“The heartbreaking resilience of the Afghani Rugmaker” by Dr Jennifer Minter
The conflict between the Taliban (Pashtun majority) and the Hazaras (Shiite minority) in Afghanistan provides the backdrop for the religious and ethnic conflict that dominates Najaf Mazari’s life as a Hazara in Afghanistan.
During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2000, the predominantly Pashtun Sunni Muslims sought to “restore peace” and “enforce Sharia law”. The Taliban express their hatred for everything from music, to clean-shaven men. They close schools, ban girls from gaining an education and single out the Hazaras (Shi’ite Muslims) for persecution.
During typical raids in Mazar al Sherif Najaf Mazari recounts how the young Hazara men are shot on the spot (198) . His brother Gorg Ali is killed in a bomb attack which affects the family’s chances of survival and quality of life. The Hazaras are expelled from Mazar el Sharif. Najaf refuses to leave and is forced into hiding. His family believe that immigrating, even as an illegal, is his best chance of survival.
Upon his escape, Najaf was incarcerated in the Woomera Detention Centre in Australia. The Australian Government’s border protection policy seeks to deter refugees who come to Australia “by boat”. During Najaf’s time, all refugees were compulsorily detained while their claims for asylum were assessed. These days, all claims are processed off-shore. Nafaj’s claim was processed in Australia. Many human rights activists believe that this policy contravenes fundamental human rights. Julian Burnside QC maintains that under Article 14 of the universal declaration of human rights every person has a right to seek asylum in any territory to which they can gain access.
Najaf describes how many of the refugees in the detention centre live in constant fear of being deported to the country that caused them so much trauma. They become engulfed in a state of existential angst, fearing for their future. They live in such a state of tension and trauma that many descend into the depths of despair. He draws attention to one particular case of a fellow Afghani, who he believes was completely genuine. He believes that he was dealt with unjustly by the Australian authorities, who denied him a visa. The man was so dejected and so terrified of his unknown future, that he resorted to self mutilation. Such was his angst and despair that he sewed his lips together. With his heart torn into a thousand pieces, he lies dripping in blood like a “picture from hell”. (102)
Najaf has a composed temperament and responds to both his personal and family problems in a reasoned and measured way. For this reason, the family chose him as the most likely person to survive the perilous journey to Australia. “I was judged the most level-headed person in the entire family, moderate when it came to religion” (220)
A positive and resilient temperament
Whether it was near-fatal rocket attacks, the death of his beloved brother Gorg Ali, the whippings by the Taliban during the Mazar el Sharif massacre, or the perilous boat journey to Australia, Najif always maintains a phlegmatic and optimistic outlook. His ability to constantly withstand one crisis after another renews his faith in God and reinforces his optimistic outlook on life. When he is forced to remain in bed because of his injured leg from the rocket attack, he thinks about his life and his relationship with God. (“I attempted to profit from this period of being bedridden by thinking of such matters of importance”. He knows that he has to be “strong in my body and my mind for whatever happens”. (98) Najaf’s faith in a benevolent God helps him deal with the constant violence in his life.
As he physically weaves his carpets, he also weaves in his mind the prospect of a better life, a life filled with love, hope and prosperity. ”And it was this double weaving in my mind and on the loom, that kept my spirits high, when the mujahedin chased me and the communists chased me and the war went on and on and the jets roared across the blue skies”
Throughout his ordeal, whether he was being beaten or flogged by the Taliban, experiencing a fate “worse than hell”, anxiously hiding in a cupboard for 12 days, or waiting to be burned alive in a room (200), miraculously Najaf always finds a way to remain positive. He simply refuses to give in to the enemy. Rather than destroying his faith, such experiences confirm his faith in goodness and the saying that “a good deed is like throwing an object into the sea knowing that the waves will return it to you”. It’s because of such calmness that he is singled by his family …. because they predict that he will have the mental and emotional resources to withstand the rigours of a very difficult and challenging journey as an illegal immigrant. One only needs to think about his state as a bedridden youngster who refused to succumb to his leg injury …
Najif has the ability to transform adversity into a positive experience. When he is forced to remain in bed because of his injured leg from the rocket attack, he thinks about his life and his relationship with God. (“I attempted to profit from this period of being bedridden by thinking of such matters of importance”. He knows that he has to be “strong in my body and my mind for whatever happens”. (98) He realizes anxiety and worry will not help him with his desire for a visa.
Gorg Ali: a peace activist and inspirational role model
Gorg Ali believes that we cannot achieve anything by violence and fighting. He was one of those people who “make the world possible”.
