by Pouria Nazemi
There are mountains that touch the sky. There are deep valleys and significant landscapes. This land has witnessed the rise and fall of ancient and modern empires. Thousands of years of history, culture and traditions lie under the clear and beautiful sky of Afghanistan. But for decades, the smoke of guns and the shadows of war and fear have covered the beauty of starry nights in this land.
In recent decades, the invasion of the USSR, civil wars, the dark and frightening regime of the Taliban, and the shadow of Osama bin Laden’s empire of terror and the international war against terrorists didn’t leave any chance for the Afghan people to think about the stars that are always shining above them.
Today, as those clouds begin to clear, the country still faces many challenges. Security still is a major problem in Afghanistan. Rebuilding the country and its foundations, fighting for empowering the young and vulnerable plant of democracy, improving health and educational systems, solving the puzzles of international relations, and fighting against violence and regional problems are more than enough for a nation.
But even during this hard time, a small group of Afghan amateur astronomers has started a tireless and courageous journey to remind their people of the glory and beauty of stars and night sky. They believe that inviting people to look at and think about the limitless and boundary-free sky not only inspires the young generation of Afghan people and helps increase scientific awareness, but also reminds them that all the people of the world (and Afghanistan) share one destiny on this little blue planet.
Yunos Bakhshi is an Afghan amateur astronomer who has worked very hard during last few years to bring back astronomy to the people. He organized the first amateur astronomy society in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. He launched first Farsi language astronomical weblog in Afghanistan in 2007. He gathered, translated and published astronomical and space news in this weblog, which he named “Kabul Sky.” Later he changed this blog into the first astronomical website of Afghanistan under the same title: Kabul Sky.
People welcomed this website, but most Afghan people didn’t have Internet access and couldn’t use this new source. Bakhshi and his friends wanted to reach the young people and especially children, and help them increase their scientific and astronomical awareness. So with the financial support of 10 interested people, they founded the first astronomical group in Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Astronomy Association, on October 10, 2009—“with hope to the luminous future, and by sound dissemination of astronomy and humanization of this culture, performing its role in the building of Afghanistan’s future”—and started to organize star parties and astronomical gatherings.
They also began to participate in international astronomical and space events and organize local events in Afghanistan. One of their first experiences was Space Week. Their special guest was General Mohammad, Commander of the Afghan Air Force and the man who was supposed to fly to space with first Afghan astronaut, Abdul Ahad Mohmand.
The space flight of Abdul Ahad Mohmand to the Mir Space Station was one of the most exciting moments for all Afghan people and especially for Afghans who loved astronomy and space. This was after the communist revolution in 1978. Before that time there were few attempts to popularize astronomy in Afghanistan. In 1970s the Afghanistan Cartography Institute tried to organize a few astronomical groups around the country, in association with the French and Egyptian governments, but these plans failed because of revolution in 1978. Again in 1988, when the first Afghan astronaut was flown aboard the Mir Space Station, there were many hopes that this flight would inspire a young generation of Afghans and help promote scientific development in this country—but the shadow of war was still was there and another revolution was underway.
In 1992 the government of Dr. Najibullah, the president who had been supported by USSR, was overthrown after a few years’ civil wars and the Mojahedin took the power. But that was just was beginning of another civil war.
This time the civil war continued until 1996, when the Taliban—a very hardliner Islamic group—occupied the capital Kabul and announced their government. The following years of Taliban occupation were one of the darkest and hardest times for the Afghan people in all of their long and challenging history. No one in the world, even in the Islamic countries and among the Islamic authorities, supports their ideology, which includes nothing about human rights, women rights, freedom or any other basic concept of human life. Ruling with iron fist, violence and horror didn’t allow any space for scientific activities. The Taliban banned such activities because science was against their ideology. But such a situation provided great space and opportunity for other hardliner groups. In particular, Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaida, joined with the Taliban and led his terror network from Afghanistan.
After the September 11th tragic event, the whole world united and decided to stand against the Taliban and Al-Qaida. International invasion with the help of resistance groups inside Afghanistan finally put an end to the dark age of Taliban rule in 2001.
