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A Son of Safi
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Politics and Prestige

I graduated from the university in 1967. My father was in Kabul for that year. Then he returned to the homeland. There were many people there who greeted him. Prior to my father’s return, some people who had been spies during the time of the Safi War were given our lands. They took these lands by force while we were in exile. The people who had taken our lands included some maleks [chiefs] and other influential people. Other Safis who had been exiled also had their land forcibly confiscated by the government. These people who had previously spied were opposed to our return and were saying, “If they come back to their homeland it is possible that some riot will occur again in Kunar. It isn’t wise to let them come back.” Their objective in this was the land that they had gotten hold of. They wanted to keep this land in their hands.

Before my father went back to Kunar, they were telling the government that if we were to come the people would be unhappy, but when my father returned to Kunar, the people gathered in Bar Kandi, the first village at the beginning of Pech Valley, and, based on tribal customs, they fired their rifles and took care of us. This tribal hospitality [melma palinai] continued for about a year. It wasn’t over for a year, and during that year people would come to our house to greet my father and pay their respects.

It was at that time that I graduated from the university, and I wanted to finish up my period of military training and obligation, and I was accepted into the army for training. After one year of training, the people of Pech Valley told me that the election campaign for the thirteenth session of the lower house of parliament [wolesi jirga] was beginning and that I had to be a candidate. I went to talk to my father. One of my stepmothers, the mother of Matiullah, who is now a commander in the jihad, was sitting there. No one else was present, and I told my father that it was my desire to run as a candidate for parliament and he must give his permission since I was responding to the wish of the people.

My father said to me, “My boy, we have seen many difficulties. We have been thrown in prison, and all of this was solely for the prestige [haysiat] of our family. For the sake of this, I have sacrificed my property, my life, my children. I have sacrificed everything for my reputation [naminek], and you should look at this position the same way that you view the earth.”

I said, “There’s nothing wrong with being a representative.”

He replied, “The governments of the present are not the type of government that represent the people. In this government, not even a hundred people could benefit from your service. It’s all right for your own affairs. For your own interests, a seat in the parliament is very good. In this position, you will lose the reputation that I have among the people of my own tribe. People expect something to be done, and you won’t have the power to do it if you want to continue eating the bread of your position. I refuse to give you my permission.”

This conversation with my father occurred when I was in [military] training. On January 1, 1967, my father died at the age of between eighty and eighty-five. After this, because of the expectations of the people, I prepared myself to become a candidate. For the dignity of our family, I participated in the forty-day ceremony that took place after the burial of my father, and I was exempted for these forty days from military training. During this period, I began my candidacy. [15]

Wakil’s willingness to run for office against his father’s wishes indicates that he had taken the class lessons on democracy to heart, but it reveals other things as well. First, it reminds us that in Afghanistan prestige was still largely an inherited asset. A man could certainly lose the status he gained by descent from a famous father, but—as the example of Nur Muhammad Taraki would later prove—it was not so easy to rise to a position of prominence without the proper background. Thus, Wakil, an army conscript barely out of university and away from his home area for most of his life, was nevertheless in a position to run for parliamentary deputy by virtue of his being Sultan Muhammad’s son. However, as Sultan Muhammad reminds his son, he was also in a position to squander that status and, in the process, squander the reputation of his family.

A second feature of this story involves Wakil’s act of disobedience to his father, an act that mirrors a pivotal moment in Sultan Muhammad’s life as recounted in Heroes of the Age. Sultan Muhammad had rushed to the side of his father, Talabuddin, when he had just been struck by the bullets of his killers. In his desire to assure himself a martyr’s reward, Talabuddin had ordered his son not to seek revenge for his murder. Sultan Muhammad, however, had denied his father’s dying request, telling him that it was his duty as a son and a Safi to avenge his murder. Sultan Muhammad’s last command to his son—that he not run for parliament—was likewise premised on his desire to preserve what was most valuable to him—in his case, his reputation as a man of honor. This story, like its predecessor, occurred against a backdrop of conflict in which rivals are willing to use underhanded means to steal the family’s land and usurp its political position. The tribe as a whole, however, supported the beleaguered family, although in both instances the son had to take a stand that violated his father’s determination of what was in his own and the family’s best interest. For Sultan Muhammad, that stand involved making an oath to avenge his father’s death. For Wakil, the stand involved running for elective office, which he believed would enhance the prestige of the family while also providing him an opportunity to participate in shaping Afghanistan’s future.

