Not a dumb American: Afghanistan edition

Before I went to England to study abroad, in the interests of not being a dumb American, I memorized all the kings and queens of England in chronological order from William the Conqueror to now. As it turns out I should not have worried about this, because my flatmates were uninterested in history and world events and moreover did not know off the top of their heads what year the Magna Carta was signed (I do! 1215! And I have seen it live, in Salisbury!) So my power of reciting all the kings and queens of England in chronological order from William the Conqueror became basically something I did when I was drunk and trying to prove to my flatmates that I was not that drunk.

(NB: Do not use this test as a substitute for a breathalyzer. It is meaningless. One time in England — oh dear I am confessing to youthful follies, bear with me — I inattentively drank an entire bottle of white wine over a very short period of time on a completely empty stomach, and my then-boyfriend had to carry me from the kitchen to my bedroom because I kept getting too tired to walk and lying down sleepily on the floor in the hallway. But even in that state, I could still list all the kings and queens of England in order from William the Conqueror.)

The wish not to be a dumb American has not changed, which is why any book that gets described as an accessible history of any country ever goes directly onto my TBR list. And that goes double when the author is from that country — a rarer occurrence than you might think. Hence, I am currently reading Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules, about the history of modern Afghanistan, and I wanted to take some time to tell you some things I have learned.

Most important thing first: At the court of Ranjit Singh (nineteenth-century emperor of the Punjab), every day of the week had its own color. When it was yellow day, everything was decorated in yellow and everyone at court wore yellow.

East and West: There’s more that unites us than divides us.

Okay, that is not really about Afghanistan. It’s just something I learned from this book. I shall move now to an interesting Afghan ruler named Abdu’Rahman and nicknamed “the Iron Amir” because he was so scary. Following a messy conflict with the previous ruler, Sher Ali, Britain made a treaty with Abdu’Rahman that promised Afghan autonomy on the condition that they would not let Russia into Afghanistan or treat with any countries apart from Britain.

This was a very good deal for Britain because they did not actually want to govern Afghanistan (no good resources to exploit there). They just wanted Afghanistan not to cost them any money, cause them any problems, or allow Russia access to British-run India. (Pakistan didn’t exist yet, so Afghanistan bordered India and the Arabian Sea and would have been of enormous strategic value to the Russians.) Their treaty with Abdu’Rahman promised them all of this, with the added bonus that they would not feel they were under any obligation to help him administer his country. They were bound by treaty not to.

Abdu’Rahman went the British one better, cutting Afghanistan off as completely as he could from the rest of the world. No railroads were permitted to be built within the country’s borders; very few visitors gained leave to come into Afghanistan; and incoming imports and information were closely scrutinized by the government. Abdu’Rahman fought forty tribal wars during his reign, and won all of them. To prevent his defeating enemies from consolidating power and trying it on again, he redrew provincial boundaries to cut across tribal lines and relocated enormous groups of people to different sections of the country. So if a Ghilzai tribe was causing him trouble, he would uproot all of them and dump them in the Uzbek region, where they wouldn’t know any of their neighbors or even speak the same language.

Incidentally, his scary-motherfucker credentials were established well before all of this military victory. When he was a teenager, he wanted to find out if a gun worked, so he shot a servant and laughed when the servant died. What a psychopath. Not surprising he ruled with an iron fist.

Guess what happened in Afghanistan after he died. You guess. I’ll wait.

waiting waiting

Ha, ha, I tricked you. You thought I was going to say there was a succession battle, or that everything fell apart because Abdu’Rahman hadn’t trained his son to be an effective (that is what usually happens). Surprise! It was neither of those things! His son Habibullah could be rather lazy and capricious, but the governing structure was so sound that it didn’t matter that much what the king did. Things were pretty peaceful under Habibullah. People who had fled Afghanistan because Abdu’Rahman was too scary of a motherfucker came back to live there again. Habibullah installed telegraph lines and wired his palace for electricity. Some people bought cars. And Afghanistan lived happily ever after.

Or, well, probably not happily ever after. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the book.