The beginning of this story, for me, was in the spring of 1969. I had applied for funding to do a cutting edge project combining methods and techniques of visual anthropology that I had learned from John Collier, Jr, my own version of cognitive anthropology arising out of the works of Edward Sapir and the Berkeley School of anthropological-linguistic ethnographers, Alan Dundee’s approach to the collection and analysis of folk tales, and Noam Chomsky’s conceptual framework based upon the notion of a shared deep syntactic structure of the human mind and generative grammars of diverse languages and cultures. I wanted to demonstrate the relation, in a given culture and language, between syntactic structuring of meaning elements in sentences and the syntactic structuring of longer narrative constructs such as traditional oral histories and tales or “myths”, not only in speech, but in producing cooperative film narratives, and explaining their reasons for cutting, splicing and sequencing of selected meaning-segments, “events” – of visual narratives on film. My interest was to understand how they ‘make sense’ of it.
At that juncture of time, things impinging on my life path included my personal career ambition which dominated my focus, and a crisis within anthropology that seemed rather distant from Bloomington, in the rolling hardwood forested hills and hollers of southern Indiana. People such as Gerald Berreman and Kathleen Gough Aberle were bringing up the issue of professional ethics and morality in anthropological research, revealing the use of researchers, their native consultants and their written products for military intelligence in warfare and the planning of warfare and economic dominance. And Eric Wolf was warning us:
Empires and conquests sweep over the land, … but in the dusty streets of the little villages, a humble kind of life persists, and rises again to the surface when the fury of conquest is stilled, …. Yet, until today, the community of cultivators has retained its capacity to turn in upon itself and to maintain its integrity in the face of doubt and disaster – until today, and perhaps not much longer. Because the modern world is engaged in severing once and for all the ties which bind people into local unity, in committing them to complete participation in The Great Society. This is a one-way street from which there is no return. (Wolf, Eric, 1959, p. 68)
Then, in an instant, this dissent was not so distant: I learned that all research funding for my area of interest, the Himalayas, had been suspended. Berreman had opened the lid on the CIA funding for anthropological research projects along the Chinese and Tibetan borders. A scandal was sweeping across US anthropology; they had been selling out those “native informants” who had helped them.
I didn’t know what I was going to do. All dressed up with a great proposal for my doctoral field research project, and no place to go.
At that juncture, I was urged by the Indiana University Anthropology Department to attend a Visiting Professor’s talk on Afghanistan at a small room in the Commons building; fancy old velvet and hardwood décor, and seats for about fifty people; intimate. The speaker was Professor Louis Dupree, a member of the American Universities’ Field Service Staff in South Asia, affiliated with Penn State Univeristy, associated with the American Museum of Natural History, specifically a long-term resident researcher in Afghanistan.
After the lecture Dupree revealed that he was looking for doctoral candidates who might be interested in doing field work in Afghanistan. He made it clear that there were abundant funds and that almost any reasonable proposal would likely be funded. The funds were coming through the Midwestern Universities Consortium in International Affairs (MUCIA), of which Indiana University (IU) was also a member. I never thought ….
– but now I do!
I suspect that this was one of that era’s Super PACs infiltrating both public and private universities, both in the US and the rest of NATO, which had begun before WWII with the ramping-up of RAND, IBM, and others jockeying for position in the insurgent Shadow Government that President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex.
Looking back with the bionic lenses that I developed during my Fort Irwin and Leavenworth experiences, I wonder who knew what at IU’s Anthropology Department and Administration, and when they knew it.
I wonder if the reason that my adviser, Carl Voegelin–a Berkeley PhD, a peer of Sapir, a bit ahead of Berreman, the founder of the IU Anthropology Department–got moved into the basement of the old ivy-covered, two-story stone building called Rawles Hall when the new faculty took over in the mid-sixties, was that there had been a coup in the department.
… yes, now I wonder if the reason was that this was already part of an academic insurgency that was funded and guided by the US/NATO military’s interests and their “Operatives” among the new faculty taking command of the Anthropology Department and within the IU Administration; just as we saw in 2009, so nakedly displayed at University of Nebraska’s Afghan Studies Center in Omaha?
Berreman’s revelations seem to say yes, of course, it was already far advanced, but just becoming slightly more visible.
