The Last Days

New Delhi – 18/04/2013

Back in the hot stink of Delhi. It feels like coming home in some ways. It’s 38 degrees here, which is 20 more than Kabul. The rickshaw driver says: “I can tell you have been in India a long time, by your face and personality.”
Yes, I say. And I am coming from Afghanistan.
“Arrey! Afghanistan? Many crazy people there.”
No, actually they are really nice.

A friend in high places had organised a pickup for us in the morning, which turned out to be a Land Cruiser complete with army driver – our friend who took us to Panjshir. This meant that we were waved through many of the security checks to the airport and arrived in plenty of time. On three separate occasions people asked if I was Turkish, which is a new one for me. And these were airport security staff, who see a lot of foreigners. It wasn’t just the presence of Kayo in her trenchcoat and headscarf either – I got asked when I was alone. I’m not unhappy with this sense of mistaken identity – I quite enjoy it. Always liked the Turks.

The last days in Kabul became increasingly surreal. The tension grew, though whether it was a general atmosphere or a self-projected one with just a short time left there I can’t really say. I had wondered if I was becoming paranoid, stuck in a traffic jam waiting for a car to explode, or in a crowded market street with someone wearing a suicide vest. But then I spoke to a shopkeeper who said exactly that: “We never know. It happens. Will this car in front be blown up, will the man next to you explode himself. It creates a permanent stress, the not knowing.” He was a really nice guy, whose shop we visited several times, and he said: “We don’t know why this happened to us. We did not go out and attack anyone – they came to us.” He’s right. It was the Russians who invaded them (and the British before that). It was the power vacuum after they pulled out that led to the place becoming a base for assorted Islamic militants – it would be wrong to label them all Al Qaeda, as there were Uzbeks, Philippinos, Chechens, all sorts, all fighting their own unrelated wars. And it’s that power vacuum, a lack of central stability, which has now caused exactly the same scenario in Mali, where the Tuareg had their rebellion hijacked by international jihadis.

Perhaps the fears are exaggerated. Perhaps the apologists for the Taliban who sit in safety in their Western democracies as they call for sharia law are not deluded revisionists. Perhaps they would like to come and experience it for themselves. Most guerilla-style movements either run out of steam once they discover that winning a city is a great deal easier than governing it, or they turn on themselves in a frenzy of paranoia and purge themselves until there are none left. Perhaps the Taliban will moderate and become part of the political process. At the moment the choice is pretty stark for the average Afghan: does the Taliban offer a better choice than the Karzai government? It may seem a no-brainer, but with a corrupt judiciary and police force, an army that is being retrained from the sort of dim-witted shit-kicking drug-taking conscripts to a semblance of a professional one (still with some way to go), and a small but increasingly influential group of people positioning themselves to siphon off the flow of aid dollars before it dries up completely, the present ‘democratically approved’ setup does not look particularly inspiring. Karzai is not so much a puppet as a cardboard cut-out – the kind of blank figure you get in children’s books which you then stick different sets of clothes on. With his Tajik qaraqol hat, his Uzbek robe and his Pashtun DNA, he is the perfect shop dummy on which to stick an ethnic patchwork that has a semblance of unity. He probably wears a Turkman bracelet or something. The only thing absent is anything Hazara, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to them, since they get the rawest deal of all in a pretty raw place.

The first thing that strikes you about Delhi – other than the heat – is the trees. We hardly saw any in Kabul. And the walls – they are low, open. There are gardens beyond them, not an endless line of blank walls topped with razor wire turning their back on passers-by. Women in Delhi walk around with hair scandalously uncovered, and wear bright colours, jeans, tight tops. They possess an easy, languid grace, not a guarded and self-protective hunch. I sat opposite a teenage girl on the plane – maybe 14 years old. She scowled furiously. Her nails were bitten to the quick. She wore, despite the Indian heat, a black trenchcoat and black headscarf. The only hint of colour were a pair of purple stripey socks. And I thought: it’s rough enough being a teenage girl, hating yourself, without having to fend off the endless attention of men. What bizarre kind of cultural contortion reckons that this degree of self-repression is OK? It’s like the celebration of the plain, the removal of any degree of self-expression in anything other than the most limited form. The men walk with a swagger and openness. The women are shadows who pass by as unobtrusively as possible. There has to be a happy medium. In a sense there is progress, in that under the Taliban women could hardly venture outdoors at all, but the segregation, for example at weddings, is a recent phenomenon.

There was a banner across the road to the airport: Happy New Year. Best wishes for the year 1392. It’s a little ironic. In Europe in 1392 the Hundred Years War was about halfway through. The continent was slowly emerging from the dark ages. The clergy were all-powerful; people were tortured to death for heresy, for daring to question the status quo. Life was nasty, brutish and short. There are certain parallels. Imagine pasting onto that backdrop a modern consumerist society, democratic values, a hi-tech military occupation and the assorted luminaries of the development sector. Then you get some idea of the difficulty in reconciling the extremes, and incorporating the kind of fundamentalist values espoused by the Taliban into a modern society where you can access the internet, or jump on a plane and be in Delhi in two hours, London in eight. And indeed many Afghan national are as at home in those cities as they are in their own. So you have a cultural fusion at the individual level, and the incorporation of what might be termed modern values, clashing with an increasingly artificial-looking national boundary. You can build high walls and guard your borders, but you can’t stop the transfer of ideas or the soft power influence that totalitarian states fear because they can’t control them. Citoyen du monde, modern renaissance man, wonders why one rule applies at home and another everywhere else.

A huge thunderstorm over Kabul. The sky flickers with lightning and wind whips along the streets, causing small tornadoes of beige dust. People pull their scarves over their mouth and nose and narrow their eyes. The first fat drops begin to fall, and soon a curtain of rain. People duck for cover into small shops and under awnings. The soldiers stand miserably with rain dripping off their helmets – they wear knee pads and body armour that make them look like rollerbladers. A yellow and white Kabuli taxi pulls into the verge and we dash for it. It is a venerable Lada with column-operated gear lever and bench seats like sofas. The driver is an old man in white shalwar kameez, Nehru waistcoat and pakol. He’s a little cranky because the local driving has suddenly taken a turn for the worse because of the rain, but he thaws a little when I say: “Lada – very good. Strong cars.” He elaborates at great length in Farsi, in which I make out the word Moskvitch. “Also Volga,” I say. Then we get Zaporozhets, Kamaz and Chaika. “Ah, Chaika,” he sighs – the enormous limousines used by the senior party members in the old Soviet Union. It’s a little surreal to be discussing Russian cars in a torrential downpour while crawling over the muddy, potholed streets of Kabul with an old guy who has seen empires rise and fall and lived through heaven only knows what turmoil. But he’s a nice guy and can appreciate a robust motor car. He drops us at Rumi restaurant, which is deserted apart from three Americans who speak in low voices with heads conspiratorially close together, and I overhear a sort of burbling “rurr rurr rurr Taliban rurr rurr capacity building rurr rurr rurr Karzai…” The menu is familiar – kebab, bolani, mantou. It strikes me that this is largely a nomadic cuisine with Persian influences – a sort of fusion between the herders who slaughter a sheep and serve up large chunks of it with flatbread, and the Persian taste of adding fruit and nuts to rice. I drink sher chai, milk tea, which as a friend later points out: “In India they add milk to tea. In Afghanistan we add tea to milk.” He’s right.

The last day. We head to Wakhan for brunch. I’ve been varying the routine, not doing the same thing every day. Some days I walk up to the bakery and we have naan and Pegah cheese at home; some days we call Zuhag Taxis to take us to Flower Street or Wakhan. Today the traffic is heavy – we crawl. It stays like this the whole day, the cars grinding along. The police man their checkpoints, marked by boulders and rumble strips in the road. We sit nose to tail, in a jam caused by a bus that tried to do a U-turn and a dimwit who decided to follow it, failing to account for the fact that he had moved into the space the bus needed to reverse into. Traffic police blow whistles and make contradictory hand signals: go forward. Stop. Reverse. It is chaos. I don’t think about car bombs. I definitely don’t think about them at all. My latest briefing informed me that there are three vehicles that have entered Kabul packed with explosives, driven by insurgents; they even know the registration plates. Why haven’t they stopped them? Is it all a fiction? What about the ones they don’t know about? My shoulders are up around my ears with tension; in fact they have pretty much remained there the whole time, although now safely in Delhi again they are slowly descending in increments, a centimetre at a time. The sight of an army truck here puts them back up again – my first instinct is that it’s a convoy, and convoys attract suicide bombers. But I am in a cafe in Delhi, western backpackers are walking past outside, Indian girls go past as colourful as a flock of birds, people smile openly, everyone is relaxed. Ignorance is bliss.

