(Stub of main portion of my Oct. 1979 trans-Siberian ticket – Moscow to Khabarovsk; 8,531 kilometers.)
Here is a bit more on my pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972-1973, etc.:
… More about my idea of “God” (see post below on death and here about my view of God ): I believe God, this one spirit or universal consciousness has basically divided itself into innumerable small parts by bringing about (in whatever way) what we regard as the physical universe with all the individual consciousnesses within it, each tied to a body of some kind or another.
We are really all one ― each one of us living beings and inanimate things is a part of this God ― but through our bodies we have the illusion of being separate from one another. When the bodies of us living beings fall away we return to where we came from and become one again completely with God ― the universal spirit. It is only the short-lived body of ours which makes us feel separate.
I cannot think of another way in which the world could be “just.” No concept of heaven and hell and good and evil that I have known would ever satisfy my sense of justice. For years I thought (the late Korean Rev. Sun Myung) Moon’s Divine Principle had the answers but I have concluded that it doesn’t. It is no better than some other ideas that do not satisfy me at all.
God is absolutely responsible for everything that happens in the universe — from the greatest, most beautiful thing or event to the most horrible monstrosity or atrocity — but we all share that responsibility because we are all part of God. God as a whole has thrived on the differences and divisions among us that lead to conflict — especially in us humans, the spearheads of the evolution of his consciousness in this world — and on both the good and the evil things we have been doing to each other in our bodies, which make us feel separate. But his/our consciousness is evolving. God is learning with us, through us.
In our primitive days, when we were totally unable to understand the reality of our ultimate oneness, God gave us myths including the Bible and all the scriptures, which were propagated by people inspired by “Him” (or “Her,” “It”) to awe us and make us fear, and to herd us together as groups and make us fight each other for his own pleasure. To explain this: I believe the deepest parts of our nature are the emotions, which we share with God, our source. Yes, I believe God has the same emotions, though from a universal perspective, since his “body” is the entire universe.
Now, I think, the time may be coming when those myths are no longer useful. It is time that we humans outgrow them and look for the truth behind and beyond them. Most of all I hope we can truly become aware of the reality of our original and ultimate oneness.
I have thought about the concept of a spirit world. Do I believe there is a world of spirit where we/our souls go after we die? Do I believe we have a spiritual body in which our soul/spirit resides for eternity and which resembles our physical body as it is when we are young and healthy? — No, I do not believe this! — This does not mean that I believe it is impossible.
I think that when we die – when our physical body dies and decays – our spirit dissolves in the ocean of universal consciousness, which is what God is to me. However, there remains a residue of a memory within God – a memory of us as we were when we were alive. As I have written before (see below about time and here about my view of God ), I believe time – the “flow” of time – is really an accumulation of memory or memories within God. It expands ad infinitum, which is probably also why our universe seems to expand. When we die, then, the memory of our life remains as part of this ever-growing universal memory. In this way we will continue to exist – but we cannot create new things or learn or grow because we will no longer be conscious as a separate entity. We will be fully assimilated or merged into the whole whence we came, a grain of salt dissolved in the ocean – still salt and still contributing our specific flavor to the ocean – at least to the tiny part of it that we have been able to influence during our lives – but no longer a separate entity and no longer able to expand our influence.
I may be wrong, of course, but it would be very hard if not impossible for me to return to a belief in a spirit world like that described by Unificationists and others such as Swedenborg.
From a post I wrote in 2008 (elsewhere):
Time – an accumulation of memory in universal consciousness; not entropy
Recently I read an article by a scientist who proposed that the “flow” or “arrow” of time is basically the growth of entropy, including decay. When you pour milk into a cup of coffee, for example, it would be extremely difficult to go back and separate the milk from the coffee. The same applies if you try to rebuild an organism that has completely decayed.
I propose a different explanation, though I don’t have the scientific knowledge to back it up: the direction of the “flow” of time is determined by the accumulation of memory in universal consciousness. Everything is memory / universally stored information, which keeps increasing with the passage of time and can never decrease (otherwise time would “flow” backwards). Even the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that seem to fill our universe may be a store of memory. We carry the memory of our ancestors within us – even though we are mostly not aware of it. Memory is the imprint that everything leaves on universal consciousness or god (see my posts about god/universal consciousness below). – Unlike the scientist who believes the flow of time is the growth of entropy, I believe that entropy is only something like a side effect – it is inevitable and it always distorts or degrades memory to some extent, but it is not a dominant aspect of reality.
By Erwin Franzen
(for the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus in the 1980s.)
( My editor insisted that I use a somewhat impersonal style in this
article and did not allow me to write it up as a personal experience,
which, of course, it was. I wrote this after returning to Islamabad from a
two-week trip to Baltistan in January 1988. This is the unedited
ISLAMABAD — In the winter, when the weather is bad in the mountains,
taking a bus on Pakistan’s perilous Karakoram Highway (KKH) can be every
bit as exciting as a game of Russian Roulette.
