By Tej N Dhar
An Afghan Journey, Roger Willemsen; Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House, Pp 196 (PB), price Rs 275;
An Afghan Journey is an interesting account of the author’s travels in the newly emerging Afghanistan, which he undertook in the company of his friend Nadia Karim in 2005. In the backdrop of his old memories of the place, based on the accounts of earlier travellers and visitors, he provides his account of the place and its people on the basis of what he observes on his own and what he learns from his interactions with different kinds of people.
Willemsen sees visible signs of devastation right from the time his plane lands in Kabul, for the airport is “flanked by a lorry graveyard, abandoned positions, the wrecks of aeroplanes and smashed up helicopters in collapsing hangars.” But there are also signs of change, of welcome to the country, and cheering images of its new President and its war heroes. This juxtaposition of the signs of devastation and of change is evident throughout the book. We watch young girls being trained to play football, and see women win elections, but we also see children who look old, with dark rings under their eyes. Scents of spices, tea, and roses mix with the stink of putrefaction. More than half of the people in Kabul are malnourished and nearly eighty percent of them depend on external help. Corruption is so deeply entrenched in the country that some people humorously suggest that it should be included in its constitution. Even Karzai is tolerated because he is “the least of the evils,” who keeps company with “old gangsters, so as not to hurt anyone’s pride.” The country is full of fighters and victims, who are on makeshift crutches and false legs. People talk about death without any change of expression, as if “merely documenting events.” So many parts of the country have seen so many deaths that grass does not grow on them.
Proud of their rich culture, of their musical tradition, of the love of their homeland, the Afghanis are now faced with threats of cholera, suicide bombers, muggings, enemy sniping, and Taliban attacks. Most of them feel that they are victims of other people’s greed, for they “didn’t choose politics, but politics chose that the people of Afghanistan would be crushed between other peoples’ interests.” The Russians created villages like “Massacre,” where all the people were killed because they opposed them. There are also places like “Little Moscow” where road blocks are made of tank tracks and Soviet military equipment is visible in the making of their houses. We also learn how during the Taliban regime “Taliban Islam” weakened the traditional Afghan “philosophical Islam,” and bred a new variety of “macho totalitarianism.” The presence of Americans too evokes diverse reactions.
An Afghan Journey is a well written travelogue, which helps us see the destruction of Afghanistan, the agony and pain of its people, and their efforts to reassemble their lives. Though some of them are quite hopeful of things getting better, some fear that the hopes of peace rest on “thin ice. No one trusts the weapon’s silence.”
(Jacio Publishing House, A-2, Jash Chambers, 7-A, Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road, Fort, Mumbai-40 001)