WASHINGTON--Conversing with a Western scholar on a flight from one city in Afghanistan to another many years ago, an Afghan said, as his countrymen still like to do, that Afghanistan is a West Asian Switzerland--landlocked, mountainous, multilingual. The scholar pulled up his sleeve to show his Swiss wristwatch and replied that he would find the comparison more convincing if Afghanistan produced items of comparable quality. And the Afghan laughed heartily.
The laughter was, and is, characteristic of the ``directness, openness and frankness'' of many people of that country, according to the scholar, Bernard Lewis. Now an emeritus professor at Princeton, Lewis is arguably the West's premier student of the Near East, and his affection for Afghanistan is a useful corrective to the cartoon portrait that events, and a Saudi named bin Laden, have managed to paint of that nation.
The Taliban, says Lewis, are a product of ``Pakistani education and Saudi money,'' and have hijacked a country with a small but not negligible intelligentsia of admirable forthrightness. Several decades ago Lewis attended a London lecture by Afghanistan's deputy minister of justice, the subject being the nation's new constitution. The deputy minister said Afghanistan once had a constitution that neither the government nor the people paid the slightest attention to, but they thought they might as well try again. A questioner asked, ``What makes you so certain this constitution will succeed?'' The lecturer laconically replied that he had said nothing suggesting certitude, only a willingness to try again.
Educated in British universities, in the 1960s Lewis was sent by the British government to see about improving cultural ties between Britain and Afghanistan. In a meeting attended by the Afghan minister of education, an Afghan academic asked Lewis if British universities would recognize Afghan university degrees as equivalent to those from British universities. Before Lewis could launch into diplomatic pitter-patter to blur the question, the minister of education curtly said to the academic who had asked the question, ``Don't be silly. How could they possibly?'' It was, Lewis says, a kind of candor rarely found elsewhere in the region.
Lewis notes that where Middle Eastern governments are least hostile to America--Egypt, Saudi Arabia--the people are apt to be especially hostile, because they consider America culpable for the survival of the corrupt regimes under which they live. Conversely, Iranians are about as well-disposed toward America as their government is ill-disposed. In the parts of Iran where satellite dishes siphon popular culture from the ether, a particularly popular program is American--``Baywatch.''
There are, Lewis notes dryly, two countries, the region's two democracies, where both the government and the people are pro-American--Turkey and Israel. ``We slight the one and bully the other.'' This is a pity because the democratic values of each, but particularly of Israel, attract attention.
Some university professors in Jordan have told Lewis that some of their students, fascinated by the sight of Israeli politicians banging the table and screaming at each other on Israeli television, are learning Hebrew so that they can better understand that spectacle of democracy. Lewis recalls watching Israeli television in Jordan in the presence of some Arab intellectuals, including an Iraqi. The Israeli program included a Palestinian boy, whose arm had been broken in the Intifada disorders and who eloquently denounced what he called Israeli brutality. The Iraqi said he would gladly let Saddam Hussein break both his arms and both his legs if Saddam would allow him to denounce Iraq's policies on Iraqi television.
The region, says Lewis, is difficult for Americans to understand because it is ``an intensely historical community.'' When Americans say of something, ``That's history,'' they mean it is irrelevant. Fourteen centuries of history are alive in today's crisis.
Yet it is reported, with depressing plausibility, that the State Department wanted military actions against Afghanistan delayed while it fine-tuned a post-Taliban government. Which, Secretary of State Colin Powell has hinted, need not be altogether ``post'' because the Taliban might have a role. Good Grief.
Every four years, for about half a year, New Hampshire--tiny, English-speaking, culturally homogenous New Hampshire--is saturated with pollsters, journalists, consultants and political scientists, all of whom toil to anticipate how the natives will vote in the two parties' primaries. And rarely do the outsiders get it right.
However, the chances of America getting (BEG ITAL)something(END ITAL) right in Afghanistan, that bouillabaisse of religious, ethnic and linguistic factions, are improved by the fact that several very senior administration officials have taken time to talk to Lewis.