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Between the feet of the Buddha statue

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Meeting Buddha in Bamiyan
The Afghanistan I saw was full of shy smiling little children of many diverse ethnic groups

By Brian H. Appleton
August 5, 2002
The Iranian

First I just want to say God Bless Iran for helping over 1 and a 1/2 million Afghan refugees all these years and now. I am reminded of Darius liberating the jews from Babylonian captivity. You see, if the Western world had any sence of history besides their own they would know that Iran has many thousands of years of a tradition of tolerance towards it's ethnic and religious minorities and this last 21 years has been a bad hiccup... but the underlying humanity of Iranians will win out in the end and overcome the fanaticism and move back to moderation as it already has to some extent.

How many Westerners are even aware of the significant populations of Armenian and Assyrian Christians and Jews in Iran not to mention Bahais,Zoroastrians and dozens of ethnic groups like Kurds, Bakhtiaris, Baluchis, Qashqais and ethnic Arabs... We could explore what has given rise to religious fanaticism around the world lately not just in Islam but in Christendom as well and I think the answer is to be found in a reaction to future shock, to unprecedentedly rapid technological change away from traditions and indigenous culture as well as the reality of multi national corporate global domination and global economy forcing everyone to participate in it whether they want to or not...

I am reminded of what happened in the USA in the 1860's when the "Native American Indians" found the dominant Anglo European culture which had taken over their space so repugnant and at odds with their beliefs that they started the "Ghost Dance Movement." They thought that if they dressed in white sheets that they would be invincible against the white man's bullets and that somehow they would all be pushed back into the sea and things would return to a pre-Columbian state. Instead they got slaughtered and marginalized from mainstream society on reservations and other than the Cherokee in Oklahoma who found oil on their reservations where they had been forced to walk to from the East Coast mostly dying along the way, it is only now 200 years later that the American Indians are getting some economic power with their casinos of all things...

Do you remember Black Friday when Khomeini by short wave radio encouraged his followers to violate the marshall law curfew, the Hookoomat Nezami and to wear white so that the soldiers would be able to see them better and they could die as martyrs for the glory of Islam? Do you remember when masses of illiterate people thought they saw Khomeinis face in the moon? Let me tell you something about Black Friday, I was living about seven blocks north of where that massacre took place and shortly after the curfew started, I began to hear a lot of shouting from a very large crowd in the distance. I called my neighbor who lived a few blocks from the soccer stadium and asked him if there was a game going on and he said no.

Then we began to hear the shooting and the screaming and it continued for 5 hours until 2 am. I was so horrified that I can remember sobbing on the floor of my bedroom and vomitting. The next day Bell Helicopter Int'l who was my employer at this time called us into a meeting and told us:"Something happened last night but we do not know what exactly and we do not want to over reacte, afterall did any of you see anyone get shot?!" I remember thinking how typical this was of "Stupid White Men", of course no one saw anyone get shot, we were obeying the curfew. It was an insult to my intelligence and besides my neighbor and I were the only ones who lived far enough south from the "Golden Ghetto" to have heard anything.

I piped up and said that if they wanted to know my opinion, as only one of 7 Farsi speakers in the company of 9,000 US employees and dependants, it was not a mere "civil disturbence", which was the euphomism de jour, but that a Revolution was underway. Bell Helicopter was in such denial because of the large contract they had at stake that they continued to bring over new hires up until 10 days before the Shah left. I know because one of my functions was to "meet and greet" them at Mehrabad Airport. The first thing I would tell them was to take off their silly yellow Bell Helicopter baseball caps that they had been instructed to wear by their superiors back in the US when they got off the plane to help me get the head count....

So let's cut to Afghanistan now. When I went there in 1977, the year before the Russian invasion, I found a lot of poverty, men and women deficating in the main streets of Kabul and making human beasts of burden out of themselves hauling wagonloads of goods because they could not even afford donkeys but that is not what I remember. What I remember were the kindest and most humble and reverant people I have ever met. As I traveled about by local bus, I remember that on long trips the buses would pull over and stop so that people could get out and pray by the road side... everywhere else in the world I had been the buses pulled over to let people go potty or get something to eat... and the funny thing was that after awhile, I started getting out and praying with them... and they were Sunnis...

I can remember the modest and dimutive museum guard at the Kabul National Museum shyly but proudly showing us a match lock rifle that had once belonged to the former King Mohmmad Zahir Shah. He even let me hold it. Then I asked him why the display cases were full of silver coins with the head of Alexander the Great on them and he proudly informed me that Alexander had been stopped in his expansion by the Afghans but that while he and his Greeks were here they had taught the Afghans the art of growing grapes and making wine and also stone sculpture which is why the very lifelike Buddha Statues looked like Apollo. It was called the Ghandahar Style. I was dumbfounded! First I didn't know that Buddha himself had missionized Afghanistan and secondly I didn't know the Greeks had been there. Of course later when the Russians invaded, they looted the National Museum and carted off its contents to Moscow by the trainload.