Periodically I find myself going into a kind of trance, my eyes glazing over as I stare out into the sunlight, and I forget where I am. I’m very tired. Travel experiences that are out of the ordinary, that shake up your preconceptions, act like a kind of reset button. You look at things with new eyes, including yourself. In my mind I see grey-uniformed police in kepi-style hats with machine guns, dusty streets and high walls with razor wire, sandbags and steel doors, the hideous functionality of the architecture of modern warfare. I see the strain on my friends’ faces behind the smiles and laughter, the way they are bowed down by the weight of uncertainty in a city that has suffered too much and only wants to be like everywhere else, to have actual normality instead of an illusion of it in fleeting glimpses. I see the politeness of a soldier who apologises for having to search us and the rudeness of one who insists on keeping my friend’s rucksack as he uses an ATM, simply because the soldier has got a gun and it makes him feel powerful. I see the smile on an old man’s face when I greet him and say I am from London and he says “most welcome” and places his hand over his heart. I see a small figure trudging away down a darkened street, knowing that there are people who want to kill him because he questions their hysterical intolerance, their hypocrisy and their hatred, and dares to expose things that are a moral outrage common to all humanity, and yet which are denied for the sake of political expediency. Into the glare of the headlights throwing up twin shafts of dust, on a dark street somewhere in Kabul with the dim yellow lights of the houses climbing the mountainsides – Kabuli skyscrapers, they call them – I see him hunched against the night’s chill with the weight of the city’s hopes and fears on his shoulders as he slowly walks away, and I turn and stare out of the back window of the car as he gets smaller and smaller until he is lost to view, swallowed up in the darkness. And days later in the glare and noise of Delhi I sit in a cafe and remember until the words blur over in front of me.

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.

Many happy returns

Kabul – 14th April 2013

As birthdays go, it was memorable. My old mantra, “fear of a dull life”, has proved unfounded. We headed out to the old Royal Palace, now a bombed out ruin. Most guidebooks warn against walking round the area, as it was heavily mined. But in the foreground hundreds of youngsters were playing football on small muddy pitches. The weather took a turn for the worse – a chill wind and specks of rain. With the low cloud over the dull green flanks of the mountains, it looked like Scotland. The kids were clad in a bizarre assortment of clothing: Man U football shirts, salwar kameez, faux leather jackets, shoes without socks, no shoes… As soon as I got out of the car a small girl in green hijab latched on to me, tapping my elbow repeatedly and asking for one dollar, or failing that, a pen. Marching quickly away I almost crossed a line of rocks on the road surface, with a soldier on the other side. A visiting dignitary had been in the area and the road closed – though whether NGO, diplomat or local politician we could not establish. This sort of nonsense happens frequently and only serves to illustrate the divide between the powerful (or the foreign), and the ordinary Afghans. Ultimately it only causes resentment.

In fact this form of legitimised apartheid becomes self-perpetuating. There’s an old proverb, which could be British, Pakistani, or from anywhere, really: “Never trust an Afghan”. This seems to be the unspoken policy of many of the NGOs. Afghans who use a company vehicle have to provide receipts for the journey, in case they are using it for private business. Their foreign bosses do not. Afghans are given a separate table at lunch in the workplace. The official explanation is that of not wanting to cause cultural offence. In fact it does exactly that, by underlining difference. Afghan employees have their research checked and double checked, even though they are the people with first hand experience (and often qualifications from western universities which exceed those of their bosses). But do those Afghans get to double-check the pronouncements of their employers in their reports? Of course not. What is the consequence of this system of double-standards? Resentment. The undermining of confidence and the progressive demoralisation of the local staff – who are the very people, it could be argued, who have the most at stake in creating a stable future for the country.

Ah yes, stability. It’s the one thing that everyone takes for granted elsewhere. Indeed many bridle at it: suspicion at the ever-extending tentacles of governmental control into every corner of the citizen’s life. But you don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it. New Zealand, Norway, the UK… all the places I have lived that are secure, stable nations, are a stark counterpoint to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s stability that people want more than anything; a rule of law that extends to all. Otherwise out there is anarchy. The aid world tries to implement policies, democratisation, overhauling the legal system, training the police, but ultimately in this country stability comes down to how many armed guards you have. And how loyal they are to you. After the 8pm curfew the streets empty. By 10pm if you are about, you are aware of increased tension. Midnight? It’s even more stressful. The later the hour, the less legitimate the few people one encounters. This may be a universal phenomenon – a woman should be able to walk the streets of a city like London at any hour in safety, and yet many feel they cannot. Here? Forget it. Even in a taxi you are not safe. Not really. There is a slow and continual pitch of tension to life here, which rises and falls with the situation, but doesn’t really abate until you are outside the country. The locals feel it too. It’s a condition of perpetual stress, of living with massive uncertainty, and people show signs of it – too long living on adrenaline and your nerve starts to creak at the edges.

We drive through a weird half-built city populated mainly by Oriental-looking locals. Rain spatters on the windscreen and the wind shakes the car. Four lads on a Pamir motorbike go jolting along the muddy track ahead of us. A minibus encounters a huge ditch across the road, tries to edge over it and crashes into it nose-first, sticking fast. This suburb is the pet project of the president’s half-brother, or something. We pass a man and child living in a shack made of UN food bags. A crowd is off to the right, and we see a man leading a large mastiff in a state of exhaustion. It is a dogfight. Bets can be as high as one lakh – a hundred thousand dollars. We decide not to stop. People swagger around in T-shirts or thin jackets – it is 12 degrees C and raining. The road leads upward and becomes increasingly tricky; we slip and slide on the muddy track. Eventually we stop and walk.
“Are there any mines here?”
“Yeah yeah yeah whatever.”

One of our number takes off running across the hillside, leaping down the slope like a mountain goat. A word is written in stones on the hillside: it says “Ya Ali” – a Shia slogan. Our friend is running up the opposite slope, a small figure against a vast green hillside, getting slower as it steepens, running the tension out. Behind us Kabul lies in its valley, ringed by snow-covered mountains, razor wire and sandbags, the hollow shell of destroyed tanks off to one side. He goes slower and slower, and then finally stops, and crouches down exhausted.

Back in the car, sheltering from the wind-whipped hillside, we lurch down the track again. I have earache from the cold outside and can barely stay awake. Round-faced locals gaze in curiosity as we pass. The driver’s phone rings: it is a female American voice. She is saying: “Can you check through pages one to twelve of the contract and get your people to make any amendments? It’d be great if you could mail me it back within the hour.” The driver, steering around potholes the size of canyons, past an army post where soldiers huddle inside and a solitary dog stands outside the wire barking relentlessly, quite reasonably says, “how can you expect me to do this at such short notice? I am not in the office, anyway – I’m driving.” Oh, OK. Get back to me when you can. And I want to say to the voice on the phone, “and you should see the road he’s driving down. You should see this place. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever been”.

We head to Anaar Cafe, which has just opened. It has a nice USP (unique selling point), in that people can bring their own music, or request songs from the collection. There are guitars, dambura, drums, which the customers can use. Most importantly, it provides a breathing space – a sanctuary with the illusion of normality, where young people can get together to socialise. Pictures of musicians line the walls and shisha pipes waft the aroma of apple tobacco around, sweetening the air. Two musicians are playing local songs – one on the robaab, a kind of lute, and the other on drums. Most of the songs seem to be the kind where a beautiful maiden bids farewell to her lover on the eve of battle, and have lyrics like: “fight with honour and I will welcome you back with love; dishonour yourself by being a coward and I will not see you again.” Then a familiar tune – familiar from the countless ice cream trolleys that are wheeled around the city: it is happy birthday, but in a decidedly Afghan style, all quartertones and wavering notes. A waiter approaches bearing an enormous cake with candles on top. My friends all sing happy birthday to me. The room suddenly feels uncomfortably warm. Everybody claps and they offer me the knife to cut the cake. A small girl, about 6 years old, who has been shyly peering at us, stares wide-eyed at the cake. We beckon her over, and after I have blown out the candles, they are relit so she can blow them all out too. She takes a theatrically enormous deep breath, and does so. Her name is Boraan, which means ‘rain’. Her family keep an eye on her from their table nearby. She is very shy of us men, and will not speak, but Kayo befriends her. We offer her some cake which she gratefully accepts and then scampers away. It is a huge cake, so after we have all had some, it is offered around to the other customers.

We head out to dinner at a barbeque restaurant. Usual stables: pulao, naan, kabob. I have a biryani of some sort. We are all exhausted, after the mountainside, and struggling to stay awake. After a while we leave, and, as part of our effort not to walk too much at night, flag down a car. It is not a legitimate laxi, but most private cars offer a taxi service. One of our number chats to the driver before getting in, to establish his legitimacy, sympathies and so on. He seems like a nice young guy and we all pile in. We are in a strange part of town, and pass the usual ominous security walls. Then we come to a roundabout with the usual heavy police presence. What normally happens is that someone switches on the interior light, the cops peer in, see a foreigner and wave us through. This time it’s different. The guy in charge, clean shaven and with a smile that doesn’t quite manage to reach his eyes, addresses me in Farsi. “Farsi nist,” I reply. “English.”
“Passport,” he snaps. I show it to him – the front cover with the coat of arms, and he leans in and takes it. He questions Mansoor sitting in the front seat, then turns his attention to Kayo. “Afghan?” he enquires? No, daughter of Hindustan. “Passport. You speak Urdu?” “Nahi – Hindi,” Kayo replies, while looking for her passport. She asks me for my torch to see inside the bag. The one thing I am not going to do is start rummaging inside my bag at this point. She finds it and hands it over.