And, I wonder and speculate wildly – regarding the faculty’s young guard, who had unseated Voegelin and his age-grade colleagues, putting the anthropology program more in line to take advantage of new Department of Defense-originated funding opportunities. I wonder if they knew of the strings attached to the funding they had secured to keep the department staffed, and the staff with certain obligations to that funding source, I don’t need to ask “Why didn’t they tell the graduate students about this, at least candidly?” I still wonder why Bloomington was chosen for the establishment of an important Tibetan Studies program, with the older brother of the Dalai Lama on the faculty. But then, the Beautiful Mind effect takes over and you find patterns everywhere; you wonder about the strategic value of having the Kinsey Sex Institute in Goodbody Hall on the IU campus in the town of Bloomington. Are there COIN patterns of counterinsurgency in this inkblot?
Memories from that period come flooding back; the Rap Brown Act–a patch in the systematic legal crazy-quilt in which We The People are now swaddled and stitched into: I was standing in one of the stone stairwells in the Administration Building, just starting up the stairs, when I was stopped by hearing an echoing voice in the same stairwell, a floor above, “ … and John Allison, and …” and several other names being read from a list provided by someone, someplace who knew that I had been mildly active in the anti-war movement in San Francisco; against the war against Vietnam.
I had crossed state lines, and was now part of the anti-war movement in Bloomington. The Rap Brown Act made it illegal to cross state lines to organize folks; unless you are a multi-national corporation. I had crossed state lines to attend the IU Ph.D. program in Anthropology and in Folklore, but I also connected with the anti-war organization on campus. The list placed in the IU administration’s hands the names of several such enemy combatants living right among the unknowing students of this quiet, quaint university town in the woods of Southern Indiana. These people were to be watched carefully and any organizations they belonged to needed to be monitored. It made me feel more important that I was. As though I had actually done something that I had not. It seemed to be a Great Game that I only saw vaguely as blurred background.
Only relatively recently did I learn of COINTELPRO; but, back then there were only some vague messages “on the grapevine” that the US Government was rehabilitating old Japanese concentration camps, and building others around the nation to respond to any increase in the mass protests that were growing in all big cities and in universities.
Had I known of COINTELPRO then, and if I’d known that my act was being recorded via a video camera mounted in the corner of the ceiling when I edged through the gathering of interested men students to the corner of the information table, removed the cork from the test tube hidden inside the paper cup, setting the Coke© cup on the piece of the table cloth that lay doubled on the floor and surreptitiously tipping it over with my foot, pouring the butyric acid (the synthetic chemical essence of the smell of vomit) on the corner of the Marine Corps’ ornate, fancy, felt table mantel at their recruiting table in the dim stonewalled basement of the IU Commons; if I’d known of the surveillance maybe I’d have flashed the camera half a peace-sign with the appropriate finger as I sauntered casually away, thinking I was inconspicuous; or maybe I would have thought twice about my capers.
So, as I have been known to do, and to avoid seeing any conflict between my stance against the military and my signing on to Louis Dupree’s offer, I just took the money and went off to Afghanistan with plans to complete my doctorate, and then go sit on the throne of a job in some anthropology department in some university to live happily ever after. The best-laid plans….
I mean, what could it hurt? Who could it hurt? … to use the money for my own well-intended project to work with the small, isolated, almost unknown Nuristani group in the high Hindu Kush? So, between MUCIA and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (about which I learned much more later), I and my wife boarded flights that eventually left us standing on the Kabul International Airport tarmac, at the foot of the mobile stairs from the Ariana Airlines flight, blinded by the light, in the first week of June, 1969. “Mind the Gap!”.
Old Adage: “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it” (but, you might not, too).
We settled into our traditional, spacious adobe house, on a stone foundation, not far from Habibia High School, in one of the older outer neighborhoods of the established city of that time. Two Nuristani young men lived with us: Hazrat Din Sherzad – son of a legislator from the Titin valley of Nuristan, Wakil Alef Din, and Jandat, from Pshok, in the next valley above Titin, east of the Alingar River. Hazrat attended Habibia, as did Hamid Karzai and several of the current and past elites of Kabul. These connections were all arranged by Louis Dupree.
