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from the May 2011 issue

The Idol’s Dust

Boom . . . m . . . m . . .

The terrible sound of something exploding and collapsing . . .

The awe of explosion and dynamite . . .

A huge amount of explosives had been used. The devastating explosion, accompanied by the loud cries of god-is-greater that made the throats of the Talibs quiver, set the earth atremble; a dense, impenetrable cloud of dust billowed up into the sky.

The explosion tore the Buddha from the embrace of the mountain and flung it into the valley. The Buddha had been shattered, and a large mound of pebbles had piled up beneath. The great Buddha had broken to pieces and disintegrated into millions of smaller Buddhas.

The sound of the explosion filled the whole Bamiyan valley. The sound waves moved in all directions, collided with mountains and peaks, went back, filled the hollow cavity where the Buddha had been, lamented and spread their mourning across the vast expanses, far and near.

Smoke and dust obscured the sky. The mass of dust rose above the valley and dispersed, fighting through, wrapped up in the wind, and the wind, entangled in the dust. It stretched out over mountains, ravines, and valleys. Particles of dust from the Buddha rained down far and wide like a rain cloud.

Mullah Janan Akhund turned himself toward the Talibs, who had become disheartened after the many failed attempts using tanks, guns, and mortars to tear down the Buddha. After consulting advisors, he had ordered them to plant explosives inside the Buddha, in the very heart of it. When the roaring boom . . . m . . . m . . . of the explosion arose, he laughed loudly and leaped up with joy. He nearly forgot to shout god-is greater, but when he heard the screaming and cries of god-is greater coming from the others, he came to his senses and joined in.

Mullah Janan was pleased now that the idol had been destroyed at last, and the object of the idol worshippers was laid out on display. The nail that scratched at his conviction, and whose grinding sound generated such an annoyance in him, had now been abolished altogether.

The day drew to a close, took shelter below the horizon and in the darkness of the explosion’s dust. Mullah Janan Akhund, proud and pleased, stood up on a tank, a vain smile on his lips. He folded his hands behind his back. The wind played with his beard and made it float to and fro. A large shawl that he had thrown over his shoulder fluttered in the wind.

The evening star observed the void of the Buddha from the opposite horizon and shed light on the fragmented stones. In front of the dark and obscure void in the heart of the mountain, millions of small Buddhas had turned the ground white.

A bulldozer dispersed the pile of pebbles, and a few Talibs, with shovels in their hands, scattered and spread the small Buddhas so that they would be hidden under the earth and the dust, and disappear. They were pleased that the job had now come to an end and that they had fulfilled the fatwa of the Commander of the Faithful.

That feeling of tranquility which appears when a laborious and challenging task has been brought to an end made them start laughing.

They put aside their shovels and with the shawls that they had wrapped around their heads, they wiped off the dust and soil from their hands and faces. Nobody could help laughing at the sight of their faces and hair. Their faces, noses, and ears were all white with dust and soil, which made them look like plaster statues. One of them addressed the others saying:

The idol’s dust has stuck to your faces and hair, you have turned into idols. You must also be destroyed, he said as he began laughing. The others also burst out in laughter as they ran off toward the river, which flowed in front of the idols, in order to wash away the idol’s dust from their hair and faces.

It had become night. Everything was dark. A cold wind was beating against the mountain and the rock. The empty void of the Buddha appeared infinitely dark. The wind twirled around in the hollow cavities and lamented, and dusky clouds defeated the firmament. On the opposite side of the river a light broke the darkness of the night, and shortly thereafter, other lights could be seen. The sound of moaning was heard.

The young Talibs plunged into the water to wash their heads and beards, and immersed both head and body in the water. The water was bitingly cold. They could not hold out for long but soon got out of the water, and dried their hair and beards with their head shawls. But the idol’s dust remained stuck to their hair and faces as if they had been whitewashed, as if their faces had been covered by masks of plaster. Quickly they set off toward the caves near the ruined Buddha. The caves were their headquarters; the combat unit which had come to fight the Buddha had its base there.

