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Pashean Play

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September 1, 2011

At a dinner party hosted by an Afghan warlord, Jon Lee Anderson meets one of the last remaining maskharas—an entertainer, professional blackmailer, master thief, and prolific murderer.

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Photograph courtesy of Jared Moossy

In March 2005, an Afghan friend invited me to join him for dinner at the home of a relative who lived in the countryside near the market town of Charikar, some fifty miles north of Kabul. We would have to stay overnight, he said, because it was not safe to drive back after dark. Highwaymen were known to attack and rob motorists who ventured on the road at night. With the twinkly look of someone withholding a secret, he promised me that the evening would be a “special” one. Intrigued, I agreed to go along.

We drove for an hour northward across the fertile Shamali Plain that leads to Charikar, which sits where the foothills of the Hindu Kush begin. Beyond Charikar, the road begins to climb and wind and soon enters the narrow mouth of the fabled Panjshir Valley, which became a symbol of mujahideen resistance during the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. During their decade-long presence in the country, the Soviets proved unable to take the Panjshir. As testament to their failure, the roadsides of the valley are littered with the rusting hulks of their mangled tanks and armored personnel carriers. After they seized Kabul, Taliban fighters had massacred their way north across the Shamali Plain, but had been unable to take the Panjshir either. Their final frontline defenses with the Northern Alliance had been fixed just south of Charikar until they abandoned them and melted away in November 2001, following six weeks of sustained American aerial bombardment.

Since the Taliban rout, hundreds of the Shamali’s war-displaced farmers had returned to their shattered lands and begun to rebuild and replant, even as the UN’s mine-clearance experts worked to clear the fields and roads around them. Beyond the old front line around Charikar, however, the orchards and vineyards were abundant with fruit, and the irrigation canals sparkled with fresh snowmelt.

Pashean shook my hand and held it in a firm grip as he stared boldly into my eyes. He had a mischievous face. My friend said, “I told you it would be a special evening.”

We eventually came to a mud-walled compound. There we were greeted by our host, Atta, a thin man in his late thirties. My friend explained that Atta was his cousin and, effectively, a local warlord. He had been a commander for the Northern Alliance for many years, and was now a landowning farmer of some substance. Because of his past military status and his relative wealth, he remained the de facto authority in the area. Although it was no longer legal to do so, Atta kept fifty or so gunmen on his payroll. With the central government still weak, they helped enforce security in the area. If more fighters were ever needed, my friend explained, Atta could quickly summon additional volunteers from among his tenant farmers and his neighbors.

Atta waved us graciously into a long carpeted room strewn with pillows, where he introduced several shy-looking teenage boys as his younger brothers and nephews. A strongly built, dark-skinned older man stepped forward. My friend whispered excitedly that his name was Samad Pashean, and he was a traditional maskhara, or jester, of some renown. He had been invited to Atta’s home at his request, and in my honor, to provide the evening’s entertainment. Pashean shook my hand and held it in a firm grip as he stared boldly into my eyes. He had a mischievous face. My friend said, “I told you it would be a special evening.” He smiled proudly.

This was indeed a rare treat. I had thought Afghanistan’s maskhara to be an extinct species. For centuries, maskhara had entertained the country’s monarchs with their japes and buffoonery, and by lampooning them. They may well have been the originators of the European tradition of court fools, as well, for maskhara is a term of Arabic or possibly Sanskrit origin, and along with the first royal jesters, words using the same root appeared in medieval Europe sometime in the thirteenth century, ultimately seeding the English language with such exoticisms as mascara and mask.

Samad Pashean, who estimated his age at sixty, was evidently one of Afghanistan’s last remaining maskhara. He had survived the abolition of the monarchy, the Soviet military occupation, the ensuing bloody civil war, and then the Taliban years by wandering from one warlord’s lair to another, plying his prankish wares in exchange for food, shelter, and the occasional handout of money. As my friend explained it, Atta had placed Pashean under his protection, maintaining him in a house nearby and giving him regular allotments of food from his harvests. Atta bade us all sit down as boys brought in large round trays heaped with salad, pilau rice, bowls of yogurt, mutton soup, fruit, baked chicken, and lamb, and laid them on the carpet in front of us.

Over our food, which we dug into with our hands, Atta boasted proudly of Pashean’s many talents, telling me that in addition to his prowess as an entertainer, he was also a professional blackmailer, a master thief, and a prolific murderer, with an estimated fifty victims killed by his own hand. As Atta related this last statistic in delighted exclamation, the other men and boys in the room laughed and stared reverentially at Pashean, who grinned and nodded his head in acknowledgment.

Using the same youth as his stand-in for the bridegroom, Pashean imitated the amorous cooings and heated gasps of a supposedly impassioned woman, and proceeded to climb into his lap and rub the boy’s thighs lasciviously.

