The first phase of the Afghan election is all but over and there’ve been suggestions that the front-runners should try to avoid a second round. This, because of the fear of violence and that Afghanistan could become a “fragmented, criminal state” as traffickers struggle to ensure it remains the world’s main producer of opium.
In January, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, outgoing head of the UN office on drugs and crime in Afghanistan, warned of this. (Read The Guardian story here.) Mr Lemahieu suggested that the Afghan government and its western allies needed to step up efforts to tackle opium production and the illicit economy it supports.
But what if Turkey became the template for Afghanistan’s drug production? What if the US did for Afghanistan what it did for Turkey decades ago – supporting its drug production and buying the bulk of its crop?
All is explained in this chapter from ‘The Pomegranate Peace’, a novel about a female American diplomat assigned to Afghanistan and briefly on holiday in Turkey. (Read The Huffington Post review of the novel here.) In this chapter, the diplomat runs into four young Turks in Istanbul’s Nargile Alley (the bylane of shishas) and they’re amused and acerbic about American hypocrisy – as it buys a comfortable euphemism, “narcotic raw materials” from Turkey and labours futilely to eradicate opium from Afghanistan.
The Pomegranate Peace – Chapter 24
(The Imam fainted – from an excess of eggplant in olive oil?)
2 large eggplants peeled in strips and cut into pieces
2 onions, sliced
12 cloves of garlic peeled and cut in half
1⁄2 green pepper sliced
1 lb very ripe tomatoes cubed
2 teaspoons salt
1⁄4 teaspoons sugar
1⁄2 bunch flat parsley
10 tablespoons olive oil
Mix everything except eggplant and olive oil. Starting with the onion mixture, layer eggplant and onion mixture.
Finish with onions. Pour olive oil over. Cover and cook over low heat for about an hour. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Depend on it, if ever a woman boasts a glad heart it has some- thing to do with a man. I went to Turkey positively luminous with happiness. Henry had proposed – if only that we meet for part of our holiday. He was doing that faddish new thing – free-diving sans scuba gear in Kas, on Turkey’s southern coast – and I was taking the old tourist trail through Istanbul. We planned to meet in Konya, on the Anatolian Steppe. Who knew what might happen in the city known around the world for its association with Rumi and his philosophy of spiritual union?
‘The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes, Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries,’ I whispered to myself. I had been reading the ‘masnavi’ in preparation for Konya, the city where Rumi lived and died and founded the ecstatic Sufi sect of the whirling dervishes.
But before that, Istanbul. I would be severely on my own unless – or until – I chanced upon like-minded travellers intent upon a journey of the imagination, not just the instant high of tourist trivia. I wanted more than just to see the remains of a Byzantine column. I would touch the stone, feel the touch of the hand that installed it thousands of years ago. Like Yeats with his Sligo memories of an austere Victorian upbringing – rice pudding, boiled mutton, two jam nights a week, plain bread and butter other days – I would excise the sensory dep- rivation of Kabul by sailing to Byzantium. In spirit, while I physically trod the streets of Istanbul. I longed to be one with Yeats’s golden bird in the Greek mosaic he called the artifice of eternity. I recited:
‘of hammered gold and gold enameling/ To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;/ or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/
of what is past, or passing, or to come.’
Byzantium, the very word is like a bell, I thought fancifully, coming over all Keatsian.
With fragments of verse from English literature’s great romantic poets swirling in my head, I set out to do the city with American practicality. That is to say thoroughly. The Blue mosque; Hagia Sophia; the Roman Valens Aqueduct dating back to the fourth century with a major boulevard running through it; the Topkapi Palace. I stumped up extra, over and above the price of the Palace ticket, to wander through the newly restored Imperial Harem, up the silent Courtyard of the Eunuchs, through the quarters of the Valide Sultan, the sul- tan’s mother, and out through the Golden Road, the gloomy passage where the kadins, the ikbals and gozde – or the sultan’s wives, favorite concubines and the girls lucky enough to be his occasional squeeze – scrabbled to scoop up the golden coins the emperor cast about as he strode through. Hushed and echoing only with the sound of tourists filing past the Iznik- tiled interiors, my imagination replayed the girlish laughter, giggling exchange of confidences and jealous rages these walls must have absorbed down the centuries. It could hardly be otherwise when hundreds of women lived under the same roof and vied for the favors of the same man. But in those days, to be part of the sultan’s harem was a prize, a sign of grace. They were the ‘it’ girls of their day and they had few options. For the first time in all the frustrating months of fighting America’s new Age war in Afghanistan with federal grants for weapons, I was glad I was a child of my time.
