Journeys in search of peace

Jonagha arrives in Khorasan Province of Iran which is bordering Afghanistan. It’s a Friday afternoon, a holyday and a holiday for Muslims. On a Friday the blessing of every good deed is multiplied many times; on a Friday Muslims are generous to the poor and forgiving of others shortcoming. Its not a vindication to be an imbecile the rest of the week, but in reality that’s how it is. Similarly a journey taken on Friday is blessed by God and in his infinite grace will remove obstacles and hazards from travellers path. Jonagha does settle only for God’s grace and for good measure carries a small chapter of Quran in his pockets wrapped in a silk cloth. This is the traveller prayer and will grant you safety and blessing on your journey. Quran and all its verses are holy and will add blessing to any object its written on and any person that carries it, BUT, you have to be able to handle it with reverence, that’s why Jonagha has it wrapped in precious silk. He keeps it on his top pocket, and never to be placed in his trousers pocket as placing it in the lower part of body is sacrilegious. He will not take it out of his pocket unless his hands are washed and he is sitting in a respectable position and place.

It is not something for the weaklings, for instance the menstruating woman. Yes, they are not allowed to touch it. Its in the Quran “None shall touch it except the purified” (Waqiah: 79) to restore gender balance women can carry Quran to have a blessed journey, I mean menstruating women, of course it should be wrapped in protective cover. If you are unhappy with this archaic rule, you can go and pick it with the scholars to redefine “purified”.

Jonagha arrives at an Iranian Guard border post where a dozen other Afghans are waiting too. Its 40 degrees and sandy, that’s not something you hear on weather forecast “today is going to be 40 degrees with sand fall and high chance of mirage”. The outpost is manned by Basiji which is like the youth wing of the Revolutionary Guards, a bunch of zealous volunteers. They gave Jonagha water and sits him down in a shade. In a little while a second guard comes to him and reassures him that he will cross over today but they have to wait for the right moment.

You might be thinking that you have totally misunderstood the IRGC and corrupt governments in poor countries!

No you haven’t!

You see this was the 80s and Afghans returning from Pakistan and Iran were considered insurgents. Jonagha went to Iran for adventures, learn Iranian culture and work nevertheless the soviets considered him an insurgent. Anyone caught crossing into Afghanistan was shot on the spot. twenty years later Americans came to the same twisted conclusion but they dispensed with shooting on the spot because they are squeamish about blood; they are more into prisoners abuse. The Islamic Republic was helping their Afghan Brothers defeat the infidel Soviet Union. Once the Soviets were defeated tens of thousands of people fled the wretched Mujahideen but they were pushed back by the Iranians at the border. So much for Iranian brotherhood, Trump is right about not trusting the Iranians.

Jonagha waited for a few hours and then he is told now is the time. Its dark and they are walked to a truck and loaded in the back of the truck and it drives off without the headlights. After a few hours of driving in the desert and mountains the driver asks them to get off and tells him the nearest village is behind the mountain where they can get on a bus. Jonagha starts walking and now has a companion; he had lived in Iran for five years and now going back with all his savings to see his five year old son for the first time. You might have questions about the child’s conception but to keep the story on track we will leave that out. Suddenly a soviet BTR roars as it kicks of massive dust trail. It flies a red communist flag which is one of the last things you see before death. unless, your parents own a mansion in Surrey and financed your way to a good university and you are use the red flag as a way to give them the middle finger. They have no chance of getting away and are captured, the companion is shot on the spot and robbed of his possessions. They searched Jonagha and found the chapter of Quran in silk wrapping; they also find a copy of Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy, a phenomenal Russian writer. In total shock and disbelief they ask:

-          Whats this?

-          It’s a book

-          What kind of a book?

-          It’s a novel called Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy

-          I know that but I am not sure you know that!!

-          It’s considered the world’s best novel and tells of the doomed love affair of the sensuous and rebellious Anna in a changing society.

-          Blyat! (the Soviet swears)

They don’t know what to do with him. The patrol commander is given the books and asked if they can shoot him. He doesn’t know either so he gets on the radio and was asked to describe him, “ he is wearing blue jeans and a yellow shirt” then comes a pause probably a surprise to the person on the other end of the radio too “yes sir, not traditional Afghan Shalwar Qamis” the soviets were of an Estonian battalion, they were known to be more lenient than Russians or Ukrainians. They were impressed with him and thought he was a secret agent for the Russians so they set him free but keeps his Quran and tells him “No, No, No, this is bad.” and takes it away.  

