Nowruz, new beginnings and the High Mobad’s instructions about how to govern

March 26, 2009

Quite a lot of noise was made about this Nowruz on March 21.

It penetrated the western conscious because President Obama sent a video message to Iran’s people and government, stressing new beginnings a lot and calling for “a future where the old divisions are overcome”.

All very appropriate: Nowruz means ‘new day’ in Persian, and according to one 10th century scholar, it is the belief of the Persians that Nowruz marks the first day when the universe started its motion.

The celebration is meant to have earlier, Zoroastrian origins. Persian and Zoroastrian traditions mingle in one of this Cat’s favourite drinking toasts, as it is recorded by another 10th century luminary, Omar Khayyam.

Khayyam describes the Zoroastrians’ High Mobad’s ritualised greeting of pre-Islamic Kings of Persia on the first day of the new year: the High Mobad arrives bearing gifts (a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, gold coins, green sprigs of wheat, a sword, and a bow), and addresses the king thus:

O Majesty, on this feast of the Equinox, first day of the first month of the year, seeing that thou hast freely chosen God and the Faith of the Ancient ones; may Surush, the Angel-messenger, grant thee wisdom and insight and sagacity in thy affairs. Live long in praise, be happy and fortunate upon thy golden throne, drink immortality from the Cup of Jamshid; and keep in solemn trust the customs of our ancestors, their noble aspirations, fair gestures and the exercise of justice and righteousness. May thy soul flourish; may thy youth be as the new-grown grain; may thy horse be puissant, victorious; thy sword bright and deadly against foes; thy hawk swift against its prey; thy every act straight as the arrow’s shaft. Go forth from thy rich throne, conquer new lands. Honor the craftsman and the sage in equal degree; disdain the acquisition of wealth. May thy house prosper and thy life be long!

Personally, this Cat is keen on its horse being puissant, victorious. But such preferences aside, it’s not a bad set of wishes about the sort of ruler one would want.  In similar(ish) vein, President Obama’s video message is a decent set of wishes about how one would want grown-up countries to behave towards each other when, given how much it might matter, there is very little guidance.

Mohammed Daoud Khan and Leading Afghanistan, which is possibly the most undesirable job in the world.

March 17, 2009

One wonders what passed through the minds of the leaders of Afghanistan today, as they paid respects to the recently unearthed remains of one of their predecessors, ex-President and ex-Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud Khan.

Afghanistan isn’t a country that is kind to its leaders.

It usually finishes them off in unpleasant ways: in the last century, the majority of the country’s leaders was assassinated or executed. Daoud and his family were done for in a 1978 coup that paved the way for some ten years of Soviet occupation (though, to begin with, in public, his assassins declared that Daoud had ‘resigned for health reasons’). Daoud’s remains were identified in a pit in the grounds of Kabul’s dark Pol-e-Charki prison thanks only to his teeth and a golden Koran the Saudis had given him. 

But this Cat reckons that, even without the likelihood of a sticky end, governing Afghanistan would rate high on any global league table of undesirable occupations. The place is rife with insane goings-on spawned by territory which is too high or too hot, too poor, and too porous, and too empty, to have done much to develop a great deal in the way of sane human society. So things have rather gone the other way. There are also grumbling neighbours to deal with, who have their own problems, and the suspicious superpowers who like to get stuck in periodically to play out grand strategy.

Afghan leaders have tended to go for a stressful strategy of uneasy equilibrium to deal with all of this. They juggle tribes, neighbours, and superpowers and try to keep the lid from blowing off. Daoud is reported to have said, “I feel the happiest when I can light my American cigarettes with Soviet matches.” But it is all very energy-consuming.

So this Cat would frankly imagine that by the time Afghanistan’s leaders get to the point of having been hunted down by their soon-to-be assassins they must be relieved at the prospect of a no-quibbles exit. 

It rather hopes to see Afghanistan coming into its own so that its leaders can stop their stressful juggling: if Afghanistan wants to do the smoking thing, then light Afghan cigarettes with Afghan matches.

This sort of thing takes strength and inspiration, though. Perhaps Afghanistan’s leaders and would-be leaders can extract some of that from Daoud’s sorry tale. The Cat can only really hope that history doesn’t put too many good people off: they are needed.

on how much effort it takes to make nothing happen

January 7, 2009

As it turned out, there were two reasons for Kabul to be particularly peaceful today, against the odds. The first was Ashura; the second, Pakistani President Zardari’s first visit to Afghanistan. Probably the flash-flood of policemen all over the city, prompted by both occasions, had something to do with how remarkably unremarkable the day was.

