Sunday, July 22, 2007

MEMOIR: My Pashtun friend

One of the most memorable persons that I met during my World War II military service in India was a Muslim I will call Abdul. (I do not remember his real name.) Abdul owned a concession in the PX at a U.S. Army base near Calcutta, repairing and making shoes. Like the shoe makers at every Army PX I patronized in India, Abdul was an ethnic Pashtun and a Sunni Muslim.

In that era, at least, it was evidently a local tradition that a particular ethnic group monopolized a specific occupation or industry. In Calcutta, e.g., I recall that all the taxi cab drivers were Sikhs. They were as geographically far removed from their Punjab homeland as the Pashtuns were from their native habitat in India's Northwest Frontier Province.

This occupational tradition may have been influenced by the Hindu caste system in which a family occupation is normally passed on from one generation to another.

I remember Abdul as a tall, bearded, fair-skinned man who wore a loose-fitting, full-length tunic with long sleeves and a sash at the waist. His clothing was not well suited for the Calcutta area's torrid sub-tropical climate, but this didn't seem to bother him.

His face bore an inherently fierce expression that always reminded me of tribal warriors in a Rudyard Kipling tale about British troops battling the natives in the Khyber Pass. All that seemed to be missing was a rifle in his hands or a sword hanging from his belt. Actually, Abdul was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man with little apparent inclination for fighting.

I first met Abdul when I brought him a pair of shoes to repair. I was struck by how different he looked from the local Bengali men, who were shorter, dark-skinned people dressed in dhotis, the loin cloths similar to sarongs that are universally worn by India's Hindus.

Being the inquisitive type, I asked Abdul where in India he came from. His fluency in English was adequate, and he was eager to talk about his personal background. I was probably one of the few GIs who discussed anything other than shoe making with him.

Abdul told me that he was a Pashtun. The Pashtuns are the major ethnic group in the Northwest Frontier Province and are also known as Pathans. When I returned to pick up my shoes several days later, Abdul was happy to continue our conversation about his people, about whom I had known nothing.

I learned that their culture is dominated by a warrior heritage and a pre-Islamic militant code of honor that decrees death to invaders and protection for guests. Abdul boasted that despite centuries of invasion by foreign armies none had ever successfully conquered the Pashtuns.

On subsequent visits to the PX I would invariably visit Abdul at his counter, enabling me to develop the kind of personal relationship that I never established with any other Indian.

Abdul would frequently complain that the British colonial rulers had arbitrarily divided the Pashtun lands between Afghanistan and India. After World War II, when Pakistan was carved out of India as an independent Muslim country, it acquired the Pashtun territory that had been governed by the British as part of India.

Abdul was a fervent Pashtun nationalist. I assume that he was active several years later in the unsuccessful campaign, launched after Pakistan's creation, to establish a separate independent country of Pashtunistan.

I hadn't given much thought to Abdul in recent years. But memories of my talks with him more than 60 years ago were revived after 9/11, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to retaliate against Osama bin-Laden's Al-Qaeda and the Taliban rulers who had sheltered the terrorist organization.

The Taliban is an extremist Islamic movement composed solely of Abdul's people, the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group with about 40% of its population. Pashtun tribes--there are more than 100 of them--are also the dominant people across the border in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area.

Actually, the border means nothing to Pashtun tribesmen. They travel freely across it, regarding the border as little more than a line drawn by foreigners. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda easily find refuge in this essentially lawless region. Pakistan's central government--like the previous British colonial rulers--has been unable to establish authority over its warlike Pashtun inhabitants. (And that is why bin-Laden and his top aides have been able to elude capture by the U.S. Army.)

Not all Pashtuns, of course, are bad guys. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's pro-American president, and Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are both Pashtuns.

As the U.S. continues to battle Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, I wonder whether the descendants of my old friend Abdul have abandoned the trade of shoe-making and are among the jihadi warriors who have been fighting the U.S. for more than five years.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

MEMOIR: My father was a rebel

When I was growing up, my parents never tried to influence my choice of a future career. Like so many of my friends, living within a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, my boyhood ambition was to be a big-league baseball player. I was regarded by my peers as a smooth-fielding second baseman, but I couldn't hit a curve ball. That, and some other athletic weaknesses, guaranteed that I would never make it to the big leagues. Journalism soon supplanted baseball as my career goal. And all the while, my mother and father never suggested what I should do with my life.

In contrast, my father had to contend with his father, an Orthodox rabbi who insisted that his son follow in his occupational footsteps. My father, however, was a rebel who declined to satisfy his father's ambition for him.

My grandfather belonged to the Hasidim, a Jewish mystical sect whose religious practices are marked by more emotional fervor than most other Orthodox Jews.

My father was brought to the U.S. in 1906 as an eight-year old from the sector of Poland then under Czarist Russian rule. The family settled on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

In the strict style of the Hasidim, my grandfather refused to allow my father to attend public school because he frowned on the mixing of sexes in the classroom. My father went to the local elementary school for several days, then was quickly withdrawn when Grandpa learned that there were girls in my father's class and that the all the teachers were women.