I ate widely and well at little cafes, delighting in Imam Bayildi, literally the Imam Fainted, the signature dish that is quaintly named after the great man’s extreme pleasure in being served it by his wife. I would wash it all down with pomegranate juice and remember how much we wanted Afghanistan to offer similar delights.
Then I took a ferry up the smiling sunlit Bosphorus, all the way up to Anadolu Kavağı, one of the last stops before the Black Sea and on to Ortaköy, a charming village lined with fish restaurants and small shops selling bric-a-brac.
‘You’re still in Istanbul though it may not feel that way,’ said a young man who sold wooden toys. He had a beard, a skull- cap and kind eyes. ‘Buy something if you like it,’ he urged, ‘I charge tourists the same price as locals. That’s my religion.’
I looked at his wares wishing there were someone I could indulge with an absurd wooden wristwatch a foot-and-a-half long or a greatly elongated dachshund with a rotating head. Some day perhaps. Children clustered around him and two little girls waited patiently at the back of the scrum to buy shiny matching rings. And I longed to be a child again when Constantinople to me, was just a city of riddles, not a conun- drum that spelt the extent of Afghanistan’s failure to reconcile its faith with its future. Childish riddles, resulting in whole afternoons of mirth. ‘Constantinople is a very big word. If you can’t spell it you’re the biggest fool on earth. Spell it,’ we would chant at unsuspecting adults, collapsing into a quiver- ing, laughing heap, child upon child, arms entwined with legs, when they started with the ‘c’, the ‘o’, the ‘n’ and solemnly ended with the ‘e.’
‘It. You were meant to spell “it”, not “Constantinople”. You’re the biggest fool on earth,’ we would jeer in triumph with the peculiar mix of casual cruelty and calculative charm characteristic of children.
‘Thank you. Your toys are lovely,’ I said in regretful farewell to the young man. He waved as we got back on to the boat.
Walking back over the Galata Bridge into Fatih, the ortho- dox old quarter of Istanbul, my thoughts turned to najim as headscarved women in long skirts went about their business.
What a strange half-life Asman led, along with millions of Afghan women, reluctant to leave home without a male family member, leery of even the possibility of speaking on radio because to be heard was tantamount to being seen and shamelessly unveiled. not so Turkey. Like the ancient Aque- duct, which stood proudly as twenty-first-century automobiles rushed through it, Turkey’s women had achieved a happy com- promise. They could have headscarves if they wanted them and be in high office. They had a woman as prime minister back in the early 1990s, I mused.
It was an intensely happy time. Would Henry have made it happier? I didn’t know. We had never been anywhere together but for the marine Ball back on the embassy compound in Kabul. We had talked after that, of course, actively seeking each other out after work but it was hard to judge if conversa- tions on the compound were stimulating in themselves or on account of the adrenaline-fuelled cocktail of menace and fear. In Konya, I would find out if Henry really were the ideal itin- erant companion for me.
So I never did find a like-minded traveler to share my fantastical passage through Istanbul’s many layers but I came upon the next best thing – a community of thinkers, young Turks who pondered and pontificated, sometimes the second before the first – in nargile Alley, street of the hookahs, hard by the Corlulu Ali Passi medresesi and mosque.
‘Where are you from?’ asked the young man I was jammed up against on a carpeted bench, puffing on a nargile and drink- ing apple tea from a clear tulip-shaped glass cup. The narrow street was lined with cafes selling smokes and cay cheaply, untidy with ever more chairs pulled up every minute and frantic waiters frenetically insisting patrons ‘move up along the bench’ to squeeze another body in. It made for enforced intimacy and much suggestive whispered conversation if you wanted it, though the hubbub was so great one had to shout to make oneself heard.
