollah Khomeini, who appealed to Muslims across the world to extend moral support to their brethren in Palestine. In August 1979, Khomeini declared the liberation of Jerusalem ‘a religious duty of all Muslims’. “I invite Muslims all over the globe to observe the last Friday of Ramadan as Al-Quds Day, and to pledge support and solidarity to the people of Palestine and their legitimate rights. I ask all the Muslims of the world and the Muslim governments to join hands and sever the hand of this usurper and its supporters,” he said.

It is highly appropriate that the last Friday of this blessed month is dedicated to the struggle of Palestinians and all other oppressed people of the world.

It is also a day to remember people in other occupied lands, who are abused and crushed by strong military powers. “The Al-Quds Day is a universal day. It is not an exclusive day for Quds (Jerusalem). It is a day for the oppressed and the supporters of oppressed to rise and stand up against the arrogant oppressors,” Khomeini said.

During the first Palestinian Intifada in January 1988, the Jerusalem Committee of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) declared that Al-Quds Day be observed publicly throughout the Arab world. Their official endorsement of Al-Quds Day was significant as some Arab countries who had strategic ties with Israel found themselves isolated.

Every year, on the Al-Quds Day, hundreds of people pour into the narrow streets of Gaza to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The officials of Hamas, Islamic Jehad Movement (IJM), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and other resistance groups also take part in these public gatherings. Massive rallies are also taken out in Britain, Canada, Sweden, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, United States etc. Protestors wave Palestinian flag and raise slogans like ‘Death to Israel and America’, ‘Israel Your Days Are Numbered’, ‘Zionism Must Go’ and ‘From River to Sea Palestine Will Be Free’.

Every year, on the Al-Quds Day, hundreds of people pour into the narrow streets of Gaza to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine

In Britain and US, many anti-Zionist Jews and Christians also attend these rallies and join the chorus for the liberation of Palestine. Rabbi Joseph Kohn, speaking at the Al-Quds Day rally in Houston last year, said the city of Quds was forcibly occupied by the Zionist state of Israel. “When the state of Israel was formed, Palestinians were totally ignored, as the Zionist slogan went ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. They were displaced, oppressed, killed and robbed – unjustly and illegally – in order to make room for the creation of the modern state of Israel,” he said.

According to Ramazan Sharif, the head of the Quds Center at Iran’s Islamic Propagation Coordination Council, Al-Quds Day has a major influence on the issue of Palestine and prevents it from sliding into oblivion. Al-Quds rallies seek to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians and the atrocities unleashed on them by the Zionist state.

Al-Quds Day will continue to be observed every year until there is a complete and unconditional withdrawal of Israelis from the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. The return of Palestinians who were forced to leave their land after the 1948 Nakba should be facilitated, and they must be compensated for the damage of land and property. There should be a complete ban on the construction of new settlements and immediate evacuation of all existing settlements. More than half a million Israelis occupy over 120 illegal settlements built since 1967. These settlements blatantly violate the Hague and Geneva Conventions, threaten Al-Aqsa Mosque and violate the sanctity of the sacred Islamic sites.

Hence, it is a sacred duty of all Muslims, and people of conscience, to raise their voice, individually and collectively, against the naked aggression, in Palestine and all other occupied lands across the globe, on Al-Quds Day.

(First published in Press TV website)

Why I feel at home in Afghanistan

At Home in Afghanistan

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Working in strife-torn Afghanistan is nothing short of a thrilling, awe-inspiring adventure. It’s like walking on the razor’s edge, groping in the dark, and dealing with myriad glorious and inglorious uncertainties of life.

For many khaarijee (read: foreign) journalists coming to this beleaguered country is tantamount to imperiling life and safety. For me, though, it felt like a homecoming. As Miguel Syjuco writes in ‘Ilustrado’, the ruckus of homecoming is brutally enjoyable.

In October 2013, when the biting chill of winter was beginning to set in, I touched down in Kabul. A small step, I must confess, felt like a giant leap. A fleet of U.S. army choppers quite ominously greeted me at the highly-fortified Kabul airport. It was not unsettling or astonishing. It was a feeling of déjà vu. Indian army choppers at the Srinagar airport is a familiar sight.

Before leaving for Kabul, I was repeatedly warned of dire consequences by some doomsayers and scaremongers. I refused to fret or fume. For someone who has grown up in the Kashmir of 1990s, there is no scope for fear. We have seen the worst.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways.

We, the people of Kashmir, have lived through decades of conflict. We have harrowing childhood memories. We have suffered long enough and sacrificed too much. And yet we have stood firm and resisted all the overt and covert attempts to break our resolve.

Nothing can more compellingly illustrate the unflinching spirit of people than their determination to resist. Afghanistan, like Kashmir, mostly conjures up the macabre images of death and destruction. The war-weary people of Afghanistan, like the people of Kashmir, have been suffering for more than three decades. Both are occupied by foreign forces and both want freedom from occupation.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways. Security situation never improves; spring weather is always unpredictable; municipality workers never show up; public transport is always crowded; loudspeakers go ballistic on Ramadan nights, and weddings are always big and fat.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have always managed to pass off as a local, which makes me, in the words of my Afghan friends, “both an insider and outsider”. The one thing that strikes you most is the extraordinary hospitality accorded by people in provinces. Despite living a life of penury, they know how to make guests feel special, even complete strangers.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have somehow always managed to pass off as a local

I vividly remember my first trip out of Kabul to eastern Kunar province in January last year, exactly eight years after the ‘Operation Red Wings’ in which three U.S. Navy SEALs were killed by Taliban insurgents and one managed to survive.

