Monday, April 18, 2011

Not that 13th century

About a year ago, Foreign Policy ran a wonderful photo essay by Mohammad Qayoumi about Afghanistan in the 1950s and 60s, showing a rapidly modernizing society incorporating Western fashions and technologies but still retaining elements of tradition.  Women went to university while wearing headscarves, and men in pakol hats worked high-tech machinery.  Modern medicine was trucked to remote villages in the form of trained nurses, complete with those funny little white, winged caps that look like origami projects.  (I wonder whether Qayoumi realized the recurring role of headgear in his selections of images?)  

I recently came across that essay again, but this time, already knowing the story the pictures told, I was more aware of the text.  In particular, the opening paragraph, where he described the inspiration for the essay:
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.

From a European perspective, a 1200 A.D. mentality is pretty damning; Europe in the 13th century was not exactly an advanced part of the world, and hadn’t been for some time.  But from a Central Asian one?  What exactly does “making it out of the Middle Ages” mean in Central Asia?

If we set the Middle Ages at roughly the 5th to 15th centuries, Middle Ages Afghanistan was actually a pretty hopping place.  In fact, it started hopping a long time before the Middle Ages.  

What is today Afghanistan has had a lot of names.  It (or parts of it) were Bactria and the Hindu Kush and Kandahar and Kushan and Khorasan. The area first appeared in world history when the early Mesopotamians established a colony there to mine the precious lapis lazuli that colored and decorated all their most precious objects, from the banner of Ur to the Ishtar Gate.  That makes it the first place ever considered valuable enough for a projection of imperial power beyond the cultural boundaries of the metropole.  But that’s just history – the written record – kingdoms and cultures rose and fell in the area long before anyone wrote about them.

It was part of the Persian Empire before becoming a center of Hellenistic culture under the Seleucids.  In the second century BCE, a Chinese emissary by the name of Zhang Qian found that, “Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses [an important measure of civilization in Chinese culture] … The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. ... The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi (Bactra) and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold.”  His report to the emperor, and description of the sophistication of the society and value of the goods, led the previously insular Chinese court to declare the Bactrian’s as worthy friends. 

This was a critical turning point in world history.  When the Chinese emperor decided to encourage contact with Bactria, his armies were sent to establish control over the uninhabited portions of the route and protect travelers along the way.  Thus was the Silk Road created. 

Afghanistan’s role in world trade wasn’t limited to the opening of the Silk Road.  The land sits at the T-crossing of the East-West Silk Road and the North-South trade route from Central Asia into India.  All goods traveling overland between India, Europe, China, Japan, Persia, and everyone in between, went through what is today Afghanistan, where massive markets covered many square miles of ground.  Managing the markets meant not only knowing business and taking care of basic needs, like sanitation, clean water, and food, it also meant providing complex financial services, from money-changing to investment instruments.  Not to mention all the locals who got into the trade business themselves.  The area was the heart of a vast, international trading system, and its people were heavily involved in the world of commerce.  Nor was it a passive trade center.  From the first to the third centuries, the Kushan people ruled the area, and under their control and patronage, entirely new cultural traditions emerged from the mix of goods and ideas flowing into the area.  New artistic styles were developed, combining Greek, Indian and Chinese influences (most famously seen in the now lost Bamiyan Buddhas and the Dunhuang Caves paintings) and Buddhism was transformed from the private practice of individual, ascetic spiritualism to a religion of great temples and monasteries.  Theirs was a free-wheeling society, where money talked, fortunes could be made or lost in a deal, and people carved out their own destinies.

And in the Middle Ages?  The people of what is now Afghanistan added the art of war to their mastery of commerce and culture.  Western Afghanistan, the part in the mountains, resisted the Islamic Conquest when it was at its most vigorous, and even the Eastern territories were held for little more than a century before returning to native rule.  Compare that to the failures of the Byzantines and Crusaders centuries later when the Islamic World was well past its peak.

In the 13th century they were finally conquered, but it took the biggest, most expansive empire the world has ever known to do it.  Under the Mongols, and later their offshoot the Timorids, Afghanistan continued to be a key node in the vast Eurasian trade network of the re-emergent Silk Road and their people continued to live their lives as free, independent individuals, masters of their own destinies, and world leaders in commerce and business.  In other words, exactly the sort of wealthy, experienced businessmen that the Erik Prince’s of the world aspire to be today, back when Secretary Fox’s predecessors were still land-tied serfs, laboring without pay and begging for scraps from their lords’ tables.

As Qayoumi showed, far better than I could, Afghanistan’s current problems do not stem from a rigid, unbending culture irrevocably tied to anti-Western traditions.  Neither are they the result of a history devoid of accomplishment.  'Medieval’ is only derogatory if you happen to be of European descent. And smug, superior mockery of other cultures and societies is nothistory.

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