I live in Kabul. I know there aren’t many impressive things I can tell you about Kabul. I also know what you are imagining as soon as you hear this name, Kabul. Yes, you are right! Here, people fight. There is a lot of pollution. The weather is dusty. It is hard to trust people. There aren’t beaches with warm sands, fancy coffee shops or big shopping malls. It can never be a place where you choose to spend your vacation, at least at the present.
Yet I love this city, not because I grew up and studied here, but because it is lovely, yeah it is. It may sound weird to you, but for me it has always been stunning: Kabul nights, juma Friday prayers, small bazaars with narrow roads and crowds of people, yellow and white taxis with their storyteller drivers, folklore music that you can hear in every shop or restaurant, Kabul mornings that always begin with noise and cheers. Kabul is simply awesome.
I used to go with my mom to Froshgah Street for shopping. To be frank, I don’t care much for shopping, but I love Froshgah Street. Often I went just to see the crowds, especially women with different colored burqas, white, green, brown, and blue. I like to imagine what kind of look is hidden beneath those burqas. I love the unique aroma of kebabs in front of each restaurant and looking at the fashions hanging in the shops. Getting a ride on crowded Kabul buses is a treat because you always meet a new person with an interesting story.
But this is not the case for most other Afghan women. Zarin is one of them. She was our neighbor in the Khair Khana district of Kabul. Khala (Aunt) Zarin hates Kabul and everything about it. She says she wishes she could fly to the place farthest from Kabul, where no one has heard of Kabuli people, Kabul beauty, the sweet traditions of Kabul, the Taliban, al Qaeda, or suicide bombers. She says Kabul gives its women nothing but pain and sorrows. She says all Afghan women, but Kabuli women in particular, have been the victims of each regime, whether Islamic, Communist, or Democracy. She claims any Afghan woman who grew up in Kabul can never be happy. They always miss something. They may have lost their husbands, children, or parents as a result of war, or had their house and property stolen by local commanders. They may have been sold in compensation for a crime of their brothers or fathers. Zarin can still remember a time during the civil war when Afghan women were raped and their breasts were cut. During the false regime of the Taliban, Zarin witnessed the execution of women, without being judged by a court, at the city’s Ghazi Stadium. Her images of Kabul are completely negative. But this is contrary to my belief, so I wanted to know why she was so pessimistic about our city.
One snowy Friday in the winter of 2002, I took my small sister to Zarin’s house, curious to know if she would tell me her life stories. I entered the house without knocking, since we had been wall-to-wall neighbors for many years. Winter days are awesome in Kabul. All family members gather in one room and sit around a sandali—a special table covered by a large quilt, with hot coals placed at the base. The windows are closed and the curtains are pulled back so you can see the drops of snow outside.
There are many ways to amuse oneself in that room. Older people, especially women, talk for hours while drinking concentrated dark black tea with dry fruits. Small babies climb on the sandali, trying to stand, laughing at the funny faces their younger siblings make. Old men hold their radios close to their ears and listen to the news while shouting at others to shut up. No one cares about the shouting because everyone is immersed in their own amusements.
This was what I expected to see in Zarin’s home as well, but something was missing: her husband. I saw her four girls jumping up and down on the sandali as Zarin sewed a handmade scarf. She greeted me, prepared a place for me to sit, brought tea, cookies and some chocolates, but not dry fruits—perhaps because that was too expensive for her. I started the conversation by asking Khala Zarin to tell me what she had gone through that left her with such a negative impression of Kabul.
She smiled. “Are you really here to hear my story?”
“Yes, Khala jan, I really am.”
She cleared her throat, drank some tea, and placed her sewing on the shelf next to her. “Today I am a mother of four girls, of whom Laila is the oldest, 12 years old. Do you think, Emaan jan, that I imagined my married life would be living in a single room with four kids? A plastic-covered window? A leaking roof that makes the floor wet after even a light raining and leaves a smell so strong you can’t sleep? And most importantly, a drug-addicted husband? Hell, no!”
She paused for a moment. “Emaan jan, I think you have heard a bit about my past. I was the prettiest girl of my town. All the girls used to rave about my beauty. Laila’s father, Haroon, was my classmate in an English language private course. You haven’t seen him, but he was tall, with big shoulders, a great personality and was so smart and successful.” She wiped her tears with her sleeve. “I will never forget him; he was the man of my life. But damn Kabul; it took him away from me one year after we married. Death to Hekmtyar and his rockets that killed Haroon inside the building where he worked as an engineer. I never saw him again, not even his body, because there was nothing left except his limbs. I miss that smile, that large sensuous mouth, his black, sparkling eyes through which I could see my future, bright and shiny. I miss those shoulders which always made me feel there was a man I could trust, who would stand beside me in light and in dark.”
She sobbed for a moment and rubbed her eyes with her fists. Then she looked up at the ceiling as if asking God. “Why did Hekmtyar fire those rockets toward Kabul? Why war at all? What did Kabul do to them? Why did they kill innocent people and make a child like Laila live without her father?”
“Stop, please, Khala Zarin. I can’t see you crying. If it hurts you, I don’t mind if we stop here.”
“It is okay, dear. These are just thoughts I can’t get rid of it,” she said. “Six months after Haroon’s death in 1992, Laila was born. Harroon’s family was educated. They didn’t make me stay home and live a widow’s life as most Afghan families do. They thought I would be better off getting married since I was still young. Two years later, I married Ashraf. He was from Ghazni Province, the son of a friend of my dad’s. He had finished high school but didn’t go to university. He was around 33 years old, had a long beard and used to always wear a waistcoat and a turban. He believed this made him look respectful.” She took a deep breath and continued. “The Taliban came and everything changed. I don’t have to explain what we Afghan women went through during this period. You know as well as I do. But the worst was that they forced my two younger brothers and my husband Ashraf to go to war. Unfortunately, both my brothers were killed in the Shamali War by the so-called mujahedeen—militants of Ahmad Shah Massoud. No regime was good in Afghanistan. They all killed innocent, young, educated people like my brothers, Yahya and Musa,” she said.
“Although Ashraf escaped after eight years of war, his return did not make me happy. He wasn’t the Ashraf I knew before. He’d lost weight and his hair had turned whitish. His muscles were weak and he could hardly walk. His skin lost its elasticity as if his collagen was torn during that war. He looked like a 55-year-old man. He became drug addicted, drug addicted, drug, drug, drug addicted…” She repeated herself while shaking her head as if in pain.
“From then on, my life became miserable. Every day, there was either a fight or at least a glass broken in my house. I don’t know where Ashraf goes every day. I have no idea what he does. All I do is this handcraft work to make some living for these children. You see, Emaan, by now Laila should have been in her 5thgrade class,but she is not because Ashraf hates girls’ education. I myself taught her how to read the Holy Quran. I don’t want her to suffer like me. She and my three other kids deserve more.”
“Now tell me why I should love this city, for it took my love Haroon, buried my two lovely brothers in its bloody soil, and turned my hard-working husband into a drug addict. It destroyed the lives of my children and still does. Why should I love a city where I was treated worse than an animal? This city made me die inside long ago, Emaan jan, and I don’t care which group of people did this to me—as a result, today I am suffering. Kabul isn’t my town. Now drink your tea, please. It’s getting cold. I shouldn’t have soured your mood with all these stories, and I had better stop now.”
Ever since that conversation, I can’t make a fair judgment between my vision and Zarin’s. For me, Kabul has always been lovely. For Zarin, it is the opposite. But whatever the judgment you make, one thing is as clear as the palms of our hands: Kabul has suffered as a city itself as much as its people have.
photo: Steve McCurry