After the trays with our food were taken away and we were sipping at sugary black tea and munching dried mulberries, Pashean began to perform, regaling us with vaudevillian skits and dances, bawdy jokes, and gossipy, extemporaneous riffs on everything from sex to politics. To the ecstatic amusement of Atta and his boys, Pashean acted out a skit that he called “The Unwilling Bride on Her Wedding Night.” After encouraging one of the boys to play the “eager bridegroom,” Pashean placed a turban cloth over his head to resemble a burka. As the “groom” got into the spirit of things by attempting to paw Pashean, giggling hysterically as he did so, Pashean was transformed into a skittish virgin bride, a wriggling bundle of firmly locked knees, defensive slaps, and falsetto mewings of mock-terror.

Pashean called his next piece “The Willing Bride on Her Wedding Night.” Using the same youth as his stand-in for the bridegroom, Pashean imitated the amorous cooings and heated gasps of a supposedly impassioned woman, and proceeded to climb into his lap and rub the boy’s thighs lasciviously. The skit ended decorously enough, with Pashean lying supine, his head nestled in the groom’s lap, staring longingly into his eyes.

To my western eyes, this was exceedingly tame fare, more Perils of Pauline than Sex and the City, but to the Afghans in the room, Pashean’s bodice-ripping farce was heady stuff, and had them gagging and weeping with laughter and embarrassed incredulity.

Pashean offered to kill anyone I might want dead in Kabul for the equivalent of two thousand American dollars. When I told him that his price was absurdly high, he guffawed good-naturedly.

After a few minutes, Pashean enacted his own death scene. He called it simply “The Death of Samad Pashean.” The performance involved Pashean lying prone on the floor in front of us and periodically gasping for an extended period of time before finally falling silent. The death rattle was very authentic.

But then clearly, Pashean was no stranger to death, and afterward, as if to underscore the point, he began bragging about one of the murders he had committed. It seemed that a man had insulted him, and in order to avenge his honor, Pashean had later gone to his home, killed him, and then stolen his shoes. To have made off with his victim’s shoes was the height of effrontery—and a very funny thing to do, as well, for everyone laughed uproariously about this.

Next, turning to me, Pashean offered to kill anyone I might want dead in Kabul for the equivalent of two thousand American dollars. When I told him that his price was absurdly high, he guffawed good-naturedly. As I had suspected, Pashean’s price was just an initial negotiating position. “We can talk price,” he said with a wink.

Like all good jesters, Pashean had some irreverent things to say about the powerful personalities of his country. He singled out Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, for particular disdain. Karzai, he intoned, was like one of the stupid mountain dogs that Afghans keep in their villages, which go off hunting by themselves in the winter only to lose their way home again in the snow. It was a parable that left me flummoxed until my friend interpreted. “Karzai has been with the Americans for so long, he has forgotten what Afghanistan is like.”

As Pashean went on, issuing a string of new quips about Karzai—none of them complimentary—I began to discern where he was coming from. Like almost everyone else in the room, Pashean was an ethnic Tajik. Hamid Karzai was an ethnic Pashtun, as were the hated Taliban whom he had replaced. Thanks to the Americans, who had handpicked him, Karzai had become Afghanistan’s interim president, but he had been forced to share his government with leaders of the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance, whose fighters had swept down from Charikar to seize Kabul after receiving cash, arms, and advice from the CIA. But ever since winning a majority of the votes in the country’s first postwar presidential elections—held six months previously—Karzai had purged many of them from their positions and replaced them with his own loyalists.

Pashean accused Karzai of being ungrateful to the men who had fought in the jihad. “The mujahideen are having a hard time now. Karzai is kicking them out from the government. But if people have worked hard for you, you have to give them something in return.” He added, grumblingly, that most of the government’s U.S.-funded reconstruction projects were taking place in Pashtun areas, rather than Tajik ones, and he asked, “Why are the people who supported the Taliban being rewarded, and not those who fought them?”

Pashean knew how to please a crowd. The men in the room wore aggrieved expressions, and they nodded their heads in agreement with his remarks.

Turning to me again, he brought up the U.S.-sponsored campaign to demobilize and disarm the former mujahideen fighters. Pashean said, “The Afghans are like scorpions, you know, and the Americans are trying to cut off our tails. The Americans are trying to turn the Afghans from scorpions into harmless frogs, but it won’t work.” Pashean wore a gleeful but challenging expression. “We are turning in only the bad weapons, but keeping the good ones for ourselves, just in case we need them one day in the future.” He cackled with laughter, and all the other men in the room did too.

Pashean concluded, “We Afghans have learned how to eat for ourselves, like cows, who, with their cuds, know how to find the good stuff to eat, and how to spit out the bad.”

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Jon Lee Anderson has written for The New Yorker since 1998, reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Somalia, Cuba, Liberia, and many other countries. He has also profiled a number of contemporary political leaders, including Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hamid Karzai. Among his books are Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, The Fall of Baghdad, and The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan. In 2009, he won an Overseas Press Club Award for a story about life in Rio de Janeiro’s gangland.

Reprinted from Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents, edited by Matt McAllester, published by the University of California Press. © 2011 by Jon Lee Anderson and the Regents of the University of California.

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One comment for Pashean Play

  1. Comment by eric on September 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    thought you should see this! hope you are well. dennis

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