Afghanistan: Where the past is no longer the past

Afghanistan’s education ministry has endorsed a new school curriculum repressing large swathes of the country’s recent history. Tragically, the saying that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” may prove true.

Afghanistan has witnessed four decades of political and civil turbulence that remains unresolved. But its history curriculum has erased the bloody coups of the 1970s, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the Moscow-backed communist regimes in Kabul and countless human rights excesses committed by secret police. Nor are there many references to the civil war between mujahedeen factions that tore Kabul apart in the 1990s, leaving an estimated 70,000 people dead. That conflict gave rise to the Taliban – but they are conspicuous by their absence as are the US-led forces that drove them from power and occupied the country for more than ten years.

The government believes that the new textbooks will help bring unity to a country traditionally divided along ethnic and political lines. In fact they will deprive an entire generation of knowledge of the country’s past and, since Internet penetration is low and contact with the outside world limited, young people in Afghanistan will be ill-equipped to make informed judgements about their own future.

Controlling a county’s past is a mark of a dictatorial regime. It entails forging the public record. This means exorcising disgraced individuals from official documents and photos and forcing newspaper and magazine editors to censor content. In the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere, this quickly led to putting people in labour camps or making them disappear – killing them outright. In today’s digital world, it is much more difficult to tamper with the public record of the past – except by brainwashing the young, which is exactly what is being planned in Afghanistan.

The field of memory studies refers to such censorship as “repressive erasure” (obliteration, destruction, editing out); “prescriptive forgetting” (erasure that is believed to be in the best interests of all parties); “forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity” (forgetting is not a loss but a gain that facilitates new beginnings); “structural amnesia” (the tendency to forget links that are socially undesirable); “forgetting as annulment” (flowing from a surfeit of information, discarding or storing vast quantities of information); “forgetting as planned obsolescence” (discarding as a vital ingredient of consumerism); and “forgetting as humiliated silence” (collusive silence brought on by a particular kind of collective shame).

George Orwell described the process in his novel 1984, which pictures a world in which the past is no longer controlled (if it ever was) by each individual, but is recast on a daily basis by the ruling regime – “Big Brother” – aided and abetted by the mass media:

“The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it. It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance. For when it has been recreated in whatever shape is needed at the moment, then this new version is the past, and no different past can ever have existed.”

Obviously, 1984 was never translated into Pashto or Dari, the two principal languages of Afghanistan. Or perhaps it was and no one remembers…

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