Pray Allah Returns the Moon
DESPITE DANGER AND SUPERSTITION, ASTRONOMERS IN A PERPETUAL WAR ZONE FIND JOY IN THE NIGHT SKIES
Despite danger and superstition, astronomers in a perpetual war zone find joy in the night skies.
ONE NIGHT A FEW YEARS AGO, Yunos Bakhshi and a small group of friends drove out in the darkness to a field about 15 miles from Kabul. For the Afghanistan Astronomy Association, it looked to be the perfect night. They had been assured the field had been cleared of land mines, and the Taliban weren’t usually active in the area.
Illumination from Bagram U.S. military base blazed in the distance, emanating an annoying level of light pollution, the astronomer’s most common enemy. But the sky was otherwise dark and clear; good enough conditions to observe the Messier 4 star cluster from their modest telescope. Bakhshi and his friends lit a barbecue and began to align their tripod-mounted telescope to locate the bright mass of stars, found in the Scorpius constellation.
After a few minutes, they noticed a car’s headlights bumping toward them across the field. Suddenly, the group was surrounded by agitated police officers, guns pointed.
In most of the world, an amateur astronomer can drive to a dark place, set up a telescope and enjoy the beauty of the sky above. But in Afghanistan, a country plagued by 36 years of war, a few men gathered around a telescope pointing toward the sky, in the middle of nowhere, looks pretty suspicious. From a distance, the police thought the telescope might be a rocket launcher.
After careful inspection, the police still couldn’t comprehend why anyone would sit in a field, in the cold, to look at stars. Although they’d never seen a telescope before, they conceded that this probably wasn’t a weapon.
Calling the astronomers halfwits, the police left. Spooked, most of the stargazers took off too, leaving Bakhshi and two others. Shortly after, they heard helicopters approaching. Terrified that international forces might have mistaken them for insurgents, they lay flat on the ground, praying the night-vision of the pilots would be clear enough to recognize a telescope. The helicopter passed over without incident, but as Bakhshi says, “To say that it is a little bit difficult for us is an understatement.”
Afghanistan’s war has taken a devastating toll on civilians: death, displacement, poverty. But it also affects lives in unexpected ways. For the country’s small band of amateur astronomers, exploring the universe’s deepest corners is a risk they now rarely take. The increasing encroachment of the Taliban, criminal gangs and aggressive police checkpoints means they now limit observations to the outskirts of Kabul city or their rooftops. “The places where there are the darkest skies, almost all those places are insecure,” says Ibrahim Amiri, 26, one of the youngest members of the Afghanistan Astronomy Association.
DREAMER: Bakhshi is the founder of Afghanistan’s first Astronomy Association, which works with schools to spread knowledge of science and the stars.