As he walks away a young soldier ask the other, are you sure I can’t shoot him because I really like his Jeans?

In all of Christendom Nazis communists and the new Ultraright wings have the best understanding of the sanctity of Islamic scripture.

No? you disagree?

Let me put it another way, hatred could be very insightful.


Ok, let me first clarify Jonagha’s belief; Quran is the word of God and the word of God cannot be separated from the self of God which means the word of God is God in written form. that’s why while his mother tongue is Pashto and his spoken language is Farsi, (also known as home language and school language) he carries the book of traveller in Arabic and reads it in Arabic. Jews have the same tradition and that’s why no matter what language they speak they read Tora in Hebrew even if you don’t understand; it’s the reverence to the powerful that gives the incomprehensible words the power to mesmerise.

This is a strange idea to Christians, they think that Bible and its chapters communicate ideas and it’s the content of these ideas that help us better our deeds and spirit. But not the Nazis and communists – they get it, hence the Tora and Quran burning whenever they get a chance.

You are obviously curious to know how was Jonagha able to communicate with the Soviets, simple Russian is the official language of Afghanistan. Joking, but occupied people quickly learn key words of the liberating army for instance Jonagha knew how to beg “please don’t kills me” in flawless Russian other words included “in the name of God, I mean Karl Marx,  please don’t kill my family – god is the worst”. the soviets learned the basics of Farsi and Pasho too. By comparison Nato armies which liberated Afghanistan, again, some 20 years later had translators with each combat unit. They paid a lot for this service which incentivised the creation of a translator class, hated by the Afghans and the source of much misunderstanding;  most importantly Westerners are too lazy to learn the basics of the people who they liberate. To be fair you expect the liberated population to be so grateful that they keep their mouths shut. You are laughing but if you are liberated enough you learn to be grateful and it becomes part of your ontology to wait for the next liberator. In the last 40 years Afghanistan was violently liberated six times. Taliban haven’t been in power for long and now they are hoping for the Chinese to invade. A moderate change from a conservative to liberal which is boring for westerners is a wetdream for Afghan.

My dad asked me:

-          how is the British election going?

-          I don’t know. OK I guess?!

-          Oh yeah, (with an excited tone) tell me more. Are there policies pretty much the same

-          Yes but worded slightly differently

-          Oh yeah!! This is so fantastic!

Westerners often complaint they don’t understand Afghans.

That’s because we don’t share and I do hope you still think I am joking.


Jonagha brings presents and stories for all the family and friends. he is wearing Western cloths which is really uncommon in the village but he can carry it. But the weirdest of all is when he talks; he sounds different. He speaks Farsi with an Iranian accent. In the village they speak Pashto but written communication is in Farsi. It’s the same language people speak in Kabul when written, but when they speak its laughable for people from Kabul.

Jonagha recites the story of Soviets sparing his life. The family was pleasantly surprised as they had been witness to their atrocities, they burn down entire villages to the ground and erase orchards. They put this down to the power of Quran looking over him. He tells them that it was actually Lev Tolstoy that saved him. They disagree and ask him how do you know that to which he responds they said so and they say do you really believe the words of Genocidal heathens?  That’s the problem of belief, you can’t really understand facts and reality unless it bends to reinforce your belief.

The question it should raise for you is; at this point in time male literacy is around 5% and near zero in rural areas, how could he read? When reading is associated with characters like Jonagha, the eccentrics and mavericks, it makes it inaccessible for the ordinary and stigmatises literacy. This is a conversation I had:

-          I have read books

-          You read a book?

-          Books?

-          But you look so unimpressive.


That conversation was with my mother and she is cross with me for not keeping her in the loop. Yes, but you won’t believe me.

Speaking of my mother, Jonagha was in love with her but he is not my father. Why wouldn’t he be, she is pretty, smart and educated but most importantly his cousin.  Despite this familial attraction which brings assurance of harmonial matrimony, my mother chose a stranger. She didn’t stop there, she chose someone from a different ethnicity – who spoke a different language. Jonagha couldn’t compete with my dad. He was a Sergeant in the army and in the afternoons, he would drop work to drive in his army jeep to the university to give my mum and her friends a left to the ice cream shop. Ice cream was the latest craze back then, the crack of 80s. to top it up he would turn up in his workshop dungarees, all dirty and greasy. It was the coolest thing then, a real proletariat in action and showing it off with pride.

