When it comes to Afghanistan, sportsmen are slowly replacing warlords in popular imagination.
More than a century ago, the Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore, in his short story “Kabuliwala” (peddler), portrayed an Afghan dried-fruit seller befriending a little Bengali girl who reminded him of his daughter back in Afghanistan. “Kabuliwala” depicts an honest, generous and kind man who talks to the little girl and gives her nuts while her writer father watches them from the window of his room. The story revolves around the character of the kind-hearted Afghan merchant — a character who helped create a positive image of Afghans on the Indian subcontinent.
The short story became so popular that a Bollywood movie was based on it. Lately, the word kabuliwala has gained diplomatic recognition, used by both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During his official visit to India in 2015, Ghani said that “‘Kabuliwala’ has done more to give us a brand which we could not buy with a billion dollars of advertisements.”
The same year in December, when Modi came to Kabul to inaugurate the new Afghan parliament built with India’s financial assistance, he expressed hope that “the day will come soon when energy from Central Asia will power prosperity in our region; when a Kabuliwala can once again come across easily to win Indian hearts; when we in India can relish the wonderful fruits of Afghanistan; when Afghans do not have to pay an enormous price to buy their favourite products from India.”
During most of the 20th century, Afghans lived in peace at a time when war had not yet spread its shadow over Afghanistan. Most Afghans were strangers to fighting, killing and intolerance. They preferred living in their country, while those who did travel abroad mostly chose the Indian subcontinent to trade with, earning a reputation for their simplicity, innocence and honesty. In the mid-20th century, Afghanistan was a hub for tourists, who were impressed by Afghan hospitality, the country’s diverse culture and the wild landscapes. That was the golden time for Afghanistan and especially its women who were free to work, study, drive and wear Western clothes.
Afghanistan was not a wealthy country, but its people enjoyed the simple life. However, the Soviet invasion of 1979 opened the door to many catastrophes that have since plagued the country. One problem led to many others, destroying the social fabric of society. Drugs, weapons and fighting became part of Afghan life. Fleeing war, Afghans started leaving the country in their millions. Between 1978 and 2001, about one-third of the population of 26 million left.
Afghanistan lost its positive image abroad and quickly became associated with conflict. Afghans living or traveling abroad became used to this negative perception: “Do you have hashish? Afghan hashish is the best”; “How is fighting going on in Afghanistan? Did you fight?”; “Kalashnikov, AK-47, is my favorite weapon” became phrases an Afghan was likely to hear.
Today, this is the image that Afghanistan carries for the world. But lately, it has gradually been replaced by positive elements. For example, the country has made notable progress in economic, health and education sectors. Women and girls have once again started attending schools, universities and work places, and the country’s literary rate is around 38%, up from 28% in 2000.
Sports is one of the prominent sectors in which Afghanistan is excelling. Afghans have won many victories in football, taekwondo and mixed martial arts. In the 2016 South Asian Games, Afghanistan won 35 medals in total — seven gold medals, nine silver and 19 bronze. Moreover, Afghanistan made history by becoming South Asian football champion in 2013, beating India 2-0.
But it is cricket where progress is most noticeable. The Afghan cricket team finally qualified to become a full member of the International Cricket Council in 2017, despite increasing insecurity across the country. Afghanistan has already proved its capabilities by defeating experienced teams like Zimbabwe, West Indies and Bangladesh in T20 and one-day matches. Because of their brilliant performances, four of the Afghan players were transferred to the Indian Premier League this year. Except for the injured Zahir Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Zadran and Rashid Khan displayed brilliant performances and became the match winners for their cricket clubs, with Rashid Khan leading his team, the SunRisers Hyderabad, to the IPL final where it lost against Chennai Super Kings.
On June 14, a historic moment arrived when Afghanistan played its first ever test match against the top ranking Indian team in Bengalore. Although India won the match by a large margin, it opened the door to a new era of Afghanistan’s cricket. These prominent cricket players not only bring joy to many Afghans, but they are improving the country’s image. Most Afghans traveling abroad are overwhelmed by the recognition their cricket stars have brought.
When it comes to Afghanistan, sportsmen are slowly replacing drugs, guns and warlords in popular imagination. In the coming years, more names will be added to the list. As Afghans, we hope the lost image of “Kabuliwala” will rise again and spread across the world
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.