A Visit to the Shrine of Afghanistan's National Hero
Nine years after his death, Ahmad Shah Massoud is everywhere.
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BAZARAK, Afghanistan—I have seen Ahmad Shah Massoud's snow globe. He had two, actually, identical except for some sort of algae that has muddied the water in one of them. I've also seen the man's plastic staple remover. You can see it, too, at the National Hero's Tomb, Afghanistan's top tourist destination, which is currently under construction, growing from a simple grave site to a shrine, amphitheater, museum, and gift shop.
Sept. 9 is Massoud Day, and nine years after his assassination, people around Afghanistan will remember the national hero, the Lion of the Panshjir, Chief of Martyrdom Hill, the most beatified mujahideen. He was the leader of the resistance to the Taliban before anyone knew who the Taliban were, and he is probably one of the warlords the CIA and the U.S. government most deeply regret supporting only halfheartedly. In a precursor to the 9/11 attacks, two Tunisian al-Qaida operatives posing as Belgian journalists killed him in a suicide mission.
Al-Qaida's aim was to decapitate the Northern Alliance, because Osama Bin Laden correctly predicted a major U.S. military response to the 9/11 attacks. Without Massoud, the U.S. efforts would be less effective. Washington made do with Hamid Karzai. Nine years on, it is clear that Karzai lacks Massoud's charisma and strategic wherewithal. He isn't the same kind of leader. He never was.
But Massoud lives on. Today he is everywhere. He is shown at prayer on billboards on the side of the road and on signs nestled in cliffs in his native Panshjir Valley. His portrait hangs on buildings, it is posted in offices alongside President Hamid Karzai's, and it is taped to dashboards and hung from rearview mirrors. Call it mujahideen kitsch: His visage appears on carpets, and his face is superimposed on parliamentary candidates' campaign posters.
Here in villages lining the rugged Panjshir Valley, you can't go more than a few feet without seeing a poster weathered by sun and rain. Often there is Massoud the thinker, his brow deeply furrowed. There is the beneficent, smiling Massoud. There is Massoud looking through long-range binoculars. He always wears his pakol, the soft woolen hat shaped like a pie. And for good reason! The hat, worn at a jaunty angle, made him sexy, and he made it sexy, too.
Massoud was a darling of the West, particularly of the French, who even put him on a postage stamp. He was born in the Panshjir Valley, attended a French lycée in Kabul, and picked up Persian and Hindi, as well as conversational Arabic and English. At university in Kabul, he joined the student branch of the Jamiat-e Islami, an Afghan organization along the lines of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Comparatively speaking, he was the most moderate of the Islamists. He talked about women's rights.
His tomb is just a few hours' drive north of Kabul. It used to be an hour and a half, but in today's traffic, it takes twice as long, particularly if you are caught behind the military vehicles heading to Bagram Airfield. (Do not try to overtake.) Driving north, you pass fields of Soviet tanks lined up as if in parking lots. The valley narrows into a gorge, with a sparkling green river rushing through vertical cliffs. This is Massoud's territory, populated by Tajiks, one of the four main ethnic groups in the country. It is easy to see how Massoud's guerrillas descended from the rocks to ambush the Soviet tanks that repeatedly failed to conquer the area. Sometimes Massoud's men raped the Russian POWs. The tanks and other Soviet vehicles are rusting along the roadside and in the river. They are flipped over and left next to the slides in the playground.
"You're an infidel," one of the kids playing in the street tells me when we stop to buy a pakol. Then, wide-eyed, he clamps his hand over his mouth, checking for my reaction. It's just a joke. Another boy grabs the blue accordion fabric of a burqa that is for sale and pushes it toward me, commanding me to put it on. All the women I see walking around in the valley are in burqas—though the Taliban were never here, this was always a conservative rural area. It's hard enough for me to keep my headscarf from getting caught in car doors, the impaired vision of the burqa would be another level of hazard altogether. My comeback, "No, you wear it," sends the boys into shrieks.
April Rabkin is a freelance writer in Beijing.