Struck by war, Afghanistan still shows some signs of its glorious past: ancient buildings and man and women who prevent humanity from despairing

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:41:12

I have just spent ten days in Afghanistan as I am studying the work of Fr. Serge de Beaurecueil (1917-2005), a Dominican and former member of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies of Cairo (IDEO) and specialist of Ansari (1006-1089), the great mystic from Herat whose Cry from the Heart (Munajat) Persian-speaking muslims still know by heart.

My expedition was complicated by Afghanistan’s lack of safety, but some precautions made it possible. Serge de Beaurecueil spent twenty years in Kabul, from 1963 to 1983, and left Afghanistan only because forced to do so by the Soviets, who considered him a spy. Beside his scientific work at Kabul University and then at the French-Afghan Esteqlal High School, de Beaurecueil welcomed in his home scores of abandoned children (orphans, disabled, street children) whose history he told in his beautiful work Mes enfants de Kaboul (My Children in Kabul). In fact, my stay in the Country was possible thanks to them: they have created an NGO, Afghanistan demain (Afghanistan Tomorrow), continuing the work of Fr. Serge with street children.

An Ethnic Mosaic

To say that Afghanistan is a complicated Country is reductive: a geographically irregular territory with the high mountain range of Hindu Kush crossing it from East to West has always made it extremely hard to conquer – as the British, then the Russians and, now, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) know only too well. The complexity of human geography matches the diversity of mountains and valleys: there is a dominant people, the Pashtun, especially present in the South, astride the border with Pakistan (which explains some of the current problems) but the dominant language is Persian, also spoken by other ethnic groups: the Hazara and the Tajiki – without forgetting Uzbeks, Turkmens and Nuristanis.

How can this ethnic mosaic be made into a Nation State? While in loco, I could see that the Mortimer Durand frontier negotiated in 1893 by the British to ensure that the British Empire had safe boundaries against Russian expansion would partly explain the current impossibility to stabilize the South border, as it actually cuts the Pashtun territory in two. Hence the impossibility to manage the notorious “tribal areas” and the complex relationship with neighbouring Pakistan. Kabul is not far from Peshawar. The visitor to Afghanistan is struck by its poverty (GDP below 1000 $ per capita): the Country is stuck, having been devastated by a 30-year war and an endemic political instability.

A Brilliant Past vs. the state of war

Situated 1800m above sea level and among high mountains, Kabul has a generally low skyline dotted with sporadic modern buildings. Kabul’s conquest by Massoud’s Mujahideen in 1992 left the city destroyed by 60%. Just as in Baghdad, numerous checkpoints and imposing cement structures protecting public buildings make circulation rather problematic. Diplomats and authorities alike lead a walled-in life, out of which they only emerge with armed escorts, as kidnappings are not unusual. The frequently overflying Chinook helicopters are a reminder that the Country is at war. As it is widely known, observers are increasingly perplexed about ISAF’s ability to regain control of the Country. People no longer leave Kabul, not even to attend the wedding of a cousin in neighbouring Logar. On the other hand, there is a thriving economy linked to the opium poppy to fuel the arms trade.

Nevertheless, the plane allowed me to visit Herat, a splendid city in the North-West of Afghanistan. Founded by Alexander the Great, the city was a stopover point in the Silk Road and one of the great centres of historic Khorasan. This past splendour can still be perceived in its monuments: the citadel of Ikhtiyar al-Din, an enormous architectural complex built towards the end of the 13th century, destroyed by Timur [also known as Tamerlane] 100 years later and reconstructed in the 15th century; the corner minarets of the Ni’matiye madrassa, a high school of theology from the Timurid period (15th century): 75m high in terracotta brick; the tomb of great philosopher and theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1150-1210) and that of Nur al-Din al-Rahman Jami, the great 15th-century Persian poet. What a contrast between a brilliant and refined past and the state of poverty and war in which the Country has now fallen.

On Ansari's tomb

The actual purpose of my journey was to visit the tomb of Ansari, situated in Gazergah, a few kilometres away from Herat. This place reminds me of Northern Iraq, the first ramparts of the Kurdish mountains. The imposing mausoleum, built in 1.425 by an architect from Shiraz, dominates a large cemetery where many pious or famous people are buried. White marble steles, trees full of singing birds: here an exceptional peace reigns. There are men and women with children at the foot of Ansari’s tomb asking for his protection. Lower down, there is a vast park (takht-e safar, the journey’s throne) from the Timurid period, which allows pilgrims to rest.

Every Thursday evening the recitation of dhikr takes place. Here all inspires peace and Ansari’s words come to mind:

«My God, a breeze has blown from the garden of love and we have offered our hearts in sacrifice. We have discovered a perfume coming from the treasure of love and have proclaimed ourselves kings till the end of the earth… One look only have You cast upon us and in this one look we have burnt, we have been melted. Look upon us again, heal the burned and save the one who has lost his way! Is it not said that a drunk is cured by wine? » (Munâjât n° 7); «My God! He alone can act who acts together with You! He alone has a friend who has a friend like You! The one who has You in this world and in the next, how could he ever abandon You? What is surprising is that whoever has found You is crying more than any other! The man who has found nothing cries for having found nothing; but once he has found You, why is he crying?» (Munâjât n° 8)

The mullah in charge of the mausoleum welcomes us warmly. We are before a truly spiritual man, kind and hospitable. Our visits to the Jesuits of the Jesuit Refugee Service are comforting too, as well as those to Alberto Cairo, an unusual Italian who has been working at the International Red Cross Orthopaedic Centre to give prosthetic limbs to the countless mutilated of this Country. In the worst situations there are always men and women who prevent humanity from despairing.