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The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistanby Christina Lamb
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One The Taliban Torturer
"'The evil that men do lives after them,
Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar
The instructions from the commanding officer were clear. 'You must become so notorious for bad things that when you come into an area people will tremble in their sandals. Anyone can do beatings and starve people of food and water. I want your unit to find new ways of torture so terrible that the screams will frighten even crows from their nests, and if the person survives he will never again have a night's sleep.'
Sitting at the table with me were Jamil Karzai, the young nephew of an old friend Hamid Karzai, who handed me a letter that I did not open till later, and three people Jamil had brought to talk to me. All three had been members of the Taliban but it was one in particular who was holding my attention.
His name was Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani and he was a small thin man who seemed anxious to be liked, with the pinched face and restless hands of one whose darkness hours are constantly haunted. His eyebrows were unusually highly arched under agold-embroidered Kandahari skullcap that perched rather than fitted on his head, and as he spoke shadows played in the dark recesses of his face. He looked like a torture victim. Instead, as a member of the Taliban's feared secret police, for the previous three and a half years he had been one of the perpetrators charged with carrying out the commanding officer's instructions.
Aged thirty and married with a wife and a one-year-old baby daughter, he was a graduate in business studies and had been working as an accountant until he joined the Taliban. Like many in the movement, Khalil had been largely educated in Pakistan where he had grown up as a refugee, and two of his elder brothers had died fighting among the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most fundamentalist of the seven mujaheddin leaders, in the jihad, or holy war, against the Russians. But his family was well off, owning lands and several houses in Kandahar to which they returned after the war, while he remained doing a degree at Peshawar University. Although he had introduced himself as Mullah Hassani, he explained with a nervous laugh, 'I became a mullah just by joining the Taliban. I'm not a religious scholar.'
'Like many people, I did not become a Talib by choice, ' he continued. 'In early 1998 I was working here in Quetta as accountant for a company trading dried fruit, almonds and pistachio nuts when I got a message that my grandfather, who was eighty-five, had been arrested by the Taliban in Kandahar and was being badly beaten and would probably die. They would only release him if we provided a male member of his family as a conscript, so I had to go.'
Many of Khalil's friends had already joined the Taliban.Some because their families had been told their lands would be confiscated if they did not, though a few got round this by paying a bribe of $20 a month not to be conscripted, a huge amount in a country where the average salary is less than $200 a year. Others had been lured into its ranks with offers of money and Datsun two-door pick-ups with bumper bars — the vehicle of choice of the Taliban — which were provided to the leadership by smugglers and drug-barons in return for being able to ply their lucrative trade as Afghanistan became the world's largest producer of opium1. The deliberate destruction of the irrigation channels by the Russians during their ten-year occupation meant that poppies were all that would grow in much of the country, and were the main crop in the south-western provinces of Helmand, Zabul and, to a lesser extent, Kandahar. Although the Taliban had banned the consumption of narcotics as un-Islamic, and in July 2000 had banned cultivation of opium poppies, the trade continued and the country remained one of the world's major trafficking routes, known as the Golden Crescent.
Assigned to the secret police, Khalil patrolled the streets at night looking for thieves and signs of subversion. Initially he thought the Taliban were doing an effective job. 'It had been a crazy situation after the Russians left, ' he explained. 'In Kandahar warlords were selling everything, even stripping the telephone wires, kidnapping young girls and boys, robbing people and blocking the roads, and the Taliban seemed like good people who brought law and order.'
This was something I had heard over and over again. Afghanistan is roughly speaking, split into north and south by theHindu Kush. To the north are mostly Persian and Turkic peoples, and to the south the Pashtuns, while Tajiks and Hazaras live in the mountains. By the time the Taliban emerged in 1994, ethnic and tribal divisions in a land awash with weaponry2 had turned the country into a shifting patchwork of fiefdoms run by warlords who switched sides with bewildering frequency.
