Dec 06, 2023
Dec 06, 2023
The Sentimental Terrorist - 12
Mohsin, TV Hill
The architectural design of the mosque where Shamsuddin preached is unique. It is shaped like a bottle. The outer façade of the mosque appears small, but once you have gone in past the thick mouth, as it were, the interiors widen. On my first visit there, after I’d passed the counter where I deposited my shoes, I was taken aback by the capaciousness of the prayer hall. Ahead of this main hall are a series of rooms where the childless mullah lived with his wife.
At Shamsuddin’s behest I started to attend a discussion group that took place in one of the inner rooms of the masjid every Wednesday and Friday after prayers.
‘This is only for the inner circle,’ he said. ‘By invitation only.’
‘Shouldn’t it be open to anyone who wishes to attend?’
‘At the time of namaz, I can see that there are some people in the audience who have not come to pray,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I need to be careful.’
‘Why do they come then?’
‘The Amrikans – and their cousins, the Canadians – send spies to report on what I am saying.’
‘Do they suspect you then?’
‘They suspect everyone, not only me. Their spies report on what’s happening in all the different mosques in the city. That’s how I spot them. I know they cannot be regular, because they need to cover a different mosque every day.’
In the public gatherings, the mullah was careful not to espouse violence or to express any of his more radical views. It was only in the inner circle, with one of his assistants standing guard outside to ensure there were no eavesdroppers, that he let down his guard and told us what he really thought.
I began to go to the discussion group regularly. There was little else for me to do. I had no family or home to go back to. There was no job. I slowly started to eat up my savings.
Anguish shrouded me like a quilt left out in the rain. I shivered many times in the day, even though it was not so cold. It was winter, but it was mild this year. It was pain, anger, sadness, the entire cocktail of emotions swirling inside, that made me shiver. Every night before sleeping I dreamed of revenge. Of a grand revenge. But I knew also that I could not carry it out by myself.
In the discussion groups the mullah provided religious instruction but also gave us his view on what was happening in the world. Our sessions were meant to be ‘awareness raising’, a term which reminded me of workshops I attended with Michel during my days with Droits Sans Frontières. Unlike those sessions where there used to be a blackboard and tables and chairs with notebooks distributed, these discussions had all of us seated on a thick rug spread on the floor, with an assortment of cushions to provide our bodies comfort and protection against the hardness of the floor, according to how we sought to place them.
For the first time since I had met Shamsuddin I began to listen carefully to what he had to say.
* * *
‘All right, brothers,’ he announced at the beginning of one such session, ‘can anyone tell me which country is the biggest supplier of opium in the world?’
Farid, who ran a grocery store beside the mosque, raised a hand.
‘That is correct,’ said the mullah. ‘Afghanistan supplies ninety per cent of the world’s opium. Now, do any of you think that’s a good thing?’
‘What do you mean, Mullah sahib? What is good?’ said Mirwais, who walked on crutches, and helped out in the mosque.
‘To grow opium, to consume opium, to sell opium.’
‘No,’ said Mirwais cautiously. ‘I don’t think that’s good.’
‘Since the foreigners invaded our land, the percentage has actually gone up. The Taliban were successful in banning the growth of opium and use of the substance during the years they were in power – because consumption of opium is forbidden under the Quran.’
Several people nodded their heads. This was true.
* * *
Another day Shamsuddin lectured us on the hypocrisy of the west. On this occasion his views initially seemed to be at cross-purposes with his earlier talk.
‘Why are the western powers so upset about the growth of opium?’ he said, leaning back against a cushion. ‘Mohsin jan, could you let us know your views?’
‘They supply most of the world’s opium,’ I said, ‘but it is mostly consumed by the youth in American and European cities.’
‘Tashakor,’ said the mullah. ‘Thank you. And tell me, do you think this is a bad thing?’
‘I think so, Mullah sahib. It’s bad for any human being.’ I didn’t care if this was the answer he wanted or was expecting.
‘This is just fair exchange,’ the mullah said.
‘How’s that?’ asked Farid.
‘Ninety per cent of the world’s mines and small arms,’ the mullah said, ‘are manufactured in the western countries but end up in the poorest countries in the world, such as Afghanistan.’
We were silent, the argument he was developing still fuzzy to most of us.
Shamsuddin said: ‘When we tell the big powers that they should stop manufacturing mines, they say, “Oh, well, Afrika should stop buying these small arms. What can we do? If our manufacturers refuse to supply them, those from some other country will do so.”’ He had become quite agitated, but drew a deep breath and, conscious that there might be devotees milling about in the main masjid area next door, lowered his voice. ‘Well, then, this is what I would tell them. Listen to me, Inglistan. Listen to me, Amrika. Why you want us to stop poppy cultivation in Afghanistan? Stop the consumption of opium and heroin in your cities. If we don’t grow the crop, someone else will. Burma or Thailand, or maybe India.’ He sniggered. ‘My friends, the mines argument that they use can go both ways.’ He pointed at Mirwais, a soft sympathy appearing in his eyes. ‘Do you find people like Mirwais in Amrika? No, they use all their mines on the poor people of the world, in Afrika, in Afghanistan and elsewhere where poor Muslims live.’
