I think it was midway through January. Anyway the phone rang. It was Marco ringing from Italy. “Have you heard, Rasoul has died?”
An announcement of death always appears to represent a point because of the way it cuts into time. I remember having this image of a small hole opening in the cosmos and closing again. I am not sure if the soul passes through such a hole, but that was the image that came to me. I didn’t really think that this image had any religious connotations, but was rather a means of understanding the passage into non-being.
I remember the phone ringing again. I was being offered a prize in the form of a holiday, a DVD and cash. I listened for a few moments as if this voice had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Indeed this was absolutely the case. I just said something like,” Not for me,” and then I put the phone down. I hate wasting time. I would like to ring someone to explain that I am not interesting in things that come with the word free. “Please do not offer gifts… they sound like threats to me.”
I was told that it was a blow to the head that had killed Rasoul. He was standing on the roof of the hotel he was constructing in Kabul. An unknown killer exacted a couple of blows to the head and that was that. Only the night sky appeared as witness.
I remember going to Germany with Rasoul. We flew to Berlin and then met someone to drive us to a small town near Nuremberg to see a bankrupt concrete factory. It had been constructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the expectancy of a massive boom in construction in the East. Soon it was apparent that other companies had also anticipated a massively expanding market and invested with the financial help of the government. Many such factories were now being sold, often at a fraction of the original cost of plant to newly emerging economies in Eastern Europe and thus in turn undermining the German economy still further. Rasoul thought such plant would help transform the building processes in Afghanistan. We discussed how it was possible to hire Russian military transporter planes to deliver the contents of the factory to Kabul. Formerly these planes had been used to send tanks for the Soviet war machine. All the logistics turned out to be too complex. On the way back to Berlin we talked of all the things it was possible to buy and at what prices. Driving along vast autobahns at speed made me feel that the world was very small.
“Rasoul is finished, gone, no-more, that’s it.”
I remember these words from an Iraqi art dealer who gave me a lift after his memorial service at the local Mosque. I think he thought that Europeans are sentimental about death. Another Afghan hunched his shoulders and said, “Millions dead. Death has come round to Rasoul. This world is just so. You make your life and your death comes according to your life.” There was something final about these statements, as if a judgement had been made.
I had met Rasoul with Bashir, a Pakistani, from whom I used to buy Gandharan art. Rasoul was his driver in London. They used to argue a lot about the situation in Afghanistan. Bashir supported the Taliban, whereas Rasoul hated both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Rasoul kept talking about the “Arab Taliban”. I had never heard of an “Arab Taliban” before. Rasoul hated the “Arab Taliban” above all other forces, because they had elevated themselves to the new rulers of his country. I knew nothing of all this politics, but I listened closely. I was attempting to picture a world that made little sense, other than its strategic importance for all those concerned. It appeared obvious that Buddhist artefacts had no place in Afghanistan. I looked at all these stucco heads and figures and they provided me an image of Afghanistan over fifteen hundred years ago, an elsewhere that was no longer present in this world. What I was listening to, and what I was looking at, seemed so far apart, as to beyond reconciliation. It made me think about the relationship of art, politics and time, but in ways that always seemed to break apart, rather than produce the idea of relation. I was looking at all these objects mainly because there was a war. People and objects had all found there way out of the country to avoid death and destruction. I used to think that these objects had an intelligence to find a new place, much like people. Now these invariably broken heads would be put on metal stands, to be sold in galleries, and then sit in collections, admired for their beauty and remoteness. Taken from sand swept ruins, or from caves, these objects now sit under spotlights on glass shelves, scrutinised for stylistic differences and probed for their spiritualised resonance.
I must admit that those sculptured heads enchanted me. I would touch them and sometimes more lovingly than a human face. I used to spend hours removing the layers of the centuries of dried mud in order to reveal the delicate traces of pigment that might line the eyes and the lips. Sometimes flakes of gold would glisten within the powdered mud as the heads emerged from their past condition, cleaned now and ready for display. Like Greek sculpture this was a polychrome art that was both coloured and gilded.
It was said that when Alexander the Great went to Northern India he sought out meetings with holy men who he was told possessed great wisdom. In one meeting he asked one as to what constitutes wisdom in creatures. The holy man replied that it was those creatures that evaded contact with men that were most wise. Alexander remained silent. Perhaps he realised that in looking at the great mountains of Afghanistan that they could never be conquered and ruled even though his status as a god like ruler might have thought fit. Such mountains give rise to thoughts about invisibility and perhaps eternity. They extend beyond the scope of the eye so exist within the mind as a form of immeasurability.
There is a Mughal painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Amir Khusran Dihlavi which shows Alexander the Great being lowered into the depths of the ocean in a glass barrel. Legend says that on his ascent from the depths he said: “Sir Barons, I have just seen that this whole world is lost and the great fish mercilessly devour the lessor.”
In the elevation of the mountains, Bin Laden dreamed of great things and infinity. In the valleys the ordinary people learned to live on grass.
