“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
― Omar Khayyám (1048-1131); translation from Persian by Edward Fitzgerald (Rubaiyat, 1859)
I wonder why Khayyam wrote these lines — was it to redefine paradise or just to woo his beloved? I like to imagine it was a bit of both. The need not to look for a paradise after death but to create one on Earth might well make an impact on humankind. Maybe, they would stop warring over an invisible force that they call God or by some other given name, some ‘ism’. Other than tens of thousands dying in natural disasters like the recent earthquake at the border of Turkiye and Syria, many have been killed by wars that continue to perpetrate divides created by human constructs. This month houses the second anniversary of the military junta rule in Myanmar and the first anniversary of the Ukrainian-Russian war that continues to decimate people, towns, natural reserves, humanity, economics relentlessly, polluting the environment with weapons of mass destruction, be it bombs or missiles. The more weapons we use, the more we destroy the environment of our own home planet.
Sometimes, the world cries for a change. It asks to be upended.
We rethink, reinvent to move forward as a species or a single race. We relook at concepts like life and death and the way we run our lives. Redefining paradise or finding paradise on Earth, redefining ‘isms’ we have been living with for the past few hundred years — ‘isms’ that are being used to hurt others of our own species, to create exclusivity and divisions where none should exist — might well be a requisite for the continuance of our race.
Voices of change-pleaders rang out in the last century with visionaries like Tagore, Gandhi, Nazrul, Satyajit Ray urging for a more accepting and less war-bound world. This month, Ratnottama Sengupta has written on Ray’s legendary 1969 film, Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne: “The message he sent out loud and with laughter: ‘When people have palatable food to fill their belly and music to fill their soul, the world will bid goodbye to wars.’” Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri has given an essay on one of the greatest pacifists, Gandhi, and his attitudes to films as well as his depiction in movies. What was amazing is Gandhi condemned films and never saw their worth as a mass media influencer! The other interesting thing is his repeated depiction as an ethereal spirit in recent movies which ask for changes in modern day perceptions and reforms. In fact, both these essays deal with ghosts who come back from the past to urge for changes towards a better future.
Delving deeper into the supernatural is our interviewee, Abhirup Dhar, an upcoming writer whose ghost stories are being adapted by Bollywood. While he does investigative stories linked to supernatural lore, our other interviewee, Andrew Quilty, a renowned journalist who has won encomiums for his coverage on Afghanistan where he spent eight years, shows in his book, August in Kabul:America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban, what clinging to past lores can do to a people, especially women. Where does one strike the balance? We also have an excerpt from his book to give a flavour of his exclusive journalistic coverage on the plight of Afghans as an eyewitness who flew back to the country not only to report but to be with his friends — Afghans and foreigners — as others fled out of Kabul on August 14 th 2021. While culturally, Afghans should have been closer to Khayyam, does their repressive outlook really embrace the past, especially with the Taliban dating back to about only three decades?
This intermingling of life and death and the past is brought to life in our fiction section by Sreelekha Chatterjee and Anjana Krishnan. Aditi Yadav creates a link between the past and our need to travel in her musing, which is reminiscent of Anthony Sattin’s description of asabiyya, a concept of brotherhood that thrived in medieval times. In consonance with wanderlust expressed in Yadav’s essay, we have a number of stories that explore travel highlighting various issues. Meredith Stephens travels to explore the need to have nature undisturbed by external interferences in pockets like Kangaroo Island in a semi-humorous undertone. While Ravi Shankar travels to the land’s end of India to voice candid concerns on conditions within Kerala, a place that both Keith Lyons and Rhys Hughes had written on with love and a sense of fun. It is interesting to see the contrasting perspectives on Southern India.
Professor Fakrul Alam has also translated poetry where a contemporary Bengali writer, Masud Khan, cogitates on history while Ihlwha Choi has translated his own poem from Korean. A translation of Tagore’s poem on the ocean tries to capture the vastness and the eternal restlessness that can be interpreted as whispers carried through eons of history. Fazal Baloch has also shared a poem by one of the most revered modern Balochi voices, that of Atta Shad. Our pièce de resistance is a translation of Premchand’s Balak or the Child by Anurag Sharma.
