Sandy Gall’s Afghan Napoleon tells the long-neglected story of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a figure who has loomed large in both the public imaginations of Afghanistan and its neighboring country of Tajikistan. Massoud is best known for his struggle against the Soviet Union as part of the Mujahideen and, later, for facing down the Taliban as they moved to Kabul and gradually took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. One of Gall’s key arguments is that the history of Afghanistan could have been a very different one had the United States and other world powers supported the democracy-supporting Massoud over other Mujahideen groups.
Gall’s book is fascinating for its ability to draw on never before seen sources such as Massoud’s personal diaries and his own experiences working as a correspondent in Afghanistan. The personal insights about Massoud from Gall’s own interactions with him, words from Massoud’s own diaries, and interviews with friends and family paint an intimate picture of Massoud’s family life and character. Afghan Napoleon does a good job showcasing Massoud’s personal life and inner thoughts in ways that few biographies are able to manage. Additionally, Gall’s experience as a correspondent in Afghanistan attunes him to the situation on the ground as well as realities of international politics and their influence on Massoud’s campaign. Combined, the intimate details of Massouds life and Gall’s attentive eye to global affairs gives the reader extensive personal and global contexts in which to place events.
However, these strengths are sometimes also the book’s shortcomings. Gall has a tendency to over-rely on Massoud’s diary entries throughout the book, often choosing to quote entire pages of his diary with very little commentary on these primary sources. This does not make for the most engaging reading, nor does it provide a critical lens through which to view these diary entries, leaving the reader to take them at face value.
Additionally, the book shifts back and forth from relating Gall’s personal experiences in the field to rattling off battle information and relating Massoud’s thoughts and feelings as described in his diary. This approach makes it seem as if this book would be more effectively written as two separate ones. Gall’s own story as a witness to Massoud’s military campaigns and his extensive travels across Afghanistan is interesting enough to deserve a book of its own. However, Gall’s story, as woven through this biography of Massoud, feels out of place in a book which has trouble deciding whether it wants to be a travel story or an academic piece of work.
It also seems that Gall’s closeness to Massoud sometimes prevents him from being able to write a balanced biography. The book is a resounding chorus of praise toward Massoud’s character and actions. While Massoud was certainly an impressive man with many positive traits, Gall’s book makes him out to be a Disney-esque hero without fault. This impression is only strengthened by the inclusion of statements by Massoud’s son and wife, with no mention of the opinions of his detractors. One of the only controversies associated with Massoud, questions over his involvement in massacres that took place in Western Kabul, was easily brushed aside in merely a page or two. According to Gall, not only was Massoud entirely blameless, he also likely prevented a much worse, full-scale ethnic war. While this may be true, the absence of any other flaws or mistakes attributed to Massoud makes pages 208-9 read as Gall relating a convenient narrative to support his argument that Massoud is a great man without fault.
At several points throughout the book, Gall does not hesitate to opine about what world powers, particularly the US, should have done in Afghanistan. In the epilogue, Gall maps out five things that would not have happened if the United States had backed Massoud. In his mind, these include several atrocities committed by the Taliban, including the murder of several members of the Iranian Embassy increasing tensions between Iran and Afghanistan. Gall even goes as far to assert that the Taliban would not have given asylum to Osama bin Laden had the US given support to Massoud. He then continues to argue that the Taliban’s asylum allowed bin Laden to plot to kill Massoud and engineer the 9/11 attacks, suggesting that the US could have prevented 9/11 by backing Massoud. While historical speculation can be an entertaining game to play, Gall’s confidence about this alternative future is off-putting. In reality, had the US supported Massoud, there is no telling what would have happened. Whether or not that support would have gone as far as to prevent the 9/11 attacks is an unknown that could never be definitively proven. Neglecting to acknowledge this uncertainty, even while arguing his own opinion, is startling.