In about a week we sat in a Land Rover among a caravan of Land Rovers, fully packed pickup trucks and one deuce-and-a-half , industrial strength period piece, folk-painted scenes all round Afghan truck loaded with gasoline, beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, drinking water, dried foods, canned foods, medicines, lotions, army camp stoves, folding chairs, cots and tables, eating utensils, toilet paper for an army…. This expedition was intended to be my orientation to Afghanistan; for the archaeologists aboard, it was the main purpose for their trip.
I think we stopped one night before we reached Herat. We stayed in Herat for a couple of nights and saw the famous historic sites such as the Blue Mosque. The road between Kabul and Kandahar was paved and well maintained. Beyond Kandahar it was spotty.
From Herat north, it ranged from a well established dirt track to some stretches of hours where we drove from dead reckoning across smooth, featureless rolling dunes to the horizon, then down into dry arroyos and back up to cross more trackless dunes; or we picked up walking locals to navigate to the next town on this “road” before GPS technology. The drifting loess simply obliterates the road in hours over great distances, except for traces one might pick up by going upstream or downstream in the arroyos to look for surviving traces. The motorized vehicle traffic was sparse, a few vehicles a day between Herat and Maimana. We stopped one night in route, then arrived in Maimana.
Dupree had arranged to rent a “villa”. It was a two story walled compound around a closed central courtyard, rooms on two stories, with ingenious second-story “out house” toilets built out over the walled collection pit below, and tastefully enclosed with good ventilation and a view. Most days there was electricity for four hours in the evening.
The expedition consisted of Louis and Nancy Dupree, at least two members of the Kabul Museum staff whose names I have lost. There were Richard Davis and Claude White, both US archaeology doctoral candidates. Then there were two other men – one younger one older – who claimed to be archaeologists, one had an interest in ceramics, another seemed not especially interested in talking about his work; I don’t recall their names. They didn’t seem to participate in the excavation much, and were often gone off in their Land Rovers.
The first night when the booze was brought out as we sat near the fire in the enclosed courtyard, the younger one started getting braggardly, challenging some of the others to karate matches or such, injuring one of the others who accepted the challenge. During that night he bragged that he was actually there to ground-proof possible landing sites for U-2 spy planes (this was several years after the Gary Powers incident). I didn’t connect this to any other dots, like the fact that Dupree had once been on the faculty of the US Air Force Academy, or that Berreman had just pointed out the infiltration of military intelligence agents into anthropology careers.
From about the third week of June until the end of August, 1969, I participated in excavating the Cave of the Dancers (Ghar Luli) with both the professionals on the expedition and the locally hired crew for the “unskilled” work, the heavy, hot, dusty work, for a pittance.
I took some time to do a few other little ethnographic assignments from Dupree, like a photo inventory of the village across the river from Maimana, which had a large leather production operation using ancient methods. I also rode in a Volga sedan out to visit a separate valley with a Kabuli Pashto named Aziz, who claimed that the valley and all its resources and people as his family’s property. His grandfather had been the commanding general during the conquest of this Uzbeki area by the Kabul/Kandahar Pashto state during the Russian/English/Pashto creation of “Afghanistan”.
In a special warehouse, one old Uzbeki man sat cross-legged on the dirt floor by a small hardwood fire and a glass of clean water, all day doing by hand with small ‘two-finger’ chunks: the heating, massaging in his palm, dipping in the water, then heating; the processing of raw, golden-blond hashish into the purified mahogany-colored product for which Maimana is famous and which activity in this local region dates back to the Scythian period archaeology.
Aziz also had his serfs raise the tall skinny Poplar trees to be used as strong poles for the unsawed structural supports, door and window frames and for ceiling vigas in the flat-roofed adobe-walled houses. Milled lumber was not seen here. The tenants raised their own food and took that as part of their share of the five-part division: land, tools, water, seed and labor, into which each year’s harvest was divided for redistribution that heavily favored the Lord, who owned the land, water and seed, to begin the calculation of harvest shares. That is the system that orders the relationship between two, more-or-less sovereign peoples; with a little arm-twisting by the currently dominant one.
When we broke “camp” in Maimana, we continued going clockwise around the Ring Road, which got increasingly better finished and maintained, until, leaving Mazar-i-Sharif, it was mostly paved over the Salang pass, past Charikar and back to Kabul.
