My sole trip to Kabul was in the year 2008 when I had gone to attend a seminar on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to mark his 20th death anniversary at the Kabul University. Till then, Kabul, and Afghanistan for that matter, was little more than an occasional literary motif: Tagore’s short story ‘Kabuliwalla’ and Iqbal’s hortatory poetry urging the Afghan people to awaken and arise, such as:
Rumi badle, Shaami badle, badla Hindustan
Tu bhi ai farzand-e Kohistan apni khudi pehchan
O ghafil Afghan, Apni khudi pehchan!
More than any other Urdu poet, Iqbal has written about the Afghan with empathy and admiration going so far as to dedicate his collection Payaam-e-Mashriq to the King of Afghanistan.
Instead of the ‘graveyard of empire’ that western historians have generally seen Afghanistan as, for Iqbal it was the beating heart of Asia, the cradle of civilisations.
In more recent times, there have been poets such as Zehra Nigah writing about the fate of girls denied entry into schools under the Taliban in poems such as Kahani Gul Zamina ki and the plight of boy soldiers forced to bear arms as their world is systematically destroyed by surgical strikes of American remote-controlled drones in lyrical, pathos-driven yet politically astute poems such as in Qissa Gul Badhshah ka:
Log kahte hain ye amn ki jang hai
Amn ki jañg meinh amla-aavar
Sirf bachchon ko be-dast-o-paa chhorhte hain
Unn ko bhooka nahin chhorhte
Aaḳhir insaaniyat bhi koi chiiz hai
Then, there were the other references to Afghans in Urdu poetry and popular culture, a sentiment best expressed in this humorous ditty by Hari Chand Akhtar:
Kaha Kabul chale jaen, kaha Kabul chale jaao
Kaha Afġhan ka dar hai, kaha Afġhan to hoga
The trip to Kabul would break all such pre-conceived notions.
Kabul in 2008, A Shattered Capital Trying to Get Back to Normalcy
My Air India flight to Kabul was half empty; it had only a smattering of aid workers, motley service providers, and a handful of ‘medical tourists’ returning home after treatment in Delhi hospitals. The Kabul International Airport was small and empty too; it seemed to have more helicopters than aircraft and more UN planes than international airliners.
The horror and devastation visited upon poor benighted Afghanistan by the Mujahideen was very much in evidence in its shattered capital. Shelled out buildings, large bald patches on the surrounding hills where trees had been indiscriminately felled and every bit of twig and bark used up as fuel and fodder, machine-gun totting security personnel, and the ubiquitous sand-bagged barricades greeted us.
But being ‘Hindi', Indians were dostum at large and wearing a sari, I was frequently subjected to friendly interrogations.
Of course, the de rigueur question was about Tulsi: “Aur Tulsi kaisi hain?” (she being the long-suffering daughter-in-law of one of the longest-running saas-bahu serials on Indian television, and now a central minister, who seemed to have a near-manic fan following among Afghan women). India clearly was close to the Afghan people and not merely due to the popularity of its Hindi films and television soaps.
Indian aid was helping build roads, setting up hospitals, drafting the Constitution, even building the Parliament.
At the seminar, speaker after speaker urged the nation to heed the words of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, ‘the hero of non-violence’, known to us in India as Frontier Gandhi, and revered by Pakhtuns as Bachcha Khan (aka Badshah Khan). This gentle giant stood tall among his countrymen for creating a sense of Pakhtun identity that had dignity and confidence, and yet was inclusive of a larger worldview.
The irony then was unmistakable, it seems ever more glaring today: That a country ravaged by internecine warfare for half a century where the army has been the single largest employer, where boys barely out of infancy are encouraged to take up arms, should so adore a man and uphold his teachings as the only way to bring about lasting peace.
While, on the one hand, it was heartening to see that the forces of sectarianism had not yet mowed down this tall poppy of the Indian freedom movement, it was disconcerting to be told that the Congress, never one for referendums, showed indecent haste in taking a referendum in the North West Frontier Province and thus abandoned the Khudai Khitmatgars to their fate!
Outside the University’s oasis of relative calm, Kabul was a shattered city; slowly picking up its broken pieces it seemed to be limping towards normalcy but the pace was slow, even laboured. While there was ample evidence of rebuilding and construction activity everywhere, the city was still under siege.
The enemy lay within.