The young Talibs, shivering from the cold water, entered the caves. The air inside was reasonably comfortable. Oil lamps had been hung on the cave walls. When they saw each other’s faces in the light from the lamps, all of them began howling with fear. In these white plaster masks, they all looked monochromatic and alike. Terrified at the sight of one another, they took flight and escaped one by one into other caves. When they appeared in the dim light in the caves, those Talibs already there also started screaming and ran away. “Idols . . . idols . . .,” one of them screamed suddenly, and this clamor, that some of the Talibs had changed into idols, spread like wildfire among the other Talibs.

In haste and with fear, a Talib informed Mullah Janan that some of the Talibs had been changed into idols. “You are talking nonsense,” Mullah Janan responded laughing. But the Talib insisted that this was no drivel, that he was telling the truth, and that they really had changed into idols.

—Who has been changed? Who has turned into idols?

—They have turned into idols . . . yes, some of the Talibs have changed into idols . . .

—How do you mean? How is a Talib turned into an idol? Blasphemy . . .

—But they are changed . . . the idol’s dust has turned their faces into that of an idol, their faces look as if they are idols . . .

The Talib who had arrived with this information was anxious and afraid. Mullah Janan was amazed at what he had just heard. All of a sudden, he stood up from the charpoy which he had been leaning against and headed out. The young Talib led him toward the field where many Talibs had gathered. The Talibs withdrew at the sight of Mullah Janan and the eyes of the Mullah fell upon four men sitting on the field, who in the faint light of the hurricane lamps looked like statues. The Mullah could not believe what he was seeing. He thought that the young Talibs were joking and that they had rubbed their faces with plaster.

—Enough now . . . what is this nonsense, he shouted angrily.

He ordered them to fetch a bucket of water. With his own hands he washed the face and hair of those Talibs who had changed into idols, and with the shawl that always hung over his shoulder, he scrubbed their cheeks. Still, their lime-washed faces remained unchanged, appearing as masked faces, as the faces of plaster statues.

The mouth of Mullah Janan Akhund was dry with amazement and wonder, and the beads on his rosary had stopped moving between his fingers. He wanted to say something but his tongue froze and he began to stutter. He did not really know what to say. Mechanically, he walked away from the crowd. In a state of disbelief he looked behind him and at the night sky alternately, and set off toward the other side of the field with some of the Talibs following him. The field was filled with military equipment and people. Tanks and armored vehicles were lined up in every available spot, and spent cartridges lay everywhere. The odor of gunpowder still billowed through the air and turned the calm and pleasant night barren and evil-smelling.

The Mullah, angry and upset, wandered around, touching everything. Now and then he stroked the tanks’ metal bodies and sometimes he bent down to pick up cartridge cases from the ground. His hands and feet had begun shaking a little and he was feeling dizzy; off and on he lost his balance and at times also his ability to speak. He lost consciousness. Those Talibs who were nearby rushed up to him, carried him into the cave, and threw him down on his charpoy. Mullah Janan spent the night unconscious and stupefied, alternately sleeping and awake. The next day his condition was better and he opened his eyes. He asked for water, took a sip, and began thinking. Some young Talibs gathered around him, but Mullah Janan was still lost in thought. He could not find any answers to those questions that had risen inside him. “Why did they change into idols?”, he thought. Last night he had experienced morbid visions and in order to find out whether he had been asleep or awake during these experiences, he asked one of the young Talibs what the news was. The young Talib answered that besides a widespread rumor of four Talibs transforming into idols, nothing had happened.

Mullah Janan realized that it had not been a bad dream, that what he had experienced the previous night was real. The Mullah could not stop thinking about the Talibs’ transformation into idols. “Why have they changed in that way?” The others had told him that these Talibs had plunged into the water and had tried to scrub their faces clean from the idol’s dust. But the water had not made them clean. The others who had not tried the water, and still were defiled with the idol’s dust, were afraid to even touch the water. For them, the water had turned into poison. They feared the water. The same with Mullah Janan—what will happen if the water cannot clean them? What has happened with the water? Why the water . . .?

The Mullah was immersed in such thoughts when a Talib came rushing into the cave and put a small fragment of stone in his hand. The Mullah examined it closely. It was a little Buddha, resembling the one that had been destroyed. The young Talib said that every fragment of stone in the pile from the ruined Buddha had the same shape as this little Buddha.

Mullah Janan, in silence and disbelief, fixed his eyes on the little Buddha. The small stone fragment had the same shape and countenance as the Buddha himself, though on a smaller scale, the size of a hand or smaller.