Upon our return to Kabul, I was free to do my research project which had settled, with Dupree’s advice, on the Ashkun peoples who lived in high, isolated Hindu Kush valleys formed by tributaries of the Alingar River in western Nuristan. He provided me with letters of introduction to all the bureaucratic offices where I had to get letters and stamping of letters and documents. He also provided me with a field assistant, an anthropology graduate student at Kabul University, Mohammad Alam Nuristani.
Alam came to my house and we got to know each other. He spoke good English, Dari, Pashto and the related Kalasha dialects of Ashkun and Wai-ala. We planned our first field trip and by early October we set off from the end of the last jeep trail, walking with Wakil Alef Din and a group of his villagers into the unroaded area of the Pashai peoples.
After camping one night on the trail, we entered the increasingly steep mountain passes into the valleys of the Ashkun peoples along the Titin tributary of the Alingar River. I was surprised to see adobe rooftops covered with drying of ears of maize, as in the Pueblos of the desert highlands of the USA, drying on the flat roofs.
As a native speaker of the closely related Waigul people, Mohammad Alam gave us trusted access to the family homes, to the different special places, to work and to participate in gatherings and feasts. He also defeated me in the local version of shot-put, using a standard sized spherical rock shot-put kept down below at the shot-put range; and in bounding down very steep, rocky mountainsides – like a goat, like a Nuristani – and in climbing up the steep paths.
Alam had a bright spirit, steady energy, springy step, flashing eyes, a ready smile and a generous spirit, like most Afghan peoples, like the Kalasha, or “Nuristanis”. He had the physical appearance that some of the Kalasha have, light grey-blue eyes and blond hair; making them a favorite of German and Scandinavian anthropologists, linguists and historians. But he was cosmopolitan, had been to Hungary and Yugoslavia. His ambitious and energetic personality seemed to have ingratiated him with Dupree.
Alam gave me sensitive and patient guidance in some of my understandings of the meanings of Ashkun concepts. He grasped the nature of ethnography and the cognitive nature of culture. He was from a leading family in Waigul, but his acceptance in the urban society of Kabul depended upon his intelligence and upon this charm that led those with power and influence to support his ambitions. His family had little power in Kabul.
I recall Alam’s story of leaving Waigul for the first time as a small boy, to attend school. After the long hike out of Waigul to the nearest outside “town”, his father led him into what he perceived as a little house where several other people were standing. The house began to tremble and shake, and Alam looked outside and “the mountains were running past”. This was Alam’s first experience of a ride in a wheeled vehicle, an old truck with wood side-boards and a canvas cover over the back where the passengers stood or sat, in which he rode to Kabul.
The Approaching Storm
In June of 1970, Dupree came to me and made a strong case for leaving with my wife and returning to the USA. He felt that a crisis was brewing and that all foreigners, especially USans, were at risk if we stayed. He indicated that he was also preparing to be ready to leave in an instant if necessary. In fact, he eventually did that, along with Jack Shroder, Tom Gouttierre and others of his team, across the border to fall-back quarters in Peshawar, Pakistan.
We packed up things to ship back but left the research tapes and notes in the hands of our in-country host, Louis Dupree for safe shipment. In a few days we were in the Kulu Valley of India and Afghanistan was already becoming a dreamscape.
The last letter I received from MoAlam – Mohammad Alam Nuristani, as I knew him, but who was later to honor his grandfather in changing “Nuristani” to “Melabar”, his Wai grandfather who had led resistance to the Afghan Islamic army’s invasion of their territory in the Hindu Kush, their own nation – the last letter he sent to me from Afghanistan in late 1978, after having returned from Indiana, where I had been instrumental in his application to the MA program in anthropology, was in a deeply poetic mood, and was signed, “Alam, your friend Beyond Time and Space”. I’m sure he knew it was the end.
During the Russian Occupation the first road was punched into the Titin Valley. Subsequently, the US has “improved” that road. Of course, this was done to control, not to support the indigenous population of an area that is classified by US/NATO as a “No Go” area or a “No Man’s Land”, where many US/NATO COPs (Command Out Post) have be overrun by the Resistance, and they no longer try to replace them.
Although there is a road, the US Army online newspaper makes it clear that this is still No Man’s Land, which Dupree referred to as The Land of the Fiercely Independent.