I went to a sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside the mountains of Kunarto to look for the family who helped the American soldier, the only survivor of that deadly military operation. After running helter-skelter for hours, wearing local dress to avoid unwanted attention, I finally managed to track the family. They opened the door and treated me like an honorable guest.

Gulab, head of the family, risked his own life to save the American soldier from Taliban because of an age-old tradition of hospitality and protection among Afghans. “That man had asked help from a Pashtun family so we had to protect him even if he was our enemy,” Gulab told me. His words were impactful and moving.

At his insistence, I spent the night in their modest one-storey home and was accorded wonderful hospitality. From a complete stranger, I suddenly became a part of their family.

Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence

Afghanistan, like Kashmir, is also a breathtakingly beautiful country. Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence. But, quite interestingly, Afghanshave huge admiration for the beauty of Kashmir, which is illustrated by a famous Pashtu proverb: ‘harcha ta khpalwatan Kashmir de’ (for everyone, their country is like Kashmir).

There is some inherent bond between Afghanistan and Kashmir, not simply because Afghans have ruled over us but because there are many things that unite us. A jolly taxi driver in Kabul once told me that he so desperately wants Kashmir to be part of Afghanistan “because both are torn by conflict and both are occupied by khwarijees”. He used the choicest of expletives for India and Pakistan, accusing them of proxy war in Afghanistan. And to my pleasant surprise, he knew Kashmir politics better than many of our commentators, and even offered to mediate ‘peace talks’ between various factions of Hurriyat.

The two action-packed years I have spent in this country have been truly enriching. Waking up every morning to write about suicide attacks, IED explosions, drone strikes, armed clashes and kidnappings is a daunting task. And most of the time, we happen to be in the line of fire ourselves, working under dangerous, life-threatening conditions. According to a local media watchdog body, 2014 was the deadliest year for journalists in Afghanistan.

In March last year, I lost a friend and guide, a courageous journalist who was killed along with his wife and two small children in a hotel attack, a day before Navroz, Afghan New Year. Following the tragic incident, journalists in Kabul announced the boycott of Taliban coverage. Less than a week later, a Swedish journalist was shot dead by unknown assailants just a few blocks from my home.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan

In such a stressful environment, it is important to not lose sanity. A game of cricket at Darul Aman ground, boating in Qargah Lake, horse-riding on Nadir Hill, mountain-climbing in Paghman and fishing at Sarobi helps in some ways.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan, as we saw in eastern Paktika province last November. More than 60 people were killed in a powerful suicide attack during a volleyball match. As expected, no group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Life is a perennial struggle in this country that continues to be a flammable tinderbox. It explodes anytime and consumes anyone. But, the spirit of life refuses to die. Long Live Afghanistan. Long Live Kashmir.

(First published in GK magazine Kashmir Ink)

Brief history of American terrorism

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

“There are two ways to approach the study of terrorism,” notes Noam Chomsky in widely-acclaimed book Western State Terrorism. “One may adopt a literal approach, taking the topic seriously, or a propagandistic approach, construing the concept of terrorism as a weapon to be exploited in the service of some system of power. It comes as no surprise that the propagandistic approach is adopted by governments generally, and by their instruments in totalitarian states.”

Chomsky maintains that there are many terrorist states in the world, but the United States puts its rivals to shame when it comes to perpetuating ‘international terrorism’. A 2010 research undertaken by Professor Mark Sageman of University of Pennsylvania lends credence to what Chomsky says. The research findings establish the fact that terrorism is a product of the West.

Let’s make no bones about it, the menacing threat of ‘nuclear terrorism’ does not come from some ruthless jihadist cluster, but from the hard-nosed western nuclear powers who form the core of the NATO alliance, and keeping intimidating and threatening the non nuclear weapon states.

The history of US imperialism is replete with stories of unilateral belligerent military strikes, gory massacres and socio-cultural aggression. In this no-holds-barred brinkmanship, the US and its allies have sought to impose their writ on other nations, more so on those who have refused to swear allegiance to Uncle Sam’s hegemony. The blatant war-mongering and sinister desire to inflict suffering on others is best explained by these words of American writer Andre Vltchek.

The menacing threat of ‘nuclear terrorism’ does not come from some ruthless jihadist cluster, but from the hard-nosed western nuclear powers who form the core of the NATO alliance

“West has always behaved as if it had an inherited, but undefined, right to profit from the misery of the rest of the world. In many cases, the conquered nations had to give up their own culture, their religions, even their languages, and convert to our set of beliefs and values that we define as ‘civilized’.

Guatemala Civil War that continued from 1960 to 1996 was bitterly fought between the government of Guatemala and ethnic Mayans, in which the government of Guatemala committed worst human rights abuses and engineered genocide of Mayan population of Guatemala. Historical Clarification Commission set up under the Oslo Accords of 1994 concluded that the Guatemala military committed murder, torture and rape with the tacit support of CIA. The commission stated the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.”

Noam Chomsky in his book What Uncle Sam Really Wants writes, “Under Reagan, support for near-genocide in Guatemala became positively ecstatic. The most extreme of the Guatemalan Hitlers we’ve backed there, Rios Montt, was lauded by Reagan as a man totally dedicated to democracy. In the early 1980s, Washington’s friends slaughtered tens of thousands of Guatemalans, mostly Indians in the highlands, with countless others tortured and raped. Large regions were decimated.”

