DATE October 1, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Sifton on his impressions of Afghanistan as a
human rights lawyer in the region earlier this year
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, John Sifton, had only recently returned to New York from
when the World Trade Center was attacked. Sifton is a human rights lawyer
spent the past year in Afghanistan and Pakistan doing humanitarian aid work.
In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, he shared some of his impressions of
Afghanistan and some of the cultural paradoxes he witnessed, such as donkey
carts carrying computer equipment and hungry children digging through
piles using shovels from a Mickey and Minnie Mouse sandcastle set.
Earlier today, I asked Sifton what it was like being a human rights lawyer
Afghanistan, where the law is very restrictive, harsh and punitive.
Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Human Rights Attorney): It's very interesting because, in
law school, which was very recent for me, we often had many discussions
how international human rights law, in a sense, didn't exist. It was a kind
of cliche conversation that we had regularly. And then to be in Kosovo in
1999 and then later here in Afghanistan, 2001, I really saw the reality of
that sentiment. Human rights is a kind of a myth that you believe in, like
somebody might believe in God, really. I mean, it's a myth, and we have to
sort of believe, in the face of contrary phenomena, that there may really
actually be a universal set of human rights and things like that, and it's
GROSS: Describe some of the laws that struck you as the most anti-human
rights laws, the most harsh and punitive.
Mr. SIFTON: Surely, the worst violation of human rights are suffered by
women. The prohibitions against females working are just simply
women have nothing to do. They sit in their homes, unable to go outside
usually without a male escort or a family escort. They become often
and even suicidal as a result of this just complete prohibition on life
activity. So that, to me, is the worst. I mean, the fact that the
in ruins and that there's systematic violations of social and economic
as well as political and civil rights, is, of course, bad and the totality
that is probably the worst human rights violation of all, but if I was asked
to name one, it would have to be the prohibition against female employment.
GROSS: What were some of the laws that you had to follow that were just so
unimaginable to you, you know, to live under that kind of system?
Mr. SIFTON: International staff rarely were subjected to the day-to-day
street law that most of the people of Afghanistan had to live under. For
instance, I did not need to grow a beard. The Taliban treat expatriate
with an extraordinary amount of respect. And, of course, it may seem absurd
to everybody listening to say something good about the Taliban, but I have
say, in all honesty, that the Talib leadership was often very, very
cooperative with UN and international staff, something that they rarely were
thanked for and which probably contributed to their anger and bitterness
towards the West, which has been manifested in many ways in the past.
The laws that we had to live under were quite simple. We were asked not to
drink in public, not to play music, not to be seen with Afghan women--for
instance, in a car--not to have any relationships with Afghan women, or if
you're an Afghan woman, not to have a relationship with an Afghan male. But
essentially other than that, we were free to go about our business as
humanitarian aid workers in the best way we could.
GROSS: Now you mentioned in your article in The New York Times that you saw
enemies of the Taliban hanging from lampposts, hanging from cable on
lampposts. Was that a common sight?
Mr. SIFTON: No, not a common sight, but a sight to be seen at times.
GROSS: How would the Taliban leadership decide who gets hung from a
and who gets another form of punishment?
Mr. SIFTON: I think the thing to understand about the Taliban leadership is
that they're not a monolithic structure; they're not an organized leadership
structure in the way that we're probably used to in the West. What you have
in Afghanistan, as in many places of the world, is a sort of loose-knit band
of allegiances between local leaders and military commanders and municipal
leaders that is probably more complex than could ever be unraveled by any
anthropologist or political scientist. I mean, it's a maze of political
allegiances and intrigue.
And when you see something, anything, from a building being built to a
building being destroyed or a person being arrested or a person being freed
from prison, when--any political phenomenon is highly complex. There are
things at work that are outside the Taliban and inside the Taliban. What I
mean by all that is when there's something like an execution, it could be
real, it could be a criminal being punished for a crime, or it could be
a political execution for the sake of political gain on the part of certain
political actors. So it's never really possible to know what you're looking
at, and that was often something that I found difficult in Afghanistan.
