On a warm day last April, Dr. Abdul Samay Hamed, one of Afghanistan’s sharpest political satirists, received a nasty prick of his own. “As i was walking in Kabul,” he re-counted in an interview, “somebody called me: ‘Doctor!'” Hamed turned to see who it was, and a man with a furry hood handed him a piece of paper. “Then as I was reading it, he attacked me with a knife.” After being cut in the arm, chest, and leg, Hamed got the knife away from his assailant. “Then he dragged me behind a container and called his friend. I released him because I thought his friend might be armed.” The men escaped and the doctor hurried to a hospital, where he remained for several days. His hand was badly cut as well.
Attacks on journalists are not uncommon under the current, post-war government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and some writers have received threats from the military, police, and intelligence agency. Hamed’s assailants did not say anything to reveal their motives, but he has some theories about the knifing, which he thinks could have been the work of “two ordinary” fundamentalists or a “high-level, politically motivated attack.” He thinks the organizers might have been Taliban sympathizers or followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received CIA backing to fight the Soviets in the 1980s and now leads a small force in the south.
“I do not hesitate to say that it could have been Karzai and his elite or the former king,” the doctor adds. Why? Because he has been critical of them all. “I have not compromised,” he declares. “My activity has been aggressively intellectual, not intellectually diplomatic. Therefore, it could be anybody.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists has given Hamed a 2003 International Press Freedom Award and honored him at a dinner on November 25. “There are very few independent voices in Afghanistan today,” said CPJ Asia program coordinator Abi Wright, noting that most Afghan journalists are associated with specific ethnic or political groups. Because of Hamed’s independence, she said, he is able to “hold political figures and warlords accountable for their actions,” which is key to building stability and peace.
Interviewed last week at CPJ headquarters, the 34-year-old writer understood questions posed to him in English, but responded mostly in Persian, with the help of a translator.
“My basic principle is that in Afghanistan, there are a lot of thoughts, but no thinking,” said Hamed. Though he was trained in medicine, he has devoted his career to promoting freedom of expression. He currently lives in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, organizes workshops for local journalists, and is a bit of a cult figure. He launched his first underground newspaper, Salam, in 1985, and claims to be a founder of more than 90 percent of the free publications in Afghanistan.
In 1998, when the Taliban came to power, Hamed went into exile, first in Pakistan and then in Denmark. He came back in 2002, helped found the magazine Telaya, which publishes political and social commentary, and now contributes to the satirical newspaper Kalak-e-Rhaastgoy. When shown a copy of the U.S. publication The Onion, he said it was similar to what he and his colleagues put out, that is, an ironic parody of news events.
In Afghanistan, he says, “People are more interested in satire than in serious writing.” For that reason, he delivers his polemics in the form of cartoons, satirical lyrics to famous Afghan songs, and even “politically pornographic poems,” which he says are “very famous.” Asked for examples of his humor, he says, “I’ve written that an ‘Islamic democratic’ government would be like putting on a pair of knickers over a shalwar kameez [traditional Afghan tunic].” As for women’s rights, he says sarcastically, “We call it ‘the right that we want for others’ wives.’ ”
Hamed does not own a gun, nor does he have a bodyguard, à la Salman Rushdie. But as he became prominent, he says, his family begged him never to go out alone. These days he is usually escorted by one of his six brothers, although sometimes, he says, “I feel really tired, so I secretly slip out of the house.”
Hamed’s first scare came in 1997. After an anti-war demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif, he was confronted on the street by Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, then interior minister and now the minister of planning. “In the presence of other ministers and writers, he attacked me personally with eight of his bodyguards,” Hamed recalls. He says they stabbed him with bayonets and hit him with the butts of their rifles. He was beaten unconscious.
Hamed calls the 1997 attack “a crime, both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of humanity.” But, he says, there was (and is) no law in Afghanistan, so the crime will not be prosecuted. Asked why it happened, he said that he had been giving speeches about once a week. One month earlier, he had spoken at a conference on civil society in Bonn, Germany; he had also frequently criticized local warlords on the BBC. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what pissed people off. But it’s clear that he continues to do it.
This year, Hamed has caught the attention of General Ostad Atta Mohammed, the political commander of Mazar-i-Sharif. In April, a new issue of the satirical Kalak-e-Rhaastgoy began getting a lot of buzz for what Hamed calls “the sharpest language against the government and warlords.” Two months later, after the newspaper received threats from Atta’s supporters, Hamed and an editor met with Atta, who promised to investigate.
The next day, Atta called Hamed. According to Hamed, Atta said, “I respect you very much, because you are a high-profile journalist and writer. But sometimes I’m afraid that my own soldiers may write against me after reading you.” Hamed interpreted this as an “indirect threat.”
Cut to October 2003. In an apparently unrelated incident, armed men broke into Hamed’s house in Mazar, taking the computer, printer, and fax machine, and assaulting three of his brothers. One brother recognized the men and complained to the local police commander. According to Hamed, the commander said, “I can’t do anything because they are Atta’s people. So you should defend yourself.” His brothers bought two hunting guns, and two nights later when the thugs returned, his brothers fired shots, scaring them away.
“The solution for a writer is not to have a gun,” says Hamed. Nor will he go back into exile. He says the problem is that there is no culture of democracy in Afghanistan, and without him, “This problem might always be present. The only way to support freedom of speech is through the courage and resistance of individual journalists and the support of independent organizations.”
Let’s hope the U.S. journalists who give lip service to CPJ will be as brave as Hamed, the next time they get a bullying phone call from Karl Rove.
Translation assistance: Ahmad Shoaib Harris