He takes the two passports and walks off a few metres away. Torches are shone through the windows and we squint at them. More cops come. They stand in a huddle, leafing through each page of my passport repeatedly. One of the cops has buttoned his waistcoat over his machine gun, with it pointing directly downwards. I hope he doesn’t trip, stumble and shoot himself in the testicles. My grin widens slightly. I am very calm, but the potential for this all to go seriously wrong is quite high. Mansoor discretely makes a phone call to the people we have just left, explaining that we’ve been stopped and it’s looking a bit iffy. The cops are making a great show of examining the passports – they have turned their backs to us and the minutes are ticking by agonisingly slowly. The taxi driver gets out and goes over to join them. He is questioned and keeps his cool. There’s a bit of a morality issue: a girl they took to be Afghan in a car with a group of men. There’s a general suspicion: are we carrying drugs? Anything which they can shake us down for? The irony is that the cops are all stoned – I can tell by their eyes. And I am wearing a local pakol hat and two weeks of beard. So we’ve got a Brit and an Indian disguised as Afghans in a private car driving around at night. I’m guessing the guy in charge is a corporal – he’s not very bright, and has that sadistic look. But he’s OK. When he sticks his head back inside the car I say to him: “Afghan hat, but English man.” I remove my hat – it’s an old disarming gesture, from the time that people doffed their caps to show they had no weapon hidden underneath. He seems satisfied, and wanders off again. Then he returns with Kayo’s passport and hands it back. Where is mine? Still being examined. I suspect he’s torn between being lauded by his superiors for discovering some undercover spy ring (who knows how cops think?) and between fearing serious repercussions from assorted embassies and his own foreign minister. Do we even know these guys are cops? Uniforms are easy to come by. The driver gets back in. More torches are shone. He comes back and after a slight delay of holding it just out of reach, like one might tantalise a dog with a biscuit, hands my passport back to me. “Thank you,” I say. He gestures impatiently and we slowly drive away. I carefully check every page of my passport, but it all seems to be intact. We are all subdued, aware of the knife edge we walk every day, the surface of normality that barely carries our weight. I take my passport, hold it up to the light, and recite in sonorous tones:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State
Requests and Requires in the name of Her Majesty
all those to whom it may concern
to allow the bearer to pass freely
without let or hindrance and to offer the bearer
such assistance and protection
as may be necessary.”

And I add: “Or else the Queen (god bless her) will get very bloody cross with you.”

More checkpoints. Not again, I think. I’m getting too old. Nerve is creaking a little these days. Last police post before the road. I switch on the light and he waves us through. We make the gate, which fortunately decides to open. In through a dark courtyard, somewhere in Afghanistan. In through the door, which I lock firmly to keep the lunacy outside at bay. We roll cigarettes, smoke furiously, and get the giggles. It’s a release of tension and there’s a slight hysteria to it. I laugh so hard I can’t breathe, and it starts to hurt. Just when it starts to subside, Kayo says: “Please. Not one more kebab.” It sets us off again. “And no more rice with bloody sultanas,” I say. “Bolani nist (not have).” Just when we regain our breath, gasping and wiping our eyes, a thought strikes me, and I can barely get the words out. “Carrot jam.” It finishes us off – we howl with laughter, lying on the mattresses. It’s ridiculous, silly things, but we need a laugh. Memorable birthdays: turning 40 in Afghanistan, slightly mashed, and just made it through another tricky situation. Another day, another story. Welcome to the club, Kayonaaz.

The Wedding Halls of Kabul

10 April 2013
The Wedding Halls of Kabul

I got a call at around 6.30pm. Would I like to go to an Afghan wedding? Mild panic ensued. I have taken travel-stained to new and unprecedented heights. I have no smart clothes. My shoes are falling apart. One of the problems of living in a place with unpaved streets, especially after rain, is that everything gets covered in mud. In fact a rather elegant western lady just walked into the cafe I am sitting in with telltale beige patches of mud all over her skirt. It’s impossible to avoid. So my friends reassured me not to worry: everybody would be covered in mud. Nevertheless I decided to put on my relatively smarter trousers, and a cleanish shirt. Who was getting married? Nobody seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Should I bring a gift? Certainly not. Was it appropriate to kiss the bride? Hilarity ensues.

On the road from the airport we had passed what I took to be two enormous shopping malls. In fact they were wedding halls. One of the few growth industries here is marriage. It’s such an important event that it has undergone the full attention of the commercial sector, and wedding halls compete with each other by advertising on television and billboards around the city with regard to their seating capacity. The one last night boasted that it had room for 3000 guests. This was a little misleading, as in fact there were several weddings taking place at the same time, each on a different floor of the building. As it was explained to me – and admittedly this may have lost something in translation – the bride’s family and the groom’s family congregate in a room, and ask each other, “what are we doing here?” After a bit of arguing they usually decide that since they have an eligible couple with them, that they might as well get married, seeing as they are in a wedding hall, after all. Then a spokesman is appointed – usually an elderly uncle. He adopts a crafty approach, enumerating various flaws and problems with the upcoming nuptuals. This is all a ploy to agree on a dowry. The bride can reclaim her dowry at any time – say for a financial crisis or perhaps a shopping trip to Dubai – although there would be serious repercussions. That, at any rate, was my understanding of the formalities.

In reality we never caught sight of the bride, nor indeed any other female. There was a large partition down the centre of the room, and the women and children were on the other side of it. They were considerably more subdued than a hen night in the UK, although given the absence of alcohol that is perhaps not entirely surprising. Several hundred men sat uncomfortably at round tables in a large room beneath chandeliers and christmas llights. They were of all ages and backgrounds: there were young men in jeans and trainers with rather too much hair gel, and old chaps in pakol hats and impressive beards. A popular look was a sort of salwar kameez with knee length shirt, with a smart jacket worn over the top. In my disintegrating trainers, Nehru vest, muddy Barbour jacket and a week of silvery stubble, I couldn’t help feeling that I was a poor ambassador for British style; although perhaps it accurately reflected our rather down-at-heel status in geopolitical terms these days, relegated to the level of second- or perhaps third-rate power. Certainly next to all these elegantly attired Afghans I felt like the poor relation from somewhere out in the provinces where there was a great deal of mud. Suffolk, perhaps.

There was the usual confusion of greeting, with assorted handshakes and embraces. It is a rather odd experience to be kissed on the cheek by a man with several days of stubble and too much aftershave, but one does one’s best to reciprocate. We sat round the table, periodically rising en masse to greet someone passing by. Then the band started. It’s hard to describe, but if you stood next to a pneumatic drill on the main runway at Heathrow as planes came in to land over your head, you might get some idea of the sheer volume they produced. It was explained to me that the singer might command a fee of up to $1500 for the night’s performance. I can only assume that he was paid by the decibel. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the band were actually playing or not, since one of the musicians, perhaps the drummer, decided to stop playing and wandered off to make a phone call without any obvious change in the music. The singer noticed his absence, however, and decided to cover for him by upping the volume from the merely ear-splitting to the actively torturous. I looked around the room and saw a room full of groups of men sitting miserably looking at the tablecloth, unable to speak to each other. I found the best way of speaking to Mansoor, who was sitting next to me, was to send him a text message.

This went on for some time, and then mercifully it stopped. The groom was coming. His group made their way around the room greeting various tables. There must have been some order of precedence, because our table was completely ignored; I became aware of a cloud of aftershave approaching behind me, and then it went past and hovered at a nearby table for a while. Then it moved off again. Unsure as to the consequences of this slight – would there be a gunfight? Did it merit a blood feud? – I sat unobtrusively and watched the proceedings. After a while we all decided to go downstairs, and sat round in comfy chairs watching the waiters bearing huge trays aloft with their right arms, actually sprint the length of the hall and up the stairs. It was an impressive physical feat, given the size of the tray. It was suggested that perhaps this could be made a new Olympic sport – sprinting with large tray – in which case Afghanistan would undoubtedly take gold. And China bronze, probably, having constructed a city full of tray-sprinting academies for small children to be coached in it.

A man approached our table, and we all rose to greet him. This was the uncle of the groom, and he informed me that he was a British citizen and had lived in London for many years. The groom was also British, apparently. As was our host who had invited us – a tall and elegantly attired local with a force of character that was impressive. In fact many people seemed to have lived in London at one point or another, and asked me questions such as “do you know the King George Tavern in Trafalgar Street?” Sadly I did not, London being a rather loose collection of villages masqurading as suburbs, as separate from each other as some of the mountain villages of Nuristan. Nevertheless it was nice to have some sense of shared experience. And Londoners who moan about the overcrowded Tube, the unreliable buses and the ludicrous opening hours of shops, or even the weather, would do well to bear in mind the many times that Afghans, when I asked them how they had enjoyed London, would enthuse: “A wonderful city! Everything works! It is so beautiful, so clean.” Yes, well. Everything’s relative, I suppose. A few people commiserated with me on the death of Mrs Thatcher a few days earlier. “A strong leader! Very great character.” I can’t help but feel she might be eulogised rather less in the UK, but I don’t think this was out of mere politeness – it seemed genuinely meant. In a place with a distinct absence of strong leaders (live ones, anyway), I suppose one notices the lack more.

The food arrived – mountains of it. At the next table a group of old boys in pakols and beards abandoned conversation and got down to the serious business of eating. There was mantou – a kind of local ravioli, chicken, mysterious meat that may have been goat or mutton, and three types of rice: Kabuli pulao, with sultanas and nuts; rice with orange peel, and a third kind redolent with cardomom. Having been vegetarian for my stay in India I had decided that pragmatically, unless I wanted to live on a diet of nothing but rice and naan bread for the duration of my stay in Afghanistan, I had better start eating meat again. I then discovered that next to me was a local who was himself strictly vegetarian – the only vegetarian in Kabul, the others joked. I was intrigued as to his motives; I didn’t go veggie for any great moral or religious reasons myself – mostly as a result of disgust with the industrialised factory farming that we practise in the west, and the hypocrisy of labelling meat products “UK farm standard approved” when actually it is just a legitimised form of cruelty. Anyway, my western sensibilities looked a little shallow in the context of a country where people starve to death. So I asked him what made him choose to be vegetarian here. His answer shook me. “It was because of the atrocities I saw the Taliban commit. The violence. I cannot eat meat after seeing such things. It disgusts and appalls me.” It brought home to me the massive personal traumas that lie just beneath the surface of everyday life here, in a country that has known nothing but war for 30 years. Nobody has any counselling, there are no diagnoses of PTSD for Afghan civilians, no therapy or medication. They just get on with it. Indeed the maid in one place I stayed was so visibly nervous of strange men that she almost cowered in their presence. I don’t even want to ask what has happened to her. Everyone here has a story.

