When the Taliban took over Kabul in the summer of 2021, I—like many people around the world—kept asking such questions as: How did it all come about? What do we know about Afghanistan other than from a geopolitically inflected perspective mostly dominated by the US interests? And, in my case, more specifically: Given the fact that Afghanistan and Chinese and neighbors, what can we do to introduce more anthropologically-informed works on Afghanistan to a Chinese-speaking audience?
With these questions in mind, I together with several friends decided to start a special series on Afghanistan—including a list of recommended readings, commentaries, historical reviews, and translated essays—via TyingKnots (https://tyingknots.net/), a Chinese-language public platform we co-founded in the summer of 2020. We are an independent group committed to introducing anthropological perspectives, studies, and engagements to the Chinese-speaking public. We share short articles, translated essays, book/article reviews, interviews, commentaries, emergent ethnographies, multimedia presentations, and other anthropologically-informed works.
Since my research focuses on the Muslim communities in Asia, I realized it might be helpful to interview scholars whose works explore different aspects of Afghanistan. I contacted Dr Magnus Marsden and his student Tang Man for an interview on his new book Beyond Silk Roads, particularly relevant for understanding what goes on in Afghanistan beyond the national boundaries. The interview was originally conducted in English. I translated it into Chinese. Tang Man and I worked together in the processes of interviewing and proofreading. The Chinese version of this interview is published in TyingKnots (https://tyingknots.net/2021/11/beyond-the-silk-road/). We hope that the English version might also reach a wider English-speaking audience who are interested in the issues explored in this interview.
Dr Marsden’s work focuses on the importance of individuals’ navigational agency under different geopolitical circumstances. His work helps us look beyond the state-centric model of understanding geopolitics in Eurasian connectivity. Moreover, his ethnography does a fantastic job in interweaving the national and transnational politics into the everyday life of mobile Afghan traders. The author also places considerable emphasis on the structure and dynamics of trading networks. As his work shows, policies, technologies, and cultural affinities can all play important roles in affecting the Afghan traders’ patterns of mobility and infrastructural networks.
Before we discuss how anthropology can shed light on the current situation of Afghanistan, please how your career and research brought to where you are today?
A specialist in Muslim Asia, I have broad interests in anthropological and historical debates about religion, globalisation and identity. My intellectual career began as an anthropologist of Pakistan and Islam. My Phd focused on the practice of Islam in villages and small towns of the Chitral region of northern Pakistan. Working in a volatile region intersected by the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China then drew me to study mobile merchants who criss-crossed the region. I analyzed the material I gathered through the prism of interdisciplinary debates about frontiers, boundaries, and regions. Tracing Afghan trading networks that connect South and Central Asia to the former Soviet Union, I challenged scholarship that depicted Afghanistan as peripheral, and, instead, theorized changing forms of global connectivity through the lens of frontier spaces. In later years, a grant awarded by the European Research Council allowed me to expand my interests in new directions. I embarked on an interdisciplinary study of multiple ‘inter-Asian’ trading networks—including those comprising Afghans—that connect China to Asia and Europe. This resulted in ethnographic material addressing how Muslim traders navigate multiple projects of Eurasian connectivity – from America’s New Silk Road to China’s Belt and Road Iniatiative – and a monograph that contributes to the anthropology of geopolitics through the twin lenses of trading networks and mistrust.
I have conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and worked on ethnographic projects in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Ukraine and China. Most of my fieldwork has been conducted in Khowar (the language spoken in Chitral), the forms of Persian spoken in Afghanistan (sometimes referred to as Dari) and Tajikistan (Tajiki), and, to a lesser degree, in Pashto and Urdu.
So far, you’ve spent over two decades working with Afghans.
One of the most interesting aspects of my fieldwork in Chitral was the presence of Afghans in the villages in which I stayed. Most of these hailed from the Badakhshan and Panjshir regions of northern Afghanistan. By 1996, the Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan, but these two regions remained in the control of resistance forces opposed to Taliban rule. Due to war, conflict and poverty, many families left these regions and lived in Chitral. In Chitral, they established themselves as shopkeepers and traders, supplying both their home regions of Afghanistan, but also local Chitrali villages. My interest in traders from Afghanistan was piqued by my interaction with such families. I found it interesting that in the face of regional and international images of Afghanistan’s “backwardness”, these traders were forces of innovation in Chitral, bringing new products and also practices to relatively remote villages. I was also interested in the ways in which their migratory histories pointed towards important connections between Chitral and neighboring regions of Afghanistan. In the context of British imperial expansion and the establishment of the Pakistan nation-state, Chitral had come to be thought of as a “remote and isolated” region. The backgrounds and activities of Afghan traders in Chitral, however, pointed toward a longer term history of exchange and interaction with the wider world. At the time there was little recognition of the importance of such forms of connection—something that has undoubtedly changed in the context of the current geopolitical emphasis on Eurasian connectivity.