Marlon Brando once said, “Life is like a mountain railroad”. The US military is finding its trellises crumbling under their heavy, armed and armored vehicles all over Afghanistan; they are falling off the edge, just like the English, just like the Russians.
So, today, 2012, when the American University Field Staff Reports that I had requested arrived at the library, I did not wait to sit down at a table and skim the slim volume of Louis Dupree’s last reports, in 1980. There, in LD-4-80 and in LD-5-80, I found record of MoAlam’s last day.
MoAlam was tainted – doomed – by his participation in Dupree’s intelligence network, in which I also inadvertently participated; especially when I left my audio tapes and field notes with Louis to send safely back to Indiana when he suggested that I should leave because of the already thickening political intrigue.
When I saw Louis during his occasional visit in 1976 at IU, he said he had given the box to Christian Jung who was on the Kabul University faculty and, I believe, also with USAID. He said Jung had put them into a diplomatic pouch; the most secure method to send things.
I never saw my field research tapes or notes again.
I think they have not gone without a use, but not the one I had intended for them; with my first-hand knowledge of the terrain, the village names and populations and relations and a myriad of details recorded on those tapes in both English and Ashkunu-veri, questions, answers, names, ….
Louis did not say to where or to whom Jung had sent them. It’s too late to ask Louis. But, now I think I know.
His online obituary was the first place where I saw it noted and praised that Louis Dupree was a long-term CIA operative. Not that Dupree was unethical within his own cultural reality. It is only that he was closely linked to the US military and the related Intelligence agencies; he put that before his loyalty to Afghan people. He functioned, as they said, as an operative for The Mission.
Dupree and his co-operative colleagues used their access to Kabul government documents and files for US advantage; even when it was explicit that they were not to make use of such sensitive data as air photos and maps developed from them, they stole copies of the entire set of airphotos and topographic maps for all of Afghanistan. (Jack Shroder, HTS training lecture, December, 2009). He was part of the US Mission in Afghanistan long before the US was aware of Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson’s War came and went late during Dupree’s watch; and I think not without his participation. His ethics and morals were related to that foundation in the military Mission. Among his friends, he was always ethical and a Good Man, within that cultural world view and its priorities.
He was not an evil man if judged by his own value system, or a bad anthropologist in the sense of producing valuable works. His Afghanistan is still the standing authority in US/NATO on the history, archaeology and cultures of the Afghanistan that existed until 1978.
Louis arranged for my invitation to The Royal Palace and introduced me to the King at a party. My house was robbed of everything they could get over the wall to the street that night while I was at the Palace. I felt that it was a message that I had betrayed my social class.
I think it was Jack (John) Shroder at University of Nebraska, Omaha, who told me this story that typifies the swash-buckling clown version of Dupree’s image: There was a major dinner for Europeans and USans with Afghan political leaders and privileged members of the ruling class, maybe even the King was there. Dupree was one of the main USan guests. At the time dinner began, Louis and Nancy had not arrived. Then, when dinner was over, and the drinking was beginning, there is a knock at the door. When the door is open, Louis leaves a well-dressed Nancy standing at the door and comes running in and does a series of forward hand flips across the marble floor, and ends up standing in front of the Afghan and Euro-American dignitaries, smiling. He is more or less well dressed, but, he has on a red dress shirt and has pulled the shirt front through the zipper of his pants suit and zipped it up so the red shirt is sticking straight out through the zipper, resembling, for all to see, a dick.
The Great Game takes a Turn
But, all great parties must come to an end. Dupree had been taken into custody by the Afghan government on November 25th, 1978; and held through November 30. The following notes are his account of events on November 26 and 27.
Louis, always showing flair, starts this issue with verse:
When there’s a bluebird singing by your windowpane,
And the sun shines bright all day through,
Don’t forget, boy, look over your shoulder,
‘Cause there’s always someone coming after you!”
From O Lucky Man!
Verse by Alan Price
Transcribed by Sally Dupree
LD-4-80, p. 12
[The narrative continues through the night and into November 26th. He ate dinner with his interrogator in the room he was confined to “…kidney beans and cauliflower stew. Yummy. And a banana for desert.”]