Jonagha is heartbroken after his city girl cousin rejects him. He is also bored with the life in the village, continuous fighting with the Russians and insistent violence. In an attempt to create positive forces in his life Jonagha takes interest in his younger siblings and nephews. One of the nephews who was particularly influenced by him is Sardar but that story comes later. All this is well and good but his adventurous spirit remains restless so he starts thinking about leaving the village again. He wants to go to Iran, I mean why wouldn’t you? It’s a sexy place - except music is censored and free thinking is banned.

 He is making preparation to leave. He packs his suitcase, and doesn’t book his tickets. Tickets don’t exist also he doesn’t need a passport because no authority exist to issue one. One of the exciting things he does on arrival at destination is intercity bus rides, particularly the ticket purchase part. His trip will take a combination of trekking, mini van rides, pick up trucks and mountain hikes to travel abroad. Jonagha doesn’t see this as a trip but a journey, an adventure where he parts with one place and part of himself to go and create roots in another in order to prepare him for this transformation He has to learn lessons during the journey that adds to his personality.

Word of Jonagha’s looming departure gets out and his friends get together to decide on doing something together for his farewell. After some deliberation they settle for a fight with the Upper Village; its very convenient as they are on the other side of the river. They fight mostly from their banks by hurling stones at each other or slingshots but every now and then it would escalate and a musket is brought into fight. there is also a tale of both sides attempting to cross and a knife fight broke mid river, nobody can tell you when exactly it was but everybody is certain that it happened.

I am sorry to bring this up again but I do think we should give Ultra-right less grief, we are half way through the story and they are right again. It seems like Afghans, Muslims, poor people (you pick the way you want to frame it) are inherently violent and amenable to civilisation.

 Jonagha in an attempt to make it more memorable brings his musket but the thing with musket is once you fire you have to spend five minutes reloading it which is really taking the fun away from the fast-paced excitement of the fight. The typical thing that happens in fights unsurprisingly happened; it continued to escalate and one of the guys from the Upper Village brought an Assault Rifle he had captured from the Soviets. You know the old saying, never bring a musket to a rifle fight. Jonagha is shot in the leg and arm and his friends bring him home. His mother spent two nights soaking up blood from his wounds and staying by his bed, weeping and begging him to get better but on the third day he was dead. That’s it for Jonagha, it’s a bit of Game of Throne ending but I love game of throne especially for the service it has done to western culture. Grotesque violence is more acceptable and no more causes a nauseated response.

Back in 2006 when I was a student I told this story around fire to a group of Europeans and they asked:

-          Did he really die?

-          Yes, it’s the most natural thing, easiest thing ever; but there is a lot more about him than death, such romance

-          That was romance? There is romance in Afghanistan? seems kind of gross.

-          Its not just romance and death, it’s a story of a journeying life.

-          Are you sure its not a horror story.


Sardar is in the Palace of Kings, he is not dead. This is not pagan Viking story but I have to start this somewhere smooth just so it doesn’t cause anymore upset to create a disconnect. The Palace of Kings is a building, of course, that’s now the National Gallery. It is grand with high ceilings, some forcefully thrusted upward by gigantic gold plated columns. The windows are large and tastefully decorated, outside you can see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral featuring a series of onion domes mushrooming over the entire upper part of the building, on the other side is Ivan Vazov park with a sprawling population of street dogs.

Have you wondered how old buildings are more tasteful than the modern equivalent? It’s the effort they placed into making it pretty that we experience appreciation in the art of creation. In the Gallery just like other public cultural venues particular emphasis is placed on the gift shop; boasting a selection of take home artwork as well as exhibition items that adds to the ambience such as an early copper coffee distilling contraption.