There is nothing like a rough ride of four and a half hours on the
back of a four—wheel-drive pickup truck on a bitterly cold winter
morning for the traveller to appreciate the awe-inspiring grandeur and
desolation of the Karakoram mountain range, which contains the greatest
concentration of high peaks anywhere and is regarded by geologists as
one of the most unstable but also most fascinating features on the
Along the 100-kilometre dirt road through the wild gorges of the
Shyok and Indus rivers from Khaplu to Skardu in Baltistan one cannot
help feeling that the enormous bleak rock faces, the jagged,
snow-covered peaks poking into the clouds, the eerily frozen waterfalls,
the huge boulders strewn all around and the vast scree slopes must
belong to some distant uninhabitable planet but not to this earth. All
of this spells danger. Under a gloomy, leaden sky, with the sun’s rays
unable to break through thick clouds that hide the high mountain tops,
there appears to be a veiled threat of impending disaster.
From Skardu, a small town in a wide, sand-covered valley at 2,300
metres, the road continues along the Indus River through dangerous
gorges for about 500 kilometres before turning east away from the river
on its way to Rawalpindi. If one travels on a public bus, this trip on
the KKH has to be made in two stages. It involves a seven-hour journey
from Skardu to Gilgit followed by a gruelling sixteen-hour trip to
Rawalpindi on a different bus.
For four days from the end of 1987 until the first day of 1988 heavy
clouds hung above Skardu Valley and hid the many 5,000-metre mountain
peaks surrounding it on all sides. As the small airport in the valley
had no radar, all flights were cancelled. The sky looked as though there
was worse weather to come, so it seemed that there was no choice but to
court disaster and take the bus.
Everyone in the packed, gaily-painted bus appeared to be in good
mood when the journey began on the first day of the new year. The
gloomy atmosphere outside did not affect the passengers for a long
time as the bus sped on the asphalt road to the western end of the
valley, then moved slowly over a narrow suspension bridge across the
Indus and entered the gorge.
Compared with the bleakness of the grey, brown and black tones of
the massive rock formations on its sides, the river was a pleasant
sparkling green colour — almost inviting save for the fact that it was
at times separated from the road by several hundred metres of sheer
For most of the way the road appeared in good condition except for
only one or two spots where part of its foundation had collapsed and
plunged down the precipice into the Indus far below, leaving a gaping
hole. The driver was quite agile and avoided such death traps easily. At
least two small bridges spanning gaping chasms above raging tributaries
of the Indus appeared rather dilapidated. The driver accelerated,
apparently anxious to cross the bridges before they collapsed.
Some eighty kilometres before Gilgit a number of boulders the size of
large cars had broken off from a gigantic rock formation that hung
threateningly above the road. The road was hopelessly blocked. A
maintenance crew was already at work preparing the area for blasting.
A little farther west, high above the road on a steep scree slope
that seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky, two local shepherds
herded their sheep and goats down as quickly as they could. The workers
had signalled to them to come down because the blasting might make the
scree come alive and cause a huge landslide. The shepherds wore roughly
cut pieces of goatskin wrapped around their feet and ankles in lieu of
shoes. They could perfectly well have fit into a Stone Age setting, with
nothing on their bodies to show that they lived in the 20th century.
Luckily for the travellers, the three heavy blasts that were required
to break up the boulders did not bring down any more rocks although
cracks appeared in some huge slabs that hung precariously above the
road. A lone bulldozer took more than two hours to push the debris over
the edge into the Indus. Darkness fell soon after the road was cleared.
The bulldozer then headed west on the narrow road at a snail’s pace,
and the bus driver had no choice but to follow at the same speed for
some time. The driver quickly became irritated. He tried to pass the
bulldozer several times but there was not enough space.
A military officer ran up on the road from behind the bus and knocked
on the driver’s side window. The two exchanged some angry words. The
driver had been ordered to pull the bus up to the edge of the precipice
to allow a military truck to pass. He did so but complained bitterly.
Then the officer also ordered the bulldozer to get out of the way at the
next spot where this was possible.
The military truck sped on ahead, followed quickly by the bus, whose
driver appeared very angry and nervous all of a sudden. He was
determined to pass the military truck, which was already moving quite
fast on this perilous road with rock walls or scree slopes to the right
and a gaping black chasm to the left where in many places parts of the
asphalt had broken off and plunged down into the gorge. The bus driver
used his ear-shattering horn and flashed his lights wildly to drive his
message home to the soldiers.
Finally, they let him pass. But they stayed close behind and flashed
their lights as well, irritating the bus driver even more. His antics
behind the steering wheel became increasingly wild and on several
occasions the bus very nearly went over the edge of the cliff. Two
passengers sitting in the front abreast of the driver angrily warned him
to slow down. Others anxiously mumbled prayers. The angry warnings
seemed to madden the driver even more, and some other passengers urged
everyone to calm down. The atmosphere in the bus became increasingly
tense, laden with a strange mixture of anger and naked fear.
Suddenly, there was another bus in front and the angry driver of the
first bus flashed his lights to signal that he wanted to pass. The bus
in front slowed down but stayed in the middle of the road for some time.
When it finally allowed the first bus to pass its driver was fuming. To
make matters still worse, the other bus also stayed close behind and
flashed its lights. Many passengers on the first bus were terrified but
no one dared to approach the driver for fear of distracting him in this
extremely dangerous situation.