The fear of abductions hung heavy and the newest terror tactic was walking human bombs – young and impoverished men from rural areas induced to wear jackets laden with explosives, made to walk into crowded areas where they could wreak havoc and do maximum damage while someone somewhere set them off with a hand-held remote.
This casual talk of human bombs brought home the sobering truth: We in India have somehow stayed safe from this macabre form of terrorism. God willing that our young people, no matter how misguided, remain free of this most pernicious of all forms of extremism!
Sitting in a sun-dappled patio under a grapevine festooned trellis, the sense of the surreal was very strong. The surrounding tables were filled with foreign aid workers chattering in a babel of tongues. The table was groaning under the weight of an over-priced but very authentic Lebanese meal. The tinkling of the fountains was muted by the Arab music wafting from discreet speakers.
We had reached this sanctuary of privilege and tranquility after crossing three metal gates, each manned by private militia in full military gear dressed for combat.
The restaurant itself, located in the tony Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, looked like an army barracks from the outside; it had high compound walls topped by barbed wire and no windows, nothing in fact to give any clue as to what lay behind its faceless walls. The price for culinary adventures was clearly high in Kabul, and affordable for a minuscule minority of the privileged few, mostly expatriates.
Bagh-e-Babur, a Haven of Serenity
The Bagh-e-Babur, however, was just the opposite. Accessible to everyone, it was every Kabuli’s pride and joy. With its awe-inspiring vista and clear-cut symmetrical grounds and flowing water channels, this 16th Century garden is a pre-cursor of the Mughal style gardens found in Lahore and Srinagar built by the later Mughals and imitated by the colonial horticulturalists for Lutyens’ Vice-Regal Lodge that is the present-day Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Though first buried in Agra, Babur’s body was taken, according to his instructions, to his favourite spot on a mountainside overlooking the city of Kabul some time in 1540.
In 1607, his grandson, the emperor Jahangir, paid a visit to Kabul and ordered a handsome marble tombstone and an elegant pavilion to be built south of the grave enclosure. His son, and Babur’s great-grandson, Shahjahan, visited Kabul in 1639 and added a marble mosque to the now-handsome complex.
Years of neglect had made it woefully run down. Painstakingly restored by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, under the supervision of the then bright young conservation architect from India – Ratish Nanda who has, since his stint in Kabul, wrought similar wonders in Delhi and Hyderabad – the restored garden was a delightful haven of serenity.
Green young saplings had been planted to replace the mighty chinaar trees that were chopped down for firewood during the terrible years of war and mayhem. Grass grew again in the gardens that had been taken over by civilians displaced during the wars. And the fountains and water channels gushed once again with clear water.
Babur’s grave lay open to the sky behind delicately carved marble screens. Bird song wafted from the trees and mingled with the happy sounds of children playing and families picnicking on the grass.
The Undaunted Spirit of Kabul Men & Women
The Kabuli men and women I met were a far cry from the Kabuliwallah of popular Indian imagination or even the pathan of a Hindi potboiler such as Khuda-Gawah. While each had a story of personal sorrow or loss to narrate, and a great many spoke fluent Hindustani picked up during their years in Pakistan (in most cases in refugee camps), their spirit was undaunted and unharmed.
Many had visited India or were hopeful of coming here – to travel, study, or obtain medical treatment. Speaking to them, I was reminded of the signs in Pushto I have seen posted in Apollo hospital in Delhi, the ‘Afghan platter’ being served in the hospital’s cafeteria as well as the ‘little Kabul’ in bustling middle-class neighbourhoods such as Bhogal or Lajpat Nagar in South Delhi.
Open-air tandoors bake the famous Kabuli bread and little kiosks sell the fragrant mildly-spiced pulao. Fashionably-dressed Afghan girls, though with their head draped with a scarf, shop, eat, talk in busy marketplaces.
Those cameos of the Afghan presence in Delhi flashed before my eyes surprising me by how little heed we in Delhi, blythe and blasé as we are, have paid to the trauma of these friendly strangers in our midst.
In 2008, there were signs of a return to some sort of normalcy; an angered spring, bruised by the blight of the Mujahideen, could be coaxed to bud and blossom. This time around, with the Taliban having grown in strength, one worries ever more. Once again, one is reminded of Iqbal, who for all his flawed political ideology, had warned:
The continent of Asia is an embodiment of water and clay
The Afghan nation is the heart in that body
Peace in Afghanistan shall guarantee peace in Asia
Chaos in Afghanistan shall disturb all of Asia
(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)