LoyarBurok proudly unveils a new series – Extravagant Egalitarian – by Azwa Petra.
The “Extravagant Egalitarian” series will feature Azwa’s jaunts and jottings, with a take on human rights and putting it all in context with the social development of Malaysia.
Azwa Petra was (recently) described in a Star article as being, “[At] 38 and still single, … already far beyond the average age at which Malaysians are expected to get married.” When not deluding herself that her day job will win her the Nobel Peace Prize, Azwa is continually planning her next travel escapade and spending money taking photography lessons which she forgets the next day. She loves dancing salsa and samba de gafieira, and her latest passion is trapeze flying.
In this first instalment, Azwa writes from during her stint in Afghanistan – a landlocked country that has known only instability and insecurity for the most part of the last century – as she meets first hand the people who endured and continues to endure the ongoing conflict and its repercussions that is contrasted by Afghanistan’s majestic natural landscape, obscured to most by the country’s turmoil.
From the time I was 7 years old until now, Afghanistan has known only conflict. That still gets to me. To think that at a time when my life must have simply revolved around going to school and playing ting-ting, belon acah, and chop tiang with my friends – kids of the same age then in Afghanistan were experiencing what we know now to be the beginning of the “modern” conflict spanning three decades. To realise that there could be three generations of Afghans who never left the country, had never experienced lasting peace always leaves me humbled but also grateful for being born a Malaysian.
When I first started working with my current employer organisation, I lucked out with the opportunity to work on this amazing and complex country, and even go on assignments there. Eventually, like many others enchanted by her many sides and compelling stories, I left the safety and security of a developed city (Geneva in this instance) to work in Kabul. Having lived there for almost two years, my attachment to the country only grew despite the frustrations and sense of helplessness which one cannot avoid having whilst there.
There are too many things to be regretful about with the current situation in Afghanistan – lost lives, wasted (aid) money, entrenched corruption – but let me just focus at this juncture on a somewhat arguably more frivolous topic, the many amazing landscapes of Afghanistan which few from outside of the country have been privileged to view.
From the Hindu Kush mountains which run northeast to southwest across the country to their convergence with the Karakoram and Pamir in the Afghan Pamir, known as Bam-e Dunya or Roof of the World, to the Central region’s unending procession of rocky mountaintops, deep gorges and verdant river valleys, to the arid desert mountains in the South, this country’s landscapes are truly wondrous. (Thanks Lonely Planet and Wikipedia for the descriptive bits.)
The world may know Bamyan as home to the destroyed tallest Buddha statues, but it is also home to the breath-taking Band-e Amir lakes which I have been fortunate enough to see and experience in person. According to Lonely Planet online, “[T]he glittering lakes of Band-e Amir must rank as Afghanistan’s most astounding natural sight, hidden in the Koh-e Baba at an altitude of 2900m. A series of six linked lakes, their deep blue waters sparkle like otherworldly jewels against the dusty mountains that surround them.” These lakes are truly, truly awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping; they are so gorgeous it is hard for anyone not to take a good picture of them (though I would like to think I am an above average photographer). My colleagues and I actually had a picnic there at a spot which had required us to trek along a route precarious enough for me to feel like Frodo with the One Ring walking towards Mount Doom! (See photos below)
Bamyan is also the capital of Bamyan province in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan. The Central Highlands has the highest population of the country’s religious and ethnic minority group, the Shia Hazara. (Note that there are Sunni Hazaras too but the Hazaras are mostly Shia). Interestingly enough, Bamyan province also boasts the first female provincial governor. Seeing her in action, opening a workshop I was helping with, one would never have thought that no other Afghan female could imagine occupying a similar position in the other provinces of Afghanistan.
To achieve this in a country particularly known for gender inequality, it is not a surprise to learn that the Hazaras put equal importance for their girls to be educated alongside their boys. (Incidentally, the same governor was the second Minister of Women’s Affairs while the first Minister of Women’s Affair, also former deputy president during the Afghan interim government, is also a Hazara.)
In a recent New York Times article, it found that schools in the Central Highlands region have the highest passing rates for the top local universities admissions exams as well as highlighted that the (positive) progress of Hazara women is especially stark compared with Pashtun provinces and in a country that has one of the world’s lowest female literacy rates.
Yet the Shia Hazara are said to be the most oppressed ethnicity in Afghanistan. The Kite Runner, one of the most popular contemporary novels within the Afghan context, is one of the easiest reads for an introduction to the historical discrimination against the Shia Hazara by the Sunni Pashtun. Reported mass graves related to massacres by the Taliban against the Hazaras, whom the former considered as infidels, are still to be fully investigated. And one century earlier, it is said that the Hazaras were also declared to be infidels during the Amir’s campaign to quell their uprising against him – a campaign claimed to have cost the lives of more than half the Hazara population then.
When I was working there, the impression I got was that ethnic-based discrimination while a reality is one of those issues that are not really discussed openly. An Afghan Hazara friend concurred with this view and went on to state that ethnic-based politics nonetheless is at the heart of everything. (The same friend tells me that Band-e Amir is made up of seven lakes rather than six.)
As a Malaysian Muslim, getting to know the Shia Hazaras is an experience in itself. It must be recalled that the Muslim population in Malaysia is predominantly Sunni. The Shia Hazaras perform prayers, observe Ramadan, et cetera, and undoubtedly consider themselves as Muslims; yet I know back home in Malaysia, some of us do not even consider them to be such. In fact I understand that there is even a fatwa outlawing Shia Islam.
I will be the first to admit that I am not a “good Muslim” and it will be far for me to suggest that that the Shias are not Muslims especially having met some of them and seeing how they are much more pious than me. I still remember the reaction of one Malaysian Muslim friend when I tried suggesting that Shias are fellow Muslims, “Oh no, …no, no, …no, no. They’re wrong!” That I made the suggestion must have surely shocked my friend, too.
Anyway, my own take is, religion or faith is a personal issue – one between you and God. Frankly, I think we should try and do away with any need to pronounce ourselves to be the better Muslims/Christians/Buddhists/Hindus or profess adherence to the more “correct” or one true religion. I think what is more important is for us to treat one another with mutual respect as fellow human beings entitled to equal rights – irrespective of race or religion. Rather than mere tolerance, we should instead approach our differences with understanding and possibly, possibly, even acceptance. That is better, no?
LB: The views expressed here are solely of the author’s in her personal capacity and not necessarily those of her employer organisation.
Related Internet Links:
Hazaras: Afghanistan’s Outsiders – National Geographic
Afghan feminists fighting from under the burqa – The Guardian
Khaled Hosseini dicusses The Kite Runner – BBC World Book Club