Friday, 2 November 2012


(Originally on 31 October 2012.)

I spent ten days in the South Arabian Sultanate of Oman, during which time I managed to drive from one end of that country to the other twice. It is my intention in the coming days to write something about Oman and its fascinating nature also for my blog readers. Meanwhile, however, let us have a little cultural article, that is, a review of the newest James Bond film, Skyfall.

When I got back from Oman, I had one afternoon and night in the Emirates. My flights were from Kabul to Sharjah (Shariqa) and from there to Muscat (Masqat), and vice versa. Sharjah is the more conservative and quiet neighbouring emirate to Dubai. On my way to Oman I went through three different malls on the Sharjah side in search for certain specific electronics I needed, yet without success. So on my way back I took a taxi from the Sharjah airport directly to Dubai, heading for the largest mall of Dubai and possibly of the entire world, the Dubai Mall. There I made many a shopping and purchase of equipment and necessities for Afghanistan, but finished by night, and as the flight back to Kabul was only at 5 AM, it was only convenient to spend the night at the cinema.

I found Skyfall a positive surprise for a Bond film, since with the delightful exception of Casino Royale, most of the Bond films of the recent years have been quite boring and superficial rumbles. Skyfall appeared as a conscious return to the roots, in many respects in fact. Unfortunately, I have never read Ian Fleming's original Bond novels, so with the exception of the obvious cases I have only a dim idea of which novel (of any) each movie is based on. You can read about the subject in this entry.

However, the story in the background of Skyfall seems very similar to the one in the background of the old film The Man with the Golden Gun, based on Fleming's similarly named novel. The main villain of that film was a cold-bloodied Latin American paid assassin named Francisco Scaramanga (after a co-student Fleming was in bad terms with in his college years). Scaramanga has been trained by the KGB but in the movie he becomes a rogue actor with a criminal agenda. Skyfall has a villain with a similar background, although the training came from the Brits instead of the Russians. However, Skyfall's rogue has been made more schizophrenic and more pervert than the man with the golden gun, who was an unemotional killer robot in the Cold War spirit. Skyfall's super-villain Raúl Silva, whose name probably sounds like Silver by purpose, appears as an oedipally complexed typical lone wolf terrorist, not very different from Anders Breivik.

While so far Bond has appeared never aging and in character youthful, although played by middle-aged actors, in Skyfall he has actually got old, disillusioned, and even descends at one point to drinking in the seaside bars of the Bosporus. After Istanbul, however, he gets to chase the paid assassin in Shanghai, where some smartly modified déjà vu scenes from the Golden Gun are seen. Silver Silva has built his secret base of evil in the ghost island of Hashima, off the coast of Nagasaki, which in the real life hosts an abandoned mining community.

From Hashima the film travels on to London, where the going gets quite contemporary, but it is the very contemporary security hysteria and dependence on nerds that fails big time, and this leads to an idealization of everything old school, from English patriotism to good old Scottish highlander defiance, old-fashioned cars and guns. To avoid spoiling anyone's movie experience I won't reveal what finally happens to the female M of the neo-Bonds, but there's a nice wordplay also in her case, like in Silva's, because Em becomes Emma in the words of the old Scot guarding the mansion. At the end of the movie there's also a spectacular return to the beginning of the old Bond films. The chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence Committee, who reveals his old-fashioned manliness by picking the gun in the parliamentary hearing that has become target of a terrorist attack, becomes the new M, and Miss Moneypenny returns to the scene as his secretary.

In many respects what pleased me in Skyfall was the old fashion and the return to the roots - Bond's roots, Fleming's views, and the roots of the entire genre. I wish also the Mission Impossibles and other movie series would manage to modernize Cold War phenomena to the 21st century in an equally successful and stylish manner as Skyfall has managed to do with the world of Bond. Among the Bond movies, for example, it would be difficult to do that to The Living Daylights, which was one of the best and most meaningful of the old Bond films. The context of the that movie consisted of the defector cases of the Cold War and the Afghanistan War. Today it would be hard to adjust the understanding for the legitimate freedom struggle of the Afghans against Soviet imperialism to the politically correct conditions of our time, blurred into an Islamophonic and anti-American mess.

Feminists for sure are not going to like Skyfall. The female M makes inconsiderate decisions and gets emotional. In the parliamentary hearing a dilettantish young female minister barks and lectures at people wiser and listens only to her own voice. A beautiful young female agent understands that her place is not in the field with a gun but in a clean office, working as a secretary to an old-fashioned officer. In Skyfall the postmodernism of recent times seems to have finally turned into some kind of neoconservative post-postmodernism, where it is once again appreciated that men are men and women are women. It is once again recognized that heroes are supposed to have straight backbones and the villains instead are the bent and crooked self-victimizers, whose revenge for their traumas on innocent civilians is wrong and unjustified, and that's why they must be stopped. This follows Fleming's spirit much more loyally than about any of the films made in the same genre in the last twenty years.

At the side I could advertise that the pseudonym Gloomy Monologue has written an analytical review of Skyfall and the entire Bond genre in The Ulkopolitist, and it's a worthy read.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Russian Shadow

(Originally on 9 October, 2012.)

On Sunday, I met with Russian colleagues and also with a famous writer, who nowadays works for a large Western newspaper. I didn't know he, too, has ended up here in Afghanistan. Of course I mentioned I had read and greatly appreciated his best-known book, which is about certain events of 1979, the rise and fall of a messianic movement. A reader of good memory can deduce who it was, because I have in the past written about that very book in this blog.