For both Sultan Muhammad and his son, the events that ensued after their decisions to disobey their fathers were defining moments in their lives. In Sultan Muhammad’s case, his vow to avenge his father led to his fashioning an elaborate and risky plan for destroying his enemies in a single, fell stroke. To accomplish his plan, he had to enlist the assistance of kinsmen and old family retainers who pledged their help to the boy not for himself but for the sake of the father and the family. A similar scenario played itself out in Wakil’s case as well, as those who supported Wakil’s candidacy conveyed to him the same message that his father had received as he prepared for his defining test:

People were coming at that time for the elections. They were coming. It was in the course of the election, and some of the elders were saying into my ear, “We don’t know you, if you are good or bad, if you will serve the people or not, since your life has been passed in Mazar-i Sharif and Kabul. You shouldn’t think that we are giving our votes to you.” This is what they said. “Don’t think that we’re giving our votes to you. We are giving them to the dead bones of your father.” [16]

In response to this message, Wakil invited the people of his area to a great feast in Ningalam, the administrative center of Pech Valley. The feast was held following prayers on the Friday before the election, and it attracted a great crowd:

We killed some cows, and gathered the whole tribe together. . . . I went onto a stage and told the people, “If you think that once I become your representative, then you’ll be in a flower garden, or that I can bring down the sky for you, this isn’t within my power.” I explained to them that . . . my father had not given me his permission. My father’s point was that these governments are not the kind that will allow you to serve the people—you can’t [help] even one hundred people. But I persuaded the people that I had become a candidate in opposition to the advice of my father and that my only goal in doing so was to take a stand in the election, not to win it. [I told them,] “All of you have the right to be a candidate. It’s only a question of struggle, and in reality it’s a matter of making sure that this democracy that the king of Afghanistan claims to have implemented in the constitutional law must be brought into existence by you the people of Afghanistan. This will bring democracy into existence—not the king or any person. Through these struggles, the election becomes very honorable, not by being pessimistic or that kind of thing. Everyone has the right to be a candidate and everyone has the right to vote for whomever they choose.” [17]

Wakil’s speech sought to transect the divide between the morality of honor and the principles of democracy, and it also made it appear that the distance between them was not all that great. Both honor and democracy, after all, were premised on notions of equality and individual agency, both demanded a degree of independent thought and action for those who constituted the community, and both conspired in their own way against the rise of tyrants. On a practical level, as well, it would seem that democracy was on a sure footing in this milieu given the existence of the tradition of jirga (assembly), in which male elders sit together and reach collective decisions on all manner of problems, from guilt and punishment to water use and taxation, war and peace. Wakil played on the points of similarity between honor and democracy, and it would appear from what he said that democracy as a system of government had found a naturally fertile ground in which to grow.

Such was not the case however. The democratic tradition never took root in Afghanistan, and while many practical reasons could be cited—having to do with how democratic institutions were established—there were also ideological reasons, which can be seen at the grassroots in accounts such as this one. In particular, one can see some of the fundamental, if not immediately self-evident, differences between honor and democracy in Wakil’s story of the opposition that his candidacy inspired. One source of opposition, which continued even after his father’s death, was from within his own family. Wakil was the youngest of eleven sons, and some of his brothers were much older than he—old enough, in fact, to be his father. Unlike Wakil, these older brothers were adults when the family was exiled, and they had been more directly immersed in Pakhtun culture than their younger sibling and were also less educated. Some of Wakil’s older siblings shared their father’s view that Wakil’s running for parliament would place the family’s honor at risk, not because they didn’t want him associating with the government but because they were fearful that he might lose. In the words of one of Wakil’s kinsmen (quoted by Wakil), “If a man becomes a candidate and is unsuccessful, this would be a great defeat for him and would place him under threat from his rival. And if the government doesn’t want him to be elected and succeeds in having him defeated, then this failure would actually be thought of by the people as a humiliating insult.”

