Orientalism

So, Time magazine reports in an article on the year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death that Bin Laden was living in Khowst when the Al Qaeda hijackers took down the Twin Towers.  He listened to their fall on BBC’s Arabic service radio.

I didn’t know that. I wish I had. I wonder where in Khowst exactly? In Khowst city? Or one of the districts? One of the friendly, placid districts, or one of the mean, hostile ones? In a big kalat? Hell, I might have driven by it two dozen times or more. Or I could have made a special trip to have seen it, if I had known.  Terrorism tourism, so to speak.

But then there’s so much I didn’t know.  For example, I didn’t know while I was in Khowst that Pat Tillman had fought and died there, and I care a lot more about that than I do about where Osama Bin Laden was on 9/11.

Or, the origin of the big forts in Khowst, Matune Hill and Taktabeg Castle.  You could ask, but you never got a dependable answer.  The British.  The last Afghan royal regime. Alexander the Great. The Soviets.  Who knows?

Matune Hill fortress, downtown Khowst. Did OBL live here?

Or when Spera COP was built. What Khowst was like before Camp Clark. Just about any recent history.  When you drove around Khowst you could see relics of earlier goodwill initiatives set up by Americans and the UN after the fall of the Taliban.  A health clinic.  A women’s center.  Few were functioning now.  An officer returned to Khowst in 2009 after five years away.  He wanted to see a performing arts hall he had helped establish.  It wasn’t there any more.  What happened?

When it came to the Afghans with whom we worked, we knew even less. Even with those with whom I spoke daily, I knew so little about their private lives and personal histories. This one’s a Pashtun. That one’s a Tajik. He was a muj. He was Soviet. He’s been in command five years. He’s been here four. Edward Said writes of the typical way that Westerners speak of Arabs, “In statements as these, we note immediately that ‘the Arab’ or ‘Arabs’ have an aura of apartness, definiteness, and collective self-consistency such as to wipe out any traces of individual Arabs with narratable life histories.” The same is true of us in regard to Afghans. We generalize aggressively on the basis of one or two interactions. We see one thing, and we know their character. What to expect. What they will say. What they think. Implied in all this rush to judgment is that they don’t live up to our standards and values.

Take the faces in the picture below. Me. A young Afghan lieutenant. A much older Afghan brigadier general. A grizzled war-weary Afghan National Police chief. Forgetting about me for a moment, how to account for their individual perspectives? Their hopes?  Dreams? Fears?  What they’ve seen? How they bring their experience to bear on problems at hand?

It would take a novelist’s imagination to begin to account for it all. No one in a year deployment could come close.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s