Jamal Khan is an Afghan journalist who fled his country because of Taliban persecution and now lives in Germany. We met in the apartment of a mutual friend from the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft, the German Peace Society. Jamal is mid-forties, thin, with curly brown hair, tan skin, and clear green eyes that take everything in. We spoke in German, then later reworked the interview from my English translation.
Hathaway: “Do you miss your country?”
Khan: “Only when I’m drunk, which isn’t very often. Then I get stupidly sentimental.
“Actually I’m not a big fan of any country. They’re all inhuman. They exist mainly as platforms for power. The rulers promote cultural rituals that make people identify with the place they live. Then they manipulate the people’s patriotic emotions to get them to fight wars for them. We cling to the identification because it gives us a sense of security, of belonging to something greater. But the insecurity we feel is actually generated by the power the rulers have over us.
“Nationalism is really a mental illness. Breaking the hold these national identities have on us would be an enormous improvement for the world.
“Afghanistan has the same patriotic crap, the fatherland, hierarchies of male power. So I don’t miss it. But every day I miss my family and friends there.”
“What did the Taliban do to you that made you leave?”
“Threatened to kill me. That was enough.”
“Was that because you’re gay?”
“No.” Jamal lit a cigarette and gave me an irritated look. “Not everything about a person revolves around their sexuality, you know. The Taliban didn’t know I was gay. I was discreet about that. They threatened to kill me because I’m a journalist and I ridiculed them in my articles. They actually did kill the newspaper editor. After that I left.
“But yes, it’s much easier to be gay in Europe than in Afghanistan, and that’s another reason I’m glad to be here.”
“How did you get out?”
“The German embassy. They had a refugee program, and I filed a petition there. Then I bought an airline ticket, said tearful good-byes, and flew away. It wasn’t such a police state that you couldn’t get out. The difficult thing was to be accepted by another country. And back then the Germans were very good about that.”
“How do you feel about the Taliban compared to the current government?”
“That’s difficult to answer. Both governments are terrible but in different ways. The Taliban were – still are – brutal fanatics. And yes, they did kill gays. They caught two guys making love, dragged them through the streets, and stoned them to death. Really horrible. They’re hysterical homophobes, it totally freaks them out. The whole society is very repressed about this. If you’re queer, you have to stay in the closet, even now. But if you did stay there, the Taliban didn’t break into the closet and kill you. They didn’t want to know about it.
“Women were persecuted too. If they were openly Western, they could get into major trouble, even be killed.
“All that’s despicable, and I’m glad there’s less of it now.
“But there’s another side to this. Western propaganda uses this to whip up war fever. The media in Europe and North America have seared all sorts of atrocity stories – some of them true, some of them not – into people’s minds to justify invading the country and bombing the people.
“The Taliban are bad guys, no doubt about it. I’m not fond of them at all. They killed hundreds of people, including friends of mine. They would’ve killed me if I had stayed.
“But the USA has killed fifty thousand Afghans just in this current war … and more every day. They’re devastating the country. They make the Taliban look like boy scouts.”
“How do you like it here in Germany?”
“I’m glad to be here. I’m glad they let me in. I’m not so glad they’re trying to throw me out now.”
“How’s that? What’s happened?”
“I had refugee status as long as the Taliban were in power because they were the ones who threatened me. But when the USA installed this new government, the Germans said I had to go back because now I wouldn’t be killed. I can understand their position. But it would drive me crazy to see what the USA is doing there, to live in the middle of that. I’d probably join the Taliban!” Jamal gave a tormented laugh and dragged on his cigarette.
“So I went underground. I’m illegal here now. That means I can’t hold a regular job. I have to worry every time I see a cop, hoping he doesn’t ask for my papers. I work as a cook now where they pay me cash, no benefits, no health insurance. I publish articles here and there, but I can’t be employed anywhere. It’s a pain, a real struggle just to live.
“Sometimes the police raid the places where illegals work. They round them up and send them back to whatever country they came from. Last month they raided the restaurant where I worked. They did it before the customers arrived, so as not to upset them.
“Three cops barged from the dining room into the kitchen as we were working prep, shouted to everybody not to move and to show our papers. Three of us ran for the back door, but other police were blocking it. By now they knew we were the ones they wanted, so they closed in from both sides.
“One of us – an Iraqi woman – started crying hysterically. While the cops were trying to calm her down, I saw a chance.
“The wall into the dining room has an opening where we set the finished plates for the waiters to pick up. I dived at the opening, hurt my hip like hell going over it, and landed on the floor of the dining room. Police were shouting at me from the kitchen.
“By the time I got up, a cop who was guarding the front door was running towards me. I knocked over a table to block his way. The cop darted around it to cut me off. He was right behind me going out the door, but I was faster. It meant a lot more to me than it did to him. Plus he had a beer belly.
“I sprinted across the street, almost got hit by cars both ways. When I looked back, he was waiting for a break in the traffic. I didn’t slow down. Sometimes they have a motorcycle backup, but I was lucky.
