“Tell me you’re not in Mazar,” said the terse email flashing in my inbox. The sender was a United Nations worker who knew of my plans to accept a job working with the international body in northern Afghanistan.
Thankfully I wasn’t. Had I been, I could have been one of the seven victims of an angry crowd driven to rage by an American pastor’s ceremonial burning of a Qur’an on the other side of the world. Hate globalized; distance abrogated by the internet’s instant reach.
But instead of lying mangled on the ground of a United Nations compound in uproar, I sat weak-kneed with relief in a rambling 1950s apartment block overlooking Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Nine stories below, an estimated 100.000 people screamed a last hurrah for an Egyptian revolution rapidly turning sour.
I accepted the UN job in February but the eruption of the Arab revolts and institutional paperwork delayed my departure. A stint in Egypt was followed by a reporting trip to Tunisia, a return to Egypt, 10 days on the Libyan frontline and Cairo once more, where I received that email.
In such a near escape, the inevitable “What if?” question occurs.
Being killed by an outraged mob in a forlorn corner of Central Asia on the mistaken assumption you are a Qur’an-despising American would have been a frustrating end. Death by misunderstanding. And by occurring on the one-year anniversary of my near-lynching in the courtyard of that same city’s main mosque, it would have bestowed a false and eerie significance. Festive crowds rioted during Nawrooz (Persian New Year) celebrations in Mazar in March 2010, when the city is traditionally flooded by day-trippers from remote countryside villages who have never set eyes on a foreigner.
I was photographing in the interior courtyard of the historical Shi’ite mosque, floating on a human sea, when waves of people began battering lines of stick-swinging policemen. I was a foreigner, therefore a holy cow, so the crowd noticed but did not target me. Then, I noticed a police captain shouting at me, angry because I was capturing this embarrassing scene of crowd (un)control. As if he had given a signal that the powers that be had revoked their protection, the crowd turned against me. From floating to-and-fro atop this human wave, I was suddenly mashed up by it.
Invisible, indiscreet hands reached out to search my body, finding their way into my pockets and picking them clean of a cell phone, money and an id card. Then fists began to pummel me while others grabbed at my cameras. Although still struggling, it felt as if I was approaching that tipping point in a drowning when the swimmer is submerged by the sea and his will to resist, therefore to live, recedes.
It was then that the police batons began smashing down on the crowd and invisible hands lifted me out. Jeering, pleasure-crazed eyes regarded me as I was hauled to safety by a police chief who felt that I had been punished enough. Once inside the safety of the mosque’s sepulchral quiet, the strange thought occurred that the crowd that had been about to lynch me had emanated no animosity towards my person, whether before, during or after the incident. I had been less an object of ill will than an amusement occurring on a day dedicated to entertainment.
The incident at the UN compound was a different affair but it underlined the simplicity, indeed randomness with which death is dispensed in Mazar.
By Iason Athanasiadis
Published: Tuesday 05 April 2011 Updated: Tuesday 05 April 2011