While eating traditional Russian snacks and raising toasts, it came to my mind that the current young generation of Finns is the first one that generally speaking shares a neutral attitude at Russia, considering it like any big country. The generation of my great-grandparents hated the Russkies. The generation of my grandparents feared Russia, and the threat of an occupation was still present in their subconscious. The generation of my parents, in turn, tried to paint a rosy picture of Russia, creating a false reality known as Finlandization, which a part of that generation even believed.

My generation is a case on the fence, since we have some vague memories of our childhood when the Soviet Union still existed, but we mainly grew up with the Russia of the nineties. Therefore the past images of chaos, mafia and the wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus were imprinted in our young minds. On the other hand, those younger than me, who grew up in the 2000s, have never come to personally experience the fact that the Soviet Union once existed. For them it's a joke of some kind, in no way to be taken seriously. They neither hate nor idealize Russia; they feel neither fear nor humility at it. For them Russia, to the extend it exists for them, is little more than a neutrally perceived funny "other", and countries like Estonia and Georgia have no legitimate reason to be worried about it.

Speaking of Georgia, they had elections and the opposition party Georgian Dream, led by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, won. The blue flags of the Georgian Dream were flying all over Tbilisi when we visited Georgia late this summer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement, conceded their electoral defeat with no further complaint, and the new government has already been formed. This should make it clear that genuine democracy has taken root in Georgia and the country would be ready to join the Baltic countries and Moldova in the club of those former Soviet republics who graduated from the transition school of democracy, were it not that Russia continues to persecute Georgia and occupies two of its regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ukraine already visited the club for several years but after the defeat of the Orange coalition it fell back to authoritarianism, as the Russian-leaning oligarchs wrestled power back to the old regime, politruks and security services. One has to hope this doesn't happen in Georgia, but instead, Ivanishvili makes true of his promises by maintaining democracy, open society and Western integration. Saakashvili will probably continue as incumbent president till the end of his term, when it's time for the presidential elections to test the popular trust for each party again.

People have laughed a lot at Saakashvili's flamboyant style, as well as at his imaginative ideas such as distributing bottles of wine to tourists, erecting Hellenistic statues at city squares, and building police stations of glass to symbolically highlight transparency (and the battle against corruption). Despite laughter, it's a fact that Saakashvili remains in history as one of the relatively most important reformists in the region, who in less than a decade managed to eradicate low level corruption, to open up a society used to strongmen at genuine democracy, and to make Georgia an internationally attractive tourist destination.

It is understandable that like all democratic leaders, also Saakashvili had his time, after which it is wisest for him to step aside, also for the best of his own legacy. It is an essential part of pluralistic democracy that leaders change, while irreplaceable leaders are not a part of pluralistic democracy. Only when both people and leaders get used to the idea that leaders every now and then change in normal elections, democracy begins to be ripe. Even then it isn't guaranteed. It depends on both Ivanishvili and his allies and supporters whether his party can continue to protect Georgia's endangered democracy, or if Georgia will regress to the Ukrainian path. One thing is certain: Russia will not consent to leave Georgia alone; it will keep employing various ways to weaken the sovereignty of its small neighbour.

The Lone Rose

(Originally on 9 October, 2012.)

Autumn has reached Kabul. Nights are getting cold and deciduous trees are turning yellow and brown. The massive passage of Lesser Whitethroats seems to have come to the end as October began. Among them there passed also individual clear-sounded Phylloscopus warblers, presumably mainly Hume's Leaf-warblers. What remains now are probably the typical Kabul winter birds: Tree Sparrows, Palm Doves, Common Magpies, and - amazingly enough - parakeets.

While the morning sun is increasingly chilly, it feels somewhat unreal to hear Rose-ringed Parakeets scream in the crowns of robinia trees, where they gradually lose their camouflage, as the trees turn yellow but the parakeets shine emerald green. I've always known that the Rose-ringed Parakeet is a tough creature that endures coldness. After all, it inhabits the Himalayas up to significant altitudes, and it survives winters in Brussels, London, Innsbruck and Wiesbaden. It's no coincidence that it is exactly this species of parrot that has made several European cities its home once it went feral in them. Another parrot that endures winter is the originally South American Monk Parakeet, which is nowadays common at least in Chicago and Madrid. The Monk Parakeet, however, survives by gathering in large covered colonial nests, which they warm up with their crowds. Rose-ringed Parakeet, on the other hand, nests in tree holes in pairs.

In Afghanistan, Rose-ringed Parakeet is probably native, not feral. After all, the species is common all over India and Pakistan, and therefore Afghanistan constitutes the edge of its natural range. It will be interesting to observe whether they really stay here for all the winter, or if, at the advent of freezing temperatures and snow, they move somewhere south, like the Brahminy Starlings did as early as at the end of August. I've been told they had -20 Celsius here last winter, and the water pipes got frozen. Kabul is enough high on an upland plateau that winters here are the real thing. In Bamiyan, they already got snow in the mountains.

In spite of the colder evenings I saw again my tiny house gecko running about my kitchen on Sunday. I expect it to remove for hibernation at some point, because in winter the house needs to be warmed up by using stoves and fireplace. Houses here are not very well-built or in good shape. The bathroom has an open ventilation hole to the yard, so showers will be interesting when the temperature decreases below zero. Last week I prepared for the fall by purchasing blankets and hoarding high-energy and preservable grocery in the cupboards.

Yesterday I also procured equipment outside of the city, and I saw a large flock of Black Kites and Long-legged Buzzards at a site that probably contained a garbage dump or a carcass. Strangely enough there seem to be no ravens or crows in Kabul area, although in Bamiyan they were ubiquitous. In Kabul one sees mainly magpies, and even they aren't very common. My guess is the big and visible bird have been shot and eaten during the war years. The two kinds of hawks I mentioned are migratory so they have got back from more distant areas. Also trees were cut down during the war years for firewood, and now they've planted everywhere the fast-growing American invasive species, robinia. In many areas of the world it has become a pest like the eucalyptus. In Europe, robinia threatens to push the oak out.