War still continued in Afghanistan, but the breeze of freedom was beginning to blow. The Internet, free television stations and media began to work, and the windows for astronomical and scientific activities were opened.
After the 2009 space week program, the newly formed Afghanistan Astronomical Association, with the support of a few members, bought 3 telescopes—a 5-inch, 8-inch and 11-inch. During the International Year of Astronomy 2009, this group organized Galilean Nights, when about 60 to 70 Afghan people, including children and women, looked to the sky and observed the Moon and Jupiter through the telescopes for the first time.
The group’s ongoing outreach activities soon expanded beyond star parties to include holding photo exhibitions and teaching astronomy courses in private schools. And, even though their focus is astronomy, they use this opportunity to not only introduce the beauty of the sky to the students but talk about the environment and nature with them.
“Afghanistan is suffering from the aftermath of war, and most of the people use fossil fuel for their daily life—they even burn plastics and tires,” Yunos Bakhshi points out. “We explain to the children how important it is to protect nature and keep trees, and not to pollute the environment. Our country has limited water sources and we teach kids that they have to use water wisely.”
In their next step, the Afghanistan Astronomical Association teamed up with The Royal Astronomical Society of the U.K. to publish the first astronomical book in Afghanistan: “BASIC ASTRONOMY FOR EVERYONE.” The budget was designed for 900 copies, but with some savings they were able to publish 2,000 copies of this book.
Now they are trying to organize some events in other cities of Afghanistan besides Kabul, and at each event they give out few copies of this book to students. Recently they held an event in the United Nations refugee camp at Bamiyan, the same city where the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha. In another very interesting activity they joined forces with a club that was teaching Afghan children how to skate (free of charge). The amateur astronomers used this opportunity to talk about astronomy (along with skating) with the enthusiastic kids.
Currently, the Afghanistan Astronomy Association is the only astronomical group in Afghanistan. They have done a lot of work to popularizing the astronomy in Afghanistan and even, for a while, they aired a TV program from one of TV stations. They also have many plans for the future—including organizing astronomy courses for schools and holding public observing events—but they are alone and the way in front of them is not easy.
All of these programs need money. Except for the help of the Royal Astronomical Society of the U.K. and Astronomers Without Borders, all of the costs of these programs have been paid by interested people—especially Yunos Bakhshi and one of his family members. Their 8-inch telescope needs repair, they have to buy solar filters for viewing solar events, and they have to spend more money if they want to published more books and organize astronomical packages and give them to students.
In the current situation of Afghanistan there are many urgent needs that most of the available money must be spent on: security, infrastructures, health, education, and energy—to name just a few of them. And while all of these investments are valuable and necessary, people like members of Afghanistan Astronomical Association are creating the future. They are inspiring the young generation into astronomy and science.
These children are future leaders of Afghanistan who can lead this country into scientific development. In addition, astronomy is changing the way that people are looking to their world. When people remember the forgotten glory of the sky and think about it, they think about themselves and their position in the world. People can find that they all share the same destiny in our little blue planet.
Popularizing astronomy helps to popularize science and science is the enemy of dogmatism—and Afghanistan is a place that suffers from dogmatism more than many other parts of the world. Spreading science and awareness of astronomy can help the young generation of Afghans to fight against dogma and, more important, to keep their dreams alive. Stars of night are sources of inspiration and the source of dreams. The dreams can keep a nation alive and hopeful to the future.
But the plant of astronomy in Afghanistan is young and fragile. It needs help and support. Small helps can make great changes in a country such as Afghanistan. Educational materials such as posters, books, solar filters for observing eclipses and events like the recent Venus transit, maps and sky charts—these kinds of simple materials can help organizations such as the Afghanistan Astronomical Association bring astronomy to the more people.
We are all share the beauty and glory of sky. We live under a sky unlimited and without borders. We believed that astronomy can change our lives and help bring peace. Now in Afghanistan all of us have a chance to see how this belief can work in a real world—and maybe we can help them because their success is the success of all of us who love sky and starry nights.