On page 6 of this issue, Dupree describes how the AUFS staff members, “ … spends two years doing research and writing in his area of specialization, and one year lecturing on the campuses of the universities that compose the symposium.” And in the footnote (#21) to this sentence he says, “I must admit that at times the whole program sounds suspicious even to me!”
“Abruptly, the questions shifted. No more requests for lists, but specifics about people. “Do you know anyone in the Faculty of Letters named Mohammad Alam Nuristani?” “Yes.” “In what capacity did you know him?” “Professional. He is an anthropologist. I am an anthropologist. “I know him as a professional.” “Did he go to a university in the United States?” “Yes.” “Where?” “IndianaUniversity.” “How do you know?” “Indiana is an AUFS school and I saw him while I was lecturing there. He received an MA in anthropology.“ “What other Afghans did you know at Indiana?” I wrote: “How can I remember. I have been spending two weeks out of every three years at Indiana since 1949. Most Afghan students attend my lectures when they hear I am on campus. I speak to them after class, but how the hell can I remember who they are, after all these years?”
Another specific name: “Do you know anyone named __________?” “Yes.” “Did he attend IndianaUniversity?” “Yes.” “What is his relationship with you?” “He is one of my former landlords.” “When?” “I don’t remember, I’ve had so many landlords.” I added, “Why all these simple-minded questions? I have been in Afghanistan so long the Ministry of Interior must have a file on me the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so why should I do all your work for you?” Question: “When did you first meet __________?” Answer: “How the hell can I remember when I first met people or where I first met him?” I truly couldn’t remember.
The questions kept hopping back to Indiana. Back Home in Indiana, the old Hoagy Carmichael tune kept running through my head. “What Afghans did you know there?” “I can’t remember.”
A new interrogator put a sheet of questions in front of me. I was about to write “I don’t remember,” but reading the questions stopped me cold. “Suppose someone accused you of being a CIA agent, what would you say?” Answer: “Bullshit!? Question: “How would you justify your answer?” “Quite simple. I don’t work for the CIA.” The interrogator said, “Come now, you’ve got to give more reasons than that.” I said: “Why? Look, if you’re going to accuse me of being a CIA agent, don’t go through the routine. Just go ahead and accuse me, and go out into the streets and pick up three witnesses. Pay them 50 afghanis apiece and have them swear I hired them to work for the CIA. They can say, yes, we gave them secret information. I mean, why bother with all this crap? I mean, if you’re really going to accuse me of being CIA, why waste your time and mine. Let’s both get some sleep.”
Instead, he came back with: “Suppose you were confronted with someone who said you worked for the CIA? What would you say?” “Bullshit!” I wrote again, this time adding a short essay on the foreign community “covered wagon” in Kabul.
“It would be either an outright lie, “I wrote, “or the individual would be repeating the folklore of the foreign community. Most foreigners in Kabul act like the early American pioneers who traveled through Indian Territory in covered wagons. Every evening the covered wagons would be draw into a circle to protect the pioneers from the hostiles, although the hostiles owned the country. Foreigners in Kabul travel in large cars to their heated, air-conditioned offices, fiddle papers all day, and return home in the afternoon. In early evening, they often gather in the protective covered wagon complex (i.e., cocktail parties, and discuss the recent folklore of the foreign community. My wife and I seldom have time for these rituals, and we occasionally (so we have been told) become the subject of conversation.
[Note: the fact is that Dupree’s house was the site of the most popular of the cocktail hours for many of the resident European and USan community and the more cosmopolitan Afghans in Kabul; and everybody came to his house occasionally or daily; beginning at 5pm, the drinks were served. J. A.]
“Just what do the Duprees do?” And the collective wisdom is ‘CIA’. Anyone who lives in Afghanistan as long as they have must have ulterior motives. Therefore, everyone knows we are CIA. The foreigners usually serve two to five years, and then depart, but we continue to return. The folklore is passed on from one generation to the next. Nancy and I can’t defend ourselves. We simply have to live with the folklore.” The interrogator translated the phrases. He left without comment. He left without comment, but kept returning for an hour or more of questions on the CIA theme. In-between his appearances, I catnapped.