After what appeared to be an eternity, the valley widened and the bus
stopped at a petrol station. When the bus left the station after
refuelling, a teenage boy sat down on an improvised seat next to the
driver and this seemed to calm the man down. Later, he let the boy drive
the rest of the way to Gilgit. Although the boy’s driving was somewhat
unsteady from lack of experience, the passengers were relieved that the
bus was now moving more slowly and carefully.
Next morning, another bus with a few foreigners among the many
passengers left Gilgit on the long journey to Rawalpindi. The driver was
a man of about 50, clearly very experienced and skilful. But on this
trip the road was in very bad condition — and the weather turned worse.
There were scores of spots on the way where rocks of all sizes had
fallen from above and very nearly blocked the road. Often the space left
between the bigger boulders and the edge of the precipice was just
barely wide enough to allow the bus to pass.
Again and again, the bus lurched sideways as it moved slowly over
very uneven terrain past big boulders. Some terrified passengers, who
saw the gaping abyss come up from below their windows as the heavy
vehicle seemed close to the point of rolling over, leaned into the aisle
and looked the other way.
At one point, some rocks rolled away from under the wheels of the bus
at the edge of the broken road and the driver had to quickly steer the
vehicle towards a big pile of boulders away from the precipice. The
boulders tore into the side of the bus, causing minor damage, but
passengers later congratulated the driver on his presence of mind.
After a seemingly endless series of similar incidents, the passengers
felt relieved when the bus crossed a bridge on the Indus, hoping that
the worst was over. But then, shortly before dark, it began to rain.
Water is both a boon and a bane in the mountains. Local villagers
need it for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigation but it also
inevitably brings down boulders and mud, and it causes the landslides
that so often obstruct the KKH.
The bus drove on into the night on the wet road, dodging many more
fresh rockfalls. In one area, the going was slow over a stretch of at
least 20 kilometres where a huge landslide had completely blocked the
KKH for over two weeks in October. The road was still badly scarred and
the piles of debris on one side did not allow two vehicles to pass each
other along most of this stretch.
After the bus finally crossed the last bridge over the Indus and
headed o ut of the gorge, the driver stepped on the accelerator. As the
road was still dangerous, some passengers became concerned that the bus
was moving too fast. A Australian woman expressed her worries to a
Pakistani passenger who translated for the driver.
After some 12 hours on the KKH the driver was clearly becoming tired
and it seemed that he was accelerating because he was afraid to fall
asleep. There were a few more hair-raising moments when the driver
nearly seemed to lose control of the bus in dangerous curves. But he
finally stopped and allowed a younger colleague to drive the rest of the
way to Rawalpindi.
It is by braving such a danger-filled winter journey on the KKH that
one can learn to appreciate the remarkable feat that the building of
this road represented. One can also easily understand how the KKH
claimed at least 500 lives during the 20-odd years of its construction
and many hundreds more in the last eight years since it was opened.
Recently (2010) I was interviewed about my experiences in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Here are my answers:
About writing an autobiography:
… I do hope to find the time to write a book, primarily because I want to tell the story of the lessons I have learnt in my life to my family and friends. I will need a lot of time because I am a very slow writer. I have put some of my thoughts and brief accounts of my experiences on the Internet just in case it is of interest to others, especially old friends with whom I have long lost contact and who might be looking for me and may be curious about what happened to me without necessarily wanting to get in touch. They might not like how my religious and political views have changed.
About Saudi Arabia 1972-73:
The people with whom I traveled to Mecca were my friend “Ali” – whose real name I won’t reveal, to protect his identity, and whom I met on an earlier trip outside Europe — and Ali’s brother and the brother’s family (Pakistani wife, from Lahore, and three small boys). They lived in England and came to Luxembourg to pick me up in December 1972. They had two cars: a VW van with a mattress and gas cooker in the back and a Ford Capri 3000 GT sports car. They had to get to Jeddah by early January 1973, in time to pick up their old mother, who was coming there by plane from London for her first and probably last Haj. After the pilgrimage and putting their mother on the plane back to London they were going to continue their trip to Lahore in Pakistan to visit their family there. They wanted me as a backup driver, and I was all gung-ho about going to Pakistan. But since I could not accompany them to Mecca we were going to drive to Kuwait, where I was going to stay with their eldest brother (they were a family of 12 kids, and “Ali” was the youngest) and I was to wait for them to return after about a month in Saudi Arabia.
When we got stuck at Abu Kemal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, where the Iraqis refused to let us enter their country, my friends had to change their plan and drive down through Jordan and directly into Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz. When they offered me the choice I decided to officially become a Muslim so that I could accompany them, and they were my witnesses at the Saudi Embassy in Damascus where we all got special “pilgrim entry” visas for the kingdom. We arrived in Saudi Arabia at the end of 1972 and stayed in that country until 1 February 1973.