The chawkidars of my house are overly watering the small garden there is - so much that it often resembles a swamp rather than a lawn. The constant waste of water for the washing of cars, concrete and street pavement (to bind dust) bothers me in a country suffering of chronic shortage of water. The favourite activity of the chawkidars has one benefit, though: the miniature gulistan, rose garden, of my home yard is still flourishing. Meanwhile, the lone rose growing at the yard of the office outside my window bars seems to languish.

It has become my goal to spur up my Persian studies by regularly writing a poem in Persian for that lonely rose that I watch through the bars every day. I've started from extreme simplicity and I hope by the passing of months and years, thought and expression grow in intensity.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

On the Mock Film Riots

(Originally on 24 September, 2012.)

As one can observe from the news, the demonstrations have lasted for a second week in Kabul against the anti-Islam mock film and the cartoons in a French magazine, or at least ostensibly against those issues. What the news have primarily left untold is that most of the demonstrations have been peaceful. Even though Afghanistan is simultaneously one of the most conservative and one of the most unstable country in the Islamic world, no embassy, consulate, Western company or fast-food restaurant has been torched here during these weeks.

The Taliban and other radical groups have of course made attacks which they would have done anyway. Almost every day there is a roadside bomb explosion or a shooting incident somewhere in Afghanistan. To stick to the trends of the moment the Taliban and their ideological kin of course now like to claim their attacks as revenges for the video that so insulted the Prophet and all Muslims.

Acts of violence by small extremist groups, which have been set to coincide with the demonstrations - even they representing a small minority of the Muslim populations but much more understandable - have again promoted the image to the world that Muslims are generally raging and rioting troublemakers. The matter has not been made better by the Egyptian television preacher and the Pakistani railways minister, who directly incited violence, even though the governments of their respective countries as well as basically all decent Muslim organizations and scholars, including Al-Azhar University, have condemned the use of violence as a response to the undeniably despicable video.

Many of the more informed observers have remarked that provocateurs on both sides have exploited the situation in full. The Islamophobes who created and spread the video had an obvious intention to demonize and provoke Muslims, generalizing and framing all Muslims as violent thugs. On the other hand, Islamist fanatics sought to incite their followers to believe that the video was part of a wide and intentional conspiracy, an anti-Muslim campaign where the US government and all the Americans (or all the Westerners) were involved. Both the extremes managed to foment exactly the kind of hatred and bigotry among their own audiences that they were after.

As if to highlight their hatemongering intentions, the makers of the video first posed as Jewish-Americans or Israelis, although it was later revealed that the video was created by a newly born Christian with Egyptian background with earlier convictions, a notorious preacher abusing religion, and an elderly American with experience from adult entertainment and several known pseudonyms in the Islamophobic internet scene. As if to incite hostilities between the confessional groups in Egypt, the maker of the video has also presented himself as a Copt, although it seems more likely he supports some American newborn Christian sect. The Coptic Church of Egypt has strongly condemned the anti-Islam video, while the best-known abode of Sunni Islamic scholarship, Al-Azhar University, has in turn strongly condemned the violence that took place in reaction to the video.

Antero Leitzinger, a Finnish researcher with wide expertise of the Islamic world, wrote the following about the riots in the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat:

One of the most sharp-sighted Islam experts of our country, Husein Muhammed (in Helsingin Sanomat, 22 Sept. 2012), critized academics for trying to understand and explain Islamist riots by citing collective distress experienced by the believers. In the reality, majority of Muslims do not care to rage about someone mocking Islam on another part of the world.

Islam is not a post-traumatic mass psychosis revenging the humiliations of the crusades or colonialism. There is also no one theme in the contemporary international politics that would unite all Muslims. Especially the Muslims of Bosnia, the Albanians of Kosovo, the Kurds of Iraq, and the Hazaras of Afghanistan do not disapprove the Western interventions against the genocides once threatening them.

There is however something in common between the recent riots and the cartoon crisis of the early 2006. Seven years ago, the Syrian regime was threatened by the international criminal investigation on the assassination of the prime minister of neighbouring Lebanon, in which case the clues had pointed at the Syrian Military Intelligence. The Syrian Minister of Interior Ghazi Kanaan, who had been interviewed as a witness, was said to have shot himself on 12 October 2005, after which the investigation got stalled. In January 2006, Syria's former Vice President Abdulhalim Khaddam accused the President for having his talkative Minister of Interior assassinated, and defected to form an exile government. Three weeks after, "enraged" demonstrators torched several embassies in Damascus, and many Westerners again decided to believe the regime that claimed it was necessary to control extremist groups in the Middle East.

In September 2012 the first attack targeted the US Ambassador in Libya, which had as the first country recognized the Syrian opposition as the legal representative of the country. Once again many Westerners believe that Muslims are primitives, immature for democracy, who without the firm grip of a dictatorship go out of control over any minor matter.

Islamists do not represent the majority of Muslims, and they do not act spontaneously. They serve the political interests of certain governments, and they gain the necessary resonance from the Islamophobes, for whom "Muslim rage" is the sought-for evidence for the inherently violent nature of Islam. Opposite extremists feed each other's propaganda, and critical journalism should rather investigate the possibility of an intentional provocation. One should not always seek for the first answers from selective Koranic shuras, or dwell in the problems of Palestine, since the reasons might be found much closer. It was evident in the Norwegian tragedy what kind of a fallacious world-view can result from impatient generalizations and from confessionalization of political conflicts, let alone the challenges of immigration.