This vibrant edition would not have been possible without all the wonderful translators, writers, photographers and artists who trust us with their work. My heartfelt thanks to all of you, especially, Srijani Dutta for her beautiful painting, ‘Hope in Winter’, and Sohana for her amazing artwork. My heartfelt thanks to the team at Borderless Journal, to our loyal readers some of whom have evolved into fabulous contributors. Thank you.
Do write in telling us what you think of the journal. We look forward to feedback from all of you as we head for the completion of our third year this March.
Title: August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban
Author: Andrew Quilty
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
I had been thinking about a book set in Afghanistan since late 2020. The Doha Agreement, signed that February, was already working to the Taliban’s advantage. Thousands of their prisoners had been released, and battlefield commanders were capitalising on the ‘active defence’ posture the Americans had pushed Kabul into adopting while being careful not to overextend and cause the Americans to stall their withdrawal. I saw the Doha Agreement as a death knell for the Afghan Government, but I never anticipated it would come so quickly.
The book I wanted to write would follow the theme I’d been following for several years. I would chart how the United States’ refusal to reconcile with the ousted Taliban regime, and the ensuing occupation, ignited the insurgency, just as it had in Iraq.
I would follow the lives of rural Afghans whose experience of the war, unlike those in Kabul who, while also encountering horrific violence, were given an array of new opportunities, was one of deprivation and disaffection—a story less often told.
Admittedly, the fascination with those living behind Taliban lines was amplified because their lives were virtually off-limits to journalists.
An unspoken race for access among writers, photographers and filmmakers began, intensifying in recent years as the prospect of a Taliban return to power became increasingly likely.
After the signing of the Doha Agreement, with US air support curtailed and the Taliban enjoying a wave of international recognition, some commanders began to open the doors to their districts. I had already been reporting on the ruthless exploits of the CIA’s Afghan proxies from the 01 National Strike Unit in Maidan Wardak—albeit from the relative safety of Kabul and the provincial capital, Maidan Shahr—when opportunities to visit the villages where they occurred began to arise from the middle of that year.
Those trips, which, for security reasons, lasted one night at most, were indeed as fascinating as I had expected. They also vindicated the hypothesis that the punitive neglect of the rural class— particularly those in predominantly Pashtun districts—and the violent ordeals they’d endured living among—and, often in cahoots with—the Taliban, were creating an increasingly unbridgeable gap between rural Afghanistan and the central government. The lack of accountability for their suffering was self-defeating for the aggressors, and, for journalists, I believed, the war’s essential theme.
It must be said that the Taliban’s military victory would never have come without the ineptitude and malfeasance of successive administrations in Kabul and their armed forces, and the hubris of the American-led international military coalition. The Taliban’s readiness to seize the advantage after the signing of the Doha Agreement did, however, expedite the eventual collapse that the agreement ensured. The realisation that the Americans were leaving, along with the military support and air power that had given Kabul a lifeline since 2015, was the final straw.
Aside from the almost daily guerrilla-style attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government groups in Kabul—‘The years long fears of the vehicle in front of you blowing up or the guy on the motorbike opening fire,’ as a friend who read an early version of this book reminded me—the war in Afghanistan had been fought largely in remote districts since the early 2000s. As I wrote in the prologue to this book, once the momentum swung decisively in the Taliban’s favour in the spring of 2020, and areas under government control started shrinking to virtual islands accessible only by air, many rural battlegrounds fell silent. The lives of those who had gained the most since the Taliban’s fall in 2001—lives that had overcome hardship and flourished, which I’d rarely been compelled to write about—were all of a sudden under threat. While their physical safety may not necessarily have been at risk, their personal liberty, the simple freedom to choose the trajectory of one’s own life, certainly was. For them, life without choice was no life at all.
If the threat of such loss had instigated a change in what I felt was pertinent to write about, 15 August completed the about-face.