All of us turned to look at Mirwais. It was the clincher in his argument. There was a hubbub of low voices. There were enough people seen on the streets of Kandahar whose legs had been blown away by mines – or who were missing an arm or an ear – to illustrate the seriousness of this problem.
* * *
Shamsuddin chose a different subject every time, and he managed to impress me with some of his views.
There were others in our group who voiced their disagreements, but they could do so because in general they disagreed less. In my case I disagreed with Shamsuddin on so many issues that I didn’t want to discuss them. For I needed his help if I wanted to avenge the deaths of my family members. And that’s something I desperately wanted to do. It was something for which I was willing to pay any price. Including the highest one.
It wasn’t only simple disagreement; it was rather more than that. Although the mullah’s discourses provided me with a new perspective on issues such as the opium question, I held him in secret contempt for some of his other opinions.
His views on television, for instance, were outlandish and archaic. We spoke about this during our private meetings at the Chai Khana.
‘Islam forbids images,’ he would say. ‘That’s what’s wrong with television. It’s full of images.’
‘And what’s wrong with images?’ I asked him one day.
‘It’s only Khuda who can create images,’ he said. ‘God has created you and all the images that surround you, hasn’t he? He doesn’t want us to overstep our limits and start creating images ourselves.’ He paused. ‘The television sends out rays, doesn’t it?’
‘And the radio sends out waves,’ I countered.
‘Not the same,’ he insisted. ‘Waves are okay.’
‘And rays are not?’
‘Exactly. Rays can damage your health even. You can get cancer, do you know?’
‘Mullah sahib,’ I persisted, ‘I see that you hang pictures of Mecca in some parts of the masjid. Isn’t that an image?’
‘I read newspapers too,’ the mullah responded, ‘and they have photographs. The mug I presented you – that has someone’s photo transferred on to the enamel. Now you will say that those are also images.’
‘And you will say that the script I read is also an image, will you not?’
‘These are all the arguments raised by infidels. The shaitan can think of many ways to lead the believers astray. You have to see everything in perspective, my dear. Seeing images in a magazine or newspaper, reading the Holy Quran in a script, this is all very different. All that is permissible, even necessary for a good Muslim. But running images, as in television, one following the other – that is the work of the shaitan.’
His answer didn’t convince me, but I didn’t think there was any possibility of a reasonable argument against television, cinema and music. In any case, much like the Taliban, Shamsuddin also held extremely traditional views on the role of women in society.
Despite his old-fashioned, even bizarre opinions on what was permissible and what wasn’t, Shamsuddin managed to keep up to date with the news. Shamsuddin read three Urdu newspapers that came in from Pakistan every day. He didn’t trust the papers coming out from Kabul. He also listened to news on the radio religiously – even if he was against television. The mullah’s views on watching television or listening to music were close to those traditionally held by the Taliban.
Although Shamsuddin’s ideas about television appeared foolish and outdated to me, the massacre of my family made me now watch the western news more critically. I saw the propaganda more clearly. Even though I continued to have contempt for the Taliban’s thinking, I discovered that some of the Americans’ accusations against them didn’t really hold true. For instance, the American generals appearing on the BBC and CNN accused the Taliban of being cowards, of hiding in civilian areas, and of leaving the Nato-led coalition forces with no alternative but to cause the death of innocent civilians, including women and children. This was an argument that had previously appeared to me to have some logic to it, but it no longer held any weight and would not convince any of those who had been caught in the crossfire. It took all my self-control not to smash the television set as I heard these lies.
The Taliban could not be expected to set up a separate, easily identifiable, military base inside or outside the cities where they had control. They naturally preferred to reside within towns or cities, and kept their arsenal of weapons stashed away in hidden parts of buildings surrounded by the civilian population. They did not live bachelor-style like the American, German and British troops, who were in regular correspondence through email with their girlfriends and wives. I came across a story in a Pakistani newspaper about how Kabul was full of Chinese prostitutes. The reporter seemed to be angry with the foreigners, for he observed that the American and European soldiers could live without their families but could not live without sex. Most of the clients of the Chinese prostitutes, he wrote, were from the foreign military.
As for the Taliban, they lived with their parents, wives and children. As members of fighting militias, their families would surely be expected to worry for their safety, just like the families of coalition soldiers. In the Taliban’s case, however, families feared not only for the safety of their menfolk engaged in warfare but also for their own lives, since their town or village could be easily attacked. And it wasn’t only the families of the Taliban who worried. The entire village, town or city worried for their safety, and lived in mortal fear of approaching aircraft that might possibly be carrying a bomb destined to be dropped on them.
Before they were killed, my sister and her family had thought the Taliban were terrible for Afghanistan – something Pakistan had bequeathed to us because of its rivalry with India. My sister despised them; Mumtaz detested them too.
For me personally, a new enemy had appeared and the hatred I felt for this enemy had supplanted the loathing I had previously felt for the Russians and the Taliban. Or it would be better to say that I still hated the Russians and the Taliban, but I hated the new enemy more. Much more. My new enemy was America.
As much as I despised the Taliban and what they stood for, the old adage ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ influenced my behaviour and thinking. Because the Americans regarded the Taliban as their biggest enemy in Afghanistan, for the time being we were allies even if we could not be friends.
What else could I do?
If I didn’t hit back, I wouldn’t feel like a man any more. I wouldn’t have any self-respect. And for a Pashtun the most important things are self-respect and honour. Life was simply not worth living if you couldn’t hold your head high. This is what I was taught from childhood, and I believed it strongly.
But I couldn’t take revenge against the Americans on my own. I needed partners.
Someone like Mullah Shamsuddin was all I could hope for, in spite of the huge difference in our views. I couldn’t hope to change or influence him. That was beyond my capacity.
* * *
The next Wednesday Shamsuddin brought with him a copy of a newspaper from Kabul.
On the front page of the Kabul Times was a news item about the establishment of an All-Women Afghan Football Team.
‘See what it says,’ Shamsuddin said. ‘Women playing football. Some of these women were interviewed on national television. The team reached the finals of a women’s football tournament in Pakistan.’
We weren’t sure whether or not he expected us to clap at this announcement.
‘Amrikans have already turned their own women into men,’ he said, ‘and now they want to do the same with ours.’
‘How are they turning their women into men?’ asked Mirwais, with an expression of great curiosity, taking the mullah’s words a bit too literally.
‘Have you seen an Amrikan woman’s breasts?’ the mullah challenged.
Mirwais shook his head, smiling shyly.
‘Even a European woman’s?’ asked the mullah.
‘Mirwais hasn’t even seen his own wife’s breasts,’ someone giggled.
‘Mullah sahib, have you really seen an Amrikan woman’s breasts?’ Hussein asked.
‘I don’t need to see them uncovered, fool,’ Shamsuddin said. ‘It’s enough to see them in the magazines. I can make out that they are underdeveloped. Very underdeveloped.’
‘Some of them look quite big,’ Mansour said. ‘Not all of them are small.’
‘Those ones that you see are big,’ said Fardeen, ‘are not naturally big.’
‘It’s true,’ Shamsuddin added. ‘The Amrikan woman is losing her breasts because they have started going to the gym, playing football, doing all the things that men do.’
‘There’s one thing they can’t do that men can do,’ said Mirwais, smiling broadly.
‘Keep quiet, Mirwais,’ said Shamsuddin, getting angry now. ‘This is not a joke.’
The murmurs died down.
Shamsuddin continued: ‘Let me tell you that the Amrikans are more dangerous than the Russians in some ways. The communist philosophy is actually empty and can do no damage. Amrikan so-called culture can affect our indigenous culture in an unhealthy way.’
* * *
‘Television is an evil box,’ said Mullah Shamsuddin, in response to a question during one of our weekly sessions. ‘It has corrupted many good Muslims. I’m not a member of the Taliban myself. Just a servant in the cause of our religion. But I don’t see that the Taliban did anything wrong when they destroyed television sets.’
When still at school in Pakistan I once crossed over through the porous border with Afghanistan to spend a weekend with a cousin from Kandahar during the time the Taliban were in power. There were black-turbaned ruffians, self-appointed guardians of morality, going from door to door, checking for television sets and wrecking them. My cousin lived in a part of town with high-rise apartments, and I saw television sets being hurled from the balconies, the glass screens smashing when they hit the ground. All this had angered me in the past, and it continued to anger me, but I kept quiet.
‘But it can be educational about Islam,’ protested sad-faced Hussein, who was willing to engage with the mullah on the subject. Hussein, who would later be my collaborator.
‘You don’t need television to learn about Islam,’ the mullah retorted. ‘I’ve met Afghans who have lived in Amrika for only a short while, and they have become totally American. Because of television.’ He paused as if to think of examples to illustrate his argument. ‘You know that Afghans are now calling their daughters Tulsi, because of this . . . this Indian serial?’
‘But this is an excellent serial, Mullah sahib,’ Mirwais said.
There is hardly anyone more popular here. Everyone in my family used to stop whatever they were doing once the Tulsi came on. My sister, her husband, my niece and two nephews would all come to watch. And whenever I visited, although I’m not a great fan of such drama, I would also sit and watch. It was a time for the whole family to sit together and catch up with the latest happenings. Mumtaz watched it regularly with her own mother. She told me they never missed an episode. I wondered if she would be able to watch the programme with Pierre in Paris. Unlikely.
