West of Kabul
The road to West Kabul was long, black and dotted with potholes that had been created by neglect and war. The sparse traffic made slow, looping swerves to avoid them.
The last thing on the West Kabul road was a destroyed palace. Full of holes and perched upon a small hill, Darulaman Palace looked injured and dying. Faint traces of former elegance bled through the destruction; the Corinthian columns had large chunks missing while the Gothic balconies were pockmarked, frail, and looked unable to support the weight of a single person. All around the foundations of the building steel wiring burst through where the concrete had been shot. In the early morning sun the Darulaman palace, broken down and rotting, cast a lengthy shadow.
Under this shadow sat three boys who were riding their bikes around in circles. I walked up to them asked to borrow one of the bikes.
The children followed me as I began to peddle around the perimeter of Darulaman. Amused that I was riding the small red bike, their shrieking voices would reverberate off the walls of the palace.
Every few feet, black spray paint warned of ‘UX O’s’: Land mines.
Wrapped loosely around the 6 ft. high fence were coils of razor wire and wooden signs that said “This Is an I.S.A.F. And Canadian Military Establishment.”
Afghanistan was full of acronyms: W.H.O., U.N., U.S.A.I.D., W.H.O., U.N.H.C.R., and the omnipresent U.N.I.C.E.F. Everywhere I walked stenciled letters stared back at me, applied to muddy S.U.V.’s and plastered onto signs. Some were fresh and new while others had long been abandoned and left when the money had dried up.
Afghanistan was a country that had been ripped open and stuffed full of foreign things. Like the man with a baboon heart, Afghanistan was being supported by vital organs that didn’t belong.
At the corner of the property was a small command post. A solitary Canadian soldier sat overlooking the scene. He was listening to a song on the radio.
In front of the post was a small hill with a stairway that had become overgrown with weeds.
“I want to ride down the hill,” I told the soldier. I was leaning over the handle bars and squinting up into the sun.
“Uh. Hmm. Better not,” the soldier said. “There are still ordinances there.”
I gave the bike back to the kids and began to walk away.
The soldier called to me and I looked up at him.
“Hell,” he said. ‘”The sheep graze there so..I guess it’s alright. Just stay on the paths, willya?”
I took a diagonal path and scrambled down the steep hill.
The grass was dead and yellow. As far as the eye could see there was destruction and ruined buildings. Like in a Hollywood set, only the facades were standing.
The zigzagging trail led down to an empty asphalt road. This was a new street, built within the last several years as part of an international effort to revitalize the area.
On one side of this road were tall trees. Taxi drivers and old men sat in the shade drinking tea from silver samovars.
On the other side, housed in a grey building with a brand new marquee, was the Kabul Museum. To go inside cost 10 afghanis and they searched me for guns.
The woman selling the tickets was a gum-snapping, matronly Afghan with an easy smile and poofy orange hair.
The museum had been destroyed in the early 1990s during the climax of the Taliban’s scorched earth policy. Nearly everything in the museum had been looted, sold or simply vandalized beyond repair.
The museum was in a kind of civilized disarray. The ragged collection was a tribute to the cruelty of civil war. An iron bowl significant to Buddhists had been stolen and used to serve sherbet to Moslem pilgrims. There was something to this, I thought, something symbolic about the blatant unfairness of Islam. I saw it everywhere I went.
Urgent signs that line the empty walls advertised ‘Afghan Culture is in Danger!’
In 1993, a wayward rocket, launched somewhere within urban Kabul, had struck the museum. The force of the blast knocked the roof down onto the upper gallery. The museum closed.
In the following months renegade Taliban fighters shot and exploded their way into the building to loot.
The stolen artifacts made their way around the world eventually ending up in Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States. An estimated 90% of the museums holdings were sold to collectors abroad.
I sat on the steps and wondered what it would be like to be inside a building when the roof falls down. I wondered what the rocket looked like. I thought of all the times I had seen rockets in cartoons or described in sci-fi novels. Was it loud? Did it have a little yellow tail of fire? I looked up and the roof, tried to picture it coming crashing down onto me, and then walked out of the museum.
Two guards were sitting outside the museum on folding chairs.
On a pedestal next to the guard booth was a sign in old English script: A Nation Stays Alive When its Culture Stays Alive.