The article by Husein Muhammed mentioned above can be found in Helsingin Sanomat, and Husein has also written criticism at the riots protesting the video in Uusi-Suomi. Let me add a quotation also from Husein:

Whatever reasons one sought for the riots, for the rioters themselves the issue is that the mock video should not have been let published. For example, outside Syria there haven't been organized riots to protest the fact that already tens of thousands of Muslims have died in the country. Instead, the rioters rage about a stupid piece of video uploaded to the web. A scholar cannot dismiss this by presenting "nobler" reasons for the riots.

Some Muslims seem to think that there will be an end to the mocking of their religion if they express themselves insulted enough. This is something they're very wrong about.

More materials mocking Prophet Muhammad will appear in the future for the very reason that people still take the trouble of getting so insulted for him. Jesus is nowadays left in peace because hardly anyone anymore cares to get insulted for him. Therefore, if we Muslims don't want our religion to be mocked, we had better not get so excited about stupid mockery at us.

In fact, the majority of Muslims don't really care about the gig. They are irritated and their relations with Westerners are significantly damaged by the raging of Muslim extremists. The least the Muslim majority needs is that cultural-relativist Western scholars defend Muslim extremists and present it as if there were noble reasons behind the latter's rage.

Fortunately Husein is not entirely right about Syria. Namely, there have been many demonstrations in Arab countries as well as in the Kurdish areas against the oppression and violence that the Syrian rogue regime has committed against its population. In Lebanon some of these riots turned violent.

In my opinion, one of the sharpest general analyses of the situation was found in the web journal Avaaz. They presented seven facts that help to set the mock video mess in its proper proportions:

1. Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.

2. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

3. Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film.

4. Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survey of news reports on 20 September suggested that actual protesters had killed a total of zero people. The deaths cited by media were largely protesters killed by police.

5. Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.

6. The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.

7. After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologising and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.

The anti-violence demonstrators in Benghazi and Tripoli also declared that thugs and killers are not allowed to represent either Islam or the Libyans, and that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was a friend of the Libyan people. Some days later the activists of the Libyan revolution also attacked the headquarters of the Salafi radical group Ansar ash-Shari'a, torched it and expelled the militants from Benghazi.

The world was shown images of Libyans carrying the dying Ambassador Stevens, and they were falsely claimed to depict the Ambassador in the hands of the terrorists who killed him. The Islamophobic movement also spread lies about the Ambassador having been raped. In the reality, the Libyans appearing in the images and on video actually saved Stevens from the burning building and tried to get him to a hospital, unfortunately too late. The Libyans who on the video say Allahu akbar say so because they realize the man is still alive. Yet the world was of course offered lies that they would have rejoiced his death.

The Avaaz article also offers many links to other good recent articles about the issue. Hisham Matar's article in the New Yorker deals with the mentioned death of Ambassador Stevens at the Benghazi Consulate. Sarah Kendzior's on-the-point article in Al-Jazeera discusses the problem of generalization and representativeness in reporting the mess. Kendzior summarizes the conflict as follows:

The Innocence of Muslims was made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American who hates Muslims. It was found on YouTube and put on Egyptian television by Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, a man trying to convince the world that Americans hate Muslims. This was a perfect storm of gross and deceitful parties depicting each other in the most vile terms, and then living up to each others' worst expectations.

Emotional issues such as the mock film scandal and the consequent murder of Ambassador Stevens are used as tools for political machinations for the very reason that they agitate emotions. In distant corners of the world such as Afghanistan and Finland, people get agitated by this and that case, forgetting that the Islamophobic movement that made and spread the video, and the radical Islamist movement that used the video as their warhorse, in fact share exactly the same goals: They want to drive the two largest religions of the world into a senseless hatred against each other. Into a "clash of civilizations" as Samuel Huntington named it in his otherwise rather fallacious theory.

These movements that intentionally seek to incite hatred are enemies of civilization. Civilization requires tolerance for difference, also for religious difference, and respect for other people, their history, cultures and faiths. There is no "clash of civilizations", just the clash of hateful extremist movements against the one and shared civilization of humanity.

Bamiyan and Koh-i Baba

(Originally on 14 September, 2012.)

I spent three days in the province of Bamiyan, located on the central highlands of Afghanistan; in Bamiyan town and in the valleys, villages and highlands of the Koh-i Baba mountains. It was very good to escape for some days the air of Kabul that is filled with pollution, security measures and restrictions on movement.

The Koh-i Baba, "Grandfather Mountains", constitute a part of the majestic Hindukush, and forms the most important watershed of Afghanistan. From here, rivers flow to different directions: west through Parwan and Wardak to Kabul, south downstream the Panjab and the Helmand, and north to Samangan and Balkh, to join the Amudarya. The highest peak of Koh-i Baba, named Shah-i Foladi, the "Iron Shah", reaches up to more than 5000 metres altitude, although already in Bamiyan town we are at over 2000 metres.

Bamiyan town is probably best known for the gigantic Buddha statues, which were carved into the steep rocky precipice that rises up at the edge of the town, and which the Taliban in their religious fervour shelled into rubble, considering them as harâm images of idols. For several thousands of years had the memorials to Bamiyan's ancient faith been standing at their site without any of the local population, who had long ago converted into Islam, wanting to destroy them. Then in two days the young and fanatic Taliban fighters, most of whom were Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan, demolished those cultural monuments. The empty niches where the Buddha images used to stand still remain, as do the cave temples, vaults and corridors carved into the same rocks. A religiously motivated Japanese organization is planning to reconstruct the statues from their pieces by using modern computer modelling.

