Shortly after we checked in at Hotel Tajikistan in Dushanbe, it shook. But this tremor was quickly dissolved into a rush of intellectual as well as emotional vibrations as we embarked on a remarkable journey of discovery. And while the sojourn in Tajikistan, which lasted for more than ten days, was designed around the visit there of the Aga Khan, with specific focus on the activities of the Aga Khan Development Network, I could not help looking at everything with reference to what is happening in Pakistan. We know about the great battles of history that have been fought in Central Asia. Also, we relate romantically to the conquerors of many centuries ago who came from places which remain embedded in our folklore.
All this should serve to underline, for us, the great significance of the change that is sweeping across this part of the world. Tajikistan may not appear to be the most appropriate window on Central Asia but I spent two nights in Tashkent on way to Dushanbe and had to cross by land into Uzbekistan on the return journey. Throughout, there were intense encounters with some learned and perceptive individuals, representing numerous nationalities and varied perspectives. It was almost like a travelling workshop. I was a part of the contingent of eight international journalists, forever raising questions. The AKDN experts and members of the Aga Khan's entourage constituted an impressive range of expertise. In an informal sense, there was an opportunity for long conversations with our ambassador in Tajikistan, Khalid Amir Khan. In Tashkent, a private dinner hosted by Shahryar Rashed, our man in Uzbekistan, became a delightful forum of discussion.
Indeed, so hectic and geographically extensive was the visit that I felt overwhelmed by the experience. There was that very pulsating moment when we crossed one stream of the Piang river to witness the Aga Khan's "mulaqat" with the Afghan members of his community in the no man's land between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Initially, we thought we had gone into Afghanistan but this was an island formed in the river. Another unforgettable experience was the night that three of us, two Portuguese journalists, including a woman, and I, spent in a traditional Kirghiz hut just 13 kilometers from the Chinese border, at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet above sea level. A road is being built, it is almost ready, that would connect Tajikistan with China and then, through the KKH, with Pakistan.
Irrespective of the adventures that came our way, the main concern, of course, was to observe the state of affairs in Tajikistan and in Central Asia. It must be very instructive to explore a society struggling to regain its equilibrium after the recent demise of the old order. There are intimations, here, of what is apparently happening to us as we totter on the edge of the precipice. Somehow, the Taliban have become a flaming point of reference in how the future will be defined in Central Asia. In that sense, Pakistan casts a dark and ominous shadow on this region. Hence, Central Asia has become the stage for a monumental contest between two versions of Islam: the militant and fundamentalist face represented by the Taliban and the liberal approach that has a natural breeding ground in societies that are highly literate, thanks to the seven decades of Soviet rule.
There are a number of other levels at which one can contemplate the present situation in Central Asia but the issue of the Taliban has a sense of urgency, because of their exploits in Afghanistan and their increasing influence in Pakistan, particularly in the wake of the totally irrational 15th amendment initiative of the present government. One can feel the anxiety of the governments, for instance, in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to ward off any Islamist influences of the militant kind. There were some very graphic examples of how this policy is being pursued.
A Tajik interlude
Tajikistan has to carry the additional burden of a civil war in which some Islamist forces were also involved. However, the peace agreement of June 1997 has prevailed and it was at the Aga Khan's farewell banquet in honour of the Tajik President Imamali Rahmonov on September 28 in Dushanbe that Rahmonov announced the resolution of some outstanding issues with the United Tajik Opposition in a meeting of the National Reconciliation Committee, held earlier in the day. This was, in a sense, a vindication of the Aga Khan's message for peace as a prerequisite for development. It seemed that the murder of a prominent opposition leader also had a sobering effect on the two sides, divided by the bitter memories of five years of warfare.
The most inspiring four days of the visit were spent in the Badakhshan valley, a fabled land straddling the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan where members of the Islmaili community have a significant concentration. One was told about the great economic hardships the people had to suffer in recent years but what we saw was a rosy picture of hope. We were based in Khorog, from where a number of trips were made in helicopters or Russian jeeps to look at various projects even beyond Badakhshan. It seemed so unreal to see such pretty women singing in the streets in Khorog, just across the river from Afghanistan. A number of them could speak English fairly well, as a result of the Aga Khan's advice given in his visit in 1995, the first-ever by the Imam to that region.
Obviously, there are many aspects and images of this encounter which cannot be summarised in this piece. One subject which I think should be tackled in a solemn manner and with great care is whether someone like the Aga Khan can play a modernising role in the Muslim world. What he said in his speeches was very encouraging. He urged his audience to never use arms to resolve differences and stressed the importance of peace, hope and the confidence in the future. Another refrain was to emphasise the ethics of Islam shared by all schools of thought and the willingness to change. What impact these messages would have in literate societies? This was something which I thought very crucial. Comparing Pakistan with Central Asian states, in this context, becomes very painful.
A separate area of interest were the initiatives taken by the AKDN and the tangible facets of change appearing on the ground. Again, a review of this kind is not entirely relevant here. However, I felt particularly attracted towards the plan to establish a university to exclusively study the problems of high mountain societies. There is no such institution in the world at this time. Also ingenious is the humanities project for Central Asia. Some of its themes have a bearing on individual's role in society and the relationship between art and the human condition. I attended a workshop in which some bright young students of Khorog were active participants.
These are projects which look far into the future but the immediate attention is to be devoted to development in a material sense. In defiance of its philosophy, the AKDN had to begin in Tajikistan with humanitarian aid, such was the conditions of the people. The process of diverting this aid to development assistance is now underway. There is the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme in which many donor countries are participating and much attention is being devoted to reforming the agriculture. The essence of all this is that in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia, there is a notable striving for change and progress. It is a difficult task, if you can understand the devastation caused by the collapse of all state structures. We in Pakistan also need change and have not suffered as gravely. But we may have to begin where Central Asia was some decades ago: with education.
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