The predominantly Tajik government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani controlled Kabul and the northeast, backed by commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous Lion of the Panjshir, but was under siege from the forces of the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar based to the south, a man who had once stopped an interview with me because he could see my ankle. Herat and the three westernmost provinces were ruled by Ismael Khan, an egocentric mujaheddin commander whose men wore black and white checked scarves, called him 'Excellency' and carried pictures of him with flowing black beard on a white horse. Mazar-i-Sharif and the six northern provinces were governed by the vodka-swilling Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum, who had been on the Soviet payroll during the jihad. Dostum's 20,000-strong Jawzjani militia was so terrifying that they were known as galamjam or carpet-thieves, the ultimate Afghan insult. After the collapse of the Communists, he had subsequently allied with and betrayed just about every faction and at the time of the emergence of the Taliban had just switched his support from Rabbani to Hekmatyar. In the mountains of central Afghanistan, Hazaras ran the province of Bamiyan. A shura of bickering commanders in Jalalabad governed the three eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.
The worst situation was to the southof the Hindu Kush among Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, particularly around Kandahar. Gul Agha, the Governor, son of the late Haji Latif, a notorious banditleader turned mujaheddin commander, was said to have controlled no more than his office and the stretch of road outside. Small-time warlords and petty commanders had stripped the city of anything that could be sold for scrap and set up their own checkpoints.
Everyone talked of the chains across the roads, five on the main street of Kandahar, fifty just on the two-hour sixty-five-mile stretch between Spin Boldak and Kandahar, each manned by different warlords demanding money. Businessmen and truckers were paying far more in bribes to transport things than the value of the goods themselves. Wali Jan, sardar of the Noorzai tribe, and owner of a petrol station and one of the principal bazaars in Kandahar, whom I met at his marble-floored
Book News Annotation:
British foreign correspondent Lamb has won awards for her reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan since September 2001. Here she recounts her interactions with women in Afghanistan during the last days of Taliban rule.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Includes bibliographic references (p. -328) and index.
A gold-inscribed invitation to a wedding in a foreign land led Christina Lamb at the age of twenty-one to leave suburban England for Peshawar on the frontier of the Afghan war. Like the Englishmen in the Great Game of the nineteenth century, she was captivated by the Afghans she met. For two years she tracked the final stages of the mujaheddin victory over the Soviets as Afghan friends smuggled her in and out of their country in a variety of guises — from burqa-clad wife to Kandahari boy — travelling by foot, on donkeys or hidden under the floor of an ambulance.
Among those friends was Abdul Haq, the recently executed Kabul commander, and Hamid Karzai, the new president of Afghanistan, who took Lamb to his hometown of Kandahar, where they rode around on the backs of motorbikes belonging to a group of fighters known as the Mullahs Front. It was these figures who went on to become founding members of the Taliban.
Long haunted by her experiences in Afghanistan, Lamb returned there after the attacks on the World Trade Center to find out what had become of the people and places that had marked her life as a young graduate, and to report for Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
She was now seeing the land anew, through the eyes of a mother and an experienced foreign correspondent who has lived in Africa, South America, Portugal and the United States. Lamb's journey brought her in touch with the people no one else has written about: the abandoned victims of almost a quarter century of war.
Among them are the brave women writers of Herat who risked their lives to carry on the literary tradition of this ancient Persian city under the guise of sewing circles; the princess whose palace was surrounded by tanks on the eve of her wedding; the artist who painted out all the people in his works to prevent their being destroyed by the Taliban; and Khalil Ahmed Hassani, a former Taliban torturer who admits to breaking the spines of men then making them stand on their heads.
Christina Lamb's evocative reporting brings to life these stories. Her unique perspective on Afghanistan and deep passion for the people she writes about makes this the definitive account of the tragic plight of a proud nation.
About the Author
Christina Lamb was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year by both the British Press Awards and the Foreign Correspondents Association for her reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan in London's Sunday Telegraph following the terrorist attacks of September 11. She is also the author of the bestselling The Africa House and Waiting for Allah. She is married with a young son and lives in London, England, and Estoril, Portugal.
Table of Contents
The Taliban torturer — Mullahs on motorbikes — Inside the house of knowledge — The royal court in exile — The sewing circles of Herat — The secret of glass - Unpainting the peacocks — The story of Abdullah — Face to face with the Taliban — A letter from Kabul.
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