The place where the Buddhas used to stand has obviously served as a remarkable religious centre at the time of the Silk Road. At Bamiyan, several Silk Road trade routes crossed, connecting the Indian south with the Turkestani north and the Chinese east with the Persian west. Once Bamiyan indeed was a centre of lucrative trade. Now it is a rather sleepy provincial capital, and the monuments of the long past Buddhist civilization lay dormant aside with Sufi and Shi'ite shrines and Muslim graves. They are surrounded by the green fields of the Bamiyan Valley, and beyond, arid and rocky mountains stand in guard for the valley.

Another sight in Bamiyan is the "City of Cries", Shahr-i Gholghola, a desolate hill filled with caves and ruins that stands alone at the outskirts of the town. The name of the ruined hill refers to the last moments of the Ghorid dynasty that once ruled Bamiyan. Genghis Khan had invaded Afghanistan with his Mongol hordes, and conquered the area, as the Bamiyanis made the heavily fortified hill their last stand. The Ghorid King Jalaluddin's own daughter, however, betrayed the defenders of the fortress in hope of a good marriage, and the Mongols took over the hill, slaying all men and boys. Even the treacherous princess wasn't saved; the khan put her to the sword.

The Mongols left their genetic mark in the local population, thereby giving birth to the contemporary Hazara people. The Hazaras differ from the rest of the Afghans by their Mongol appearances, in addition to the fact that the Hazaras are nowadays Shi'a, whereas most of the Afghans belong to the Sunni majority of Islam. Even though the Finnish explorer Ramstedt still managed to find Mongol speakers in Afghanistan, today the Mongol language no longer persists. Modern Hazaras speak Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, although they have an even stronger localized accent than the Tajiks of Kabul and northeastern Afghanistan.

Most of my time in Bamiyan and the Koh-i Baba, I travelled in a group consisting of three Irish naturalists (an environmental expert, a botanist and an ornithologist), one American from Maine, one half-Briton half-Persian, one Tajik and a few local Hazaras. The autumn passage of many insectivore passerines was in full speed: there were particularly many Tree Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Eastern Stonechats, Pied Bushchats, Lesser Whitethroats, Booted Warblers and Long-tailed Shrikes. We could also see quite many Red-headed Buntings and Bluethroats. Upon the mountains we could see many interesting local species, such as Grey-necked Buntings, Persian Wheatears, the red-bellied subspecies of Black Redstart, and Red-billed Choughs. In our first day we were also crossed by some two thousand Eurasian Cranes, apparently on their way from Siberia towards their wintering grounds in Pakistan and India.

Since we spent a lot of time in the villages and on the mountains of the Koh-i Baba, we were not bothered by the moderate unrest that took over Bamiyan town in one of the days, as local people got enraged at the governor and the political elite for two murder cases that upset the community. In one of the cases there were rumours linking it to a local Hazara warlord and the governor, who also happens to be the only female governor in Afghanistan. The daughter of one of the warlord's bodyguards had been raped and shot to her back with an AK-47, yet she was claimed to have committed suicide. Meanwhile in the poorer outskirts of the town where a man had had his throat slit for revenge. None of us knew the details of these two cases or whether they were in fact connected, but a lot of people were upset and demonstrated. By the time we returned from the mountains everything seemed calm again.

In addition, the Taliban had been at large along the road linking Bamiyan to Kabul, and they had ambushed and murdered a group of students traveling the route by minibus. Meanwhile, in the restless Ghorband Valley local bandits had robbed and killed Afghan travellers. Such incidents, however, were not to be seen in the peaceful villages we visited in the mountains. Quite the contrary, the locals everywhere were most hospitable and friendly towards us, we were often obliged to dine or drink tea with them.

The Bamiyan bazaar was rather well equipped and one can also have excellent Afghan meals in its chaykhânas. Yet alcohol of course is not available - all the beer in the shops was non-alcoholic. The market had some very sweet and soft Iranian dates, and the famous melons brought from the southern provinces.

Kabul is today sunny and warm. Trees and bushes are full of Lesser Whitethroats on their passage. People are all worried about whether today's Friday sermons are going to foment rage due to the anti-Islam film that seems to have upset the world. It already led to violent attacks against American consulates in Cairo and Benghazi, and at the latter place four American diplomats and some Libyan employees were killed. Lately the Libyans have been demonstrating against the arson, killings and terrorism, especially as the murdered US ambassador was known as a keen friend of the Libyan revolution.

Martyr's Day Bloodshed

(Originally on 8 September, 2012.)

I went to the hills of Shakardara county in the northern parts of Kabul province. There in front of one's eyes opens a scenery to the Shomali Valley, which connects Kabul north to the provinces of Parwan and Panjshir. This was once the frontline of the Soviet occupiers and the Afghan communist regime against the mujahids resisting the occupation, and later the same area became the frontline of the mujahids against the Taliban movement that had captured Kabul.

Upon the hills I saw two Shikras, two Kestrels and down in the gardens a flock of Woodpigeon. The last surprised me with their presence, until I recalled how the Woodpigeons in winters suddenly flocked to the groves surrounding the Rawal Lake in Islamabad.

Afghanistan has today had a memorial day for the anniversary of the martyr Ahmad Shah Masoud. Al-Qa'ida assassinated Masoud on September 9, 2001, as an advance payment to the Taliban for that when al-Qa'ida two days later, on September 11, 2001, attacked the United States, the Taliban would be expected to protect al-Qa'ida. This proved a virtual kiss of death for the Taliban. For years the world powers had remained indifferent at the Taliban raging and massacring in Afghanistan. The destruction of the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan actually caused more anger in the outside world than the massacres of thousands of Hazara people. Now, however, al-Qa'ida managed to provoke the American-led coalition to return to Afghanistan, which had been abandoned in 1989. This in turn led to a crucial change in the balance of power, and the Taliban's might collapsed. Masoud himself didn't live to liberate Kabul for a second time, but his mujahids did it.

