TAKEN FORM THE DAWN MAGAZINE
The lost glory of Kabul
By Murtaza Mankani
Kabul may have lost a lot during the two decades of fighting, but its
shattered present reminds all of its glorious past
I sing bright praises to her colourful tulips,
The beauty of her trees makes me blush.
How sparkling the water flows from Pul-i-Mastaan!
May Allah protect such beauty from the evil eye of man!
- Saib-e-Tabrizi (17Th Century)
As we got off the aircraft, we followed a string of visitors into a huge
hall, who I imagined knew their way about this place. There weren't any
directions of course. Inside the hall we were immediately greeted by our
host "Welcome, Welcome to Kabul." And after a quick exchange in Dari between
our host and the airport staff, our passports were duly stamped and we were
swiftly escorted out of the airport and into the waiting 4x4.
At the exit, another visitor from Pakistan looked about tentatively,
wondering whether it was safe at all to hire a cab, cognizant of the fact
that his countrymen were not always welcome here. But after a little help
from our host he managed to find a reliable cabbie and headed in the same
direction as we did.
It was mid-December and Kabul had yet to receive snow. But that did not stop
the fresh mountain air to making its presence felt. The denuded trees were
ominous of what lay ahead, or so I supposed. As the cars eased out of the
airport, we were greeted by roads in pretty good condition, only slightly
better than Karachi's. A couple of kilometres down the road, the city seemed
even quite different from what we in Pakistan would perceive Kabul to be. No
bombed out buildings and the roads were clogged with vehicular traffic. In
the process, we even witnessed our first Kabul traffic jam. Station wagons
are the more popular mode of vehicular transport in Kabul. By the time we
arrived at our hotel, the only evidence of the wars were the armoured
vehicles of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This was
indeed a different of Kabul.
Once we stepped through the huge revolving doors of the hotel, we were
transported to an entirely different era. The tall, smartly dressed doorman
beaming ceaselessly from behind his heavy moustache, ushered us into the
lobby. Part of the lobby was converted into an exhibition of Afghan
artifacts, gems and jewellry. The front desk too looked like a legacy of a
bygone era, pressed into service by a hurried coat of wood polish and buffed
brass letters that read 'RECEPTION' and 'CASHIER'. We made our way into the
rooms and settled for the night.
The next morning I gathered my camera and film to take a trip about town. We
began where most guided tours of Kabul used to begin in the good old days.
After travelling around the Shahrah-e-Nau and the Wazir Akbar Khan areas we
headed for Mandei, the wholesale market. It was like descending into a sea
It had rained a day earlier and the mud had turned into slush. Traders,
nevertheless, waded through and it was business as usual. Khobardar ...
Khobardar shouted the cart pushers who transported goods (and sometimes
people) from warehouses to shops. Buyers traded freely in four currencies,
the old Afghan, the new Afghan (equal to a thousand old Afghans), the
Pakistani Rupee and of course the US Dollar.
Zigzagging our way from one street to another we finally managed to get to
the dry fruit compound. A variety of nuts, raisins and pistachios sat in
mountain formation at the stalls here. The late afternoon sun soaked through
the faded awnings to add a tinge of yellow and gave the place its distinct
That evening as we sat down for an early dinner with our host, the talk
revolved around the glorious days the city had seen. Our host promised to
take us around to see some more of the city the following day and with that
assurance we shifted the discussion to politics. After a sumptuous meal of
dhurma (capsicum filled with mince), we turned our attention to the evening
news on Kabul television. These days this was the highlight of the evening
as city dwellers tuned into the four-hour evening transmission to update
themselves on the news and the following analysis on their country.
For some, the cultural songs that followed the news was reaffirmation that
the country was well and truly out of the dark hour of being ruled by a
fanatic group of self proclaimed custodians of religion and morality.
On my return to the hotel, I invested five dollars on the Internet that the
hotel provided in their business lounge to get in touch with my part of the
world, which although close, seemed a world away.
The next day we made our way to that part of Kabul that had been worst hit
by the war. Beyond our hotel is the plateau of Bagh-e-Bala that once served
as a summer retreat for marching armies. The greenery here still served as a
refreshing contrast to the otherwise barren landscape.
We drove onwards to Karte Parwan, where for well over a kilometre, both
sides of the road were lined with imported, used vehicles. Here, a 4x4 cost
a mere Rs1.5 million, much below the cost of these vehicles in neighbouring
Finally driving beyond the hills that dotted the center of Kabul, we entered
the part of city which narrated a tale of war and suffering; the Karte Seh
and Karte Char sectors. Many buildings here had only a facade riddled with
bullet holes to tell their story of death and destruction. Still many didn't
even have that. A smashed neon sign stubbornly held on to a building
indicting where a cinema theatre once stood. Yet other city monuments and
buildings succumbed to the ravages of war.
We drove on from the Deh Afghanan towards the Dar ul Aman Palace. Built by
King Amanullah Ghazi, this grand piece of architecture was the crowning
glory of the prosperous city Kabul once was. Its imposing structure has
weathered many an attempt to devastate and annihilate Kabul's remarkable
history. It stands today, as awe inspiring in its crumbling form as it was
in its hey days. As our host recounted the Palace's history, one can feel
the reverence in his tone.
Further on to the Kabul University, the guide points towards the Faculty of
Engineering where he was educated. He grieves for its lost grandeur. As he
speaks of his days as a freshman there he talks slowly forcing to summon up
bits and pieces out of his fading memory. Quite understandably, his mind
wants to gloss over the devastation, while his heart refuses to let go of
recollections of better days.
On our way back to the Hotel, we pass many other icons of Kabul that are
close to the hearts of people here. The prestigious Habibia School, the
serene Chilistoon Park and the grave of Mughal emperor Babar. As the sunset
cast long shadows on this beautiful city, I lamented that God had chosen not
to protect such beauty from the evil eye of man.
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