Talking to the (ex-)Taliban

Barely months after I left with broken bones, Kabul has pulled me back. This time I arrived at the new Kabul International Airport using Ariana Afghan Airlines. I was one of only three women on the three-hour flight from Dubai to Kabul via Kandahar.

Although eight years have passed since the fall of the Taliban, some Afghans are still returning to their country for the first time. Sitting across from me on the plane was one old man who was making the 24-hour journey from the United States to Kabul after an absence of 30 years. Despite the fact that his bags were lost and he was fed up with the lack of courtesy at the Ariana help desk, when the pilot announced that we had entered Afghan airspace, he extended his neck like a camel from his aisle seat towards the window to catch a glimpse of his country and, with tears in his eyes, invited us all to look at the beauty of its snow-capped mountains.

The other two females in the plane were travelling from Germany – one to visit her family after eight years in exile and the other a teenager who had left the country when she was two, returning to rid herself of the feeling of melancholy that had been consuming her in Germany during past year. The two wore a bizarre ensemble of western clothing, aiming but failing to blend. The colour and tightness of their attire, their neatly French manicured nails and the odd German word in their speech gave them away. They were cousins.

Apart from these odd Western Afghans the plane was full of turbaned Kandaharis, mostly labourers, returning from Dubai. One, who sat with me for the first half of the flight, was an ex-Taliban member. He told me about the time he met Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who, he said, was a mild man, a good leader, surrounded by bad advisors and foreign cronies. He showed me his old Taliban-issue ID card. I was as interesting to him as he was to me. He asked me about the law curriculum at British universities and I asked him about his law education under the Taliban.

We talked about theology – mainly about why there were so many western theologians who knew about Islam but few Muslim theologians specializing in other religions. We talked about the future of our country. We concluded that violence was no longer sustainable and the people’s hatred of both the Taliban and the international forces – as perpetrators of the violence – would grow if they continued with their current policies. He showed me pictures of his wife, who was green-eyed like me, and his chubby-cheeked, smiling baby daughter. He told me that he was teaching his wife Arabic to prepare her for life in the Emirates.

Meeting him, a moderate former Taliban, I am even more convinced that negotiation is the best solution to Afghanistan’s problems – but only if the supply routes to the Taliban are severed first.

The plane made an hour long stop-over in Kandahar, where my Talib friend got off and I joined the girls, who had thus far kept away from Kandaharis, choosing instead to stick to the Afghan returnees. With the girls I talked about Afghanistan too, about insecurity and about the smell in the plane!

Turban and beard, to the girls, were not styles of attire but a symbol of the Taliban era. They were astonished that I had spent the first leg of the journey sitting next to a former member the Taliban. They didn’t believe they could ever do the same. They feared violence, even in the safety of the plane.

All this made me wonder whether before any negotiation in the political field is possible, dialogue between the rural majority and the urban élite of Afghanistan needs to take place so that the person behind the turban and burqa can come out and be understood.

I am now off to buy a burqa for myself. I am doing so because my ex-Taliban friend advised me to do so – not because he thought I should be kept hidden as a woman but because he thought the current members of the Taliban were indiscriminately violent and they might target me if I wandered around barefaced. We both hoped for a time when I could do my work without having to hide behind the burqa.

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