After the international intervention in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul, men I had known in Chitral from Badakhshan and Panjshir began to return to Afghanistan. I decided it would be interesting to visit them in order to explore their experiences of return to Afghanistan and the extent to which they did or did not maintain relationships with Chitral. Having visited people of such backgrounds in Badakhshan, Kunduz, Kabul and Panjshir from 2005 onwards, I saw how their business activities were not confined to Afghanistan—many, rather, had also started to export commodities from Pakistan to Tajikistan using overland routes through Afghanistan. This was interesting for me to explore because whilst they were important cultural and linguistic commonalities between northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan (in terms of a culture influenced by Persianate traditions, commitment to Islam, and a shared ethno-linguistically “Tajik” identity), Russian and British colonialism, and then the Cold War, had divided the region in powerful, enduring and important ways. I was interested to see how my friends negotiated these divisions and whether they were forces for regional reintegration. At the same time, however, as I conducted research in Tajikistan it became clear that the networks of my friends from Afghanistan stretched in multiple directions. I frequently met traders arriving from Russia and Ukraine en route to Afghanistan; others told me of the activities of their compatriots in China. Back home in the UK, I also met people who traded commodities between China and Western Europe, having initially entered the field of trade in the formerly Soviet settings during the years following the collapse of the Afghan state in 1992. I was keen to understand the networks and geographies of these activities, as well as the norms, skills and practices that made it possible for these people to work across such fraught and complex political and economic environments. I decided that the best way to do this was to trace the networks by visiting the various trading nodes in which the Afghan traders I knew had come to work. I was drawn by the complexity of the subject and also by the remarkable and wide-ranging backgrounds of the people I came to know.
In your new book , you focus on the structure and dynamics of trading networks and nodes established by Afghan traders across Eurasia. First, why “Beyond Silk Roads”?
The notion of the Silk Roads has increasingly come to be associated either with forms of commercial connection that are ancient and static, or the geopolitical projects of major powers within and beyond the region. Obscured from such accounts is the agency of local actors, who tend to be treated either as the heirs to an archaic “culture of commerce” or the beneficiaries of international development projects. The Afghan traders with whom I have worked however turned to trade and commerce in the context of modern political conflicts, and the role they have played in connecting different regions to one another via commercial and commercial life predates major projects of connectivity. This all suggests to me that they are the authors rather than products of regional connectivity.
Additionally, the notion of “the Silk Road” has tended to focus on the East-West axis, both in terms of historical writing and in terms of the visions of geopolitical players. By contrast, the forms of connection that my friends from Afghanistan have introduced to me are multi-directional.
Infrastructure and inter-Asian spaces emerge as two key concepts in this new book.
In order to study the commercial networks fashioned by my friends from Afghanistan, I needed to spend time in the particular settings in which they congregated and conducted commerce and life. These nodes are “sites of interaction” in that they bring traders from multiple geographical locations together. And they are often also important to traders belonging to different trading communities. They are important for trading networks not only for commercial reasons. Rather, they also play a critical role in enabling the reproduction of the shared social and cultural identities of traders, especially through family life, collective events, and knowledge exchange.
I also came to see however that different nodes play often starkly different roles in the life of traders. All nodes play an important commercial role for traders, yet some did so as sites of procurement, others as sites of wholesale. Similarly, in addition to playing a commercial role, some nodes were especially prominent in the social and cultural reproduction of trading networks—such nodes were regarded as being valuable sites for family life and the establishment of cultural associations and organization of events. In the book I used the term “infrastructural node” to refer to locations that play a critical and important role in providing the broader infrastructure of trade, such as access to banking and money exchange facilities, the provision of goods and commercial services, as well as access to customs clearance and transport routes. What I also came to recognize, however, is that very often nodes that play an important role in providing an infrastructure role are not regarded by the traders as valuable sites for social and commercial reproduction. This adds a layer of complexity to traders’ lives because it means they might base their families in one location, while establishing a major trading office elsewhere.
In terms of the notion of inter-Asia, as I mentioned above, a problem with the notion of “the Silk Road” in the way in which it has been used is its focus on East-West connections. I found the idea of “inter-Asia” helpful because it made possible a more multi-directional geography that was not reduced to the East-West binary logic. More broadly, of course, this encourages scholars to explore Asia beyond comparison to the West. Specifically, in terms of the context of Afghanistan, it is helpful because all too often Afghanistan is depicted as marginal to various parts of Asia (Central, South and West). By spending time with Afghan traders in various nodes, however, I came to see how Afghan actors play an important if little recognized role in various facets of interaction—cultural, economic, and political—within Asia.
