By: Reza Mohammadi
When I first moved to London, I found it intriguing that it was actually possible to speak Farsi there. I stayed in Hyde Park, and around my hotel there were numerous Iranian restaurants. Walking on London’s streets, one could easily find people who spoke Farsi. In the north and west of the city, about 70% of taxi drivers are either Afghan or Iranian. So it didn’t take me long to meet many fellow Afghans, and be introduced to their restaurants, eateries and associations.
In general one is not allowed to drink alcohol in Afghan restaurants. But on the positive side, you can eat as much qabuli rice as you want. Even complicated dishes, such as ashak and mantoo, are not impossible to get hold of.
Over time, I discovered Afghan shops, where you can find poetry books, music, foodstuffs and sweets, even smoked meat. Afghans have a special taste for disorder. Products are categorised and shelved in such a manner that only an Afghan can find. The chaos represents a specific mental order that is inscrutable to outsiders. Later, when I started attending Afghan gatherings, this familiar disorder became even more obvious. Afghans have a liking for being late. If a party or a ceremony starts at 8pm, they arrive at least two hours later.
Afghans very rarely drink alcohol openly in public. But at wedding ceremonies, they leave the wedding hall either one by one or in groups and secretly drink in the safety of their cars, returning to the ceremony with serious airs. It was during one such ceremony that I saw the Afghan poet, Birang. He was the only one to always drink openly, and in that state of perpetual intoxication, was speaking about the past, history and literature.
A few months later, news of his suicide reached me. It was received with accusations in the Afghan community, as his suicide meant that he had died as an unbeliever. Inevitably, the community took his poor body, which had never set foot in a mosque, to a mosque, and prayed for him.
The majority of Afghan funeral ceremonies are male only. Inside the mosque, you’d find in addition to the faithful, leaders of the former communist party of Afghanistan. These are the ones who, despite having spent a lifetime fighting mosques, are now making a show of their Muslim credentials.
When the sermon ends, the attendees gather outside, talking and blocking the street until police disperse them. The crowds divide into separate groups in line with ethnic origins, tribal affiliation or the city of origin. They go back home, to restaurants or coffee shops where they continue discussing politics.
The divisions are both serious and profound, so much so that it is impossible for an Afghan belonging to one group to praise the work of an individual outside it, or to acknowledge a positive deed by an individual in a different group. The others are generally seen from every perspective as useless traitors, or spies. Even poets and filmmakers are categorised in this manner, regardless of the content of their art. On the surface they could be treated with respect, but the suspicion of the other will linger on.
In general, the Afghan community in London is divided into three main groups, the Islamists, the communists and the royalists. These main groups are subdivided; the Islamists are divided into pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban, supporters of the mujahideen and, finally, those who are politically neutral.
The communists are equally divided into the old factions; Khalqi, Parchami and Maoists, and then subdivided into supporters and opponents of Dr Najibullah. The pro-mujahideen group is divided into supporters of the various factions; the Islamic Association, the Islamic Unity and the Islamic Party. Then there are the supporters of regional power-holders such Masoud, Esmael Khan, Akbari, Khalili and even Mohaqeq.
The list of subdivisions are endless. There are regional and tribal groupings; the Pashtuns have their own group, as do the Hazaras, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks. When there’s a nightly event of music or poetry reading the audience reflects the poet or musician’s tribal, regional or party affiliation. Naturally, the number of those who pass through all the filters is small.
And yet, despite divisions and subdivisions, Afghans stand out for their excellent business sense. Their presence is conspicuous, even though the majority of them arrived in England only a decade ago. Many of them own their own shops. In Shepherds Bush, about 70% of the shops are owned by Afghans and nearly all shop owners started by running stalls.
But despite such pleasure and interest in hard work, business and politics, Afghans feel little desire to participate in London’s cultural events. You’d be hard pressed to ask an Afghan for the address of a theatre, or talk about the latest film. Even among the student community, which is fairly large, there is little interest in London’s cultural life.
Some young Afghans have formed a gang known by the abbreviation ABB; Afghan Bad Boys.
When I asked the members why they had organised themselves into a gang, they cited the main reason as the negligence of police in regard to the killing of young Afghans by other gangs. Be this as it may, the gang’s numbers are growing day by day and the youngsters’ way of dressing, manner of speaking and attitude towards each other is evidence of a lost space between the English culture in which they failed to integrate and the culture of their ancestors of which they have only a vague notion. This confusion has resulted in those who are not part of the gang turning to religion; these include Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.
Each one of them strives to appear as the member of the family most loyal to the ancestral faith and traditions. And so, London’s Afghans are even more Afghan than those who live in Afghanistan. The only difference is that their Afghanistan is a frozen memory mixed with their own imagination and nostalgia for a faraway and little-known homeland.
Source: guardian.co.uk – May 2009 articles.