Article by Ella Maillart, Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, London, April 1940:
Afghanistan's Rebirth -
An Interview with H.R.H. Hashim Khan in 1937 (*)
In Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, there is a vast reception room on the first floor of the Ministry of the Interior. From the bay window I could see flower beds and the high earth walls which enclose every garden here, as in China.
I watched the Prime Minister, Hashim Khan. He was one of the most impressive figures I had ever met, a man of fifty, with a sallow, oval face, straight nose, narrow eyebrows, a Richelieu billy-goat beard and a supple mouth which could be hard or indulgent, when my questions revealed my ignorance. Was it this exterior which created an impression of greatness, or his eyes which were both quick and searching and followed my thoughts beyond my words?
He, an overworked minister, like all Prime Ministers in the world, had granted me this interview without any fuss – a rare thing in the East. His nephew, Prince Naïm, the young and handsome Minister of Education, a tall, supple, beardless young man, interpreted for us. He had studied in France, as also had his young king, Zaher.
“To seek knowledge, travel even as far as China.” This is the slogan, taken from the Koran, which the Afghan Government uses for propaganda. This teaches backward Muslims that progress and knowledge are not in opposition to religion... that knowledge which must be the basis of any improvement. “And this year,” added the Prime Minister, “we are devoting a sum to public education equal to half our war budget. In this way we are forming the men who tomorrow will have to watch over the independence of their country. We must transform the thoughts of the Afghans before we can build an ultra-western capital, as Amanullah tried to do. He saw only the outward forms of modernization.”
The modern Afghans are straightforward. There are no “orientalisms”, no flowery phrases, no trays of tea on our centre table. And I was able to ask questions without circumlocution.
“But the treasure was plundered ten years ago, and the recalcitrant elders... How did you set about your task, Your Highness?”
“Yes, we began our efforts at zero,” explained Hashim Khan. “From below zero, for the mistakes of Amanullah had made everyone hostile to progress. On the balance-sheet we had no army, no money, and distrust everywhere. Up to his tragic death H.M. Nadir Shah had this difficult task, and I as Prime Minister have continued his work. First of all we introduced paper money, a wonderful feat in a country where everyone likes to be able to feel his riches. We were helped by the fact that on long journeys it is an advantage not to have to carry about heavy money. “Only at first, and we had foreseen it,” he added with a smile, “the Afghans rushed to the bank to see if they would really be given money against their notes!
“Having thus created some resources, we organized the army, began building roads, restored peace, and, as you have seen, there are no more bandits on the roads. It takes four days by car instead of forty-five days by caravan to reach the borders of the country.
“Before instituting reforms it is essential to create an atmosphere of confidence and goodwill. To achieve this we only made promises which we could keep... that is the secret. For men know when one is sincere.”
“Yes, but I should also like to discover the reason for the influence which I see you exercise over everyone. What is it?”
With the simplicity of a man who seeks the truth, the Premier said: “The people of my country know that I am devoting my life to helping them, for I have no family of my own. If I have succeeded it is because the governments which have preceded me were bad, and it was enough for me to avoid their mistakes to gain he trust of the people. Today every government must be progressive, so in that I have not merit. I had to destroy the tradition of civil wars, stabilize the tribes, and level the fortified walls which allowed ambushes. Only King Nadir, three times the saviour of this country, could ask that.
“Now the parliament and the senate are organized. We are working in peace. We have almost finished eight barrages, which will irrigate desert areas. This reclaimed land will be given to poor nomads and to our surplus population. We have successfully begun growing cotton and we shall increase it because Japan is a large buyer. Cotton is going to be as important as caracul skins, which represent 50 % of our exports.”
“Is it true that you have sold your petrol to the Americans?”
“Yes. French experts refused to touch it. The Americans are really working on the other side of the Iranian frontier. They only wanted control on this side of the frontier. They are paying £330,000 for the concession for the first five years, then the following years we shall get 20% of their net profit. (**)
We have needed foreign technicians to help us to manufacture our electricity, our cement, our glass, our matches, as well as to found the chairs of our young university. Paying special attention to primary schools, we still have only two chairs, Medicine and Science, where the Frenchman, Monod-Herzen, is doing invaluable work. Our aviation is developing, and we have just sent 30 pupil pilots to India.”