One of the things I have noticed amongst the small group of friends that I have made here is just how impressively informed so many of them are. In casual conversation people reference Karl Popper, Fukuyama, Zizek, Chomsky. Their bookshelves would shame many a postgraduate student in the UK. I am considered fairly well-read, but in this company I feel embarrased to admit I have not read half of these authors. It’s the thirst for knowledge here, the appetite for answers, which makes us in the west appear so complacent. In a society like our own, with free education, access to the internet, libraries, 24 hour TV, one can only conclude that the absence of interest amongst the great British public for anything that does not immediately concern them, is a deliberate stance. With so much information on offer, ignorance becomes a choice. It’s crucial in a place like this, with a literacy rate of 40% or so (and a life expectancy of 45 years), that education is regarded as a solution. Because there is a lack of a tradition of literature here; like Africa, it tends to be more word of mouth, in a more oral society. And the problem with that comes down to one of interpretation. A mullah can command an audience of 10,000, and what he says will be taken seriously as he is seen as being a representative of the official Islamic view. Never mind that he may be prejudiced, bigoted, ignorant. His views will be taken seriously far more than any book – especially one by a western, or indeed western-educated author.

And the problem with all this, the elephant in the room, is the role of Islam. It’s a word where people instinctively lower their voices (much like “Pakistan”, which is always mentioned sotto voce.) In a place where people are killed for an innocuous statement about religion which somebody else happens to disagree with, any kind of discussion is fraught with risk. And so there is a taboo about the very subject that needs to be discussed the most. The great thinkers of the Protestant reformation in Christianity realised this in Europe 500 years ago, and because of the threat that they posed to the power of the church they were labelled heretics and tortured. The same goes for the thinkers within an Islamic context – sufis and similar. They are labelled as dangerous deviants who must be eliminated. In this regard, what has happened is that the extremist view has moved to occupy the mainstream; the moderates have been marginalised and the most radical interpretation has come to occupy the centre ground. And so, amongst a small group of free-thinking intellectuals, people boldly make a controversial comment or a joke, and everybody laughs, but the laughter is forced and slightly nervous, aghast at their own daring, and the eyes flit quickly around the room to see who is in earshot. What is needed is a moderate spokesperson who has the authority to represent Islam, to take back the centre ground from the extremists, and to say, “these extremists do not represent Islam. They claim to, but that is to give them a false legitimacy.” The problem is not Islam per se, as it is sometimes portrayed in the west, but the lack of coverage of the viewpoint of the vast majority of Muslims, and their lack of plausible spokesmen. A leader, in effect.

There’s an expression in English: ‘Fake it till you make it.’ Lawrence Durrell once described it rather more elaborately by saying that we humans are creatures of habit just as animals are. In our everyday interactions we can make a deliberate choice to act in a particular way which may be contradictory to how we actually feel; our intellect mastering our innate emotional response. If we force ourselves to act in a particular way, after a while we can begin to believe it, to feel it. Act confidently when we feel nervous, and after a time we begin to feel more confident. You can walk into a dangerous situation and walk out the other side by carrying yourself with conviction. Conversely if you walk around expecting to be attacked, you are sending out all kinds of unconscious signals inviting it. Well in Kabul we are all faking it. We act normal in a place that is so far from normality that chaos looms just beneath the surface. We act with a studied calm, and simultaneously watch everything. At any moment the world could be turned upside down. I’ve lost track of the number of places that are pointed out to me on our night-time drives around the city, where someone says: “This is such-and-such restaurant, hit by a suicide bomber last year. This is so-and-so hotel, blown up two months ago. This is the hotel that had a 24 hour gun battle.” Places become known by how often they have been hit. And the upshot is that no matter how determined you are to lead a life with a semblance of normality, to get out of your compound and bypass the illusion of security, you are essentially going from one secure location to another – hotel, cafe, restaurant – where, behind bomb doors and scanners and armed guards, people congregate in relative safety and an illusion of normality.

The food is over. Abruptly the tables are emptied, and crowds of people head out into the night. It is 10.30pm and the party is over. Men are all talking on their mobile phones, trying to rendezvous with their women who have left from a separate entrance. What they did before mobile phones I can’t imagine, although it is explained to me that these enormous weddings are a fairly recent phenomenon; traditionally they were much smaller, in people’s houses, and even segregation between genders didn’t really happen until the 1990s. This is perhaps one of the many issues that is seldom appreciated in the west – that the increasing fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon: the pictures of Kabul in the 1960s showed women with heads uncovered, and, if not actually in miniskirts, then at least in knee-length ones. Similarly across North Africa, one sees many more women wearing hijab now than a decade ago. It reflects a recent political climate more than any great long-standing religious tradition. We stand around in a group, smoking cigarettes. There is a great impassioned discussion in Farsi going on, so impassioned that they have temporarily abandoned English. Mansoor translates: we are discussing who will go in what car. In the event, six of us pile into one car – three in the front and three in the back. We set off at high speed through the dark streets of Kabul, past the British embassy with its bomb walls and coils of razor wire, along Wazir Akbar Khan, round chaotic roundabouts where nobody gives way as it is a slight on their masculinity. Indeed, masculinity, or machismo, is everywhere. Jokes are made about the guy sitting between the front seats, in alarming proximity to the gear lever. “He does not mind. He is an hommsexual.” The butt of the joke giggles. We discuss Brazil, which someone visited last year: “Oh the girls! So many buxom wenches! So beautiful shapes.” It’s everywhere, this kind of sexual tension. How does one meet girls in Kabul? It’s impossible. Hence, I suppose, the marriage industry.

I meet a businessman, highly educated, intelligent, progressive and dynamic, who confides in me that he has just begun speaking to his fiance by text message. I am a bit confused initially. Had they had a row? No – he literally had not spoken to the girl he was engaged to. It was an arranged marriage. And he felt, that at the age of 27, it provided a good solution. She was from a good family, well educated, respectable, and that ticked many of the boxes for him. “And what of love?” I ask him tactlessly. “What if you don’t love each other?”
“In time, I believe love will come,” he tells me. “We must work at it, be dedicated, and since we are a good match in so many other ways, yes, love will be there.”
It’s an interesting approach for me, as a westerner, from a society that puts so much emphasis on the self, and on one’s own gratification. But perhaps he has a point. I know many people my age who still have not settled down with a partner, let alone married one. Perhaps it’s the famed lack of commitment that many of my female friends at home complain about in men. Perhaps it’s a case of the grass is always greener. Sooner or later we all have to make a choice – not go shopping about for different attributes in different relationships: a bit here, a bit there, and all without any danger of ‘being tied down’. My friend the businessman has made his choice, and is determined that it is going to work. So although the concept is alien to me, I congratulate him and wish him all the best.

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Kabul – It’s the Small Things

9th April 2013

It’s the small things. That old saw about whether it’s safe depending on who you ask. I don’t want to sit indoors trapped by my own paranoia. I need to buy things for breakfast. I remember a time when I was so highly strung, so neurasthenic, that a trip across the road to Tescos in London would take me 20 minutes of psyching myself up. And countless cigarettes. Well, it was good traning for Kabul.

I unlock the gate and step into a muddy lane. It rained most of yesterday and there are puddles everywhere. I nearly make a spectacular entrance to the neighbourhood by falling flat on my face, and giggle inwardly as I recall the Monty Python scene with the two ancient Britons looking for a nice heap of dung to smear on themselves. I am grinning at the thought, and this is fortunate, since an old man standing opposite sees me smiling and smiles back. I give him a nod. The next minute the grin is wiped off my face – a gate opens and four armed men come out, AKs in their hands. Clad in various items of random battledress, they are clearing the road for a Land Cruiser which is emerging from the gate. There’s a momentary confusion – as a foreigner what is my status? Should I be ‘dreeshed’ (halted)? I assist them by convincingly playing the part of bumbling idiot and splat messily through puddles roughly where the pavement would be, if there was one. I make the end of the road and the first police checkpoint. They stare at me levelly. I cross, and find a shop which looks shut. Operation naan bread is not going well. I try to call Mansoor to get directions to the bakery and find that my credit has disappeared overnight, yet again. Two text messages, and about 20 minutes of Facebook, has cost me 150 Afs, or $3. But wait – a man is coming out of the shop. I greet him and enter. They couldn’t be more helpful. ‘Ah, sorry, we only have sliced white bread. Go straight down the road and there’s more traditional bread.’ Super, excellent, thanks very much.

