Afghanistan’s ancient capital Kabul is an unexpected place in this visit by a Pakistani woman writer: more than a city under foreign military occupation, or a city besieged by cruel Pathan tribesmen; it is a real metropolis trying to move forward, dragging its long and difficult history with it. Incomprehensible and hilarious encounters with intelligence services, dusty and forgotten art galleries, and the all-seeing eye of American surveillance, from The Friday Times‘ Frida Khan:
Kabul. Najibullah hanging limply from a lamp post. Black and white photos of the ‘Paris-of-the-East’ cabarets and cinemas. A truckload of Taliban, wild beards and wilder eyes, driving triumphantly through the city. The easy smile of Khalid Hosseini on the inside flap of The Kite Runner. A blue bundle in a stadium ground, shot through the head amidst the cheers of hundreds of spectators. Karzai’s coats. Suicide vests.
But as I drive from the airport to the hotel I am met by quite an ordinary city. Pakistan-like with its tangles of traffic, unafraid pedestrians, rows of open-fronted shops selling everything from plastic buckets to plasma TVs, low-hanging electric wires, open manholes, security checks and most bizarrely larger-than-life pictures of Nawaz Sharif beaming benevolently upon the people below (he was due to visit Kabul that day for a quick meeting with Karzai I later discover). I wonder to myself if I might not have visited Peshawar instead and experienced perhaps, a greater sense of novelty.
In winter, Kabul comes across as a dull city, dusty, earthy, muddy. So our first stop at the Pakistan Embassy is a welcome contrast. It is housed in a beautiful colonial building with elegant, arched walkways, thick grass, rose beds and patterned floors; an architectural oasis, gleaming white amidst the brown. The high-rises that encircle it however, are apparently, not just eyesores; they are eyes. From this vantage point, intelligence agencies keep an eye on the embassy activities below.
An artist’s rendition of Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul. Photo: Frida Khan in The Friday Times.
“Distrust of Pakistanis runs deep”, we are told by our friend and colleague, Khurshid Marwat, Commercial Counsellor in Kabul, and we hear of how this building has borne the brunt of discontent. In September 1995 the Taliban militia captured Herat, in what was widely believed to be a Pakistani assisted takeover. In anger, on 6 September, 1995, 5,000 protestors attacked and ransacked the embassy of Pakistan in Kabul. One person was killed, a Pakistani cleaner who just that morning had been proudly showing off his new clothes. Twenty-six others, including the Pakistani ambassador, were injured. The Ambassador’s residence was burnt to the ground, and there was a point when Pakistan was considering selling the land and remains for USD 100 million and moving the Pakistan mission into a rented building. The former Ambassador however, stopped the sale, and set about restoring the building and bringing it stone by stone to its current state today.
Though the buildings have been restored, trust between the two countries, has not. “Keep a low profile”, we are warned. “Don’t walk in the streets after sunset. Don’t draw attention to yourselves being Pakistanis. Don’t take photos.”
So, that same evening, as soon as the sun sets and a dusty, golden glow has settled on Kabul, Qadir says, “Let’s go for a walk and take some photos”. Being a good wife, I oblige and we take with us an equally obliging Dr Manzoor, former Ambassador to the WTO in Geneva.
The streets are packed with men and a far more than expected number of women, not in blue burkas, but rather smart, Iranian style coats, trousers and colourful scarves. Cars are mostly old sedan styles and plenty. Security personnel are many, surly and burly. But the evening is pleasant and walking down to Shahr-e-Nau we get a glimpse of the old Kabul, the elegant city that it is famed to have been; you can see it in its wide pavements lined with water channels, in its old trees with their branches forming a canopy overhead, in the dignified strength of the features of its people and in its wooden, cracked-paint shop fronts.
Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo CC: Ninara.
And it’s in front of one of these shops that we stop, Shah M Book Co.