The Afghanistan I saw was full of shy smiling little children of many diverse ethnic groups holding hands and following me around trying to pluck up enough courage to invite me into their homes for tea and shirini. The Afghanistan I knew had merchants and vendors in shops and on the sidewalks who were so innocent and trusting that they would extend you credit on a handshake. One day as I walked along "Chicken Street", I noticed a vendor who had laid out a considerable amount of Lapis Lazuli on a blanket on the side of the road.

I stopped to pick up and examine a piece about the size of a grape fruit and asked him how much it would cost. He gave me a figure that was roughly US$20 and stunned by how little he wanted I asked him if he knew how much a piece of Lapis that size and quality would cost in Europe or the USA. I guessed at least $2,000 and he said he knew that but that he had no way of getting into a favorable distribution network. I thanked him for letting me see his Lapis and started to continue on my way. He quickly walked up beside me and asked softly: "Well weren't you interested in buying that stone then?" And I told him that I had left my money back at my hotel. He replied: "That doesn't matter. Take it with you and you can pay me for it when you pass by here again tomarrow."

Here were a people so kind and trusting and what did the outside world have in store for them? I was dozing on a Toyota mini bus on my way to Bamiyan where the Taliban were to eventually take down the 175 foot Buddha statue (in 2001) and my girlfriend and I were the only foreigners on board. I started to feel something lightly touching my arm like a butterfly's tender wings and I peeked through my half closed eyes to see a Turbanned father and son intently touching the red hair on my arm to see if I was real I suppose. I quickly closed my eyes up tight again and pretended to be asleep so as not to embarass them.

When I got to Bamiyan, it was the most other wordly place I have ever been, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. We were in a 7 mile long river valley below miles of Buttes which eventually turned into the high steppes of central asia. I can remember after climbing inside the cliff and hopping over to the head of the Buddha statue noticing how the face had been knocked off it during the first moslem invasion in the 7th century. I continued up the cliff til I eventually emerged on top where the buttes were all perfectly flat topped and I actually started jumping from one butte to the next they were so close together even though the ravines and canyons between them were over 800 feet deep. It seemed like I was on the planet Mars.

There was a donkey bazaar going on far below and the donkeys tethered to little stakes in the ground looked like so many ants. The silence was deafening. The only evidence of the modern world was the sound of a small 1 and a 1/2 horse power pump for irrigation which UNESCO had given the village and this could be heard from about 15 miles away. As we walked through the river valley, women were washing and beating the dirt and soap out of their laundry on the sides of large boulders in the beautiful river and cottonwood seeds floated lazily in the air catching glints of sunlight like the sun in a pony's long eyelashes looks...

The north face of the valley had the tall cliff for its entire length which was riddled with caves and chapels and monk's cells carved out of the rock. I was told by a Pakistani Archeologist that 1000 years ago over 1000 Buddhist monks had lived in that cliff. It was nothing like I had ever seen before or since...

When the mini bus had dropped us off that was the last motor vehicle that we were to see for a week. We stayed in a guest house that was excavated into the ground and its dirt floors and walls were covered with carpets. All the guests ate together at a long table eventhough we were strangers and we soon got to know eachother. The Pakistani Archeologist was trying to find a reclining Buddha somewhere above the standing one on the top of the cliff above it which was supposed to be over 700 feet long according to legend.

The entire time of our stay, an old hunchbacked man who never said a word and looked for all the world like Quasimoto in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, hauled water in two buckets hung from a stick over his shoulder from the river many hundred yards down the valley, then up a ladder and into a water tank on the roof for us to have running water...and he was probably greatful for the job. Again, I never saw a begger in that Afghanistan. Even the little children worked for a living giving eachother hair cuts or selling fruits and vegetables and old men made a living as scribes outside the post offices reading and writing for the 75% illiterate population.

The first night in Bamiyan, just after we went to sleep some kind of creature like a Bandicoot I suppose jumped onto the thatch roof of our underground room, the roof being only slightly higher than ground level and the ruckus frightened the hell out of my girlfriend who then insisted that we relight the kerosone lantern and leave it on all night. Well during the night the kersosene was all spent and the wick burned so that when we woke up our nostrils were ringed with soot. We had many incredible experiences in Afghanistan. It seemed that the main form of entertainment on the weekends was wrestling in the town squares and parks and not just human wrestling but camel wrestling, cock fights and even partridge fights. There was no admission fee and no one was gambling. It was just for fun.

We saw a joust of Boz Koochi in Mazar-e-Sharif. We saw the tomb of Tamerlane (Timur) in Herat. It was cut from a black stone like basalt and looked like many layers of lace deep, one upon the other, god only knows how the craftsmen had done it. I remembered reading about how Timur, who was lame in one leg and walked with a cane was said to have played a game of chess with his son in a tent while his army stopped the Ottoman Turks from expanding further east and they captured Sultan Beyazid and his wife and made them serve them food and drink on their hands and knees nude before they sent them packing back to Turkey.

There was a pistacchio tree in the courtyard of Timur's shrine which was completely covered with iron nails pounded into its trunk and not a leaf left on it. When I inquired about this, the Afghans told me that barren women seeking to have children thought this would make them fertile. Interesting isn't it that in Afghanistan people wanted to have children while in the West people mostly try not to...

