Originally posted December 2009
In his book From My Memories, Khaled Sediq recounts the following incident from the mid-1960s regarding a visit by him and some other members of his family to Mohammad Zahir, King of Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973:
Finally, after uttering some conventional statements, such as, Afghanistan belongs to you and you belong to Afghanistan, he also added: ‘Even though unpleasant events have happened, yet, I have forgotten about them, you, too, try to forget.’
The “unpleasant events” that the late King (1914–2007) refers to involve the execution, imprisonment, and torture of numerous members of Khaled Sediq’s family, namely, the Charkhees (some of whom were high-ranking military generals and diplomats), at the order of Mohammad Nader, the King of Afghanistan (1929–1933), and King Zahir’s father, and the subsequent assassination of King Nader in 1933 by Abd ul-Khaleq, a servant to Charkhee’s family. On a personal level, the statement seems to be a gesture of reconciliation — an expression of the desire to put to rest the memory of the past’s horrible events. Yet, implied in the King’s statement is also a request from his audience not only to “forget” the events but to accept the official representation of the “unpleasant events” of the past.
Given the scale and intensity of atrocities and crimes committed against ordinary citizens as well as political opponents during both the reign of the Communist parties (Khalq and Parcham) and the mujahidin era as well as the iron rule of the Taliban, the sufferings that Khaled Sediq recounts in his memoir may indeed seem to the contemporary reader to belong not only to an almost forgotten but a forgettable period in Afghan history. As a matter of fact, the calamities endured by the people of Afghanistan in the last three decades — especially since the Soviet-backed coup d’état in 1978 until the fall of the Taliban in 2001 — overshadow almost all previous events of political and/or historical significance. Besides, the urgency of the current political situation in Afghanistan is such that it is not unlikely that anyone turning to the past may be charged (especially by Afghans) with forgetting about both the present and future. This charge may be efficient to silence one’s opponents during an election campaign, but it is of utmost importance to differentiate between the rhetoric of campaigns and principles of inquiry in various fields of knowledge.
The inadequacy of non-historical thinking concerning the status of cultural and social structures is addressed in the title of one of the major works of modern historiography in the West by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Knowledge of the past, as Koselleck argues, is not only a determinant of the way the present is experienced and understood, but it is also the most significant constituent element of future expectations. It is within this context that King Zahir’s statement above becomes paradigmatic for decades worth of the teaching and study of history in schools and universities in Afghanistan: not as much to “forget” the kind of events that are “unpleasant” for those in positions of political power as to accept to know the past as a particular group of people — the political elite in this case — want it to be remembered. “Forgetting,” as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes, “is the challenge par excellence put to memory’s aim of reliability.” But what is at stake for the King is not necessarily to question his audience’s memory of the “unpleasant events” of the past — or his memories — but to demand their consent regarding the government’s version of the events. In other words, it is not personal memories or accounts but history that is being addressed (and negotiated) here.
Clearly, “forgetting” in this context forecloses any possibility of a second account of the “unpleasant events” of the past, including the explanation of the events from the Charkhees’ perspective. Retelling of the past is discouraged, as it may lead to alternative — or even contradictory — conclusions that could undermine the legitimacy of the current version of the past. It is important to note that what the King wants his audience to “forget” relates to nothing less than the foundation of a dynasty, including his 40-year reign. And it is at this juncture that an event relating to a particular family goes beyond personal memory and acquires particular significance from the perspective of the political history of Afghanistan. Ignoring the atrocities committed against the Charkhee family by King Nader would leave out a critical examination of the relationship between the arbitrary uses of power (if not terror) and the legitimacy of political institutions in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, considering the socio-political situation in Afghanistan since the rule of the Communist parties until the terror regime of the Taliban, the same strategy of arbitrary uses of power has proven to be the best understood — if not the only — political concept employed by various actors on the political stage to consolidate their power and ensure their legitimacy. This practice has recurred in Afghanistan since the beginning of the 20th century. Although Afghan historians as well as other researchers specializing in Afghan history have provided some evidence to explain various events in the history of modern Afghanistan, the publication of autobiographies and/or memoirs both by ordinary Afghans and those who have been involved in Afghan politics contributes a great deal to our understanding of how and in what terms Afghans relate to the past in and of their country. The experiences of exile or forced migration have exposed many Afghans to various political, social, intellectual, and literary traditions. To Afghans who are familiar with classical Persian literature, writing, and/or forms of language-making as such, and memoirs or travelogues are not unknown. Indeed, Afghans living outside the country have published various memoirs, autobiographies, and travelogues. This mode of writing, which is steeped in remembering rather than forgetting, has introduced the republic of letters to many Afghans living in all corners of the world. The articulation of these memories — particularly in writing — has created a space where members of a scattered and fragmented people can collect (and re-collect) themselves and thereby resist the conceptual force of grand national and historical narratives, which threatens to reduce the individuality of their life experiences to negligible historical details.
. Khaled Sediq, From My Memories, 2nd ed. (Simi Valley, CA: Speedy Press Service, Inc., 2007), p. 384. Author’s translation and emphasis.
. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans., Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans., Kathleen Blameyand and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 414.