After a tedious three-hour trip, we arrived at the Sheraton Hotel shortly after lunch time in anticipation for what was going to be a landmark dialogue with the most controversial opposition group of the government.
During these three hours, I was occupied by thoughts on ways and means to deal with this group's representatives who, for years, have been claiming various attack.
The plane was still in the Afghan air space when I noticed the delegates apparently striving hard to agree on having a common view point. This was perhaps due to the diversity of views among various groups, including politicians, journalists and women onboard.
Eventually, the flight crew announced our arrival at the destination. From there, we were escorted to the magnificent Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar. This relatively luxurious hotel on the banks of the Persian Gulf. Usually people who come to Qatar to holidays choose this high-end hotel, but this time the hotel was hosting a peace dialogue.
When we arrived at the hotel, the Sun stood right above our head at an angle of almost 90 degrees. We were also set to go to our rooms and prepare for tomorrow's meeting, the first day of the two-day talks of the Intra-Afghan dialogue.
- The first impression
The next day, all of us gathered in the hotel lobby waiting for the Taliban delegation for this high-profile dialogue with mixed feeling. Eventually, we saw Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai of the Taliban emerge flanked by over a dozen of other Taliban leaders. The last time I saw Stanikzai was at the Moscow Peace Conference. A middle-aged man, with relatively bigger eyes, a sullen face and a relatively shorter beard. He looked the same with a little change in the beard.
Loose cloths and long tasbih (beads)
It's good to say a little about the dress code of the Taliban as well as the Afghan delegation from Kabul. All members of the Taliban and a number of Kabul delegates were wearing turbans and were carrying slightly longer tasbihs (beads). For their nearly five years of regime, the Taliban wore white dress with black vest. The group has kept that appearance at the meeting in Doha. As the Taliban were evidently uniformed in their appearance and thoughts, the delegation from Kabul was much diverse in appearance and views.
Among these representatives from Afghanistan, a number of delegates look quite familiar to the Taliban such as Mullah Zaeef. During the flight, I noticed him more than once brushing his teeth with ‘Maswak’.
Seyed Mansour Naderi, seemed most prominent figures from Kabul. He had a karakul hat while wearing a white suit and matching expensive white shoes. On his left finger, I saw a ring with the inscription of an eagle apparently made of white gold and decorated with diamond grains. Hekmat Khalil Karzai also looked elegant wearing traditional Kandahari suit and Peshawari sangals.
The only thing that was common among the Kabul delegation and the Taliban was the tasbih. In this context, Mansour Naderi had his own distinctive set of tasbih. During this time, I became aware of the rotation of the tasbih beads in the hands of all. They rotated the beads even while speaking. This apparently meant it was done as a habit rather than offering prayers.
In the meanwhile, there was a big difference of opinion among the Kabul representatives in the conversation. It was obviously clear that the representatives close to Hamid Karzai had different views with the other delegates, and they did not have the same view on some matters such as ceasefire.
- Headscarf due to the Taliban
Prior to this meeting, the viral images of the Taliban representatives talking to foreign news correspondents in Moscow caused an uproar.
For this reason, Taliban members were more cautious. I remember that after lunch on the first day, a woman not wearing headscarf went close to a Taliban member, but the Taliban representative immediately pulled a pillow between them to avoid another embarrassing moment captured by cameras.
The meeting was set up by the Berghof Foundation of Germany. The female staff of this firm were wearing headscarves during the presence of the Taliban. It is really surprising that when such people are willing to change their appearance because of the Taliban, what do they expect from the Afghan people?
Anyways, the Taliban representatives also declined to share the dining table with female delegates. Minister Habiba Sarabi’s request in this regard was neglected by Stanikzai.
In one of the breaks, I met a women representatives from Afghanistan. She also told me something interesting. The woman said the Taliban were calling for separation of boys and girls in schools. According to her the Taliban said girls could go and study even to the level of PhD, but in separate classes. I asked this Afghan representative what would happen to working women. She said the Taliban made it conditional to ‘a climate of peace and security’.
- Who led the prayers?
By the end of the first day, the preparations for prayers by the Taliban and the Afghan delegates captured my attention. The visuals of prayers in the Moscow hotel lobby led by the Taliban leader stirred quite a controversy. But, unlike Moscow’s Presidential Hotel, the Sheraton Hotel in Doha had dedicated mosques for men and women. Secondly, due to the sensitivity of the matter, journalists were not allowed to take pictures in the mosque during prayers so it remains unclear who led the prayers. Apparently, a number of people offered their prayers under the leadership of the Taliban while others offered individually, which was evident from the faces of the worshipers when leaving the mosque.
The hotel did not had a proper place for ablution, which forced the delegates to wash their feet while standing causing water to flow all over. Such a scene was unbearable for non-Afghan people.
This situation was even noticeable for many journalists. Watching this scene, I thought I was in Afghanistan, but soon realized I was in a five-star Qatari hotel.
- Take a beautiful picture
The first day ended well. The members of the Taliban and the Kabul representatives spoke of hope. After the end of the meeting, the delegates were talking in different corners of the hotel lobby with journalists and colleagues when Zalmay Khalilzad, Special U.S. Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, arrived. He was staying here and holding seventh round of talks with the Taliban that were paused for this intra-Afghan dialogue.
Khalilzad used to appear at the end of the day and appreciate the efforts of both sides. He was most attentive. Each time he appeared, he came across the delegates from Afghanistan and the journalists and spoke of hope for peace in a calculated manner.
Talking of manners reminded me of the Taliban. Among the representatives of the Taliban, as I said, Stanikzai was the most repulsive and aggressive. He got upset and angry when hotel staff asked him a couple of questions on the first day, which is why the meeting was held after a delay of about half an hour.
Amir Khan Mottaki, another member of the Taliban, was good-tempered. When I wanted to take a picture with him, he smiled and said: “Take a beautiful picture”. He would always look at the photos afterword and appreciate the talent of the photographers.
Representatives of the Taliban gathered together with the members of the Kabul delegation in an apparent cordial environment as if there was no difference between them.
On the second day of the meeting, the news of a terrorist attack in Ghazni that killed and injured a number of children was making rounds in the hotel. The news did not affect talks between the Taliban representatives and the Kabul delegation.
- Time Bell
Before the meeting, the program was open to all. The program only sound poorly managed at the beginning, when the Taliban delegation was late, and in the end as the resolution was delayed for several hours.
Otherwise, even breaks for tea and rest were considered. Interestingly, the management had tasked a person with a large bell to alert the members of the meeting on the end of rest and prayer breaks. The use of bell to inform the members of the meeting indicated that sometimes participants in the meeting either forgot time or did not care about the time.
The two-day meeting ended with all this hustle bustle. Late in the night on the second day, we were waiting for the resolution of the meeting. Several Afghan delegates and a number of Taliban leaders remained in the hall to finalize the resolution. After midnight, the resolution was finally released. What had attracted much attention was the fact that unfortunately, there was no mention of ceasefire in this regard.
The next day, I reached back to Kabul with a group of my fellow journalists. When I got home, I turned to the TV to see what the situation was like. The news on air was about the Taliban taking responsibility for the Ghazni attack that killed and injured many school children.