My father was then enrolled in a yeshiva, an all-day Jewish religious school where he learned English and a smattering of other secular subjects after regular school hours. The secular subjects were usually taught by immigrant college students.

It was generally assumed that my father would go on to a rabbinical seminary when he completed the equivalent of public high school at the yeshiva, and that he would subsequently be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi.

But my father's personal career objective did not match my grandfather's. My father's faith in Orthodoxy had suffered from exposure to the radical free-thinking views of the neighborhood's galaxy of socialist soapbox orators. The prospect of remaining in the Hasidic fold after completing his yeshiva studies and becoming an Orthodox rabbi had become remote.

My father's ambition was to become a doctor. However, his limited secular education and the family's modest financial means made such an ambition unattainable.

An alternative career path developed during his final term in the yeshiva. It was opened by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a nationally renowned Reform Jewish rabbi. Wise had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in his native Hungary. When he settled in the U.S., however, he decided that the Reform Jewish movement was more likely to flourish in this country than Orthodoxy.

He eventually became a Reform rabbi and a leader in the Reform movement. He realized that the students being educated in the Orthodox yeshivas were far better prepared in Talmudic and other traditional Jewish religious studies than the young men usually entering Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati.

Wise decided to recruit graduates from the Orthodox institutions, offering them scholarships to Hebrew Union for training as Reform rabbis. My father received such an offer and quickly accepted it. His father, however, objected. To my pious grandfather, becoming a Reform Jew was tantamount to leaving the Jewish faith.

To avoid family controversy, my father reluctantly rejected Rabbi Wise's offer. He was now 18 and decided to leave New York to seek his fortune elsewhere, unfettered by paternal supervision.

For the next couple of years, my father drifted from a job as a clerk in a dry-goods store operated by a Jewish merchant in a small town in Arkansas to one as a shoe salesman in Tennessee. After learning that Henry Ford had begun to pay $5 a day to work on his assembly line, he headed for Detroit and was hired. He was presumably the only former Hasid who ever became a factory hand for the Ford Motor Co.

During World War I my father was drafted into the Army. He served briefly and was discharged for medical reasons. In a strange move still criticized by military historians, his outfit, the 339th Infantry Regiment, was shipped in September 1918 to Archangel and Murmansk in Russia.

The regiment, which acquired the popular name of the "Polar Bears," was a unit in the Allied North Russian Expeditionary Force which was deployed in what one historian has called "a confused effort to thwart the Russian Revolution."

My father was always preoccupied by the irony that, had he not been discharged earlier from the Army, he would have been forced to return to the very land his family had fled only a decade before. That was something he could not have as easily rebelled against as he had done to his father.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Idiocy in Iraq

Ever since I began publishing this blog more than two years ago, I have bitterly criticized the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq and the dreadful consequences of the occupation. I feel no satisfaction that my warnings have been vindicated.

My frustration and anger at the death and maiming of so many young Americans, and the waste of billions of dollars that could have been spent for far more vital purposes--think Katrina--knows no bounds.

The President continues to make his idiotic argument that we must remain in Iraq until "victory is achieved." He has yet to define what "victory" would mean there. How can anyone offer a definition when examining the varied forces involved in what is essentially a civil war?

Sunnis are fighting Shiites, some Sunni factions are fighting other Sunni factions, some Shiite factions are fighting other Shiite factions, and insurgents of all stripes are battling the U.S. And so the widespread violence and insecurity that cripples Iraq.

The President has the audacity to still charge that Al-Qaeda is "the main enemy" in Iraq. U.S. military and intelligence officials, however, say that the organization known as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia constitutes only a small part of the threat to U.S. troops. Its members are essentially free-lance local jihadis and foreign Islamic terrorists eager to kill Americans. They are inspired, but not necessarily directed, by the original Osama bin-Laden-led organization based in Afghanistan and the ungovernable tribal region in northwestern Pakistan.

"The only way [the Bush Administration] thinks they can rally people is by blaming Al-Qaeda," Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, has charged. He is one of the growing number of high-level U.S. military and intelligence officials who, after resigning or retiring from government service, have criticized the Iraq invasion and the subsequent occupation. Their opinions were evidently ignored while they were still on the Federal payroll.

To support his claim that, despite the continuing violence, Iraq will become a stable democratic state, Bush makes the absurd claim that, after all, Israel is a "functioning democracy" that has not been destroyed by terrorism. The analogy underscores Bush's ignorance of Middle East history.

The silly season continues to thrive as Bush Administration supporters still complain that the news coverage of Iraq is distorted by the emphasis on violence and the disregard of "good news." Fox Cable Network's star pundit, Bill O'Reilly (ruler of the "no spin zone"), for example, seems to think that it's more important to report about the likes of Anne Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton than about bombings in Tikrit.

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