Out in the street again, dodging puddles. Four small children appear, carrying shopping bags. They are tiny – the oldest can’t be more than seven. They wouldn’t be allowed out on their own in the UK. They halt at the busy road and stand watching as traffic roars by. The oldest girl eventually marches out into the traffic, and ushers the others across. I find the bakery, naan breads on display in the window. But there doesn’t seem to be a door. How do you get in a shop with no door? Answer: play the bumbling idiot. If you stand outside looking helpless long enough, someone will open a window. “Salaam,” I say. “Yak naan please.” He grabs one, and wraps it in a piece of A4 paper upon which is a pie chart labelled Drugs Tested. I notice that the small segment, less than a quarter, is marked Private Sector. The remainder is marked Public Sector. What does it all mean? “How much?” I ask. “Dub,” he replies. Sounds a bit like the Hindi “Das” – ten. I offer a ten, thank him, and he climbs back up into the shop.

So this is going swimmingly so far. I can haz naan. But what to put on it? I retrace my steps towards the house, to another small shop. The shopkeeper, an elderly man with a white beard and colourful fez hat, doesn’t look up. I salaam him. He greets me in return, and says the Farsi equivalent of “what can I do for you?”
“Um, do you have Pegah? The cheese?”
“Chiz?” I recall that chiz means “thing” in Hindi. Did I just ask him for a “thing?”
“Pagah. Iran. With my naan.”
He shuffles over to the back of the store and emerges holding a litre of UHT milk labelled Pegah.
“Nahi – not this one. Maybe smaller. For khana – eating.”
He smiles in understanding and fetches a small box, also labelled Pegah. Helpfully it is accompanied by a picture of someone smearing it on bread, whatever it is. The line of curling Farsi script is not intelligible to me. I turn it over and see it says Cream. Cream on bread? Those crazy Iranians. Whatever next. I consider my potential breakfast and decide that since he’s such a helpful guy, it’s worth persisting. I spot a pack of Laughing Cow. “Aha!” I cry. “Like that one, but Pegah.” Mercifully I decide against doing an impression of a laughing cow. He beams, and fetches out a small tub of Pegah cream cheese. “Yes!”
OK, now how do I pay? He announces a figure in Farsi which sounds nothing like any Hindi. Um… calculator. iPhone to the rescue. I find the right app and he quickly cottons on, leaning over the counter to tap out 25 on the screen with a gnarled finger. “Accha,” I say. Twenty-five. Oh, and can I have yak Roshan recharge card? Panj sau? I tap out 500. He fetches one. So we are at 525 Afs. And then I find I have only dollars. Mental arithmetic not being my strong point, I tap the XE app and get a live update on the latest stock market conversion rates. $11, and 20 Afs change. Meanwhile he’s chatting away to me in Farsi, both of us being highly deferential to the other. “Me angrez hoon,” I say. “Farsi nahi hai – nist.” (I hope the word was ‘nist’ for ‘not have’.)
“Angrez.” He smiles. Then he fetches me a bag and carefully puts all my items in it, including the naan. “Tashakor,” I say, thus exhausting my Farsi vocabulary completely – hello, halt and thank you being the full extent of it. He beams. “Tashakor.” Then he reaches over the counter and shakes my hand. It’s the small things. Out in the street a burqa squats in the mud and mutters beseechingly as I go past. I go a few steps past and then recall my 20 Afs change. So I turn around, and under the eyes of two cops, one with a vest full of grenades, I place the grubby note into the hand kept hidden under the folds of blue material. “There you go, lady.” She murmurs thanks. It’s the small things.

We have dinner at Istanbul Restaurant, in the Macroyan district – an old Soviet-era housing project. It’s a large room with a huge plasma TV at one end showing Turkish television. I stare at it mesmerised. A football match: Galatasaray versus Mersin. The news: a man in a grey suit announcing something interminably into a microphone. An interview with a Turkish rapper who has the most extraordinarily long neck, and wears a silly baseball cap. Meanwhile, on the ticker at the base of the screen, a series of Turkish words unspools: I make out NATO, the number 10, the word Israel, the word Afghanistan. What is going on in the world outside? I have no idea. Only what is happening here matters. I check the BBC website. A youth leader has received ‘words of advice’ after posting idiotic comments of a homophobic and generally stupid nature. She has ‘learned her lesson’. Obesity may be genetic. People should exercise more and watch what they eat. A football coach has denied being racist. I want to scream at the BBC: For fuck’s sake! Wake up! This is not news! Meanwhile in Afghanistan ten children were killed in a NATO airstrike at the weekend. They were the children of a suspected Taliban leader and were at home. A car bomb killed several locals and a 25-year-old US diplomat. She was delivering books to schools in the rural areas. Imagine if a dissident group in Northern Ireland had planted a bomb trying to target a policeman and it had instead been set off by a minibus carrying ten children, all of whom died. Imagine the outrage, the consequences. And here? It happens again and again. Sure, the Taliban use human shields. But imagine the deep, slow-burning hatred that this causes. And here I am, ostensibly a representative of the NATO nations, walking alone and unguarded round a Kabul neighbourhood. And a man smiles at me, and another shakes my hand in his shop. I don’t know what to say – we don’t have the words. Only the basic human connection.

The Istanbul Restaurant is closing down for the night. Kabul goes to bed early – the unofficial curfew is 8pm. The guard comes in carrying not one, but two machine guns. Perhaps it is ‘buy one get one free’. We head out into the night, across a dual carriageway. The US embassy change guard twice a day and shut the entire road, causing gridlock; earlier it was a huge traffic jam but now it is deserted. There isn’t much of a sewage system in Kabul, but they have dug tunnels for one under some main roads. Unfortunately they haven’t put any manhole covers in place, so every few yards there is a gaping hole along the road which would drop you directly, as it were, in the shit. A pair of headlights approaches and a car pulls up in front of us. Of course it is a red Corolla, the favoured make in all the security alerts, and also the most common car in Kabul. The driver is all stubble and leather jacket. We agree a price and screech away down the road. He reaches up to turn on the interior light, so that the cops at the checkpoints can see inside the car. Sirens go off behind us and flashing lights. We lurch towards the hard shoulder and a huge SUV zooms past – I make out a face staring at us in a not very friendly way. We drive down the main drag, past Finest supermarket, past computer shops that have Macbook Pros on display in the window. Another checkpoint. The front passenger rolls down his window and greetings are murmured. The cop peers into the back and sees me. He wears a scarf over his face and only a pair of Oriental eyes are visible, hard as stones. We wait, and then he lifts an arm in half salute and waves us on. Frankly the whole experience is nerve-wracking, to say the least. Coming from the outside, there are a thousand and one things you could freak out at every day. But that’s not sustainable – you have to keep fear in proportion. And the inhabitants of Kabul have to live with this every day.

I recieve an email from home saying it is my niece’s birthday. She is eight today. They are having chocolate cake with strawberries. She’s mad about Barbie, so I had sent her a special Barbie in India from Goa. Barbie in India is ethnically diverse – she at least has the merit of looking Indian. Black hair, bindi, and wearing a beautiful maroon and gold wedding sari. You get free mehendi stencils with this one – part of the whole marriage ceremony for Hindus and Muslims alike. Given my phone credit problems Mansoor offers me his phone to call home, so sitting in the Istanbul Restaurant in Kabul I ring the family in Suffolk. The line is pretty good – a slight delay. I talk quickly to Mum, and then she hands he over to my niece. She confirms that she has received Barbie in India successfully. She likes it. They had chocolate cake and strawberries. Aunty Barbara gave her a mermaid whose hair changes colour. Where are you? “I’m in Afghanistan, sweetheart. With my friend Mansoor who you met last year.” Oh, OK. Here’s grandpa again. Bye. It’s only been three months but I can hear how much more grown up she sounds, in her voice and vocabulary. On my backpack is a small pink Barbie badge. When I was sitting up on a hill overlooking the Panjshir Valley, with blown up Russian artillery littering the foreground, I took a photograph. You can’t see it, but just out of shot is my backpack with that badge hanging off the zipper. Barbie in Afghanistan. It’s the small things.

Kabul – Relative Safety

Kabul, 7th April 2013

There’s a computer game called Halflife 2 which I played once, where you land in some familiar yet dystopian city. It is eerily deserted, and you make your way past blank faced buildings with reflective windows, high walls, razor wire and so on. Periodically you hear the crackle of a walkie talkie, and sometimes pass groups of masked armed men patrolling. The overwhelming mood is one of, if not exactly fear, then a definite tension. Convoys of vehicles roar past, harsh commands through a megaphone, sirens. Welcome to Kabul. And yet the difference here is that this is a normal central Asian city too. Street vendors: boys pushing ice cream carts that play happy birthday. Old men on bicycles. School kids running and laughing, the little girls all in white headscarves. A group of young guys in a pimped out car with bling paint job who wheel spin out of a junction and slow down to check out a couple of girls walking. A soldier carrying naan bread under one arm and a rifle in the other hand. Shoeshine men, boys selling maps, a fruit stall. It’s all so normal. But it’s not really. There’s a tension in the air, a raised heartbeat. In a restaurant you suddenly look up and realise all the other diners have left. A man walks in with a machine gun and takes a seat in the corner. Was that click the sound of him cocking his gun? Or is he eating pistachios? Is that guy outside on the phone who keeps glancing inside planning a kidnapping, or is he just checking to see if his food has arrived? You never know. It’s all about the perception of risk.