With the Taliban’s victory came a level of scrutiny and critique that no insurgency warrants, no matter the wrongs of the government it was trying to overthrow nor the infringements on human rights it would institute once in power.
Amid the chaos of that day, I hugged farewell a tearful Aziz Tassal, a journalist with whom I’d worked for years and grown to love for his gentle company and care for his wife, three cheeky young daughters and everyone with whom he’d worked. I’d spent a week sharing a room with him in Uruzgan earlier in the year, reporting for an article published by The Monthly where we traded stories about our mutual friend Aliyas Dayee, a journalist from Helmand who had been assassinated three months earlier (the article won the 2021 Walkley Award for long-form feature writing). He’d calmly taken control when the car he was travelling in with Nanna Muus Steffensen, a journalist and my housemate, came under fire during a Taliban ambush in Maidan Wardak some months before. But on 15 August, he was inconsolable. ‘They betrayed us,’ he sobbed, before undertaking his own harrowing journey to the United States with his family.
The next day I photographed Noorullah Shirzada, a photographer with Agence France-Presse, carrying his baby into the French Embassy. The photo was published the day after by the French newspaper Le monde. Farshad Usyan, a friend who I also consider Afghanistan’s best photojournalist, was also there. His passport was inside the embassy awaiting a visa, but the Taliban weren’t allowing him in. Phone calls were made and eventually someone called his name. He disappeared behind the gate before we got a chance to say goodbye.
That day, 16 August, was also when BBC correspondent Kate Clark was flown out of Kabul.
Extracted from August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban by Andrew Quilty. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
About the Book
As night fell on 15 August 2021, the Taliban swept into Kabul, capital of Afghanistan. After a twenty-year conflict with the United States, its Western allies and a proxy Afghan government, the Islamic militant group once aligned with al Qaeda was about to bury yet another foreign foe in the graveyard of empires. And for the US, the superpower, this was yet another foreign disaster. As cities and towns fell to the Taliban in rapid succession, Western troops and embassy staff scrambled to flee a country of which its government had lost control. To the world, Kabul in 2021 looked like Saigon in 1975.
August in Kabul is the story of how America’s longest mission came to an abrupt and chaotic end, told through the eyes of Afghans whose lives were turned upside down: a young woman who dreams of a university education but whose family now want to give her up to the Taliban in exchange for security; a presidential staffer who works desperately to hold things together as the government collapses around him; a prisoner in the notorious Bagram Prison who suddenly finds himself free when prison guards abandon their post. Andrew Quilty was one of a handful of foreign journalists who stayed in Kabul as the city fell. This remarkable book is his first-hand account of those dramatic final days.
About the Author
Andrew Quilty is the recipient of nine Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley, for his work on Afghanistan, where he has been based since 2013. He has also received the George Polk Award, the World Press Photo Award and the Overseas Press Club of America award for his investigation into massacres committed by a CIA-backed Afghan militia. August in Kabul is his first book.
August in Kabul:America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban is a real-life account of a journalist who returned to Kabul from Dubai to be with his “friends”, to let them know that their well-wishers had not abandoned them, even while the American forces withdrew and the Taliban took over. Most, including President Ghani, were flying out of Kabul while acclaimed photojournalist who had spent eight years there, Andrew Quilty, flew back from Dubai on 14th August, 2021.
His account traces the history of the takeover, the inception of the Taliban, the reactions of the people to their earlier regime dating from 1996 to 2001: “The Taliban were initially welcomed there, and many young, uneducated male residents, enamoured by the group’s piety, joined their ranks. But to Soviet-era communist officials, senior Hezb-i Islami figures and those with tertiary educations or financial means, the Taliban’s devoutness foretold merciless intolerance, and they left the country, travelling to the West through costly smuggling networks or to neighbouring Pakistan or Iran, joining the millions who had moved there during the Soviet war, as refugees.”
