Context & Culture

“But This Gang Of Ministers Could Neither Fly Nor Swim Properly”: Memoirs from 1920s Afghanistan (Book Review)


The book cover of "In A Land Far From Home", courtesy of Nazes Afroz.

In 1927, a tumultuous time for Afghanistan as King Amanullah attempted comprehensive social reforms, an Indian teacher, Syed Mujtaba Ali, came to Kabul. His travelogue, “In A Land Far From Home”, published in India in 1948, very entertainingly reports on Kabul during those days, recalling encounters on the street as well as with the Afghan elite. Some of his observations are still pertinent to this day. For a long time, the book was only accessible to an Indian readership, but just recently, Indian writer and journalist Nazes Afroz translated it into English. AAN guest author Jolyon Leslie has reviewed Afroz’ work and recommends it as a “highly informative and thoroughly good read” for those who “want a longer view on Afghanistan’s current predicament.”

Kabul has been the epicentre of a massive international engagement over the past 13 years and investments continue to be made in efforts to build effective state institutions and bring peace. While this has generated a significant body of analysis, Afghanistan continues to confound most outsiders who struggle to understand the complexities of its history, society and politics. Opportunities to explore these issues have, due to growing insecurity in many parts of the country, narrowed significantly in recent years, such that most foreigners in Kabul are now confined to fortified compounds. This hardly encourages the kind of interaction with Afghans that would seem essential for diplomats and aid workers to work effectively.

Even if denied such contact, visitors who want a longer view on Afghanistan’s current predicament will be the wiser for reading Syed Mujtaba Ali’s account of his sojourn in Kabul between 1927-8. ‘In a Land Far from Home’, published by Speaking Tiger (ISBN 978-93-85288-02-9) offers an insight into the lives of the people of Kabul at a critical juncture in the country’s history. Originally published in 1948, by which time the author had spent time in Europe and the Middle East, the book established his reputation among the Bengali-reading public. Nazes Afroz’s excellent translation now enables readers of English to have an eye-witness account from an Indian perspective on a period whose history has thus far tended to be dominated by British colonial accounts. This is, however, no ordinary travelogue; the author’s keen eye and wry turn of phrase make the book highly informative and a thoroughly good read.

Assigned to teach at Habibia High School in Kabul (1), Mujtaba Ali travels by train from his native Bengal, at the time under British colonial rule, through northern India to Peshawar and onward by road to Kabul. Here, he finds a city on the boil, as conservative interests rally to oppose social reforms promulgated by King Amanullah, fresh back from a grand tour of Europe. Perhaps spurred on by the many accolades he’d received abroad, Amanullah attempts to fashion Afghan society to something resembling a European mould, embarking on an extravagant building spree and even attempting to dictate dress codes among his subjects

The city of Kabul was then trotting like a mad horse wearing ‘dereshi’. The word ‘dereshi’ came from the English word ‘dress’ meaning hat, tie and trousers. I was told that one had to wear dereshi if you were in government service – be it a lowly clerk’s job or a constable’s. Not only that, one could not enter public parks if one was not in dereshi. First, the pressure from government, secondly, an attraction towards the culture of advanced societies and thirdly, images in the movies – Kabul was mesmerized by dereshi.

While Mujtaba Ali had a wide range of interactions with people from all walks of life during his stay in Kabul, he stresses the limits of his knowledge (in contrast to many of today’s pundits) and admits that

I could build relationships and establish contacts with the bazaars, the streets, the ministers and other dignitaries, the rich and the poor of Kabul…..but I figured that it would be almost impossible to fathom the social forces that moved at a slow pace in times of peace and ran like a wild horse in times of turbulence.

Acutely aware of how stratified the urban society in which he moved was, Mujtaba Ali’s evident charm and erudition – references to Bertrand Russell, Hirschfield and Gautier, among others, pepper the book – provide him with access to the diplomatic community. So, too, with the Afghan elite; a chance encounter in the street with the king’s brother Enayatullah leads to games of tennis. His real focus however is on the ordinary people among whom he lived and whose voices are often absent in other accounts of this time. His portrayal of his Panjshiri manservant Abdur Rahman, from the moment of their introduction on Ali’s arrival in Kabul to bidding him farewell on the steps of the plane (carefully carrying his master’s tennis racquet) on which foreigners were evacuated from Kabul, is particularly rich

I once measured him from head to toe with a tape – he was six feet four inches. His width was proportionate to his height. His arms came down to his knees and his fingers hung from there like a bunch of plantains. His feet were the size of a small boat,. His shoulders were so broad that if he had been Amir Abdur Rahman instead of my chef, he could easily have carried the entire weight of Afghanistan on them….I felt reassured by his size and strength. But I was slightly apprehensive too…what if he ever grew angry with me?

These portraits of ordinary Afghans add a human dimension to Mujtaba Ali’s account of the introduction of reforms and the sentiments that prevailed among his circle of friends in Kabul. Some of his observations seem still to be pertinent to this day:

… the city folk were delicate and had no clue about the pulse of the country. On the other hand, the mullahs were half-educated. Even if you forgave the better educated ones … would the mullah society ever take part in the economic advancement of the country by better educating the people? Possibly not. Would they oppose it? One could not say.

