The antiquarian of Herat

Diplomatic reminiscences from Herat in the 1970s; delicate interventions, fragile civil society.
Carlo Ungaro
22 July 2010

The beautifully kept grounds of the main Mosque in the western Afghan city of Herat are flanked by one of the town’s most attractive and busy streets. There, on an unbearably hot summer day of 1972, I came across a very friendly “antiquarian”, who, witnessing my state of exhaustion, took me into his vast store and offered me words of comfort and a large Coca-Cola.

He proudly showed me a “silver” cup, which he claimed, his hand on his heart, was a “very ancient” Russian artefact. So ancient it was that it bore an engraving of the 1957 Sputnik and had been produced in the Soviet Union on the first anniversary of the launch. Most foreign tourists would have greeted this allegation of antiquity either with hoots of derision, or with the certitude that they were dealing with a dishonest man. Both assumptions would have been wrong, unfair and insulting. Traditional Afghans have a deeply embedded sense of history, but, paradoxically, unlike us, they are not obsessed with chronology and are usually unsure even of their own age. I knew this because of childhood memories in Kabul. Our aged plumber, for instance, fascinated me with tales of his encounters with “Sikandar” (Alexander the Great). These are the results of a tradition of oral history, and he was totally convinced of what he was saying. The chronological discrepancy only dawned on me later, as I became progressively more “westernised”.

In retrospect, those days appear idyllic, and yet, by our tactless, overbearing and patronising attitudes, already then we were unwittingly sowing seeds of mutual distrust and animosity.

There are places, where Time really does seem to “stand still”, and I was overjoyed, though scarcely surprised, when, over three decades later (in 2005), I came across the very same “antiquarian”, tall, austere, with an immense black beard, now slowly turning white. He and his vast and dusty shop both appeared unaffected by the succession of tragic and violent events which had troubled the Country and, which, of course are far from over.

He greeted me like a long lost brother, not because he recognised me (in the seventies tourists were plentiful in Afghanistan) but because, like a true Afghan gentleman, he wanted to please and, of course, also spotted a potential customer and, possibly, a friend. I identified myself, and reminded him of our meeting long ago, mentioning the camel-bells he then sold in abundance because a drought had killed many camels.. We embraced fondly, although I’m not really sure that he remembered me, but he obviously liked the story and enjoyed speaking to a foreigner with no need of an interpreter.

These personal souvenirs are not an otiose autobiographical exercise, but rather an attempt to examine the Afghan Civil Society in those years, focussing the attention on how we, the foreign community, could possibly have contributed to the erosion of its lasting, though fragile, stability. The clues were there for all to see: Mainly the great and growing cultural (and, of course, economic) gap between a very westernised, and timidly secularised elite in Kabul and the rest of the country, even on the very outskirts of the Capital. I once rode into a nearby caravanserai and was greeted, as usual, with effusive affability. As I dismounted, I realised that my wristwatch, my glasses and my horse’s tack were probably the only signs that we actually were in the twentieth century, and not in biblical times. Kabul, which some called “the Paris of Central Asia”, seemed very far away indeed both in time and in space.

I am convinced that unwittingly, often with the best of intentions, we, and some of our Afghan friends were convinced that progress could be achieved throughout the country not only in the standard of living but also in a gradual evolution to a more “enlightened” (i.e. “western”) lifestyle. Very few foreigners and a small but growing number of our Afghan friends seemed aware of the dangers or preoccupied by them: the fact was, however, that the centuries-old fabric of Afghan society was being torn, up to then through peaceful means, with no viable alternative being offered.

This is not the article in which to discuss the reasons for our continued military presence in Afghanistan, or to offer different options to the growingly elusive military solution.

Our actions, however, have undeniably brought about a violent disruption in the existence of Afghan civil society which, strong as it is (my Herat antiquarian is a living example) would have great difficulty withstanding further upheaval, such as that which could be brought about by our hasty departure.

Efforts are being made to “train” Afghan military and security forces, and there are signs of an orientation to revive the power of the “war lords”. Are any serious, effective efforts being undertaken to leave behind also a cultural legacy to which the Afghan middle classes of the future will be able to adhere? I sometimes feel that also our civilian intervention there will turn out to have been disastrous.

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