Professor Hassan Kakar: A Man for All Seasons

Shafeek Seddiq

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The story of Professor Hassan Kakar started with my introduction to his son, Kawun Kakar, in 2009, which developed into a friendship. I had never heard of the scholar before then. It showed how ignorant I was of my native country and her people, not to mention a living icon. As I learned more about Prof. Kakar, I learned about the individual, the character, the Afghan and the human. And as I lived in Afghanistan for a decade afterward, interacted with its people and read its history, I realized that Afghanistan, unfortunately, does not make intellectuals like she used to.

Prof. Kakar was not only a historian, a distinguished scholar, but a groundbreaker in many ways from developing research methodologies to triangulating the facts as recounted by others-a stark departure from his contemporaries and those immediately before and after him. He dug into understanding his roots, his country, his fellow countrymen, and the events recent and old.  His writing is a testament in his belief of transforming the oral tradition of recounting history to a written one for posterity to have a better understanding of their country.  And in that respect, he was a prolific writer, having published more than 18 books and hundreds of academic papers in English, Dari and Pashtu.

As a student of modern Afghan history, as a scholar, I was more interested in the developments going on around me

His education started in Kabul and led him to London, where he received his doctorate in history in 1975, then to Cambridge, where he became a visiting research fellow at Harvard. As most of his contemporaries would stay in the West after studying, Prof. Kakar chose to return to his country, to continue to research its history, teach young Afghans and become the reluctant advocate for freedom and human rights.

Sadly, however, in 1982, events landed the reluctant activist behind bars. Prof. Kakar was charged, among other acts, with plotting to overthrow the government - a crime that carried the death penalty. He ended up in the infamous Puli-e-Charkhi prison for five years. And those days, once you entered Puli-e-Charkhi, you not only did not come out but most likely your body would never be found either, as he recounted two decades later, in “One Night In the Puli-e-Charkhi Concentration Camp.”.

Prof. Kakar believed three factors played a role in saving him from the fate of the bay sarnawisht or the prisoner with uncertain future. First, he was sentenced, which meant he was not bay sarnawisht; second, a group of international human rights organizations lobbied for his release which he learned later; and third the then-communist government wanted to release him in 1988, as part of the reconciliation strategy. He recalls that one night where around 350 to 400 bay sarnawisht were taken from their cells to the desert of Chamtala just north of Kabul where they were killed. What he experienced and how he carried that burden for the rest of his life was remarkable as he wrote, “it was a common knowledge that they [bay sarnawisht] had been marked for execution, but no one would say so. Most if not all, nevertheless, hoped that they might one day be released.” And “knowing full well what was in store for them, they related their stories to [me]” and asked him to “visit their families after” Prof. Kakar’s release, a promise, he writes “he could not fulfil”. Reflecting on that night, Prof. Kakar could not understand how these individuals could be “deprived of life, the most precious value on earth” for the alleged acts they committed, none of which equaled such punishment. The injustice he witnessed did not make sense to him.

To have hope, to believe your course is right, gives courage

A couple months after his release from Puli-e-Charkhi when he finally decided to leave the country, he recalled in an interview with The Washington Post in Peshawar, Pakistan, his reasons for having returned to Afghanistan in the first place. He said he “felt morally responsible” to his country having financed his education that not many Afghans had the privilege of, and thought he was now in a position to repay his society”. Prof. Kakra stayed in Afghanistan because “as a student of modern Afghan history, as a scholar, I was more interested in the developments going on around me”, which included the Afghan communists then in power. “When I saw the first Russian tank in Kabul,” he told the Washington Post in 1988, “I felt the time had come that I could not just confine myself to the academic field, that Afghanistan needed more.”

The idealist who lived by his moral convictions was the quintessential Afghan who personified the virtues of Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”. Just like More, Prof. Kakar also faced a moral dilemma that luckily resulted in a better outcome for him. In addition to the crimes he was accused of carrying the death penalty, while in prison he observed that many of his cellmates agreed to become spies for the communist regime to save their lives and families.  Yet, Prof. Kakar refused such arrangement. He believed in certain principles that he would not comprise, knowing that could put himself and his family at grave risk, and he did not want to take the easy road of life to become the Richard Rich. As he told the Washington Post, what they did to him in prison was to break him and “reduce a person to insignificance.” He replied, “They did not succeed.” And he did not succumb.

We know why Prof. Kakar had to endure suffering and risk potential execution at age 50. Because he was a man of moral character.  He went on to live another 30 years and left a legacy. His son, Kawun, is honoring his legacy and wish with the recent launch of the “Kakar History Foundation”, which aims to encourage and promote scholarly research related to the history of Afghanistan. Kawun recognizes that his father, whom he honors with this foundation does not belong solely to him but to all Afghans and the international community who share the same views of digging up the past, understanding it and conveying it through writing for future generations, without fear of arrest or execution.  This gift is for the generations of Afghans who will read what Prof. Kakar wrote and pick up where he left us. As Kawun mentioned on many occasions that his father used to tell him: “celebrate me by reading my books”. 

For my part, I started reading him after I learned about him through Kawun, and now I am on to what I consider his seminal work: “A Political and Diplomatic History of Afghanistan 1863-1901” at the height of the Great Game and the consolidation of the central government.

Most importantly, I believe not only to continue to delve into Prof. Kakar’s academic work, but to adopt and practice the principles for which he stood and as a result endured not only imprisonment but forceful migration from his beloved country. “To have hope, to believe your course is right, gives courage,” is what he said in 1988 as to why he thought he survived the Puli-e-Charkhi. It is time to have courage, hope and believe our course is right.

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