What are some examples regarding some major practices through which those Afghan traders establish their presence in cities like Yiwu or Odessa?
In many of the contexts in which they work, traders from Afghanistan emphasize the critical roles they have played in the dynamics of particular places. This might take the form of activity in the construction of markets, it might be in forging routes between different contexts, or it might be in introducing consumers to new commodities. In Yiwu, for example, traders emphasize how their investment into the city in the 1990s and early 2000s helped to bring it to the attention of traders worldwide. In Odessa, Afghan traders recount the role they played in establishing the enormous container market in which they work. In Istanbul, Afghans have played an important role in fashioning neighbourhoods that are home to cultural and religious organizations and associations.
You also mention that many Afghan merchants in China would find the infrastructural nodes such as Yiwu as a “temporary” place.
Traders from Afghanistan face considerable difficulties in their commercial and personal lives. Afghanistan has been chronically insecure for several decades. This insecurity affects traders in palpable ways—not only is business in the country unpredictable, but criminal and political organisations in the country also pose a risk to traders, especially in terms of kidnapping for ransom. As a result, traders are especially concerned about the future of their family members in Afghanistan, and they may seek to establish a family home outside of the country. In order to do so, however, traders face multiple and serious problems. Above all, these relate to access to visas, residency permits and citizenship. Experienced traders find it difficult to access business visas for themselves, let alone for their family members. Furthermore, in many contexts, traders who are able to bring their families out of Afghanistan will live for years if not decades by extending their visas and residency permits – never getting access to permanent citizenship. Not having access to citizenship is difficult for traders and their families for multiple reasons. It is costly and time-consuming, eating into what are usually the traders’ low profit margins. More seriously, it can also make it harder for traders’ families to access basic services, such as affordable schools, universities and healthcare. But perhaps most important of all is the fact that the traders and their families need to lead their lives with the prospect of having to unexpectedly return to Afghanistan. As a result of the country’s past and ongoing conflict, this is a scenario that is a cause of major concern to traders who face the risk of being targeted by one or other political group in the country, or, indeed, being simply caught up in forms of violence that are routine aspects of life in the country. It is also difficult because they have raised their children outside of Afghanistan and returning to the country, especially for women and girls, is difficult. As a result of these issues, many traders will seek to locate their families to contexts that hold out the prospect of offering citizenship, even if only in the long term. In practice, this may mean that the traders will live in a context that has a suitable commercial environment, while their family will live in another that is perceived as being more welcoming to families and as offering prospects for citizenship in the longer term. Of course, most traders who do not have access to significant resources live lives of great precarity either in Afghanistan or in countries that do not offer pathways to citizenship and/or that have a track record of hostility towards immigrants in general and Afghans in particular.
Your new book also has a chapter on the non-Muslim groups from Afghanistan: Hindus and Sikhs. What factors make their inter-faith alliances or business models possible?
Historically, Afghanistan was not only a multi-ethnic country but also one in which the adherents of various religious traditions lived and co-existed with one another. Until the middle of the twentieth century, for instance, Afghanistan was home to a substantial population of Persian-speaking Jews who lived in cities (especially Herat and Kabul) amidst Muslims and were able to build their own places of worship. Afghanistan was also home to Armenian Christians, although most members of that community had left the country by the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly Sikhs and Hindus are an integral and historic feature of the social and economic fabric of Afghanistan – living in cities and rural regions across the country, they played a key role in Afghanistan’s economy and its commercial relationships with South and Central Asia until the very end of the twentieth century. They speak Persian and Pashto (depending on the settings in which they were brought up), as well as their own distinct languages (Hindko and Multani), and also historic South Asian languages (Punjabi and Hindi). These communities have relationships to Muslims from Afghanistan that stretch back over decades if not centuries. Shared ties of language, culture, city of residence, and past family relationships all mean that relationships between Muslim and Sikh and Hindu traders from Afghanistan are a feature of life in many of the trading nodes I have visited. Unfortunately, conflict in Afghanistan, and the growing influence of various Islamist movements hoistile to non-Muslim minorities over the past four decades, have resulted in the country’s ethno-religous minorities mostly leaving the country. In this sense, the fact that they continue to play a role in Afghan trading networks outside of Afghanistan is important: it keeps alive inter-religious relationships, traditions and cultural dynamics, albeit in new settings and circumstances.
How do you think what’s happening in Afghanistan now as the Taliban takes over the country will affect Afghan traders’ lives in China and their roles in trading networks and nodes in Eurasia? And which groups would be more affected than others?