The shop is like something from a fairy tale. Rickety, twisty and musty, books everywhere, lined in orderly disorder, from floor to ceiling, in stacks under the stairs, piled on tables, peeping out from behind maps and paintings, and we tread carefully, awed in the presence of such art and erudition. We quickly realise that this is not just any ordinary bookshop, but it belongs in fact to Shah Muhammad Rais, better known to us as Sultan Khan in Asne Seierstad’s ‘Bookseller of Kabul‘. That is perhaps the only book you will not find in this bookshop though, as the owner strongly disputed Seierstad’s account of his life based on living with his family for several months, and went on to sue the author.
We are excited. And so we do what any tourist would do. We take a photo.
And then we walk on. Well, we try to walk on, but there are some men with guns pointed at us, blocking our path. I smile and say ‘excuse me’ but in reply they cock their guns. With a flick of their heads and a nudge of their guns, they herd us towards the next building of which only a tall, thick, impenetrable outer wall can be seen. We go through the gate and are asked to stand against a wall that I notice is streaked with what I hope is nothing more than red paint. We stand under a weak yellow light and our passports, mobile phones and room keys are confiscated. A man appears out of the darkness. He is pot-bellied and yellow-eyed. He says something we don’t understand. Qadir decides to take the friendly approach.
“Hum Pakistan hain, hum mehmaan hain, hum tasweer layta.” [Roughly, ‘We are guests from Pakistan taking pictures] he says in a good impersonation of the Afghan-style Urdu many of the taxi drivers, hotel staff and shopkeepers that we have met, speak. However, our interrogator does not warm to us. He snarls and then launches into what comes across as a game of Dumb Charades. If Hollywood were to make a film called ‘Picture of Death’, I doubt anyone could do a better enactment of it than our interrogator. He manages to become simultaneously an evil photographer, his grotesque subject and the brave executioner. But before we can say, ‘three words?’ another man shimmers in out of the darkness, a bigger-bellied and yellower-eyed version of original interrogator, and dismisses his junior with a few indecipherable words. He takes one of our confiscated phones, Dr Manzoor’s, and walks towards us.
‘Aqs-e-Mamnun’, he says. “Yay NDS ka daftar”. NDS is Afghanistan’s equivalent of our ISI, in every manner.
Dr Manzoor catches on. “We didn’t photograph your office. We took a photo of Frida outside the bookshop. Look, I will show you”, and Dr Manzoor indeed proceeds to show him. But it seems that though Dr Manzoor has spent a lot of time chronicling his life with his phone camera, he has not given much thought to actually learning to use its functions. As a result, Dr Manzoor is unable to locate the offending photo. So we spend instead an entertaining, it should be said, half hour, heads bent in a circle, over his phone, looking at each of the 658 photos he is able to locate. The atmosphere has become quite convivial.
“Daant may dard”, Dr Manzoor says to explain a photo of the inside of his mouth.
“Shaadi” he says, which serves to cover the following 150 photos of a couple sitting on a stage.
We come to a picture of Dr. Manzoor’s UPS. “Bomb?” asks our captor. “Nahin, bijli box,” says Dr Manzoor coolly, and swipes on.
Finally we come to the last photo, a rather grainy photo of me standing outside the book shop. And though there is no sign of the NDS office or any NDS person in the picture, the NDS official clearly wants him to delete it. But Dr Manzoor doesn’t know how to. And neither does Qadir. And nor do I. The senior captor goes outside and looks up and down the street, presumably looking for an eight-year old, but there are none out at this time.
He comes back. We try again. But the photo, much in the spirit of Omar Khayyam’s moving finger which having writ moved on, refuses to be deleted.
Qadir’s phone rings. The armed guard hands it over. It is Khurshid Marwat. He is waiting for us at dinner.
“We’ve been held up”, explains Qadir.
“By traffic?” asks Khurshid.
“No, by the NDS”.
Khurshid’s voice wobbles.
Perhaps I should say, ‘only wobbles’ because what he was actually experiencing, as he describes to us later, is pure, white, blinding anger at our insolence for not taking his warning seriously and a hollow, black bleakness as dark as the dungeon where he expected we would be living out the rest of our lives.
