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'No worries' near Herat

By John Jennings
Published June 14, 2004

HERAT, Afghanistan - "From here on, everything is Turan Ismail's," the Afghan driver told his Western passengers as he sped past a flyblown checkpoint and entered Herat province.
    "No roadblocks, no robbers, no worries," he added.
    "Turan," meaning "captain," is an affectionate nickname for Ismail Khan, the one-time Afghan army captain who led a March 1979 uprising in Herat against communist rule.
    He survived the ensuing 25 years of warfare, leading his mujahideen fighters against Soviets, Arabs and Pakistanis and their Afghan supporters. Today, he is the governor of Herat province in Afghanistan's far west.
    Western diplomats and relief workers in the capital, Kabul, love to hate him. A week rarely passes without a Western press service portraying him as a tyrannical warlord involved in narcotics trafficking, human rights abuses, Islamist extremism and Taliban-like restrictions on women.
    But the lawlessness described in Kabul is simply not an issue here, both Afghans and foreigners say.
    "Most of those claims," the governor said, "can be disproved by spending an hour in the bazaar."
    Commerce, indeed, is thriving. Many staple goods are cheaper than elsewhere in Afghanistan. The bazaars bustle with shoppers. Unaccompanied women stroll fearlessly at night in city parks.
    Religious tolerance, too, is in evidence. A Christian charity helps administer the province's main hospital, and a sidewalk poster shop on a major street features Christian iconography alongside Muslim saints.
    Women's dress is marginally more conservative than in Kabul, but there is no formal dress code. Every style of "hijab," or appropriate female dress, is on display, from simple head scarves to burkas.
    Afghans traditionally are suspicious of education for women, and disapprove of letting them work outside the home. Yet every morning and afternoon, Herat's streets are thronged with tens of thousands of girls on their way to grade school, high school and the province's university.
    "There are more than 400,000 children in Herat schools. Of those, 158,000 are girls," said Asefa Roghani, the provincial director of women's affairs. "I don't think those numbers can be matched anywhere else in Afghanistan, including Kabul."
    As Afghan leaders have for centuries, Mr. Khan regularly sets aside one day a week to hear grievances and petitions from ordinary citizens.
    On one such Thursday, rows of turbaned men and veiled women sat on folding chairs in a vast hall awaiting the white-bearded governor, who strode in and seated himself at a cheap metal and plywood desk.
    The governor listened intently to the supplicants, sometimes interjecting brief questions, occasionally donning reading glasses to peruse their requests.
    A middle-aged man, both legs amputated near the hip, swung his torso across the floor using his hands as crutches, and hoisted himself into a chair to address the governor. He has had trouble getting the veteran's benefits to which he felt entitled and wanted the governor's help.
    Next came a middle-aged woman in a head scarf and a pretty, younger woman draped in a black shawl. They were Iranians: The older woman just visiting, the younger a family friend married to an Afghan.
    For reasons not explained, the older woman had paid bail for an Afghan jailed in Iran. He had promptly vanished, and the woman wanted help tracking him down and getting restitution.
    The younger woman did most of the talking. She smiled, batted her eyes and at times leaned close to the governor, repeatedly adjusting her shawl in a coquettish manner.
    The governor neither recoiled nor leered. He promised the women he would investigate the matter, contact Iranian authorities and arrange reimbursement.
    A young woman approached with her mother. She had missed qualifying for the Herat medical school by two points on the entrance exam and implored the governor to intervene.
    He nodded sympathetically, but refused: "If I did, [the medical faculty] would have to make concessions to everybody."
    The girl began crying, and Mr. Khan fidgeted.
    "Why don't you try another field? Why don't you take the exam for engineering?" he suggested gently.
    "But I've always wanted to be a doctor," the girl wailed softly.
    The governor shook his head. "I'm sorry," he replied.

    Source: The Washington Times




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