13 April 2020

The Horsemen -- anti-ubuntu culture

The HorsemenThe Horsemen by Joseph Kessel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I pick up a 50-year-old book to read for the first time. It is set in Afghanistan, but it is Afghanistan before the US invasion, before the Soviet invasion, before the 1978 Communist coup, before the 1973 Republican coup. It was an almost unimaginably different world. And yet it is in my lifetime.

And when the book was first published, in 1970, who could have imagined the changes that would take place in Afghanistan over the next 50 years?

The plot centres on buzkashi, a game played on horseback, which was then popular in northern Afghanistan, when the king (who was to be overthrown in the 1973 coup) decides to hold a national tournament in Kabul, the capital. It gives interesting descriptions of the people, cultures and scenery of Afghanistan, and especially those of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range that divides the steppes of northern Afghanistan from the rest of the country.

It includes descriptions of the Buddha statues of the Bamyan Valley, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Could Joseph Kessel even have imagined their destruction when he wrote the book?

But the strongest impression the book made on me was of an utterly alien culture.

In South Africa one of the values people pay at least lip-service to is ubuntu, basic humanity, and compassion for other people. The Afghan culture depicted in the book is the exact opposite of ubuntu, shown in the lives and behaviour of the main characters. The northern Afghan culture, as depicted by Kessel at least, is based on honour, and honour as a zero-sum game, in which my honour can only be achieved by bringing someone else into dishonour. And perhaps that culture is epitomised by the Taliban's destruction of the statues. The Buddha taught something like ubuntu, compassion for all sentient beings, and those values are the exact opposite of the kind of values depicted in the book.

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