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Volume 53, Number 6November/December 2002

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Rebuilding in Afghanistan

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Thorne Anderson

Being winched over the river that divides Tajikistan from Afghanistan is an unorthodox way to enter the country, but little about Afghanistan is what outsiders would expect. Fighting and famine have subsided in the last 12 months, but the humanitarian crisis is only slowly easing, and the rebuilding of the devastated nation has just begun.

In a population of 23 million, the United Nations estimates that 1.5 million Afghans died, two million were wounded, and five to six million more were made refugees in the fighting that began with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and ended with the fall of the Taliban in November of last year. In addition, since 1999, drought has devastated what remained of Afghanistan's agriculture, taking with it the herds on which the livelihood of 85 percent of the population depended. Though this year's harvest was 82 percent higher than last year's, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, it still did not reach the level of 1998, the last pre-drought year.

Traveling south with Muslim aid workers from the Tajik border through the highlands of Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, across the plains and then over the Hindu Kush to Kabul, photographer Thorne Anderson and I saw countless villages abandoned and towns in which water and electricity were available only intermittently. Whole sections of Kabul lay buried beneath rubble, some of it fresh, some of it now decades old.

Sixty-one nations have pledged relief and reconstruction aid, so "mending Afghanistan is a task for all of us," says United Nations Development Program (UNDP) administrator Mark Malloch Brown, who heads UN recovery efforts in the country. "It is a historic wrong to be put right, and an opportunity for North-South solidarity." Citing offers of de-mining assistance from Mozambique (GNP per capita: $230) and micro-credit lending skills from Bangladesh (GNP per capita: $350), he points out that aid from developing countries is no less important than that from highly industrialized nations, because Afghanistan's condition is more familiar to the poorer countries. At last count, there were 18 UN agencies, 83 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and 111 Afghan NGOs working in Kabul.

Among the agencies from the Muslim world, one of the most diversified and active is the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), whose engineers winched us into Afghanistan with equipment they were using to build five new bridges. The bridges, a $2-million project, will link the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan with Tajikistan and thus to the rest of Central Asia; the first of the spans opened on November 3.

The bridges "will give people access to much-needed food," says Alejandro Chicheri, spokesman for the UN-sponsored World Food Program (WFP), the leading international food aid organization in the country. Reliably delivering relief supplies to such remote regions is a huge challenge because of poor roads and heavy concentrations of land mines, and the WFP estimates that some 1.3 million Afghans need deliveries of food urgently because winter weather will soon cut them off from further aid.

More than two million refugees returning from neighboring Pakistan and Iran have put Afghanistan's shattered infrastructure under even greater strain. To meet running costs, this summer the transitional government received cash grants of some $10 million each from India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—carried to Kabul in suitcases, because the banking system in Afghanistan has not yet been reestablished.

In the face of obstacles of this kind, NGOs from inside and outside Afghanistan are finding unorthodox ways to rebuild the country. Driving through the highlands of Badakhshan, we passed teams of men wielding picks and shovels, widening mountain tracks into rough roads. Under the AKDN'S self-help "food for work" program, these men receive not money but six kilos (13.2 lbs) of wheat for 10 hours work. The new roads they are building will give previously isolated villages access to the nation's road system, and the non-cash arrangement takes the country's structural realities into account.

Besides road and bridge construction, AKDN projects in Afghanistan range from restoring schools and historical monuments to improving health and agriculture. Over a lamplit dinner in the village of Pol-i-Ziriban, agriculture extension officer Sarwa Khalifa proudly told us that the surrounding district of Shiva had virtually recovered from drought and was now almost self-sufficient in grain, thanks partly to high-yielding seed provided by the AKDN. Under the program, farmers repay the seed in kind—and not to the agency but to the village council, thus creating a "seed bank" that serves as a buffer against future famine.

The next day, in the district of Khosh, we saw the high-yielding wheat growing alongside fields of opium poppies. "I'm convinced we can wean the small farmers off poppy farming and onto growing high-yielding grain," says AKDN agriculture program manager Iqbal Kermali. Although the cash return from poppies is 10 times that of wheat, the poppies require more than 10 times as much labor, he explains, which largely offsets their economic advantage.

Emerging from the Badakhshan highlands near Feyzabad, we drove between rows of red- and white-painted stones marking the way through a minefield. Repeatedly during the next few days, we passed gangs of Afghans probing delicately for mines on the roadsides.

Crossing the northern Afghan plains via Kunduz and Baghlan, we arrived in the once bustling industrial center of Pol-i-Khumri, its cement and textile factories now largely silent because of lack of spare parts and raw materials. That night, at dinner with aid workers, sitting cross-legged on the floor of their compound, talk was mainly of the prospects of permanent peace. "This time there will be peace," said one young Afghan emphatically. "People are tired of the fighting." A middle-aged engineer wasn't so sure. "The [tribal] commanders are still in control," he said. "Every family still has a weapon, and 40 percent of Afghans earn their living from their guns."