At the intersection, standing next to a concrete road block stood an old man with one leg.
We began to walk together onto the main road.
The man had lost his leg on a landmine, just south of here while herding sheep. He wore black pants and a dirty white sneaker.
There were no straight lines in West Kabul, no smoothness or symmetry. Nothing was clean or new. Everything had been broken and smashed then broken again. There was nothing man-made left to destroy so people destroyed one another by putting landmines in the dirt.
The crutches only came up to his waist and had little baby blue handles that he gripped. He walked easily with them, smoothly.
We walked and talked and he would look at me in between the gaps of silence that cut our conversation into segments.
I pointed at some of the destroyed buildings.
“Rus?” I asked. Russians?
“Nai, nai.” He said, clicking his tongue.
“Hekmatyar?” I tried again.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was an infamous and brutal warlord. He was responsible for the destruction of this area in the 1990s civil war.
“Hah!” (yes!) he said, and then stopped walking and balanced on one leg. He made his hand like a flying airplane.
The old-man shrugged and held out his hands, palms up. What can one do?
“Afghanistan..garm,” he said, shaking his head. Afghanistan is bad.
“Ohh..no, no,” I said. “Afghanistan good. Afghanistan good.” I wasn’t being polite. I actually thought that Afghanistan was good.
He shook his head and put on a dark expression, inconsolable. Then he stopped and spread his hands out at the direction of the rubble.
I shrugged. What can one do?
We walked past a new high school: Mamood Tarzi High School, the new English sign said.
The school had bright blue fence and its walls were freshly painted with a multicolored Afghan flag and an open book in front of a blazing yellow sun.
I pointed at the map of Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan..dost,”(friend) I said.
He stopped. “America dost!”
America is a friend.
I pointed at myself then to a building, held up my camera and began to walk away.
He protested and pointed at himself, me and made motions of drinking. He wanted to drink tea with me.
I declined and we shook hands roughly, he put his other hand to his heart and bowed his head in a sadly dignified manner.
“Dost!” he barked.
I walked over to a shell of a building, hopped over a pile of rubble and walked inside. I watched my friend click and clack down the street, all by himself. I felt a tinge of regret for not joining him.
Much of the destroyed building was in good shape; the roof was still functional and all the walls were still standing. Large chunks from the areas near the windows had been blasted away and someone had used the walls as target practice. Hundreds of bullet holes snaked around the structure.
The ingenuity of human accomplishment had built these buildings and soon afterwards created the weapons and technology to destroy them. It is the archeology of modern times; instead of letting buildings age-out, war had given man the option to crush everything flat then begin anew.
It was cool and dark inside. I sat on a window-sill and followed the linear trajectory of the bullets. I traced the line and put my finger into one of the bullet holes. Loose chunks of powder fell out and residue stuck to my fingertip. It reminded me of cocaine.
The wind picked up and an empty, bright red wrapper of strawberry biscuits spun around in tight, angry little swirls.
Above my head birds had built a nest and were fluttering around noisily. The sweet, distinctive smell of old, dried urine filled my nostrils.
At night, homeless people and beggars made their home in this place. The sharp smell of fresh shit filled the small space.
A secluded column to the left of me was filled with rubbish. Cigarettes pink tissue paper and crumpled up photos of Bollywood actresses.
I walked deeper into the building until I found a man sized hole blasted through the wall. Outside, pieces of laundry had been hung up in the sun to dry. The area had been long neglected and destroyed pieces of automobiles lay scattered, rusted, twisted metal pointing up at the sky in unnatural angles.
From behind a pile of rocks a group of children ran up to me, speaking rapidly in Farsi. They wanted me to take their photo.
They all lined up, five of them, smallest to tallest in a line. They all had the wide-eyed expectant look of someone who had come to give them a gift. It pulled at my heart. I had no gifts to give.
The continued to stand, waiting for their portrait.
“No camera,” I tried to say. I opened my little bag and held it upside down, shrugging and frowning.
Notebooks and pens tumbled out onto the ground. The children thought this was funny, jumping up and down with laughter. A little girl dove for the pens the way children in luckier places jump for candy from a pinata.
“No camera,” I said again, holding my hands out. They weren’t listening. They had new pens.