To commemorate the anniversary of Masoud's martyrdom, his supporters and the Tajik population in general have been driving around the city, sporting Masoud's pictures, black flags of grief, and flying the green-white-black flags of the Rabbani republic. The Pathans in the opponent camp have not liked this at all, and there were even some minor clashes. The official Afghanistan nowadays uses the black-red-green flag that was in use in the Pathan-led kingdom.

While I was out on the hills of Shakardara, there was a tragic terrorist attack in Kabul. It once again made the foreign media get excited and remember Afghanistan exists. Although there's a bombing or a shootout somewhere in the country every day, this bomb blast made headlines because it happened in an area favoured by foreigners, in a street quite close to a couple of embassies and a gate of one of the compounds of international troops. It was also speculated that the target might have been a nearby Afghan film company.

Anyway, the bomb exploded in the street without any obvious target in the immediate vicinity. Most of the victims were Afghan kids. Apparently those same boys who sell cloths and other items and usually flock in that section of the street. Also the bomber was first claimed to have been a fourteen-year-old boy [but later seemed to be an adult male instead]. It is not yet known whether he did a so-called suicide bombing or whether he was ignorant of what he was carrying. Some time after the attack a couple of women wearing burqa were seen in the street, shouting anti-American slogans.

Three radical groups top the list of suspects: the Taliban, the Haqqani Group, and Hizb-i Islami. It was said that someone from the Taliban already claimed responsibility. However, the Taliban has usually concentrated in the provinces, while most of the attacks in Kabul city have been connected with either the Haqqani Group (recently) or the Hizb-i Islami (earlier). It is sad indeed that these days some radical groups consider it justified to fight "American imperialism" and whatever by brutally murdering innocent Muslim kids.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Rain and Spider Bite

(Originally on 7 September, 2012.)

It's been raining today. The arid nature of Afghanistan probably rejoices. It can be observed also from the chawkidars, whom the rain has made loud and talkative since the small hours of the night. They also played Persian or Dari pop. Dari is one of Afghanistan's two main languages, and actually it's the Afghan version of Persian. I've started studying it. The chawkidars also gave their wet bread to the Tree Sparrows, who are now filling their little stomachs.

To be within a yard surrounded by high walls when the rain drums various surfaces and the locals chat endlessly brings Ethiopia to my mind. In other ways too, Afghanistan and Ethiopia share a lot in common, more than for example Afghanistan and Syria share in common. Both Ethiopia and Afghanistan belong to the poorest countries in the world. Both Afghans and Ethiopians are culturally conservative and extremely proud. Conflicts with neighbouring countries as well as persistent ethnic tensions within their countries are commonplace in both. Both countries are ruled by elites that seem quite unmoved by the anxiety and poverty of their citizens. They prefer filling their own pockets from the foreign helpers and send their kids to fine foreign schools while most of the populations remain illiterate.

Something bit me yesterday. On the side of my palm, two symmetric holes appeared quite next to each other, the hand swelled, turned burning hot and the holes turned brown. I never saw what bit me - there are so many mosquitoes here - but judging from the holes I assume it was a spider. Luckily it doesn't appear to have been a hobo spider or a black widow, because by the time the medical kit had been found, the swelling had gone down. At least the poison wasn't very strong stuff.

Over the last weeks Kabul has witnessed some more passage of hirundines, mostly Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, as well as Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters in a couple of days. I have also seen a couple of Hume's Whitethroats, in addition to the more common passage migrant Lesser Whitethroat. The local birds like Palm Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, House Myna and Common Magpie occur on a daily basis. The magpies are of the same species as in Europe, while the parakeets and mynas represent a bit more exotic birdlife - yet probably at the edges of their actual natural range.

Death of an Ornithologist

(Originally on 3 September, 2012.)

Today the mailman brought me a publication of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. After I had read a great article on the avifauna of the Syrian Euphrates, a report from the Meyghan wetlands in Iran, about the breeding of Turtle Doves in Bahrain, and about a family of Great Bustard in Kars province of eastern Turkey, I was met with a sad piece of news in the section of News & Information.

The news reported quite plainly that a certain Syrian ornithologist had been killed in his hometown of Dara'a. He had contributed greatly to the research of the Yarmuk Valley and the deserts of Hawran, been a valuable advisor and local guide for many foreign naturalists and environmentalists, and participated as a valued member of the Global Owl Project, contributing greatly to the knowledge of the distribution and breeding biology of various owls in the region.

I knew this man; not as a very close friend but as a good and dedicated colleague and important correspondent in a part of Syria that few naturalists visited or influenced. I had been his guest, and many times I had discussed with him about the nature, maps and geography of southwestern and southern Syria. It was with him that I visited the Yarmuk Gorge and witnessed an unforgettable visual scene when he showed us a large colony of European Bee-eaters with a pair of European Rollers breeding in the middle of it. (For those who cannot visualize it, the bee-eaters and rollers are surely among the most colourful birds around.)

Dara'a is located in the southern boundaries of Syria, near the Jordanian border and in a terrain surrounded by deserts, conservative country where tribes still constitute an important part of the social context. In a way the Syrian uprising started from Dara'a, as it was there that the mukhabarat (secret police) arrested the thirteen-year-old boy Hamza for painting anti-regime graffiti, and tortured him to death along with several of his friends. The brutal murdering of children finally sparked the long-smoldered rage of the people into full flames, which first consumed the Dara'a station of the mukhabarat. The Syrian government responded to the demonstrations of the people of Dara'a by sending in the tanks and shelling the town into rubble. The results were for the world to see, as in a couple of weeks the entire Syria was ablaze.