“I went back a couple of days later to get my pay, but the manager wouldn’t give it to me, said I broke a bunch of dishes when I pushed over the table. The money he owed me was a lot more than the dishes, but what could I do, call the cops? He gave me back my coat, though.
“So I got another job. Lots of places want to hire us because we work so cheap. We’re captive labor.
“I’ve worked picking strawberries and apples. Dug asparagus. Swept out movie theaters after the last show. Swamped out bars. Washed windows. I lugged around dead pigs in a slaughter house – at least that’s better than eating them.
“I’d write a book too, if I didn’t have to work all the time.” Jamal gave me a look of envy with a bit of accusation in it.
“So my feelings about Germany are mixed. They saved my life by giving me asylum, but they’re helping to kill thousands of my people. They know their own people are against this war, so they claim to be only a peace-keeping force, but they’re really fighting on the side of the Americans. They have a whole squadron of spy planes that take pictures to show the Americans where to bomb. They’ve been teaching Afghan police and soldiers counter-insurgency tactics, but since that hasn’t worked, now they’ve sent attack troops to kill the Taliban themselves. They’re working with the USA to dominate the country and keep the puppet government in power.
“It’s no wonder that the fanatics are trying to take vengeance here in Germany. They have to. Their friends are being murdered. Retribution is a matter of honor for them. That goes very deep.”
“What do you think the Germans should do?”
“Stop supporting the American invasion. Pull out their troops and spy planes and go home.”
“What should the USA do?”
“That’s complicated. First we have to look at what they’ve done in the past. Throughout the seventies and eighties they did everything they could to overthrow the Afghan government. That government was communist, and to the USA that meant it had to go, no matter how many people had to die.
“The people most willing to die killing communists were the fanatical Muslims, who hated this secular government. The CIA helped them to attack it, starting with raids on outposts and assassinations of local officials. The government asked the Soviet Union for help, and they sent in troops. Then the CIA stepped up its involvement, recruiting thousands of mujahideen, training them, financing them, turning them into an army to attack the Soviets. It escalated into a full-scale war for ten years. Left two million dead, a lot of those children who starved in all the chaos. Brutalized the whole country. All the young people growing up knew was war. Savagery became their norm.
“The people the USA is now trying to kill – the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda – they were all on its payroll then fighting the communists. It was your government that turned them into killers. After they won the war, it was inevitable they’d take over the country. By then they were the strongest force.
“Once the Taliban was in power, the USA wasn’t concerned that they were persecuting women and gays and non-Muslims. The Taliban were just one of the many dictatorships the USA does business with and doesn’t object to.
“But that changed when the Taliban became anti-capitalist, as they shifted away from a corporate-dominated economy and towards Islamic socialism. That made them a danger to Western interests. The final straw was when they refused to allow a US company to build an oil pipeline through the country. Suddenly the Western press was full of stories about how evil the Taliban were. They became these monsters who needed to be destroyed before they took over the world.
“So the USA invaded, chased the Taliban back into the mountains, and put in their figurehead as president. This Karzai, he used to work for the US company that wants to build the pipeline. He’s their guy! And the pipeline is at the top of his agenda … if the war ever stops.
“Western media call this ‘stability’ and ‘nation building,’ but those are just PR slogans for a new kind of imperialism. For decades the USA has manipulated Afghanistan for its own economic and political purposes. So to finally answer your question, what it should do now is stop what’s it’s been doing. It should demilitarize the country as much as possible, take back all the weapons it can, and just leave. Then it should use its power to convince other countries not to send in more arms.
“Yes, there’ll be a war. But without foreign intervention it won’t last so long.
“And yes, the Taliban will probably take over again. We’ll have to learn to live with that for a while. The Taliban won’t last forever. We’ll gradually undermine their power, and they’ll fall.”
“But if everyone else gives up their weapons and the Taliban are the only ones who have them, they could rule for a long time.”
“Could be. But peace with the Taliban would be better than war with the Americans. If other countries stay out of it, we can handle the Taliban. Nonviolently.
“There’s no point in trying to overthrow governments with violence. It just poisons the culture. I’ve seen that first hand. Better to overthrow them with peace, render then irrelevant. In the long run, peace is stronger. If we always react peacefully, that will dissolve the violence … eventually.
“At first things might get worse, because the violence we’ve done to others in the past is coming back on us. But if we stay peaceful, do as my cousin Jesus said and turn the other cheek, don’t fall back into fear and brutality, we can ride out this phase of rebound violence and not make any more enemies. This is the only way I see to defuse the situation and break the cycle. As my neighbor Gandhi said, ‘There is no way to peace, peace is the way.’
“But I know most people don’t agree with that. So many men still want to be macho warriors, want to fight. But I see that as a sign that they really feel very weak and afraid, so they have to go to the opposite extreme. That’s why queers like me are so threatening to them. We show on the outside what they have on the inside. And they can’t bear to face that. But they dream about it.”