The little Buddha was passed around among the Talibs who were in the cave with the Mullah, and all of them gazed upon it with wonder, dumbstruck. Without saying anything, Mullah Janan Akhund, as if he was in a daze, rushed from the cave and reached the pile of fragmented pieces of stone. He picked up a pebble and held it close to his eyes. It was unbelievable, another small Buddha. He picked up another fragment, another little Buddha.

Every fragment looked like a small Buddha, the size of a hand or less.

Mullah Janan Akhund murmured, "It is magic, they are talismans . . .”

The others were still looking at the small Buddhas, anxious and silent, glancing at each other from the corners of their eyes. They avoided meeting each other’s eyes and when they did, they quickly stared at the ground.

Suddenly, the silence of wonder ended when sounds of commotion ascended from all around. The Talibs rushed out from the caves. Everyone was running around out on the field in an uproar. The Talibs were leaping around like black crows and ran all over in order to warn the others about the enchantment and sorcery that had taken place. Everyone was talking and no one was listening. The running and chattering continued. Those who had just realized what was going on came out from the caves and rushed toward the pile of idol dust. The Talibs and the Akhunds were speechless, and in this state of confusion and despair, they did not know what to do. Now that the great Buddha had been demolished, what should they do with all these small Buddhas? What should they do with this pile of Buddha dust with which everyone’s faces had become defiled? And what to do with all those Talibs that had been transformed into lime figures?

The telephones started to ring. The Talibs and the Mullahs entered an intense and heated discussion. Mullah Janan got in contact with the high-ranking Talibs in Kabul and in Kandahar, and gave a detailed account of the incident concerning the sorcery and the talismans.

The Commander of the Faithful ordered them to scatter the dust from the idol so far away that not a single particle remained, and commanded that the stone fragments from the Buddha be buried so that nobody could ever lay eyes on them again.

Mullah Janan gave orders that the stone fragments and dust of the Buddha be loaded onto trailers and trucks, and be transported far away. Rumbling bulldozers and tractors got on with the task, and trucks transported and unloaded the idol’s to remote corners; in the river, the ravines, the desert lands, and on the mountain slopes . . .

Calm and composed, Mullah Janan Akhund reclined on his charpoy. Of his previous worries and anxiety not a trace was left. Those Talibs who were entering the cave for instructions did not attract the slightest attention from the Mullah. He responded inattentively with only "aha” and “no,” and began pondering over the matter once again.

Around lunchtime, he went out from the cave to wash himself and pray. The Talibs had stopped working and the bulldozers’ rumbling was not heard any longer. A calm silence had filled the Bamiyan valley. There was no sunshine, but still the lustrous white clouds lit up every place, as if it had been a sunny day. There was no wind, but a gentle breeze stroked the ground, and a sensation of muteness and numbness filled every atom of the air, water and the earth.

Inside Mullah Janan a calm was setting in, like the calm before a storm. He walked away, alone and in silence. Something was making a sound inside of him; a rustling sound. He was listening to this inner crunching and trying to figure out what had been broken, what could be the cause of such a sound. He moved on, empty and indolent, until he reached the bank of the river. The water was glimmering; a stream, almost like a mirror, transparent and shining. The stone fragments from the idol shaped thousands of varying pictures in the water. The river water had dispersed the idol’s dust over the valley and across the area. In the creeks and in the soil, in the villages and in the cities, in the alleys and in the bazaars, all across the Taliban realm, the idol’s dust had been scattered. The Mullah placed himself on the bank of the small river. He observed the transparent and serene stream of water passing by. That water of this kind, with such clarity and shimmer, could be polluted was unimaginable. He touched the water. The tips of his fingers grazed the fine pebbles and a strange sensation ran through them. This frightened him; he pulled his fingers from the water and walked away.

He looked at the sky. It was neither light nor dark, more like moonlight. Although the white clouds did not seem to move, they were not entirely motionless either, but peaceful. The birds were not flying; still, their wings were open. Neither leaving nor approaching. Neither rising nor sinking. Mullah Janan had been embraced by dream-like visions.

