Monday, January 23, 2012 at 4:19AM
It was 1996.
My father had recently returned from a trip that allowed him the unusual opportunity of venturing beyond Lahore. He and my cousin went on a road trip and wandered through Peshawar and areas bordering Afghanistan. During that excursion, my father met and conversed with some Afghani "mujahideen."
The word mujahideen has become synonymous with "Islamist" and “terrorist.” For Americans knowledgeable on the topic in 1996, though, a mujahideen was something different. Mujahideen means "one who fights in the way of jihad," and this is not the post 9/11 "jihad" that Muslims in the United States are quick to point out as a spiritual struggle. It's am actual reference to battle.
In 1979, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Afghanis fought back. The defense of Afghanistan proved significant to Pakistan and the United States by virtue of a enemy that was perceived to be shared. Many of the young men who battled tanks with hand held weaponry strongly felt that God had contributed to their victory. The most famous mujahideen we all know was a Yemeni man named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden never directly fought the Soviets in combat, but instead funded and supported training facilities and medical camps during the war. In this way, he seems less representative of Afghani mujahideen than most conservative talking heads are willing to admit.
By the time the Soviets were defeated, over 2 million Afghanis had died. That was the beginning of the death toll, though. In the next ten years, a complex series of battles, both physical and ideological, within Afghanistan would create circumstances that would lead to the rise of a Taliban government. Ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam of this religio-political faction would lead to repeated violations of basic human rights to education, justice and even mobility. It also provided fertile soil for the development of an ideological movement that has contributed to the deaths of over one million people all over the world.
But back to 1996.
My nineteen year old self's sense of awe at the mujahideen victory claimed against the USSR with little more than borrowed training and ammunition from its neighboring nation of Pakistan and funding from the United States was likely naive. I was just a kid and couldn't have foreseen how the stories of these victorious underdogs would contribute significantly to an ideology that would change us all forever.
I knew at the time that these were people who had fought to save their homeland, and that both of the countries I called home, America and Pakistan, had helped them do that. It was childlike on my part, but when I listened to those stories in 1996, I felt whole.
One story my father told me of his visit had to do with shopping in makeshift markets that former mujahideen had set up. Many of the goods weren't the usual fare. When my father inquired about the origin of certain items that looked more eastern European in nature than south Asian, the sellers gave mysterious smiles and assured him that he was lucky to have the ability to acquire such quality merchandise at such a low cost.
I don't know if it was my dad's addiction to getting a good bargain or that he felt sorry for the guys, but he bought some stuff and brought it home. When he presented my mother with some of the things he had bought, my brother and I laughed at how gaudy it was, made jokes about it belonging to the Romanovs and feigned horror at my dad's purchase of what was essentially "war plunder."
After getting married, though, I took a few of the things with me. Maybe I wanted to hold on to the innocence that led me to believe that Pakistan and the U.S. had worked together to make something good happen. Or maybe it was just that no matter how gaudy those things were, they reminded me of my parents and I wanted to take that with me to my new home.
The item deemed "most gaudy" in 1996 sits at the entrance of my home today. I don't find it tacky anymore, but tremendously beautiful and significant. On dusting days, when it’s given more attention than usual, I pass my hands over its delicately beaded surfaces and wonder how far this item has journeyed. I imagine the places and the homes that it once occupied.
I worry for the people who first owned it and I wonder what it might have meant to them. I also worry for the people who sold it (stole it?) and wonder if they are even in this world now. I think of countless yet imagined hands that have touched this odd item and wonder about the hopefulness of the hearts to which those hands belonged.
As I wipe the dust, I think of how best laid plans and intentions often end in despair. I remember that small moment when I thought all was right in the world and then I'm suddenly shoved back into the present reality of being a grown up where nothing is ever simple and things seldom make perfect sense.
Life is tragic, fleeting, unpredictable, and yet it is, like this item, extraordinarily beautiful in the most complex of ways.