she'll take her off her pants in parliament"
Raising My Voice – Malalai Joya
The Duel: Pakistan On The Flight Path Of American Power – Tariq Ali
Malalai Joya and Tariq Ali have little in common: Ali is an expatriate 'blue blood' commentator from Pakistan; Joya, a young campaigning MP in the Afghan parliament who scorns exile, despite five attempts to assassinate her. Yet both have a sharply critical attitude to Western policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan and more generally the 'war on terror'. Ali, now the urbane outsider, is articulate and weary; Joya, an embedded activist, often strident and repetitive, but for her ennui is not an option. She finds finds inspiration in the defiant courage of Palestinian children. Ali bumps into the great and good while out for lunch with his mother in Lahore.
The first thing to say about Malalai Joya, who is now 31, is that this is not her real name. If that were known her husband and the rest of her family in the western province of Herat would risk becoming targets of the warlords who now dominate Afghan politics. She in fact now lives most of the time in Kabul surrounded by bodyguards because security in her home town is precarious.
There are many wonderful, politically revealing anecdotes in this memoir-campaigning booklet, notably about the Taliban era between 1996 and 2001. She is particularly good on burqas, which she was forced to wear at this time. Looked at negatively they are a sign of women's oppression and reduce peripheral vision (her inspirational father, who lost a leg during the Soviet occupation, said he always knew who she was because she walked like a penguin); looked at positively they are a nifty way of concealing books (banned by the Taliban) and other contraband, including videos of Titanic, which was so popular in Afghanistan that it led to a whole dictionary of Titanic words (Titanic onions, Titanic potatoes, sold at a Titanic market). She explains how you eat ice cream (a favourite from childhood) in a burqa noting that it is difficult rather than impossible.
The difficulty is that the author tends to underplay this material, about her childhood in various camps in Iran and Pakistan, and near-misses with the Taliban, as she rushes through her chronological account; in the hands of an Afghan Frank McCourt it would be a bestseller on its own.
Joya became an international figure in 2003 when she denounced the warlords attending the Loya Jirga that had been called to ratify the Afghan constitution. According to her account she was only given an opportunity to speak because she played a trick on the Speaker in charge of proceedings and was then cut off halfway through her three minute slot when it became clear what she was saying. Her 90-second speech was, however, enough to make her a marked woman in Afghanistan and an international figure. In the wake of that she won election to the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, as the youngest MP in the 249-strong assembly, but was quickly banned because she persisted in saying the unsayable about corruption, the dreadful status of women, and the warlords who were still ruling the roost and making a mockery of democracy.
Joya Malalai is unremitting in her criticism of the corruption at the centre of the Karzai government. She notes, for instance, that the parliament, which is dominated by warlord stooges, passed an immunity law in 2007. This means that the gangsters who dominate politics cannot not be prosecuted for their previous crimes. In January 2007 Hamid Karzai, the president who has recently been re-elected, appointed an old family friend, Izzatullah Wasifi, as anti-corruption chief to tackle the billion dollar illegal drug industry. Wasifi is a convicted drug trafficker who spent almost four years in jail in Nevada after he tried to sell heroin to an undercover policeman. Malalai Joya notes that the Taliban, a minor player in the drug trade, was believed to have made $500m in 2008. United Nations experts believe the Afghan drug trade is responsible for a 'large part' of the $400-$500 billion annual turnover of the narcotics industry.
Her politics, however, seem fuzzy. She is clear that the Afghans were justified in opposing the Soviet invasion and fighting against the 'puppet government' of Kabul communists who held power during the 1980s. But she is reluctant to accept the palpable advances in women's rights that were made during that era. Equally she seems to accept that the US invasion was justified, because of the criminal nature of the Taliban regime, though equally well she wants Western troops out now and is totally opposed to Barack Obama's plans to increase the number of troops in the country. She does, however, remind us of the arrogance of American imperialism with a well-known but still telling quote from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, and set in motion the proxy Cold War battle that took place in Afghanistan during the 1980s and set in train everything that has come after. When asked to reflect on his role in training and emboldening Osama bin Laden, Brzezinski uttered these immortal words: "What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred- up Moslems or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the Cold War."
Malalai Joya's aim in writing this account is clearly to alert those in the West to what is actually going on in Afghanistan behind the PR spin and to help her fight against the warlords for the benefit of ordinary people, particularly women. She is also clearly in the thick of it, with little time for nuances and caveats. The reader therefore needs to show patience and, at times, some fortitude because there really is a lot here that is worth knowing.
Pakistan has been at the centre of the West's plans to fight the 'war against terror' since 9/11 and before that it was the base from which 'freedom fighters' (such as Osama bin Laden) were trained and equipped to fight against the Soviet-backed Communist regime in Kabul.
Who better to tell the story than Tariq Ali? Born and bred in Pakistan, a scion of an influential, albeit radical, family who was for many years was on good terms with key players such as the late Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfikar, who was executed in 1979. At one point he refers to bumping into Benazir Bhutto's husband 'the widower', while taking his mother out for lunch (not, presumably, the Lahore McDonald's). 'Mr 10%', as he is also referred to, is holding the reins of the Pakistan People's Party until the Bhutto son, Bilawal Zidari, 20, comes of age. Asif Ali Zardari was convicted in Switzerland in 2003 on a charge of money laundering, along with Benazir. He also spent years remanded in custody on charges of fraud and murder (of his brother-in-law, Murtaza) in Pakistan. One of his business associates committed suicide rather than testify against him. He is now the president of Pakistan.
The book does not have the industrial-strength encyclopaedic reach of a Chalmers Johnson (occasionally it does seem to wander into the land of unreferenced assertion) but is full of insights (for instance about the porn industry in the North West Frontier Province, the ISI and the Durand line) and anecdotes (for instance about the whereabouts of ObL) that you would expect from a sure-footed traveller. It also does provide statistics, for instance, on the tax base, arms spending and debt repayments that are essential to understand the lack of health and education provision. (State health provision does not exist, illiteracy is increasing, state education is almost non-existent, hence the madrasahs.)
It would be easy to become cynical given the level of corruption and dynastic politics but Ali does not. He obviously still regrets what he sees as a missed opportunity to create a secular social democratic movement after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He is clearly impressed by the principled and unexpected opposition to General Pervez Musharraf from the judges and lawyers, just as he was by Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Akbar Jehan in Kashmir. Nonetheless he has few illusions. As he says: "Social and political rank in much of today's world is determined by wealth. Power and money cohabit the same space. The result is a mutant democracy." Amen to that. A very good read.
The difference between the two authors is probably best summed up by an anecdote that Malalai Joya drops in about her election campaign, which inadvertently captures the antediluvian dottiness of Afghanistan. Her fundamentalist opponents, desperate to prevent her being elected, thought up a real below-the-belt smear that would chime with their core audience: "She took off her scarf at the Loya Jirga, she'll take her off her pants in parliament." A clearly scandalised Joya characterises this as an 'awful slogan'. Ali, I am sure, would just see the funny side of it.