“So basically the USA should leave.”
“Do you think that’ll happen?”
“Of course not.”
“Because the corporations running the USA need that pipeline. It’s not just something they’d like to have. They need it. The only way they can keep their present level of profits and hold on to their economic advantage is if they keep cheap oil flowing in. And that means controlling the pipeline.
“These wars aren’t about whether the USA will get the oil it needs. With a world market, no one can stop the USA from buying oil. The wars are about how much they’re going to have to pay for it and how much they can control it. Dominating oil will give them economic leverage over other countries, and that’s what they’re after.
“They don’t care how many people they kill to do that. They’re not people themselves. They’re corporations. They have to maximize their profits. That’s the basis of their existence.”
“What do you see in the future?”
“In forty-five minutes I go to the restaurant and start making salads. That’s all.” Jamal stood up and pulled some folded paper out of his jacket. “I brought along something I wrote. If you want, you can put it in your book. It’s sort of a fable. About the damage being done to the most important resource in my country.” He handed me the pages:
The laughter of young Malalai delighted the villagers whenever they heard it, which was often. They listened with silent smiles, for to have laughed in response would have broken the charm.
Laughter streamed from the girl in floating spheres of sound that reconnected everyone who heard it to an inner happiness they’d forgotten. The villagers never knew when she might laugh, but they’d learned that two things never caused it: someone’s misfortune or an attempt to make her laugh. They had to wait and be surprised.
Malalai was often in the village, running errands for her mother, playing with friends, following the flight of a moth. She liked to stop by the spice shop with its big glass jars full of roots, leaves, seeds and powders. Although she was barely tall enough to reach them, she could unscrew the lids and peer inside, absorbing the colors and scents. Black salt smelled like matches and looked like dirt. Hing was yellow as a bee and reeked of rotten radishes. Cloves were little black buds with the fragrance of carnations. Curry leaves smelled like her father on a hot day. Breathing cinnamon with her eyes closed was a happy dream, nutmeg a dark, scary one. Coriander woke her up. Chilies made her sneeze. Ginger made her jump.
And all together they made her laugh. And when she did, the shop lady remembered again why she loved spices.
Malalai enjoyed the fabric store with its bolts of cloth: gossamer organdy, modest muslin, coarse burlap, sturdy canvas, busy paisley, comforting flannel, regal cashmere, filigreed lace. Aswirl with the profusion of textures and colors, she would laugh, and the man in store was again glad to be selling cloth.
Malalai spent lots of time in her father’s business, watching as he turned wood into furniture and cabinets. She liked seeing him saw and plane and hammer and polish. She liked the scents of wood shavings, sawdust, linseed oil and varnish, and the stacks of slabs, planks and dowels. She learned the difference between oak for the few wealthy customers and pine for the many poor customers. She hated the shriek of the circular saw but loved how the chips flew. She was fascinated by the twisting drill bit that looked like it was climbing into the air but just went around and ’round.
Fine emery paper felt like her father’s cheek if he hadn’t shaved. Coarse sandpaper felt like stuck sugar but tasted terrible. Glue looked like honey but tasted even worse than sandpaper.
When her father finished a table or chair, he would set Malalai on it and ask her to dance to see if it wobbled. If it stood stable under her prancings and pirouettes, she would laugh and tell him, “Good work!”
And her father would think, I’m a lucky man.
At home Malalai liked to help her mother cook. Sometimes this helping ended up causing more work for her mother, but the mother was happy to see her learning. She taught Malalai how to make fresh cheese, bringing milk to a foaming boil and drizzling in lemon juice. As soon as the acid hit, the milk would separate into watery whey and clumps of curd, and Malalai would laugh.
Her mother would smile and think, Now she’s understanding transformation.
Their country had been invaded by soldiers from faraway, the USUKs. One day the foreigners drove into their village in big trucks. The USUKs were strange people. You couldn’t tell what they really looked like because they wore thick clothes that made them seem swollen, hard hats that hid their hair, and goggles that hid their eyes.
The first time Malalai saw them she thought they had dressed up to look silly, so she laughed. Her father quickly hushed her and told her she must never laugh at these people.
One of the USUKs pointed at them and shouted in a strange language. The soldiers walked towards them with their rifles ready. They made her father and mother turn around and prop themselves against a wall with their hands. Malalai watched as the USUKs ran their hands all over her mother’s and father’s bodies, poking and feeling. Her mother was shuddering and crying. Her father held his mouth tightly shut. The soldiers smiled at Malalai. They talked among themselves while keeping their rifles aimed.
Then the USUKs let them go. As the family walked home, her father couldn’t look at Malalai or her mother. His hands were trembling.
Malalai never laughed again.
“Comparing Evils” is a chapter from “Radical Peace: People Refusing War,” which presents the first-person experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Recently released by Trine Day, it’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. Other chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s web site.