Ubud encounters: Afghanistan for Afghans

Australian painter Ben Quilty and Indonesian writer Agustinus Wibowo told the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali how they each reached Afghanistan by different routes for different reasons. But following their stays, they both also reached the same conclusion: after a dozen years and thousands of casualties, it’s time for Afghanistan to solve its problems without foreign help.

Wibowo came to Afghanistan for the first time as a curious and footloose traveler. In Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Wibowo said that since he came from Indonesia, people assumed he was Muslim. Telling them he was an ethic Chinese raised in the Buddhist tradition would either provoke suspicion or pointless debate, including attempts to convert him. “But I found the perfect answer,” Wibowo revealed. “When people asked if I was Muslim, I’d say, ‘Insy’allah’ [God willing].”

Later, Wibowo said he found an even better answer from Afghan imam. “He told me he was a member of the highest religion of all: humanity.”

Wibowo found a number of jobs in Afghanistan. For a time he was a photojournalist. “The first time I covered a bombing and I saw the bodies and blood, I couldn’t sleep for a week. But then it became routine.”

He noted that when foreign troops and aid workers first came to Afghanistan, they were welcomed. But by 2006, Afghans’ views had changed. “Billions of dollars are pumped into Afghanistan, but nothing has changed,” Wibowo said. He said there are “two worlds, Afghanis and expats,” noting,” Only 20 percent of the money poured into Afghanistan goes to locals.” The rest goes for foreigners’ salaries and benefits, along with materials from overseas. The ongoing frustration over foreign presence has led to a resurgence in support for the Taliban.

Wibowo, who has written three books about his travels in Central Asia and China, also warned, “We cannot impose first world concepts on fifth world countries.” He cited his experience as a consultant to a United Nations gender equity initiative where foreign feminists told local women in workshops that if their husbands got angry, they should question them about why they were angry. “The next day, the women came back with bruises.”

Ben Quilty went to Afghanistan in 2011 as the Australian War Memorial’s office al artist. Spending time with Australian troops, he found good people fighting a bad war. He bonded with many of the troops, and his works from Afghanistan remain on tour in Australia. He also found circumstances that fit today’s headlines.

“I went to Kabul to try to speak to the Australian embassy, and I couldn’t get in. I didn’t have the right passes. So I don’t know how Afghans are supposed to go get their papers fixed,” Quilty said, addressing Australia’s policy of turning away undocumented immigrants trying to land by ship.

“If we’re at war with a country and sending people there to try to make it safe, if that’s not a reason to take these people in, I don’t know what is.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.