One time, he tapped me on the shoulder and I looked up to see a man standing in front of me. This was the confrontation. I finally recognized him by the sport jacket he wore. He was wringing his hands and his eyes were on the two men supporting him. It was Mohammad Alam Nuristani, who called himself Melabar after his grandfather who had fought Abdur Rahman Khan. I stood up, a little groggy myself at the time, embraced him, and exclaimed, “My God! MoAlam, what have they done to you?” He began to shake all over, all the time looking at his guards. His head was full of scabs, as though his hair had been burned. His face was totally misshapen, and his upper lip almost reached his chin, covered with several days’ growth of beard. His face was not his own, his eyes were not his own. Obviously, his soul was not his own. His neck was covered with a heavy scarf, and he was wearing his favorite sport jacket, the one he had purchased in Bloomington.
One of his escorts said: “here’s a man who says you work for the CIA. What do you say to that?” “What else can he say?” I replied, “If I looked like he does, I’d confess to anything. To being God. What can he do? He’s been tortured out of his mind.” Then, they questioned MoAlam: “is Dupree CIA?” “Yes.” “How do you know?” “Everybody knows Dupree is CIA. Everybody knows!” he screamed, never taking his eyes off his guards.
For some reason which I still can’t explain, I instinctively jumped in to ask three questions. “MoAlam’s, a question: Did I ever tell you I was CIA?” “No.”
“Did I ever try to recruit you for CIA?” “No.”
“Did you ever do a secret job for me or give me any secrets?” “no.” MoAlam stiffened and seemed to realize he had said the wrong thing, though he told the truth. He babbled on: “Yes, but everybody knows Dupree is CIA. Everybody. Schuyler Jones told me so. Everyone knows.“
[Note: Sadly, I did not know until quite recently, from Louis’ online obituary]
He continued to babble until they took him away.
The one interrogator left behind asked: “Well, what do you say to that?” “What can I say” He’s been tortured so badly, and all the poor man did was repeat the folklore of the foreign community.” The interrogator left. I wept.
The interrogator returned shortly with the final question for the night: “you have just been confronted and accused of being CIA. What do you say?” Wearily I wrote: “I was awakened from a deep sleep and was shocked to see Mohammad Alam Melabar, a shattered wreck standing before me.” I repeated the questions I had asked MoAlam and underlined his answers, and again emphasized the folklore of the covered wagon complex.
I did not sleep very much. MoAlam’s non-face kept appearing. Several young transients, all scared witless were brought into my room between midnight and dawn. Screams kept drifting in. The transients had been caught tossing Shah-Namah over compound walls after curfew. They stared at the smile face of the Great Leader and shivered. Secret police dragged them out before dawn. They were kicking and screaming and being beaten. The sounds faded. Before I realized it, Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn crashed through the windows. Foolishly, I thought the worst was over. Then I saw the Russians.
12 thoughts on “The Goat Caught in Bushkazi: Personal Effects of One’s Role in the Great Game”
Superb essay John, and welcome!
I am hoping that you will soon hammer out a book, because this account, and others like them, deserve a much greater airing, especially in this time of amoral, intellectually shallow opportunism whose appeals to power and joy in servitude possibly exceed what you experienced back then. As I said, this excellent work really merits consideration far and wide, in anthropology and beyond.
This is an excellent piece-it shows on a personal and tragic level the disconnect between policy makers/intelligence community and the detritus of cast-off lives who are abandoned after serving some purpose. How many Alams are there in Afghanistan and in other countries? I also hope that John will write more.
Mark E. Smith (@fubarista)
So an anthropologist finds out too late that he was inadvertently playing a more barbaric game than buzkashi. “Abundant funds” should have been a clue. Only the 1% have abundant funds, and most of it goes to consolidate and expand their power. .
Yes, Mark, of course it all seems so clear at the date of your message. Hind-sight is an amazing gift, even better then my bionic lenses gained from the experiences with Fort Irwin and Fort Leavenworth, narrated in the Double Agent article a couple of years ago. I wished, in both cases – my Titin research of 1969-70 and my recent military experience – that I could have anticipated the truth that seemed to contradict all I had been taught in schools. I didn’t have the context for a fuller understanding that I do now; when it seems more obvious.
Perhaps your context now will seem equally dwarfed by the context you develop to explain your own life when you are well into your tercero edad.
