Category Archives: Central Asia

Afghanistan Civil War, 1992-1996

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 63-65:

All around him, families were crumbling. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it—it didn’t matter what you thought, whether you supported the mujahedeen or the Communists. The only households surviving unscathed, he knew, were the neighborhood’s few Uzbek families, members of the same ethnic group as Gelam Jam.

He wasn’t interested in this war, but the war seemed interested in him. There were no more innocents, no more neutrals, only sides already chosen for him. The choice was clear: pick a side, or end up like his brothers. It would have been unthinkable before the war, but now he felt he could trust only his fellow Pashtuns. They had borne the brunt of Gelam Jam in his neighborhood, it seemed. At first, they had hidden their ethnicity, speaking only Farsi in public, but soon they were getting plucked from their vehicles to have their pronunciation checked—and if their speech sounded Pashtun, they were often killed on the spot. This was a war against people who spoke like him, who looked like him, and if that’s what the enemy had decided, then he’d play by their rules. So one morning he went to a camp of Hizb-i-Islami, a Pashtun-heavy militia, and sought out an acquaintance. “I want to do jihad,” he announced. The man broke into a broad smile. “Welcome,” he said.

* * *

Thousands of young men, many of them now orphans and widowers, flocked to the various factions feuding for power in the civil war. There were no heroes; each group proved as responsible for the bloodshed as the next. Broadly, the factions were organized along ethnic lines—not so much due to ethnic nationalism but because in the face of perpetual instability, with a weak or absent state, you allied with those you knew and trusted. In fact, it was often unclear what ideological differences, if any, divided the men fighting each other on Kabul’s streets. Still, the struggle for power and survival was imbued with meaning: more than simply a battle of wills, for many the war was “jihad.”

The West responded to the civil war by simply ignoring it, and after the 2001 invasion the years from 1992 to 1996 were all but stricken from the standard narrative. It was dangerous history, the truths buried within it too uncomfortable and messy. If the mujahedeen had been no better than the Taliban or al-Qaeda, any attempt to bring the principal actors of that period to account could only lead to the highest echelons of Hamid Karzai’s government, and, by extension, to American policy over the previous thirty years.

Yet it isn’t difficult to uncover this history, for every Kabuli has a story to tell. Deadly roadblocks, disappeared neighbors, and decaying bodies were woven into the fabric of daily life, like going shopping or saying your prayers. Every day brought fresh destruction; any date picked out of the calendar is the anniversary of some grisly toll.

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Filed under military, Afghanistan, language, U.S., religion, war, Europe, nationalism, USSR

Afghanistan’s Year Zero: 1979

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 52-53:

As with Mullah Cable and Jan Muhammad, I was interested in Heela’s experience in the new American-backed order. But to start her story with the US invasion would be like “watching a movie from the middle,” as she put it. In truth, Afghanistan’s real Year Zero was 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, and nothing—not the Taliban, or the American invasion, or the trajectory of Heela’s life—makes much sense without first coming to terms with the Russian occupation and its aftermath.

In the veritable Afghan prehistory of peace and anonymity, the era before the Soviets, there lies a world lost and yet to be recovered. In 1972, the year that Heela was born to a family of journalists and professionals, Kabul was a quaint, relaxed mountain town. An important stop on the “hippie trail”—a well-trodden route for Western stoners and flower children often heading to India—the town had reinvented itself in a few short generations. A wave of progressive reforms had rippled through Afghanistan in the 1950s, resulting in a government decree that veiling was optional for women. In 1964, they were granted the franchise. Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewalks.

Out in the heavily tribal Pashtun countryside, however, conservatism still reigned and women lived cloistered in their homes. The state was largely absent, and civil society nonexistent; politics worked through kinship and patronage, leaving clan leaders and landlords to run their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it out to Kabul and attend university, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could become, and a stark, unremitting sense of the inadequacies of the world you’d left behind. As with so many other developing nations of that era, this disjuncture spawned a crisis of modernity, and the disillusioned urban intelligentsia struggled to articulate a response. Two rival currents emerged: one embracing Communism, which looked to the Soviet Union and third-world liberation movements, and the other, Islamism, which took inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood and related trends in the Arab world.

