Imagining Afghanistan

Quite a number of books have followed in the tradition of Edward Said, critiquing and contesting the manufacturing of narratives. Nivi Manchanda's "Imagining Afghanistan" The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge" (2020) provides a deep dive into those narratives of Afghanistan. Chapters of the book explore the use of "tribe" and "tribalism", the colonial construction of narratives, the American military deployment of narratives, the portrayal of "warlords" and women in Afghan society, as well as masculinity and sexuality. For anyone interest in this topic, this is a rich book of details. In the specific, readers familiar with this tradition of writing will find a similar meta-narrative. A few notes:

The book: "partakes in the effervescent conversation about social science's implication in empire, both past and present, and brings to the table a rather peculiar example of this implication. This is the story of imperialism in Afghanistan, a story which is perhaps best designated as that which is the 'same but different'. It is the 'same' in that it displays, even exemplifies, a steady, if not quite consistent, lineage of colonial thinking about the Other." (p. 5-6)

As reported elsewhere, but in more detail here: "What the exhibition and its curators fail to mention is how these textbooks came into being. During the mid 1980s, a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) printed millions of textbooks in Peshawar that were distributed to schoolchildren across Afghanistan. The textbooks were designed to indoctrinate Afghans against the evils of the Soviet Union and made for immensely powerful propaganda. Specialists from the Afghanistan Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha received $51 million to develop a curriculum, which glorified jihad, celebrated martyrdom and dehumanised foreign invaders. Published in Dari and Pashto, these schoolbooks taught the alphabet through Kalashnikovs and counting through guns and bullets, and had elaborate mathematical questions which drew on conflict scenarios, deploying various firearms in inventive ways, for more advanced pupils. One example read: 'A Kalashnikov bullet travels at 800 meters per second. A mujahid has the forehead of a Russian in his sights 3,200 meters away. How many seconds will it take the bullet to hit the Russian's forehead?' Although USAID funding for the project stopped in 1994, multiple copies of the texts remained in circulation in the 1990s and into the 2000s." (p 2-3)

Continues later: "… Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, founded in 1972, is still the world's only permanent research and training centre devoted solely to the study of Afghanistan.24 Set up to counterbalance the Soviets, following a lull in the 1990s, it found a renewed sense of purpose after 9/11. The centre has since provided 'training on Afghan history, culture, and language to U.S. Army Human Terrain System teams that were departing for Afghanistan'. It has trained over 600 military and civilian personnel to prepare them for service in Afghanistan. It also helped 'professionalize' members of the Afghan National Army between 2008 and 2010.25 Similarly, Indiana University recently inaugurated a National Resource Center for creating Pashto-language materials, focusing on providing 'key training for U.S. forces in Afghanistan'. Gene Coyle, a retired CIA officer, who has never worked in Afghanistan, serves as director…" (p. 9) 

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God's Unruly Friends

I discovered "God's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Middle Period 1200-1550" (2006) by Ahmet Karamustafa largely by accident (it was a footnote in another book I had read). The title got me, but it sat on the shelf for a while until I got to it. The book itself is quite short, the text is 102 pages, followed by notes and bibliography. Although (according to the author) little else has been written on the topic, this is a very brief study / introduction. What does the author mean by these deviant dervishes? One lengthy quote:

"Deviant dervishes were thoroughly antinomian in appearance and behavior. They violated all social norms with equal ease and indifference and deliberately embraced a variety of unconventional and socially liminal practices. Perhaps the most potent antinomian feature of new renunciation, certainly the most often cited and criticized, was open disregard for prescribed Islamic ritual practices. The extent to which different groups at different times neglected to fulfill their ritual obligations is impossible to ascertain. Nevertheless, there is little reason to question the accuracy of the reports contained in many sources, hostile and friendly, to the effect that deviant dervishes neither prayed nor fasted. In this context, silence on this issue in sympathetic texts is particularly telling. In Jamal al-Din's sacred biography, for instance, there are only two casual references to ritual prayer, while the hagiography of Otman Baba fares only slightly better in this respect. For its part, the report that Barak Baba's disciples were required to perform prescribed religious practices on pain of forty blows of the bastinado itself reveals the difficulty of enforcing these practices on the dervishes. Moreover, it appears that at least some groups replaced ritual prayer in particular with utterance of simple formulaic expressions. Such was the case with the Qalandars and Abdals of Rum, among whom the utterance of the formula "God is the Greatest" (takbir) clearly had a ritual function and may have come to replace the daily ritual prayer." (p. 17-18) 

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The Silk Roads

In a random bookshop in Kathmandu I came across "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World" (2015) by Peter Frankopan. Having taught Global Political Economy in the past and gone through a number of textbooks (which are largely centered on the Euro-West and its perspectives on global matters) I was hoping this book might be a new look at history. For several chapters, the book takes a thematic approach (flow of theological ideas, flow of commodities) and others are issue based (revolution, war, colonization). While there might be relatively more focus on Central Asia and Asia compared to other renderings of world history, it is not immediately clear what is new per se. The Americas and Africa largely remain without a history, unless in the context of conquest or colonization, following the tradition of Hobbes. This is a mass market book (Bloomsbury), but includes 100 pages of notes (book is 636 pages). For a specialist of a region or issue or commodity, the book contains some errors or over simplifications and could be frustrating; for a generalist interested in an introduction to world history, this could be a useful book. A few notes:

"The willingness to adopt new ideas and practices was an important factor in enabling the Persians to build an administrative system that allowed the smooth running of an empire which incorporated many different peoples. A highly educated bureaucracy oversaw the efficient administration of the day-to-day life of the empire, recording everything from payments made to workers serving the royal household, to validating the quality and quantity of goods bought and sold in market places; they also took charge of the maintenance and repair of a road system criss-crossing the empire..." (p. 1-2)

"The Islamic conquests created a new world order, an economic giant, bolstered by self-confidence, broad-mindedness and a passionate zeal for progress. Immensely wealthy and with few natural political or even religious rivals, it was a place where order prevailed, where merchants could become rich, where intellectuals were respected and where disparate views could be discussed and debated." (p. 101)

"By the early fourteenth century, Timbuktu in particular was not just an important commercial centre but a hub for scholars, musicians, artists and students who gathered around the Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sīdī Yahyā mosques, beacons of intellectual discourse and home to countless manuscripts collected from all over Africa. Not surprisingly, the region attracted attention from thousands of miles away. There had been gasps in Cairo when Mansa Musa - or Musa, King of Kings of the Malian Empire - 'a devout and just man' whose like had not been seen before, passed through the city in the fourteenth century on his way to Mecca on pilgrimage, accompanied by an enormous retinue and carrying huge amounts of gold to give as presents. So much was spent in the markets during his visit to the city that a mini-depression is supposed to have been triggered across the Mediterranean basin and in the Middle East as the price of bullion apparently plummeted under the pressure of the huge inflow of new capital." (p. 203-204)

"The native populations in the Caribbean and the Americas were devastated. Within a few short decades of Columbus' first voyage, the numbers of the indigenous Taíno people fell from half a million to little more than 2,000. This was in part due to ferocious treatment at the hands of those who began to style themselves as 'conquistadors' - or conquerors - such as Hernán Cortés, whose bloodthirsty expedition to explore and secure Central America resulted in the death of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, and the collapse of the Aztec Empire. Cortés stopped at nothing to enrich himself. 'I and my companions', he told the Aztecs, 'suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold.'" (p. 213)

"The underlying secret to Dutch success in the seventeenth century was common sense and hard work. The Dutch reckoned that the way to work was not to follow the example of England, where the chartered companies used sharp practices to limit beneficiaries to a small circle of intimates, all looking after each other's interests and using monopoly positions to protect their positions. Instead, capital was pooled and risks shared among as wide a body of investors as possible. In due course, the conclusion was reached that despite competing ambitions and rivalries between provinces, cities and indeed individual merchants, the most efficient and powerful way to build up trade was by combining resources." (p. 255)

"Aware that their hold over the Gulf region was tenuous, the British made overtures to leading figures in the Arab world, including Husayn, Sharīf of Mecca, who was offered a tempting deal: if Husayn 'and the Arabs in general' were to provide support against the Turks, then Britain 'will guarantee the independence, rights and privileges of the Sharifate against all external foreign aggression, in particular that of the Ottomans'. That was not all, for another, even juicier incentive was offered up too. Perhaps the time had come when 'an Arab of true race will assume the Caliphate at Mecca or Medina'. Husayn, guardian of the holy city of Mecca and a member of the Quraysh, and descendant of Hāshim, the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muammad himself, was being offered an empire in return for his support. The British did not really mean this, and nor could they really deliver it. However, from the start of 1915, as things took a turn for the worse, they were prepared to string Husayn along..." (p. 335)

