Daily Archives: 4 January 2007

An Irreligious Holy Warrior in Afghanistan

We saw a young boy drawing water and Abdul Haq threatened to kill him. The boy cried. Then Abdul Haq laughed and said, “I drove over the edge of this road three years ago, in a jeep. We crashed into the ditch where the boy is whining. The other six people in the car were killed. But I was thrown over a wall and survived because God loves me.”

An hour later we had to cross the Hari Rud. I took off my boots and overtrousers, tied them around my neck, and waded into the cold water. The river—which in a year of normal rainfall would be impassable without a ferry boat—was now barely two feet deep. Without speaking, Abdul Haq stopped on the bank and stooped, and Qasim climbed onto his back. Then Abdul Haq stepped into the stream, roaring like a bullfrog with delight at his strength and the shock of the cold. Having deposited Qasim on the farther shore, he returned and Aziz clambered on. Midway across, Aziz dropped the sleeping bags. Abdul Haq put him down in the water and charged after the bobbing sacks. When he caught them, he spun and danced on the shore like a paper puppet caught in the wind, shouting, “Man Ghaatar Hastam” (I am a mule). On the flats ahead, a camel loped easily across the sharp gravel.

I opened a packet of Iranian orange cream cookies and offered them to Qasim. He took one, sighed heavily, said, “Allah-u-Akbar” (God is Great), and put it in his mouth.

Abdul Haq looked at me and winked. Qasim, the oldest and least open of my three companions, was also it seemed the most religious. Abdul Haq described himself as a Mujahid, a holy warrior, and his leader, Ismail Khan, had fought an Islamic crusade to expel the atheist Russians before implementing Sharia law in Herat. But Abdul Haq was not very religious. In Iran young city types had talked to me about Nietzsche and said they were atheists. I never met an Afghan who called himself an atheist and Abdul Haq had never heard of Nietzsche. But during the time I was with Abdul Haq, he never prayed, never fasted, never paid a religious tithe, and had no intention of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Generally I only heard him refer to God when he fired his Kalashnikov. Then he would sing “Allah-u-Akbar” like a full-throated muezzin in the dawn call to prayer.

Abdul Haq took the packet of cookies from my hands, tipped it out onto a cloth to encourage us to eat more, and threw the wrapper over his shoulder. It was the only piece of trash on the desert plain and the silver foil glittered fiercely among the gentler colors of the soil.

SOURCE: The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart (Harcourt, 2004), pp. 76-77

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Negotiating Hierarchy with Strangers in Rural Afghanistan

Our host picked up the teapot.

“No, no,” said Abdul Haq. “I will pour it.”

“I insist—you are my guest.”

Abdul Haq grabbed the handle; Haji Mumtaz took it back. This was a ritual I had gone through almost every night as I walked across Iran. This village had been part of an empire centered in Persia for most of the previous two thousand years. In both Iran and Afghanistan, the order in which men enter, sit, greet, drink, wash, and eat defines their status, their manners, and their view of their companions. If a warlord had been with us, he would have been expected, as the most senior man, to enter first, sit in the place farthest from the door, have his hands washed by others, and be served, eat, and drink first. People would have stood to greet him and he would not normally have stood to greet others. But we were not warlords and it was best for us to refuse honors—not least because no one else’s status was clear. Status depended not only on age, ancestry, wealth, and profession, but also on whether a man was a guest, whether a third person was present, and whether the guest knew the others well.

Qasim had not struggled very much before taking the most senior position. He probably thought he deserved it as a descendant of the Prophet, the oldest guest, and the most senior civil servant present. But he could have made more of an effort to hold back. Our host, Haji Mumtaz, showed his manners by ostentatiously deferring to Qasim. The more he did so, the more we were reminded that he had done the pilgrimage to Mecca, was the village headman, and was twenty years older and much richer than Qasim, his pushy guest.

Abdul Haq sat himself at a junior position, folding his long legs beneath him with a natural easy smile. Aziz’s poverty was evident from his scrawny frame, ill-kept beard, and poorly fitting clothes. He was only walking with us because he had married Qasim’s sister. He moved to the bottom of the room with a defensive scowl. Only I deferred to Aziz, but then I was very low on the scale: visibly young, shabbily dressed, traveling on foot, and, although they might not know this, not a Muslim. But, perhaps because I was a foreign guest and had letters from the Emir [of Herat], I was promoted after a long debate and made to sit beside Mumtaz. When other senior men from the village entered, we all rose in their honor. But when the servants brought the food, I was the only one to look up. Servants, like women and children, were socially invisible.

SOURCE: The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart (Harcourt, 2004), pp. 38-39 (see also his Iran Diary in LRB)

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Defeated Japanese Exiles in Siam, 1600s

After the American Civil War of 1861–65, many defeated Confederates resettled in Mexico or Brazil. Many defeated Japanese also found refuge in exile as Japan’s long period of warfare (Sengoku) drew to a close around 1600. Among the most successful of the exiles was young Yamada Nagamasa (山田長政 1590–1630).

Yamada Nagamasa lived in the Japanese quarters of Ayutthaya, home to another 1,500 Japanese inhabitants (some estimates run as high as 7,000). The community was called “Ban Yipun” in Thai, and was headed by a Japanese chief nominated by Thai authorities. It seems to have been a combination of traders, Christian converts who had fled their home country following the persecutions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and unemployed former samurai who had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara:

“From the years of Gen’na (1615-1624) through the later years of Kan’ei (1624-1644), the Ronin or warriors who lost their lords after the defeats of the battle of Osaka (1614-15) or the earlier battle of Sekigahara (1600), as well as the defeated Christians of the Shimabara uprising, went to settle in Siam in great numbers” …

The Christian community seems to have been in the hundreds, as described by Padre Antonio Francisco Cardim, who recounted having administered sacrament to around 400 Japanese Christians in 1627 in the Thai capital of Ayuthaya (“a 400 japoes christaos”) …

The Japanese colony was highly valued for its military expertise, and was organized under a “Department of Japanese Volunteers” (Krom Asa Yipun) by the Thai king.

In the space of fifteen years, Yamada Nagamasa rose from the low Thai nobility rank of khun to the senior of Okya, his title becoming Okya Senaphimuk. He became the head of the Japanese colony, and in this position supported the military campaigns of the Thai king Songtham, at the head of a Japanese army flying the Japanese flag. He fought successfully, and was finally nominated Lord of Ligor (modern Nakhon Si Thammarat), in the southern peninsula in 1630, accompanied by 300 samurai …

Following Yamada’s death in 1630, the new ruler and usurper king of Siam Prasat Thong (1630-1655) sent an army of 4000 soldiers to destroy the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya, but many Japanese managed to flee to Cambodia. A few years later in 1633, returnees from Indochina were able to re-establish the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya (300-400 Japanese) …

Nagamasa now rests in his hometown in the area of Otani. The remnants of the Japanese quarters in Ayutthuya are still visible to visitors, as well as a statue of Yamada in Siamese military uniform.

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