Direct or indirect support for death squads has been an integral part of CIA operations. CIA’s death squad operations in Vietnam led to killing of over 35,000 people. The Vietnam War dominated 30 long years of Vietnam’s history from 1940s to 1970s. President Ford, reacting to Senate and House committee reports, conceded that the CIA had become a ‘rogue elephant’ crushing foreign citizens under foot in its bid to win the Cold War. More than 20,000 Vietnamese were killed during the CIA-guided Operation Phoenix intended to weed out communist ‘agents’ from South Vietnam.

American role in the violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Popular Unity government of Salvador in 1980s was a watershed moment for the country. Bush family loyalists maintain that President Bush senior’s policies paved the way for peace, turning Salvador into a democratic success story. However, it took more than 70,000 deaths and grave human rights violations, before peace was brokered. To crush the rebels, the US trained an army that kidnapped and killed more than 30,000 people, and presided over large-scale massacre of old, women and children.

Direct or indirect support for death squads has been an integral part of CIA operations. CIA’s death squad operations in Vietnam led to killing of 35,000 people

In the mid-1970s, a major scandal broke out after revelations that President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’ in Chile and to prevent Allende from coming to power. Years later, CIA acknowledged its deep involvement in Chile where it dealt with coup-plotters, false propagandists and assassins.

In a review of Lubna Qureishi’s book Nixon, Kissinger, and Allende: US Involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile, Howard Doughty writes, “The United States and its allies have an unseemly history of hostility to democracy abroad that seems to conflict with their expressed political principles and their stated purpose in engaging in military and diplomatic action abroad. Not only in Latin America, but in Africa, Asia and occasionally in Europe, it has openly and clandestinely supported dictatorships.”

The US government’s cozy relationship with its illegitimate offspring Israel is no secret. It has paid Israel almost one hundred billion dollars over the years, major part of which is used for occupying Palestinian territories, in blatant breach of international laws and umpteen UN resolutions. Veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk draws parallels between Israel and apartheid regime of South Africa. “No matter how many youths are shot dead by the Israelis, no matter how many murders and no matter how bloody the reputation of the Israeli Prime Minister, we are reporting this terrible conflict as if we supported the South African whites against the blacks.”

US has paid Israel almost one hundred billion dollars over the years, major part of which is used for occupying Palestinian territories, in blatant breach of international laws and UN resolutions

Likewise, Columbia, arguably one of the most violent countries in the world, is the beneficiary of massive U.S. aid. Some political observers like Professor John Barry are of the opinion that US influence has only managed to catalyze internal conflicts and substantially expand the scope and nature of human rights abuses in Colombia. And ironically, most American people remain naïve about the shady role of their country in Colombia’s historical development and the unremitting violence.

In Cuba, America’s record is again appalling. It has been involved in attempted assassinations of state heads, bombings, military invasions, crippling sanctions et al. And, recent reports suggest that the U.S. government’s covert attack on Cuba’s sovereignty continues unabated. Even after half a century, economic blockade remains in force. The country has been designated a ‘terrorist state’, figuring prominently on the State Department’s list of ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’. The five Cuban political prisoners are still behind bars. Now a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office reveals that money is being pumped into projects directed at changing Cuba’s government.

Washington’s support for the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua between 1981 and 1990 is one of the most shocking and shameful secrets. The heinous terrorist activities contras engaged in had full backing of their masters in Washington. “The decision of the International Court of Justice in June 1986 condemning the United States for the ‘unlawful use of force’ and illegal economic warfare was dismissed as an irrelevant pronouncement by a ‘hostile forum’,” notes Noam Chomsky in Western State Terrorism. “The guiding principle, it appears, is that the US is a lawless terrorist state and this is right and just, whatever the world may think, whatever international institutions may declare.”

On March 8, 1985, in an assassination bid on Sheikh Mohammed Fazlullah by CIA, a powerful car bomb exploded outside a Beirut mosque in Lebanon, leaving 81 civilians dead. Celebrated investigative reporter Bob Woodward says that CIA director William Casey had admitted personal culpability in the attack while he lay on his deathbed, which he said was carried out with funding from Saudi Arabia. In December 1989, almost 27,000 US soldiers invaded a small Central American country of Panama to arrest General Manuel Noriega, a CIA asset-turned-rebel. In the ‘Operation Just Cause’, bombs rained down on three neighborhoods – Colon, San Miguelito and El Chorillo. El Chorillo was burnt to the ground and got a new nickname – ‘Little Hiroshima’. As per conservative estimates, between 2,000 and 6,000 people were killed in the events that unfolded. Many of them were dumped into mass graves.

Back in 1953, a joint British-American operation toppled the democratic government chosen by the Iranian parliament, and installed their loyal dictator

Congo has been through violent times since its independence. Many observers trace it to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo, which was apparently done at the behest by the then U.S. President Eisenhower. In Haiti, the U.S. backed the Duvalier family dictatorship for 30 years, during which the CIA worked closely with death squads, executioners, and drug traffickers. The father-son duo’s three decades at helm was marked by brutally crushing dissent with the assistance of secret police and the Haitian army. Thousands were killed and tortured – many of them dumped in mass graves. Hundreds of thousands fled the country to escape from mindless violence.

The 1983 invasion of Grenada was the first major American military assault since Vietnam War. The news was blocked as the U.S. government didn’t want the world to witness the great superpower bashing up a small island nation. Why did the United States invade Grenada? “Many believe that Grenada was seen as a bad example for other poor Caribbean states,” opines Stephen Zunes, author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism. “Its foreign policy was not subservient to the American government and it was not open to having its economy dominated by U.S. corporate interests.”

