Qala Panjah – The Afghan Values

The question is how to unite all of them.

The question is how to unite all of them.

“What are the values to be a nation?” Arnault Sera

It was a long dusty journey in the dusty unpaved main road connecting the Badakhshan province to Takhar. With most roads in the country unpaved and full of dust, Afghanistan simply might be the dustiest country in the world. Traveling here is not easy either. Passengers are usually packed, pressed in carries like Falancoach, can load up to 18 passengers (many times overloaded up till 20 people) in the narrow seats of the car. Those who can afford more might choose TownAce, comfortably at 7 passengers in the car. If the road track is not too difficult, Corolla and shared taxi might be the most comfortable way of traveling. Traveling is always costly in Afghanistan. Even the cheapest Falancoach may only carry you traveling from Faizabad to Ishkashim for 550 Af (11 $) for the 160 km distance, while the same amount in Pakistan might take you 1000 km away. In anyway, traveling in countryside of Afghanistan requires high stamina, luck, bunch of money, endurances. I was not made for this kind of trip, as most of the way, I force myself to sleep; otherwise I would be very dizzy with the roller coasting bumpy journey.

“Afarin!” yelled a young Afghan boy from the back seat, followed by the hard clappings of the others. They were excited, so happy along the journey, following the traditional Afghan music played by the almost broken radio tape of the Falancoach. The Afghan music, monotonously repetitive, might be very boring for people who don’t understand the language. But the singer, in repetitive sentences, tells stories. There are many things in an Afghan song: about the land, about nation, compatriots (Vatandar), about love, about spirit. And the music became much livelier accompanied by the hand clapping, whisper, and “Afarin!” yells of the young passengers sitting on the back seats. They were so excited, that they were getting closer to home.

The other chance, I was on Town Ace from Mazhar e Sharif to Maimana. The road here was even worse and dustier than that of Badakhshan, plus the sandstorm. But the driver was also more than active in such difficult track. Playing Indian songs from the cassettes, he danced with both hands while driving, sometimes tried to slap the cheek of the passenger sitting next to him, and sometimes even tried to kiss that poor creature (a male, fortunately).

I started to think, is that the spirit of Afghans, the spirit of endurance in their hardship of life, the spirit of joy in the sorrow? Is that the spirit that all ethnics throughout the country – the Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens, proud about? Is that the spirit that makes the country exist until today, after decades of destructive wars, years of hardships, and now years of rebuilding?

I started to think about this after a discussion with Arnault Sera in Qala Panjah about nationalism, about the reason of a nation, about how a nation to be built, and about the definition of a nation. Afghanistan, like Indonesia, is a multiethnic nation. The Pashtuns dominate the southe, the Tajiks on the north, the Hazaras on the central mountains, Uzbeks and Turkmens on the northeast, and also the Nuristanis near Pakistan borders and Kyrgyz on the unreachable peaks of Pamirs, also the nomadic Kuchis traversing the whole country for fertile grassland. It’s an interesting question to be imposed, what for them ‘Afghanistan’ means. What is the feeling to be called as an Afghan?

A Wakhi Tajik boy minority in Qala Panjah preferred the country to be called as Aryana, the ancient name of Afghanistan before the arrival of Islam. Aryana doesn’t have any string to any ethnics, while the term ‘Afghan’ is somehow closely oriented to the Pashtuns. Now under the flag of Afghanistan, the mountain people of Wakhi Tajik and Kyrgyz have to identify themselves as Afghans.

The boundaries of Afghanistan, just like Indonesia, were also artificial. They were defined by foreign colonial powers. In the history, the current area of Afghanistan never existed long. It was only about two years ago when Ahmad Shah Durrani conquered the whole area, tried to unify the people (included to Islamize the kafir (non-believers) Nuristanis) and the definition of Afghanistan started since. The northern boundary of the country, that is the Amu Oxus River, which separated Afghanistan from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, was defined by the Russians and British to delimit Russian empire. The eastern boundary, the Durand line, slicing the area that was called as Pashtunistan into half Afghanistan half Pakistan, was defined by the British colonial government. Many of the Afghans, until recently, despised the border and regarded the area what is now NWFP province of Pakistan as part of their territory. When Pakistan was admitted in the United Nations, Afghanistan quitted.

The most artificial part of Afghanistan was the Wakhan Corridor, the 15 km narrow land sandwiched between the Russian empire and British India. The people of the area were nomadic herdsmen. Suddenly they found their families to be separated into different countries, the villages were split: the part one side of the river belonged to an empire, the other side of the river belonged to other empire, and that behind the mountains belonged to another one. Family visits became not possible anymore, and the drawing of the border lines had given different fates to the people in different parts of the lines.

Indonesia, my country, had very similar artificially made borders and boundaries, where suddenly people of different ethnic groups became united while some other of the same groups became separated. The confrontation with Malaysia regarding the dispute upon Borneo was also similar to Pashtunistan case. Like it or not, it was the Dutch colonial empire which defined the boundary of Indonesia, not the Srivijaya nor Majapait ‘national kingdoms’ like our leaders wanted us to believe as the kingdoms which united the whole archipelago (it is nationwide compulsory history knowledge).

What is the feeling of being called as Indonesians? Will it relate us to the Korowai tree people in deep Papua jungles or long-eared Dayak ladies? Will it relate us to our European look beauty delegate, Nadine Chandrawinata, or the celebrities of Arab and Indian origins, or the Chinese community in Glodok economic center? Is the term Indonesia strong enough to make Achehnese accepted the brotherhood of the Javanese? Or it will be like Afghanistan, where the majority started to define minorities as ‘non-Afghans’)? Will be there example of Indonesians talking others as ‘non-Indonesians’ (the case of pri and nonpri)?

The national border lines are already there. Like it or not, it’s the factual limit lines of our nations. Arnault, a French traveler, described that the borders of our country, according to his country’s law, which is then modeled by other countries, shouldn’t be based on ethnics, religious, languages, but values. ‘What are the common values to be a country?’ was the questions to be decided when drawing the border lines of French colonies in Africa. The values can be as broad to grab more people together, like tolerance, humanity, religious freedom, etc. If we couldn’t define this, the strong handed rulers will try to define the nations by themselves. For example religious oppressions in Afghanistan to Islamize the non Muslims Nuristanis, as the value that well accepted in the country, that being a Muslim is same as being good. Other example is the Pashtuns who forced the whole nation to accept its interpretation of Islam. In Indonesia military oppressions were used by the Suharto Regime to make minorities in Acheh, East Timor, and Papua quiet.

What are the common values that stick together the people in the artificially made Afghanistan? Same questions can be imposed to the artificially made Indonesia. This is a deep question, which requires deep research and lots of discussions. I can’t wait to see the work of Andreas Harsono to be published. He is an Indonesian journalist traversing the whole archipelago to discover the definition of ‘Indonesian nationalism’ among the different ethnic groups in the country (check

About Agustinus Wibowo

Agustinus is an Indonesian travel writer and travel photographer. Agustinus started a “Grand Overland Journey” in 2005 from Beijing and dreamed to reach South Africa totally by land with an optimistic budget of US$2000. His journey has taken him across Himalaya, South Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, and ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. He was stranded and stayed three years in Afghanistan until 2009. He is now a full-time writer and based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Contact: Website | More Posts

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