This conflation of personal shame and electoral defeat illustrates one of the obstacles that democracy faced in adapting to Afghan soil. In the view of many of his kinsmen, Wakil’s loss would have been interpreted by the society at large as an insult directed at the father and the family, not just as the defeat of the individual himself or a rejection of his ideas. When the unnamed relative said that an electoral defeat would be an insult to the family, he implicitly foreshadowed what would have to happen if such a defeat were to occur. Insults must be avenged. A man who has suffered humiliation at the hands of another must redress that humiliation through action. But who exactly could be held responsible? The voters? The rival candidate? Government officials who might rig the election? In this context, an election was not just about candidates and their ideas. It was also about families and family honor, and those who entered the arena placed themselves in a situation in which they allowed others to determine their destiny—a position in tribal culture that is to be avoided at all costs.

In the election Wakil described, it was understood that if opposition arose, it would come from among those families that came to prominence after Sultan Muhammad and other Safi leaders had been exiled from the area. Any candidate who opposed Wakil would come from their ranks, and that meant that a defeat at the polls would have constituted solid evidence that the influence of Sultan Muhammad’s family had slipped. Everyone would have been able to see that their rivals had gained strength at their expense, and the likelihood of a direct confrontation between them would have thereby increased immeasurably. Indeed, since defeat would have been interpreted as an insult to the family, a violent confrontation was all but assured.

As his relatives feared, such an opposition did materialize from among the rival families who had stayed in Pech, but a confrontation was avoided, first, because Wakil won handily and, second, because the opposition, perhaps recognizing their disadvantage, intentionally chose a second-tier surrogate to run against Wakil and in this way blunted the humiliation they would have suffered by defeat. Further, Wakil’s rivals protected their position by invoking the general honor of the tribe, as well as Wakil’s own defense of democratic principles, as their reason for running a candidate in the first place. As Wakil tells it, this was their response:

If [Wakil] were to go to the parliament without any opposition, it would be as if we had sent a mulla. This isn’t right. When a mulla turns up, he goes to the front and leads the prayers. No one tells him not to lead the prayers. But, this isn’t the work of a mulla. This business involves the rights of the people of Afghanistan. Everyone has the right to be a candidate. This was Wakil’s own challenge. [18]

The declaration is interesting, not least because it shows the lowly position of mullas in tribal society. Mullas were fine for leading prayers or for giving a religious imprimatur to the results of tribal negotiations. However, their power was largely symbolic, and from the tribal perspective any group that sent such a representative to a national assembly would be either admitting its weakness or declaring its disdain. [19] In any event, Wakil’s rival was not able to muster sufficient votes to constitute a real challenge, and one reason for this failure was the relatively humble status of the challenger. Wakil had declared grandiloquently during his campaign that anyone had the right to run for office, “whether he is a shepherd, a peasant, whether he is poor or wealthy, the son of a khan or the son of a poor man.” [20] However, the reality was that a candidate had to have the resources to play his role properly. If the representative to parliament were a mulla, well, that was one thing, and the statement the tribe would be making in sending such a representative was that the whole business was beneath their concern. But if the representative were to come from a prominent family like Wakil’s, then a different set of expectations was invoked.

A man like Wakil could not just show up and give speeches; he had to play the expected part, which meant speaking eloquently, and—perhaps most important of all—feeding the people. That is to say, the parliamentary representative had to conduct himself in the same way that khans had always done. This was the only model available: if the tribe wasn’t going to send a mulla, then it had to send a khan (or the khan’s representative), and this meant among other things that the representative had to be able to offer largesse to those whose assistance he needed. Wakil was able to. Because of his ancestry, his relative wealth, and the many allies he could claim by virtue of his family ties, he was in a position to mobilize the resources needed to feed a great assembly of people, and his prestige within the tribe thereby increased accordingly.

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A Son of Safi
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