Europe is a funny place, and I am not talking about gift shops or cliché souvenirs.  Its prosperous but it co-exists with extreme suffering. This is really odd for Sardar since in Afghanistan everybody is suffering. Not only that but what Sardar can’t get his head around is how the prosperous are so oblivious to the suffering. Most people live a satisfying life and will never experience inhumanity at the level Sardar did. In order to enable them to maintain cognitive dissonance they are equipped by an ideology which tells them things are fantastic. The other side of such a positive outlook is that you will never be intellectually prepared to sympathise with Sardar. Some people do slip below this veneer of prosperity and justice and they will find it very hard to climb back. Nothing illustrates better this point than the Strandzha Forest. Not really because the forest is a national park with a great biodiversity and a healthy population of wild life. it’s a wonderful place for woodland walks and spotting animals. Those living above the veneer will just see that, the wonderful forest but there is another menacing presence in this forest. To find out you just need to ignore the scary signs such as “NO ENTRY BEHIND THIS POINT” OR “trespassers will be shot on the spot” or “DANGER!! LAND MINES”.

If you are not dead or detained yet you will soon arrive at a sight of horror. There it is right in front of you a three meter tall steel structure with razor sharp wires and electrified to cause pain on contact. There are towers with armed guards, attack dogs and CCTV. This monstrosity splits Strandzha forest into half and runs 240 kilometres.

Yet you haven’t seen much; the threat comes from the other side of this fence and it comes at night. Its not the White Walkers but something far more menacing. Well there is two schools of thought on the matter, the first is obviously that menace is the fence and the second is the immigrants who are stopped by the fence. What happens in European cities is The Oblivion, the average joe who can’t see suffering,  accepts both the fence as necessary while sympathising with the people who are trying to overrun it. This is what I mean by an overarching ideology that require a positive acceptance of all menaces and dismisses the need to understand them.  One of the key architects of the prosperity in the West once said: There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect. What a load of utter nonsense and the answer is the Stradzha Fence. In case you are wondering it was Ronald Reagan.

The question you should ask now is; why is this over 500 km border between Turkey and Bulgaria important? To which I would respond that you are asking the wrong question. The right question to ask is why thousands of refugees take the much riskier journey from Turkey to Greece in rough seas on tiny dingies rather than just walking through the nice forest? The answer to which is your money  its used to finance a giant fence on the land and has directly resulted to thousands of avoidable deaths.

I can see that you will argue why should Westerners care for poor people or we don’t take moral stance to which I will response and say that’s not true but lets return to this in awhile.

Sardar is in Sofia, as you probably have already gathered, he is a British Citizen and retracing his journey as a teenager. Remember Sardar grew up in a context where one of the most influential people in his life sought prosperity abroad. He is of a generation who believes the place they were born to have beauties and meaning but he should seek riches and adventure abroad. Sardar, just like Jonagha, had this crazy dream of escaping war and poverty, but there were many barriers to hurl including a fence on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey.

Sardar has seen a lot of brutality but he is also informed by intergenerational trauma of forty years violence and hundreds of years of poverty but nothing haunts him more than the cruelty and inhumanity he experienced at this border crossing.  

Sardar is cold and hungry, he has been travelling for days in mountains and forests and arrives at the fence, it is  crawling through the Strandzha forest. It’s a sight to marvel but also intimidating; he might die here of cold and hunger but its beautiful. Then he notices a plank that reads “project is funded by the EU for securing external borders” he is so pleased to see he has made it to EU and loves its self promotion.

Soon his euphoria turn into a nightmare as Sardar was caught very close to the place he is visiting now some ten years ago by the Bulgarian police. They stripped him of his clothes and whipped him with wire. They left them outside in the snow all night long as their dogs attacked them frequently. At around midnight one of the guards brought him some water and sat down with them for awhile.

-          Why are you coming to Bulgaria?

-          I am only passing through Bulgaria to Western Europe.

-          That’s cool, my wife is in Germany, working to make some money. ( he said enthusiastically)

-          That’s what I want to do too!

-          You seem like a good guy (or started with something similar)/no offense to you/ or something else, but we are protecting our country from criminals, rapists and terrorists.

They chatted for awhile and turns out that the Guards uncle was shot dead at the fence and he wasn’t a criminal, rapist or terrorist. Sardar said what a meaningless way to take a life and told him how his uncle too had a meaningless death. The guard said the fence was very much on the same place but different colour; it was for the same purpose but instead of rapists and terrorists it was to stop traitors and cowards.   

That fence was erected in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the communist government along the border with Greece and Turkey who were then Capitalist enemies. It was an intricate system of defence fortifications, patrolled by conscript soldiers, backed by tanks, under orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross either way. it was actually two fences, with a 500-meter minefield between them, that was the designed kill zone.