In Mina, the tent city outside Mecca, where we spent at least 2 weeks, many people were very curious about me and invited me into their tents for a cup of tea and to ask me questions about my background and my thoughts about the world of Islam. Some people refused to believe that I was from western Europe and insisted I must be Turkish. The same happened in Medina, where we rented a small apartment in the old Uhud quarter near the main mosque, where Prophet Mohammed’s tomb is located, during the period of 40 prayers after the Haj. The old quarter where we stayed and which seemed like a town from the Middle Ages, was torn down a few months after we left to make way for a project to expand the great mosque of Medina.
I received a big Quran in Arabic and English from the director of the Islamic University in Medina and read a little bit from time to time, including the lengthy commentaries in footnotes by the translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
I remember the big crowds in Mecca and Medina, more people than I had ever seen before. In Mecca we used to wash up in a large underground facility under a square just outside the big mosque before going inside for the Tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, and the walks between Safa and Marwa, and so on. “Ummi” (or mother), as I also came to call my friends’ mother, only spoke to me in Punjabi, though she tried Suaheli sometimes when i didn’t understand. I quickly learned the few words I needed to know in order to follow her instructions. Like many old or infirm people she could not do the Tawaf by herself, and we paid a pair of big, strong men to carry her on a stretcher with a sort of basket in the middle.
After we saw “Ummi” off we stayed a few more days in Jeddah. We lived in the house of a family of Pakistani origin, and my friends suggested that I marry the youngest daughter of that family – who was only 16 at the time – and stay in Saudi Arabia. A Filipino friend of Ali’s who acted as our guide on the Haj had received a scholarship some years earlier to study at Medina’s Islamic University (with the support of King Faisal, if I remember correctly), and my friends thought I could try to get one too and stay behind in Saudi Arabia rather than go with them to Lahore.
I was very impressed by the experience of the Haj and meeting so many people who were mostly very nice to me, but I was not ready at all to get married and to stay in Saudi Arabia. Again, to make a long story short, I accompanied my friends to Kuwait, where we spent 9 days in a big villa doing nothing but eating, drinking fruit cocktails and having fun — then later they dropped me off in Abadan, Iran, and I made my way from there back to Europe on my own, with very little money. Nowadays I wonder how much of my experiences I still remember correctly. I learned some Arabic from my friends and others, and still remember the numbers and quite a few words that I had had to learn, such as the Shahada, etc.
About my attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and whether my experiences there were the most special time in my life:
As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, my interest in those countries comes from the wonderment I felt in my first experience traveling outside Europe, as well as my fascination and awe of mountains. Luxembourg has only low hills, and the first time I saw real mountains was when I went to Austria with my boy scout troop in 1963. I was so fascinated and awe-struck that I stared for long periods of time at Mt. Grimming near Tauplitz, in Styria, without uttering a word.
My first trip outside Europe took me to Teheran, Iran in March 1972. I met Ali there. As I mentioned, his family was originally from Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. He was born and grew up in Kenya. When I met him he was on his way to Lahore, in a car he had bought while studying in the United States. He wanted to share expenses on the trip so he was looking for people who would travel with him. To make a long story short, we traveled together from Teheran to Kandahar, and I had to return from there on my own because I had to get back to my job in Luxembourg. The experience of that short, two-week trip affected me so much that it was almost impossible for me to re-adjust to my workaday life in Luxembourg. I longed for the mountains and the very different kind of life I thought I had glimpsed especially in Afghanistan.
About the contrast between the Afghanistan I saw in 1972 and that of the 1980s:
I entered Afghanistan from Iran on the day after Nowruz (that is, the New Year, 21 March), which was 2. 1. 1351 in the Hejra solar calendar used there. In Saudi Arabia and most of the Islamic world the Hejra lunar calendar is used, so when I went there 9 months later it was the year 1392, because the lunar year is shorter. In 1972 I traveled only to Herat and Kandahar, and spent just five days in Afghanistan. King Mohammed Zahir was still on the throne and a lot of western hippies passed through the country on their way east to India and Nepal. Young boys followed foreigners almost everywhere in the towns to beg for some spare change. It was clear the country was poor and life was hard for most people — but it was a country at peace. I remember talking to young men in both Herat and Kandahar. You could not talk to young women in those towns; though I am told it was different in Kabul. Some of the young men I met were unhappy because they saw no future for themselves, and they hoped to be able to go to the west, perhaps because they envied the seemingly happy hippies they saw. Generally, though, I did not get the impression in 1972 that the country might be headed for serious political trouble. The atmosphere was peaceful, perhaps because people seemed resigned to their fates — I don’t know. At any rate, I liked the atmosphere of the country very much and wished I could have stayed much longer to explore and get to know it.
In the 1980s I did not visit any of the towns of Afghanistan but passed through several villages, some abandoned, mostly within 20 kilometers of the border with Pakistan. I went to the Jaji area in Paktia Province in 1984 and to different areas north and south of Asmar in Kunar Province in 1985 and 1987. At this time, of course, the country was at war — and it seemed almost as much a civil war as it was a war against foreign invaders. Naturally, the mujahideen emphasized the fact that they were fighting the Soviet infidels and those they regarded as their lackeys. But it seemed to me that there must have been substantial numbers of Afghans who welcomed some of the changes the so-called communists were making with the support of the Soviet Union. The mujahideen I was with were mostly fighting the Afghan Army. Of course, my newspaper being of a rather conservative, anti-communist orientation, I felt it would be unwise to mention this. At the time I also felt a personal solidarity with the mujahideen in their struggle against a superpower that had invaded their country. I must point out here that I had very little training as a journalist, and that in any case I had learned the trade from very conservative Americans who had a strong ideological commitment against anything socialist or communist.
