An Interesting Place to Visit (or at Least to Read About Visiting)

I have to say that P.J. O’Rourke manages to make Afghanistan seem like a nice place to visit and converse with the locals. Of course, it’s not true that the world is populated by near-Americans, but neither is it true that people can be entirely foreign to each other. Bridging a language barrier and making note of some cultural pitfalls, human society is translatable and common ground can always be found and developed.
I’m especially intrigued by an Afghan parable with which O’Rourke closes his essay:

There was a student who had been studying for many years at a madrassa. He had memorized the Koran and learned all the lessons his teacher taught. One day he went to his teacher and said, “I am ready to leave and go be a mullah.” …
Finally the student came to a village where a corrupt old mullah was using the mosque as a stall for his cow. The student was outraged. He gathered the villagers together and told them, “I have studied at a madrassa. I have memorized the Koran. It is a great sacrilege for your mullah to use the mosque as a stall for his cow.”
The villagers beat him up. …
The [student’s] teacher gathered the villagers together and told them, “I see you have a beautiful cow being kept in your mosque. It must be a very blessed animal. And I hear the cow belongs to your mullah. He must be a very holy man. In fact, I think that this cow is so blessed and your mullah is so holy that if you were to take one hair from the cow’s hide and one hair from the mullah’s beard and rub them together, you would be assured of paradise.”
The villagers ran into the mosque and began plucking hairs from the cow’s hide. The cow started to buck and kick and it bolted from the mosque and disappeared. Then the villagers ran to the mullah’s house and began plucking hairs from the corrupt old mullah’s beard. And they tugged and they yanked so hard at the mullah’s beard that he had a heart attack and died.
“You see,” said the teacher to the student, “no cow in the mosque and a need for a new mullah—that is wisdom.”

By “intrigued,” I don’t mean to express endorsement. Indeed, the tale describes a dishonest and cynical manipulation of religious belief, by a supposedly wise elder, for the material benefit of a clerical clique. If the mullah’s call is to lead people closer to God, then creating confusion about plucking hairs from holy cows must be a grave dereliction of duty.
I should stress that O’Rourke heard this story from a political figure in Afghanistan, not a religious leader. It does, however, generate some food for thought regarding cultural differences and, perhaps, the route toward resolving them.

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David P
David P
13 years ago

I also find that parable intriguing. In fact it reminded me of a couple of other instances where people achieved a desired result through indirection rather than direction. The first one involves Huey P. Long, the legendary governor of Louisiana. As a populist in the Jim Crow south, he was forced to walk a fine line between accomodating the needs of his black constituents while not offending the prejudices of his white constituents. On one occasion he was meeting with a delegation of black community leaders regarding a hospital that served the black community. Although the patients were black, the staff was white. These community leaders thought that a black hospital should have black staff to provide decent jobs for their community. Governor Long agreed to help but warned them in advance that they might not like his methods. Long arranged to visit the hospital in question accompanied by the local media. When his visit was finished he stormed out of the hospital and announced to the assembled reporters that it was outrageous that white women were in there tending to black men. The hospital was quickly restaffed with black employees. A more morally uplifting example comes from the days leading up to the Normandy invasion in 1944. Winston Churchill, perhaps nostalgic for his days in the army in the Sudan or as a war correspondent in South Africa, informed General Eisenhower that he intended to accompany the British troops when they hit the beaches in France. Eisenhower thought the plan ludicrous but it was beyond his power to forbid it. So he went to the king and asked him to order Churchill to stay home. The king replied that the English Constitution did not allow him to give such an order but he promised to fix the problem. The… Read more »

13 years ago

From the Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva,
Bhishma said:
No sacrifice can be performed without the aid of curds and ghee (clarified butter). The very character of sacrifice which sacrifices have, depends upon ghee. Hence ghee (or, the cow from which it is produced) is regarded as the very root of sacrifice.
Cows have been said to be the limbs of sacrifice. They represent sacrifice itself. Without them, there can be no sacrifice. With their milk and the Havi produced therefrom, they uphold all creatures by diverse acts. Cows are guileless in their behaviour. From them flow sacrifices and Havya and Kavya, and milk and curds and ghee. hence cows are sacred.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
13 years ago

Here is a cultural difference that has always intrigued me. The idea that warriors should meet face to face and give battle is pretty much a European concept (with the notable exceptions of the Zulu and Japanese). The area in which this is considered the proper, honorable, way to fight can be pretty well delineated on a map. Basically the area that once acknowledged “chivalry”, chivalry was its apex, not its root.
That map would not include the middle east. The middle east falls in the area where warriors have always stood off from each other and used missiles (rocks, arrows, spears etc.).
So, while we consider IED’s to be sneaky and dishonorable, that view may not be shared. And, we wonder why they do not have “shame”. Similar to our reaction to the “Kamikaze”. Suicide as a military tactic was foreign to us.

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