In Greece, America supported a coup against an elected leader George Papandreou, which followed the years of murder, torture, and fear in the late 1960s. In Cambodia, the US resorted to carpet bombing to overthrow President Prince Sihanauk, who was replaced by Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge and that led to millions of civilian casualties between mid 1950s and 1970s. In 1965, which New York Times called ‘one of the most savage mass slayings of modern political history’, U.S. embassy had compiled lists of ‘Communist’ operatives in Indonesia, from top echelons down to village cadres, as many as 5,000 names, and handed them over to the army, which then hunted them down and killed.

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. used the Marshall Islands to conduct nuclear tests. All the inhabitants had to flee their homes. It is still not safe to consume food grown there. In the words of Robert Alvarez, “the people of the Marshall Islands had their homeland and health sacrificed for the national security interests of the United States”. The nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 remain the darkest chapter of history. Almost 150,000 people paid for their lives instantly, while millions more died of radiation poisoning later. Truman ordered the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, followed by a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki on August 9. The same day, the Soviet Union attacked the Japanese and, in the following two weeks 84,000 Japanese were killed.

The myth of the “outside enemy” and the threat of “Islamic terrorists” was the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s military doctrine

Back in 1953, a joint British-American operation toppled the democratic government chosen by the Iranian parliament, and installed their loyal dictator. The coup restored the Shah to absolute power, initiating a period of 25 years of repression and torture, while the oil industry was restored to foreign ownership, with the US and Britain each getting 40 percent. That was before Ayatullah Khomeini mobilized masses and threw out the Western puppet.

Marjorie Cohn, a professor of international law, in an article written in November 2001 maintained that the bombings of Afghanistan by the United States were illegal. His argument was based on the premise that, according to UN Charter, disputes have to be brought to the UN Security Council, which alone may authorize the use of force. Also, if your nation has been subjected to an armed attack by another nation, you may respond militarily in self-defense. Afghanistan did not attack the United States. Indeed, the 19 men charged with the crime were not Afghans. Twelve years down the line, the foreign military troops are still stationed in Afghanistan, hundreds of billion dollars have been spent, and at least 31,000 people in Afghanistan (civilians, insurgents, Afghan military forces, and others) have been killed in the war.

The myth of the “outside enemy” and the threat of “Islamic terrorists” was the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s military doctrine, used as a pretext to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, writes Michel Chossudovsky, author of The Globalisation of Poverty. More than a decade after U.S. invaded Iraq, it’s still not clear why they did it. But it’s a fact, even acknowledged by the western media, that the war for Iraq was a war for oil. “Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s domestic oil industry was fully nationalized and closed to Western oil companies. A decade of war later, it is largely privatized and utterly dominated by foreign firms,” reads a CNN report

There is this concept of ‘good terrorism’ and ‘bad terrorism’. For the US and its closest ally Israel, the Tunis bombing was not an act of terror but justifiable retaliation for the murder of three Israelis in Cyprus. The 1985 Iron Fist operation of the Israeli army in southern Lebanon was also guided by the same logic. “From 1945 to the end of the 20th century, the USA attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes. In the process, the USA caused the end of life for several million people, and condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair,” writes William Blum in his book Rogue State. It will not qualify as ‘terrorism’ because the perpetrator is the world’s only super-power. In a 1986 interview, Noam Chomsky argued that the word “terrorism” had been redefined in political and popular discourse to only refer to the violent acts of small or marginal groups – what he refers to as “retail terrorism”. This is in contrast with violent acts performed by the State in its own interest which orthodox terrorism studies often exclude from consideration.

The political leaders and scholars in Muslim countries have to muster courage to condemn the so-called ‘good’ terrorism spearheaded by US and its allies like Britain, Israel, France. A few years ago, Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani took the lead, blaming the West for spreading terrorism across Asia, and warning that the policy will ultimately backfire. “This evil phenomenon is the gift of the West to the region, but nurturing terrorist and extremist groups is bad and worrying even for the future of Western countries, notably the United States,” said Larijani.

Tailpiece: The breeding ground of terrorism is not any Muslim country, but the United States.

(First published on Press TV website)

Setting the ground for Imam’s reappearance

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Imam Asr

The idea of a messiah or savior or redeemer is common to all religious schools of thought, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. In the Islamic context, the concept of messianism, which is the belief in a messiah, revolves around an eschatological figure who is expected to rise and fill the earth will peace, justice and social order.

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

Awaiting is primarily the result of two main conditions: not satisfied with the status quo and expecting things to change for good. But, merely being disgruntled with the status quo is not sufficient. A person has to step out of his comfort zone and prepare the ground for visible and productive change to happen. In more precise terms, he has to participate in the process of change.

In the words of British historian Eric Hosbawm, the concept of messianism, which we call Mahdism, can be broadly divided into two categories: passive and active. In the passive Mahdism, people immerse themselves in prayers and hope for the savior’s early reappearance. In the active or revolutionary Mahdism, people run the gauntlet and participate in the process of change.

In today’s era – with the moral bankruptcy, endemic corruption, grinding poverty, and scourge of illiteracy, ignorance, misrule and barbarism reaching the climax – what should a waiter wait for? What are the responsibilities of a person waiting for the change to happen?

The forces of imperialism have become menacingly stronger than ever. Human rights abuses have become frighteningly rampant. Weak and voiceless continue to be oppressed and subjugated by mighty and powerful

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.” (Quran 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)

We are witnessing social, political and cultural upheaval across the world today. Morals and ethics have degraded alarmingly. Grinding poverty has resulted in the 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 frighteningly rampant. Weak and voiceless continue to be oppressed and subjugated by mighty and powerful.