But minutes later, Khurshid has put together his negotiating team and has raced through the streets of Kabul to arrive at the NDS headquarters. The negotiators get to work; there is much waving of arms, furrowing of brows, threats of walking away, smiling, frowning, until finally hands are shaken. There is suddenly such a spirit of joy and geniality all round that I am almost tempted to suggest a group photo before we leave.
Undeterred by the previous night’s experience, or perhaps emboldened by the Pakistan Embassy’s protection, the next day we are out again with the camera. We have a new driver today, Ahmad. He used to work as a carpenter in the US military base in Kabul, but as the forces are preparing to leave, many locals like him are now looking for jobs elsewhere, usually having to accept much lower wages. Ahmad feels he is lucky to find this job with Serena as a driver, and though he is new to the job he enjoys taking people around Kabul. He offers to take us on a city tour.
“Look here”, he says beginning the tour by pointing into a narrow lane leading into cluster of houses off the main road, “My father house”.
We reach the second stop. “Look here,” he says pointing to a line of fruit and vegetable carts. “My father was selling fruit”.
A little further along the road we slow down at the base of a dusty hill. “Look here,” he says, “My father killed in bomb”.
And before we can react, he drives up into the hill, right and left, past houses, small shops and wooden shacks with big, long chappatis strung along the fronts like clothes hung out to dry, and stops at a graveyard.
“Look here,” he says, “My father buried here”.
It is disquieting how the death of a loved one completely changes the way you see the world.
But luckily for us, Ahmad’s father’s journey through life was not similar to the journey a tourist might make through Kabul. We are standing on the same hill on which the remains of Bala Hissar, an old fort from the 5th century, still stand. Though most of the walls have crumbled away, it is still easy to see how the fort must have provided the perfect vantage point to watch over the city.
And the need to watch over the city is still strong even now, so many centuries later. Qadir takes his camera out to take a photo. Ahmad panics and motions to him to put it away.
“Prohibited”, he warns.
“But no one can see us”, says Qadir.
“Look here,” Ahmad says pointing up into the sky. “He can see us”.
We look up. God? But then I see it. A large, white, cigar-shaped blimp in the sky.
“Drone?” I ask.
“No,” says Ahmad solemnly, “Camera. Always watching”.
This is the dirigible; a white 117-foot-long surveillance balloon belonging to the US military
constantly surveying the city from the skies of Kabul. The cameras are rumoured to be so powerful that even from 1500 feet high they can see the time on a person’s wristwatch. The Americans value them for helping them detect roadside bombs being planted or any suspicious movement through the city, but many of the residents resent their intrusiveness, complaining that they can’t even let their women sleep on rooftops as they have traditionally done in summer, any more.
Now that I have seen it once, I see it all the time. It is with us when we visit the National Gallery. The Gallery is housed in an elegant, unimposing, colonial style building which became quite the symbol of quiet insurrection against the Taliban. Considering they liked to come across as a fearless lot, the Taliban were strangely threatened by the Gallery’s collection of portraits and took to ripping the defenceless subjects’ faces apart to purify the collection of representations of people. The gallery staff, some of them artists themselves, managed to save many of the pictures by painting over them, turning a face into a flower or a woman into a tree. I feel it is a pity then that the gallery is evidently so unvisited. When we arrive, the staff spend a good number of minutes unlocking rooms, turning on light switches, opening up curtains, and dusting down the exhibits. But I can see they love their collection. They take us from room to room explaining in broken English the people in the portraits, the painters of the landscapes and finally to the tranquil Garden of Hope and Peace. And when we leave, the whole place is locked down again.
The next morning the blimp follows us 10 kilometres out of Kabul to Qargah Lake, a popular picnic and boating spot. It watches patiently as we chat to some young women and men visiting from university. It keeps an eye on our car as we take a walk along the shore, and then follows us back to the city and up to Bagh-e-Babur.
