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Thanksgiving with the Taliban

5 minute read

With a few colleagues, I spent my thanksgiving meal squatting on the floor of an Afghan passport office, talking to Taliban fighters about miracles and Judgment Day. On the Afghan side of the border near the Pakistani town of Chaman, we have pulled into a Taliban base, a dusty courtyard with two broken-down cars. Earlier in the day, a convoy of journalists was stoned and robbed while leaving Spin Boldak, just up the road. Some 200 other journalists had already left for Pakistan. We’re waiting for four reporters who had been led off into the Rigestan Desert by the Taliban to look at some fuel tankers blown up by U.S. commandos. It doesn’t seem a good idea to leave our friends behind in Afghanistan.

So here we are, with darkness setting in, surrounded by curious and heavily armed Taliban. A fighter points up into the mauve twilight sky. I think he’s showing me the crescent moon and nod appreciatively: “Yes, very beautiful.” Impatiently, he gestures over to a range of darkening hills, and then I see it: a B-52 bomber, its vapor trails catching the last rays of light. “American?” he asks me menacingly. “No, French,” I lie. I try to distract him by offering him some raisins, and he backs away, laughing. Our guide Ahmed explains that the Taliban are fasting. It’s Ramadan. On the other side of the world, Americans are waking up to Thanksgiving Day, football and turkey. A Washington Post reporter stranded here with me starts describing with considerable artistry the drool-inducing taste of his mother’s turkey stuffing. We tell him to stop.

The sun has gone down, and now the starving Taliban can eat. A man named Amanullah beckons us into his office, a mud-walled room with a table, an iron passport-stamper, floor mats, a lopsided bed and three murals he has painted of mountains and a Muslim saint’s tomb. He starts eating from a rusty can and offers it around. I offer my bag of raisins. “Look,” he says with a grin, “all we ever eat around here are raisins. Do you have anything else?” The Post man conjures up some mango juice, and I go out on the road to a bakery selling wheels of sweet bread fresh from a wood-fired oven. The lights go out (electricity is stolen from Chaman a few hundred meters down the road), so we light candles. There was a genuine Thanksgiving glow about the meal. The bread is good, and more Taliban fighters come in to partake. One of them, a little man with a beard like a troll’s, says he is Mullah Mohammed Omar’s nephew. But he hasn’t seen his uncle much lately: the Taliban supreme leader has been awfully busy since Sept. 11.

Thankfully, there are no more B-52s rumbling overhead to remind the Taliban about the enemy. The subject of religion comes up, and the Taliban are curious about us infidels. Amanullah asks what we believe happens after death. He explains his vision: the coffin opens up like a trap door and either you go to hell or you’re escorted up to paradise by beautiful maidens. “That’s fine for men, but what can women expect in paradise?” asks the woman from the Times of London. Amanullah isn’t exactly sure (Who is?) but he says, “Everything is equal, for men and women in paradise.” He then reminds us, with solemn pity, that only True Believers of Islam would be allowed into paradise on Judgment Day. That pretty much leaves us out of the picture.

Then we’re talking about miracles. Taliban legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad came to Mullah Omar in a 1994 dream and told this simple, half-blind village cleric to rid Afghanistan of the warlords, who were nothing but thieves and debauched murderers. In the early days, Afghans thought that angels rode into battle with the Taliban, hovering above their tanks and pickup trucks. I ask if Mullah Omar has performed any miracles lately. “Sure,” says Amanullah, “he’s still alive, isn’t he? Isn’t that miracle enough, when the mightiest nation on earth is trying to kill him?”

We’re summoned to tea by the local Taliban commander, Mohammed Haqqani. Along with his bodyguards and a Taliban judge, Haqqani is fiddling with a radio, trying to receive the BBC’s Pushtu service. He finds it in time to hear that the Taliban had temporarily driven the Northern Alliance out of Maidanshahr, south of Kabul. They all beam and cheer. It’s the first sign of Taliban defiance since the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, several weeks ago. The Le Monde correspondent asks what it would take to reach peace in Afghanistan. “We had peace,” Haqqani insists. “The Taliban was on the verge of defeating these bandits, until America helped them out. Now there are robberies and killings everywhere. The Taliban will have to start all over again.” Our missing colleagues finally arrive, and I leave thinking that maybe this evening wasn’t very different from the original Thanksgiving: people from two warring cultures sharing a meal together and realizing, briefly, that we’re not so different after all.

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