As one of the key strongholds of opposition support, with also links and smuggling routes to Jordan, Dara'a became target of the regime's cruel violence and cleansing. I don't yet know the details of the circumstances in which the Ornithologist was killed. I don't know if his murderers were the secret police, the pro-regime shabiha, or if was victim of artillery shelling, bombardment or a sniper. I will know in due time. [I learned soon after that the talk in the street was he was shot in his home.]

I feel bad I hadn't been in contact with this man for a long time, although I knew he was still in Dara'a. I have consciously avoided direct contacts with those friends and contacts who are in troubled places within Syria, for their own safety, because all the communications are monitored and those in contact with foreigners are attacked by the regime unless they help to spread the regime's propaganda. I get my share of information from within Syria on a daily basis by some activist friends, who are taking the risks anyway, and who are tech-savvy enough and know the tricks.

The murdered Ornithologist was no trickster of that kind. He was an old-fashioned gentleman, probably the most academic person of his home village. By profession he was a teacher. When in the village I asked him what people there did mostly for living, he told me: "Well, people farm a little for their own use, but mostly the village earns its living by each family sending someone to work in Saudi Arabia or the Emirates." The Ornithologist had himself previously lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, and with that hard-earned money, he had built a house and a decently comfortable life for his family. Yet he never moved away from his home village, as he wanted to be close to the arid and rocky nature he loved.

The Ornithologist was in his late middle age. He had a veiled wife and children. He was a Sunni Muslim and as he lived in the countryside, he was more conservative by his behaviour and habits than most of the educated urban city-dwellers with whom I spent most of my time in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. He had a wide variety of literature on natural sciences in his home, and he was a learned man, but he still enjoyed it most out in the abode of the Bedouins and Pharaoh Eagle-owls.

Thinking about it in retrospect, I'm not amazed that the Ornithologist was murdered. He was a man of integrity and of incorruptible values. I recall once I wondered what were the ostentatious newly rich palaces erected in the middle of nowhere near the Jordanian border. He frowned and explained that they belonged to the commanders of the border troops, customs and intelligence, who controlled smuggling and organized crime at the borders.

The "One Man Association" of Dara'a was a tireless mapper of the remote frontiers. He spent nights and days in the desolate black basalt desert with his camera, which immortalized so much of the disappearing nature of the desert for the future generations. If you ever read or hear about studies concerning the occurrence and breeding of owls and nightjars in the Dara'a province, you know that with a great probability the information came from him, or alternatively from researchers who relied on him to find the right places. At least science will treasure his memory.

Full Moon Gecko

(Originally on 31 August, 2012.)

Another two weeks I've spent in Kabul, and my first month here is coming to its end. So far I haven't been able to leave the capital for the field. There are days when my internet connection doesn't work at all, and days when it works somewhat. I've made a habit of taking a book with me whenever I go for the internet, because opening a site sometimes takes five minutes or so. Right now the book is the History of Afghanistan (in Finnish), written by the historian Andrei Sergejeff, based in Hämeenlinna but descending from a nineteenth-century Russian merchant family from Viborg. As the sites take their time opening, I have time to sip black coffee and take deep breaths before clicking the next error pop-up.

Last night was full moon. I know have some cane chairs at my terrace, where I can admire the view at the concrete wall surrounding my house, the few roses in my tiny garden, and the trees behind the wall, where Rose-ringed Parakeets, Palm Doves and House Mynas gather to roost at sunset. Sometimes I can see the passage of swallows in the sky: Barn Swallows, Red-rumped Swallows, Crag Martins and House Martins. Until late night I had some interesting discussions on the state of environment in Afghanistan with my guests, who do field work in Bamiyan province.

My life goes on in a slow pace. One of the greatest disadvantages I've noticed is my constantly increasing absent-mindedness. I don't know if it's resulted by the climate, the dust in the air or what, but each smallest action demands constant remembering of so many things and keeping them in mind. For example going to a shop is an operation which needs to be prepared in advance, as is also the transportation of grocery promptly enough to a place with fridge. The subconscious has to work all the time on various small details to control them: Is there enough water in the storage? Are the current regulators working? Did I leave the boiler on? When was he or she supposed to come for a visit?

I have purchased furniture. Now I'm the proud owner of some beautiful wooden chairs and tables, a sofa, a couple of armchairs, and of course an Oriental travel chest with many secret hides. I have also bought an extra bed for the guestroom, so my friends could come for a visit from Finland, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, America and wherever. Most of the furniture seem to be made in Pakistan and they're quite ornate. I hope some of the most valuable remaining forests of the Himalayas have not been destroyed for them.

Going to the furniture bazaar was by the way a most interesting exercise of hours of negotiations and bargaining. When the furniture sellers delivered the pieces here with a small lorry, they accidentally forgot about six small tablets belonging to the salon table set, as well as the fact that my recipe actually stated transport was included in the price. But when two of my men went back to the bazaar to present the recipes to the seller's father, the missing pieces were quickly found and they also recalled transport was included. Here one needs to remind people of things, apparently because the air or the tea makes everyone absent-minded.

Afghans don't say things directly, because that's considered impolite. It is considered more polite that things just get forgotten, and the message has to be derived from hints. As giving a negative answer is considered impolite the Afghan says, for instance, that it will be taken care of inshallah, but with his gestures and hints he makes it understood that it won't be taken care of. This is not considered a lie, but a respecting way of expressing the sad fact that there is no intention to take care of the issue. If one said it straight-on, that could be considered insulting, as the one who would receive such straight-on message might lose his face.

Today I saw the first gecko in my apartment. It was hardly the size of a cockroach, but I wish it all the best hunting luck in harvesting the populations of mosquitoes and ants that are all too ubiquitous. The mosquitoes have appeared disturbing enough that I got devices to repel them, now scattered in the rooms. The mosquitoes are orange brown in colour, they don't make a sound, and they're so quick it's hard to kill them.