Undeniably, though, some things have changed rapidly and dramatically. When I saw the Islam Qala school at Pol-i-Khumri on a previous visit early in the summer, hundreds of boys and girls were squatting in the playground waiting for their classrooms to be renovated. On this trip, just two months later, the new school buildings were bursting with children who were obviously eager to learn, and staffed by a handful of teachers no less determined to teach.

"The thirst for education and knowledge in post-Taliban Afghanistan is enormous," says Ed Burke, UNESCO's education consultant in Kabul. Nationwide university entrance examinations in 2002 attracted 20,000 candidates, of whom 16,400—many of them women—were admitted. Now the country must answer the question, admitted to what? Afghanistan lost an estimated 200,000 teachers and academics during the last quarter-century, and its 17 universities and educational institutes function in often improvised fashion amid the devastation of the wars. The immediate priorities, says educator Lutfulla Safi, include training new teachers, building new schools, and replacing outdated curricula and textbooks. Major questions to be addressed in the long term include coeducation and the place of religion in education.

Leaving the northern plains, we climbed gradually alongside the Khinjan River through mulberry groves, then traversed steep and rugged slopes sprinkled with Asian conifers up into the mountains of the Hindu Kush. At an altitude of 3350 meters (11,000'), we passed through the 2700-meter (1.7-mi) Salang Tunnel, built between 1958 and 1964 by the Soviet agency Technoexport and the Afghan Ministry of Public Works to link the northern plains with the valleys of Koh Daman and Kabul. The tunnel is now in dangerous disrepair, with water cascading down its walls and lumps of concrete hanging ominously from its ceiling, but the UN's International Security Assistance Force is committed to keeping it open.

Passing everywhere the debris of war, it was difficult to imagine this land as it had been: A center of empires, a birthplace of art styles, a crossroads of culture and commerce.

In northern Afghanistan, a Bronze Age civilization developed the first trade links between the Indus Valley to the south and Mesopotamia to the west. It was from Badakhshan 5000 years ago that the finest lapis lazuli in the world first came to Sumer and to Egypt. Later, India's Maurya Dynasty built a 4200-kilometer (2600-mi) road to Afghanistan, and the imperial highways of the Persians joined it to become central arteries of the Silk Roads.

All across Afghanistan are the ruins of the ancient cities where east, west, north and south all joined: Kapisa, in the heart of Afghanistan, yielded to archeologists a trove of Indian ivories, Chinese lacquer work and Roman art. Ai Khanoum, on the northern plains, holds the remains of an orientalized Greek city. Tillia Tepe, in the same region, displays artistic motifs that reflect and blend the disparate styles of India, Greece, Iran, China and nomadic Central Asia.

After Alexander the Great invaded the region in the fourth century BC, marking the eastward extent of his empire, his successors' kingdoms patronized the rise of what became Gandharan art. In the 15th century, Herat, in northwestern Afghanistan, was the capital of the Timurid Empire, one of Asia's most flourishing centers of Muslim art and learning.

The Valley of Bamiyan, where the monumental Buddha statues fell to Taliban artillery, lies in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, about 240 kilometers (150 mi) northwest of Kabul. From there, we drove up the steep-sided Shibar valley, passing en route a group of US soldiers who told us that they were trying to arrange alternative winter accommodation for refugees in Bamiyan who had taken shelter in cave dwellings originally built by Buddhist monks. In that exchange, the aid coordinators whom we were traveling with promised to bring stoves to the Americans for delivery to the refugees.

At Eljanak village, we found 60-year-old Hussain Ali rebuilding his house with the help of his neighbors. The wooden beams supporting the house had been stolen after Ali and his family fled, causing the roof to collapse and most of the mud walls to cave in. A neighboring house, though blackened by fire, was largely intact. In fact, although most damage we saw in urban areas was caused by fighting, most of the damage in rural areas seemed to result from the theft of wooden beams, the only things of value left in houses after their owners fled.

On the opposite side of the valley was Amanqoll, a village dominated by an 800-year-old mud-brick fort last used during the Soviet invasion. Here, under another AKDN self-help program, villagers were working without pay under engineer Tahir Qany, using materials and equipment provided by the agency to build a water depot that will provide the village with up to 2800 liters (720 gal) of spring water a day.

Crossing the Shibar Pass, we descended to the Ghorband Valley, site of heavy fighting in 2001. Amid the burnt-out armored cars, the broken bridges and the abandoned homes, there were signs that life was returning: Children were hurrying to school, among them groups of laughing girls.

A bit farther on, emerging from the Hindu Kush mountains, we crossed the Begram Plain, whose strategic location at the southern base of the Hindu Kush had made it a war zone for a generation. In ancient times the passes it led to were the gateways to India, China and Central Asia. Alexander the Great built a city here; the Kushans later made it the capital of their vast empire and named it Kapisa.

