The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Herat Part 1 – Afghanistan

The Triplegem Afgan Expedition: Herat Part 1


20 August 2005 – Herat
Ah, the simple joy of finally sleeping late after three days of before dawn departures. I showered, dressed in shalwar-kameez and went out at about 8:30. I headed to a juice bar kitty-corner from the hotel – I felt more like something cool and fruity than hot and greasy. I walked in and suddenly found myself in a Bollywood movie – colored neon lights, mirrors, bright colors, shining chrome – a fractal version of the modern world through a Hindi kaleidoscope. The TV was running Hindi music videos, song and dance scenes from popular Bollywood spectaculars. In Herat when you ask for a mango milk shake you get pudding in a bowl with ice cream, and chopped pistachio nuts. I had one for breakfast everyday I was there. Indian satellites beaming the Bollywood versions of the modern Western world probably acts as a suitable filter for Afghan Culture. India has a big influence in Afghanistan these days. In my opinion India can be a good role model for developing countries in the region.

After breakfast I walked towards the Jama Masjid – the Great Friday Mosque of Herat, one of my favorite mosques in the entire world. There are a few antique shops along the left side of the street as you approach, and more around the corner. Last trip I had seen quite a few nice things, but this time it was almost all modern Chinese fakes, and not even good fakes, at that.

I admired the park in front of the mosque as I sauntered down the well-kept lanes. I took great photos, including a few inside the tile-making workshop, as well as some nice angles on a really old section of the 1200-year-old shrine. After a few more shots I checked the map on my photocopy of the LP guide and headed for the Marco Polo Hotel to check it out as an alternative to the moldering Mowafaq. It was a brand new hotel, built since the last time I was there. The walk took me to an area of Herat that I was unfamiliar with, so I savored the experience. I noticed a good-looking restaurant on the corner when I hung a left to walk to the Marco Polo and I made a mental note of it for the return journey.

It was new all right, with nice gray marble facing, like most of the new buildings in Herat. The office was on the ground floor in the back, and the Internet café was there as well. After they showed me what the rooms and restaurant looked like, they turned on the air-conditioning and I caught up on my email. The rooms were too expensive for my taste, as well as being impersonal, and the cheapest ones had neither an outside window nor a toilet, yet were more expensive than my room at the Mowafaq. The Internet was wonderful. Three years before they were really craving an Internet connection, so I was sure it must be changing the local lifestyle. Herat was always the most cultured city in Afghanistan. Shah Rukh, Tamerlane’s son, ruled the Timurid Empire from there. Ironically, Shah Rukh Khan was the reigning Bollywood star at the moment. I spent two air-conditioned hours catching up on email – why, Afghanistan was becoming downright civilized.

I stopped for lunch at the Brother’s Mohabbat Gaznavi Restaurant that I had noted earlier, and it was great. The old malang (I could tell by his beads) man who took my order even spoke some English, so I let him practice on me. After lunch I passed along the side of the Jama Masjid as I was walking back to my hotel – it was hot and the inner courtyard looked cool and peaceful. I slipped in, took off my Teva sandals and found a quiet place on the side to sit in the shade and contemplate the True Nature of the Ultimate Reality. Very holy, very intense, very peaceful… Waves of spirituality seemed to ripple from the white marble tiles and permeated the sanctuary with a special air, almost like an invisible incense.

After maybe half an hour of quiet introspection, I talked to several old men who were standing not too far away. They were quite photogenic (one of them even looked surprisingly like Osama Bin Laden himself, though The Great Friday Mosque of Herat seemed an unlikely place for the CIA to hide their main bogeyman on the current political stage). They were also friendly and inquisitive about life in Japan and the West. With the help of my two small dictionaries and the recent practice I had had on the road from Mazar, I think I was able to communicate with them quite adequately. Eventually they left me alone to enter the mosque for the noon prayers.

Then the prayers ceased and the courtyard started to fill with departing worshippers. It didn’t take long for someone to spot me – I like to blend in and have a low profile, but I don’t expect to ever be invisible. As much as I admire Sir Richard Francis Burton as Funky Traveler Extraordinaire, I never expect to be taken for a local. I started talking with a polite young man with a full black beard, and the Brownian motion of the milling crowd made a phase transition and I became the center of a strange attraction. Eyes like black marbles stared from hawk-faces. One ex-Muj with a single eye lead the grilling.