We live stormy times in Afghan politics, as the president and everyone else want to position themselves optimally ahead of the anticipated removal of the Western powers. Two ministers have been fired, a third one has been plunged into a corruption scandal, and also the head of intelligence and the attorney general have been changed. On the opposite side the Taliban of course has no intention to put down their guns since the Westerners are rushing out of the country. So the organization accelerates its murderous attacks, mostly targeting ordinary Afghans. The last case was the murder of seventeen participants of a party, who had listened to music and danced with women in Helmand.

To the extent I can, I of course also follow what happens in Syria. The world just don't seem to get it. People bullshit about things such as Syria's WMDs and the presence of Islamists, although these very same issues are among the reasons that should encourage us to help the Syrian opposition to as quickly as possible overthrow the rogue regime that is massacring Syrian people every passing day.

Kabul Diaries

(Originally on 13 August, 2012.)

When he learned that I was about to move to Afghanistan, my professor suggested that I should keep writing Kabul Diaries, telling some of what I can tell. About life in a country that is one of the world's poorest (on a level where its company is shared mainly just by countries of Black Africa), one among if not the most conservative Muslim country in the world, and perhaps also one of the world's most feared places, at least if one believes in news reports. Of course one shouldn't always believe. Yet it must be confessed that Kabul is not quite your average idyllic holiday destination.

There was an air of some nostalgia about my return to this place. It is namely here where my international career in a way started, ten years ago in 2002, when the seven years of Taliban tyranny in Afghanistan came to an end, and enter the latest of the many consequent phases of wars and power struggles in the history of this South and Central Asian nation.

Back then I was a student boy filled with enthusiasm and curious like a Mars rover, my wallet empty but compensated with lots of creativity in finding the cheapest ways of transport and accommodation. My hometown back then was the neighbour's capital Islamabad. There I lived in the attic of a civil society activist, sharing my studio with rats and cockroaches, with the flying foxes hanging in the tree behind my only window. Islamabad was a pleasant place for a naturalist, surrounded by lush gardens, the green Margalla Hills, and the wetlands of the Rawal Lake. But for a restless soul Pakistan soon appeared too calm, and therefore I couldn't resist the call of my first mission in Afghanistan.

I still vividly recall the first time when my plane descended into the valley where, surrounded by mountains, Kabul is located. One runway had been cleared for civilian airplanes, but scattered all around it you could see the remains of blown-up airplanes. Parts of the airport were still mined.

In many other ways, too, Kabul has changed from what it was ten years ago. Back then, only one road was paved with asphalt - the one that leads from Kabul eleven kilometres to Pul-i Charkhi, where the camps of the international troops were located. Back then, most of Kabul's buildings were damaged or ruined. The half-empty, echoing and Soviet-styled Intercontinental accommodated most of the foreigners, but as a poor guy I preferred to stay in the central Hotel Mustafa near Chicken Street. Seeing the Chicken Street last week gave me an eerie feeling of familiarity with my past life.

Otherwise it's hard to recognize Kabul as the same city it used to be. Streets are asphalted. The city centre is full of modern commercial buildings, shops and markets. There are illuminated advertisements in the roundabouts and there are traffic jams all over, because return migration has made Kabul a metropolis of five million inhabitants. Unfortunately that can also be felt in the city's pollution level, which together with the dust storms blowing from the highlands makes my eyes tired and nose sniffy.

The rhythm of life in my current job is quite different from ten years ago. Even though back then Afghanistan was in ruins and much less stable than now, I used to walk around in the city, take local taxis and minibuses. My interpreter was a college student who had recently returned from a refugee school in Pakistan, but he spoke better English than hardly any of the adult population of Afghanistan.

Now it's a city filled with various international organizations, UN agencies, peacekeepers, embassies, missions, aid organizations, NGOs, entrepreneurs, security companies and delegations. They're all moving around in armoured vehicles with armed musclemen, distributing money left and right, but keeping isolated from the Afghans and their society and secluded in their own compounds, closed streets, guarded quarters and expat scenes, where Westerners gossip with other Westerners. Everything has become so much heavier, so much more expensive, and so much more difficult. Security hysteria dominates all actions on an outright absurd level.

Thus, for at least the two first weeks here, I've had to forget about strolls in Babur's Gardens and views from Balahisar. Instead, I've battled for days to make electronics work, and used my creative talents to arrange things so that now the internet works so-and-so (as you can see from this blog), and at evenings I can watch Indian and Arab satellite channels showing American movies and soap operas and Japanese cartoons, like any television stations anywhere in the world.

So far I have to forget also about my ornithological hobby, until I find ways to go out to the countryside without causing anyone a heart attack. At least there's a small yard behind the window of my tiny office room, and there I can see Tree Sparrows, Palm Doves, Common Mynas and Brahminy Starlings. When the dusk falls and the chawkidars of the street get ready for their iftar, the Common Mynas and Rose-ringed Parakeets, which are common in the city, fly screaming to their roosts. The city gardens are in fact among the few remaining gatherings of trees remaining in this part of Afghanistan. Some mountain forests may still persist in Kunar and Nuristan, but the central highlands are desolately bare and overgrazed.

Next weekend there's the Eid al-Fitr, the feast ending the Ramadan. The leader of the Taliban Mulla Omar has at least announced that attacks to Afghan civilian targets are then considered haram and against Islam. Unfortunately another extremist group, the Haqqani network, seems to have promised paradise for those who strike against foreigners during the Eid. On a daily basis somewhere in Afghanistan a roadside bomb goes off or a shooting rampage takes place, the number of casualties has actually gone down with fifteen percent compared with last year. It's evident the extremist groups have shifted from guerrilla tactics to targeted attacks.