And it’s a subjective judgement. The only sensible response to the question ‘is it safe?’ is, it depends who you ask. The aid workers and diplomats are part of a system that offers security as standard, but it’s a self perpetuating industry: private security contractors have a vested interest in painting a worst case scenario, partly because if things go wrong they go very wrong, but mostly, I suspect, because their livelihood depends on it. And so you end up with a two tier system. Yes, foreigners are more of a target, less of a threat. But does that justify discrimination that would be illegal in those foreigners’ own countries? An Afghan national married to a foreigner, who has a degree from Oxford and a PhD from an Ivy League US university, who lived in London for ten years, who runs a company here supplying NATO with equipment – this person is denied entry to a restaurant on a night out with his western colleagues because he is an Afghan. So-called humanitarian organisations fire western staff for breaching security regulations. What heinous breach? They had begun a relationship with a local. It’s the very organisations that have the most impeccable liberal politically correct credentials that are perpetuating this prejudice. It is hypocritical, to put it mildly. And it is justified in the name of that all encompassing reason that lacks any reason at all: security. And the contractors hang out in their compounds, following the advice of their security staff, only go to ‘safe’ restaurants – which inevitably have a No Afghans policy – happily negotiate for salaries of thousands of dollars a month, justifying it with market economics arguments, and when it comes to the crunch they are going to cut and run, and go and do it all somewhere else. ‘See you next year in Damascus. I’m going for a consultant job, and won’t take less than a hundred grand. Say, do you remember our driver in Kabul? What was his name… Abdullah? Ahmed? Wasn’t he just the sweetest guy. I wonder where he is now.’

The irony, of course, being that you could be blown up by a British suicide bomber on the London Underground. In fact one of the victims of the 7/7 Tube bombings was an Afghan.

Breakfast in Kabul. I sit cross legged on the bed wrapped in my patoo blanket, eating naan bread and Iranian Pegah cream cheese. Dates – special hajj issue. Black tea. They say here that black tea is for winter as it warms the body. Green tea in summer. Another local custom: walking with Mansoor my foot accidentally touched his, causing him to stumble. He immediately extended a hand for me to shake, explaining that it signified no hard feelings. There is a courtesy here, in everyday life, amongst ordinary people, that seems to be almost entirely absent in the west these days. Everybody is greeted, no matter how menial their occupation. The caretaker at an office – each visitor shakes his hand. And of course only here would the car park attendant carry an AK, and wear fatigues and a pakol hat. I imagine him walking through Liverpool Street station – minus the AK of course. He wouldn’t get five yards without someone going into hysterics.

The local cats are a tough bunch. Their feline pastime is to knock each other off the wall and into the razor wire. No wonder they look a fairly moth eaten bunch. There’s a lot of yowling.

Local quirks: why are there sandals in the bathroom? Every bathroom? Am I supposed to put them on? What about the ones in the kitchen? How would it go if a visitor to a British home came into the kitchen wearing your shoes? It’s all a bit of an etiquette minefield, really. And how on earth do you tear a naan bread the size of a tea tray using only your right hand? And why does my left eye keep flickering? What was that scream? Kids playing? Or someone being arrested? Is that screeching car a kidnapping? or some local lads impressing the girls (not). What about that bloody great bang? A truck dumping bricks? Or something else?

I hear shouted conversations in Farsi from the police station next door, and mentally translate: ‘Oi, Mahmoud – how many westerners have you pointed your gun and shouted “dreesh!” (Halt!) at today?’
Mahmoud looks a bit shame faced. ‘Only one.’
‘Bah – pathetic. I got at least three. Last one looked like he soiled himself.’
‘Yeah, but mine was a journalist. Headlines tomorrow: “The mood in Kabul is becoming increasingly tense. Police are on edge and expecting an imminent attack.”

Both cops giggle and resume their patrolling up and down.

Kabul – Panjshir Valley

Kabul, 4th April 2013

Indira Gandhi International is Delhi’s futuristic airport, all plate glass and wifi hotspots (not working), but the queue for Safi Airways to Kabul was traditionally attired: shalwar kameez and waistcoats for the men, long robes and headscarves for the women. I was the only foreigner. In fact my presence was clearly a mistake, as an airport employee pointed me to the next check in which was for Virgin Atlantic. “This queue for Kabul sar.” Yes, I know. We flew over miles of sun baked Punjabi plain, then over Pakistan. The first folds in the landscape began to appear, and then a range of serrated mountains dusted with snow. Waziristan and the wild border region with Afghanistan. I kept an eye out for drones, but saw none. The in flight meal was served: penne with roasted veg. It was all rather surreal. The mountains grew ever higher: huge snow capped peaks and scalloped ridges. Small villages clung to the hillsides, separated from each other by enormous valleys that dropped thousands of feet in sheer slopes.

We hit turbulence on our descent into Kabul, and bumped down on a runway lined with row after row of military aircraft. Helicopter gunships squatted menacingly, their armaments drooping like insects’ antennae. The terminal was decorated with pictures of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir (which itself means ‘five lions’) and also the occasional portrait of President Karzai. A sign outside said “welcome to the land of the brave”. Customs was a little chaotic, as the passengers had clearly been shopping in Delhi and Dubai – trolleys were laden with microwaves and TV sets. Out in the parking lot I saw the first Americans – a convoy of dull grey Land Cruisers full of troops in helmets and camouflaged fatigues. Many vehicles sported a mount for a heavy machine gun, and Afghan police stood about in grey uniforms and big boots, toting AK47s. Out on the road you saw blast walls and sandbags, and multiple checkpoints. Many of the soldiers were masked. A Mig jet mounted on a plinth was a precursor of the anti aircraft guns on exiting the car park. Driving down the dual carriageway we passed two enormous buildings I took to be shopping malls. In fact they were wedding halls, capable of seating thousands of guests.

It’s a tense city; one that is effectively under siege. The mood changes fast: after a suicide bombing and subsequent gun battle in Farah two days ago, they are expecting an imminent attack. The embassy emailed me a security briefing informing me that a red Toyota Corolla packed full of explosives was known to be in the city, but the target was uncertain. Of course at the first checkpoint we came to, manned by oriental looking Hazara soldiers in American style uniforms with Soviet style weaponry, the vehicle that pulled up next to us was a red Corolla.

I am advised that I can walk as far as the cafe in the next street but no further. And never at night. A foreigner was kidnapped on this road a couple of months ago, at nine in the morning. Nevertheless we walk home from Sufi restaurant on the first night – in my Nehru vest and scarf at a distance I could pass for a local: you get all sorts of ethnicities here, including many Afghans who look British. Crossroads of empires, this place. Sikander Makdoni, or Alexander the Macedonian (ie The Great), added not only diversity to the local gene pool, but also remnants of Greek culture – Nuristani houses built in the Greek style, wine drinkers, and decidedly European features. Red hair is not unusual, often with green or blue eyes, and there are some Afghans who are blond.

Returning late one night to my street, which has a police station at the end, and the Ministry of the Hajj halfway down it, there is a tremendous yell. “Dreeeeesh!” In the darkness I make out a policeman pointing a machine gun at me. “Dreesh!” He yells again. I stop. I have a backpack in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. One doesn’t normally get a third warning – the next sound is usually a gunshot. We freeze. “But I live here!” I say. A policeman nervously approaches, keeping us covered. Ah, English. You should use the other gate after dark. Right, well I shall make a point of it from now on. Things are very tense. This is a dangerous city. Entering restaurants or supermarkets frequented by foreigners you enter a nondescript gate and find yourself in a blast proof room. Your bag is searched and you are patted down. Last night the soldier apologised for having to do so. Then a steel door swings open and you enter. Most places are deserted, and one rarely sees a foreigner: their employers advise them not to leave their compounds, so they socialise together. In fact some restaurants have a No Afghans policy. Locals are not admitted. Here in their own capital city. There’s a word for that – a Dutch one. It’s called Apartheid.

Dinner in Blue Moon restaurant. The food is consistently good – this one offers Bamiyan pizza with potato – and of course naan bread. Afghans eat naan three times a day, and they are huge, up to four feet long. There is a swagger to the locals, a machismo entirely absent in India. Black salwar kameez, pointy shoes, leather jackets and stubble is the dress code. Half way through dinner two girls walk in, dressed in jeans and with headscarves. All conversation stops, all eyes turn to follow them. Kabuli coquettes, as a friend dubs them. You don’t often see women here, other than the occasional burqa. In fact one burqa and small child have taken up residence in the middle of a busy road, hand outstretched from under blue folds of cloth in supplication. One man last night was so desperate he wandered in front of the car and raised his arms beseechingly. We didn’t stop. After Blue Moon we wander the dark streets, past embassies and NGO offices hiding behind high blast walls topped with razor wire. A taxi pulls up and we all pile in. We head to Berchi, a Hazara neighbourhood. On the streets everyone has oriental features; we could be in Mongolia. Occasional armed men stand around, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not. The air is so clear that the towering snow covered mountains in the background look as if they are in walking distance. The sun is so bright it hurts the eyes. And these are the lower Hindu Kush. What must the higher ones be like?

We travel to a house in the suburb of Kherkhana to meet our host for a trip to the Panjshir Valley. He speaks German fluently, so I have the slightly surreal experience of chatting in German to him with occasional lapses into Farsi when my vocabulary fails me. Our convoy is three Land Cruisers driven by ANA soldiers in battle dress, complete with machine guns. At each checkpoint we are waved through, and maintain a steady 100kmh on the good stretches. Off to the right Bagram airbase looms, a city in its own right. There are direct flights there from the Middle East, bringing in troops, contractors and various ‘experts’. We pass through Charikar, then over a plain which was the front line against the Taliban. Our driver is a grizzled veteran and points out the scene of numerous battles. Thousands died at one bridge which is a strategic bottleneck. The Taliban had Mig jets, flown by Pakistani pilots, allegedly, which did bombing runs. In the villages the locals resisted, including women. We pass the governor’s office – hit by a suicide bomber a while ago. Four attackers: the first blew himself up at the gate, enabling the others to enter. They stormed into the governor’s office, he reached for the AK kept under his desk and shot all three of them as they entered. Local politics is a dangerous game round here.