His has no rose-tinted view of Afghans, however, and in places his portrayal of people is devastating. For example, his views on the competence of King Amanullah’s ministers is unforgiving – and will resonate for those Afghans who are today sceptical about their National Unity Government.

It was hard to figure out on what basis these people had become ministers. They were all Einsteins in their qualifications! They never tried to learn about the world around them. All of them had visited Europe once or twice. When interacting with them it became apparent that they had not brought any wisdom or knowledge back with them … The younger lot that joined us at least had a few degrees in education. You could make out by conversing with the older generation that if anything, they had experience. But this gang of ministers could neither fly nor swim properly; they were like toads that hopped about awkwardly.

Mujtaba Ali leaves the reader in no doubt about his anti-colonial views. No doubt born of his anger at those he perceived to be subjugating ‘his’ India, where the anti-colonial movement was active and very vocal, in places his strident views descend into the kind of prejudice he claims to abhor. The sarcasm he reserves for the British Ambassador Francis Humphrys mars what is otherwise a wry perspective on the foreigners then in Kabul. He describes a meeting with Humphrys at which foreign teachers seek to be evacuated from Kabul by air, thus:

The professors said Kabul was cut off from the world; Sir Francis said, hmm. The professors explained that as there was no bank in Kabul, their money was in Peshawar and there was no way to get it; Sir Francis said, ha. The professors pleaded that they were starving with their families; Sir Francis said, oh. The professors said in desperation that they would soon die if they stayed here anymore; Sir Francis said, ah. On the one hand there was the description of life and death and the other hand there was a list of exclamations. As if a college student and a nursery child were studying in the same room.

While witty, this seems particularly misplaced given that the author and his compatriots were eventually flown out to Peshawar – tennis racquet and all – and therefore spared the worst of the violence that took hold in Kabul.

As much as the vignettes he paints of characters of the day, however, one of the joys of this book lies in Mujtaba Ali’s poetic descriptions of place, that are excellently conveyed in the translation. For those of us who live in today’s dystopian Kabul, it is something of a balm to read passages such as this account of a lazy picnic at Gulbagh, where he wakes up after a post-prandial nap to see:

In the fading light, the line of tall trees had created lovely stripes on the grass. The garden was sleeping like a plump zebra with green and black stripes. The nargis flowers were yet to wake up fully, but they were slowly opening their eyes. I could not say for certain if it was my imagination, but I did feel a slight scent blowing in from the flowerbeds. As if they were in rehearsal before the full concert in the evening. The water, the shade, the breeze and the lush garden – next to it was the two thousand-foot-tall naked rocky hill. There was no sign of any pity – as if a naked yogi with his dreadlocks was engaged in the most difficult meditation. 

While we end up none the wiser about the primary purpose of Mujtaba Ali’s stay in Kabul – the education of young Afghans – his account is an important and timely contribution to the social history of Afghanistan. It should be required reading for those visitors who are confined to Kabul’s ‘green zone’.

 

(1) Lyse-ye Habibia (Habibia High School) was the first institution of modern education in Afghanistan. It was established and opened in 1903 (or 1904) by then Amir Habibullah himself and accordingly named after him. It was modelled after Aligarh College in India and initially also used British-Indian curricula.

From the very beginning, (Muslim) Indian teachers – with Turks and some Afghans – were part of the Habibia teaching staff. Even the school’s first principal was an Indian, Abdul Ghani from Lahore. In a first stint in Afghanistan, after 1891, Ghani had been Amir Habibullah’s private secretary; in 1894, he returned to become his chief medical officer. As Afghan scholar Bashir Sakhawarz writes, “the Indian teachers who taught the Afghans saw the opportunity to inspire the pupils with the values of nationhood and struggle for freedom.“ The school was also at the heart of the first Afghan constitutional movement (mashrutiyat), launched in 1902 (more background in this AAN paper). Habibia teachers, including, its most influential Afghan teacher Sarwar Wasif Kandahari and Abdul Ghani personally handed a petition to the Amir, asking him to limit his authority and introduce a constitution. The Amir cracked down on the group in 1909, accusing it of planning his assassination. Many members ended up in jail, seven leaders were executed. Ghani remained in jail until 1919 when he was freed by the new Amir, Amanullah, and was a part of the Afghan delegation for the Rawalpindi peace conference in August that year, after the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

Indian teachers, however, continued to teach at Habibia. Some of them were expelled in 1916, accused of being linked with the Indian government in exile established in December 1915 in Kabul, supported by a German military-diplomatic mission that had brought its leading members along and seen by the Amir as a threat to his good relations with (and subsidies paid by) the British-Indian government.

Recently, Habibia played a central role in a month-long teachers strike (more about that soon here at AAN).

Originally, the Habibia was situated in Kabul’s Shahrara area, then characterised by gardens belonging to the royal family, now a drab area featuring the Afghan National Army Central Corps’ headquarters. Find a photo of the original building in this blog; a photo from 1953 here and current photos on the school’s Facebook page. (Footnote by Thomas Ruttig.)

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture