Dispatches from Kabul: French Words and Fighter Jets

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

There’s an art gallery just off Armenia street in the Mar Mikhail district of Beirut that sells a variety of novelty goods – soap from Aleppo, hand-stamped Iranian linens, black and white photographs from the Lebanese Civil War, books on art. As I was perusing the shelves I came across a notebook with text clippings and war motifs pasted to its cover, a dècoupage of French words and fighter jets. Along the bottom of the front cover there was a phrase: Parce que l’incohérence est preferable à l’ordre qui deforme. It’s a quote from the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, which translates directly to: incoherence is preferable to an order that deforms. I haven’t read Barthes, nor do I claim expertise in French post-structuralism or constructivism or semiotics, but taken on its face, and in light of the unstable political systems in which I live and work, it gave me pause. Dans quelle mesure cette déclaration est-elle correcte? To what extent is that statement true? Precariousness becomes a form of identity in places where nothing sticks – not ideologies, not empires, not armies – but surely chaos and disorder is the regrettable result of circumstance, not rational belief. The fight for successive orders is the history of war, and I imagined Barthes’ words in the mouths of radicals from Raqqa to Kandahar.

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In the late afternoon, the church bells at St. George’s ring out loud and clear across the Martyr’s Square in Beirut, and it feels, for a moment, as if you’re standing in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the Marian church that inspired the cathedral’s neoclassical design. Soon after, the call to prayer begins, projected from the 72-meter- Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: An Interlude in the Holy Land

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Somewhere near Ramallah, we looked up from our newspapers and noticed the high walls topped with razor wire to our left and right, a telltale sign that we were driving through the West Bank section of Route 443, a 16-kilometer stretch of road linking Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Situated to the east of the security barrier and once ruled off-limits to Israeli government ministers because of a flare-up of violence – namely, Molotov cocktail attacks on vehicles – it appears as any stretch of highway does, grey and a little desolate. Perceiving our awareness, the driver looked at us anxiously through the rearview mirror. “We avoid traffic by taking this road today. To our left is Ramallah and to the right is Hebron,” he said in an official tone, hoping, I think, that we weren’t familiar with the villages of the Palestinian territories. “This one wants to go to Ramallah to see a brewery,” said my friend, Alec. The driver shot me an incredulous look. “Okay, yes, go,” he said. “That is, if you want to risk your life for a beer.” I laughed and Alec explained that my perspective is slightly different because I currently live and work in Kabul. “I just want to feel at home,” I said sarcastically. “This stretch of highway is really doing it for me right now.” He ignored me and started on a lengthy and rather partisan history of the First and Second Intifadas that lasted all the way to the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem where we were staying.

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Alec and I met on the first day of law school and spent the subsequent three years poring over legal texts and treatises together, a humbling experience that challenged us intellectually and emotionally. It was in the midst of this rational endeavor that we occasionally discussed politics and religion, our conversations about the former often ending with a fiery exchange of epithets and accusations; democratic progressives and classical liberals don’t often see eye-to-eye. But the one subject we could discuss without theatrics was religion, and perhaps more importantly, it was religious ritual that often brought us together with our friends in one place: a Shabbos table in Crown Heights. We spent innumerable evenings there sharing a meal, listening to the Hebrew prayers, and discussing ideas, the law, and our lives. And so it seemed quite natural that we should travel from opposite sides of the world – New York and Kabul – to meet again in the Holy Land, a place that is intensely foreign but intimately familiar to both of us as Americans raised in the Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions.

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The streets of the Old City were nearly empty in the late afternoon on Easter Monday, and as we wandered inadvertently from the Christian Quarter, with its well-lit shops and gregarious shopkeepers, and into the less commercial Muslim Quarter, an eerie silence settled over us. Some idling inhabitants ventured a greeting – A-salaam alaikum – and beckoned us in for tea, but we declined politely and kept walking, feeling that perhaps we had wandered too far off the beaten path. I recalled a friend’s warning: “Don’t go near the Damascus Gate,” and thought about the “No knifing” stickers plastered on utility poles up and down Jaffa Road that we had seen earlier in the day. I wasn’t afraid – a kid with a kitchen knife is less intimidating than a Talib with a Kalashnikov – but the aura of the Old Continue reading

Dispatches From Kabul: Walls of Separation and the Call to Prayer

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

In New York it was the sirens that nettled, piercing through triple-paned glass seventeen stories above the avenue at all hours of the day and night. In Kabul it’s the call to prayer that distracts, albeit less frequently, and which I wake to most mornings. There’s the initial crackle of the loudspeaker, a clearing of the throat, and then a momentary struggle to find the right pitch. The opening words of the azan ring out clearly and confidently – Allahu Akbar – but sometimes, part of the way through, the voice wavers and there is an awkward adjustment of the register, an interruption that could be obviated with the initial use of a pitch pipe or the playing of a middle C, I’ve thought. Then again, I’ve never seen a pitch pipe in Afghanistan, and I suppose it would be difficult to put a piano in a minaret.

Since September, we’ve had a string of mediocre muezzins, criers who never fail to rouse us from our sleep just before dawn, but whose recitations of the takbir and shahada – the Muslim Statement of Faith – leave much to be desired. It’s a bit ironic that they’ve been so lacking, considering that muezzins are traditionally chosen for their superior vocal skills. The first, Bilal ibn Rabah, was supposedly plucked from obscurity by the Prophet Mohammad for his beautiful voice. The idea was that the more melodious and clear the expression, the more powerful the azan, and therefore the more compelling would be the spiritual ideology of Islam sung in those eight verses. Allahu Akbar (four times) / I acknowledge that there is no deity but God (twice) / I acknowledge that Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah (twice) / Hasten to Prayer (twice) / Hasten to success (twice) / Prayer is better than sleep (twice) / Allah is greatest (twice) / There is no deity but God (once). This standard of qualification seems not to be taken seriously in my Kabul neighborhood. Perhaps the benchmark here is pünktlichkeit, in which case I’ve no doubt that our muezzins would be considered rousing successes. It’s disappointing, though, that their rendition of the azan does not resonate across the land as an otherworldly call to the divine.

To make matters worse, our current prayer leader has taken to conversing with himself over the loudspeaker after the initial recitation. The intonation is thoughtful, even philosophical, as if he is contemplating deep and important questions out loud. One morning, as I was lying in bed listening to his slow, punctuated words, I started thinking about America and Constitutional law and Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. That wall was adopted by the Supreme Court, becoming authoritative in Reynolds and “high and impregnable” in Everson. In context, Jefferson’s pithy metaphor concerned his opposition to an established national church rather than a belief in strict separationism, but it is a comforting metaphor at dawn while being sermonized over a loudspeaker. In such moments, prayer is not better than sleep.

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They call the enormous concrete blast wall surrounding the U.S. Embassy near Massoud Circle the King Kong wall because it is a barrier so overwhelming that only a fictional movie monster could surmount it. Last week as we were driving by, a colleague said, “That thing should be considered a wonder of the world.” The grey concrete casts a long shadow on passers-by and dwarfs all of the buildings in its vicinity. I’ve wondered recently if the song of the muezzin reaches past it, through the security maze of the Green Zone, and into the container homes of my compatriots at the U.S. Embassy. It must, I think, since after Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: Herat, A Photo Essay

As part of our Dispatches from Kabul series, CLR Alum Jessica Wright ’14, who’s currently working as a lawyer in Kabul,  files the following photo essay. It’s from Herat, one of Afghanistan’s westernmost cities, in close proximity to Iran and Turkmenistan. To see the slide show, please click on the first image.

Dispatches from Kabul: A New Script

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Last Friday, as we were driving through downtown Kabul, our car was stopped briefly as the traffic ahead slowed at the checkpoint. Looking out from my backseat window, I was struck by the lack of rhythm, the absence of a familiar flow of city movement. In most places, lights change color, people cross the street, taxis honk, engines rev, and buses stop and go methodically. Instead, dirty, overfilled city cabs sat haphazardly in traffic, their lackadaisical drivers staring into the dusty commotion. Children with dirty clothes and charcoal around their eyes darted in and out of traffic, casting doleful expressions at foreigners in hopes of collecting an Afghani or two. Grizzled soothsayers moved slowly from car to car, wafting incense into open windows and mumbling incantations. In the absence of sidewalks, young men in shalwar kameez walked briskly through traffic, whole groups moving against the disorderly jumble, their prayer beads brushing against the sides of cars as they passed by. Policemen with tired, sun-worn faces ambled around aimlessly, occasionally blowing a whistle or commanding a car to move. Their uniforms looked like costumes from an outdated prop closet, faded and sagging, adorned with meaningless insignia. In fact, everything around me in that moment was reminiscent of a movie set after the cut. It was as if, off-script, no one knew exactly where to be or what to do. There are many metaphors for the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but this one struck me as particularly vivid.

Two years ago, when I was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Casteau, the streets of Brussels were filled with life. We would spend weekends walking through the city, enjoying quaint cafes, chocolate shops, and the old Dutch masterpieces at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. On winter evenings, we would marvel at the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the beauty of La Grand Place glistening with Christmas lights. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels, I’ve been thinking of the European capital, and about how ironic it is that life here in Kabul, chaotic city of blast walls, checkpoints, and indiscriminate violence, has been less affected by terrorism in the past month than my previous home in the heart of Europe.

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While at NATO, I was writing about humanitarian intervention as applied to the ongoing civil war in Syria. In conversation with military strategists and political advisors from the Alliance, my arguments for intervention, even for the limited purpose of constructing humanitarian corridors, were met with vague statements about the impenetrability of Assad’s air defense and the NATO members’ “lack of political will.” I found such reluctance remarkable; at the time, the United Nations was estimating that more than 100,000 had been killed and millions more displaced.

I still believe there was a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people, but I am more willing to acknowledge and consider the drawbacks of intervention now, particularly in light of the current situation in Afghanistan. Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still operates from the Green Zone Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: On the Banks of the Kabul River

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

A Public Murder

She was a 27-year-old student of Islamic law and a devout Afghan Muslim. After praying at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque at the center of Kabul, Farkhunda Malikzada confronted the caretaker about the practice of selling charms or tawiz, amulets containing Quranic verses and incantations. Like many other conservative Muslims, she believed they were superstitious and un-Islamic. As she admonished the caretaker and the confrontation escalated, he began shouting, “In the name of God, kill her! She has burned the Quran!” Within minutes, a mob of hundreds had assembled, and while the police stood idly by, Farkhunda was stoned, beaten, set on fire, and left to die on the banks of the Kabul River. Some of those present filmed the lynching on their mobile phones.

Violence is endemic in Afghanistan and modern political and legal institutions have faltered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the brutal murder of Farkhunda – which took place just last March – was particularly shocking given the cultural understanding in Afghanistan that public violence toward women is taboo. Despite the outcry from within the country and abroad, a number of prominent Afghan officials and religious leaders immediately endorsed the murder, highlighting Afghanistan’s complicated relationship with Islam and shattering the cautious hopes of reformers, particularly women’s rights advocates. The official spokesman for the Kabul police characterized Farkhunda’s protestations as a publicity stunt with the aim of attaining U.S. or European citizenship, and during his Friday prayer sermon, Ayaz Niazi, the prominent imam of the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, said, “If someone disrespects the Quran, you cannot expect people to control their emotions and wait for judges to decide the punishment.” Mullah Hassam of the Bagh-e Bala mosque argued that mahkama—e sahrayi or arbitrary execution is the appropriate punishment for insulting Islam. Soon thereafter, an investigation by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs found no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Quran, and concluded that she had been slandered.

I first read about Farkhunda while weighing the pros and cons of moving to Kabul to practice law. I knew about Afghanistan’s abysmal human rights record, and had read up on the fragile legal protections for women and girls, as well as the “moral crimes” they are Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: Warlords and Takeout

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works with a team of local and international lawyers at Rosenstock Legal Services, a commercial law firm. In this series of dispatches from Kabul, she will share her insights on issues of law and religion in the context of practicing law in the Islamic Republic. The following personal narrative is an introduction to the series.

Mostly, I was exhausted. There was the packing and repacking, a sleepless night, the flight from Milan to Istanbul, and a four and a half hour layover in the dead of the night. When I arrived at the overcrowded international terminal at Atatürk International, a dark sense of dread came over me. I ordered a venti chai tea latte, bought two bags of Haribo Gold Bears, and sat in front of the lounge monitor watching GO TO GATE flash across the screen for destinations like Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and Baghdad. When “impoverished, Taliban-infiltrated, suicide-bombed city” is all you have to associate with your destination, it’s hard to rally. KABUL–3:10–WAIT FOR GATE. I wasn’t overcome by the urge to buy a one-way ticket back to Chicago, but as the minutes ticked by slowly I became increasingly angry with myself for having made this decision in the first place.

I couldn’t quite will myself out of the lounge on time, so I ended up sprinting down the terminal to the gate where all but one anxious-looking passenger had been loaded onto the bus that would take us to the outer reaches of the airfield. I remember passing rows of shipping containers and other miscellaneous cargo and wondering if I hadn’t read the fine print well enough.

The flight was full of Westerners. Men with buzz cuts, prominent biceps, and army green t-shirts; tall bespectacled Dutch men with reporter notebooks; women wearing Western tunics and headscarves and speaking the language of project management. A beautiful Afghan girl with kind and vibrant eyes sat next to me. She looked very stylish in her elegant black tunic and hijab, and we struck up a conversation about Islamic dress. She asked me if this would be my first time in Afghanistan – pronounced in a lilting and graceful accent – and then enthusiastically told me all the things she loves about her country. Later, I fell asleep to her conversation with another Afghan woman, the singsong words bale, bale playing in my head. Dari, the Afghan version of Persian and one of the national languages of the country, is really beautiful.

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I woke in time to see the sun rising ahead of us in the east, and as we approached Kabul, the desert disappeared and the Hindu Kush came into view. I thought about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and his tiny asteroid, and about the surface of Mars and the moon. “Kabul might as well be outer space,” I whispered to myself. From high above, it looked as though you could be stuck forever in this place surrounded by a vast mountain Continue reading

Classic Revisited: Dalrymple, “From the Holy Mountain”

from-the-holy-mountain-001In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.

Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”

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In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to Continue reading

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law & religion stories from around the web this week:

Emon, Levering & Novak, “Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue”

9780198706601_450This May, Oxford University Press will publish Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue by Anver M. Emon (University of Toronto), Matthew Levering (Mundelein Seminary), and David Novak (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows.

This book is an examination of natural law doctrine, rooted in the classical writings of our respective three traditions: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. Each of the authors provides an extensive essay reflecting on natural law doctrine in his tradition. Each of the authors also provides a thoughtful response to the essays of the other two authors. Readers will gain a sense for how natural law (or cognate terms) resonated with classical thinkers such as Maimonides, Origen, Augustine, al-Ghazali and numerous others. Readers will also be instructed in how the authors think that these sources can be mined for constructive reflection on natural law today. A key theme in each essay is how the particularity of the respective religious tradition is squared with the evident universality of natural law claims. The authors also explore how natural law doctrine functions in particular traditions for reflection upon the religious other.

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