In such a 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, the Mehdi (ajtf), who is expected to come out of the occultation and establish a system based on the divinely ordained laws. It will be an ultimate victory of truth, justice and righteousness. “Mehdi (ajtf) is no longer an idea waiting to be materialized nor a prophecy that needs to be substantiated,” Shaheed Baqir as Sadr writes in An Inquiry Concerning Al Mahdi, “he is a living reality, a particular person, living among us in flesh and blood, who shares our hopes, suffering and sorrows is waiting for the appropriate moment to stretch his hand to every oppressed and needy person and eliminate the tyrants.”

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 and every time. For us, the people of this age, it is the Mehdi (ajtf).

Looking at the state of affairs today, the discourse around the reappearance of Imam Mehdi (as) and the responsibility of setting the ground for his reappearance has assumed huge significance. With the world sinking into the abyss of darkness and people across the world grappling with myriad self-inflicted woes, the responsibility on our shoulders has increased. Imam’s occultation, however, does not mean he has abandoned us or that we must despair about the present state of affairs. Imam Ali (as) said: “Await for the reappearance (of Imam) 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 (of Imam). It is the duty of those who are believers.” (Al Khisaal, vol2, Pg616).

The hope is the divinely guided leader, the Mehdi (ajtf), who is expected to come out of the occultation and establish a system based on the divinely ordained laws. It will be an ultimate victory of truth, justice and righteousness

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

Such educational reformers enjoy supreme position in the eyes of Allah (swt). Imam Ali Naqi (as) extols the virtues of these reformers. “Had there not been such scholars in the period of occultation who call people towards the Ahlulbayt (as), guide towards them, defend their religion with the proofs of Allah, protect weak Muslims 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)

It’s important to enjoin others to pursue good deeds (amr bil maaruf) and advocate against sinful practices (nahi anil munkar). Spreading awareness about the sinister plots and conspiracies being hatched by the enemies of Islam is another big responsibility. We must promote and propagate the divine message of Islam and develop scientific temper in our youth through education and reformation.

The practice of writing ariza must be encouraged so that the youngsters become more aware of their duties and responsibilities. We must strive to expose the corrupt rulers and extend helping hand towards poor and needy in our society. We must constantly try to polish our morals and ethics to be able to join Imam’s army.  Above all, we must raise our voice – individually and collectively – against corruption, injustice, terrorism, crime, immorality and other such menaces.

What is important is the right strategy and approach to pave the ground for educational awakening and social reformation. Grooming children from the elementary level, making them understand the purpose of existence and their responsibilities, explaining how Islam is not just a religion but a complete way of life, stressing on the need to analyze with a free mind, the need to inquire and argue fearlessly, the need to debate and discuss passionately, and the need to exchange ideas generously. The approach has to be thoughtful, progressive and result-oriented. It must ensure the gains of education are properly utilized to bring up children who are educated, informed, aware and enlightened.

Considering that we are impatiently 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. To protect society from social infirmities, ethical degeneration, cultural disorder, 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 (swt) 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” (Quran 3:110). The seeds of the promised rule of Mehdi (as) shall soon sprout and our agonizing wait shall end.

Responding to existing and emerging healthcare challenges in Afghanistan


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Afghan government, with the help of its international partners, has made indefatigable efforts to create a functional healthcare system in Afghanistan but there are still many hurdles to cross and many critical tasks to accomplish

The decades of war and turbulence have taken a heavy toll on life in Afghanistan. It has also quite severely affected the capacity of concerned agencies to respond to critical public healthcare challenges.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations public health arm, Afghanistan’s health status is one of the worst in the world with some of the health indicators three to five-fold higher than in neighboring countries.

While the local and international healthcare experts, equipped with skills and machinery, have played an instrumental role in setting up healthcare infrastructure after 2001, there are still many hurdles to cross and many critical tasks to accomplish.

Even though there are about 2170 healthcare centers across the country, the quality healthcare service is lacking, forcing a large majority of Afghans to fly abroad, mostly to India and Pakistan, for medical treatment.

Oxfam, a global aid and charity organization, in its 2013 annual report stated that 25 percent population in Afghanistan still has no access to healthcare services. Ministry of Public Health earlier this year said one in every ten children in Afghanistan loses his or her life before reaching the age of five.

The public healthcare challenges in Afghanistan manifest itself in multiple ways. The lack of healthcare infrastructure, shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, lack of robust government policy, sub-standard drugs in the market, precarious security environment are some of the major hurdles.

While lot of money has gone into establishing tertiary care hospitals across Afghanistan, the standard and robust healthcare infrastructure is still missing in many parts of the country

The former president, Hamid Karzai, who accompanied his wife to India for medical purpose earlier this year, was often criticized for not paying enough attention to healthcare sector in Afghanistan.

His predecessor, Ashraf Ghani has looked comparatively proactive in the early part of his tenure. His wife, Rula Ghani, has publicly expressed concern over the abysmal quality of maternal healthcare system and shortage of female healthcare professionals in Afghanistan.

Healthcare challenges and the response of government
In a post-conflict country, the challenges of creating a functional healthcare system are always massive. Over the past 13 years, the Afghan government, with the help of its international partners, has made indefatigable efforts to rebuild the healthcare system that was lying in ruins following the years of war. While lot of progress has been made, many challenges continue to persist.

According to observers and medical practitioners, health status has improved considerably over the past 13 years, but lot more needs to be done. “We have come a long way in past 13 years in terms of healthcare infrastructure and service delivery,” says Dr. Musa Wardak, orthopedic surgeon at Shinozada Hospital in Kabul. “But there are still many loopholes that need to be plugged and the onus lies on all stakeholders, including the government and private sector.”

