Page 2 of 2 LIFE IN TALIBANISTAN, Part 1 Throw these infidels in jail
By Pepe Escobar
Doubt is sin. Debate is heresy. "The only true knowledge is the Koran". He
insisted that all "forms of modern scientific knowledge came from the Koran".
As an example, he quoted - what else - a Koranic verse (the Koran, by the way,
in its neo-Deobandi, Talibanized version, forbade women to write, and allowed
education only up to the age of 10). I could not help being reminded of that
18th century French anonymous writer - a typical product of the Enlightenment -
who had written the Treaty of the Three Impostors - Moses, Jesus and Muhammad;
but if I tried to insert the European Enlightenment into (his) monologue I
would probably be shot dead. Basically, Qureishi finally managed to
convince me that all this religious shadow play was about proving that "my sect
is purer than yours".
Play it again, infidel
Talibanistan lived under a strict Kalashnikov culture. But the supreme
anti-Taliban lethal weapon was not a gun, or even a mortar or rocket-propelled
grenade. It was a camera. I knew inevitably that day would come, and it came in
Kabul stadium, built by the former USSR to extol proletarian internationalism;
another Friday, at 5pm, the weekly soccer hour - the only form of entertainment
absent from the Taliban's Index Prohibitorum apart from public executions and
mango ice cream.
Jason and I were lodged at the VIP tribune - less than 10 US cents for the
ticket. The stadium was packed - but silent as a mosque. Two teams, the red and
the blue, were playing the Islamically correct way - with extra skirts under
their trunks. At half time the whole stadium - to the sound of "Allah Akbar" -
ran to pray by the pitch; those who didn't were spanked or thrown in jail.
Jason had his cameras hanging from his neck, but he was not using them. Yet
that was more than enough for a hysteric V&V teenage informant. We were
escorted out of the stands by a small army of smiling, homoerotic brotherhood,
those who were then referred to as "soldiers of Allah". Finally we were
presented to a white-turbaned Talib with assassin's eyes; none other than
Mullah Salimi, the vice minister of the religious police in Kabul - the
reincarnation of The Great Inquisitor. We were finally escorted out of the
stadium and thrown into a Hi-Lux, destination unknown. Suddenly we were more
popular with the crowd than the soccer match itself.
At a Taliban "office" - a towel on the grass in front of a bombed-out building,
decorated with a mute sat-phone - we were charged with espionage, our backpacks
thoroughly searched. Salimi inspected two rolls of film from Jason's cameras;
no incriminating photo. Then it was the turn of my Sony mini-DV camera. We
pressed "play"; Salimi recoiled in horror. We explained that nothing was
recorded on the blue screen. What was really recorded - he just needed to press
"rewind" - would have been enough to send us to the gallows, including a lot of
stuff with the Three Graces. Once again, we proved that the Taliban badly
needed not only art directors and PR agents but also info-tech whiz kids.
In Taliban anti-iconography, video, in theory, might be allowed, because the
screen is a mirror. Anyway, later we would know from the lion's mouth - the
Ministry of Information and Culture in Kandahar - that TV and video would
remain perpetually banned.
At that time, a few photo-studios survived near one of the Kabul bazaars - only
churning out 3X4 photos for documents. The owners paid their bills by renting
their Xerox machines. The Zahir Photo Studio still had on its walls a
collection of black and white and sepia photos of Kabul, Herat, minarets,
nomads and caravans. Among Leicas, superb Speed Graphic 8 X 10 and dusty
Russian panoramic cameras, Mr Zahir would lament, "photography is dead in
Afghanistan". At least that wouldn't be for long.
So after an interminable debate in Pashto with some Urdu and English thrown in,
we were "liberated". Some Taliban - but certainly not Salimi, still piercing us
with his assassin's eyes - tried a formal apology, saying what happened was
incompatible with the Pashtun code of hospitality. All tribal Pashtun - like
the Taliban - follow the Pashtunwali, the rigid code that emphasizes,
among other things, hospitality, vengeance and a pious Islamic life. According
to the code, it's a council of elders that arbitrates specific disputes,
applying a compendium of laws and punishments. Most cases involve murders, land
disputes and trouble with women. For the Pashtun, the line between pashtunwali
and sharia was never very clear.
The V&V obviously was not a creation of Mullah Omar, the "Leader of the
Faithful"; it was based on a Saudi Arabian original. In its heyday, in the
second half of the 1990s, the V&V was a formidable intelligence agency -
with informers infiltrated in the army, ministries, hospitals, United Nations
agencies, non-governmental agencies - evoking a bizarre memory of KHAD, the
enormous intelligence agency of the 1980s communist regime, during the
anti-USSR jihad. The difference is that the V&V only answered to the orders
- issued on bits and pieces of paper - of Mullah Omar himself.
