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Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and author of the new novel Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. It’s late at night and I read this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald and imagine a country of the future, its grand boulevards shaded by old black locust trees in bloom, below which washed cars are parked; no one knows hunger or the red of blood in the dust, and the sky is blue in the clean moving water under the Larzanak Bridge; here, God’s immediate concern is boredom. Then I imagine the same country again, this time stuck in the ungiving ground of the past; people’s stomachs growl as they look up “peace” in a dictionary; they pray to God for rain, for entry to heaven, for calamity upon their enemies.

In the morning I try to get up from a dreamless sleep, brush my teeth, make coffee, water the plants and wait for the sun to rise as usual. But, by God, I can’t. Either I’m slipping into early insanity, or Fitzgerald’s observation doesn’t apply to me because I’m from Afghanistan, a country constantly at war with itself, its urban centre seeking change and pushing forward; its rural areas fixed in traditions, wanting stasis and correcting any secular pull by dragging society in the opposite direction.

Will there be an end to this city-versus-country, past-versus-future, progress-versus-stagnation, I ask myself? Then I realize it’s the wrong question. You can’t work out the end of something if you don’t know the beginning of it.

In the beginning, there’s a Pashtun king whose name means The Merciful, but he has no mercy. They call him the Iron Amir. He loves to kill and kills his servant, his cousins, tribal leaders, and more than half the population of ethnic Hazaras who refuse to accept his tyranny. He craves absolute power, and goes to great lengths to get it.

It’s the late 1800s, and the British aren’t leading the charge for freedom and human rights like today. Back then there’s this game called “colonization,” and they’re pretty good at it. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan knows that Her Majesty the Queen wishes to feast on the people he himself wants as subjects. He tells them off, but the British have thick skin and stand staring. Eventually the Iron Amir goes soft; he signs the Durand Line Agreement and throws the British India government a big portion of the country – making it part of modern-day Pakistan – and he resumes claiming the rest of Afghanistan for himself, undisturbed. He wages war against the village-republics and crushes the feudal lords.

Then he faces a class that draws its legitimacy from no one but God. The mullahs’ faith may be incorruptible, but they themselves aren’t. So the Amir puts them on the government’s payroll. He centralizes power. He creates a spy network, and spies who spy on the spies. But his agents cannot get down into the heart of the villages that constitute the bulk of the country. The Amir ends up creating a new Afghanistan on top of the old. This sets in motion a struggle that would swallow Afghanistan and any foreign powers that dare to enter it. All this you can read in Tamim Ansary’s Games Without Rules, a book written with care and wisdom.

You can also read about Amanullah Khan, the Amir’s grandson, and his glorious blunders when he takes the reins. Here I wish Fitzgerald had been born a generation earlier; Amanullah Khan could have used his wisdom. If he could have held the dream of a modern Afghanistan and the reality of its conservative countryside in his mind at the same time and still rule the country, he wouldn’t have had to leave his position as king and become a nameless furniture maker in Italy. You could argue that he didn’t have first-rate intelligence, or that power is a vice and comes with a current that proves too strong for most. Either way, Amanullah Khan thinks he can build Rome in one day. He makes education compulsory for boys and girls in co-educational schools. He detests polygamy and beards and asks men to shave. Anyone found roaming the streets of Kabul clad in a turban is fined. Worse still, he says veils are not required for women and his wife takes off her scarf. I don’t think it’s always a good idea to lead by example. Especially if you’re a king. You can lose your throne. Or your head. Or both.

Amanullah Khan loses the throne to Habibullah of Kalakan, an ethnic Tajik who, unlike his predecessor, wears traditional garb, a turban, and affixes “Servant of Allah” to his name. But to rule a country, trust in God alone isn’t enough. You have to know a thing or two about politics and public administration. Ironically, almost a century later, we’re back where we were in 1929.

The next monarchs are masters of the art of manipulation. They invite Habibullah for a meeting and hang him. They’re Pashtun modernists camouflaged as defenders of the faith and tradition, all to undercut the authority of the clergy. They reinstate the religious police, lift the ban on turbans, and Mohammad Zahir Shah sees to the matter of polygamy himself. He has a wife and many mistresses across the land. Men who consider having multiple wives a virtue see the young king as one of their own. They cut the royal family slack when they form a new constitution, a parliament, encourage people to vote in elections, go to school and respect women’s rights. The monarchy lasts nearly 40 years. An awfully long time for a place like Afghanistan. But you already know their secret, the fine balance between diplomacy and repression, conservatism and progressiveness, ties and turbans.

Yet, in every household there is a crazy one, as goes the Afghan proverb. In Zahir Shah’s family this happens to be his cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan, who would dismantle the kingdom in favour of the republic and become its first president. He’s visionary, stubborn and broke. That’s a bad combination, don’t you think? He wants to build infrastructure to modernize the economy. He’s often seen driving alone or with his grandson out of town. He spreads a map on the hood of his Toyota Crown and stares at the blank landscape around him. In his imagination he’s able to see what no one will ever see: a united, prosperous Afghanistan. To realize his dreams, he needs money, and for that he dances in the flame of the Cold War, now leaning toward the Americans, now toward the Russians. As a kid I once heard my father and his friends recount a rumoured anecdote in which Daoud Khan in a meeting with foreign dignitaries lit an American cigarette with Russian matches. I’ll let you dissect the symbolism of that move. Daoud Khan makes another move that isn’t as poetic; he bullies Pakistan into returning the land the Iron Amir had conceded earlier. This awakens the nationalism in people and they’re jubilant. Yet the soft glow of the bare legs and arms of the women who roam the streets of Daoud Khan’s Kabul in miniskirts and sleeveless shirts outweigh his staunch patriotism. Then his wife and daughters appear scarfless in public during the annual festival of Jashn-e Istiqlal. To get an inkling of how shocking this was to Afghans, Mr. Ansary writes, imagine the first lady attending the president’s State of the Union speech topless.