Two hours out of Kabul the road climbs and we enter the valley. At a checkpoint our escorts greet the guards – many of them fought here. Panjshir was never successfully assaulted; the Soviets launched ten offensives and all of them failed. The Taliban tried repeatedly to occupy it but Ahmad Shah Massoud, who commanded the valley, held them off. Refugees from surrounding districts headed here to escape the brutality of the Taliban, and the valley floor was covered from one side to the other with their temporary shelters. It was a desperate time. At one point I become aware of an extraordinary feeling, a kind of levity in the thin mountain air, and I exclaim “this place is just magical”. It turns out that at exactly that point we had passed a shrine to a pir, or saint. I hadn’t seen the shrine, but my comment is taken as evidence of the supernatural properties of the place. The valley is highly suspicious of outsiders; as a natural fortress it is high on the agenda for the Taliban, and the local population, who are mainly Tajik, keep to themselves. Mujahideen style is in: beards, pakol hat (popularised by Massoud who made it a trademark) and camouflage anorak, as well as the inevitable black and white scarf. And these people don’t just look like mujahideen – they were, and it it comes to it, they will be again.

We halt our convoy and climb up the hillside through lush green pasture and low trees. It looks like Wales, but the ring of white summits around the valley are as high and dramatic as the Alps. We climb to a house high on the hillside with stunning views down over the valley and are greeted by an elderly man, white bearded and wearing pakol and camouflage fatigues: the grandfather. He looks very spry and I have a job keeping up with him as he climbs up to the house. Various men stand around, exuding an air of tough competence. And yet they are amazingly welcoming: handshakes are exchanged, the right hand placed over the heart after each one. We have lunch – kabob, kofte, river fish and pulao, then adjourn to the terrace for tea and cigarettes. Piles of fruit are brought. Periodically there is a dull boom which echoes around the valley, and the crack of an explosion. The sound of war is never far away, but this is blasting for rock to use in construction. Our host, who is urbane and softly spoken, and yet who exudes authority, speaks to me in German about the situation. I paraphrase, but this is the gist of it:

“Everyone is talking of 2014. What will happen after NATO pull out? Nobody knows. We have no future. If the Taliban come back in, everything is finished. Thirty years of war, ten years with a small glimmer of hope, for peace, democracy, reconstruction, and then it is all snatched away? It is too cruel. The only future for many Afghans is to leave, to get out. But they are the lucky ones. The majority have to stay, and face the awful prospect of a return to medieval barbarity. And once again the international community have gone back on their promises and abandoned Afghanistan.”

High on a hillside, commanding sweeping views up and down the valley, lies a curious structure – a bit like a water tower. Its lines are elegant and it is constructed of local stone from the valley. This is the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was murdered in 2001 by a Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin posing as a journalist, on the orders of Al Qaeda. There was a bomb inside the video camera. Massoud’s personal bodyguard, a grey bearded mujahideen, guards the tomb. We shake hands – many of our own escort embrace him. We remove our shoes and file in. A glass tomb, with what looks like sand inside, golden Farsi script upon the glass. A solitary bunch of flowers. We stand in a semicircle around it, heads bowed. The soldier next to me murmurs a prayer. I feel a tremendous welling up of sadness, at the loss of a great man, at the lost opportunities, at the loss of hope for Afghanistan, the waste of it all. Massoud’s portrait is everywhere in this country. He is venerated. If anyone could have united this place, he could have. These people are not easily led, but they followed him. He was needed to hold it all together. Outside the tomb they are building a library and centre of learning, for a new generation with a future that looks distinctly bleak. At the moment it is a building site, and the cold wind whips up the valley and sweeps through empty corridors overlooked by towering peaks. Down on the valley floor lie the burned out carcasses of Soviet armoured vehicles. Two cars pull up outside and a group of women get out, adjusting their headscarves and making their way up the steps towards the tomb. We stand in our small group, each lost in thought, and then the man next to me cups his hands, draws them over his face, and we all turn and walk away.

The CP Merrygoround

Delhi’s Connaught Place is an elegant circle of colonnades and walkways, a hub for the arterial routes that radiate outwards from it. Old colonial buildings have now been taken over by the homogeneity of global capitalism – Levi’s, Starbucks, Lacoste… The usual nonsense. And just outside children sift through rubbish bins. The hierarchical strata of all India is on display here, all condensed into a few hundred square metres. In a phone shop, while trying to sort out my rapidly dwindling credit, I end up sitting next to another gora – John from London. He is enjoying one of those circular conversations one encounters here: “Why is my phone not working?”
“The reason your phone is not working sar is that phone is being deactivated.”
“Yes, but why?”
“Sar, when phone is deactivated it is not possible to be working.”
“Yes, but… Oh never mind.”
So anyway, we do our laundry by hand here, washing in buckets. And then you tip the dirty water away down the toilet. Couple of days later he finds the toilet is blocked. Some guys come to fix it and undoing the pipe, find a pair of pants. They had been lurking in the bucket when he tipped the water away. Extracting the pants, they hold them up: “you vanting, sar?”
No mate, you keep them.
I laughed so hard I blew cappuccino foam all over my shirt.

So I am in the United Coffee House, a venerable Delhi institution, having a nice cup of tea and charging my phone. You know you’ve been travelling a bit too long in India when you drop your used napkin on the floor. Not the done thing in UCH, apparently.

Lodi gardens was packed on Easter Sunday – masses of families pick nicking, kids playing cricket in the shadow of ancient tombs, young couples coyly sitting together holding hands surreptitiously. Nice day out. So much of this city is hard work: stupefying traffic, broiling sun, stench of sewage, rubble strewn pavements, beggars, that a green and shady spot is a welcome relief. Half a dozen times today people have wandered up and started chatting. They don’t want anything – they are just curious. I try out my basic Hindi and they express polite amazement. Nice people.

Of all things, the United Coffee House is playing Elama by Yasser Habib. Well you’ll have to Google it, thanks to airtel’s incompetent 3G network. Lovely song though.

Afghanislavia?

I think it was 1988 or thereabouts. I was getting on an overnight flight to Africa and bought a book at Heathrow. It was called ‘In Honour Bound’, by Gerald Seymour – a former ITN journalist who had restyled himself as a writer of thrillers. They were pretty one-dimensional books for the most part, and this one was no exception. It was set in Afghanistan, a place my 14-year-old self knew nothing about, but even at the time I recognised that the place was getting a pretty superficial coverage in the book. It featured a murky plot by British intelligence to have a Captain in the SAS called Barney Crispin (I suspect Mr Seymour chose the first names of his two best mates for that one) cross the border into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the company of a group of mujahideen and several Stinger missiles. Their mission was to shoot down a Soviet helicopter – not just any helicopter, but the MI-24 ‘Hind’ gunship, which had been turning the tide of war in the Soviets’ favour. The mujahideen were outgunned and so murky intelligence types sought to sway the balance – not for any great geopolitical strategic aims, but to get their hands on the components of a downed MI-24. This last bit happened to be true – the British (and Americans) were very interested at the time in the helicopter, and dearly wanted to get hold of one.

Well, Captain Crispin’s initial mission failed dismally. The group of mujahideen he chose were gunned down and the operation aborted. But so outraged is he privately at Soviet atrocities that he decides to go back on his own, to launch a private war. And it works. He meets up with an American Vietnam veteran living in a cave (conveniently, since the locals are heavy going for small talk), and they shoot down some helicopters. It’s hard to say exactly how the Afghans are portrayed in all this; there’s an ambiguity. On the one hand they are described as little more than hairy savages with a disconcerting and incomprehensible penchant for getting themselves martyred (in this, Mr Seymour unwittingly gets rather close to the truth about how they were, and indeed are, portrayed by much of the western press). On the other hand they are heroically brave figures, who manage to humble even the emotionally cataleptic Captain Crispin with their determination. And what’s more they are opposed to the real baddies, who were of course the Soviets, or Communists, or frequently just Russians generally. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, goes the old saying. Well it’s terribly difficult to keep track of who is friends with who sometimes. Especially in Afghanistan.

Around this time, a British documentary maker called Peter Kosminsky made a truly remarkable documentary. It was called ‘Afghantsi’, and showed the war in Afghanistan from the Soviet perspective. Kosminsky got himself embedded with Soviet troops, flying into remote mountain outposts and getting access to units of the 103rd Airborne Division. He interviewed wounded soldiers in a Kabul military hospital, and also travelled to Russia to interview the relatives of soldiers who had been killed. It was extraordinary access for the time, and the film ought to be required viewing at NATO headquarters, as well as by the politicians of all countries who have sent troops to Afghanistan. Because watching it now, one is left with a very stark conclusion: nothing has been learned. Nothing. You can watch it here:

http://touch.dailymotion.com/video/xgqxuh_afghantsi-part-1_shortfilms

The music at the beginning sounds, to a western ear, vaguely eastern. I would suspect that most western Europeans would not recognise it as being European at all. It might be Afghan for all they know. It is highly atmospheric. In fact it is a folk song from Bulgaria called Pritouri se Planinata, and the lyrics go like this:

“The mountains shook and buried two shepherds, two friends. The mountains said: “Oh you poor shepherds, one of you has a new love that will mourn until noon, the other has a mother that will mourn to the grave.”