Lastly, Gall makes some peculiar choices throughout the book by including several generalizing statements about Afghans. These statements are surely meant to be compliments, but still risk coming across as unsubstantiated generalized assertions verging on orientalist. For example, he writes, “Afghans can walk all day– and night if necessary– and show no sign of tiredness…” (Pg. 13). While this does not subscribe to negative Afghan stereotypes, it is still a bizarre generalization to make.Overall, two main themes appear in Afghan Napoleon: praising Massoud and criticizing the United States for not giving him sufficient support. The book, however, struggles to present a balanced account of who Massoud was and is sometimes too speculative about alternative histories. Even so, the book does tell an important story that has not been widely talked about in the West. It is indeed noteworthy that this is the first-ever biography of Massoud written in English. Hopefully, even with its shortcomings, the book will pave the way for more work to come on such an interesting figure who deserves to have his story told to the world outside of Central Asia.
Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud. By Sandy Gall. Haus Publishing. 2021. 368pp. £ 25. ISBN-13 9781913368227.
Bahia Shehab is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, political activist, and historian whose work focuses on the intersection of modern identity and ancient cultural heritage. Her imaginative combination of calligraphy and Islamic art history produced cutting edge, beautiful, impactful street art during the Arab Spring and continues to inform her work. She is also a professor of the practice of design and founder of the graphic design program at The American University in Cairo. Erin Hayes of the OMER editorial team spoke with Bahia on December 6 via Zoom.
EH: You gave a Ted Talk in June 2012 about your project “A Thousand Times No.” Can you describe it and your inspiration for the project? BS: I was invited to contribute to an exhibition commemorating 100 years of Islamic art in Europe, and for that exhibition, the curator asked that the artwork involve Arabic letters. This is what initiated the project, and then I thought of what I wanted to say on such a platform, and “A Thousand Times No” was for me the most interesting thing to say. I just wanted to say “no,” and so this is how the whole project started.
EH: I understand that this then evolved into street interventions during the protests. Can you explain the transition from the curated exhibition to the interventions, and how what you were saying “no” to evolved? BS: It was interesting to transpose a message that was designed to be displayed in a European exhibition into the streets of Cairo. During the revolution, I had this abstract thousand “no’s” that I wanted to express, things I was feeling we should say no to globally, and then suddenly there was this crisis at home and people went out on the streets. Honestly, the first nine months of the revolution I was just documenting; I was not involved on the street. But nine months into the revolution, after documenting everything and understanding the reality of what was unfolding, I decided to join. I started spraying concrete “no’s” that were more relevant to what was happening on the streets in Cairo. No to barrier walls, no to snipers, no to bullets, no to killing, et cetera. The once abstract “no’s” that started in a white cube in Munich in Germany now became concrete, physical “no’s” on the streets of Cairo.
EH: You also used a tag of a blue bra that became famous in this intervention. Can you describe what inspired this tag? BS: For the blue bra, I was not the only artist honestly. There were literally tens of artists who directly went down to the streets to mark the event of a veiled woman being brutally beaten and stripped on the street. Mass demonstrations broke out after this event and many, many artists contributed and created reflections and graffiti and paintings and caricatures—all forms of artwork were created around the blue bra. But I think, in my work, I turned it into an icon. By removing the imagery of the woman and the men who were beating her on the street, and simplifying that into just a blue bra, I created an icon of that event. The bra became a symbol that summarized that event, and it was sprayed on the streets of Cairo to keep the memory of that event present in the city physically.
EH: What inspired you to simplify the imagery of the event and take out the human figures that were involved? BS: Well, I’m a designer, and sometimes we need to make the message very clear. The most striking visual in that whole event was the fact that her blue bra was revealed. And, as an icon, the blue bra is really eye-catching. To me, I just wanted to grab the attention of people on the street, and this is why I simplified it.