For many years these were merely undercurrents, but they rushed to the surface in the late 1970s.

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Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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Filed under Central Asia, disease, economics, labor, Middle East, military, nationalism, travel, Turkey, war

Some Earlier Travelers on the Silk Road

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 104-105:

Often, as I walk along, I commune with those who preceded me on these roads. John of Plano Carpini, for example, sent by the Pope in 1245. He was in such a hurry to reach the court of the Great Khan that he used Mongolian relays, precursors of the famous American Pony Express. The rider would change steeds up to seven times a day. Upon spotting a relay, he rang a bell. A new steed was saddled up, ready to run. The rider would leap from the tired horse, mount the perky new one, and continue on, flat out. It’s thanks to these riders that the Mongolian emperors were continuously kept informed of what was going on at the opposite end of their empire, which stretched from the China Sea to the borders of Western Europe.

And then there is the shadow of another traveler, Guillaume de Rubrouck, messenger of Saint Louis, who occasionally ventured out onto the steppe. Long before Marco Polo, he gave an account of far-off Tartary, whose name alone struck fear in the hearts of the West’s fiercest fighters. But through an injustice the explanation for which History has kept secret, only the name of Marco Polo went on to become famous.

What has changed in these landscapes since these illustrious travelers journeyed past them? The road is now blacktopped, telegraph poles have been erected? I have only to move a few hundred meters away from the bitumen, and the scenery is changeless. These fields, hills, mountains, croplands, houses, and peasant farmers are unchanged. These herdsmen, watching over their lambs and waving when they see me, live no differently from how their ancestors did who, from time immemorial, watched on as solo travelers or long columns of caravans marched by. Saint Paul frequented these hills. It is said that, in the space of ten years, he traveled over thirty thousand kilometers (18,640 miles) throughout the region. Mostly on foot. Were the shepherds to whom he proclaimed the good news any different from these?

But preachers and caravanners were not alone on these roads. Fearsome armies, too, fought one another here, viciously and without warning. This is why the cities are mostly positioned defensively on hilltops. Villages are hidden in the landscape, nearly invisible, blending in with the scenery. The earth used to build houses, dug up from the ground, has kept its original gray and red hues. Only the roofs, once made of straw or heather, and now made of tiles, stand out vividly against the colorless mountain slopes.

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A Pastoral Veterinarian’s Four Tasks

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 214:

IN EARLY JANUARY, we were graced with a guest of honor. This visitor was very distinguished—he was neither looking for camels nor passing through: he was the veterinarian!

The veterinarian was the guest who had traveled the farthest and who was also the most important, so far. From the banks of the Ulungur, he drove down in a pickup to complete four important tasks: one, vaccinate the sheep; two, geld livestock; three, act as deliveryman for incoming and outgoing parcels; four, give everybody a haircut.

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Pidginized Kazakh, or Calqued Chinese?

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 247:

OTHER THAN THIS, what else did I contribute to the family? Only things like collecting snow, herding calves, herding sheep, embroidering, mending clothes, explaining TV shows … things that anyone could have done. In other words, the presence of someone like me had almost no impact on the family. On the other hand, I was deeply impacted. Especially when it came to speaking. Before I knew it, I was picking up Kazakh speech habits:

When studying Kazakh, I’d say, “Difficulties so many!” (“This is hard.”)

At mealtimes: “Food to eat!”

Asking for help: “A help give to me!”

Announcing that I hadn’t seen the sheep: “Sheep not seen!”

Meaning to say “neither hot nor cold”: “Cold, it’s not, hot, it’s not.”

I am not sure whether these expressions translate the pidginized Kazakh of a new language learner or Kazakh influence on simplified Chinese word order. It is probably the latter, since the author (Li Juan) was writing in Chinese for Chinese readers. Turkic languages like Kazakh are verb-final, and negatives are suffixed to verbs, while Chinese verbs usually occur in medial position (like English) and negatives are preverbal.