Unfortunately, Mark E. Smith tried to post again, and this time his comment was more than buried, it was not to be found anywhere. Since we corresponded via Twitter, I asked him to send me his comment via email, and here it is:
The article was very helpful and informative to me, as was (is?) the ongoing post article exchange. I too urge for more.
Thanks for that. You are almost my own age; so you have somehow come through the sturm und drang period and are now ready. You might consider contacting Max Forte who moderates this site and see if you want to contribute. You’ve been where almost no other civilian westerners have gone. Your writing is good, your experience is exceptional; you have something you want to say; just like me, and you have already contributed good information and feelings.
Thank you, John. One of the most interesting things I learned in Afghanistan was the origin of the word guru. It was brought to India from Afghanistan and incorporated into Urdu by Alexander the Great, I’m told. In Pushto, if I remember correctly, gurem means I look, guree means he looks, and guru means we look. Not one, the guru, teaches and others learn, but we, meaning more than one person, look at things together to see them from a wider perspective. Once again, it’s all in the perspective, and since each of us sees things differently, according to the background, experience, and preparation we bring to the moment, looking at things together is crucial to understanding. We were apparently both in Afghanistan at the same time, but we had quite different experiences and saw things somewhat differently. In addition to Maximilian Forte, I follow many other people on Twitter, including several Afghans, some currently in Afghanistan and some living in other countries. Their perspective enhances my own, as does yours. Best wishes to you too.
Thanks Mark/X for your interesting contribution. I was told that “guru” in the different form of “roshi” means, “old and useless”. But, that guru was modest and liked to play.
I like your hat. It looks just like mine; but you still look so young.
I am not sure how you can know that you saw things differently than I saw them; but, I’d like to hear about your perspective.
In fact, the point of this article is the lack of a context for what I saw and experienced. I had filed it in a system that had been given to me by the US media and public education. Now, I see it all differently and respond differently than I did forty years ago.
Let’s hear more of your own views.
It’s an old picture, John, but the only one I have on my computer. I’m a bit of a technophobe, Luddite, and anti-civ, in many ways, but obviously not a purist.
Being unaffiliated, when I got to Afghanistan I didn’t have much context. Whereas I saw many others from the US look at ordinary Afghan people and say things like, “I don’t know how anybody could live like that,” I looked at them and said, “Well, if my ancestors hadn’t been able to live like that, I wouldn’t be here, and I have their genes, so I can probably learn to live like that too.” To a certain extent, I did. Instead of trying to do things the US way, I asked Afghan friends how to do things and they taught me.
Having been homeless for many years in the US, and not seeing homeless people in Afghanistan, I thought their society had to be superior to ours in some ways, and of course I knew it was a much older culture. I did learn of women who died in childbirth due to not being allowed to go to a hospital with male doctors, honor killings, and women sold into marriage, but I knew that many in the US could not afford healthcare, I had personal knowledge of honor killings in the US (I knew of fundamentalist families who had killed daughters for not being virgins, and of course there were many of what were then called “crimes of passion” that made the news), and knowing that you could buy a woman on the street in any US city, I didn’t see that selling women into marriage was worse than selling women into prostitution, and in some senses the former was less dangerous.
There were cultural misunderstandings at first, of course. For example the first time I returned from a visit to Pakistan, I tried to get a taxi from the Afghan border back to Kabul. There were several empty cabs, but none of them would take me. They all pointed me towards a taxi that already had four passengers in it who were large bearded men with rifles and bandoliers. Afraid they might rob me, I wouldn’t get into the cab until somebody who spoke English came along and explained to me that the taxi couldn’t leave until it was full. When I got in the cab, the men smiled at me and we had an uneventful trip home across the Khyber Pass.
To read your accounts, it takes me back.
I think you have more to say. I hope you offer some more of your work as your own articles on this website. When one has not put the academic blinders on, and one is intelligent, as you are, one develops a treasure of knowledge to share with those who have not a clue.
Please contact Max and see if you want to contribute.
Best wishes to you.
… and, isn’t it interesting, Mark, how we estadounidenses are inclined to want to be in our personal taxi, all alone with our hired driver, while the peoples of that region tend to conserve, to maximize the use of these motors, motor-cars; pay less, use the machine to capacity, enjoy community, share the experience with others, interested to know who is this hariji? So open-eyed, so curious to know you. Yes? Such a core of live energy; you make me remember!
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