My answers circulated quickly through the crowd, rippling on a muffled muttering, and the vibe noticeably shifted, became tenser, and slightly xenophobic. Crowds can crystallize into mobs in the blink of an eye, and mobs can be dangerous in Afghanistan. In 1841 a mob of Kabulis put a quick end to the career of the famous explorer and British political Agent Maj. Sir Alexander ‘Bukhara’ Burnes. It was a massacre – no one survived, except for Flashman, of course. In 1979, here in Herat, a mob had risen against the Russians and killed every man, woman and child, over 300 of them, in a single convulsion of fear and anger. No, I didn’t want to provoke a crowd in Afghanistan into turning into a rabid mob. One slip of the tongue here could be deadly. Then there came THE question, the one you always get in Afghanistan. There is no one correct answer, it all depends on who you are and what you think you can get away with.

The question? “Are you Moslem?”

My answer: “La Illaha, Illalah, Mohammad Rassool Allah!” ‘There are no lesser gods, but only the One Ultimate God, and Mohammad is His Prophet!’ Memorize it, this mantra could save your life.

I’ve heard apocryphal tales of journalists lives being spared by Taliban and fundamentalists when they spoke these words. They are very powerful in Islam, so you must utter them with sincerity. Instantly the tenor of the crowd changed, the magic words rippled through the gathering so that even the graybeards in the back knew within seconds. There was much patting on the back, the young man who I had been talking to at first even gave me his wooden tabzi, his Moslem mala, or rosary, of 99 beads, and he gave me a special Arabic mantra to recite with it. Whew, it worked, and I soon made my excuses and slipped away. No need to push my luck.

On the way back to my hotel I passed a shop that was crowded with Spanish ISAF soldiers. I stopped to chat with them for a bit. One of them spoke excellent English. They had just recently lost 15 men to a helicopter crash, but they were friendly. As I left I told them what a great job I thought they were doing. I even mentioned my view that the Americans were making too many enemies by bombing wedding parties and inadvertently causing other collateral damage. Now that Ishmael Khan had been removed to Kabul as the Minister of Mines, his factional militia could still cause problems and the ISAF soldiers made a great buffer to keep the peace between the Government troops and the locals. This was what NATO was for, and not the macho game the US troops were playing on the border. That only provided a target to frustration and vendetta, creating more of a problem than it solved.

When I reached the traffic circle I made an important discovery – the juice stand where I had eaten breakfast also had fresh pomegranate juice. There is only one thing I enjoy in the world more than fresh mango shakes and that’s a tall, cool glass of freshly-made pomegranate juice. From the ascetic purity of one of the most powerful mosques in the Islamic world, I segued into the Bollywood parallel universe (BollyWorld?) – mirrored neon, Hindi music and gyrating colorful dancers on the SONY – and enjoyed the exquisitely sharp taste of the ruby-colored elixir.

I got back to my room before 1:00 p.m., the heat of the day. I took a shower and lay on my bed in the fan-blown breeze while I took my vitamins and CoQ10, my first since Mazar. I read and rested until 4:00, then went out to see the minarets. The hot wind blew clouds of dust but at least the blazing sun was angled and cooler. The cement monument at the traffic circle was plastered amazingly high with election posters. I planned to be out of the country at election time, since Afghan-style democracy could be quite violent. The minarets are impressed on my memory from the first time I saw them in the summer of 1972. They looked precarious then, and now the one in the garden of Gowhar Shad, Shah Rukh’s wife, is held up with steel cables. I can’t imagine it lasting much longer. I gathered small bits of blue glazed tile from off the ground. The wind has been tearing at the arabesques for over 500 years and new ones are constantly coming off.

I stopped at a 1 Af lemonade stand, even less hygienic than the ones in Mazar. I was that thirsty! I walked slowly down one of the main streets back to my hotel. Many new shops had appeared in the last three years, and new Western fashions were being worn by most of the children. Even many of the women were wearing blue jeans under their short burkas or dark coats. Their toenails were painted crimson as well. I stopped at a shop and bought a stainless steel cup, made in China, then stopped for more pomegranate juice before returning to the hotel. The room was hot, but the balcony was comfortable. I watched the sunset and the lights come on as I listened to music and read. I went out for dinner at 7:30 and had street stall naan and potato rolls, but I took them to my favorite juice shop and had more pomegranate juice and watched Hindi music videos while I ate dinner. It was interesting to watch how the other patrons reacted to the videos.

After dinner I sat on my balcony for a long time, thinking and watching the lights of nighttime Herat. My next goal was to arrange a ride to the Minaret of Jam – somehow.