Thursday, September 02, 2004

Amazing History--From Afghanistan

This was a final "Day at Sea." With nothing else to do, Sarita borrowed a book from the ship's library and read a kind of personal-history, Afghani-perspective book. She asked me to type up the following passage from the book. It sure blew me away!

The book itself, from what she has shown me, is well worth reading. It’s called West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story by Tamim Ansary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

Here’s the quote:

In San Francisco not long ago, I saw a high school world history textbook that covered the Ghaznavid Empire with a single picture and a short caption, but in central Asia, it was a mighty big deal for a hundred years. It stretched from India to the Caspian Sea, covering an area perhaps half the size of the United States. Its kings, or sultans, loomed large as patrons of the arts. Sultan Mahmud had nine hundred poets living at his court, plus innumerable historians, philosophers, and the like. The Book of Kings, the major epic of Persian literature, was originally written for him.

The Ghaznavids and their successors, the Seljuk Turks, presided over three hundred years of art and thought every bit as vital as the Italian Renaissance. The Renaissance, however, segued into “the European expansion,” which became the main stem of world history. The first Islamic civilization of the Turks, Arabs, and Persians was cut short and buried by the Mongol holocaust.

At this remove, Genghis Khan registers as romantic to many. “Great conqueror. Great strategist,” the textbooks say, forgetting to add, “Mindless destroyer. Brutal butcher.” Genghis Khan destroyed so utterly, on such a scale, that no one today can know what Islamic civilization was about or where it was going then. Imagine if a massive force of slobbering boors had invaded Europe during the Renaissance and erased from memory Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Erasmus, Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Rome. That’s pretty much what the Mongols did to Islamic civilization. In Afghanistan alone, the Mongols dumped the once-celebrated library of the now-forgotten city of Balkh into the Amu, a river so broad, you can’t see from one bank to the other, and yet the library of ancient Balkh dammed its waters for three days (and then washed away).

The Ghaznavids established a regional capital in that hellish desert, where they built enormous irrigation works that used the Helmand River to create, according to legend, “the breadbasket of Asia.” But Genghis Khan didn’t like bread. He thought people should herd sheep and eat meat. So he tore up the irrigation systems, killed every living thing in the local cities, right down to the dogs and cats, and then sowed salt in the soil. The region never recovered. (pp. 55-57; NOTE: This reminds me of something a woman we met at one of the evening shows said. She was born in Iran and lived through Khomeini’s “revolution.” Now, 22 years later, she says the country/civilization—not quite “can never” go back to what it was, but it will take a huge, very costly, and very prolonged effort to ever bring it back. All the women who once were free have moved on and out. And now all the new generation knows is the oppressive environment in which they grew up.)

Sarita showed me the "Post-Epilogue" email that Mr. Ansary wrote on September 12, 2001 immediately following—you guessed it—9/11. Ansary was responding to the proposals some were making at the time that “we” (the United States) “bomb Afghanistan back to the stone age.” . . . As an Afghani-American, he wanted to reply to that suggestion. So he wrote an email. And then he wrote his book.

I look forward to reading the book.
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