Pray Al­lah Re­turns the Moon


Newsweek - - NEWS - by Danielle Moy­lan

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.

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