the-south-asian.com NOVEMBER 2002
NOVEMBER 2002 Contents
- a review
Page 2 of 6
AFGHANISTAN: AN EMPIRE OF BLOOD AND ASH
- spirit of the city
Nowhere is a city’s spirit more evident than in its marketplace. Under a hot sun, I trudged to Pul-i-Kishti, Kabul’s oldest bridge, where all of Afghanistan seemed to have assembled to buy and sell. Flat-faced Uzbeks, in round embroidered caps, sold mountains of karakul sheepskin. Mongol-featured Hazaras, selling their labor, were bent under heavy loads of sacks. Tall, dark, heavily mustachioed Baluchis from the southern desert, attired in prodigious white pajamas and shirts that fell below their knees, haggled over the price of everything and bought nothing. Kirghiz nomads in long leather boots, belted cloaks, and turbans bought strings of beads for their women. Persian-speaking, black-haired Tajiks, with hooked noses and slender frames, mingled with stalwart Nuristanis and turbaned Sikhs – all of them noisily sipping tea. It was a scene straight out of the old Silk Road days when traders from all the climes of the world met here to exchange goods for - and from - the markets of Europe, Central Asia, China and India.
The whiff of kebabs and freshly baked bread floated in the air. Giant sherdas, luscious melons, fruits and vegetables occupied one part of the market. A tall man with red carpets hanging from his arms and shoulders walked the street like a mobile emporium. A plump Pathan wearing a skullcap and selling knives said he would come to Delhi in December with a consignment of raisins. A young boy in a long white robe sold hard-boiled eggs from a basket hung around his neck. There were no shops. Everything – green snuff, chewing tobacco, plastic toys, kebabs on skewer, discounted garments, discarded shoes, Kandhari embroidery, cloaks and caps - was being sold on the road. Ragged and long-haired mendicants, high on legal hashish, sat lined up against artistically tiled wall of the mosque, watching the world go by. Women, enveloped from head to foot in blue veils, shuffled through the crowds that parted on their approach. At Shahzada Sarai, moneychangers squatted cross-legged on the pavement with thick wads of notes placed in baskets, speedily counting the currency with a lick of their fingers. There did not seem to be any coins in circulation. Realizing the productive time being lost by the nation in counting notes, the government is planning to divide the present currency by a factor of 1000 and issuing notes of lower denomination. Behind the moneychangers were the pigeonhole shops of the gold and silversmiths. Two veiled women felt boldly with their fingers the material of the brassieres hanging freely on a shopfront.
Turning into a narrow street, I went into the famed Chahr Chatta, or Four Arcades, a 17th century covered bazaar, now forlorn and forgotten, ruined by the civil war. The tasteful Governor Ali Mardan Khan, who had also landscaped the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, took twelve long years to build the bazaar. In its prime, the magnificently decorated bazaar was the talk of Asia. Its cheerful walls were decorated with floriated gypsum, studded with mirrors, and whitewashed with a special solution containing specks of mica to make them sparkle. The walls were ornamented with paintings and there were leaping fountains everywhere. In October of 1842, the British General Pollock destroyed the bazaar in reprisal for annihilation of the British forces in January and for displaying a British envoy’s dismembered body in the bazaar by the Afghans.
Wanting to capture the hustle and bustle of the animating bazaar from a height, I walked into the Pul-i-Kishti mosque in the middle of the evening prayers, to seek permission from the Qaddim, the priest, for climbing its tall minaret to take some pictures. The floor of the mosque was full of men saying the namaaz in unison. I walked up and down, behind the bending and raising backs of the worshippers, holding my boots in my hand, looking for the Qaddim. I bumped into the Qaddim’s little son who led me to his gentle-faced father. The dignified priest apologized that he did not have the key and requested me to return the following morning by when he would have made sure that the key was available. Bowing profusely, I thanked him for his kindness and walked backwards respectfully through the crowd that had gathered around us.
"You Muslim?" asked one of the rough-looking worshippers who had followed me through the crowd. I sat in the courtyard of the mosque, tying my shoelaces. "You Muslim?" he asked again aggressively. With my feet firmly in my shoes and ready to run in case this bully thought I had committed some sacrilege, I said firmly: "No! Hindu." Before the expression on his face could change, I bombarded him with a series of questions.
"Ya. Muslim," said he with a clenched fist.
"You also go away to Pakistan"?
"Ya go away. Come back last month."
"Why come back? Didn’t you like it there?"
"Hated it! I live six years in a refugee camp in Peshawar."
That night Qadir Bakshi invited us for dinner and laid out a memorable table for us. Clear chicken soup was followed with chicken curry, roast lamb, seekh kebabs, ladyfingers and mutton pilau garnished with peas, cashewnuts and raisins. For dessert we devoured the juiciest grapes, melons, pears, apples, pomegranates and watermelons. After dinner we moved to the sitting room, where every inch of the floor and every piece of furniture was covered with red woolen carpets of delicate designs. The lone Afghan television channel featured a white American sermonizing the Afghans in English on the true meaning of Islam. Everyone had a hearty laugh.
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