It seems that we, the people of Afghanistan, especially our rulers, are slow to learn and quick to forget. Daoud Khan must have overlooked the page in the history books about Amanullah Khan’s demise. And so he pays for his negligence. His political miscalculations, authoritarianism and unbridled social reforms lead him and his family to that dining room in the palace one April day in 1978. There’ll be too much blood on the page to recall that final meal. Suffice to say that no one walks out alive.

In the following 14 years, every ruler that walks into the presidential palace is communist, either by trade or by association. In a country where most people don’t know that communism is an economic ideology, and take it as synonymous with godlessness, it can be a major handicap. Worse still, these leaders see themselves in the image of Joseph Stalin, and Afghanistan in that of Russia. And by God they look like fools when they try to imitate Stalin’s Red Terror, his cult of personality, his economic and social reforms. They want to transform Kabul into Little Moscow, and in the process they send Afghanistan into its darkest years. The Mujahideen, the civil war, the Taliban.

In 2001, when we emerge from the darkness, some of us find the light of democracy blinding. In chaos there are opportunities. Men rule over women, old matriarchs dictate proceedings to the younger women in the family, and the clergy, in the absence of a system, is the system. But once again the pendulum has swung in favour of the city and those in the countryside see their share of power shrink.

Take this story, for example. It’s 2008; terms such as elections, freedom of speech, women’s rights and education are back in fashion. A woman, a family friend of mine named Zainab Rezai, runs for a local councillor seat in a village in Bamiyan province. She wins and now has a say in the goings-on of the community. By this time, Kabul has been secretly attacking the country, its lances wrapped in development projects such as small solar-power grids. So the village convenes in the mosque to discuss how to own these devastating blows. The mullah opens the meeting by slapping a boy across the face for lifting some change from the charity box of the mosque. Mrs. Rezai, the councillor, gets up and blasts the boy’s father, then the mullah. How dare he humiliate a young person in front of everyone? Could he have not talked to the boy and his father in private? Next, she says something the audience didn’t see it coming. “I’ll slap you myself if you ever slap someone in public again,” she warns the mullah. In a place where social change moves at the speed of lichen, sometimes lichens shoot like a flash of light. The mosque goes quiet, and in that silence animosity begins to brew. A year later, Mrs. Rezai is on national television speaking against the Shia Personal Status Law proposed by a powerful cleric, which, among other things, strips a woman’s right to refuse her husband sex when he demands it. The villagers see her live thanks to those sun-craving panels fixed on the clay rooftops. Apostasy, that potent, timeless solution, is reached for. She has converted to Christianity, they say. There’s a suggestion of washing her in acid. Stoning. How about fire? So a few gentlemen with cool heads and clean consciences leave their homes with gallons of gasoline.

Then it’s 2014 and the same old story is about to be repeated all over again. President Ashraf Ghani suffers from a handicap none of his predecessors did; he thinks he knows too much. His supporters insist he’s the second-best intellect alive; I don’t know who the first one is, but I hope he or she is nowhere near a place of power. Too much knowing can be a vice, it can put distance between you and those around you. Add that to the vice of power, well, you’re doomed. You give a Muslim country whose religious beliefs border on the extreme a non-Muslim first lady, you have temper issues and an uncharismatic voice, you fight corruption with corruption and micromanagement, you don’t know how to pray, and on live television you call Hussein (Prophet Muhammad’s grandson) God’s grandchild.

Unlike the ex-president, the current rulers of Afghanistan seem to know God and Prophet Muhammad better than they know themselves. And they’re the slowest learners of us all. It’s as if they have woken from a 20-year dream, overcorrecting the secular gains of the past two decades. Women can’t work outside the house or go to the university, people are punished by the morality police on the streets over trivial matters, and in talking to the pilgrims, the new de facto Prime Minister of the Taliban, Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, asks them to pray when in Mecca for the permanence of the Islamic Emirate and for the betterment of its relations with the world. So much for the science of diplomacy.

Referencing the time of Pericles in The Road to Character, David Brooks writes that a great-souled leader was supposed to save his people in a time of peril or transform them to fit the needs of a new age. Most of our leaders, past and present, have not. If anything, they have ignored the sensibilities of their subjects and citizens and despised their predecessors. Ashraf Ghani mocked Amanullah Khan for fleeing to Italy, and the Taliban are now laughing at him and his generals for vanishing into thin air. I believe it’s a virtue to learn from history and know that in Afghanistan, only time can have the last laugh. It’s equally virtuous to accept that people and society are best reformed by slow stretching, not by sudden rapture, to quote the novelist George Eliot. And could we not hold modernism and traditionalism in our minds at the same time and still co-exist? We’re all striving for the same truth. Peace. Only our approaches are different. The sooner we accept it, the better, or this bloody cycle will keep wheeling on. And by God, if you’re the next superpower who’s itching to conquer Afghanistan, do yourself and us a favour and resist the urge. If you can’t, at least read Tamim Ansary’s Games Without Rules before coming through.

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