Ashura is one of these festivals which means different things to different people, especially Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, and, therefore, riles them as they remember how different they are. It didn’t help in Afghanistan that the Sunni Taliban restricted Shi’ite mourning at Ashura. Amongst other things, the day is said to mark God saving the Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egyptian army. Seeing Jews fasting to commemorate that event, the Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to do so too, but in his name instead. Sunni Muslims keep up the fasting tradition. Shi’ite Muslims, on the other hand, spend the day mourning the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussayn ibn Ali, who was killed at the Battle of Karbala in AD 680. A saying has it that, “a single tear shed for Hussayn washes away a hundred sins”, but, happily, the practice of donating blood has lately started to replace more extreme forms of mourning.

And so, in Kabul, this cat found all the main roads leading to the big mosques crawling with police. Zardari’s visit meant that every other strategic place around the city was also inhabited around the clock by the human icicles that the men must soon become in our freezing temperatures.

ANP at dawn

ANP at dawn

All of which excellent effort meant that the day passed off like any other. Making not much happen takes a lot in this city. 

Some people say that Ashura also marks the day Noah emerged from the Ark. Which suddenly seems like a very apt thing to be celebrating.

what new Kabul snow has in common with catching mice

January 3, 2009

This cat has been warily watching the snow gradually creeping down the mountains around Kabul over the last three weeks. Day by day, the early sun reflected more and more of its luminous pink off the mountains’ ever-whiter faces. Over the course of December’s mornings, the mountains turned into sharp white cutouts against cold blue sky. Then in the afternoons, the habitual orange smog took over. And long before the sun went down, the mountains had already disappeared behind a thick brown curtain.

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For the last two days, the skies behind the mountains were white, and the mountains themselves seemed to be a little pallid. 

Then, today, the skies finally cracked. Not a mountain to be seen. Thick white could filled the whole of the mountain-edged bowl that contains this city. Enormous fluffy white snowflakes meandered romantically earthwards. Then turned immediately into heavy, watery sludge. 

As is so often the way.

(And, indeed, the reason that this cat finds catching the mouse so much more full of pleasure than eating the mouse. Mice don’t taste so great.)

 

Kabulis bearing gifts for the feast-of-many-names

December 5, 2008

With the next holiday to mark Eid-ul-Adha (one of its many names), or festival of sacrifice, looming in a few days, this Cat notes a certain atmosphere of squirrel-like stockpiling going on in anticipation of a bout of present-giving. 

The festival is on the 10th day of the month of Dhul Hijja in the lunar Islamic calendar. People who know about these things say that this means for this Islamic (lunar) year, 1429, the (solar) Gregorian calendar date 9 December 2008.

Children are given “Eidi” gifts, as if to distract them from dwelling on the disconcerting proposition that this festival marks a father’s (Ibrahim’s) readiness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael) to Allah, despite the devil trying to persuade him to let Ishmael live. 

Thankfully, the traditions around the Eid are much more appealing, being about people looking after each other and, these days, giving presents. Also, people kill animals to commemorate Allah intervening at the last minute to substitute sacrifice of the son for that of a ram and the idea is to divide the sacrificial meat into three shares: one for the poor, one for friends and relations, and the last for oneself.

On the gift-giving front, this cat is chuffed about the advent of a delightful organisation called Tofa (‘gift’ in Dari)  because it sorts out difficulties involved in friends and relations outside Afghanistan giving presents to people in Afghanistan. It offers a cheerful, idiosyncratic array of gifts which it can deliver to people in Afghanistan, ranging from the functional (cooking oil, rice, flour, firewood) through the celebratory (Eid packages, wedding cakes) to the luxurious (clothes, restaurant vouchers, and electronic stuff).

This cat’s reasons for being pleased about Tofa’s existence aren’t entirely selfless. It purrs a great deal about the cheering experience of being at the receiving end of a smart Kabuli turning up with a vast and fragrant bunch of flowers. He hands them over, takes a picture and makes a video on his mobile phone. Later, the gift-giver gets an email attaching evidence of successful delivery: a photo and video of flowers being sniffed appreciatively….

