Taliban Humour: Death by a Thousand Jokes

By Arif Ayub


History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce. The Americans are proving the truth of this saying by their recent handling of a Taliban imposter. After three tragedies (two involving the British and one the Russians) we are finally getting the farce.

Victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. This intelligence failure was quickly blamed by the US on Britain’s MI6, who were equally quick in blaming ISI. The US media, however, refused to buy these explanations and were ridiculing the allies’ handling of the situation and praising Mullah Omar for successfully arranging the scam and ‘laughing his turban off’.

Personally, I think that neither of these two could have arranged the scam since both General Kayani and Mullah Omar are extremely serious individuals who would never stoop to playing such games. Mullah Omar in fact must be admonishing the perpetrators of this practical joke for diverting attention from the serious business of jihad. The real culprits are most probably the crowd of younger mullahs who thronged Kabul during the Taliban rule and who, unlike the sour and dour mullahs of Kandahar, had an extremely strong sense of humour and a tendency to play practical jokes.

This aspect of the mullahs’ character never ceases to amaze me. Despite two decades of warfare and the immense destruction and suffering they have witnessed, the mullahs still retain their basic humanity and zest for life, never losing an opportunity to make jokes at our expense or about themselves. The senior mullahs were an amazing blend of civility, intelligence, warm heartedness and generosity who tried their best to make my stay in Kabul comfortable. I learned more about the Islamic history of Afghanistan from them than all the English books which tend to concentrate on the colonial period. The experience demonstrated how difficult it is to categorise human character, which is far too complex for mere nomenclatures. This was quite a contrast to the image of the mullahs as being a bunch of crazed, medieval, obscurantist, misogynist, fanatic zealots. This contrast also comes through in Mullah Zaeef’s book in which he summarises the entire jihad against the Russians in one sentence: ‘How happy were those days.’

The difference between the image and reality was so stark that I asked one of the more intelligent mullahs how such a decent bunch could reconcile with the stupid, bordering on crazy fatwas which were issued in their name every Friday. The explanation was that anyone sensible was always shouted down by the crowd and the extremists always won the day by accusing anyone opposing them of being un-Islamic. In our Foreign Office we were well aware of this experience. Patriotism and extremism are the first refuge of scoundrels.

The jokes started as soon as I had presented my credentials and the DCP was making my appointments with the Ministers at about one a day. I asked him to speed up the process but he refused saying that since I had just arrived from Rome they wanted to break me in gently by showing me only one beard per day. If they showed me a sea of beards all at once I might run back to Rome.

Mullah Rabbani, unfortunately passed away soon after and the Taliban had arranged an Ariana flight to take the top leadership to Kandahar. The ISI managed to get me a seat on the plane but seeing my reluctance to board the aircraft tried to motivate me with their usual patriotic fervour, while dragging me up the ramp. On seeing that I was not convinced, they consoled me by saying that if the plane crashed, we would all go straight to heaven since there were about 150 mullahs on board. Surprisingly, the level of Ariana was the same as PIA, but without any air hostesses. I complained about this to the mullah sitting next to me who replied that their male stewards were better than our air hostesses.

Since the real leadership of the Taliban was in Kandahar we had to make frequent trips to see Mullah Omar, as he had not delegated any powers to the crowd in Kabul. During one journey, since the airport road was being repaired our escort decided to take us by helicopter. After seating us they told us that we gave too much importance to pilots, with their long training and high salaries. The Taliban had proved that any mullah could fly a helicopter. They then beckoned to a mullah who was selling fruit in a hand cart nearby. The person came in and sat in the pilot’s seat and of course all of us disembarked. The pilot was quite surprised and asked why we were leaving. We told him we did not believe any mullah could fly a helicopter. He laughed and said he was not a mullah but a Khalqi helicopter pilot trained at Frunze, who had joined the Taliban so that he could continue flying. The fruit handcart was necessary since the Taliban did not pay any salary. Our escort was laughing for the entire ten minutes it took us to reach Kandahar city.

It seems this joke was quite standard, since it was tried again on our second visit. This time a so-called mullah was standing next to a MIG-21 and we played along and said we did not believe a mullah could fly the aircraft, especially with his Hawaii chappals and big beard. The Khalqi jumped in the cockpit and told us that he would fly over our convoy while we were on the airport road. When we came to a straight stretch of road we saw the aircraft coming straight at us, at tree top level, but so low that the exhaust was raising dust. At the last second the plane pulled up, scaring the daylights out of our delegation and providing comic relief to our Taliban escort for the remainder of the journey. Taliban and Khalqis both loved to see Pakistanis squirm, and playing chicken with a MIG-21 was their idea of fun.





©Jules Stewart 2010