Baghe e Babur, Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo CC: Ninara.
The Bagh-e-Babur gardens start at the base of a hill and are set up along the gentle slope, with a water channel running through the centre with fruit trees and flower beds along the terraces. At the top is the white, marble-latticed tomb of Babur, the first Mughal king. Though he spent his last years further south in Delhi, it was Kabul he yearned for. “Our concern for going thence (to Kabul) is limitless and overwhelming,” he wrote to a friend, the year before his death. “How can one forget the pleasures of that country?” And though he did not see Kabul again during his life, his son, according to Babur’s wishes recorded in his journal, the Baburnama, moved his body from its original burial place in Agra in 1544, here, to one of his father’s favourite gardens in Kabul, and made him a “modest grave open to the sky”.
It is not only the sky his grave is now open to but also the gaze of his many hundreds of neighbours living in houses stacked one on top of the other, connected by labyrinthine streets, built onto the surrounding hillsides. These onlookers were for many years, parts of warring factions who fought their battles positioned on opposite hills, exchanging bullets and shells that regularly passed over, and often into, the royal gardens. When the Agha Khan Trust for Culture came to Bagh-e-Babur in 2003, they found nothing more than pock-marked ruins. Using historical descriptions of the gardens, paintings, drawings and archeological discovery, the Trust carefully and truthfully, restored Babur’s grave, the gardens, and subsequent additions such as Shah Jehan’s mosque back to their original grandeur.
This cycle of construction, destruction and reconstruction is evident throughout the city. Often, the ruins of the old buildings are indistinguishable from the beginnings of new ones, both equally plentiful in Kabul.
Dar-ul-Aman for instance, looks from afar like a grand monster of a mansion under construction, but as we draw closer it is clear that is only a ghost of past glory. King Amanullah’s Palace, quite contrary to its name, House of Peace (also House of Amanalluh), stands in devastated testament to the war that has gripped Afghanistan for so many years. Where there was once drapery and dancing, finery and feasting, there are now only the empty echoes of war, bullet holes and scorch marks, rubble and ruin. But though the palace is abandoned it is not unused; young men are playing football in the gardens and families have gathered on prayer mats for some target practice against the walls.
Dar-ul-Aman, Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo CC: Bruce McRae.
On the other hand, the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque looks more like a palace than a place of prayer. It stands rather awkwardly on a bend in the road, a smoky stream of traffic on one side and the sludgy river Kabul on the other, trying in vain to rise above the mess by standing high on a flight of stairs, rather like a conscientious lady might gather her skirt about her lest it brushed against the dirt beneath only to have a bird poop on her from overhead.
It is named the ‘Mosque of the King with Two Swords’ after a 7th century Muslim commander and swordsman so skilled that he would fight with two swords, one in each hand, but with its blue and yellow, white-edged, stucco front and its high windows and stylish chandeliers, it looks more like a tribute to a ballroom dancer who perhaps was so skilled he could waltz with two ladies at a time, one on each arm.
Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque. Photo: Frida Khan in The Friday Times.
The Shah-do-Shamshira mosque is one of the few, intact, remaining architectural reminders of King Amanaullah’s modernisation of Afghanistan in the 1920s. He invited architects from France, Italy and Austria to work with local masons to design ‘Ain-ul-Emarat’, ‘eye-catching’ buildings inspired by European palaces, very different from the Islamic designs that preceded them, the spartan styled Soviet buildings that succeeded them and the nondescript urban-block design that currently dominates.
Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo CC: UK ministry of defense.
Amanullah’s modernisation drive also included the promotion of equality and individual freedom. He introduced a progressive constitution, established schools for boys and girls and overturned traditions that governed strict dress codes for women. Amanullah would have been sad to see the downward spiral his country was eventually sucked into. But as it struggles out of the vortex, he would have probably drawn hope from the old Afghan proverb: ‘In the ditch where water has flowed, it will flow again’.