Book review: A history of Afghanistan, in its own words

An academic historiography that takes primary sources in local languages for its inspiration, provides a much-needed corrective to foreign meddling in Afghanistan.

Book review: A history of Afghanistan, in its own words
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Outsiders have been projecting clichés onto Afghanistan for a long time: the graveyard of empires, a chessboard for the Great Game, a Petri dish for extremism. For the more romantic, the Afghans live on the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road or they are a distant mountain people that time and progress forgot.

The question of how Afghans themselves interpret their past is difficult to answer. Surprisingly few books have been written in the last 15 years that include primary sources written in one of the many Afghan languages and therefore offer a local perspective, writes Nile Green the editor of Afghan History Through Afghan Eyes.

And yet, how history is interpreted is a crucial issue because it has a direct impact on understanding cultural values, what forms of government are legitimate and who has the right to rule the country, writes Green, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and founding director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia.

All nations put a gloss on their history to create founding myths. Children in the United States are taught that the American Revolution was about throwing off the shackles of colonialism and the right to pursue happiness. The fact that the revolution was also a tax revolt is downplayed. In Britain, history was taught as a series of biographies of kings and queens and only in the last generation has this paradigm been challenged.

Afghanistan is undergoing a similar process. Official history taught to schoolchildren downplays a divisive past, such as the civil war of the 1990s, for the sake of forging a sense of unity in a fractured and traumatised nation.

Take the founding of the country, mired in myth and legend. Conventional history dictates that Ahmad Shah Durrani, affectionately nicknamed “Ahmad Shah baba” by Afghans, founded the modern state in 1747 after serving in Persia. He carved a huge empire that extended from Mashad in modern Iran to Lahore in modern Pakistan, from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.

That the capital of Durrani’s empire was Kandahar in the Pashtun heartland and that Durrani was a Pashtun himself have been used as arguments by many Pashtuns that they are the natural ruling class of Afghanistan. The current president, Ashraf Ghani, and his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, are Pashtuns.

As academic Amin Tarzi points out in one of eight scholarly essays that make up Through Afghan Eyes, nearly all Afghan historians do not mention the first official history of Afghanistan, which Durrani commissioned. Tarikh-i-Ahmad Shahi was written by Mahmud Al Husayni, and the 1,286-page manuscript, the only authorised chronicle of his reign, was published in Persian. The choice of language seems odd because Durrani was a prolific writer of Pashto poetry. And the manuscript does not mention the term "Afghanistan".

Furthermore, Tarzi writes that Durrani was probably aware of his limitations as ruler because his campaigns were often curtailed to deal with unrest at home or elsewhere in conquered territory. He usually installed local rulers. The most notable example came after the famous battle of Panipat near Delhi in 1761. Durrani won and a local ruler, Shah Alam III was placed on the throne. He referred to Durrani as the “crown-giver”.

Considering these ambiguities and nuances, can Durrani really be considered the founder of the state? What were his ambitions and vision for his kingdom? Tarzi argues that a more thorough study of Al Husyani’s manuscript, the complete version of which is in St Petersburg, Russia, would help to answer these questions, and consequently “the potential to help forge a more cohesive national identity for the Afghanistan of the future”.

The eight case studies in Through Afghan Eyes range from Al Husyani's obscure text to a 20th-century archaeological organisation set up by French experts. It's a dense book, not for a casual audience looking for a breezy read. It is not so much about the contents of Afghan history but how that history has been written and analysed by Afghans, in other words, historiography.

Nevertheless there is enough fascinating material here to appeal to those who find Afghanistan an absorbing subject worthy of study beyond suicide bombings and recent US foreign policy. Totems are slain, comfortable national myths questioned.

Take Mahmud Tarzi, another towering figure similar to Durrani. Mahmud Tarzi was an early 20th-century poet, editor and politician whose writings were infused with the passionate desire to modernise Afghanistan. Today, schools are named after him. Tarzi was forced into exile in 1929 and settled in Istanbul where he died of liver cancer four years later. He was one of the first exiled Afghans to articulate disenchantment with his homeland. Thomas Wide writes that his collection of poetry, Zhulida/Pazhmurda, which translates into Bedraggled/Withered, is a "long-lost, unstudied source" that shows this complexity. The man who once wrote of an "age of the motor, rail, and electricity", now asked: "This land, what land? This homeland, what homeland? A place that has nothing but division and killing".

His family were so fearful that Zhulida/Pazhmurda would ruin his reputation as a patriot, Wide writes, that they apparently gathered all 1,000 printed copies and held a bonfire in a garden in Istanbul. Two copies survived somehow. One was deposited in an Istanbul library and a second found its way to UCLA.

Tarzi was a member of the Pashtun ruling class. But what about other minority groups, such as the Uzbeks, who have historically been shut out of power? The Uzbeks, a Turkic-speaking people from the north, are today considered equal under the law, with the same right to vote and hold office like other Afghan citizens, but their history is characterised by migration and oppression.

Oral history is an important tradition and the stories passed on within families give a fresh perspective on the consequences of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union. In the early 1920s, a huge number of families from the Soviet borders crossed into Afghanistan to flee religious persecution. One of the female descendants of the refugees gave Uzbek folklore specialist Ingeborg Baldauf this account:

“‘For three years, my mother said, her elder sisters-in-law and the elderly women observed their fasting alongside the chirping of the sparrows. There was no call to prayer any more, they had abolished it. And the Soviet women, the modern women of that day that is, would come and invite them over and tried all kinds of tricks to make them eat (during daytime), break your fasting, they would say. But my mother deceived them and didn’t eat anything; she just hid (the food). That’s why my mother and my uncles ran away and came to this country’.”

Migrating to an Islamic country was no guarantee of freedom. Afghans across the border sometimes demanded their gold and belongings and threatened to send the Uzbeks back if they refused to cooperate, Baldauf writes. Collectively Uzbeks still feel aggrieved.

Untangling fact from fiction and myth from reality will be the task of Afghans themselves, particularly since the study of Afghanistan has moved to a new phase in the West – a case study in international interventions and the errors of counter-insurgencies. This book is a great start.

Hamida Ghafour is the author of The Sleeping Buddha – The Story of Afghanistan Through the Eyes of One Family.