One Afghan’s Three-Generation Quest for Peace

ADAM KLEIN
Sunday, 03-June-2012
In an undated photo, Kakail Nuristani’s grandfather, left, stands with Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II during the dedication of the Nuristan Collection at the Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark.

 

Two years ago, I began working with Afghan writers in workshops, introducing them to short narratives from around the world, frequently from postwar writers. Most of my students weren’t raised reading stories in English, and very few had ever sat down to write their own in a second or third language. Unlike an American workshop, it was rare to find an Afghan who felt their story warranted such attention, theirs or mine, or who wanted their work to ever appear in print.

Through a process of close conferencing, the stories developed, as did trust, and eventually a desire to see their work published — preferably outside Afghanistan, where candor is still risky. At the same time, I asked students to bring me pictures or documents, imagining that I might help start an image archive — something online that could one day be used for research and couldn’t be destroyed by the Taliban or others who find photography incongruous with Islam.

Few students brought photographs or letters, stating that their provinces were too dangerous to return to, or that no such documents or letters survived the war, the Taliban, or their sometimes dramatic, overland escapes from the country.

Though my intention was to help create a book of their stories, in their words, I had one student who brought in a trove of images, letters, and most surprisingly, pictures of Muhammad Ali with his father, as well as New York protest permits. I was hooked. Kakail Nuristani began to relay his father’s story to me. Over time, I realized that this was more than a story of Kakail’s father’s optimistic, driven youthfulness and sense of destiny. Rather, it unearthed the murky world of American power players and Afghan dissidents on the other side of the world — the side of policy-makers, shape-shifters, early war profiteers claiming to work on behalf of Afghan victims. Kakail’s story is one of destiny forestalled for three generations. He asked me to help him put this together, sensing there was a national narrative here. When we’d finally finished it, the images laid before us, I saw it starkly. Power is only as good as those who gain access to it. The rest is fallout.

As told by Kakail Nuristani: A Forefather Who Ran With Kings

My grandfather’s aunt was taken forcibly from Nuristan to be either a wife or courtesan of the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan sometime in the 1880s, and to live in the king’s court. As far as I know, this may be the same presidential palace occupied by Hamid Karzai today. Nuristan is a remote region, high in the northeast mountains of Afghanistan; little is known of it, but it was the first region to oust the Russians and the last to convert to Islam within Afghanistan.

My grandfather was able to live under his aunt’s supervision, and did have some access to the palace. That’s how he formed his early friendship with Mohammed Nadir Shah, father to King Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who reigned from 1933-1973 before he was ousted in a coup. My grandfather would go on to serve as King Shah’s treasurer.

After Abdur Rahman Khan had settled with the British on the Durand Line, the demarcation between India and Afghanistan, my grandfather went to British India for studies and fell in love with a viceroy’s wife, whose face he had tattooed on his arm. When he returned to Nuristan, a group of mullahs saw the tattoo and insisted he was an infidel and could no longer pray in the mosque. In response, he informed them that if he were an infidel for having the face of a woman on his arm, they too, were infidels for trading in cash imprinted with the faces of world leaders. This left them speechless. He was left alone after that. In later years, perhaps due to my grandfather’s deft diplomatic skills, he became the first elected provincial parliament member under Zahir Shah. The following muslin voting record shows the fingerprints of those villagers who nominated him and provides some idea of the fragility of such democratic processes that held these communities together. Lennart Edelberg led a Danish expedition in the
1960s to Afghanistan. He wrote a book on Nuristani architecture that was greatly informed by my grandfather. Later, His Royal Highness Prince Henrik of Denmark, accompanied by the royal family of Afghanistan, visited my grandfather’s simple home — wood-beamed and blackened with cooking smoke. It was common for the aristocracy to go on hunting expeditions in Nuristan. The following photograph shows my grandfather inaugurating the Nuristan Collection at the Moesgaard Museum, in Aarhus, Denmark. Their museum appears to still have holdings on the music of the region, identified as: “Documentation of an eradicated culture.”With these loose associations connecting my family to the royal families in Denmark and Afghanistan, we lived with a certain prestige. In 1965, the Danish aristocracy even knighted my grandfather

However, Nuristan being what it was — a fourteen-day walk to Kabul (legend has it that my grandfather made this walk many times), was probably still a place where one’s political efficacy was not as great as people imagined. Superstitions surrounded my grandfather as though he himself had great power merely through contact with others who possessed it. They imagined him able to eradicate impoverishment, remoteness, and backwardness. My grandfather continued to live humbly among them in the village. Nothing much changed; it was only the expectation of his eventual influence that differentiated him from them.

A Father Who Fought for Afghanistan’s Freedom

On Sept. 11, 1948, my father, Khalilullah Nuristani, was born under the same burden of greatness. In retrospect, he must have believed that he could fulfill what had been his father’s unfulfilled destiny. My father became a tireless fighter for a free Afghanistan. In looking at the documents he left behind, I am also inclined to believe that he was nostalgic for an Afghanistan that at one point was considered a mini-Paris for visiting Pakistanis, Indians, even those few movie crews, academics, and shaggy hippies who went so far, and into such remote corners of the country, that my father had, on a number of occasions, put them up. He was assured of its promise as a location that would attract world travelers, welcome and impress them.