I saw some of the damage done by bombing and shelling in villages, and I also saw children who had lost limbs to mines, and refugees who fled the fighting.
Overall I feel my experience and knowledge of Afghanistan is very limited, and I could by no means be regarded as an “expert,” whatever that really means. Nonetheless, as a result of my experiences there I cannot help feeling deeply concerned about the situation in that country as the state of war has continued for more than 30 years now.
To tell the truth, when I first visited that country in 1972 I knew very, very little about Afghanistan and didn’t bother to read up on it even after I got back to Luxembourg. That time I just wanted to get out of Luxembourg — badly. And seeing Afghanistan — even for such a short time — had at least taught me that there were places in the world that were really very different from my country, much more like the places I had read about in the many adventure stories that I had read. — I did not get back to Afghanistan until 12 years later — 1984 — and many things had changed in the meantime, both for me and for that country. 1984 was also the first time I visited Pakistan, and I think I sort of fell in love with at least some aspects of that country at first sight. I went to Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan with mujahideen of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami Mujahideen Afghanistan group. In the western media Sayyaf’s group was known by a different name, but they emphasized to me that this was their real name. Together with a Japanese journalist friend who had lived in Pakistan for 9 years I interviewed Sayyaf himself in a tent in Jaji – I still have the transcript of that interview as it appeared in my newspaper, the weekly Middle East Times, which I had helped to found in Cyprus at the beginning of 1983.
I returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan again in 1985, and that time I also traveled to Baltistan and Hunza, as far as Passu. At that time the Karakoram Highway beyond that village was closed to foreigners. Both in 1984 and 1985 I couldn’t spend as much time on my trips as I wanted because I had to get back to my newspaper office in Cyprus, plus I was short of money – as always. I used my own cheap camera and paid most of my expenses from my pocket because the newspaper was just barely surviving financially. In August 1987, after getting married in Japan, I settled down in Islamabad — my wife stayed behind in Tokyo for the time being — in a house rented by my Japanese friend who had taken me with him on the 1984 trip to Jaji. He could not come to Kunar with me in 1985. In October 1987 I went from the Bajaur tribal area to Kunar Province, again without my Japanese friend, intending to travel into Nuristan. But after a brief battle north of Asadabad (a few mortar rounds, answered from the Soviet and Afghan Army side by many hours of bombardment with rockets, field guns and heavy mortars) the mujahideen I was with refused to let me stay in Kunar and took me back across the border.
About an example of how good the mujahideen were as fighters against the Soviets and the Afghan Army:
In the battle I witnessed in 1987 the mujahideen scored a few direct hits on an army base north of Asadabad from positions in the mountains but extensive minefields did not allow them to even get close to the treacherous Kunar River, which they would have had to cross in order to pursue their assault. There were mujahideen from at least four different and supposedly allied parties in the area but cooperation among them was very limited.
The Soviets, who at the time had several hundred well-equipped spetsnaz commandos (according to the mujahideen) stationed in three mountaintop bases above the major air base of Chagha Sarai, and their Afghan allies retaliated by firing multiple rocket launchers, «Bimsiezda», and heavy field guns and big mortars at mujahideen positions for several hours until long after the rebels stopped shooting.
It was clear that those troops in Kunar had a good idea of the exact location of the rebels’ mortar positions, their „zikuyak” – the 14.5-mm anti-aircraft machine gun nests –, their hidden shelters and even the paths they used because a number of shells missed by less than 30 meters over distances ranging between five and 15 kilometers without the aid of spotter planes, at least none observed by me or the mujahideen I was with.
About how I met Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in 1984, the man who introduced Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan and helped him to set up his first base there (I met Sayyaf two months after Bin Laden was with him):
My Japanese journalist friend, who had lived in Pakistan since 1975 and who had been to Jaji in 1983, found out in Peshawar that Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s men had taken over that area and had driven the Afghan Army out of one base there, which the mujahideen called Sarai. He is the one who organized the trip to Jaji for the two of us that time, through a man named Abdul Hannan, who had connections with different mujahideen groups. Soviet and Afghan Air Force planes had repeatedly bombed the positions of Sayyaf’s men for more than two months before we went there in late August 1984. We did not expect to meet Sayyaf himself there, but a few days after we arrived we were told that he had come and was willing to meet us in one of the tents, supplied by a Saudi relief agency, that the mujahideen had pitched in a pine forest on the slope of a hill just 2 kilometers behind the Durand Line – the border. He met us there with some of his lieutenants, and we interviewed him at considerable length. His English was very good. He spoke with confidence of overcoming the Soviets “because God is helping the mujahideen,” and of having detailed plans to establish a “pure Islamic system” of government. He also predicted that “someday you will see the power of the Soviets vanquished, and all of those poor countries now under their domination will be free — they will get their freedom as a result of the freedom of Afghanistan.”