And here it is in another context – an old socialist film from Russia, which pretty much speaks for itself.

I want to stick with Balkan folk music for a moment because of an interesting connection. In 1992 another British filmmaker with an eastern European name, Pawel Pawlikowski, made a very interesting film about the war in Yugoslavia, following the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic. It was called ‘Serbian Epics’ and told the story from the Serbs’ perspective – how they felt an ancient historical sense of injustice dating back centuries, and which continued to fuel the war, long after the siege of Sarajevo was over, moving the battlefield into Kosovo. And that, in the end, prompted NATO intervention. Anyway, here is a group of Serbian soldiers singing a very old song, in the hills overlooking Sarajevo during the siege. And towards the end of the clip you can see a civilian, who is a Russian writer called Eduard Limonov, firing a heavy machine gun into the besieged city. Well, he was a writer. Today he is the leader of the political party ‘The Other Russia’ and he intends to run for president against Vladimir Putin.

You can see the whole of ‘Serbian Epics’ on Pawel Pawlikowski’s site here:

http://www.pawelpawlikowski.co.uk/page3/

In 1990 National Geographic featured an article on Yugoslavia with the subheading: “A House Much Divided”. The signs had actually been there even a couple of years earlier, with increasingly restive minorities such as the Kosovo Albanians and growing Serb nationalism. In 1988 Slobodan Milosevic, then the Serb Communist Party Leader, mounted a stage at a packed political rally in Belgrade and raised the crowd to fever pitch with nationalist sentiments, declaring that Serbia was surrounded by enemies. You can see an excerpt of that speech here, in the opening stages of a very good BBC documentary, ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan made the big screen in the form of ‘Rambo III’, starring Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam vet John Rambo this time venturing alone into Afghanistan to rescue a former comrade. Rambo manages to be even more emotionally constipated than the previously mentioned Captain Barney Crispin, despite being American. The mujahideen take on their previous role with gusto, being brave, self-immolating and generally incomprehensible. Rambo III was shot largely in Israel, although one bazaar scene was filmed in Peshawar, Pakistan, and saw box office takings of $189,015,611. Here is a trailer, to spare you having to watch the whole thing:

The mujahideen had made a previous appearance on the big screen the year before, in the James Bond film ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987), starring Timothy Dalton. Bond is captured and flown to a Soviet airbase in Afghanistan (these days I suppose we would say he experienced ‘extraordinary rendition’). He escapes, freeing an imprisoned mujahideen leader, who shows his gratitude by having the base attacked by his men on horseback. It’s all terribly exciting. In a nicely ironic twist it turns out that the Russian baddie is using Soviet funds to buy opium from the mujahideen. Bond disapproves of this sort of thing, so decides to blow up the plane carrying the opium, perhaps in a precursor of NATO drug policy in Afghanistan today. I’ve found a trailer for the film which is characteristically exciting. Sharp-eyed viewers may spot that the soldier manning the checkpoint who manages to shoot Bond with blanks is in fact wearing an SAS beret. Perhaps it is the monosyllabic Captain Crispin on another mission:

While all this nonsense was going on, creating a dominant narrative in the minds of western cinema goers at least, an American filmmaker called Jeff B. Harmon was making a proper film about what was really going on in Afghanistan together with cameraman Alexander Lindsay. In fact he made a trilogy, and they are extraordinary. The clip below is from ‘Afgan’, and features a catchy pop song by the German band Modern Talking – the track in the background is called ‘Who will save the world?’

Harmon, like Kosminsky, followed Soviet units, and ‘Afgan’ is told from the Soviet perspective. He gained extraordinary access, including going on operations with Spetsnaz – Soviet special forces, or their equivalent to the SAS. The films are owned by Journeyman Pictures and are available to hire for a small fee, but there is a 10 minute clip here:

The other films in the trilogy were ‘Jihad’ and ‘The Warlord of Keyhan’. ‘Jihad’ followed mujahideen in the areas round Kunar and Kandahar. Practically for the first time viewers in the west were able to see who these people were – not have them portrayed as one-dimensional savages on horseback, incomprehensible and yet somehow on ‘our’ side. ‘The warlord of Keyhan’ tells the story of Sayed Jafar Naderi, who had previously been an employee of McDonalds in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and who had played in a heavy metal band in his free time, before heading to Afghanistan to become a provincial governor and head of a private army 12,000 strong. The clip below is from ‘Jihad’, and has a rather worthy style of commentary:

The term ‘Balkanisation’ was coined in the aftermath of the First World War to describe the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire and consequent creation of numerous smaller states in the Balkans. It’s not the only geographic term to describe a political outcome: there is also the rather interesting term Pakistanisation, to describe a partitioning along religious lines – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pakistanism . There is a school of thought that suggests that Afghanistan is so fundamentally partitioned already along ethnic and social lines that it is in many ways not a viable entity as a state at all, and that perhaps it could split into separate states, much like Yugoslavia did, in a kind of combination of Balkanisation and Pakistanisation. Afghanislavia?

The Road to Oxiana

9780099523888I tend to slip into an unconscious routine in bookshops, drawn past the endless racks of Crime and Romance, through the Bestsellers and Autobiographies to the dark corner that is Travel. Once there I make my way along the shelves, halting briefly at R for Raban, T for Thubron or C for Chatwin. One day I encountered a rogue B for Byron surrounded by slim Chatwin volumes, and I picked up “The Road to Oxiana” without the faintest idea of what I had just discovered.

In 1933-4 Robert Byron travelled to Iran (then known as Persia) and Afghanistan. It was an age before mass-tourism, and the lands that lay beyond the Oxus River were rarely visited. Persia was under the grip of the Shah, who had decided to turn the country into a police state along the lines of the fascists he so admired, and Afghanistan was if anything even more chaotic than it is today. Fascinated by Islamic architecture, Byron is drawn towards the glories of the region’s ancient past, and there are wonderfully descriptive passages on many of the sites, such as when he writes of the temples of Baalbek in Lebanon having a faintly powdery feel to the stonework like bloom upon a plum, or looking up at the magnificent Six Columns when the early morning sun paints them peach-gold against the deep blue of the sky.

Some of the descriptions in the book, especially with regard to architecture, are almost akin to a scholarly essay in the depth of knowledge Byron displays, and yet the narrative remains interesting due to his perpetual enthusiasm on the subject. On reaching Esfahan he describes the town’s beauty as stealing up on him unawares: “before you know it, Isfahan [sic] has become indelible, has insinuated itself into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures.” He compares the exquisite Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah with Versailles, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peters, and considers it more splendid than all three. In Meshed, Persia’s holiest city, Byron is drawn inexorably toward the town’s crowning glory, the Mosque of Gohar Shad. Entry is prohibited to non-Muslims, but such minor details do not deter him, and a disguise is found – burned cork to darken his complexion, a coat borrowed from the boarding house servant, the regalia topped with a Pahlevi hat. This is gripping stuff, reminiscent of Richard Burton disguising himself as an Arab to get into Mecca, but it is the mosque itself that takes centre stage, with a conglomeration of spectacular archways interspersed with minarets, liquid arabesques, vaults alive with calligraphy and turquoise Kufic script unfurling along the domes.

Strewn throughout the book are comical anecdotes and character sketches of the people he meets along the way, such as Shir Ahmad, the Afghan ambassador, who resembles a tiger and roars like one – his dialogue is marked with musical notation such as [piano] or [fortissimo] indicating the sheer volume that he produces when warming to his theme. Caustically witty, Byron captures a character neatly in a few deft phrases, whether dealing with officious policemen, snobbish Europeans, or loose-limbed Pathans in the bazaars of Herat carrying rifles decorated with roses. He lambasts the British administration in Cyprus for turning ancient ruins into a fairground by sticking up signs for tourists saying “bathhouse” or “dining room” on Roman ruins in much the same way that you’d see a sign saying “teas” or perhaps “Gents”. Nowadays, of course, such things are commonplace. With a wonderfully dry humour he makes light of his discomforts (“As I shall probably be here for the rest of my life – which won’t last long at this rate – I have decided to clean the room,”) and his discomforts are many; the fleas in an Azerbaijani guesthouse that torment them throughout the night and leave them covered in boils, hitching a lift through the desert in an open lorry full of pilgrims, or riding a horse through a snowstorm for 13 hours while stricken with dysentery. But it is the love of travel, and the urge to always go further, which draws him onwards, and which continually emerges to make this such a memorable read.

“The Road to Oxiana” is one of the great travel books; one that has often been emulated but never equalled. In my Picador edition, published in 1981 and now falling apart, there is an introduction by Bruce Chatwin speaking of his own journeys to the region and of how “The Road to Oxiana” had shaped his itinerary, and to an extent his style. At the time his introduction was written in 1980 the Russians had just invaded Afghanistan, and in it he predicts that the Afghans will rise up and do something dreadful to their invaders. History has of course proved him correct. Byron himself wanders around the ruined city of Balkh, levelled by Genghis Khan in 1220 AD, in the company of a guide who remarks: “It was beautiful until the Bolsheviks destroyed it a few years ago”, and later travels to Bamiyan, location of the famed giant Buddhas that stared out across the valley until they were blown up in a tragically ignorant act of cultural vandalism by the Taliban. History repeats itself amidst the ruins of other ages, and nowhere more frequently, or more poignantly, than in the lands beyond the Oxus.