EH: You’ve also created a lot of art around the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. Can you talk a little bit about what makes his poetry special to you? BS: Yes, I also published a book on the topic. After coming out of the revolution and having to deal with the reality in which we were living, I turned to Mahmoud Darwish. To me, he is the Arab poet of resistance, and he summarizes this human experience of identity affected by the loss of land, of colonization, of the dream of the homeland. It does not only relate to us in the Arabic-speaking world. It’s written in Arabic, but if it’s translated to any other language, anybody would be able to relate to this poetry. So I started painting his poems in different cities around the world. At first, it started as a public intervention, and then these walls became more and more organized and bigger in size, involving more of the community where they were painted, so I eventually decided to document them in a book. The book was published in 2019 by Gingko, and it’s called At the Corner of a Dream, which is the first poem I painted by Darwish. Although the book is titled At the Corner of a Dream, the stanza itself reads, “Stand at the corner of a dream and fight.”
EH: Where was that first intervention painted? And how did you decide where the interventions would be? BS: It was in Vancouver, Canada. As to the others, I didn’t actively decide, it’s honestly just all by chance. I would be in a place for a conference, and then at night I would take my stencils and I would spray them on the streets. I just used the city where I was; I connected with local street artists who knew the legal locations of the walls to paint and where the safe spaces to spray in the city were, and I took it from there. So it grew quite organically.
EH: Did you often collaborate with local artists during this intervention? BS: In the beginning, it was not an official collaboration. But I really love the street art community, because in a city, you mark your space, so as an artist, you deal with a city differently. You physically deal with the city. You have your own streets, you memorize walls based on tags that you’ve done or tags that somebody has done over your work or work that you have. So it’s a constant dialogue. For me, connecting with these artists in the beginning was simply for understanding the city through their eyes. And when the work started evolving, I was then invited by bigger institutions to make my contribution. Then, the way you deal with the city becomes very interesting, because you are a visitor, you are painting in a foreign language, but you can still connect with the people on the street. They can tell you they hate it, they love it, they don’t understand it. To me, this live feedback is really precious.
EH: Do you have any interventions that were particularly memorable for you, either because of the poem or because of the feedback you received? BS: Yes, of course. I like to point out Paris as an example, because I painted just one word on the corner of the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, and what was very interesting is that I had a few older French women pass by and angrily tell me, “Why are you painting Arabic here? Go paint it in your own country.” But then for every unhappy person, I would get around 10 people saying, “Bon courage,” “We love your colors,” “We love the message,” “This is very nice.” So it just depends which side you want to look at. To me, I would rather focus on the people who feel that the message is useful and relevant to them, rather than those who really hate it.
EH: You also teach at AUC (the American University in Cairo). What are some of the most important lessons that you try to convey to aspiring artists? BS: I actually don’t teach art, I teach design. They’re two different disciplines. And to me, I think if I were to summarize the learning that I hope my students get from taking my classes, it would be critical thinking. I would of course love them to learn how to think as designers and think creatively, but they also must think critically, because if you don’t have a critical mind, you will not be able to change your reality. I’m also hoping that they will become agents of change. Linking them to their locality, their heritage, their identity; these are also ideas that I hope they walk away with. But I think the most important lesson I would like them to learn is to dare to dream. That is a luxury that not many citizens around the world can afford, especially in oppressed societies. So I would like to think that I empower my students and give them the tools to realize they can do or accomplish anything they can dream of.
EH: Do you have any students who have gone on to do interesting design work that you know of? BS: Yes, of course. In the first class to graduate from the Graphic Design program, we had this amazing young student named Deena. She now goes by Deena Mohamed for safety. Deena created a character during the revolution that was called Qahera, a veiled superhero woman fighting crime on the street. This became very popular during the revolution. For her final project, I encouraged her to work on a comic, and this year, she published the comic that she started as a student as a trilogy. The three books are going to be translated and published by Penguin in the U.S. next year.