Then communism collapsed and Eastern Europeans became just Europeans and there was no need for walls and fences. The fences had become a symbol of communist oppression. it was actually John F. Kennedy who said in his famous Berlin speech “While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity…”

It wasn’t just Kennedy but the wider West acknowledges Fences as a symbol of communist moral cowardice. But get this, since the end of the cold war while the communist fences were toppled but over 50 new walls and fences are built, most of them by the West and while we do hide behind it I don’t think its an offense against the history. It’s a necessity of our times to protect the Welfare State from the hoards.  The real offense is the moral and historical amnesia; choosing to be oblivious to a structure of oppression that’s rapidly expanding and causing many deaths and suffering.

But are we really responsible for poor people es poor decision that leads to their death? The main reason that I left Afghanistan is because every day there was several suicide attacks and it was a nuisance; roads were blocked, offices were closed … they invented the most flamboyant way to kill themselves and for the whole world to take notice. They think if they kill themselves and a bunch of innocent people then they will go to heaven. That’s the dumbest thing somebody can come up with. And from the above couple of sentences lets concluded that all Afghans are suicide bombers, they are on a mission to inter into your under the cover of refugees and draw the following conclusion but phrase it like a question. “do you really want people like that in your country?”

Sardar doesn’t struggle with this, he is struggling with the high rents in England. One struggle at a time. He doesn’t struggle with this because he maintains faith which requires him not to remain bitter about his misfortunes and injustice because they are the pathway to salvation. Justice will ultimately prevail and it might not be apparent to him but God works in mysterious ways. A belief in the divine has helped Sardar console himself that even if things are not set right in this life it will be corrected by Gods grace in the heavens.

Sardar considers himself a Mahajir, its somebody who had undertaken a Hijrah, its considered one of the holiest undertaking and not for the fainthearted, somebody who can’t be deterred by a fence or attack dog or a minefield. Its dated back to the journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. The year in which the Hijrah took place is also identified as the epoch of the Islamic calendars. The Arabic word hijra means "departure" or "migration".

Muhammad and his followers were persecuted in Mecca and they suffered until their was a divine revelation for them to leave. To this day its a holy duty to migrate if you are persecuted by the tyrants and the wicked. The wicked like the Taliban and their legion of suicide bombers who would murder in dozens for 72 virgins only. Hijrah is a spiritual journey where Mahajir face obstacles and hinderances but they are the crucial elements in transformation. Without the walls and fences you are not going to reach the spiritual destination. The new home is Sardar’s spiritual destination; he had reached his symbolic Medina a transformed person with reverence and appreciation of paved street, lit and warm home, cold drinks, warm food and constant rain as well as gentleness and forgiveness to enemies and those who committed transgression against him.  If anything we should be building more walls, so the journey can be more transformational.

During the Journey Muhammad hid in a cave for three days to evade the Quraysh huntsmen. They were pursued by horsemen and they had to turn to  the Red Sea, following the coastline up to Medina arriving at Quba. He waited there for fourteen days before continuing to Medina. These challenges the Prophet faced are crucial part of Hijra.  

Except its false, you would be mad to believe that migration is a journey of transcendence. You didn’t really think about it until I mentioned it here. I have sponsored and supported refugees in the UK and believing and shaping their destiny they have lied motionlessly and helplessly to be fed and housed by the council.  But don’t take it from me, the Taliban call them “sagshowy” or dog washer and argue they are cowards who had fled a hard life at home instead of contributing to improve their country; they seek comfort and shelter from those who had caused all the problems, interestingly it’s the same line that the Communist Government of Bulgaria used. 

This is what makes Sardar a Mahajir. Reaching higher places and transcendence despite the overwhelming obstacles and disbelief. Most won’t make it will fall into familiar human feeling of greed, hatred, doubt, self-pity and fear. Sardar returned to Bulgaria to make peace with those who had done him wrong and rest his sorrows. If we don’t create a good shelter for our sorrows and instead hold on to hatred and thoughts of revenge from which new sorrows will be born for others then sorrow will never cease and multiply. If you have given sorrow the space that its gentle origin demand then you may truly say life is beautiful. You can acknowledge your sorrows when you are with friends and laugh at it.

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