Mullah Janan walked around, untroubled, blank, like a reed shaken by the wind, sometimes in one direction, and sometimes in another. He was completely disoriented. With a sleepwalker’s shuffling feet, he wandered around. He had no will of his own, no will to lead him in any particular direction. He went everywhere and nowhere.

Finally, unaware, he came back to the cave and sat down in silence. He took out his rosary to play with the beads. The prayer beads had turned into stone; his fingers had gone numb so he could not set the beads in motion. His fingertips felt frozen. He looked at them. His fingertips had turned white; white as limestone. As the plaster hands of sculptures . . .

He was not surprised. By now, he had become used to these kinds of stone transformations.. People reported that those four Talibs whose faces had turned into idols had now gradually been transformed into full statues. The Talibs had become horror-struck and one group after the other came rushing into the cave of Mullah Janan asking him what they should do.

But the Mullah was walking about, empty of thoughts and absentminded, and did not know what to say, or what to do, or what orders to give. He had forgotten all the reasons behind the orders and commands, and was caught in a state of inability to command and to give order. Finally, Mullah Kochni Akhund shouted at him:

—Mullah Janan, answer me! What should we do?

He did not have any answer. He laughed sardonically and fell silent.

Mullah Kochni contacted Kandahar and told how the four Talibs had changed into idols. The order of the Commander of the Faithful was concise, “Destroy everything that either is an idol, or resembles an idol. All idols must be destroyed. Everything, with or without a soul, that either is or has become an idol must be demolished!”

Mullah Kochni brought Mullah Janan Akhund outside the cave and declared the decree of the Commander of the Faithful in front of the Talibs:

—Break everything that has become an idol and demolish everything that already was one!

An inferno broke out among the Talibs. Everyone was talking. Some were protesting while others expressed their satisfaction, though no one really knew what their joy and disapproval would lead to. A couple of Talibs hurried away and brought the transformed Talibs with them to the field. They had become heavy, like stone statues, and could not move. Save the eyes rotating in their sockets, nothing else moved. They were all stone.

The order was given that they should be destroyed. Without delay, the Talibs started beating them with shovels and pickaxes. They shattered like plaster sculptures and fell to pieces. No blood flowed from their bodies. No blood at all. Their insides were filled with dust and ashes which were carried away by the wind.

Mullah Janan went back to the cave, but the events seemed to have no end. Once again, news arrived that some other young Talibs had become defiled with the idol’s dust and had changed into idols; Mullah Kochni issued an order for their destruction.

These many metamorphoses and breaking of idols finally also roused the anger of the Commander of the Faithful. He gave orders that Mullah Janan Akhund should present himself at the center of the Emirate as soon as possible, so that he could explain the circumstances face to face. Obeying orders, Mullah Janan Akhund got on a flight chartered especially for him, so that he could present himself at the court. He was nervous and did not really know how to present the matter.

The aircraft rose above the lustrous white clouds. The clouds had assumed the shapes of Buddhas in motion; they passed by, vanished in the distant horizons, before they reappeared.

Mullah Janan was tired from seeing all the cloud idols in the sky and stone idols on the ground. He was anxious. He looked away from the window and lost himself in thought. He hid his petrified fingers in his sleeves as the fear of being completely transformed into stone grew stronger.

He was shown in to the audience hall of the Commander of the Faithful, behind a curtain. On the other side was the Commander of the Faithful. Mullah Janan Akhund was shaking with dread and anxiety, numb with fear. It was the first time he had seen the Commander of the Faithful up close. His voice, which he had heard a few times on the telephone, was intimidating, but it had not frightened him. But now, a strange fear spread through his whole being and made him shiver. He fixed his eyes upon the ground. A carpet covered the floor, and a sword hung on the wall. Wind blew through the window and made the curtain move. His fingers felt heavy and he had trouble breathing.

The curtain was drawn aside and the Commander of the Faithful was revealed. He was sitting on a prayer rug, praying in a low voice. In reverence for the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Janan Akhund stood up and hid his petrified fingers in his sleeves. He looked up and opened his mouth to greet the Commander of the Faithful, but all of a sudden, instead of a “Salaam,” a scream left his throat:

—Oh no! . . . Commander of the Faithful . . . the idol’s dust . . . on the forehead of the Commander of the Faithful . . . oh no! . . . even the Commander of the Faithful . . .



Read more from the May 2011 issue
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