EH: Is there something you would want to convey to fans and audiences of your work outside of Egypt who might have either seen your interventions or read your book? BS: I’m grateful that people actually follow my work. I don’t have time to process immediate attention, because there’s so much work to be done, whether in academia or the arts or in terms of driving for human rights in my part of the world and elsewhere. We have environmental issues that we all need to be concerned about. If I am to say anything to them, it would be to please care about something that you love, and if you can do something about it, no matter how small, please try. Because we all need to work together to create change on this planet. Without collective efforts, things will never change. If we all say, “This is none of my business,” then it will be nobody’s business, and we will just keep going downhill and damaging this planet we live on and overlooking human rights. If you care about people in other parts of the world who are suffering because of military endorsements by your government to their government, please pressure your government to stop supporting oppressive regimes. If you care about the environment, please do small things that will help us all save the environment. Look for something that you care about and support it, because without care, there’s no change.
EH: Are you working on anything right now that you are excited about or want to share? BS: Yes, actually, I’m just releasing an announcement today. I’ve been working for a whole year on this artwork. It’s a 56-screen video installation. The curator approached me with a question on persuasion. I told her, “Okay, I can work on persuasion.” To me, the ultimate form of persuasion is when somebody convinces you to give up your life, so the title of the artwork is “What Would You Die For?” It’s a 20-minute video installation using 56 screens, and it deals with all the topics that people will die for, from extreme military recruitment and religious and political extremism on one end of the spectrum, all the way to mothers who would die for their children; nurses and doctors who put their lives on the front line for patients; policemen, firemen and women; all these groups of people who selflessly give up their lives to save another, versus those who give up their life for a certain propaganda or political agenda. It also tackles issues over what we are doing to the planet, what our relationships are with the cities that we are building, and how the forms of consumerism that we are adopting can be damaging. So, it’s what would you give up your life [for], from the individual mother-child connection to the big Mother Earth connection and everything in between.
I’m also very proud to be one of the 25 artists with the Prince Claus Fund. I’m one of their laureates from 2016, so to celebrate their 25th anniversary, they invited 25 artists to contribute with a video that’s going to be live-streamed to the world in celebration on that day, which is in two days. So that is going out on December 8, and it will be on their website, but to me, it was a chance to pause and reflect on everything I have been doing for the past few years and comment on it in general, on the state of art and where we are today.
It was a bright June day in 2019, and I had just landed in Tel Aviv for my month-long study abroad trip in Israel and the occupied West Bank. As I sat waiting for the rest of my university group near baggage claim, I was overcome by a sudden onslaught of nerves. I wondered: What is awaiting me here, and am I ready for what I will find? Over the next month, I would spend my days visiting various cities and villages in Israel and Palestine, meeting with Palestinian and Israeli organizations and becoming familiar with peace efforts attempted by both sides.
Now, two and a half years later, I realize how privileged I am to have been able to witness dimensions of the conflict firsthand and to discuss peace efforts with experts there. I have since built on my experiences and used them in conversation with scholarly work during my term-long study abroad at the University of Oxford, where my 2019 trip motivated me to enroll in a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. During this course, I delved into the historical basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict and some of its characteristics (e.g. nationalism, Great Power involvement, refugees, etc.) that may contribute to creating a seemingly “incurable” issue spanning decades. I also spent a great deal of the course reflecting on my 2019 trip in respect to my weekly readings, and I discovered that I would ask myself again: What did I find while in Israel and Palestine in 2019? I found an experience laden with symbols.
I recall, below, three particularly striking experiences that took place in Hebron, the Aida and Jenin refugee camps, and Ramallah. These instances highlighted different dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from settler violence to judicial apartheid, while presenting stark symbols of the Palestinian resistance. Through ordinary objects like nets, glass, a key, and a souvenir, these symbols depict the conflict’s prevalence in everyday life and the feelings of oppression and hope within.
An Afternoon in Hebron Nets and glass.
