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An interview with Joya (I never had)

January 31, 2012

(Image from Wall of Femmes.)

In October 2009 Malalai Joya, the freedom fighter and former Afghan parliamentarian came to the United States on a speaking tour. Her political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice had just been published by Simon & Schuster. The United Nations-mandated and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was put in charge of internal security. ‘Internal security’ was a coded phrase for the highly grim situation (even by NATO’s own published accounts) thrust upon the Afghan population since Obama’s declaration that the ‘war on terror’ would be hightailed back to the Afghan frontier. While pictures of gruesome killing by U.S. forces in Afghanistan have come to light, such as four officers from the Marine Corps urinating on the bodies of dead Afghan combatants, back in 2009 NATO still confidently reflected on its ‘respect for the Afghan civilian population,’ featuring canned still images of ISAF forces casually chatting with Afghan children in its annual report.

Seen in this context, wedged between an obstinate US-NATO military attack with high civilian casualties and the rampant abuses of power within the ranks of the alt-Taliban Afghan military commanders, the very visible presence of Joya (and her revolutionary comrades) on the political scene seemed unlikely if not downright impossible.

I met Joya in an empty auditorium at Harvard Law School where she was preparing to give a scheduled talk. She appeared instantly warm and disarming. I have no fine recollection of what we talked about but I remember she smiled and joked a lot. We talked about food and language and Iran and Afghanistan. It was a nice contrast to the deadly serious landscape of war, hunger, and rampant abuse she was about to describe in her talk.

After her speech her handlers asked me and a friend if we would help interpret her next talk at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. We showed up the next day to a too-small room packed to the gills (the organizers looked embarrassed: they had woefully underestimated interest in the event, though I knew that a banquet-size hall would’ve been reserved for a top U.S. diplomat or official). The audience totally dwarfed Joya’s smaller figure standing in the center. I wasn’t sure why they wanted us to interpret Joya’s Dari into English—her English was just fine, thank you very much—and in the end we non-interpreting interpreters just stood there on stage with her, not saying a word, while the inflection in her voice rose higher and higher as her anger brewed. This was not a sympathetic audience. It was filled with several Afghans who desired the war, and dismissed her damning slideshow of former Taliban commanders who transitioned into NATO-approved transitional government warlords since the invasion. She refused to conceal her disgust and fury with their insistence that the war would ultimately be ‘good’ for Afghanistan. The temperature and the tension of the room grew really heavy and small fights broke out. Joya didn’t seem to care, or at least it seemed she was used to it. I’m sure the truly dangerous and semi-clandestine existence she lived in Afghanistan must’ve made her immune to the sarcastic words of both Americans and Afghans favorable to what’s come to be called ‘Obama’s war.’ She brushed off the slights, gave us hugs, shrugged her shoulders, and left.

I read her memoir in one night and requested an interview, which her local host granted. In the end I never got to have that interview: I don’t know if it was because of Joya’s intense traveling schedule, the protectionist attitude of her hosts, or some other reason, or if the reason matters much. I saved the questions I sent her in advance in a file called ‘Questions for Joya,’ and recently unearthed them.

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Salam Joya jan,

Thanks for this opportunity to talk to you directly. I was hoping to ask follow-up questions, which are easier to do when talking live, but I know how busy and tiring your schedule must be. Thanks again for your time.

Here are my questions:

1. In the West, Afghan women are usually portrayed as either victims of foreign invaders or as victims of Afghan men. What do you think is lost in this discourse about Afghan women’s experiences?

2. There was an explosive reaction globally to the so-called ‘Afghan rape law.’ Regardless of his changing position, Karzai went on to support the latest law: allowing Afghan men to legally deny good if their wives deny them sex. What was RAWA’s reaction to these events?

3. Does excessive Western attention—or obsession, rather—paid to the hijab, or what some Muslim women wear, perturb you? Do you feel like this attention is at odds with the scant attention paid to Afghan women’s encounters with invasion, occupation, sexism, etc.?

4. In your memoir you write, ‘I am frightened of dying, but only for one reason: I am afraid that I could die without helping my people or leaving some kind of mark.’ It is clear that you live your life in revolutionary practice and thought. What about non-revolutionary life? What do you think of ‘ordinary’ civic action? Do you think you will always live in a revolutionary mode?

5. In your memoirs, you make very little mention of a personal life or what could be called romantic love. You say you are not interested in biological children or a husband. You were 20 when you wrote this. Perhaps a man’s revolutionary memoirs would not call for commenting on these personal matters. What are your thoughts on these matters now?

6. You make little mention of US/NATO troops in your book, written years ago, although in lectures you are highly critical—and visibly angry—about the invasion.

7. Iran is Afghanistan’s second most important neighbor perhaps, after Pakistan. What do you think about its official reactions to US/NATO invasion?

8. What are your thoughts on the post-election Iran crisis in June, if any?

9. The Pakistani state apparatus has been combative toward RAWA’s activities. What about Iran?

10. What are your immediate activities when you return to Kabul? Running the refugee camps, for example?

11. Every attempt at foreign rule of the country has failed. What do you wish the Obama administration and future administrations understood about Afghanistan?

Kheili motashakker hastam. [I’m very grateful.]

[Related] Nobody’s victim

[Related] Bomb Afghanistan: do it for the women

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