Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Apostasy and ducks in Afghanistan

“He’s the man!” Barham, my young Afghan colleague, said one morning as we inched through the godforsaken rush-hour traffic of Kabul, rocking through the frozen potholes. Barham proceeded to tell me that the rather timid-looking young man at the office had a black belt in karate and participated in full-contact fights. “Beneath that shirt of his, there are only muscles. And a real man with the girls. Believe me, Gazwan has several girls.”

I thought I was not hearing right. Afghan girls are not exactly what one would call available, that is, apart from those who worked at certain locals-only tea rooms, if one could believe Confessions of a Mullah Warrior. No — if one heard the word “girl” in Kabul the image of a claustrophobic blue burka loomed large in one’s visual cortex.

“Let us be open about this,” continued Barham. “Gazwan also had a boy once. He’s really a wild guy.” And each morning, while the winter sky grew greyer with wind-blown dust, Barham’s stories about Gazwan grew longer.

“They can tell the most terrible stories about one another,” an old consultant told me in the corridors. He used to work for another department and I ran into him every now and again. “Mind you, many of the young men do in fact have their first experiences with other young men. I think there is lot of repression at work here.”

In other words, two and two still made four, and Freud still made a bit of sense, even in Afghanistan.

“There were at least 20 or 30 secret brothels in Kabul in Taliban times, and don’t believe for one minute that they have disappeared under the current government. But, whatever you do, rather stay away from discussions about sex — also about religion.”

Long ago, the old consultant eventually admitted that he had been a Catholic priest but had discovered the “error of his ways”. He glanced over his shoulder as he said this. “In Afghanistan apostasy is punishable by death — even for Christians, unless of course they happen to be converting to Islam.”

Back in the taxi on the way home I at last worked out that Gazwan was no karate champion, that my young colleague Barham had an almost pathological dislike of the poor guy and that he was having fun at the expense of the ignorant foreign consultant.

Once in my bedroom I googled “apostasy Afghanistan” and ended up with the names of a couple of Christian converts. Abdul Rahman, Said Musa and Shoaib Assadullah had spent several months in jail, facing the death penalty and the threats of fundamentalist Taliban inmates. The case of such converts was taken up by organisations like In Context Ministries and International Christian Concern.

The latter lobbies for the protection of Christian minorities in Islamic countries and warily follows the progress of the Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt and elsewhere. Others like Infidels are Cool followed up the fate of the apostates with a range of unapologetically offensive articles; not clear what they thought to contribute with these.

Then there was Ghows Zalmay, Afghan journalist, and to all appearances a devout Muslim, who had helped some friends print and distribute a new Dari translation of the Holy Quran. The Islamic Council of Afghanistan deemed the translation of several verses relating to alcohol, begging, homosexuality and adultery, to be inaccurate — in their minds a transgression on par with apostasy.

The whole matter was “an American conspiracy to deviate Afghans from the faith”, according to the leader of a Muslim prayer association in Herat. “They want us to be converted Christians or simply atheists.”

The “apostates” were eventually released on various grounds and fled the country. Apparently the authorities often find ways to avoid the full consequences of the rather rigid laws involved, such as positing insanity on the part of the accused; often also a hefty bribe is supposed to do the trick.

Zalmay the journalist only narrowly escaped the death penalty and, for what amounted to a trifle in my western eyes, ended up with a 20-year prison sentence. And, not long ago, Syed Saleem Shahzad, the progressive Pakistani journalist that had written Zalmay’s story, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered for his views.

“It is obvious,” the Faith Freedom website proclaimed, “that Islam is the problem in Afghanistan and the power of Islam within the institutions of this nation needs to be eliminated and a secular based society must be encouraged”.

The website claims to be run by ex-Muslims who had asked “prohibited questions and on that account lost their faith”.

Ja, right. Try again …

And when one tries to visit Muslims against Sharia, Google warns that the site “contains content from i003.radikal.ru, a site known to distribute malware”.

The next morning we again inched along the main road through Kabul, locked into a stream of banged-up vehicles with dirty steamed-up windows. I had wrapped a cloth around my head in Afghan fashion, and lurched and jarred along in a cocoon of warm anonymity. Pedestrians and beggars squeezed between cars, miraculously avoiding being crushed and hulking military vehicles bullied their way through the jam-packed traffic.

Bahram suddenly cleared his throat and launched into another tall tale about Gazwan.

“Maybe he should get married,” I said after a while and asked: “Could one marry an animal in Afghanistan?” Barham was horrified.

“What? An animal? No, absolutely not! It is absolutely haraam! But I have heard that people in India do that. There are Muslims there but they aren’t really Muslim.”

“Yes, some people in my country do that as well,” I said. “A good friend of mine once married a duck.”

“A duck!” Barham’s eyes widened with incredulity. “He wouldn’t be able to do that here!”

“Yes, with a duck. I was at the marriage myself.”

“But with a duck! Why?”

“Well, because one can do quite a lot with a duck if one puts one’s mind to it and if one wanted to one could also eat it.” I could no longer keep a straight face and the colleague sitting in the front passenger seat smirked and said something in Dari about Gazwan.

Recognition dawned in my young colleague’s eyes.

Got you, jou bliksem, I thought.

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