“I was on the point of asking about those charming boys I met at Peshawar. I was so astonished to hear them speak such perfect French.”
“Now you know why, for you have visited the Istiklal College, Istiklal meaning ‘independence’, where six French masters prepare the best of the 600 pupils for their baccalaureate.
“And I hope that the long-awaited new head of the College will soon arrive from France. But tell me about your great neighbours, India and the U.S.S.R. Can they be useful to you?”
“We do not encourage their subjects to come and live here, although our imports from each of them are worth over £2,000,000 each year. Apart from the Legations, there are only two Englishmen here; they are building a wireless station. We have also just bought a wireless transmitting station of 20 kilowatts from the Germans. Actually we call most of the Turks for our army and our hospitals; there are about 150 of them in Kabul. We employ Germans to build our bridges, our roads, and our new town districts. They prospect for us, oversee the cotton factories, teach at the German College, Nedjat, at the Art College, the Agricultural College, and at the professional college, a magnificent present made by Germany to this country.”
Here I must add a few words for the French reader, to explain why the Germans have such a hold on Afghanistan. And why they are the only Europeans to have 150 subjects there. They are dynamic. They feel the need to leave their own overpopulated country. And also they sell their services and their produce more cheaply than the other Europeans, though for twice as much as the Japanese. But mainly because they are the only ones to whom their government guarantees the payment of their contracts with the Afghans – thanks to a clearing system of 60 million marks between Berlin and Kabul. Again, the Germans of Lufthansa are the only ones to already have made test flights for an airline which would bring Kabul to within three days of Berlin.
There was also a parallel which I wanted to draw before taking leave. “Your Highness, I said, “you have been kind enough to make it clear to my readers how you found money, built up confidence and organized progress with the help of foreigners. But how do you achieve unity among your heterogeneous peoples? You have not only three different languages, as in Switzerland, but four: the Pashtu of the Afghan tribes, the Persian of the town dwellers, Old Turkish of the Uzbeks in the North, and the ‘Farsi’ of the Tajiks.”
“Our disparity,” said Hashim Khan, is perhaps mostly superficial. Beneath the surface we are all united in Islam, our communal strength whose foundations must not be destroyed by progress. We must watch to see that the ideas which free us do not in the end divide us... Then, again, who knows if our mountain climate which is so harsh may not give us a common character, as in Switzerland, independently of race? Then you have mentioned Pashtu... Starting next year it is to become the language of our officials, doing away with Persian. Our legends and our poems will then be understood by everyone. We shall draw from them a pride in our culture of the past which will unite us. We too, like Switzerland, though we are in Asia, may become an indispensable buffer state without colonial ambition, surrounded by great powers.”
As I said good-bye to the Premier I ventured another question, of greater delicacy, on the progress of the “question féminine.”
“This problem has not been faced yet, Mademoiselle. We are sad and depressed about it. For women are the foundation of all reconstruction. This room in our house, if I can so put it, has not yet been put in order. Please be indulgent about it. Afghans must first learn to imagine another life. Come back in ten year’s time!”
As I left the Ministry, in the burning streets which men were watering with leather bottles, I thought to myself: Yes, I have confidence in you. For I knew five European women married to Afghans in Kabul and living the harem life. Not one of them regretted her marriage. Then at the women’s hospital I saw Afghan nurses, the first in the history of the country. But most of all I saw the bright, wide-awake faces of the 500 little girls who go to school. I was enthusiastic about what I saw, for I saw energy and vitality in those who will be the mothers of tomorrow. But first of all peace must continue in Afghanistan.
© Ella Maillart, 1940
(*) Mohammad Hashim Khan (1885-1953), prime minister of Afghanistan from 1929 to 1946
(**) The American Inland Exploration Company gave up their oil concession in June 1938.