Gorg Ali’s response to the conflict is a typically pacifist approach. Najaf describes Gorg Ali as a peaceful person who preached that bravery was all about building and making. He refused to lift an “axe over our enemies’ heads” (105). He belongs to the school of “watermelon philosophers’, which refers to his belief that knowledge should be useful and improve a person’s life in practical ways. Gorg Ali believes that “bravery” can be building and making and refusing to lift an axe over our enemies’ heads” and leads by example. “He had no faith in fighting”; rather he believes in things made by “sweat and toil”; physical exertion is important because it can improve your life in tangible ways.
There are obvious parallels with Gandhi who developed a non-violent creed known as satyagraha (steadfastness in truth). Gandhi believed that the opponent or the perpetrator of injustice must be weaned from his error by patience and sympathy. He organized passive resistance to the unpopular and unjust British measures such as the Salt Tax in 1930 and was repeatedly imprisoned. Likewise, the Dalai Lama believes that “nonviolence is the appropriate method” and the importance of resolving conflict in a way that suits all stakeholders. “I strongly believe that we must promote such a concept of nonviolence at the level of the family as well as the national and international levels. Each individual has the ability to contribute to such compassionate nonviolence.”
Ironically, it is often uncharacteristic or atypical moments that may give us an insight into our “true” character.
One of the few decisions that Najif took that contradicted his family’s plans and made him uncharacteristically deceitful was his choice of career – that of weaving carpets. He gave up a more practical and secure career as a welder, which created a great deal of personal and family conflict because it struck at the core of his family responsibilities. As a Hazara he would have been mindful of their precarious position and the fact that he may well need to become the breadwinner. His family members advised against an occupation that may have been unstable and insecure. The fact that he adhered to his choices and prioritized his happiness and personal fulfillment reveals much about his courage and confidence. Similarly, after Gorg Ali’s death, Najaf burdened by extra responsibility, becomes aggressive and resorts to violence. He smashes a window after his brother locked himself in a room and the glass cuts his hand.
When Gorg Ali dies, Najaf must shoulder more responsibility, which provides another perspective. “Feeling older for each year I felt I had aged two… at this rate I will be an old man with hair by the age of 20”, made Najaf stronger too. This personal conflict as he struggles to cope with his new found responsibilities causes him to change his attitude towards life, and forces him to become stronger within himself. But at times he also acts in aggressive and violent ways. Gorg Ali was a constant source of solace and guidance and after his death Najaf finds it difficult to work, live and breathe. He begins to fear for the future of his beloved ones and despairs at their hope for peace. He vents his frustration on his younger brother Rosal Ali and becomes so “fed up with him” that he shouts at him, “just as Abdul Ali shouted at me” – which horrifies him. Uncharacteristically, he resorts to violence and smashes a window after his brother locked himself in a room and the glass cuts his hand. His mother urges him to show forebearance and patience, but this is impossible given the despair and anxiety following Gorg Ali’s death.
Freedom and values
For Najaf, who grew up in a war-torn country, freedom becomes a cherished and non-negotiable commodity. As a Hazara he knows that his fate was at the whim of the brutal Taliban who could destroy his life at any moment. As result of his experiences of incarceration and discrimination, he realizes that freedom is the most important thing in life. As a token of his freedom he releases the canaries and empties the fish into the water. “Each fish has been granted a visa, by me.” Importantly, he also tries to protect the fish from the devouring eels.
Sometimes our experiences of persecution and indiscriminate violence vindicate our system of moral values and our faith, thus reinforcing what is important and significant in our lives. For example, Najaf’s philosophy of peaceful response, instilled in him by his brother Gorg Ali, as well as his faith in the value of hard work are constantly reinforced throughout his painful ordeal and shapes his future life as a “rugmaker” in Australia. Drawing upon the parable of the old and the young camel, Najaf reinforces the old camel’s advice that it is important to take a long-term view of conflict and not renege; “come what may, we must climb those mountains”. (99) Najaf’s ordeal emphasizes to him the importance and integrity of hard work which brings its rewards. In his case, he also believes that he has triumphed because of his faith in a benevolent God and the fact that values of truth, humility and peace will eventually triumph over adversity and brutality. Such faith in a benevolent God, he believes, that helped him to recuperate from his near fatal knee wound also stands him in good stead throughout his time in the detention centre and rewards him with a better life in Australia. He is determined to repay his good fortune by building a prosperous life for his family in Australia and feels forever “blessed” and grateful.
Najaf knows that the conflict will be drawn out and that there is little prospect of peace. He knows that the Taliban fighters will not give in, and that for them, “ten years is nothing”. “Even a hundred years is not a long time”. Presciently, he foresees a time when the Americans and their allies will return home, and the Taliban will continue their mission, “which is victory”. “Very few Afghanis can remember a time when there was no fighting.”. (251)
And finally, Najaf becomes a proud Australian citizen glad to have the chance to give his daughter a taste of peace.