He is vocal about the Doha Agreement made by the Trump regime and executed by Biden, where the handing over left gaps which caused suffering not only among foreigners but also the local population of Afghanistan. Citizens died trying to find safety for themselves and their loved ones. Chaos prevailed and both Taliban forces and American soldiers killed innocents. With more than hundred interviews, Quilty brings the plight of these people to light. What touches the heart in this narrative is the human suffering caused by political games and beliefs. This has been captured well in the account.
That the current acknowledged rulers of Afghanistan, the Talibans, have reverted in certain senses to their past stance, especially pertaining to a major issue, the freedom of women has been acknowledged. But is this an issue that is related essentially to Taliban only or does it run deeper within the culture? Through the narrative of a young girl, Nadia, the author relates the equation for Afghani women: “Preserving the safety of women is a common sleight of hand used by Afghan men to keep those within their family under control. Neglecting such a duty and allowing a young woman the freedom to walk when they wish in the streets, to socialise with unrelated men, and to develop their understanding of the world outside the home and their ideas about their place therein, is deduced by many outside the immediate family to imply the woman is what Nadia refers to euphemistically as a ‘bad girl’. Boiled down, a ‘bad girl’ is one who cavorts and sleeps with men out of wedlock—a prostitute in Afghan terms, a great stain on a family’s honour. To avert such a possibility, rather than confront those who deliberately misinterpret the young woman’s ways and use it to undermine her family, instead, her brothers, father and male members of the extended family more often elect to restrain her behaviour.”
Women are not the only victims of a society that balks at liberal or out of the box thinking. The book is an eye-opener and reveals how the events of that August unfolded in 2021. It was an amazing coincidence that the takeover was completed on a date that coincided with the Independence Day celebrations of its neighbours, India (15th August) and Pakistan (14th August).
This account varies from an earlier account of Afghanistan written almost a century ago in its tone – that was humorous essays, a memoir by Syed Mujtaba Ali translated by Nazes Afroz from Bengali, called In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. This is a journalistic account. But one thing that runs through both the narratives is the bonding both these writers experienced with the locals, perhaps a bond born of friendship with people who have lived in oppressed communities and the need to get the world to hear their voices. The social norms still sound the same with wild gun shots marking celebrations. But what was not mentioned in the earlier were the scars left by Soviets and American weapons – because Mujtaba Ali’s account ended at the start of the civil war (1928-29), long before the superpowers intervened in a major way, even though the then-ruler Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) had abdicated and escaped to British India.
Andrew Quilty who gives a splendid coverage of the current scenario, had been in Afghanistan since 2013. He is the recipient of nine Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley, for his work on Afghanistan. He has also received the George Polk Award, the World Press Photo Award and the Overseas Press Club of America award for his investigation into massacres committed by a CIA-backed Afghan militia. In this conversation, Quilty tells us more about the writing of the book and his own responses to the change in regime and the takeover, and most of all what made him return to a conflict zone.
What made you return to Kabul, when others were fleeing from a Taliban takeover?
There were two things: as a journalist and photographer, the days ahead of when I decided to return to Afghanistan were going to be the country’s most pivotal since the US invasion in 2001. Having covered the country for eight years at that point, despite the risk, I really wanted to be present to cover the period that was to follow. But more than that, at the time I really just wanted to be with my friends, both foreign and Afghan, with whom I had experienced so much with in the country over the years leading up to August 2021. While many of my Afghan friends felt the international community was abandoning them, I didn’t want them to feel their friends had as well.
In your ‘Epilogue’, you tell us that the book turned out to be different from what you had thought it would be at the start. What was it that you had wanted to start with and how has it departed from the way you had visualised it earlier?
I had envisaged writing a book about the way international military special forces had, through their tactics of night raids and air strikes, turned much of the rural Afghan population against the central government and the US-led military coalition.
You are a well-known photo-journalist and yet your book is written only in words. Why did you opt to use words instead of photographs this time?
I am currently working on a photo book that will cover the entire time I spent in Afghanistan (2013 – 2022). But my photos of the events of 2021 alone wouldn’t have been sufficient to tell the story of what happened in the detail the way words can.