About the importance of Jaji, Paktia Province, where Osama Bin Laden set up his first base in 1984:
Jaji is strategically important because it is located just inside Afghanistan near the point where the Pakistani border comes closest to Kabul. I described Jaji this way in my first report from there in 1984 — I shall quote this: It is a beautiful area, with many springs and brooks of sparkling and delicious water from the mountains. But many people had to leave their villages here for a dreary existence as refugees in the steaming hot lowlands of Pakistan, where there is no clean, fresh water. Hardly one of the more than a dozen villages I passed through on a 60-kilometre trek from a resistance camp just inside Afghanistan, on the way to the frontline, seemed to have escaped the bombing, rocketing, shelling and strafing by Soviet and Afghan forces – Babrak Karmal’s forces. Many houses sustained heavy damage, leaving their inhabitants without shelter for the harsh winter in these highlands.
Strategically, the Jaji area, less than 80 kilometres by air southeast of Kabul, was vital for both mujahedeen and the refugees because it is one of the main avenues for traffic between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The struggle for control of this area, therefore, was constantly intense, as the Soviets and the Babrak Karmal regime tried to prevent the Muslim fighters from bringing food, ammunition and supplies into the country.
They were facing an uphill struggle in this terrain. After September 1983, when the resistance forces overran the government base of Sarai after three months of heavy fighting, they have pushed their powerful enemy out of all of Jaji except for one base of two square kilometres in an area called Chownee. Morale at that base was by all accounts very low. Some deserters died on the way trying to flee from that base, on the minefields in the surrounding area. —
About a photo I took where a guerrilla aims a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at my head:
That picture shows 6 mujahideen in a tent in Jaji in 1984. They were preparing to go on a long trek from there to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. One man in the front of the picture on the right was actually a defector from the Afghan Army, who had escaped from the Sarai base before it was captured and joined the mujahideen. The guy in the background pointing his RPG launcher at me was, of course, just trying to look funny for the photo.
About the religious conviction of the mujahideen and what role it played in their struggle:
I must say I was impressed, sometimes, by the religious fervor of some of the mujahideen – though they were by no means all like that. In 1985, some of Yunus Khalis’s men I was with in Kunar Province tried very hard to teach me some Pakhto (with „kh” as in the northern dialect) and some basics of Islam, even though they could not speak English. In 1987, also in Kunar but further south, the Yunus Khalis men there once ran for close to an hour over treacherous terrain just to get to a small mosque in time for the evening prayer. Even though I wasn’t carrying any weapons like they did I was barely able to follow them and totally exhausted when we arrived.
I felt that their religious convictions may very well have helped those men to be strong enough to face an enemy with greatly superior firepower, equipment and training. If a mujahed was seriously wounded, in most cases he was doomed, because the others could not provide medical aid. One mujahed in Kunar in 1987 stepped on a mine and bled to death because the others could not help him. I saw him only after his body was already wrapped up in a blanket. But I am sure very many mujahideen died like that after being wounded, because no one could help them. I am also sure that this is still happening today in Afghanistan to the Taliban and other insurgent forces, probably a lot more than in the 1980s because the Americans today are a much more powerful and dangerous enemy than the Soviets ever were. What is interesting in this is that the Americans themselves also generally hold quite strong religious or quasi-religious convictions, and they are clearly well aware of how important those are in keeping up the morale of their troops in the field. I have met American Army chaplains (not in Afghanistan, of course) who seemed to play a role similar to that of communist political commissars, but probably much more effectively because of the enormous potential power of religious belief. Few things can help people overcome the fear of death as much as religious belief. But at the same time few things can drive people to commit atrocities without remorse on the scale that religious conviction has done. Probably the only thing that comes close in this sense is a conviction of racial superiority like that of the Nazis.
About what I think of Sayyaf’s activities today, as a member of the Afghan parliament, etc.:
I know very little about what Sayyaf has done since I met him in 1984. I have read the Wikipedia article on him, and some other accounts that accuse him of having ordered massacres and of having helped the fake journalists who murdered Ahmadshah Massoud in 2001. But I have not heard from him or anyone connected with him, and don’t know his side of the story at all. I know that he always had good connections with the Saudis. I have grave doubts about the role that the Saudi government has played and is playing in the world, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular. It seems like they are playing both ends, supporting the propagation of radical Islam on one hand while keeping strong military and economic relations with the US on the other. I can only guess that this is because they feel they need both in order to preserve the House of Saud. About whether the West should cooperate with people like Sayyaf, I don’t know. I believe the US-dominated foreign military intervention as it is now must end as soon as possible. Perhaps a peacekeeping force could be put together with the help of neighboring Islamic countries, and then a wholly new political process should take place that would include the Afghan insurgents. These are just my feelings but I don’t know anywhere near enough about the situation to be able to give any kind of advice on what can be done to bring peace and good fortune to Afghanistan.