GROSS: Would you have any way of estimating how much popular support the
Taliban had among the people who you met? I mean, did most people you meet
seem to support them, beyond just, like, the lip service you might give just
out of self-protection?
Mr. SIFTON: It went more than lip service. In many cases, there were
who had to work with the Taliban and understood that cooperation was
just for day-to-day existence. Again, important to remember that the
on the local level were often just ordinary municipal leaders, many of whom
perhaps did not share the ideology of the Taliban movement. But people,
angry about things, refuse to talk about them because of obvious
that that could have. So you didn't hear many bad things about the Taliban.
What you got were a lot of silences. You'd ask a question about what it was
like, and people just would not answer.
GROSS: Now what about the Taliban religious police? These are the people
have to enforce all the codes, like making sure that men have a beard. And
what other things do they ride down the street enforcing?
Mr. SIFTON: Well, the Western press has keyed in on these groups, the
committees to promote virtue and prohibit vice, or vice and virtue as we
called them. You don't see them that often. In Kabul, they were more
and outside of Kabul, in rural areas, they were very rare to see and, in
places, non-existent. But when you do see them, essentially they were
to see whether people were dressed correctly, whether their beards were the
correct length. But, strangely enough, oftentimes it was more of a joke
a reality, as jokes were made by people, about how long their beards would
were they long enough.
But I got the feeling that when we expatriates, when the international staff
weren't around, that it was a different story; that perhaps everybody
differently; that there were more police when we weren't around. I mean,
we were around, they sort of did not do their job with the full vigor that
they did at other times.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the typical questions you were asked about
Mr. SIFTON: Well, in answering that, I should probably say that the
association between the Taliban and the people themselves of Afghanistan is
actually pretty tenuous. Many people on the street don't really support the
Taliban, don't share their ideology and don't hate the West. So the
that would be asked by ordinary Afghans were often the same as the Taliban,
but oftentimes they showed more of the fascination, less of the negativity.
People would ask about how big the country was, how far it was from certain
places, how far it was from Saudi Arabia, from Mecca, how far it was from
Pakistan. Somebody asked me about Hollywood, which they thought was a
company, not a place, but essentially they had it right. They would...
GROSS: Well, you quote also somebody asking you about New York, when they
found out you were from New York. They said to you something like, `This is
place with many black people from Africa. Is this right? Very dangerous.
The black people are very dangerous. I hear that they are very tall. How
tall are they?' And I thought, `This is'--well, where does this come from?
Mr. SIFTON: Well, perhaps most Afghans have never even laid eyes on
of African descent, except for perhaps a UN worker. There were some African
UN workers, indeed, and African-American aid workers. But I don't think I
even imagine myself what's it like to have never seen somebody from Japan
somebody from Africa and just to have a sort of curiosity that they're
different, that they must look different and that you've probably heard that
they're different. It's difficult for me now to imagine, but I can imagine
least that their fascination must be very acute.
GROSS: Did you try to explain to people what America is really like or
explain what New York is like or what the people in New York are like?
Mr. SIFTON: Yes. There were many friends I made, local Afghans, and we'd
have discussions about New York. I essentially told them that New York was
multicultural place, a place where people took the train together to work,
the train would be Russians and Afghans and Pakistanis and Chinese and
African-American, West Indian people. I picked that description because I
thought it summed up something about New York which is very important to me,
at least. I often got the sense, though, that it just seemed somehow like a
zoo to the people I was talking to. I think they may have thought that it
just sounded insane, like a place where anything could happen at any time.
GROSS: Well, the whole idea of diversity or difference seems so alien to
Mr. SIFTON: Well, yes and no. Afghanistan is a very diverse place...
GROSS: Is it?
Mr. SIFTON: ...ethnically. There are many different ethnicities. There
were--and still are in some places--many different languages, and there's a
collision between many different cultures: the Persian culture from west
and then there's Asian culture from Pakistan and India next door. even
Chinese, Tibetan culture sort of creeping in, and then the sort of remnants
even Greek times, you know, a millennia ago; that there's still Greek
in architecture. And Genghis Khan invaded to the Russian-Soviet
It's such a mix of all these different cultures and peoples and languages
pressing down on this land-locked country.