In the twentieth century, a book had been written by Syed Mujtaba Ali in Bengali and translated by a journalist who was in Afghanistan, Nazes Afroz, talks of the dislodging of Amanullah by Bacha-ye-Saqao (Habibullah Kalakani) during the civil war. Can Bachai-ye-Saquao be seen as some kind of a precursor to the making of Taliban? Please elaborate.
Not really. He was of Tajik descent and so didn’t have the support of the majority Pashtuns. Also, his rule didn’t even last a year. The Taliban that took control of Afghanistan in 1996 are a closer replica of the Taliban that took control of the country in 2021 than Kalakani.
Afghanistan seems to be a country torn by the politics induced by Cold War, which of course is said to have concluded now. How would you compare the Soviet intrusion from 1979 to 1989 with the recent American intrusion which concluded with the Taliban takeover? You have mentioned how bio warfare by Soviets ruined the countryside. Please elaborate.
There are a lot of comparisons that could be made. Both the Soviets and the US-led coalition had superior technology, equipment and training. The Mujahedin and the Taliban (whose fighters call themselves Mujahedin) had poor quality weapons, funding and training, but they had a motive to fight that invading nations could never match. The nature of the style of warfare they used also made them very hard to defeat — ie. an insurgency that lives among the population, whose fighters are very difficult to distinguish from the local non-combatants.
Reading some of the case stories that you have taken up in your non-fiction, the oppression of women seems to be an accepted social norm in Afghanistan and persisted before the current invasion of the Taliban. Can you please comment on this?
While there were improvements for women in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted in 2001 — education was once again permitted, they were allowed to work in all sectors of the workforce and allowed to own property etc. — across much of the country, especially in rural areas, many women’s lives were still highly restricted by conservative cultural norms. Despite the constitution giving women many more rights than they had previously, culture often overrode the law. That said, the Taliban have now enshrined the most conservative interpretation of cultural norms in law, and so for those families who had permitted women to live under the more permissive post-2001 laws, the choice is no longer theirs to make.
One of the major issues one gathers from various narratives as well as yours in Afghanistan is not only the lack of freedom to women but also extends to freethinkers. Is this a cultural issue, religious issue or Taliban induced?
I think this is more about stamping out dissent as well as ideas that don’t conform to the Taliban’s worldview, like communism or democracy for example. So, it’s both religious as well as a means for the Taliban to enforce those under their control to follow their very strict worldview.
The Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha. Have they changed since then to become more accepting of diverse thought?
I had hope that they might be. Most Afghans cautioned my optimism, and they seem to have been proven vindicated. While the Taliban haven’t yet destroyed any cultural heritage like the Buddhas, it took them five years in control to do that in 2001. The way they have rolled back rights in the 18 months they have been in control, it doesn’t bode well for what the next few years will bring. So far, however, they don’t seem to have been targeting ethnic minorities specifically or systematically.
The Taliban had taken control once earlier to be driven out by Americans in 2001. Can you tell us a bit about the origin of Talibans? Are they the same as Mujahedins?
The Taliban emerged from several groups that, combined, were known internationally as the Mujahedin. Once the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the seven Mujahedin factions fought for control of the country. The Taliban, whose fighters were mostly drawn from religious madrasas, and known to be better-disciplined than the other lawless factions, promised to bring order to the country. Initially they were welcomed.
You had moved to Afghanistan in 2013. Would you think of returning there now? Why?
I hadn’t planned to live in Afghanistan. Initially I went for two weeks to photograph the Afghan cricket team for an Australian magazine. I only planned to stay two weeks but quickly fell in love with the country and my work there and stayed nearly a decade. I have no plans to return as yet, but it will always be close to my heart, and I would love to return one day when it feels right.
Are you planning more books in the future? On Afghanistan?
Yes. As I mentioned, I will publish a photo book on Afghanistan later this year with Melbourne University Press. After that, let’s see.
Thank you for your time.
(This review and the online interview conducted through emails are by Mitali Chakravarty)