The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban will have profound and important implications for all the traders, though it will affect them in different ways. On the one hand, the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has resulted in the collapse of the country’s economy and its banking sector. This is obviously affecting the activities of traders who trade directly between Afghanistan and the various countries in which they are based. It will however also affect traders from Afghanistan who trade in goods between third countries. This is because such traders will be called upon to send more resources to their cash strapped relatives in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it will also mean that the assets of traders in Afghanistan are less valuable than had previously been the case, meaning they will have fewer sources of capital at their disposal as they seek to maintain and develop their businesses.
On the other hand, the Taliban have committed to reducing corruption at Afghanistan’s borders and this may mean the cost of importing and exporting goods to the country will fall (though at present the sheer difficulties of moving goods across the borders have resulted in rising costs for both importers and consumers). There is also a lingering hope that improved security in Afghanistan’s cities (cities whose civilian populations had previously been targeted by the Taliban) may eventually result in the resumption of activity in the country’s bazaars. Given the state of the country’s economy, as well as ongoing dissatisfaction in the country with the composition of the Taliban government and the manner in which it came to power, as well as ongoing violence in the country’s cities and provinces, this is unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Traders will also be affected in other ways, however. Traders who identify with and support movements in the country that are opposed to the Taliban may seek opportunities for their families to leave the country. This option will also likely be pursued by traders who were contractors for the previous government: the Taliban are likely to regard such individuals and their families with intense suspicion. More broadly, all traders, regardless of their political and religious outlooks, will be concerned about the future of their families in the country. The vast majority of the traders I know are keen for their daughters to be educated. After the Taliban’s introduction of new and strict gender segregation policies for Afghanistan’s schools and universities serious questions have been raised about access of women and girls to education in the country. For example, to date, girls have been unable to attend secondary schools. Many people in the country are also concerned about the changes in the country’s curriculum that Taliban officials are likely to introduce. This will likely also result in more and more traders seeking to find new contexts for their families.
The relationship of sect and ethnicity to politics in Afghanistan is extremely complicated and often over-simplified in public discourse.
What do you consider are the most important things you learnt from over twenty years of research with Afghans that could feed into public understanding and policy implications for establishing a desirable place (perhaps in the eyes of Afghans) for them to live?
For too long, Afghanistan has been depicted as an isolated society in which politics revolves around loyalty to tribe and ethnic group. As a result, the country’s vast and complex connections to the rest of the world have been ignored, or at least not been treated as significant. For this reason, international interventions have been over-simplistic in their assessment of the solution to the country’s problems, oscillating between projects modernization and nation building on the one hand, and securing the support of “the tribes” on the other hand.
As a result, successive interventions have failed to acknowledge the wider and historically enduring geopolitical conditions that have produced conflict in Afghanistan. A first step for policy makers of multiple backgrounds would be to address these geopolitical dynamics and their own complicity in their reproduction and reinforcement. A second step would be to engage with scholarship on Afghanistan that is not driven by short-term policy and security concerns and that explores the country’s dynamics in the context of a deeper history and from the perspective of others than its political elites. Such studies provide insights into a complex and layered world that is not shaped in a simple manner by simplistic categories such as “tribe”, “ethnicity”, and “tradition”. A third key step would be to promote a fully inclusive discussion between the different dimensions of Afghan society rather than promote one or other group at the expense of others.
Policy makers need to recognize the plurality and sophistication of Afghan society, and move beyond colonial-era images of the country as either “tribal” or ‘the graveyard of empires’. Afghans at all levels of society are extremely skilled in building relationships across boundaries. If there is one reason that explains the success and durability of Afghan traders across Eurasia it is their skill and flexibility in working with different groups. Policy makers (regional and global) now need to invest their efforts into enabling discussions between all Afghanistan in a manner that will enable the country’s people themselves to address and resolve the divisions that have emerged in the country in the context of forty years of international intervention. Failure to establish such a discussion will likely result in the continuation of the country’s problems; investment in the absence of broad based discussions that recognize Afghanistan’s plurality will likely result in the scenario of the interventions of the USSR and NATO being repeated.
What do you think that anthropologists can do to produce meaningful knowledge about the people we study?
Whereas people often talk about the crisis of anthropology, the discipline’s key mode of data collection—ethnography—has become more and more popular across a range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities in recent years. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that “the ethnographic method” is better known to many outside of the discipline than key debates within it. Attempts to reinvigorate anthropology by focusing on modes of theory that arise from ethnographic material have stumbled in recent years because of their tendency to be driven by the theoretical fashions of Anglophone anthropology. As a result, scholarship that has tended to shape and reorient debates—for example about Asia—has tended to be more historical than anthropological, or, at least, be written by historically-minded anthropologists. By definition, all in-depth ethnographic knowledge is meaningful.