About my memories of Pakistan:
In December of 1987 I spent two weeks in Baltistan observing the work of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and for a number of years after that I felt that I had to return to that area to help with development programs and get a chance to hike a bit in those awesome mountains. I have since read the book Three Cups of Tea, about an American by the name of Greg Mortenson, who was in Baltistan a few years after I left and who has built many schools for both boys and girls not only in that area but also in Hunza, Afghanistan and the Pamirs – much more than I could have hoped to accomplish. That book is now my favorite. —
Getting back to your initial question, yes, I do have a special attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But whether it was the most special time of my life: I would have to say no. It was special and a unique set of experiences for me in some ways but it was not the most special time. I feel there were many very special experiences, mostly very different from each other and unique in some ways — but none stands out as the most special of all.
About my stays in Pakistan, in 1984, 1985 and 1987-88, I have to point out that they amounted to a combined total of barely six months, and I spent most of that time in Islamabad and Peshawar — so that was not so long. I found most people I met there quite friendly and hospitable, and I liked the atmosphere in the towns very much. I found most places I saw very beautiful because there was a lot of green all around, especially in Islamabad. I very much enjoyed walking in the Margalla hills, for example, and along Rawal Lake.
Another thing I enjoyed very much was the food. I often ate food I bought from people in the street or in cheap eateries, and almost always liked everything. The only time I ever felt sick from food was when some British people I met in Skardu, in Baltistan, gave me some British shepherd’s pie — I ate it out of politeness but hated it from the start and vomited afterwards…
Also, during my third stay of exactly five months in 1987-88 I started drinking the water in Islamabad and Peshawar straight from the tap and never had any problem. And, of course I loved seeing the big mountains in northern Pakistan, even though I didn’t get a chance to do any real hiking in them as I was always short of time and money, and not adequately equipped for that type of thing. On the negative side, apart from seeing the juxtaposition of opulence and miserable poverty and disease, which is sadly, of course, not at all unique or unusual, one of the most difficult aspects of life in Pakistan for me was what I would call the “absence” of women from street life in the countryside, and that was the same in Afghanistan. I find the presence of women extremely important and comforting. In the cities you can see women in the streets but in the countryside it seems almost like they don’t really exist or at least they are always hidden because you cannot see their faces. I don’t know of anything more beautiful than the face of a beautiful woman — though I am not and have never been a womanizer at all; it is just one of the greatest pleasures to see them. Pakistan has many really beautiful women, but you don’t see them in the countryside.
It is very hard for me to pick out one particular point that I liked most about Pakistan; I think every country has a certain “feel” to it, and I just liked the “feel” of Pakistan very much, even though I am also aware of its dark side, which I could not ignore. I have hope that the country’s problems can be overcome someday.
About what I think the most tragic outcome of 9/11 was, and whether I see a glimmer of hope for the world:
I think that the reaction of the United States to 9/11 was much worse for the world than 9/11 itself. The so-called war on terror, to me, is a war of terror. Humankind’s addiction to violence and war has worsened very much because the USA tries hard to make them look clean and neat even while inflicting great suffering and damage on other countries and wasting enormous resources that could be used instead to help resolve the problems that generate terrorism in the first place. – I do see glimmers of hope as more and more people in the United States and elsewhere are slowly coming to realize that military means cannot resolve the world’s problems. I was inspired when I saw how people around the world expressed solidarity with the American people after 9/11, but then, tragically, the feeling of empathy was lost as the US embarked on what was really a campaign of revenge. Recently, after a series of natural disasters struck various places around the world, it seemed that a new spirit of empathy and solidarity started to emerge. I only hope I am not just dreaming…
Diary entry 26 April 2008:
Recapitulation of my ideas about god: What monotheists refer to as “God” is — to me — universal consciousness, the cosmos as a whole, the “sum” of all consciousness. God is in everything and everything is god. We humans are the highest level of consciousness on this planet earth — as far as we know — and we represent the highest level of the evolution of god here. On our small “island” in the cosmos god evolves through us, changes through us. If our “island” the earth is unique in this sense, then we humans are the spearhead of the evolution of god itself. God is not in any way greater than the cosmos and did not “create” it, and cannot exist separately from this cosmos. In fact, if we are unique — which seems unlikely if the cosmos is as we perceive it (see my post below: “the universe and us”), though certainly not impossible — then god is dependent on us to a great extent.
God has a “personality” of its own, and each one of us humans — and every other intelligent being that may exist elsewhere — represents an aspect of the “personality” of god. Each one of us reflects a facet of god’s nature.
If the cosmos itself “emerged” in some way through a Big Bang or something like it, then god was the internal essence that “emerged” with it, as did what we know as the laws of nature. The cosmos was not “created” based on any design but emerged and evolved through a process of trial and error, “guided” by god’s evolving intelligence based on the organization of memory. The emergence of life on earth and its evolution was also “guided” in this way by god. Humankind is a product of this evolution, taking consciousness to the highest level known so far on earth.
I believe god inspired man to create religions, spiritual teachings, etc., because it wanted to find a way to guide or even control humankind.