The Begram Plain is desolate today, but in 1939 French archeologists excavating Kapisa discovered artifacts that testified to a refined and cultured citizenry. Hidden in a chamber of the royal city were painted glassware from Alexandria in Egypt and Chinese lacquered furniture encrusted with Indian ivory, some of which can be seen at the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Approaching Kabul, we passed dozens of abandoned villages, the grim remnants of thousands of homes, the withered remains of millions of vines and the stumpy expanses of former orchards of almond, pear, apricot, fig and cherry trees, now stripped, mainly for firewood. Crippled tanks, burned trucks and twisted artillery littered the roadside, which was lined with the now-familiar signs warning of landmines.

In the city, we passed the ruins of Bagh-i-Babur, the first Mughal "paradise garden" and the predecessor of other famous imperial gardens in the South Asian subcontinent. Once covered by magnificent stands of plane trees, wild rose and jasmine, it had been built by Babur, who claimed direct descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur, or Tamerlane. Babur seized Kabul and carved out a kingdom in Afghanistan, from where, in 1525, he launched the invasion of India that made him the first of the Mughal emperors.

Babur never forgot Kabul and, when he died in 1539, he was buried there, according to his wishes, in Bagh-i-Babur. A century later, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, constructed a small marble mosque in the garden, and in the late 19th century, Amir Abdur Rahman built an elegant pillared pavilion there whose veranda looks out on the city from the hillside in which the garden is set.

These and several other architectural gems of Kabul are now being restored by Development Humanitarian Services of Afghanistan (DHSA), the Society for the Protection of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and other organizations, including UNESCO. The gardens will be replanted with trees, flowers and other ornamentation appropriate to Mughal tradition, and walkways and benches will be constructed so that residents of Kabul may enjoy the gardens again.

As if in answer to anyone who might question whether historic sites should be rebuilt when so much of modern Afghanistan is still in ruins, a banner hung over the entrance of the Kabul Museum proclaimed: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." The museum was repeatedly hit by rockets during the 1991-1996 civil war, and two-thirds of its unique collection, spanning a period of 6000 years, was looted. Today, the fragments of smashed statues wait in crates, in the hope that experts, using digital technology and virtual-assembly techniques, will be able to reconstitute them. Museum staff also hope that, as soon as the museum is physically secure, it can begin to take steps to recover some of the artifacts illegally taken abroad.

At the very heart of Kabul stands a monument to Timur Shah, a member of the Durrani Dynasty that ruled Afghanistan from its beginning as a separate state in 1747 until 1818. Dominating the commercial district, its octagonal exterior is ornamented with deeply recessed, arched niches and with small towers on each of the eight corners. The thick brick walls form a square interior pierced by vaulted galleries. These give access to the upper level, composed of a drum decorated with shallow niches, and a second drum topped by a huge dome, ribbed inside and almost hemispherical from the outside.

Once surrounded by the calm of a park, the monument is now beset by the bustle of bazaars and partly hemmed in by some 360 steel shipping containers, inside which tradesmen who lost their jobs during the Taliban regime have set up improvised shops. Kabul Municipality has agreed to gradually relocate the shops and restore the site.

Among the more pleasant noises of reconstruction in Kabul is live music, now especially savored. So before leaving the city, I bought tickets to an evening of traditional music. It was organized by the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (CHA), an Afghan NGO that, after three years in exile in Pakistan, recently opened the Gallery of Fine Arts and Traditional Afghan Crafts in Kabul.

Besides paintings and calligraphy, the gallery also displays examples of handicrafts—somak wall hangings, kochi dresses, Herati glassware and silver jewelry set with semiprecious stones. In an effort to revive Afghanistan's carpet-weaving industry, the CHA provides wool and natural dyes free of charge to more than 160 weavers, mostly women working in their homes. CHA then buys back the finished carpets at $35 a square meter ($3.25/sq ft) and sells them in the gallery shop.

Though they are small compared to the national scope of the multi-billion-dollar recovery effort that Afghanistan requires, it is these relatively simple projects in the cities and self-help schemes in the countryside, run by AKDN and other international and Afghan NCOS, that are keeping the hopes of Afghans alive.

John Lawton is a free-lance writer who lives in western Turkey. Among the scores of articles he has authored for Aramco World since the 1960's are special issues on the Silk Roads and Islam in China and the former Soviet Union.

Thorne Anderson ([email protected]) is a free-lance photographer based in Belgrade.

From Home and Abroad, Muslims Agencies Pitch In
Written by Alan Geere
Photographed by Islamic Relief

Muslim relief organizations are prominent among the international groups working hard in the drive to rebuild Afghanistan. Money and workers from around the Islamic world are helping to repair roads, dig wells and provide food, shelter and jobs.