Because of my father’s involvement in Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan‘s government, he had to flee the Russians. His first exile was in Germany where he was encouraged to seek political asylum in the United States, as the cold war was in full swing and European interest in Afghanistan was specific to those countries under Soviet occupation. The United States’ response to the Russians was broader, ideological. My father was granted asylum in 1979 with the help of Columbia University professor John Monday and his wife, as well as the anthropology professor Charles Lindholm and his wife, Janice Gardener, who hosted him. He immediately went to work on behalf of the Nuristani resistance, lobbying Congress and writing directly to Senator Jacob K. Javits in 1979, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1980

Despite the sympathetic letters he received in response to the escalation of aggression by the Russians in Afghanistan, my father felt it necessary to take his protest to the streets, and specifically to the United Nations.

A lone agitator at that time, my father left behind his protest permits from 1979 (probably impossible to get now after the Occupy Wall Street movement) and a couple of photographs in which it appears he is never surrounded by more than twenty-five sympathizers, including Lithuanians and Latvians, and perhaps some people just attracted to a crowd. It is rumored that Zalmay Khalilzad attended these protests, but I am unable to identify him in these pictures. I only know that Zalmay Khalilzad’s access to the halls of American power would have him eventually working directly under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. He was instrumental in Iraq and Afghanistan policy, which, 14 years after my father’s early pleas for support, morphed into something much more sinister than my father’s initial idealism would have ever allowed.

Interestingly, before Charlie Wilson’s war, my father finally found a sole supporter, spiritually and economically, in Muhammad Ali. It is still a mystery to me how they met, but I remember my father claiming he had visited him and his daughter, Laila, and that he played with her as an infant. While Wilson was channeling cash to the “refugees” of Afghanistan, my father was warning Muhammad Ali through the Afghan Association of Freedom Fighters U.S.A. to oversee where funds were directed, which he clearly believed to be misappropriated and diverted for the personal interests of American Afghans and the militant fighters whom he later strongly opposed and fought against in the mid-1980s.

My father returned to Nuristan prematurely after receiving news that his entire family had been wiped out in a Russian strafe bombing. This misinformation had been delivered to him by Sam Sloan, also known as Haji Mohammed Ismail Sloan, a candidate to become the 2012 presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party, stock trader, successful litigant in a Supreme Court case involving penny stocks, chess journalist and author of “How To take Over an American Public Company” as well as the author of the introduction of Bobby Fischer’s only book — euphemistically, a man with a long past.

Upon return, my father realized he had lost two daughters. The rest of his family was safe. But he was dejected, broken, having marshaled so much energy toward the struggles of Afghanistan, and in particular, the needs of Nuristan, only to find a Congress insulated by lobbyists, and a group of competing militias attempting to pick the pockets of the United States on behalf of refugees. He had put his faith in people like Mr. Sloan — minor players on the criminal outskirts of power, and iconic, sometimes well-intentioned figures such as Muhammad Ali, whose money was probably the first to support the mujahedeen, but the wrong arm of it. Not only this, but internecine warfare — based on water, land, and old resentments between Nuristani tribes — eventually wiped out the village of Kushtooz; its residents now populate other areas of the province, but our family home is gone. None of the supposed benefits of “freedom” or “resistance” changed the precariousness of life in Nuristan.

My father’s last letter, thanking those academics that supported him, is also a prescient reminder of the situation that dogs Afghan and American relations today. It is not that one party lacks the vision, hope or capacity to change the situation in the country, but the intractable nature of corruption that makes any single man’s contribution, and perhaps any nation’s, inevitably doomed. My father wrote in 1980:

And so now I see the American press and television praising Afghanistan, and laughing at the Russian defeats.

But praising Afghan freedom fighters and marveling at their courage is not helpful. I have been very disappointed in my work here. The press and the public do not seem to understand that the fight in Afghanistan is a fight which vitally effects the welfare of the whole free world. [] I oppose elite interests, and so have been unable to make use of connections in Washington and elsewhere which the elite, with their money and Western educations, have been able to utilize. [] American disinterest, my own lack of funds, my lack of knowledge of English, my isolation from the American power structure; all these difficulties force me, with regret, to leave New York for the time being. [] For my thousands of friends, you have made New York like my own village. I am very unhappy to leave you all.”

And so I write five years after my father’s death to ask that New Yorkers, and Americans who’ve lost so much already, see Afghanistan, and particularly Nuristan, as a place capable of peace, longing for it. I want them to know that, if they eventually must leave due to the same corrupting forces that once forced my father give up his struggle; they will be leaving potentially thousands of friends still here, imagining that access to great power will one day deliver, will not be diverted to dishonest brokers and the crooked of both our countries, and that impoverishment and backwardness will finally be a thing of the past, rather than a past replayed.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 



    

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