Say goodbye to the light

Kabul – 15th April 2013

Woken to the perpetual refrains of happy birthday from the ice cream cart that goes up and down the lane all day. Wherever you go in Kabul you hear it somewhere, although I heard a variant the other day which sounded distinctly like some Chinese patriotic song; ‘The East is Red’, perhaps. We brunch in Flower Street Cafe, which has decent coffee in French Press jugs. Although it’s only a short distance away, we call a taxi from our trusted firm and after a 5 minute drive or so we are dropped at an anonymous steel gate. A peephole slides open, examines us, and then the door swings open. We know the guys now, and it’s all quite friendly. “No guns?” No. “Bag please.” I say “laptop, mobile phone, camera,” although actually all I have is the mobile phone and wifi keyboard, since that is the expected answer. Another door opens and a guy with a pump action shotgun and a bandaged hand beckons us through. Last night, at a shopping mall, the search was more intense – Kayo was ushered into a curtained booth reserved for ladies and a female guard searched her. The guards wore shiny blue suits and no smiles. Well, the place was blown up in a suicide attack a few months ago, so it’s understandable they are a little wary.

Dazzling mornings: the snow gleams on the distant Hindu Kush and hurts the eyes. Clear blue skies. 7am and the streets are quiet – the mad traffic has yet to start in earnest and the atmosphere is not yet full of dust. As the day goes on things become more intense. We hit rush hour on a Sunday afternoon on our way to Babur’s gardens – multiple lanes of traffic all trying to change lanes to inch ahead. Sandwiched between two buses converging on each other I was convinced there would be a crash. But no, we scraped through. At the junctions there is a tapping on the windows, usually from a small child. At one, just past the unfortunately titled Ministry for Women’s Affairs, I spot a figure moving between the cars, and involuntarily exclaim, ‘Jesus, that guy’s got no arms’. Landmine, judicial amputation by the Taliban, accident of birth – I have no idea. How he copes here I can’t imagine. After a series of lurches and emergency stops we arrive at the gardens and enter a cool green place with views of the houses climbing the hills behind. High on the ridge flaps an Afghan flag: an army post. Snipers are positioned on the ridge line and we are in their sights. Overhead flies the doodlebug, always watching, and quite possibly listening as well. At the entrance a masked policeman stands in the back of a pick-up truck covering the traffic with a heavy machine gun. I recall the embassy security briefing I just received which informs me that 15 insurgents have infiltrated Kabul dressed in police uniforms with passable fake ID cards. Best not to think about it, really.

The gardens are pretty – green shade and the soft rustling of trees. They were restored (and demined) by the Aga Khan foundation. Babur’s grave lies at the centre – cool white marble with curling calligraphy, and a simple stone slab. There are families here, and a group of kids who seem to be babysitting each other. Men pass by in groups and stare, but if you look back they look away, unlike the frank curiosity of Indians: I once had a man on the Delhi metro stare at me from inches away, incessantly, for 5 stops. When I stared back he grinned moronically. Here they look away until you do, then stare a bit more. They don’t grin much though. It’s always a bit edgy. But actually it’s just superficial – break through the initial suspicion and the Afghans are very friendly. I wonder how much of this is caused by the suspicion with which they are treated themselves by foreigners. I saw one westerner emerge from his gate a few days ago, all crew cut and shades, and as I was passing I said “morning”. He muttered back “salaam” and quickly jumped into his car. This morning I arrive at the bakery and two other local men are waiting. They stare. I salaam them, and one smiles and asks me something in Farsi in which I make out the word “Amrika”.
“Amrika nist,” I say. “English. From London.”
“Ah, English! Welcome. Nice to see you.” We shake hands. He takes personal charge of my bread order, rejecting one loaf for being too hard. I thank him and we say goodbye. “Nice to see you!” he says again. I suspect it may be the full extent of his English, but there’s no mistaking the friendliness. In the next shop a similar thing. Do they have coffee? “Ah, coffee problem sir.” OK, no worries. We shake hands, and he says “thank you for coming.” It’s all very charming. I walk to the end of the road and a police land cruiser passing by slams on its brakes, has a good look at me, and then zooms off again.

Chicken Street is named for the large number of Jews who used to live along it. Apparently they ate a lot of chicken. Nowadays there is only one left: the last Jew in Kabul, who steadfastly refuses to move out. The street now is given over to souvenir shops selling carpets, lapis lazuli from Badakhshan and assorted trinkets. Lapis first arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages, brought by exotic Moorish traders in turbans who sailed to Venice from Constantinople. The Venetians weren’t sure what to make of the lumps of bluish stone, until the Moors demonstrated how to grind it into a fine powder to produce the most perfect colour blue – Ultramarine, in Latin – which had until that time been unavailable. The discovery of the deep blue that was produced revolutionised painting, and the Italian masters embraced it liberally. The Virgin Mary had always been portrayed as having a blue robe, and the colour was considered holy by association. Some artists, notably Titian, became so possessed by the beautiful blue that lapis produced that his paintings were awash with it – deep ultramarine blue skies over Venice, far deeper and brighter than any natural hue. But lapis was expensive – the process of grinding was laborious, and it was scarce. In fact the only source of lapis lazuli came from the remote province of Badakhshan, in the far north-east of Afghanistan. It had been mined there since the 3rd century BC, although there are smaller outcrops of it in Siberia and North Africa. But Afghanistan holds the lion’s share, and today it is still the primary source of lapis lazuli. Chicken Street is full of shops selling lapis – huge chunks of stone, delicately carved statuettes, jugs or jewellery. The blue is as deep and as appealing to the eye as it ever was.