Not Catnip

seeing dragons in the dust – and wondering whether mountains actually make warlike people

December 1, 2008

Afghanistan is easier to appreciate from the air than from the ground.

The oppressive surface-level dust which scrapes away at skin and fur, the filth-imbued air which gives everyone coughs, and the relentless monochrome brown which dulls the senses, muster more majesty and appeal from above.

Sun and clouds conjure dramatic shadow and, seen on a vaster scale, the brown turns out to be not just brown, but to include changing swathes of colour: green-brown, red-brown and yellow-brown, for instance.

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And, at this time of year, there are some splats of shining white where a bit of early snow sticks to the shady sides of the mountains as if they are making a feeble effort to veil themselves in cloud.

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Strange, fierce and spiky winged creatures appear from the shadows with wide-mouthed toad-like shapes, semi-elephants and dragons.

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One of them presumably pulled a plug in the land so that nearby mountains, collapsing in a cone of ripples, seem to drain back into the earth.

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The season seems to have got stuck in a sort of semi-autumn. Summer playing with the idea of falling into sudden freezing winter but not quite able to commit completely just yet. It has put a sort of mad magic into the air and the smog plays tricks: it makes mountains disappear…

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… it swallows the place in misty fire as the sun sets.

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Afghanistan’s mountain geography is very wild. As though a frustrated, furious architect screwed up the brown land and flung it down in a fury with much cursing.

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This matters because a wise old cove once told this Cat in a convincing and authoritative way, having made studies of such things, that mountainous lands breed bellicose malcontents incapable of peaceful co-operation. The reason given was that evolutionary processes select for populations with the genetic makeup to thrive in those sorts of harsh environments, and that the qualities people need to thrive, or at least survive, in harsh mountains don’t combine quickly – if ever – with those that prompt peaceful human co-operation.

This cat doesn’t know about all of that, but what there is here by way of mountains, people and dragons in the dust is, at least, full of interest, drama and metaphorical colour…..

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oases

November 1, 2008

A city that hurtles and rushes and bumps along as much as this one does needs little oases of relief to stop people from getting caught up by its vicious currents and unceremoniously washed away.

A precarious old man in dirty, trailing clothes, wobbles on an ancient bicycle across a hectic roundabout near the American Embassy. It is curious that he makes it through the mess of trucks and grinning boy-racers in Toyota Corollas and heavy armoured cars and donkey carts and skinny stall-sellers wheeling carts and fat-bottomed sheep grazing the rubbish. All bouncing around each other in random directions like some lethal school experiment in Brownian motion. Nothing about here is very much more organised, or less dangerous. There are a few oasis options, though…..

Look up and smug kites are wheeling, swooping and cheerfully cutting through the dusty air. This cat’s favourites are the frail-looking ones made of transparent plastic that you don’t see straight away; a shadow moving across the sun might catch the eye first of all. A man stands on his mud roof in the warming sun of the early morning, squinting at his kite and sending it skittering across the sky with tiny arm movements.

They look peaceful, the city’s kites, soaring above the earthbound confusion. Until you realise that they are also battling each other from the sky in a struggle just as vicious as anything going on below….

On Fridays, the nearby mosque burbles away, crackles of the microphone accompanying prayers and thoughts that this cat doesn’t understand, but the tones of which are relaxing. In Babur’s Gardens – Bagh-e Babur - on the western slopes of the Sher-e-Darwaza Mountain to the south of Kabul, families lay out rugs under fruit trees in the terraced orchard and drink tea. Small children toddle and somersault on the grass. Babur, who started the great, tolerant Mughal Empire which ruled India for 300 years, laid out the gardens, his favourite of the 10 he did around Kabul and the place, he decreed, in which he wanted to be buried. He missed Kabul; in India, there were, according to his memoirs, “no grapes, no musk melons, no first rate fruits or bread in its bazaars”.

Babur’s body was eventually brought back from Agra, where he died in 1530, to be buried in a roofless, white marble tomb, left open to the skies so that he could enjoy them. 

A Persian inscription reads, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”

Babur’s Gardens are definitely an oasis. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture restored them and, for the last month or so, their Queen’s Palace has also hosted an extraordinary collection of contemporary Central Asian art.

