Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sitting for a Kuchi Tribal Council

The Kuchi peoples are the last of the nomads in Afghanistan. They migrate with the season, maintaining a lifestyle that befuddles most other Afghans. The outskirts of Kabul host several different Kuchi settlements, usually clusters of hundreds of low-slung black tents. One of my interpreters shook his head and gave me an incredulous look when I asked him about the Kuchis. “Many of them have money. They own businesses,” he said. “But they like living in those tents.”

I recently visited a Kuchi camp east of Kabul. I was expecting to see a mobile canvas metropolis, but instead found myself in the middle of a small mud-walled village with a single, narrow street that barely accommodated my five-vehicle convoy and the five hundred Kuchi men and boys who appeared to be waiting for our arrival. 250 of these males began to direct us to various parking spaces, none of them large or secure enough for our vehicles. The other 250 were intermittently assaulting an international aid truck distributing large bags of grain (clearly another factor that drew the crowd). I was driving one of the SUVs in the convoy, and after idling among the throng of Kuchis for a few minutes – each one of them gesticulating for me to proceed in a direction different from what his neighbor urged – a few Afghan policemen with AK-47s and nasty looking sticks that resembled horse-whips literally beat people away from my vehicle, and directed me to back into a gate that opened along the walled street.

I was traveling with several other military medical colleagues and a delegation from the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health led by the Deputy Minister. The ministry, at the urging of the Kuchis, wants to build a medical clinic at the settlement. Before we departed Kabul, I questioned why anyone would seriously consider constructing a permanent medical clinic for a group of nomads. The answer came back that Kuchis collect at this particular spot outside Kabul every year, and in fact many of the tribe intend to settle there permanently.

The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has been trying to stop the Kuchi migrations across the central and southern regions of the country. The Kuchis are ethnically Pashtun, the same as Karzai, so he may wield some influence in convincing the Kuchis to abandon their nomadic heritage. He certainly could do without the recent political controversies involving the Kuchis and their alleged squatting on lands claimed by other ethnic groups. Over the past few months the Kuchis have been battling – both verbally and physically – the Hazara, who live and raise livestock in a couple of provinces near Kabul. Both groups lay claim to grazing lands made scarce this year by low amounts of rainfall, and both groups claim murder of their kin by the other.

The Hazara for centuries have been the abused minority of Afghanistan. They are Shiite Muslims surrounded by devout Sunnis. Moreover, they are descendents of Genghis Khan, and thus a reminder of that invader and his rampaging horde who rose from Mongolia to sweep through Asia. In what is present-day Afghanistan, the Mongols simply destroyed most of what they encountered, deposited a considerable amount of their DNA, and left a rudimentary governing military structure. But most of the Mongols left the Afghan lands shortly after they ravaged it, and rode on looking for the thrill of pillage elsewhere in Central Asia. Ironically, the Kuchis, who now are rivals of the Hazara and more than willing to use their Pasthun ethnicity (which in Afghanistan makes for considerable political muscle) to encroach upon Hazara land, may never have come to prominence at all in Afghanistan had not Genghis Khan slaughtered the sedentary tribes of the country while the mobile nomads hid in the hills and caves, waited out the invasion, and emerged later relatively unscathed. Quite suddenly, the nomads found themselves a prominent political force due to the shockingly high attrition rate for anyone standing stationary on flat land as the Mongol horseman rode by.

The entirely male Kuchi delegation that awaited us at the settlement included the group’s representative in the Afghan parliament, its mullah, and 25-30 other elders and clan leaders from the local settlement. We met in a long, narrow room one floor above the bustling street. At the head of the room sat the mullah and the Parliamentarian, flanked on both sides by the Deputy Minister, a few of his staff, and us Americans. None of the Kuchis seemed bothered that we Americans were wearing body armor and helmets, and carrying loaded M-16 rifles that we simply leaned against a wall or placed in front of our feet on the carpeted floor.