While lot of money has gone into establishing tertiary care hospitals across Afghanistan, the standard and robust healthcare infrastructure is still missing in many parts of the country. Consequently, a large majority of population living in provinces still have no access to quality healthcare services.

The shortage of skilled healthcare workforce makes the matters worse. “We lack latest procedures and support facilities here and doctors don’t always have the requisite skills to deal with emergency medical cases,” says Dr. Shapoor Musa, a Kabul-based doctor.

A large majority of Afghan patients fly to India for advanced medical treatment. “Patients from Afghanistan who have come here have achieved good results and are now referring their friends and relatives too,” says Dr. Yash Gulati, senior consultant at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.

In early 2002, soon after the establishment of an interim government, the Ministry of Public Health announced the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) to ensure basic healthcare services reach to majority of population in Afghanistan.

The scheme has been instrumental in the delivery of basic healthcare services, especially in provinces, but many challenges persist. “It was a good step to ensure basic healthcare services are provided to citizens, but we still have not done enough to provide primary healthcare services,” says Dr. Parvez Meeri, who works at Nasir Khusrao Balkhi Hospital in Kabul.

The main challenges in rebuilding healthcare system in Afghanistan, according to Dr. Ruhullah Rasik, doctor at Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul, include lack of infrastructure, abysmal security, economic problems, lack of access to healthcare facilities, lack of coordination between government officials and healthcare providers, shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, especially female doctors and mid-wives.

“It is important to address these concerns to have healthcare system that is at par with other countries in the region,” he says.

Impact of war on healthcare
The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be dangerously volatile. The armed insurgents, even 13 years after the intervention of international community, refuse to retreat or surrender. This insecurity, according to observers, is the biggest impediment in delivery of healthcare services.

Landmines pose biggest threat to women who have to reach hospital or children who have to go to school. They also damage roads, like in Kandahar province, making it difficult for ambulances to reach the remote areas. Every month, hundreds of expecting mothers and other critical patients succumb before reaching hospitals.

Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction as the country with most landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEC), which make it difficult for health workers to reach far-flung provinces. Many local and foreign health workers have been the victims of landmines and IEDs and many of them have been kidnapped by armed insurgents for ransom. “It is unfortunate that even doctors have been at the receiving end,” says Dr. Fazal Ahmad Nawabi, Kabul-based medical consultant.

Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction as the country with most landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEC), which make it difficult for health workers to reach far-flung provinces

According to officials in the Ministry of Public Health, the cases of polio have alarmingly shot up in recent months following the draconian ban on anti-polio vaccination drive by armed insurgents in a number of provinces.

In restive southern Helmand province, local insurgents announced a ban on anti-polio vaccination campaign in March this year, leaving many polio-affected children at high risk. Many fresh cases of polio have been reported from this province.

After Helmand, according to reports, insurgents also banned the anti-polio vaccination drive in eastern Nangarhar province recently, apparently in protest against government-imposed ban on motorbikes in some parts of the province. Dr. Moqadas Meraj, Deputy Director of Nangarhar Civil Hospital, says the insurgents have made their demands clear.

“Taliban have asked the government to lift the ban on motorcycles but the governor of Nangarhar province has turned down the demand,” she said. According to Dr. Meraj, about 30,000 children have been deprived of anti-polio vaccination drops because of the ban.

Healthcare professionals, especially those affiliated with foreign NGOs, have often been targeted across the country. In April this year, an American doctor and his two friends were killed by an armed insurgent masquerading as a security officer at Kabul-based Cure International Hospital, which is operated by a U.S.-based charity organization.

“The attack was a grim reminder that even foreign doctors who save precious lives are not safe in this country,” says Dr. Munir Samim, Kabul-based medical practitioner.

Maternal and child healthcare
Addressing a gathering of female health workers in Kabul recently, organized by Afghan Society of Obstetrician and Gynecologists (AFSOG), First Lady Rula Ghani expressed concern over the abysmal quality of child and maternal healthcare system in Afghanistan, and emphasized on increasing the number of female health service providers.

According to a report by Save The Children, an international children’s charity organization, at least 3,000 newborn babies die daily within 24 hours of birth in Afghanistan. The report states that 1 in 34 babies die within 24 hours of birth daily and main reasons are premature birth, prolonged labor during pregnancy, infections and high blood pressure.

Medical experts say the newborn babies lack proper care after birth in Afghanistan, which exposes them to medical bugs. “Newborn babies need proper care and attention which is lacking here,” says Dr. Samim. “We have a children’s hospital in Kabul, but when you compare the facilities there with hospitals in neighboring countries, it is not good enough.”

Maternal mortality rate, which was once the highest in the world, has significantly improved in recent years.  According to the State of Afghanistan’s Midwifery 2014 report released recently by the Ministry of Public Health and the Afghan Midwifery Association, there has been remarkable progress in improving the quality of maternal and reproductive health services in Afghanistan.

However, only 23 percent of the needs for maternal and reproductive health services are currently met in Afghanistan. According to the report, a four-fold increase in investment in midwifery is required over the next 15 years to meet 60 percent of the needs for maternal and reproductive health services.

According to Ministry of Public Health, in 2002, there were only 467 midwives in the country. Today, there are almost 4,600 midwives working in Afghanistan who have played key role in bringing down the maternal mortality rate from 1,600 to 327.

According to the United Nations, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Afghanistan is around 5000 but only 30 percent of them have been tested

“There is a need to increase the number and efficiency of educated professional midwives and improve recruitment policies, career pathways and retention policies,” says Dr. Annette Sachs Robertson, UNFPA Representative for Afghanistan.