(More on 29 April 2008): This is also the reason why humans and just about everything else tends toward forming hierarchies and pecking orders. God needs hierarchical organization in order to be able to exploit and control “created” beings. And what we have come to regard as “good” and “evil” are just different ways of looking at things from the larger perspective of god. God has traditionally favored the strong, the top of any pecking order hierarchy, because he draws the greatest pleasure from that type of organization of both living beings and inanimate reflections of his consciousness. Is god, then, like a human in his feelings and behavior? I say, absolutely, yes: at least on this earth, our tiny part of the cosmos (=>“the universe and us” and “the end of religion” below), god cannot be otherwise, because we are this way — we reflect god’s nature and god is no greater than us as a collective, and no better.
More to come …
Here are my answers to two questions about the post above:
It is still difficult for anyone to imagine that god is just as “evil” as he is “good.” I think that is the case. My point is that god has encouraged both in humankind and has enjoyed setting one against the other, using hierarchies to form opposing groups centered on rival leaders. But god evolves and changes through us, as I have emphasized. And despite appearances to the contrary I believe we are very slowly moving towards a better world with less conflict and violence. Perhaps I am naïve, but I am quite sure that god cannot change the world to good. We can. There is no hope for us if we do not believe in humankind. God and the natural world has no meaning without us or some beings like us — it might as well not exist at all.
By hierarchies I mean hierarchical-type organization as such, and what is known as “pecking orders” in particular — where the strong, wily (cunning) and/or violent generally dominate the weak. It is dominance by one or a few over others — especially systematic dominance. But it also includes implicit hierarchies where, for example, many people follow a spiritual leader (say, Jesus), who then dominates not by force but by love (if you can use that word in this sense) or the power of inspiration. God encompasses both great beauty, goodness and gentleness as well as their counterparts ugliness, evil and violence — just like we do. It is not that I am making god seem human but rather that I believe we humans are simply a full reflection of god: here on earth we represent the spearhead of god’s evolution, the highest point of consciousness that god itself (or him/herself) has reached. God cannot be different from us here – that is, from humankind as a whole.
There is no “absolute,” no “perfection”
November 2007 diary entry:
I continue to believe that we — humankind — must outgrow religion and all of the things that have divided us in such a way as to lead to war. All of our religions, which have been the foundations of civilizations, have tended to divide us because they have led us to use force against each other in the name of a god or gods. There are always “chosen” ones, favorites, or the “good” in religion as opposed to the others, the “bad” or “evil.” I do believe in an ideal of “goodness,” which we have been developing. There is no absolute “good.” There is no absolute anything at all. We are striving towards a goal that can never be reached — but which is nonetheless a worthy goal. Our understanding of this goal, this imaginary and forever unreachable “absolute” goodness, is evolving, and so is our ability to put this understanding into practice. But we must come to realize that the universal consciousness, the fundamental essence of the cosmos that we like to call “God,” is in itself neither good nor evil, and cannot move our world towards goodness without our help. — We have to begin by thinking and feeling as “we,” “us,” including all humankind; and beyond that all living beings, to a lesser extent.
We have been cheated, in a way. We have been living with a big lie: God. – But we have willingly participated. The lie is our lie, too. We have been happy to be deceived by God, because it is comforting to believe in a great supernatural power that is on the “good” side – which is always our side, because no one believes they are bad. Even the worst criminals and mass murderers believe they are “good.” They may admit mistakes – like most everybody does – but they always believe they are fundamentally “good.” However, the “good” can really exist only if there is also an opposing “evil.” We do believe in an “evil” but it is always someone else – just like God wants us to see “evil” as something entirely separate from him.
Yes, we are all part of this deception or self-deception. We participate willingly, most of the time. – But then we cannot separate from this God and his deception. This God leaves us some breathing space, some room for maneuver, some space for us to think for ourselves, because he wants us to grow, to improve, and he grows with us, improves with us – through us.
We are, all of us humans without exception, part of this God. We are really, ultimately, one. The whole cosmos is one, but we and any other intelligent beings that may exist are the most important elements of this one. The one, as I have said again and again, grows with us and through us.
I think perhaps the Buddhists have the deepest understanding of this oneness, this monism, this interdependence. The accounts of Buddhists I have read – such as those of the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard – give me the impression that they have a much better and clearer understanding of the importance of oneness and interdependence than any Christians I have met, including the Moonies. Moon’s teaching has many good points, for sure, but I regard it as deficient in the sense of explaining the real God, and misleading. I think Moon himself does not want to acknowledge the fact that God has deceived us by making us believe in an “evil” that is not of him. Moon’s interests are better served if he just ignores this – and I tend to believe he knows that very well. This would be the element of hypocrisy in Moon that I feel has been touched on indirectly by Nansook Hong, the ex-wife of his now-late son Hyo Jin.
Of course, it is clear that – ultimately – we will have to work with God, no matter how much he has deceived us. We are inalienable parts of him and he is totally in each one of us. We are really one. My contention is only that we have to grow up to be aware of the reality of God – not the fantasy we have believed in for so long. – And the reason we have to grow up this way – with this understanding – is that it is the only way God can continue to evolve – and, indeed, grow himself. As I have insisted many times before: God evolves through us (and any other beings at the highest levels of consciousness) – he grows through us…