One of the children was mentally disabled. His clothes were dirty and his face was matted with dirt and drool. He began to shout. He walked up very close to me and screamed in my face.
This boy bent down and picked up a large hunk of reddish rock and held it above his head.
He quickly reeled back to throw the rock at my head.
There was nothing I could do. I closed my eyes and waited for it to hit me, waited for the blood and unconsciousness that would follow.
It never came. The rock went wildly off the mark, flying high up into the air and landing harmlessly onto the dirt ground.
I opened my eyes and saw the children standing and staring at me, grinning as if we had just finished a game.
By now it was high noon. The blazing heat created a hazy mirage on the flat road.
There were soldiers on the side of the road, standing and watching traffic. I stood near them and watched the battered yellow taxi cabs drive in-between the convoy of green armoured vehicles. I liked the way dullness of the olive green would clash with the sharpness of the searing yellow taxis.
The traffic drove in synchronous slow motion to avoid the potholes in the road. The whole scene had an ephemeral quality about it; olive green and yellow mixing upon a hazy black road within a backdrop of brown hills. The mirage made the vehicles look like they were floating on air on a bed of fumes.
I walked across the street and found a school for blind children.
I had once read a Spanish novel about a man who had been convinced blind people secretly ruled the world. They would communicate via secret messages in Braille. The novel ended with the man so obsessed in his theory, he blinded himself so he could know for sure.
An old man opened the gate for me and I walked into a gravel lot. In front of the squat grey building was a pleasant garden growing ripe tomatoes.
I went inside the building and found a man sitting at a large desk huddled over a large sheet with a chart on it.
He greeted me and ushered me into a spacious office.
“We love guests. Ali Reza,” he said, introducing himself and shaking my hand. “Head administrator.”
I asked where the students where.
“On break,” he told me. “Now, because of the heat, we take ten days off. After three more days, the students will return.”
“This is government school. Government Vocational School for the Blind. Even though it is public, we survive mainly on foreign help,” he explained. “Donations.”
“The plot of land had been donated by the king’s son about 30 years ago. Since that time,” he said, “we have had a most difficult existence. As you can see,” he looked out the window, “this area was the site of problems..during the time of Mujaheddin was most difficult for us. During the civil war this.. West Kabul was the frontlines. All the buildings had been destroyed. It was a target because there,” he walked over the window and pointed at Darulaman Palace, “was the defense ministry. So,” Ali made a disgusted face and raised his hands above his head, wriggling his fingers downward, “‘all the time this…bombing..like rain!”
“The school had been destroyed in the fighting,” he explained.
I visualized dozens of small, blind Afghan children running around like mice, bombs dropping all around.
“It had been hit at night so thank god there were no students here. We couldn’t be in this area..it was far too dangerous so we had to move to another building, a rented building..in southern Kabul.”
“This was hard for the students, you see. They had become used to the old place, they knew it, so to speak. For blind children, stability is important because when there is a place they know and can confidently move around in, it helps their self esteem. So, in some ways we had to start over. We had to start from scratch in this new place, the students had to get used to the new atmosphere. It sounds..trivial but matters a lot for blind people.”
“What was worse is we had to refuse the girls. During the time of the king, young girls could go to school. For the first time we had to refuse them. With vocational education, women could have some sort of chance here. With nothing their fate will be difficult.”
“After 9/11, the building had been rebuilt again. We have about 130 students, about 40 of which are female. It’s a vocational programme, the students learn things to help them get jobs.”
“Like what,” I asked. I was once in a vocational programme. It was marketed toward high school dropouts and other Bad Kids. They taught me to be a short order cook.
“For the females they learn basket weaving, knitting, tailoring and the boys learn brush making, computer classes and music. Some students have graduated here and entered Kabul University where they have become teachers.”
“But, this is sad year for our little school. Two ladies have left; one remarried her former husband who now lives in Dubai. He cannot come back to Afghanistan so she will go to Dubai and the other has retired. If we cannot replace them, which I don’t think we can, the program will be closed. In fact. The program will be closed because we haven’t the money to carry on.”
“Do they kids know?” I asked.
“We plan to tell them this week. I don’t want to do it. It pains me. Without this school. These kids will have no future, no opportunity. It will be very difficult for them.”