Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal had a front page story: "As U.S. Pulls Out, Feuds Split Afghanistan's Ruling Family." This title is both comic and tragic but it is not "news".
"A Ruling Family feud" is Afghan history and, perhaps, psychology. Afghan Emirs and Shahs seized thrones mainly from their brothers, half-brothers, uncles and nephews. Rulers were routinely tortured and murdered by their relatives; some were allowed to live, but with their eyes gouged out.
This is, indeed, the Wild East and it was always very wild. Afghan rulers have always used their deals with Britain, Russia, and Germany to accomplish their own ends. Stealing as much money, land, and power from as many Afghan people as possible and sharing it with one's family members is the norm in Afghanistan -- as is stealing from your own family. Educated and modern-thinking Afghan men, who envisioned a more progressive and lawful Afghanistan, have been known to rot in jail, in cages, and in holes for 20 years, where their torture was uniquely gruesome, and administered by psychopaths in the employ of whoever ran the country.
By definition, business as usual in the Wild East, means hiring only your family members -- then spying on them, and assassinating them when necessary. It also means greasing the wheels of commerce by bribing every single gate keeper. This is considered more civilized than a (selfish) fixed price. Other customs are also seen as superior to those of the West's such as arranged child marriage, first cousin marriage, and polygamy. From a non-Western point of view, marriage is a matter for adult family members to decide, it is too important to leave to children or to the vagaries of "love." Large networks of trustworthy relatives guarantee land and resource consolidation, safety in times of great danger, and a rather large posse with whom to socialize.
They have a point given the neighborhood in which they live.
Mohammed H. Anwar grew up in the slums of Kabul during World War One. His poverty was unimaginable -- but he taught himself, he was tutored and mentored and ultimately received a world-class education in America. Anwar would not be surprised by the WSJ headline, above, or by any of the recent headlines about Afghan bank corruption, restless, regional warlords, the volatile instability of the central government, cyclical and barbaric civil wars, ruling family feuds, etc. None of this is new.
Anwar wrote an extraordinary memoir, (Memories of Afghanistan), which was eventually published by his late son, Keith. Author House brought it out in 2004. Anwar describes normalized child abuse, an epidemic of sadistic teachers and mullahs, the totally acceptable although savage, pre-Taliban mistreatment of women (bridal night rapes, non-stop drudgery, humiliations of polygamy, honor killing), the extensive network of royal spies, the repeated "orgies" of public executions.
Anwar describes how a gentle and innocent young boy (who happened to belong to the "wrong" family), was homosexually raped every night in prison -- and how he killed himself when he was released; how a gentle mullah, who had an unacceptably open mind, was stoned to death by a large, laughing group of men; how educated Afghans were systematically chosen for torture and death; how homosexual pederasty and boy prostitutes were endemic in Kandahar.
Anwar himself was educated in America and married an American woman. Both escaped from Kabul in 1942-1943. Anwar's wife was also named Phyllis.
As I recount in my forthcoming book, An American Bride in Kabul, I was once married to a westernized Afghan man whom I had dated for two years at college. He was a glamorous and sophisticated man who was seemingly modern in every way. I was only 18 when we first met. I blithely followed him to Kabul where I suddenly found myself held captive in a polygamous family for five long months.
Most Westerners (and Afghans who write about themselves), focus on the large Afghan family picnics, warm hospitality, love of poetry, Nature, God, and kite-flying. That is true too -- but if you are held captive, none of that matters.
I had embarked on a grand but dangerous adventure. Would I have gone to Kabul had I read Mohammed H. Anwar's book? I am not sure. I nearly died there -- but since I lived, and escaped, my experience has really helped me understand that all cultures, including those we wish to romanticize, are characterized by injustice and cruelty, but that while the Wild East may be charming and beguiling, and while its individual citizens may be humane and sympathetic, that Afghanistan has never been ruled by law or experienced a peaceful transition of rulers; its tribal feuds are fierce and last forever; its educated intelligentsia and its women have always been endangered. Afghanistan has a history of barbarism that is truly breathtaking, almost unbelievable -- and one that existed long before the Taliban came to town.