Rock the base
The verdict echoed like a dagger piercing the oppressive air of the desert near
Ghazni. A 360-degree panoramic shot revealed a background of mountains where
the mineral had expelled all the vegetal; the silhouette of two 11th century
minarets; and a foreground of tanks, helicopters and rocket launchers. The
verdict, issued in Pashto and mumbled by our scared official translator imposed
by Kabul, was inexorable: "You will be denounced in a military court. The
investigation will be long, six months; meanwhile you will await the decision
Once again, we were being charged with espionage, but now this was the real
deal. We could be executed with a shot on the back of the neck - Khmer Rouge
style. Or stoned. Or thrown into a shallow grave and buried alive by a brick
wall smashed by a tractor. Brilliant Taliban methods for the final solution
were myriad. And to think this was all happening because of two minarets.
To walk over a supposedly mined field trying to reach two minarets was not
exactly a brilliant idea in the first place. Red Army experts, during the
1980s, buried 12 million mines in Afghanistan. They diversified like crazy;
more than 50 models, from Zimbabwe's RAP-2s to Belgium's NR-127s. UN officials
had assured us that more than half the country was mined. Afghan officials at
the Mine Detention Center in Herat, with their 50 highly trained German
shepherd dogs, would later tell us that it would take 22,000 years to demine
the whole country.
My objects of desire in Ghazni were two "Towers of Victory"; two circular
superstructures, isolated in the middle of the desert and built by the
Sassanians as minarets - commemorative, not religious; there was never a mosque
in the surroundings. In the mid-19th century scholars attributed the grand
minaret to Mahmud, protector of Avicenna and the great Persian poet Ferdowsi.
Today, it is known that the small minaret dates from 1030 and the big one from
1099. They are like two brick rockets pointing to the sheltering sky and
claiming the attention of those travelling the by then horrific Kabul-Kandahar
highway, a Via Dolorosa of multinational flat tires - Russian, Chinese,
The problem is that, 10 years ago, right adjacent to the minarets, there was an
invisible Taliban military base. At first we could see only an enormous weapons
depot. We asked a sentinel to take a few pictures; he agreed. Walking around
the depot - between wrecks of Russian tanks and armored cars - we found some
functioning artillery pieces, a lone, white Taliban flag, and not a living
soul. This did look like an abandoned depot. But then we hit on a destroyed
Russian helicopter - a prodigy of conceptual art. Too late: soon we were
intercepted by a Taliban out of nowhere.
The commander of the base wanted to know "under which law" we assumed we had
the right to take photos. He wanted to know what was the punishment, "in our
country", for such an act. When the going was really getting tough, everything
turned Monty Python. One of the Taliban had walked back to the road to fetch
our driver, Fateh. They came back two hours later. The commander talked to
Fateh in Pashto. And then we were "liberated", out of "respect for Fateh's
white beard". But we should "confess" to our crime - which we did right away,
over and over again.
The fact of the matter is that we were freed because I was carrying a precious
letter hand-signed by the all-powerful Samiul Haq, the leader of Haqqania, the
factory-cum-academy, Harvard and MIT of the Taliban in Akhora Khatak, on the
Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan. Legions of Taliban
ministers, province governors, military commanders, judges and bureaucrats had
studied in Haqqania.
Haqqania was founded in 1947 by Deobandi religious scholar Abdul Haq, the
father of maulvi and former senator Samiul Haq, a wily old hand fond of
brothels and as engaging as a carpet vendor in the Peshawar bazaars. He was a
key educator of the first detribalized, urbanized and literate Afghan
generation; "literate", of course, in Haqqania-branded, Deobandi-style Islam.
In Haqqania - where I saw hundreds of students from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and
Kazakhstan indoctrinated to later export Talibanization to Central Asia -
debate was heresy, the master was infallible and Samiul Haq was almost as
perfect as Allah.
He had told me - no metaphor intended - that "Allah had chosen Mullah Omar to
be the leader of the Taliban". And he was sure that when the Islamic Revolution
reached Pakistan, "it will be led by a unknown rising from the masses" - like
Mullah Omar. At the time, Haq was Omar's consultant on international relations
and sharia-based decisions. He bundled up both Russia and the US as "enemies of
our time"; blamed the US for the Afghan tragedy; but otherwise offered to hand
over Osama bin Laden to the US if Bill Clinton guaranteed no interference in
Back in Ghazni, the Taliban commander even invited us for some green tea.
Thanks but no thanks. We thanked Allah's mercy by visiting the tomb of Sultan
Mahmud in Razah, less than one kilometer from the towers. The tomb is a work of
art - translucent marble engraved with Kufic lettering. Islamic Kufic
lettering, if observed as pure design, reveals itself as a transposition of the
verb, from the audible to the visible. So the conclusion was inevitable; the
Taliban had managed to totally ignore the history of their own land, building a
military base over two architectural relics and incapable of recognizing even
the design of their own Islamic lettering as a form of art.