Sunday, December 17, 2006

An Aging Japanese Arabist Talks about the Taliban, and Enchants

Chatting away is a small group of mostly distinguished Orientalists in their sixties, seventies. Being neither, I listen attentively, merely interjecting a question or two, just to keep the conversation flowing.

Gradually, one of them begins to dominate the talk. He is an Arabist, but unlike the others comes from what I shall call a real world background. A robust man of now independent means, looking younger than his perhaps seventy years, he has hobnobbed and haggled with princes and prime ministers, business leaders, diplomats. And it is this, his real world experience that has us entranced, for he is relating his experience negotiating with the Taliban, to keep them from blowing up the giant stone buddhas carved out of the cliffs of Bamiyan.

But our narrator's Taliban is a far cry from the rustic fundamentalists, the fearsome allies of the Al Qaeda. Speaking fluent English, well versed in the ways of the world through CNN and BBC, they plead their case eloquently: our women are treated with respect, female doctors and female nurses at work in hospitals taking care of women and their babies; the burqa keeps out the desert sand and dust, they dislike the Al Qaeda; we got rid of the poppy crops but the UN has reneged on its promise of assistance; and of course we promise not to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas, I'll call our feld commanders right before your eyes……

but what of the reports of girls being denied schooling? where will the next generation of female doctors come from? if the burqa is so good for the health in the desert sand and dust, why don't the menfolk wear them as well? they never kicked out al qaeda and al qaeda did take down the world trade center; the assistance that never came is certainly a shame, but they did blow up the buddhas……

But something is making me hold my tongue. Is it the presence of the learned company, whose rapture I fear to shatter; after all, this is a friendly, after-business chat, where the Arabist has chosen to regale us with his firsthand tale of the Taliban? Yes, but there is something more: the great man is speaking for himself as well: The US, at the head of the coalition of the willing (if not the able) invades Afghanistan, but it is driven at least in part by the desire for a Kazakhstan -to-Pakistan-and-India-by-way-of-Afghanistan oil pipeline. Afghanistan needs the discipline, the Pashtuns the only ones capable of doing this, the Taliban got rid of corruption and the businessmen love it… This is an echo of the East-vs.-West conflict, the grievance of the colonized, the ghost of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Harmony of the Five Peoples calling in, after all these years. (And it is this duality of the Japanese role of aggressor and its identification with the victims that lies at the bottom of our difficulties with our neighbors.) The specter has me fascinated; it is I who does not want to break the charm.

But it is getting late, and I must take my leave. The session breaks up at this, as if it had been I, and not the Arabist, who had been holding forth. Perhaps the Orientalists, not so unworldly after all by way of their endless dealing with local authorities, mini-satraps, and dictators, were not as in thrall as I had imagined.

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