Ahmad Jan Naeem, acting Minister of Public Health, says lack of security is a major problem for female doctors in provinces. “We have provided them additional facilities and increased their salaries, but the problem of security is a big challenge,” he says.

Emerging healthcare challenges
While existing healthcare challenges persist, some new and potentially dangerous health challenges have emerged of late. On December 1, which marks the World AIDS Day, Ministry of Public Health announced that the cases of HIV in Afghanistan have shot up by 10 percent.

According to Ministry officials, a total of 1694 cases have been registered by the government monitoring systems, but the actual number is likely to be higher.

Mr. Naeem says the outbreak of HIV is primarily due to lack of awareness about HIV virus, use and abuse of drugs, poverty, illiteracy and growing number of immigrants coming from Iran. “Ministry of Public Health has set up many prevention centers, consultancy centers and curative centers to check the outbreak of HIV in the country,” he said.

According to the United Nations, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Afghanistan is around 5000 but only 30 percent of them have been tested. Urmila Chanam, a public health professional and gender rights activist, believes the rise in HIV cases could be due to low number of people going for testing, which makes early detection impossible.

“It is high time that the accurate estimates of the most-at-risk-populations are etched out at the earliest so that policies, interventions, planning and implementation could be executed at quick speed to arrest the spread of HIV in Afghanistan,” says Ms. Chanam. “It would be a good strategy to adopt the rapid scale up model adopted by countries like India to boost its coverage of HIV response from 8 provinces at present to all the 34.”

Another emerging health challenge is the rising number of polio cases in some provinces. According to Ministry of Public Health, fresh polio cases have been reported following the ban on anti-polio vaccination drive by Taliban insurgents in some provinces like Helmand, Nangarhar and Khost.

Some polio cases have also been identified among refugees from northern Waziristan who have settled in Khost province. According to Public Health Department officials in Khost province, the refugee children have not been administered polio vaccination and that makes them more prone to this disease.

The battle for eradication of polio in Afghanistan – one of the only three countries besides Pakistan and Nigeria on World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of countries – continues. According to WHO, both Nigeria and Afghanistan present grim cases as the number of cases creep up. In February this time, Kabul recorded its first polio case in last 13 years.

Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) recently dropped another bombshell. According to ARCS, heart diseases in Afghan children have alarmingly increased of late. A country-wide study conducted by ARCS showed most cases of heart disease in young children coming from eastern Nangarhar province and the most commonplace disease is holes in the heart, which according to medical practitioners is a congenital heart defect.

“ARCS assessment shows the disease has assumed alarming proportions, especially in Nangarhar province, and most of the patients have no access to medical care,” said Sarma Afzali, media officer in ARCS. According to her, most of the families cannot afford the treatment, and they do not pay much attention to daughters who suffer from these ailments.

Future of healthcare system 
Healthcare system in Afghanistan has seen significant improvement over the past 13 years, but to establish a functional and robust healthcare system, it is important to pay attention to primary healthcare needs of people, believe experts.

At a time when international community is getting ready to pull out of Afghanistan, there are speculations that the country will be abandoned and the healthcare industry will collapse.

“If anyone is of the impression that the health industry will collapse post 2014, following the drawdown of international forces, they are mistaken,” says Dr. Abdul Habib Azizi, who works at Helmand Military Hospital. “The gains of past 13 years are irreversible.”

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Remains of the day: Bamiyan valley, Afghanistan

The niche in the Bamiyan cliffs where one of the Buddha statues stood. Photo: iStockphoto

The niche in the Bamiyan cliffs where one of the Buddha statues stood. 

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Buddhas may be gone forever, but the valley remains a treasure trove of history and heritage in a strife-torn country

Bamiyan valley, which sits in the lap of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, about 180km north-west of Kabul, is among the most breathtakingly beautiful areas in Afghanistan. It is also considered one of the most peaceful regions in the war-ridden country. Its history dates back more than 2,000 years, and its archaeological heritage is a confluence of Persian, Turkish, Greek and Chinese cultures.

In 2003, Unesco listed the “cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan valley” on its World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger, two years after the Taliban had blown up the sixth century Buddha sculptures that were Bamiyan’s biggest attraction. And in June, it was officially declared the first ever “Saarc capital of culture”, for the year 2015-16—Saarc stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. A series of cultural and sports events have been planned throughout the year; all the Saarc countries are taking part.

I travelled to Bamiyan at the invitation of the provincial government, to join the celebrations following the announcement of its new-found status. There are two roads one can take from Kabul; both are fraught with danger. One goes through the Taliban-infested Ghorband valley in the central Parwan province, considered an insurgency corridor owing to the heavy presence of militia groups. The other road passes through the Maidan Shahr district of Wardak province, crosses the 3,700m high Hajigak Pass, heading across the Koh-i-Baba mountains, and descending into the Bamiyan valley.

A 10km stretch of Maidan Shahr is considered a Taliban stronghold, and the roads have been damaged by landmines. Being kidnapped is a possibility, as is being blown up by freshly planted mines. But it is the quicker route, and also the more scenic, so I take it.

I am a khariji here, a foreigner, and have to don Afghan garb for my safety. And stay silent. I do as told and settle in. Soon enough, all thought of danger dissipates as our ride winds through the landscape, hugging towering mountains and past lush fields, scattered villages and rolling farmland. It has been raining, which makes everything that much more beautiful. We stop for chai in Maidan Shahr and in Jalrez, the former district predominantly Sunni Pashtun and the latter Shiite Hazara, but both equally warm and helpful to visitors.

When I arrive in Bamiyan the first thing I want to see, obviously, are the niches where the Buddhas were. I was in boarding school in Aligarh when the two imposing Buddha statues, Salsal (55m) and Shamama (38m), were razed to the ground by the Taliban in 2001. It made headlines and broke many hearts, including mine. Standing near the niches of the destroyed statues, I can only think of how resilient they had been through history—many invading armies had vandalized the statues, including the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s—only to be felled by the Taliban.

Local Muslims tell me stories about how—before the Taliban, before even the Soviet invasion—they used to routinely host foreigners, mostly Buddhist pilgrims, from across the world. Monasteries and mosques in the valley, an elderly man tells me, represented a cultural diversity and religious tolerance that had no parallel anywhere in the world.

In a bid to woo tourists and promote Bamiyan’s cultural heritage, Unesco and the Afghan government recently teamed up to establish the Bamiyan Cultural Centre, near the Buddha niches. The centre will house ancient artefacts, including the Buddha sculptures discovered by archaeologists over the years.

One of the Band-e-Amir lakes. Photo: Naimat Rawan

One of the Band-e-Amir lakes. Photo: Naimat Rawan

While the ruins of the Buddha statues and the caves that form an assembly of erstwhile Buddhist monasteries are the prime attraction in Bamiyan, there are other wonders too. Band-e-Amir, a collection of six sapphire-blue lakes, is a stunning sight. The six lakes are separated by travertine walls that form natural dams. Local lore has it that Band-e-Amir was created by Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, during the reign of an infidel king, Barbar. The king was so impressed that he converted to Islam. A revered shrine of Hazrat Ali today stands a few hundred metres from the site.

Band-e-Amir was declared Afghanistan’s first national park in 2009. Nizamuddin, a local resident and self-proclaimed Bollywood buff, who goes by one name, informs me that some of the scenes in the 1975 Bollywood film Dharmatma, starring Feroz Khan and Hema Malini, were shot at Band-e-Amir.

Just a 20-minute leisurely walk away from Bamiyan valley is Shahr-e-Gholghola (the city of screams), which was conquered by the Mongol troops of Genghis Khan in 1221. The Shahr-e-Gholghola fort offers a panoramic view of the valley, right up to Kakrak valley in the east. The 2 hours I spend there, sitting and watching the breathtaking landscape as a cool breeze blows gently, feel like years of meditation. I feel rejuvenated.

The Kakrak valley is one of the three most sacred sites for Buddhists in the region, after the Bamiyan and Shah Foladi valleys. More than 100 caves and niches are cut into the surrounding cliffs. In 2001, when the standing Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban, a sitting Buddha in the Kakrak valley too was wiped out, though this did not make the headlines. You can still feel the spirit of the Buddha resonate in the valleys.

Almost 9km from the Bamiyan valley is the ancient city of Shahr-e-Zohak, named after a legendary character in Persian poet Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh. The imposing fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak, at the confluence of the Bamiyan and Kalu rivers, dates back to the sixth century. It provides a spectacular view of the nearby Hajigak valley, which contains the largest iron-ore deposits in Afghanistan.

Bamiyan city by night. Photo: Naimat Rawan

Bamiyan city by night. Photo: Naimat Rawan

East of the Bamiyan valley is the shrine of Syed Hazrat Yakhsuz, which sees a tremendous rush of devotees on festive occasions such as Nowruz (New Year), Shab-e-Qadr (the special night of prayers during Ramzan) and both Eids. I see many women draped in blue veils praying at the shrine.

People in Bamiyan are deeply conservative, but the radical ideology of the Taliban has no takers here. Unlike other central provinces, Taliban insurgents have failed to gain a foothold in this province.

A trip to Bamiyan is incomplete without a visit to the Shah Foladi valley, known for its towering peaks—particularly the 5,050m-high Shah Foladi peak—glaciers, flora and fauna. The peak was recently declared a “protected area” by the National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan.

On my last day in Bamiyan, I spend the afternoon at a kebab shop in the main market of Bamiyan. The shopkeeper, a friendly man, speaks about his insufficient earnings and three unemployed sons. We discuss Bollywood, cricket and Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Isis, he tells me, wants to turn Afghanistan into another Iraq or Syria. “But they will not succeed here,” he says. “We are famous for mehman-nawazi (hospitality), but we also know how to kick out unwanted guests.”

Bamiyan has immense potential for tourism, and efforts are being made to project it as a world-class destination. As the authorities move to protect and conserve heritage sites, new hotels and markets are coming up. If the security situation improves, especially along the highway, all routes will lead to Bamiyan in the next few years.

TRIP PLANNER

Go

Kabul is connected by flights to Indian metros via Delhi. Bamiyan is a 180km drive from the Afghan capital. Detailed route options are available at Cultbamyan.af/how-to-get-there.

Stay

The Shahi Hotel (+93-794228090) is the expensive choice, while the Naseeb Hotel (+93-744437555) is a value-for-money option.

Eat

There are plenty of kebab shops around Band-e-Amir; the restaurant at Naseeb Hotel is also a good place to get a meal.

SAFETY ADVISORY

The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be volatile. Most recently, on 7 August, three suicide bombings rocked Kabul, killing at least 42 people and injuring 313. This was followed by another car bomb attack at Kabul airport on 10 August that left at least seven civilians dead and 18 injured.

The alarming escalation in militant violence makes travelling to Afghanistan dangerous. However, Bamiyan itself is relatively safe. If you decide to visit, abide by the rules and recommendations of the local tour operators.

(First published in HT’s Mint Lounge)