My time in Hebron was short, a mere afternoon, but it was long enough for me to understand the divisive implications of Israeli settlements, settlers, and military presence within the West Bank. Reflection on Hebron brings to my mind images of nets and bulletproof glass, materials put in place to protect Palestinians from historically violent Israeli settlers.
The city of Hebron, nestled in the southern West Bank, is the only Palestinian city with Israeli settlements within its walls. In fact, it is internally divided between two zones: H1, under the Palestinian Authority, and H2, under Israeli military authority (the Old City of Hebron falls under H2). Walking around the city, this division is palpable, as towering checkpoints (18 total) divide streets and restrict day-to-day movements between zones.
I was in Hebron on the 17th of June when I met with the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, an NGO aiming to boost the Hebronic economy and restore the Old City. Learning about the organization and its work put the situation in context: there are 34,000 Palestinians who live within H2 and are especially affected by the 700 Israeli settlers who reside in the Old City.  Indeed, “Settlers have attacked Palestinians… playing a key role in driving out 15,000 to 20,000 Palestinian residents and 1,500 to 1,700 Palestinian businesses from the city.” 
I remember walking through the market of the Old City (having first entered through a checkpoint whereby I had to present my passport and walk through a turnstile-like door) and looking up at the nets covering the roofs above. What are those nets for, I inquired. The nets are to protect the vendors from stones and trash thrown by settlers, I was told.
The nets were clearly a literal manifestation of the political turmoil within the Old City, but I could not help but think of them as symbolic as well. Here sprawled nets of oppression and inequality, of dwindling hope as Palestinians lay covered beneath and forgotten by the outside world. The nets symbolized restriction and violence and the normalization of it all. Normalization in the way that the restriction and violence is recursive and unchanging and not attended by outside scrutiny (or as frequently as would be hoped). The market was just one instance in Hebron that touched me.
Another was when I entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and looked through the bulletproof glass separating the Muslim worship space from the Jewish space on the other side. The Ibrahimi Mosque is the supposed burial site of the prophet Abraham and is therefore religiously significant to both Muslims and Jews, who split the space for their respective worship. In 1994, a far-right American-Israeli settler opened fire on Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and injuring 125, and this violent memory bears a physical legacy: bulletproof glass. Like the market nets, this glass was a physical reminder of the persistent separation between Israelis and Palestinians. An outsider like me was struck by the glass and its seemingly ironic placement beside the prophet Abraham, yet this sort of barrier was not atypical to the Palestinian experience. It was yet another physical mark of a harrowing past.
 “Hebron City Center,” B’tselem, May 26, 2019, https://www.btselem.org/hebron.  Rafael Reuveny, “The Last Colonialist: Israel in the Occupied Territories since 1967,” The Independent Review 12, no. 3 (2008): 332.
To Aida and Jenin The Key
I visited two Palestinian refugee camps within the West Bank after Hebron. On the 14th of June, I entered the Aida camp near Bethlehem. There to greet me was a looming structure high above the main gate, which was, upon further inspection, a massive key. In fact, the gate itself was a keyhole! Proceeding into the camp, I met with Alrowwad, an organization with the mission to “beautifully resist” the occupation through art. I asked the Alrowaad representative about the significance of the key.
I learned that the Key of Return is a common symbol in Palestinian political life, though it is especially prevalent among refugee populations who were barred from reclaiming their ancestral homes within the 1948 Green Line. Considered “one of the longest-standing unresolved cases of displacement in the world today,” Palestinian refugees total about seven million worldwide, with about one and a half million residing in refugee camps run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), of which Aida is one. To these millions of refugees, the Key represents their stolen homes and their hope to one day reclaim them. Tradition even says that Palestinian residents pass down keys from generation to generation as a reminder of this history. Exiting through the Key of Return, I reflected on what I had learned in Aida: the longing for and hope of return surpassed time. It is eternal, ever-present.