As we travelled by bus across Afghanistan, we saw entire tent villages of black tent nomads pack up their belongings and tents onto the backs of their camels and ride off into the horizon in less time than it took the bus to drive past them and out of sight. I remember noting that the nomad women did not wear veils and I could see their bare legs spurring on the flanks of their camels and horses with their skirts hiked up...

When I think of the recent thousands and thousands of displaced Afghans with their homes destroyed by the war and traveling on foot up and down the length of the country from border to border being turned back each time they got there and dying of thirst and hunger and exposure and from being trampled on the way it makes me ill...

In Herat I began to notice the influence of foreigners along the hippie path to India from Europe because we could not walk two steps without someone calling out: "Tariak? Hashish?... Chai?" They couldn't believe we didn't want to buy drugs and in desperation finally tried to sell us tea. It made me very sad to think that this was their experience and impression of foreigners...

We saw the blue domes of a mosque being restored by a UNESCO grant which had been built under the patronage of Princess Goharshad and her husband, the daughter and son-in-law of Timur. They had been so ashamed of all the blood Timur had shed building his empire that they decided to turn Herat into a cultural mecca of central asia importing artisans and craftsmen and artists, sculptures and poets from all over asia and the middle east. How many hippies were even aware of the wonder that once was Herat hundreds of years before the Hash oil. This was the Afghanistan that I knew and loved. The Russians left almost nothing standing to the point where the Americans and their European Allies in this recent high altitude bombing diplomacy were hard pressed to find any targets. The real war should be the war on poverty and inequality, that is how to end terrorism...

You all must know that the only reason there is so much interest in Afghanistan these days is due to its being in the path of a future pipeline from Uzbekistan to Pakistan for the natural gas deposit found there contracted for extraction by Unocal and said to be so large it can supply the natural gas needs of the US economy for the next 500 years. Uazbekistan has the most repressive regime in central asia and their government has let the US military take over and refurbish all the former Soviet bases. I have read that it was the CIA that funded and trained both the Taliban and the Al Qaida in the madrassas in Pakistan inviting every fanatic moslem from around the world there to fight the Soviets...including of course Osama...

Afghanistan has more arms and landmines per square foot than any other place on earth now and these weapons were not built by Afghans by the way. Not one Afghan was on the high jacked planes on Sept 11 and yet who got bombed? I heard Mohammad Quarzai on the US public radio before he went back to Afghabistan describing how the Saudi Al Qaida would destroy miles of villages for target practice in Afghanistan. But you all know that there is no way in hell that the US could sustain an attack like Sept 11 without finding someone to blame and bomb and prove our military might. The defense contractors, the military and the intelligense community must be thankul for their new mandate.

If I had been the American young man who has been arrested for treason and sentenced to 20 years,I would have naively asked the American forces at exactly at what point did we decide that the Taliban which we helped create were now the enemy? We are paying for the sins of our fathers now and I pray that our foreign policies will be decided by our foreign service here, our diplomats not by the CIA. Look at how the CIA put the Shah back in the 1950's when Mossadegh had ousted him. I wonder how different things could have been if the CIA hadn't interfered...

Many Iranians after the revolution told me that the CIA was behind Khomeini and the revolution because the Shah was not giving the USA the upperhand on every contract but instead was working too closely with Russia. I don't suppose I'll ever know if that was true but I do know that while I was still in Iran 4 months after the revolution, the average taxi driver would tell me that Iran was still buying weapons from the USA via Israel eventhough Khomeini was calling us and Israel great satanic forces and the you know what? It took our press 12 years after that to uncover the Iran Contra scandal... so who knows...

By the way, I wrote over 120 letters of protest about the war on Afghanistan at the time to as many US Senators, Congressmen and the White House. I also wrote a letter of sympathy complete with my Afghan photos included here to Majeed Arsala who lives near me and is the son of the executed Commander Abdul Haq who tried to find a peaceful solution to ouster the Taliban but failed. His mom and sister had already been assassinated by the Taliban in Pakistan and so now he has no immediate family. He and his cousin wrote me a very sincere and appreciative letter back thanking me for my protest efforts...

What bothers me the most about all this is that out of a population of only about 20 million, 6 million are refugees outside the country, another few million are displaced refugees inside the country, the agricultural base has been destroyed so that opium has become the only viable cash crop because of its short growing season compared to fruit trees or livestock for example. Two million Afghans died under Soviet attack and instead of the Russians being made to pay some sort of reparations to Afghanistan, the US Government is trying to make petroleum deals with Russia now that the Middle East has become so destabilized...

As the Persian saying goes: "If you are not ashamed, I will be ashamed for you." The entire third world has been left in poverty as a consequence of 50 years of cold war fought by them in proxy while the two perpetrators:the USA and Russian are now in bed together... sickening... But my biggest fear for Afghanistan now is that soon there will be MacDonalds and Burger Kings and Walmarts in Kabul, Ghandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Shariff and all that is unique and precious and a benefit to the entire world's culural heritage will be lost forever...

I pray for Aghanistan everyday. God Bless all of you,

Rasool Aryadust aka Brian H. Appleton

Comment for The Iranian letters section
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By Brian H. Appleton

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