"Three possible triggers were envisaged - all of which could justify military action. Perhaps Saddam "moves against the Kurds in [the] north?', wondered Donald Rumsfeld in November 2001 ; maybe a "connection to Sept 11 attack or to anthrax attacks" (following mailings to several media outlets and to two US senators in September 2001); or what if there were a "dispute over WMD inspections?" This seemed a promising line – as revealed by the comment that follows: "Start now thinking about inspection demands." ... Particular emphasis was given to building up the case that Iraq was not just determined to make weapons of mass destruction but was doing so covertly and obstructing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the same time. In some cases, this created problems with the monitors themselves, who found their positions overstated, compromised or even at risk altogether. In the spring of 2002, for example, Jose Bustani, the Brazilian director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was ousted following a special closed session - this was the first time the head of a major international organization had been forced from their position. Information gathered from one-off and often unreliable sources was given primnance, and speculation was presented as fact, the result of a single-minded determination to make the case against Iraq and Saddam appear watertight. 'Every statement I make today', Colin Powell told the UN on 5 February 2003, 'is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.'" (p. 502) 

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Julius Nyerere

Ohio University Press has a series of "Short Histories of Africa". I recently decided to pick up most of the collection for potential use as reading materials for classes. This post covers "Julius Nyerere" (2017), by Paul Bjerk. A few notes:

"Upon returning he was told he no longer had a job at St. Francis High School, as the colonial government had informed the Catholic leadership that they would not countenance a salaried teacher openly involved in oppositional politics." (p. 40)

"Kambona later recalled, "I found him sitting on the floor reading a book about Gandhi." (Throughout his career Nyerere continued to take yearly vacations in his home village during the rainy season, removing himself from Dar es Salaam politics while he took stock of himself and his country.)" (p. 41)

"During this year of upcountry travel, Nyerere ready book by Petro Itosi Marealle an old man from a chiefly family near Mount Kilimanjaro. The book presented a theory of rural African society that the author called ujamaa, meaning "familyhood." Nyerere first used this term in a speech on land policy a few months after his resignation. He began to develop Ujamaa into a comprehensive political ideology that combined African nationalism with his own unorthodox theory of harmonious socialism that rejected Marx's theory of class conflict. Nyerere envisioned African socialism as a social ethic derived from the shared responsibilities of family life in rural Africa." (p. 58-59)

"Nyerere had always been uncomfortable with the racial rhetoric surrounding Africanization policy and now for "localisation" of the civil service, meaning that the effort would be to hire and promote citizens of Tanganyika, regardless of their race, to replace the highly paid expatriates." (p. 64)

"When West Germany cut off military aid in protest of Tanzania's plan to host an East German consulate in Dar es Salaam, and enraged Nyerere told the West German ambassador to "take the rest of your aid as well." In 1965, Nyerere broke relations with Britain to protest its passive policy towards Southern Rhodesia's declaration of independence, which had made it easier for the white minority there to maintain its domination." (p. 80)

"A visiting IMF negotiator proposed to explain the package to the president personally. Mtei brought him to see Nyerere, who, after listening for a short while, abruptly got up and walked away. Nyerere said the IMF visitors had treated him with disdain and vowed that he would never allow his country to be run from Washington. They should go home, he told him Mtei. "I will devalue the shilling over my dead body." Nyerere felt that devaluation effectively stole money from his citizens' pockets to the benefit of foreign investors." (p. 119-120)

"When western representatives wanted to know more about the spiraling Congolese conflict, Nyerere berated them for their ignorance about their own countries' contribution to the conflict, especially since the United States had funded Mobutu's dictatorship. "You imposed and supported Mobutu for 32 years!" he told them. "We could not do anything. You know how bad Mobutu destroyed the country. This time leave us Africans to try and help Congo. The Congolese people have suffered a lot. Their blood is our blood. Please leave us alone this time."" (p. 140) 

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