'Games Without Rules' dominate Afghanistan's tangled history
Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary tracks the past of his native country
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There were no rules. By manifesting their great qualities, they would acquire followers and bound their followers through a complicated unwritten ritual of being generous and incurring obligations.Skip to next paragraph
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Q: How does that contrast to the way things are done in places like the US?
From the very beginning, and in a way it continues to this day, the West has evolved toward a civil society with a bureaucracy.
In our world, the things that count are the titles that people hold. If you take a guy out of the job and put some other guy in the job, then he plays that role.
Q: Like when we change from one president to another. To borrow a phrase from history, "The king is dead, long live the king," right?
Yes. The assumption of the people from the outside is that if you establish one man on the throne and make him king, you can control the country.
But he's not king because he wears that crown. It's only if he's gone through that leadership process, which is never settled because people rise a little and drop a little. One day they are more of a leader, and one day they are less.
Q: What does this tell us about Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan?
A: The foreign community treats him like he's the ruler of Afghanistan.
To me, it seems that even as all the elections are going on, as cabinet ministers are being appointed, there's a whole other system, a kind of alternative universe. He's not just discharging his duties. He's busy politicking in the old Afghan way, building his network. He's trying to establish himself as a leader in that other sense.
Q: What do Afghans misunderstand about us?
There is some sense in which Afghans don't understand that the West has values.
They see how Western people operate: that they have money, they're efficient, they get things done and they don't squander a lot of time managing social relations in every interaction.
But they don't get that the West has all these unwritten hidden rules that we don't even think about.
There are do's and don'ts, and we know what they are. But when a man from that society comes to this society and sees women on the streets, not being covered up and dressed to be attractive, they think that means they're available and there are no rules. We know that's not the case.
Q: What's behind that perception of women?
Our sense of gender relations is based on a long evolution of a concept of individuality. We have ingrained in our deep psyche that every individual is a person and has rights.
Afghanistan has a psyche that you're only an individual within a collective, a family, a clan, a tribe.
Q: What would you tell President Obama if you had his ear about Afghanistan?
The way they have been operating, people shuffle in and out of Afghanistan maybe on a six-month basis. I feel that something is lacking. There should be a reliance on people who have a longer term commitment to working with Afghanistan.
And when they do cultural training, it should acquaint people with the broad framework of Afghan culture.
I've been asked to do some workshops with soldiers, who really wanted a list of rules. I say, "You'll never learn enough of these things to pass as an Afghan. They'll give you a pass on shaking with the wrong hand. But you need to know what's private and public, and the underlying basis of all of these ideas about men and women."
Q: What's an example of things people should understand?
You need to understand what people think of the Koran.
The Koran is not religious material, it's not a book. It's completely different from the writings of a saint or of a prophet: It's incarnation of god in the material realm. If you understand what they think that is, you don't have to memorize all the rules. You can act toward it in the way that seems appropriate.
Q: What do you see in Afghanistan's future?
When Afghanistan finds its way to its national identity, it's probably not going to be a modern secular country in which there's a separation of church and state.
But it's much more important for that country to have a stable daily life for the people, a sense of cultural sovereignty over its own fate, and a system of governance, rule and law that people can embrace as their own.
As long as one faction pushes against the foreigner, it disrupts the process. But I believe when Afghanistan gets to that, if it gets to that, then we'll actually see the progress that we'd like to see.
Making a Difference