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Gambling with Our Lives
by Rajesh Talwar Bookmark and Share

Continued from “An Afghan Love Story”

The Sentimental Terrorist - 6

Amala, Iftar guesthouse, 1 a.m.

I’m in bed but my thoughts are still keeping me awake. I’m remembering my first day in Kabul. On that very day I got some sense of what it would be like to start working on microcredit in this country.

Sajid, my driver, was taking me on a short tour. I wanted to get a feel of the city, since Kabul’s cityscape could be confusing for a visitor. Apart from the high brown-black mountains that ringed it, there were smaller, pale-brown hills within the city itself; their presence ensured that unless you were on top of one of the hills you rarely got a proper view of the city as a whole. On the other hand, because there weren’t too many high-rise buildings, no matter where you stood in the city you did get a view of the mountains; this was uplifting in more senses than one.

On the very outskirts of the city stood the European-style Darul Aman Palace, now in ruins; since aman meant peace, was this a symbol of the shattered peace in this country? Sajid pointed out other landmarks – the quaint, modest yet elegant memorial to Babur, founder of the great Mughal dynasty of which present-day Bangladesh had once been a part; the Soviet-style communal housing; the vulgar Peshawari-style bungalows – when it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to change some of the cash I’d brought with me into the local currency.

So I said, ‘I want to change dollars.’

‘Not much difference in rate from local bank and by private operator.’ Sajid pointed at a small boy wearing a red cap, who stood near the traffic lights.

Street urchins stood on all popular road junctions a few yards away from the white-capped traffic policemen. There were enough foreigners with dollars to exchange in Kabul to make it worthwhile for young boys to offer to exchange currency at the traffic lights. They would come up to the window of a car in which they spotted a foreigner and plead with him to change their greenbacks into blue Afghanis. Some of them sold maps of Afghanistan, thick fur-lined gloves and pakols or winter caps, in anticipation of the cold months ahead.

Sajid drove me to the A One supermarket for me to buy soap and shampoo. I was assailed by beggars: small children mostly but a couple of burqa-clad women with babies in their arms. I was reminded at once of the beggars who gathered around the vegetable market near my home in Dacca, although the ones back home looked even more undernourished.

Sajid had an account with the Kabul Bank, one of the two major private banks operating in Afghanistan.

‘Does your bank give you good interest?’ I said.

‘Before was giving too much interest.’

‘Too much?’ I repeated, just to make sure I hadn’t misheard.

‘Yes,’ he nodded, ‘and my wife was worried in case we’re doing something un-Islamic. She suggested I transfer my money to a government bank that pays no interest. Then my bank started bakht accounts.’

‘No interest accounts?’

‘No interest, but there are lotteries. My bank will have a draw in two days. If I am lucky I will win a prize.’

‘Is this lottery Islamic?’

‘Not sure.’ Sajid scratched his head. ‘Bank says it is. They have been doing a lot of publicity on radio and television.’


Two days later, while I was being driven back by Sajid from the Ministry of Finance, having secured permission to open two microcredit branches, I discovered that Sajid had won a prize. Lotteries were fairly common, it appeared, and were the way for private banks to compete with each other and attract deposits.

‘How much did you win?’ I asked.

‘One thousand dollars!’ Sajid said, visibly pleased.

There was a grand ceremony, Sajid told me. At the buffet lunch at one of the plush hotels in the north of Kabul, several of the ulema were invited. Speeches were given, and these were followed by a recital of the holy Quran before the winning ticket number was announced.

‘So what are you going to do with the money?’

Sajid’s brow furrowed.

‘I’m a little worried,’ he said, sounding serious. ‘Not really sure if permitted by Islam. Is this gambling, you think? Bank says in gambling there is a possibility of losing money as well as gaining but here only gaining, so not gambling.’

‘Surely there cannot be a problem if you use the money for a good purpose. And besides the ulema gave this project their blessing.’

Sajid was moderate in his views. If he thought like this, I wondered what view the hardliners would take to low-interest microcredit operations.

And what would they do.

I was soon to realise that while it was debatable whether or not the bank lottery amounted to gambling, against which there were Islamic injunctions, there was no doubt that all of us involved in the microcredit endeavour were gambling with our lives.

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Continued to "Love at First Sight"

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