We had also left two men from our convoy at the vehicles to guard them. That is standard military procedure when parked in an insecure location. In fact, our initial reaction when we drove into the main square of the village to find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Kuchi males in loose-fitting, traditional Afghan dress who were unable to resist the urge to nuzzle our vehicles was: This is the scenario that our combat survival instructors in the US told us to avoid at all costs. After learning that we were to meet with all the leaders of the community, however, we realized that in fact we were probably safer in that village than we would be anywhere else in Afghanistan. The governing patriarchy was welcoming and surrounding us, and the Pashtun tribal code calls for unbridled hospitality to one’s guests. Additionally, we were there to present a gift: a new medical clinic. Certainly the word was passed long before we arrived that the Americans are to be welcomed and escorted safely to and from the village.

The minister explained in English that before we talked of the medical clinic, we would "of course follow the cultural customs," and that was when the blind muezzin across from me began chanting select verses of the Koran that nobody but the mullah seemed to understand as the performance was sung in Arabic. Following the religious formalities, a few of the Kuchi rose individually to make statements that not even a fellow Naval officer who is Afghan-American understood, as the Kuchis were speaking Pashtu and not the officer’s native Dari. So we simply waited out these monologues and the spirited ten-minute conversation between the minister and the Kuchis that followed; and at a point when the dialogue seemed to ebb a bit, the ministry representative sitting next to me leaned into my ear and said, “Oh, sir. They want us to build a 200-bed hospital here!” a project much larger than our plan for a medical clinic plus twenty-bed inpatient ward. Another five minutes of spirited Pashtu ensued, and my neighbor leaned over again and whispered “They say they have more than 100,000 people here now!” And after a few more minutes of Pashtu interlocution, even the minister who was leading the discussion looked nonplussed as he stopped the Afghan-to-Afghan dialogue and exclaimed in English to us, “They say they have not 100,000 people here, but more than 100,000 families!”

The typical Afghan family has around eight children, and the Kuchis themselves may be procreating at an even greater rate as one elder rose later in the meeting, came to the front of the room, and claimed (as I learned through the Afghan next to me) that he has two wives and twenty-six children and that the settlement needed a full-scale hospital to serve the burgeoning population. It took a several seconds for the native English speakers to get the translation that this man had fathered twenty-six offspring, and the Afghans present just looked at us with lascivious grins until a couple of Americans started clapping their hands in appreciation for this contemporary Abraham; and then everyone in the room starting cheering and laughing as that most fertile gentleman walked proudly back to his spot on the carpet. That individual Kuchi’s productivity notwithstanding, I found myself in disbelief that upwards of one million Kuchis had located themselves in that settlement. The entire population of Afghanistan is thought to be 30-35 million, and I doubted 1/30 of the entire population sat bivouacked outside the village walls.

Of course, the supposed settlement population was merely specious bargaining data for the Kuchis gathered around us. They wanted the biggest and best clinic they could get, and at one point their Parliamentarian and the mullah were literally leaning into the minister and demanding that he promise them today, in front of their fellow tribesmen, that he would build a 200-bed hospital for the settlement. The other Kuchis seemed well-schooled on the coercive power of an intimidating majority, as they stood (sometimes two or three simultaneously) and offered mandates of their own to supplement their leaders’ injunctions as the latter literally collared the minister, who at this point was perspiring noticeably.

I make no presumption to understand the intricacies and nuance of Afghan culture and interpersonal communication. In fact, the more time I spend here, the less often I am apt to even speculate on what is actually taking place before me as Afghans speak and smile and gesticulate among themselves. So I was only a bit shocked when, three minutes after the Kuchis seemed intent on strong-arming for themselves the Afghan equivalent of Beth Israel Hospital, the minister, looking somewhat less moist, turned to the us Americans with a triumphant grin and announced, “So, it is now concluded. We will build the original plan for the clinic and the twenty beds. Perhaps with the ability to expand later.”

Everyone seemed extremely pleased, and as I looked around the room every Kuchi had a smile on his face. Apparently no more words were needed, as cans of cold soda pop were distributed to everyone in the room and we all shut up so we could drink. I watched the muezzin quickly drain one can of Pepsi, and then a second, after his neighbor kindly opened the cans and gently placed them in the blind man’s hand.

Below is a short slide show with more photographs from the event.

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