Friday, March 18, 2011

Afghan Diary: Astronomy - "Looking at the Stars is for Old Women."

Astronomy and Afghanistan have had a relationship in the past.  Abu al-Rayhan Mohammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni was a Persian-Afghan great geographer-astronomer who lived in Ghazni.  Ulugh Beg was a Turkic ruler of Central Asia who built the great observatory in modern-day Uzbekistan using knowledge gained from the previous cultural Persian empires in Afghanistan.  Abdul Ahad Mohmand became the first (and only) Afghan cosmonaut in space with his 1988 trip to the Mir Space Station.

However, repeated external and internal wars have caused a major brain drain and cultural collapse in Afghanistan.  I experienced the brain drain first hand as a friend and I were enjoying the night in Afghanistan.  My friend, a Hazaran Afghan, and I were overlooking an empty stretch of Highway One (the ring road connecting Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mozer-e-Shraif) when I looked up at the sky and saw the constellation Orion.  I have long considered Orion, a Greek-dubbed constellation as a sort of reminder of the niceties of winter. 

Wondering if my Hazaran friend knew any Persian constellations, I asked he knew any Persian or local astronomy.  He turned his head to look at me and even with the night darkness I could tell his eyes had considerably widened.  "No," he said, "looking at the stars is for old women.  Witchcraft."  I tried to explain that I was talking about astronomy and not astrology but it was in vain.  My friend responded with a question asking why people would care about the stars if they were not trying to gain some hidden, forbidden insight.

My friend is not some village hick but a high school educated Afghan who is active in the Sufi order of Shia Islam.  Even with the religious influence of Persian Shiaism, the rich scientific culture of Persia has been eradicated from much of Afghanistan.


pfly said...

Oog, that post felt tragic. I've been happy seeing Orion this winter too. Seeing the Pleiades makes me smile too.

Dan tdaxp said...

This is a very sad post, in many different ways. Thank you for sharing it -- it stays with you.

I like seeing Orion, too.