‘. . . disappointed in you, Mirwais,’ the mullah was saying. ‘I thought you never watched that stupid box.’
‘But everyone watches and enjoys, Mullah,’ Mirwais said.
Shamsuddin went on: ‘It’s all right to call your daughter Tulsi, I grant you that, especially if she is a good woman, as you all say. Let me accept your argument for a minute. But tell me, do you know who Manika Lowoonski is.’
The mullah was certainly better informed than I had expected him to be. It was all right for me to know. I had worked for a western NGO and I had studied in one of Pakistan’s best universities, but for the mullah to know this name – I was taken aback. As expected, no one else in our group remembered her.
‘You have forgotten,’ the mullah said. ‘She was a loose woman, a corrupt woman, who was friends with the Amrikan President. When they started showing her on the television some years ago, I know Afghans who gave that name to their new-born daughters – Manika.’
We were all at a bit of a loss what to say.
Shamsuddin looked at the expression of disbelief that clouded our faces.
‘Believe me, it’s true,’ the mullah insisted. ‘This is the pernicious influence of television.’
Majid said, ‘I enjoy listening to the Pakistani serials in Urdu. I love that language.’
‘Bah!’ said the mullah. ‘You should spend time trying to learn Arabic. Try and learn the Quran by heart.’
Jamshed said, ‘You should keep a television in the house, mullah sahib. It will be an entertainment for your wife.’
We all knew that Shamsuddin’s wife was very keen to have a TV in the house, but Shamsuddin forbade it.
‘It will corrupt her,’ the mullah said.
‘Don’t you impose too much on her?’
‘A woman needs to be imposed upon,’ Shamsuddin said. ‘Allah and nature have both ordained this. It is her job to carry burdens. Tell me something, do you go on top of her, or does she climb on top of you?’
Jamshed was silent.
‘See, you don’t have any answer.’ Shamsuddin guffawed.
In Kandahar shopkeepers kept one eye on the television screen as they gave back change to customers if they were shopping during the Tulsi hour. The actress was popular among both young and old, and it was true that some families had named their new-born daughters Tulsi after her.
Poor Mirwais, with his two broken legs, hardly had any other source of entertainment, I thought. Shamsuddin was being foolish. There were quite a few television watchers in our group and the mullah didn’t get much support for his views.
* * *
I had kept a long beard because I didn’t want to be bothered with shaving or trimming it. I didn’t believe it granted me any special status, although Shamsuddin probably thought so. For all the logical arguments he gave us during some of our meetings, many of his beliefs were downright stupid. The insistence on having long beards as proof of religious piety was particularly ridiculous in the context of the Hazara community. The Hazaras, many of whom carried out menial tasks had a Mongoloid inheritance. Genetically speaking, this meant that many of them had little hair growth on their faces. It was simply not possible for many Hazaras to grow a long beard. Their slender wisps of beard would have done them no good in the eyes of the Taliban in terms of demonstrating religious piety. But for the most part, as far as the Taliban were concerned, beard or no beard, the Hazaras were Shias, who in their eyes weren’t real Muslims.
As far as nationalism is concerned, I honestly don’t know which nationalism Shamsuddin is talking about.
The other day I asked him why he didn’t invite Karim, a Hazara boy who cleans the masjid to our inner circle meetings.
‘Hazaras cannot be trusted,’ he said.
‘His family members have also been killed in an air raid,’ I said. ‘I’m sure he hates the Americans.’
‘Perhaps,’ Shamsuddin said, ‘but not as much as he hates us.’ He stroked his long beard. ‘If he had a beard like yours or mine, it would be a different matter.’
‘You don’t get my point, Mullah,’ I persisted. ‘My point is that even if Karim became a Sunni like us, he is not capable of growing a full beard like us –’
‘Bah!’ said Shamsuddin. ‘You talk about the Hazaras. They are all Shias. Each one of them a traitor. In some ways these Shias are worse than the infidels.’
* * *
After the death of my sister, I came to understand that Shamsuddin was right to say that we needed to throw out the people who had occupied our lands, routinely slaughtered innocent civilians and installed a puppet regime. I wasn’t sure, though, if eventually, after we drove out the invaders, the proper government would establish itself in Afghanistan. But that wasn’t my concern. At least it would be an Afghan government, even if they were against the education of women and their advancement. I’m not a mindless automaton like Mirwais, who hangs on every word uttered by the mullah as if it was the word of Allah, or even like Fardeen, who has a mind of his own but a warped and cruel one.
I didn’t agree with the mullah’s politics. But there was no one else and I wanted revenge. Above all, I wanted to punish the man responsible for the death of my sister and her family.
More by : Rajesh Talwar