The last time I saw Rasoul he showed me photographs of him standing on the ruins of the fifth century ‘Bamiyan’ Buddhas. He said that he was involved in a project to reconstruct the site. I am not really sure if he believed that he was standing on the symbolic ruin of the Taliban, as much as the actually ruin of the Buddhist figures. Even though both figures are completely destroyed, they are still monuments for a whole number of paradoxical reasons. Firstly in the history of Buddhism the actual depiction of the Buddha form was not evident in Buddhist art until over five hundred years after the death of the Buddha. In the earliest forms of sculptural representation the Buddha is indicated through absence; an empty footprint, a parasol or a vacant throne. The true state of Buddha hood was in emptiness, which was in turn, co-extensive with enlightenment. In this respect these vast architectural niches still convey the Buddha in the memory of earlier modes of depiction is enacted. They convey the fact that a material act such as dynamiting the rock form of the Buddhist figures cannot destroy the abstraction of emptiness. It was thus simultaneously a foolish and an empty gesture, which was incapable of elevating the Taliban to the status of the only true Muslims to have resided in Afghanistan, because implicitly it was a critique of all the previous Muslims who had allowed these statues to stand. On another level, the destruction of these statues served to develop an understanding of compassion because in some ways the International community showed more concern for these rocks than the living community around them: a country rich in geographical, historical, mineral, human and agricultural resources, has been pillaged by contending forces. The main economic resource of this country at present is its opium crop and having being subject to so much death and injury, it is returning to the world a symbolic index of capitalism itself, “junk”.
I was talking to a friend who used to visit the bizarres of Kabul in the 1970’s and the 1980’s to buy kilims and embroideries. He said that he would often get into arguments with elders who would claim the world was flat. He was totally lost as to how such a discussion could occur so long after it was patently obvious that the world was round, but all this proved is that he was living in a modern world, whereas the Afghan elder still inhabited a Medieval world. We forget the extent to which they world used to have distinct symbolic time zones because the whole globe awakens to the daily assertion of the now time of globalism which introduces a new form of flattening of the world through its imposition of universal equivalence. Perhaps this Afghan peasant knew that as long as his world was flat then he had a place and thus a destiny within it. It was this sense of difference that secured his existence. This spatial understanding of the world was also intimately connected to the space of memory. It was possible to come across peasants who would still evoke the memory of the forefathers when Alexander attempted to conquer Afghanistan. This was a genuine sense of the continuity of a nation through a form of memory secured by bloodlines through which history is alive. This reminds us that much of the sense of belonging in this vast Indian sub-continent resides within oral transmission. The lived space of a people who inhabit such a world is in this respect vast whereas the space of modernity is that of loss because it implies distinct atomisation of individuals. This is a culture we breathe. When the United States decided to attack Afghanistan they purchased all available satellite imagery with the belief that in having control over the representation of the territory it would be able to assume control over the actual territory. What it couldn’t purchase was the internal maps in the minds of Afghans and it is these maps, which define the being of a nation. It is still unclear as to whether or not Afghanistan will become part of the modern community, for that entry itself would represent a form of amnesia.
The ruination of Afghanistan is of a very different order to that ruination that Friedrich Nietzsche talked about Europeans living among. “We Europeans confront a world of tremendous ruins. A few things are still towering, much looks decayed and uncanny, while most things already lie on the ground.”
Bashir was sitting on the edge of his chair.
“I am really a poet in my heart. I am not joking, poetry is written in my veins. It is not easy, what I do. You have to have power. Poetry helps me be who I am. It made me into a traveller. Poetry is a form of travel. I am an ancient being who follows the stars. I have a destiny otherwise it is all crap. Art has taken me out of a hole in Pakistan and moved me around the world. Sometimes I to talk to these sculptures, you cannot imagine the conversations we have had. They have talked to me about everything. They come from a time we can no longer imagine, a golden age, when people looked up to the sky and saw wonder. This is where my poetry comes from. When poetry comes to me I am not a modern man but a man who can still touch the sky with my thoughts. Europeans think they know so much, it makes me laugh really and although I am not educated in the same way but I touch things in a way they will never understand. This is my character; otherwise I am just a dog barking in empty space. I will not lie down or run away from my path. Look at this head I have in my hands, just a bit of plaster, mud and straw, but nonetheless beautiful. Tomorrow I will sell this head for a few lousy dollars, but this misses the point of it when it is in my hands. These people, who for me were poets of raw matter, created a language stronger than their own lives, in order to talk to us.”
It seems a long time since the phone rang. Sometimes it makes me feel as if I am in waiting. Eventually a form of news will arrive, but in the meanwhile a dulling anticipation fills these intervals. I keep repeating to myself that life is only one moment to the next; nothing more. Anyway this is my sense. I am rubbing my eyes in between typing because pollen appears thick within the currents of air that are circulating around me. I might wonder if the air is always thick with something, for instance thick with thought. This might explain these moments when I suddenly have the apprehension of someone thinking about me and in getting in touch they exclaim the fact that they had just been thinking about me. I also think about a phrase I heard once about culture being the air that you breathe which would imply that culture is a palpable density within the air. I start to think of mystics retreating to the mountains or the desert and wonder if they are in search of a form of air untouched by the circulation of culture or thought. Surely in the last days of humanity everyone will be struggling to breathe, allergies will have destroyed the smooth functioning of sinuses, the bronchial passages will be inflamed, and everyone will appear invaded by voices commanding them to destroy themselves. In other words the air will have thickened to the point that breathing and interval will have ceased finding accord.