An astronomer uses stargazing to give young Afghans some much-appreciated perspective, all the while taking care not to tread on anyone's religious sensibilities.
KABUL — When Yunos Bakhshi went to register his astronomy association with the Afghan Justice Ministry, an official there opened the palm of his hand and asked, "Can you read my fortune?"
In Afghanistan, astronomy is often confused with astrology, because people there prefer to use the stars to predict the future rather than to understand the universe. But Bakhshi sees another use for the Afghan interest in astrology.
"Observing the stars and the universe broadens our inner horizons, prompts questions and helps fight religious fanaticism," he says. Could stargazing really bring a little peace to Afghanistan, a country ravaged by 36 years of war? That, in a nutshell, is Bakhshi's rather daring bet.
The "star fanatic," a short, energetic and smiling man with a piercing gaze, is putting his hopes into practice in his new clubhouse, in one of Kabul's quieter districts. For now, he only has three telescopes — one donated by South Korea — a few books purchased in Iran, and, most importantly, a good Internet connection. Most Afghans discovered their first galaxies by downloading pictures from the NASA website, well before the arrival of the first telescope in the country.
Walking a delicate line
Bakhshi regularly visits schools with an inflatable tent tucked under his arm — for use as a makeshift planetarium — and some posters of his favorite stars. But in a country that follows Sharia law, prudence is necessary. There can be no questioning of God's existence lest Bakhshi suffer the same fate as Galileo. As he is careful to point out, his book on the universe in no way seeks to replace the Koran.
"I explain that the earth, on the universal scale, is no bigger than a grain of sand in the desert," he says. "That makes man's importance, and his certainties, relative. No one individual is better than another, so we might as well accept differences with humility."
At the Marefat middle school, which was attacked by radical Muslims in 2008 for its liberal teachings, students discover another planet Earth, seen from space.
"Now we know our address in the universe," says one student.
"From up there, you feel connected to the whole world, and not just to Afghanistan at war," says another, awkwardly squeezed into his jacket-and-tie uniform.
The boy's father warned him that observing the stars was blasphemous. "You cannot replace religion with astronomy," the teenager was told. But that didn't stop him from secretly reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, translated into Farsi.
Unlike most middle schools, Marefat chooses to teach astronomy despite the risk. "Astronomy allows us to better understand our place in the universe, and thus understand ourselves," the school's director, Hussein Saramad, explains. "We can't just sacrifice scientific knowledge to religious beliefs."
The children ask Bakhshi where God is hidden in space, or how much a star weighs. Other questions are more delicate: A bearded teacher asks Bakhshi to show the line of fracture on the moon, which God is said to have split in two to prove his existence, according to the Koran.
Uneasy, Bakhshi suggests that the teacher look closely at the moon, and notes that those who see the dividing line must certainly be blessed with greater faith than others.
It's not a weapon
Afghanistan's austere Religious Affairs Ministry, which regulates matters such as divorce, has no problem with astronomy. "When you read in the Koran, for example, that the air and atmosphere record every person's acts in anticipation of Judgment Day, don't you think that this was foreshadowing written memory?" says Hujjatullah Najeeh, a mufti, or Islamic scholar. "Everything we discover in science has already been written in the Koran."
Thus, the ministry lets astronomers go about their business. The same cannot always be said about other authorities. Bakhshi has had policemen armed with assault weapons barge into his house at night. In a country at war, the shadow of an astronomer moving around at night with a telescope — which can look an awful lot like a rocket launcher, with its red lights for reading the celestial map — is suspicious, to say the very least.
And at every checkpoint they cross, astronomers have to explain to soldiers that a telescope is not a weapon. Some members of the military, nevertheless, forbid astronomers from viewing the stars, out of a conviction that telescopes allow one to see through walls into homes and stare at the women inside.
For the same price as a few rocket launchers, telescopes and books could help fight the Taliban's ideology. But astronomy is largely overlooked by international aid groups. And so Bakhshi continues his quest alone, convinced that one day, he will succeed in "clearing the canon smoke from the Afghan sky and showing all Afghans the beauty and mysteries of the universe."