Halfway down Chicken Street is a curious kind of shop – a self-proclaimed Crafts Emporium. In fact it is a kind of mall, although a strangely deserted one, with half the stores vacant. We found a small Turkman jewellery store – one of the many ethnic minorities of Afghanistan – and looked over arrays of lapis, coral, jet and topaz, shining under the lights. The owner could have been European – a young man with a goatee in a leather jacket and heavy designer spectacles. We negotiated a price for a nice lapis necklace – he initially wanted $15 and we got him down to $9, which still wasn’t bad going for him, customers being in short supply. In another shop we met three young guys who were highly curious about where we were from – one had an aunt and uncle in London, but had never been there. In fact he wished he could go to Delhi, which he had heard was some sort of cultural metropolis full of all sorts of exciting possibilities, an impression gained mostly, I suspect, from watching Bollywood movies. He had grown up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, spending 20 years there – and since he couldn’t be much over 20 years old that was pretty much the sum of his experience. And yet he spoke English well, and was bright and self-possessed. He chatted to Kayo in Urdu and she replied in Hindi. They were very friendly without being forward, which was nice.

After a while the presence of the third cup of tea began making itself felt with some urgency. I had to find a bathroom. We were directed to the third floor, up a darkened staircase. The shops, most of them empty, were arrayed around a central atrium, and in the far corner was a sign for the bathroom. As I headed towards it I noticed a carpet of shoes outside, and then suddenly saw the rise and fall of a line of heads. Men praying. This was clearly the mall mosque, and they were all just finishing their prayers. I waited discretely to avoid having to walk past them, until most had filed out and reclaimed their shoes, heading away in small groups, and then I made my way to the bathroom. But every cubicle seemed occupied. There was a urinal, but it was about five feet off the ground – I had to stand on tiptoe to aim into it, which gave me the oddest sensation of being a small boy again. Various people were coming and going around me, undergoing some sort of ritual ablutions, I presumed, and no-one paid me any attention. Heading over to the sinks I happened to encounter a group who had just come in, most of them in white shalwar kameez with skullcaps and long beards. The first tap didn’t work. Nor did the second. And I had made the beginner’s error of squirting soap on my hands before establishing whether there was water or not. A man washing himself up to the elbows spotted my dilemma, and beckoned me over, turning on the tap for me. “Tashakor,” I told him, and got a “most welcome” in return. He carefully handed me several paper towels. I nodded my thanks again, and padded out across the slippery wet floor, glad I had taken the precaution of removing my socks before entering – they were sticking out of my pockets. Another man held the door for me, and I retrieved my shoes and headed back to join the others. It might seem a strange thing to write about, but largely as a result I suspect of social conditioning by a media agenda, I felt a little relieved. So there we are: to all the silly little xenophobes who hide behind their computer screens to make vitriolic, hate-filled posts about Muslims, and who never go anywhere or do anything because they are too scared, this post was brought to you fresh from a mosque bathroom in Afghanistan.

We head out to Zardozi, a shop which supports traditional ethnic craftwork and design. It’s the usual anonymous steel door in a dusty side street, but we spot a sign overhead, somewhere on which is the shop name. We knock, but no-one answers, so we stand a little bemused on the pavement (if there was one). Then round the corner come three women in long black coats and headscarves, together with a European man, perhaps around 60 years of age. They are heading in too, so we all take turns knocking until the door opens. He says to me: “I recognise that accent. You must be British.” I confess that I am. He turns out to be from the midlands, and has lived in Kabul for several years. But he came here long before – in fact he says he met his wife here years ago, I assume while travelling through in the 1960s on the old hippy trail to India. “We are very happy here,” he says. I say that we have both enjoyed visiting, and that we are on holiday. He seems delighted at this. “I’m so pleased. It’s exactly what I think more people should do – come and actually see the place for themselves. Oh, I’m so happy to have met two independent travellers here.” I say that while it’s been fascinating there can be a little tension at times, which some might find intimidating. “Oh, all that stuff about suicide bombers. It’s quite safe here. Now London – that’s a dangerous city. Or Chicago.” Well, it’s true. Up to a point, I suppose.

You know how in English we say: “switch off the light”? Or even the informal American “kill the lights”? Well in Farsi it is “say goodbye to the light”. It’s quite poetic really.