‘Right now, Afghanistan,’ I said, speaking as loud as I dared. ‘
Ah, a very sad country. You live there?’
‘Yes. For a little while.’
‘What do you do?’
His companions’ eyes swiveled round to me with grave interest and I replied non-committally that I worked on development projects.
‘What do you do?’ I reciprocated politely.
‘We send high school students to American and European universities,’ he replied, indicating his group of five chain-smoking men companionably sharing a couple of water pipes and a paper bag of sinmits, the outsize bagel that is Istanbul’s favorite street food.
‘For now, America remains a good place to go and study or send people to study,’ one of the men grinned, picking up on my accent.
‘I’m delighted to hear it. Clearly, we’re still doing something right,’ I smiled back.
‘Yes, but things are bad in America right now. Your economy is not doing well. What do you think of the war your country is fighting in Afghanistan?’ once again spoke the voice from somewhere near my left shoulder. It was Deniz, the young man who had first addressed me.
‘Your country is fighting in Afghanistan too. I’ve seen Turkish soldiers in Kabul,’ I said defensively, addressing my left shoulder. ‘What do you think of the war?’
‘It’s gone on too long.’
‘America should leave Afghanistan and allow all of us to exit too,’ someone said.
‘We’re doing our best.’
‘But is that good enough?’
‘I have to admit it’s not,’ I conceded, ‘but what is the alternative? Is there one?’
That was when Deniz and his friends – Abdullah, Zafer, Yagiz and Adil – formally introduced themselves, by turn, with careful courtesy, called for more cay and beckoned over the coal-waiter. ‘Atesh lutfen,’ one of them told him, ‘fire please.’ As the man, whose only job was to supply glowing hot coal to the water pipes, replenished mine and those shared by Deniz and his companions, I realized we would be here a while.
‘The problem for and with America,’ Deniz began and I sighed inwardly. Thus far, my rest break had been going wonderfully well. Now, I feared an irksome repeat of the prescriptive, anti-America lectures I routinely received from everyone, everywhere. To be American in the twenty-first century was like being British in the twentieth, Bob often joked. ‘You’re fair game for anti-imperialists, peaceniks, cranks of every descrip- tion and sandal-wearing, muesli-eating socialists of all hues.’ He had a point, though I wasn’t sure I agreed with the dig at muesli-eaters. For years, I ritualistically made a big jar of granola every week, deliciously bursting with blueberries and cranberries.
But Deniz was rushing on. ‘The problem for and with America is not Afghanistan. The problem for Afghanistan is America.’
I was taken aback. If this were anti-Americanism, it was unusually sophisticated. ‘How so?’
‘What’s Afghanistan’s biggest crop and what’s its biggest export?’
‘The opium poppy. Its biggest export is opium.’
‘Right. And what’s the US doing about that?’
‘We’re trying to eradicate it, physically, and we’re also working on crop substitution. But that’s a more long-term strategy,’ I said gamely, playing along but wondering what the devil he was getting at. Briefly, I remembered the pomegranate grant and my letter to the ambassador. I expected that the action I’d long hoped for would materialize when I got back to Kabul. But it all seemed too far away – and too troubling – to think about on this golden night in Istanbul.
‘Tashakur edirem,’ he nodded, briefly lapsing into his native Turkish. I understood he was saying thank you. The Dari ‘tashakur’ was the same; ‘edirem’ was the Turkish add-on. Afghanistan shared so much with Turkey – Islam, Rumi and many words – but perhaps, not enough concepts of how best to be.
‘Eradication. Crop substitution, you’ve said it,’ Deniz continued. ‘The problem is they’re not working. Afghanistan’s problem is America.’
‘You haven’t proved anything and certainly not your sweeping generalization that Afghanistan’s problem is America,’ I said heatedly, irked that he was looking pleased with himself and shaking hands with his mates.
Deniz began to explain but all of them, except Yagiz, the swarthy quiet one, spoke over him and over each other, each offering one choice strand of American ill-logic on Afghanistan.
‘Why can’t the US treat Afghanistan’s poppy production as it did ours?’