From Aida, I ventured to Jenin in the northern West Bank. In my early discussion with the camp representative, it was clear that this camp had an especially harrowing past. During the height of the Second Intifada, the Israeli Defense Forces launched an assault on the camp from which the ensuing Battle of Jenin (2002) destroyed 53 houses and killed 45 Palestinian civilians. While in this historical camp, I met with a representative of Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, an organization culturally resisting Israeli oppression through plays, film, and festivals. By using artistic expression, the people of the Freedom Theatre raise their voices to illuminate their experiences as Palestinians, to challenge their present realities and build a better future. “We can deconstruct an oppressive reality and make it comprehensible, which is the first step towards changing it,” the representative explained.
I was inspired after my visit to Aida and Jenin. Here were communities ravaged by a violent past, yet they met that violence not with more violence, but with art and hope. They were finding creative ways to assert their rights as Palestinians on a global stage, and they were displaying their hope in the form of a key.
On the 20th of June, I met with the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC) in Ramallah. It was during this meeting that I came across a particularly memorable “souvenir” symbolizing grassroots advocacy within Palestine: an embroidered keychain. The handcrafted keychain itself was a product of the UPWC’s many educational, economic, and social support programs, which sought to empower Palestinian women and give them a voice in society. I purchased the keychain (and an embroidered bookmark) originally as a memento of my time with UPWC and as a testament to their mission, but it eventually took on a broader meaning. After attaching it to my backpack for months, the keychain became a daily, physical reminder of the grassroots advocacy occurring within Palestine for Palestine.
The day after my meeting with the UPWC, I met with Sahar Francis of Addameer: Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, an NGO focused on providing free legal aid to wrongfully imprisoned Palestinians and on ending violations of prisoners’ rights (e.g. torture). Speaking with Francis, I learned that Israel tries Palestinian political prisoners in military courts rather than civilian courts (in which they try Israeli settlers in the West Bank), and that this difference in jurisdiction allows gross legal violations such as indefinite administrative detention against Palestinian detainees.
It is apartheid.
Francis elaborated that Israel violates many international laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention, especially in perpetuating administrative detention. She also described the issue of language accessibility in military courts, which forces Palestinian prisoners to sign confessions written and read in Hebrew. As if these facts were not tragic enough, Francis shared disturbing details about the abuse and torture Palestinian prisoners face while detained. I will spare the grim details that encompass evident physical and psychological torture.
I have recently been reminded of these two meetings with the UPWC and Addameer given their headlining in recent news. On the 21st of October 2021, Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced that Addameer and the UPWC, along with four other NGOs fighting for Palestinian human rights, were considered terrorist entities–a shock indeed, as this designation could not be further from the truth. The international community, too, has recognized this label as outlandish. On the 25th of October, the UN Special Rapporteurs condemned Israel’s designation, citing the label as a “frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere.” That same day, Sahar Francis with whom I had personally spoke in 2019, described how this designation was not a new policy, as “Israel has always said that Palestinian organizations… are terrorists. Everyone who opposes the occupation is one.”
This news speaks to numerous things, I believe. First, Palestinian NGOs like the UPWC and Addameer are successful in providing humanitarian services; second, Israel feels threatened by this success and level of international awareness; and third, one ought to continue evaluating Israel’s actions and policies towards Palestinian civil society.
That “souvenir” from 2019 now takes on an even greater meaning to me. I carry the keychain not just because it is beautifully crafted, but because I believe in Palestinian human rights, from women’s empowerment to political prisoner legal aid and more. It is a physical reminder of the continued struggle against Israeli intransigence.
To Beyond: Here Lie Symbols of the Land
The symbols I encountered during my trip to Israel and Palestine in 2019 were not isolated. They were accompanied by other images: graffitied cement walls, distant smoke, rooted olive trees. Like theatre, these images make comprehensible “an oppressive reality” that is an everyday existence for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. An existence that is rife with not just oppressive nets and glass, but also hopeful keys and souvenirs.