November 17, 2018

The tale of the bearded letter

Once upon a time, before 9-11, a non-profit working for press freedoms wanted to do a report on the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the media. A reporter, who is now the Peshawar-based bureau chief of an English newspaper and represented the non-profit in Pakistan, was asked to help. Peshawar, you see, is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Afghanistan.

The non-profit and the reporter talked for a long time about how to go about this delicate task. It was, after all, a strange time. But the reporter believed in ethical reporting as did the non-profit he represented.

They deliberated for months on the risk of trying to tell this story and decided, in the end, that as with all good stories, it only made sense to make sure everyone had a chance to give their side.

The report was prepared eventually, with lots of interviews of journalists working in Afghanistan etc. But at the very top, right at the beginning, on the very first page, the report first gave the version of the Afghan Taliban on what they thought about reporters and journalists and the media. It gave them a prominent space to tell their story before anyone else's.

The report appeared in the beginning of the year of 9-11 and the reporter in Peshawar waited with baited breath for a reaction.
There was silence.

In the beginning of Spring, he had to travel to Kabul for some work. But there was a debate – would it be safe for him? He decided that he had heard no complaints from the Afghan Taliban and thus, it would be alright to go. He set off on his journey.

The reporter arrived in Kabul and went about his work. And as he did it, he began to feel really strange. Still, he went about his work.

At one point, he found himself in the office of a top-ranking Taliban government official who managed the country's foreign affairs. Remember, the Taliban officials in those days kept an eye on Pakistani reporters arriving on their turf. The government network was strong and they all knew the reporter was in Kabul.
“How are things going?” the official asked the reporter.
“Quite well,” replied the reporter. “But there is one thing.”
“Well, as I have walked around the bazaar,” explained the reporter. “Your morality and vice police have stopped me many times to tell me that I can't walk around without a beard. Can you please do something about this? Even when I tell them I am a foreigner, they say, well you are a Muslim, so you must still have a beard.”

Suddenly the reporter was not so sure he should have complained. Would this get him into more trouble?
Before he could say any more, the Taliban official started writing on a piece of paper. He wrote for a few minutes, reached into his drawer and pulled out an ink pad and a stamp. Thapp! Thapp! went the stamp. He then handed the paper over to the reporter.
“Show this letter to whoever stops you,” he said.

The flustered reporter went outside after thanking the Taliban official. He looked down at the paper. It said that He, the Taliban Official, had exempted [reporter's name] from having a beard. And no one can arrest him. And indeed, whenever he was stopped in the street by the vice and morality police, he would just hold up the letter. They would nod and let him pass.

Eventually, the reporter wrapped up his work and headed back to Peshawar. But something still unsettled him. At the border, when he was exiting, he spoke to an interior ministry official as part of the routine procedure of leaving the country.
“Tell me one thing,” the reporter ventured to ask. “Why have the Taliban been so nice to me on this trip?”
The official smiled. “You were fair about us when you helped write that report on the Afghan Taliban and the media,” he said. “Your journalism was ethical. We appreciate that. Do come again.”

(The identity of the reporter has been withheld as security conditions in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are constantly shifting. He told me this story on Saturday while he was visiting for a seminar.)