‘Turkey had a big problem with poppies – it was as big as Afghanistan’s.’
‘The US supports our poppy production.’
‘Has done for decades.’
‘Afghanistan would be stable if it was legal to grow poppies. And the international coalition wouldn’t waste men and money clearing poppy fields.’
I turned my head this way and that trying to match sentence with speaker but it still seemed a dreadful jumble of ideas to sort out. The smoke from our nargiles wafted up and away, briefly framing his hand as Deniz motioned to stop the others.
‘Sorry, but sometimes, most times, we Turks, we have a lot of spirit. And a lot of ideas. And some say too little manners,’ offered Yagiz shyly, speaking for the first time.
I smiled at him with frank approval but he seemed determined not to look at me so I switched off the smile and concentrated on Deniz.
‘Would you like some more cay? I know Americans don’t like tea as much as coffee, not since you threw all the English tea into the sea?’
‘Ah yes, the Boston Tea Party. But that was nearly 250 years ago. Things have moved on since then. Actually, I quite like tea and your elma cay is simply delicious.’
Everyone looked pleased. national courtesies satisfied, Deniz started again on the more testy ground of geopolitics. ‘I’m sure you, more than anyone, will agree that the drug trade is a great threat to Afghanistan? To its security, to its development?’
‘Sure, but why me more than anyone? I’m American but I’m not the president. I’m hardly responsible for American policy,’ I said, defensive once again but guiltily so, because I was, unbeknownst to them, a small part of the US Government apparatus in Afghanistan.
‘I just meant because you’re American.’
Portly Abdullah, who was chain-smoking cigarettes even as he periodically puffed on the nargile, spoke up. ‘Don’t mind him. He studied history and international relations at college. He thinks he knows it all.’
The good-natured ribbing had Deniz laughing just as hard as anyone else. ‘Well, I’m better than a trained lawyer who’s never had a single day in court,’ he said to Abdullah.
‘You forget, my friend, I was in court once, just once, for a traffic offence, ah, but I was much younger.’
‘As we say, what a man is at seven is also what he is at seventy. You can expect many more days in court, brother, and this time you’ll be the greatest offender of them all, the one everyone in the country is talking about,’ Deniz laughed. ‘What do you think of him, this fine specimen of Turkish manhood,’ he said, turning to me.
‘Well, I don’t know him much,’ I started warily, wondering if this was the insidious beginning of the custom of chatting up Western women on holiday and presenting them paper roses made out of napkins as part of a practiced courtship ritual that eventually results in a wedding, a visa to the West and a sticky divorce. In that order.
Yagiz stepped in again, finishing smoothly for me, ‘Let’s not digress. We were talking about Afghanistan.’
‘Ooh, such seriousness, such a dark mood. But only to be expected from the dark one,’ joked Abdullah. He turned to me, ‘He’s not called Yagiz for nothing. It means swarthy.’
‘Yes, that’s its literal meaning. Quite appropriate for him. He’s deep, he’s dark. He really believes our ruling party, which the Western press calls Islamic, is not Islamic enough.’
‘Really,’ I said, once again, looking at Yagiz curiously. I suddenly realized why his mannerisms had seemed so familiar. His courteous aversion towards me was like Najim’s, the exaggerated decorum of the Afghan male towards a ‘decent’ woman.
‘Yes, really … and dark forces run deep,’ Abdullah replied. ‘As for me, I’m as fair as Yagiz is dark and I say fairly and for all to hear that the prime minister’s AKP is a dark horse too. They tried to legitimize headscarves for women. Something Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the father of our nation, thought backward. Who is to say the AKP won’t Islamize Turkey in the years to come? And then what will become of our lives, our freedom to live as we please?’
Deniz, in his ebullient voice said, ‘There is no need for this dark and fair argument, Abdullah. What makes us great, what makes our country great, is that we are all muslim and we are all European. No conflict there.’
‘Exactly,’ Zafer put in, ‘Turkey is more important today than ever before and it is because the Adalet ve Kalkinma Party government sees little conflict between our ideas and our Islamic faith.’
‘The Adalet ve Kalkinma Party is the AKP, or what you would call the Justice and Development Party in English,’ Deniz kindly clarified for me as an aside.