GROSS: I want to read something from your New York Times Magazine article
that was published yesterday, and this is an excerpt of your description of
how the Taliban troops look. And you write, `A colleague told me when I
arrived the Taliban troops are like gangsters, tough guys.' And then you
`But there's often a particular dandyism in them. Many wear black eyeliner,
and their hair is long and curly. I once saw one buying Prell shampoo at
bazaar. They carry themselves like supermodels. The reputation for
conservatism in the Taliban obviously doesn't come from their foppish
In what ways do the troops seem like dandies?
Mr. SIFTON: Well, it's a cheap shot, and I wished that I could have
more. They look like supermodels, but they're not dandy. They're very,
tough soldiers, who often fought in unbelievable circumstances in the north,
in the mountains. The eyeliner is not cosmetic so much as actually
It protects the eyes from the dust. It's called kohl, spelled with an H.
all that being as it is, it still is the case that there is something sort
theatrical about it all. They carry themselves as though they're entering a
stage in a play. They have very good posture often. They are often tall,
it is an impressive sight.
We see dandyism, but I think there's a good question to ask, I mean, just
culturally. That just may be us. I mean, we see something there. We see
this phenomenon that I can write about in The New York Times Magazine, which
incidentally has a supplement in the back filled with pictures of male
and things like that. But I don't know what an Afghan sees. Maybe an
just sees a Talib dressed as one of the descendants of Mohammed carrying a
rifle. Maybe he doesn't see any of what I saw.
GROSS: But I--yeah.
Mr. SIFTON: And that may very well be the case.
GROSS: I appreciate what you're saying, that it's all in the eye of the
beholder. I was wondering, reading your article, whether many people in
Afghanistan had seen movies that they were perhaps trying to emulate in
bearing or in the way they carried themselves and their clothing or
But then I was thinking, `Well, what are the odds of that since there aren't
exactly a lot of movie theaters right now in Afghanistan?' I mean, you
even play music in public.
Mr. SIFTON: Well, even if there are no movies, there are a lot of movie
posters. I said "Titanic" was a big phenomena there. A bunch of articles I
think in newspapers were reporting that children or teen-agers were trying
get haircuts in the style of Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie. On a
basis, though, you just saw a lot of ordinary people going about their
business--doctors, farmers--and they were not really trying, like so many
people do in America, to sort of effect an image. And perhaps the only
you did see that was in cities. In rural areas, of course, you have people
who probably never even seen a representation of a living being. They have
never seen a picture, a photograph even, let alone a movie. so you
don't see that sort of thing in those areas.
GROSS: Did the Taliban ever try to convert you to their brand of Islam?
Mr. SIFTON: Well, I'll say this. You know, my interaction with the Taliban
was not commonality, my existence in Afghanistan. I was often with my
colleagues and my co-workers, my friends. The Taliban was somebody I saw
occasionally for meetings, for permission to do things, things like that.
Conversion was not top on the list of their needs and desires for me. I
usually it was humanitarian action was needed in some place and we would
together on something.
The people who did talk to me about Islam were usually my friends, and there
wasn't so much an effort to convert me as just an effort to discuss Islam
its relationship with Christianity and the differences and the similarities.
And most conversations were quite common, but not with the Taliban, just
GROSS: I don't know how religious you are, but if you consider yourself
pretty secular, is that something that you would feel comfortable expressing
or that you feel would even be comprehended?
Mr. SIFTON: Actually, as strange as it may sound, it's probably more
offensive to say you don't believe in God there than to say you're a
because, at least if you're a Christian, you are, as they say, a person, man
of the book, and you share the same lineage of Moses and Jesus and then, for
them, Mohammed. But I never said to anybody I was an atheist. I often
answer questions about specifics, or I answered them in vague ways, as in
article when I just said I was basically a Christian. And that was probably
the best way to go, I think, where I didn't want to offend anybody or at
I hope not.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with John Sifton, a human rights lawyer who spent the
past year in Afghanistan and Pakistan doing humanitarian aid work. In
yesterday's New York Times magazine, he wrote about some of the cultural
paradoxes he witnessed in Afghanistan, a country that is, at once,
and post-modern. Sifton returned to New York shortly before the attacks on
the World Trade Center.