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Mandarin Curses by Kazakhs

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 161:

Of course, there were occasions when the siblings argued. Sometimes they even insulted each other in Mandarin. Sister would shout, “Ben dan!” (idiot) and brother would shout back, “Wang ba dan!” (bastard)—which amused them to no end.…

Then, they both turned to ask me, what do “ben dan” and “wang ba dan” mean? For the sake of complete honesty, I offered them a boring literal explanation: a ben dan is a chicken egg that’s gone bad. And a wang ba dan … luckily, I had just seen “The Tortoise and the Hare” in Nurgün’s Kazakh textbook, so I pointed to the tortoise: “This is wang ba.” They let out an “oh.” Then I added, “Wang ba dan is its child.” A disappointed “oh”; they were unable to understand what was so special about a bad egg and a tortoise’s child that these terms could be used as insults? Thoroughly underwhelmed, that was the last time they insulted each other using these words.

My ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (U. Hawaii Press, 1996) defines 王八 wángba as 1. tortoise, 2. cuckold, 3. son-of-a-bitch. It next lists two expressions flagged as colloquial: 王八蛋 wángbadàn N. turtle’s egg, son-of-a-bitch; and 王八羔子 wángba gāozi N. baby turtle, son-of-a-bitch.

The same source defines 笨 bèn as ADJ. 1. stupid, dull; 2. clumsy, awkward; 3. cumbersome. Lower on the same page it lists 笨蛋 bèndàn N. fool, idiot.

Chinese Wikipedia lists 王八 wángba as a type of soft-shelled turtle ( biē Trionychidae).

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Bactrian Camel Herding Woes

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 128-130:

Herding sheep, you only had to follow them around slowly, but herding camels required cracking the whip, letting the horse gallop, cursing your ma and cursing your pa, a never-ending contest of wit and brawn.

Camels were an odd bunch, perpetually in a state of discord, forever engaging in separatism; not at all like horses, sheep, or cattle that always traveled in a group.

Besides being members of the free-spirit clan, the camels might also be considered members of the beggar clan. When a flock of camels wobbled their way over, each wearing a patchwork of rags … Oy, it was their fault for being too big—where would you ever find a whole piece of cloth big enough to tailor an outfit for them! The only way was to cobble together a patchwork of old cotton jackets, old felt scraps, and old tekemet. And the camels never took care of their blankets, always rolling around on the ground (where clothes were most likely to tear off) until they were covered in wet cow dung. Then they’d stand and scratch an itch against a friend’s body, soiling the other camel’s blanket too.

Further, camels were supposed to be masters at enduring thirst and hunger, but that’s not what I saw. On our journey south, the camel bull calves without nose pegs always looked like they were starving. They stopped to eat every little clump of grass bigger than a thumb, constantly falling behind, forcing me, the chief organizer, to work my butt off the whole way! Only the pack-laden lead camel knew how to behave, never stopping to eat or drink all day, keeping onward as always.

On the journey south, I was responsible for the camels. For some reason, the lead camel was always grumbling and grim. It had a special trick, which was to shut its mouth and let out a deep rumble from the back of its throat. Even though it was clearly right next to you, the sound it made seemed to come from miles away.

ANOTHER OF THE CAMELS’ mischiefs was to crowd into the middle of the flock of sheep. Especially during the busiest hours of dusk, the wild bunch would try to force their way into the sheep pen! They may have liked the sheep, but the sheep clearly didn’t like them. As the sheep filed orderly inside in a line, they were suddenly disrupted by this “death from above” and chaos ensued, wool stood on ends. The camel tried to play dumb; the more you tried to shoo it, the more comfortably it sat, blocking the entrance to the pen. When you tried harder to push it out, it simply rolled onto its side, playing dead, refusing to budge.

Even though the camels were terrible, they still had their cute side. Specifically, these gargantuan camels had the tiniest ears!

WHEN THEY ATE SNOW, the cattle twirled their tongues around, the horses chomped properly with their teeth, but the camels were most impressive of all, lowering their long necks until the bottoms of their chins lay on the ground, then pushing forward like snowplows, instantly plowing up whole mouthfuls of snow! Then they shut their mouths, swallowing it all in one gulp. My guess was that somewhere among their ancestors, there must have been the genes of the Platybelodon.