‘Thank you, I think I got that,’ I murmured, transfixed by these young Turks’ boundless confidence in the synergies between their muslim values and modern instincts.
Deniz spoke up again, this time loudly, to the group, ‘Actu- ally, from what I have studied and remember, my friends, I studied with the best … no less a man than Ahmet Davutoğlu, the AKP’s foreign policy advisor, taught at Beykent Univer- sity when I was there. But it was Turgut Özal, our first president of the post-Cold War era, who made it all right for us to believe in the Turkish–Islamic synthesis. He made it all right for us to move away from what we were taught as Kemalism. We stopped being isolationist and we stopped apologizing for being muslim and Turkish. We could be ourselves. We didn’t have to choose between Islam and modernity.’
‘The world called it neo-ottomanism,’ said Zafer. ‘All this,’ he added, gesturing to the nargile and the throngs of young locals and tourists, ‘it’s become fashionable because of neo- ottomanism. There was a time, and my father tells a good story about it, when only old men smoked the nargile.’
Deniz became boastful. ‘Now it is in fashion. Now, we make our own fashions. Turkey has been freed to make the trends. The world will follow. It is following, already.’ And then, looking at me, ‘America is no longer the deciding factor when it comes to fashions. Zafer is right. Neo-ottomanism puts us at the center of the world. There will be a Turkish century. And it will be this one.’
‘Aren’t we going too far from what we were discussing,’ Yagiz asked blandly, ignoring an argument I found riveting. ‘We were talking about how important it is for America to do the right thing. The practical thing.’
‘Right,’ said Deniz, calling time on a conversation it was plain he enjoyed enormously and was loathe to abandon. ‘The right thing, the practical thing. Will the Americans do the right thing? What do you think?’ he asked me.
‘We’d like to, of course. That goes without saying,’ I replied carefully, ‘But wasn’t that the original point of the discussion? What is the right thing?’
‘Whatever it is, the right thing might so easily be seen by America as a weakness,’ argued Zafer. ‘They might think, as we say, that this is the philosophy of kissing the hand that you cannot wring. But is it?’
‘Not at all,’ said Abdullah. ‘US support for legalizing our cultivation of opium poppies in the 1970s helped us a lot. It always helps a country when people pay tax.’
‘I remember hearing about this but don’t really know much about how we, the US, supported your legalization of poppy production. In what way?’ I asked Abdullah.
‘Oh, you did. You did. And we thank you for it. And till today, you very kindly continue to buy opium from us.’
Zafer interrupted. ‘They call it narcotic raw materials, I think. That’s hypocrisy for you.’
Everyone hooted with laughter. I had to smile. It did seem ludicrous.
‘If America would only do the same for Afghanistan, think of what a difference it would make to that sad, sad country. You must know, you live there,’ said Deniz.
‘Well I live there but I don’t really know,’ I said apologetically.
‘How long have you been in Afghanistan?’ asked Zafer curiously.
‘A fair few months but I don’t get out much. And I’ve never been to the south where most of the poppy is grown and the Taliban is strongest.’
‘So you don’t really know anything,’ said Adil, standing up to break off a piece of sinmit and leaving me paralyzed with fear that his long black overcoat would knock the hot coals over. on to me.
‘I must admit that’s true. I don’t really know anything about Afghanistan, or at least I don’t know anything first-hand,’ I said.
‘But I do. I know something,’ he said, unmindful that he sounded rude. ‘I have a cousin who did business in Afghanistan till a few months ago. He says that if you stop even half of Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade, a huge chunk of its economy will emerge from the gray market. And the drug barons will be that much less powerful.’
I nodded, hoping he would sit down quickly. Deniz laughed at my palpable fear, following my wide-eyed gaze as I watched the appreciable arc of Adil’s swinging coat and its scant distance from the coals in the nargile. He spoke rapidly in Turkish and everyone laughed, Adil the loudest. But it seemed kindly, not loutish and so I relaxed and gave myself over to several hours of setting the world to rights with five opinionated young Turks in the heart of Istanbul.