At Sherpur, just north-east of the middle of Kabul, there is a brown mud wall which the Afghan Government apparently put up in 1989 after the Russians had left. Inside the wall, another oasis: the Sherpur Christian Cemetery which the aid worker, Gayle Williams, liked so much that she decided that she would like to be buried there.

Oasis-wise, this cat, however, favours a hammock. Strung up between a hesco blast barrier and a tree, it gives a gentle swinging view of an enormous clear, cold blue sky.

 

 

Australia’s Ghan and the best Afghan camel fact. Ever.

October 18, 2008

Afghan camels are cool, whether hanging out in herds in Helmand or trogging around the place, transporting whole tribes to summer pastures. They make cosy rugs. Not personally, but their fur, which I expected to be coarse, stringy and uncomfortable underfoot, isn’t; it’s soft and warm.

All the same, it came as a surprise to this cat to discover that Afghan camels colonised Australia, where, it turns out, the camel population is, in fact, all originally Afghan. Camels were the best way of exploring Australia’s boiling red outback and hauling large loads around it. So Afghan camel drivers came to settle in Australia in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s until cars took over. 

Thanks to Afghan camel drivers and their camels’ load-hauling efforts, Australia was able eventually to be linked to London by telegraph (they helped to build the line between Adelaide and Darwin in the 1870s). Explorers were able to explore. And railways pressed on into the outback. “Ghantowns” sprang up at the railheads, with corrugated iron mosques. It took easygoing Australians until 2004 and over 100 years to finish the railway the Afghan camel drivers started to build which today crosses nearly 3000 kilometres of Australian outback from Adelaide and Darwin, and which is known as The Ghan.

The story goes that, when the first train pulled into one of the stations at sunset in 1923, an Afghan jumped from it. Australia had had little exposure to Islam at that stage, save from some Indonesian sea-slug hunters in the 1600s, and a few Malay pearl-divers. And as this Afghan took his time to find the direction in which he had to turn to face Mecca and start to pray, the train driver wryly commented: “We’ll have to call this the ‘Afghan Express’”

the fact is that cats see human life at one remove though one could reasonably expect that they experience the full joy of being a cat otherwise

October 18, 2008

There is a particular road which runs the length of Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw Park. It reeks of life at night when multicoloured fairylights cheer the street’s tired buildings and the whole street fills with people doing things. The day’s market stalls, men selling fish from poster-sized boards onto which they pin big silver fish of various sizes, men selling lamb from carcasses suspended at the side of the street, give way to smoky kebab stalls selling sweet, cindered corn on the cob. Jewel-coloured dresses sparkle, lit up brightly behind glass. Arrays of in-season fruit stack up behind the open shop-fronts offering fresh ice-cream and juices. Red pomegranites are everywhere just now, swollen with bittersweet seeds that split and bleed into the mouth like mini-explosions. The smells are almost visible. And beyond the lights’ red, green and yellow reach, darkness hides the usual dirt and dust and roadside ditches. 

A cat, of course, observes all of this at one remove, a divide between species that it can only imagine is similar to that felt by the people who experience Kabul only through thick layers of reinforced glass and speeding armour-clad vehicles.

The advantage to observing at a remove is that, within the limits of the observer’s feline understanding, it keeps a bit of perspective possible while everyone kilters along at high speed. The disadvantage is that one can’t help but with slight envy question whether there is something vital that one is missing out on.

happy eid

September 30, 2008

Sometime yesterday, a scholar in Saudi Arabia spotted the moon in a significant position. Ramadan was about to be over, and the Eid/ festival which explodes at the end of it was called for today. Here, this equals sudden holiday. For days, the city has been on tenterhooks, buzzing with people and lit up at night with neon and garish shops open late, mosques becoming ever-more extremely decorated and vocal at all hours, day and night. They are, it turns out, racing to get through broadcasting the whole of the Koran before the end of Ramadan. Now, eerie (but welcome) silence has descended. Most things have stopped so that people can do whatever necessary to celebrate the end of a month of spiritual growth and physical deprivation. After a month of stretched faces, hard-pushed to smile because of hunger and tiredness, cheerfulness is smeared all over the place. The usual greetings are swapped for ‘eid mubarak!’ Numerous guards manning the barriers across the roads every 50 yards or so suddenly look pleased about life. Their walkie-talkie sets pipe twangy music through, and they raise their barriers with new enthusiasm.


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