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Trading Language Lessons in Xinjiang

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 84-85:

Then, on her own, Kama brought up the topic of marriage, explaining how there weren’t many suitors (probably out of fear of Cuma, the drunken father-in-law), and of them, none were without their own problems, so nothing could be settled for the time being. She went on to say that many of her former classmates were already engaged and some were even married. She spoke with a sense of despair, adding, “If I don’t marry, I’ll be an old lady, and no one wants to marry an old lady. If I do marry, I’ll be just like Mom, day in and day out doing housework, cattle work, sheep work … from now until when I’m old.”

She talked a lot that day, about how she wanted to work in a town somewhere, maybe learn a trade. She thought five hundred yuan a month would have been enough, as long as it could get her out of the wilderness.…

Who knew that this cheerful, resilient girl harbored such a humble, desperate dream.

I WONDERED IF THIS was what drove Kama to so assiduously study Chinese with me—she was determined to learn not only to speak but to write too. She borrowed my Kazakh exercise book to copy out the vocabulary list and phrasebook in the back. She wrote out the pinyin next to each character, studying as if she were really in school. But the content itself was not at all practical, with phrases like “Courtesy must always be a two-way street” and “Life is finite, time is infinite” … what in the world was the editor thinking?

I also sought to learn better Kazakh from Kama, but she always ended up going on and on, to which I had to say, “Enough, enough already, I’ll need a week to learn all that!”

She smiled. “For me, it would only take a day.”

She was right. Words that she learned at night, she had memorized the next day, acing her spelling quiz! I had to increase the difficulty, taking points off for writing even just a stroke out of place. As a result, she only got ninety-five points. Angrily, she crossed out the ninety-five and demanded that I change it to a hundred. I took the pen and wrote “85.” Her eyes bulged. Panicking, she relented, “All right, all right, ninety-five it is.…” She was completely serious.

As a result of our mutual language lessons, our tongues often crisscrossed to comic effect. The best gaff of mine was: “Add some more black?” while her most memorable blunder was: “Por adam, por donkey.” The former meant, “Add some more sheep manure [to the stove]?” The latter was, “One person, one donkey.”

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Passing Long Nights in Winter Pasture

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 41-42:

Come evening, even when it was already late, we were reluctant to sleep. By the dusky yellow light of a solar-powered bulb, Kama embroidered, Cuma read old Kazakh-language newspapers aloud, Sister-in-law spun wool, I read and took notes, and the cat pounced here and there practicing its hunting moves. The kettle had been whistling for a long while when Cuma sighed, “Let’s drink some tea.” Sister-in-law put down her handiwork, laid out tablecloth and bowls, and everyone gathered in a circle to sip in silence. The light grew dimmer and dimmer. Suddenly, Cuma screamed while pointing to my feet. I looked down—to pour the tea more easily, I had put the milk bowl by my feet instead of on the tablecloth. In my carelessness, the pink kitten, Plum Blossom, had snuck over and was lapping up the contents of the bowl with relish. I screeched as I swiped at the cat, much to everyone’s amusement. The last of the milk was ruined by the kitty, what a shame! But no one seemed to mind. They kept ladling the milk into their tea as usual. Indeed, how could that little pink mouth be considered dirty? He was still just a kitten after all.

Our tea drunk and newspapers read, Cuma pondered for a moment before retrieving his iron box from the nightstand. Then, for the hundred and first time, he made an inventory of his little treasures. Inside the iron box was everything of value the family owned: superglue, a spare light bulb, nuts and bolts of different sizes, as well as a stack of wrinkled papers, forms, notes, debt receipts, and the like. I grabbed a sheet to take a look. It turned out to be a prepaid phone plan receipt. What use is that? Rummaging some more, I discovered a plastic bag sealed with several tight knots on top. When I finally managed to untie it, I found a packet of Mohe tobacco! Cuma rejoiced, grabbing it and hugging it tightly. He barked, “Mine! It’s mine!” And so, it was a fruitful inventory check after all.

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