It may be quicker and easier to relay what we did not discuss. We didn’t mention mother Teresa. Outer space. The CERN Hadron Collider out near Geneva. We didn’t talk about water voles, birds of paradise and holidays in the Maldives. No one mentioned beach resorts in Sri Lanka. We didn’t say the words ‘circumcision’, ‘ummah’, ‘burqa’, ‘halal’ and ‘hadith.’ We didn’t do God.
We talked war and peace, perspectives of truth and lies in our turning world and Zafer, a philosopher by the sounds of it, turned lyrical about Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian academic whom he insisted on calling the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’.
Everyone laughed at the description but Zafer fought his corner.
‘I read that line somewhere. It’s good because it captures the essence of the man and his ideas. They really rock and roll,’ he said unconsciously using American slang with earnest emphasis.
‘Have you read Žižek on America’s wars?’ he asked me. ‘no, I’m afraid I haven’t.’ ‘He compares them to the chocolate laxative.’
‘The what?’ ‘The chocolate laxative…’ ‘ooh, gross,’ I said, hanging on his every word. Zafer did not disappoint. ‘Žižek meant that the chocolate
laxative is like our modern attitude, or more accurately, the modern Western way of thinking, which tries to combine unrestrained pleasure with constraint. Think back to the time of your father and grandfather, my father and grandfather. They believed in having the right measure between pleasure and constraint. They didn’t combine the two to produce the chocolate laxative. They didn’t think that the very thing that causes you harm should be the medicine. Sweet things cause constipation and they must now cure you?’ he asked with exaggerated surprise. ‘The chocolate laxative, hah!’
‘Hah is right,’ I responded, ‘but how do America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to be part of the chocolate laxative theory?’
Zafer looked pleased to be asked to elucidate. ‘Easily. It’s the idea that America’s Iraq war and perhaps this long war in Afghanistan is oK if it fosters peace and brings democracy and allows aid and development projects into a country.’
‘Isn’t the USA’s promise to the world one and the same as its most frightening threat? Be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country,’ Deniz jeered.
Zafer nodded impatiently. ‘The chocolate laxative is about reconciling opposites. Believing that war somehow brings peace. That pacifist militarism is oK.’
Abdullah sounded amused as he murmured, ‘Ah, but isn’t that the American way, isn’t that the American Dream? Excess without guilt? Coffee without caffeine? Cream without fat? Lite beer? The doctrine of war with no casualties, which really, if you think about it, means warfare without warfare? Have you ever heard of anything more absurd?’
It sounded droll as he said it and I thought it more droll still that a Turkish lawyer who had never fought a court case in his professional life could so ably prosecute the case against America’s war in Afghanistan.
It was late when we tired of talking. I had drunk nothing stronger than elma cay, Turkey’s famous apple tea, but my head swam from hours of smoking and heady conversation as I unsteadily walked the short distance back to the hotel. I knew I would never see the five young Turks again – we were inter-planetary bodies that had briefly locked in orbit. But I knew that I had learnt a great deal and that it was possible to be muslim and modern and religiously principled and politically freewheeling all at once. And I knew I would remember this night for a long time. If only Afghanistan’s unfortunate reformist, King Amanullah, had been more practical and more patient, I thought regretfully, yet again. I had agonized over this so long that I no longer realized I was talking aloud – to myself. But I stopped just in time to enter the hotel lobby. Thoughts of Afghanistan, Amanullah, reform and rehabilitation were wiped from my mind as a tall figure leapt up, advanced towards me and hugged me tight. It was Henry.
‘I missed you too much. I couldn’t wait till I saw you in Konya.’
‘It would’ve been just tomorrow afternoon,’ I said in a daze, perhaps without the right note of exhilaration that an eager lover might expect.
‘Too long to wait,’ he said ardently and then more uncer- tainly, ‘At least, that’s what I thought. Are you sorry I came?’
‘of course not. Just surprised. not to mention, delighted. Over the moon actually,’ I smiled happily, consciously repeating the very words he had used the night of the marine Ball.
And I turned to the hotel receptionist, who looked faintly disapproving, and said with what I hoped was queenly grace, ‘I’d like to change to a double room, please.’