I read in your New York Times article that after you'd gotten back to New
and then the World Trade Center was attacked, you felt that you had not
escaped Afghanistan; that you had brought its disaster home with you to New
York. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like to experience this
violence and this kind of massacre in your own home?
Mr. SIFTON: It's not so much the violence because, actually, as an aid
worker I didn't see violence in Afghanistan. What I saw was the effects of
violence, fleeing, people becoming refugees, living in areas without
food, sanitation facilities or water sources, and seeing people, basically,
dying; people lying in tents sort of waiting to die. When you walk through
these camps filled with these people and you go into a low-level shock, in a
way, no matter how many times you've done it. And that's what I felt I
brought home; not the violence as much as the visual representation that
people right near you who were dying preventable death. And that was the
shock that I felt I'd brought home with the disaster I'd brought home.
In our culture here in America, death is really shielded. Hospitals have
closed doors and curtains and you see very little death in America and very
few dead bodies and things like that, but on September 11th I think we were
confronted with a very up-front, close image of it and I think it
probably changed a lot of people--changed--it changed my view of America,
even though I have already seen quite similar amounts of destruction.
GROSS: Now you not only worked in Afghanistan during this past year, you
worked in Pakistan, as well. Were you working mostly with Afghan refugees
who fled across the border?
Mr. SIFTON: Yes. Most of the aid organizations on the border were working
with the substantial case load left over from the Soviet invasion and the
civil war days. There were also new arrivals coming from the drought. This
is the area where a lot of new refugees are arriving now, in the wake of the
September 11th bombings. But it's important to realize that most of the
people, most of the refugees, are probably in better shape than the people
are stuck within Afghanistan without the capacity to even get out of the
country. And that's an interesting thing to think about, as most of the aid
is now going not towards Afghanistan's south, but rather to the border
GROSS: What's your motivation for doing humanitarian work?
Mr. SIFTON: In law school, I found it sort of distant. It being human
rights. I found human rights kind of distant from the realities that were
the ground for most of the world's people. Human rights is often practiced
lawyers in European countries, the United States. We put together
organizations that advocate for human rights, but the truth of the matter is
that on the ground, where people are really dealing with the hunger and the
repression that makes their lives so miserable, the human rights groups
really there. They're in New York raising money at a benefit and things
that. That's not true. There are many, many brave--it's not true in one
sense. There are many, many brave human rights lawyers all over the world
working right on the ground, but I felt as though sort of my level, that I
distant. And I wanted to get a closer picture of the situation on the
And I felt working in a humanitarian aid organization was something that
allowed that. And I'm confident that I did get a better picture. Whether I
was just indulging myself, I don't know.
GROSS: Why do you doubt that you have accomplished something important?
Mr. SIFTON: Well, it's a very strange world, humanitarian aid. Many people
whose motives are not as pure as I think a lot of people would expect--a lot
of people are what a friend of mine used to call disaster tourists. I think
people get a sort of thrill out of being in an area which is dangerous or an
area in which there's total destruction and disaster. There are a lot of
people like this. Not a lot meaning majority, but a substantial number, and
sometimes you might begin to doubt yourself and think, `That's what I am,
I'm just somebody who wanted to see crazy things. I don't want to commute
work and live out a life in America. I want to go and be somewhere
and do these crazy things.' So you doubt yourself and you think, `I'm just
thrill seeker. I could be going to Six Flags Adventure.' Same morally
GROSS: Well, John Sifton, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with
us. I really wish you the best with your work in the future here and/or
abroad. And thank you very, very much.
Mr. SIFTON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: John Sifton is a human rights attorney who spent the past year doing
humanitarian aid work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He wrote about
Afghanistan in yesterday's New York Times magazine.
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