"We are happy to welcome those Islamic and Arab organizations which have projects for the economic, social and health rehabilitation of Afghanistan," says Sadiq Mudabir, director of Afghan and international organizations at the Ministry of Planning in Kabul.

Masood Hamidzad, area manager of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), estimates there are actually as many as 750 Afghan and 260 international organizations working in reconstruction and humanitarian aid. It is difficult for the Afghan authorities to keep track of them all, he says, because only some 350 of the total are officially registered with the government.

Among those are four major international Muslim agencies: the Saudi Relief Committee for Afghanistan (SRCA), UK-based Islamic Relief, Kuwait-based Dawa and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

The SRCA has pledged $40 million over the next three years, to be spent on digging wells and making improvements in education and health care. Its work will complement the much larger $220-million package of Saudi government aid earmarked to rebuild the country's main highway linking Kabul with Kandahar and Herat.

In addition to this, says Ahmad Alanzi, deputy chargé d'affaires at the Saudi embassy in Kabul, the kingdom recently pledged "another million dollars to support the new currency, and a further $1 million to the World Health Organization. Before this aid, King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz gave $10 million for reconstruction of the bomb-affected areas, and another million dollars was spent on medicine, which was then sent to the provinces."

Islamic Relief, based in Birmingham, England, set up its Afghan mission in April of last year, having previously implemented various emergency relief projects through its Islamabad office. In November the agency opened a health clinic in Paghman, an agricultural region west of Kabul where health conditions are exceptionally poor and where some four out of five children have developed pneumonia in recent winters. It has also helped with a "food for work" program that is rebuilding 40 kilometers (25 mi) of damaged roads in Parwan province, and it has worked with a local project to build a training center for some of Kabul's 28,000 street children.

In Kandahar, it has set up 14 bakeries, run by women, to provide employment and make inexpensive bread available to poor residents. "We don't have to worry as much about where our bread will come from. This bread is cheaper than in the market," says Bibi, a homeless widow from the Noorzaishabraj area of the city. "And the people here are so friendly, it makes me feel that somebody in the world still cares about me."

In the technology sector, a $55-million plan to set up the country's much-needed second cellphone system was won recently by an international consortium led by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), a for-profit arm of the Aga Khan Foundation that promotes entrepreneurship in the private sector in selected regions of the developing world.

"By working with experienced partners to bring telephony, fax, data transfer, conference calling, voice-mail and similar services to an economy in the early stages of reconstruction, we hope to be able to leapfrog older technologies and quickly contribute toward increased efficiencies," says Karim Khoja of AKFED. Initially, the system will serve Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kunduz. At present, a government-backed telecom operator serving only about 20,000 subscribers is the sole alternative to the nonfunctional, pre-1979 land-line network.

The AKFED isn't yet disclosing its intended rates, but Khoja says, "We have come to assist Afghans. Our company operates to very high standards and our mobile phones will be very inexpensive and easy to buy."

One of the largest of the Afghan organizations is the Kabul-based Organization for Mine-Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation, or OMAR. Now 12 years old, it operated successfully throughout the Taliban period, and it now has more than 750 employees working on both mine awareness and mine clearance nationwide. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined areas of the world, with several million landmines and other unexploded ordnance lying in fields, roadsides and canals and amid the rubble of buildings. The UN estimates that the mined areas amount to some 725 square kilometers (180,000 acres) and that 10 Afghans are killed or injured by mines every day. In addition to OMAR, the UN and the British-based HALO Trust are also active in de-mining.

"OMAR is entirely dependent on donor contributions and benefactors, and we pray for their continued support," said a spokesman. "To this date, seven brave men have lost their lives providing hope for the people of Afghanistan, and many more have been injured. The survival of OMAR guarantees that their sacrifice will not have been in vain." OMAR has cleared 26 square kilometers (6500 acres) to date. Its major sources of support include the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, NGOs from Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, and the governments of Japan and the Netherlands.

So far more than 7.5 million people have been through mine awareness program, which is available to Afghan citizens, international workers and refugees awaiting repatriation. The classes are held in such local meeting places as schools, mosques and bazaars, and they help participants identify the different sorts of mines and know how to avoid dangerous areas.

A much newer local organization is the Asian Women Service Society. Up and running only since 1999, it is funded through the philanthropy of Afghan businessman Abdul Ghafar Davi, whose wife, Shokria Barakzai, serves as the society's director. The women began their work secretly during the Taliban times, when they held courses and vocational training for girls in private homes. Now the organization has seven branches in Kabul, each with a different specialization: education, health, handicrafts, engineering, agriculture, media and social services; others in the group survey the returning refugees and offer help.

Under the Taliban, "we would also send the women's handicrafts to foreign countries in order to sell the goods for them," says Barakzai. "But now we are working openly, freely."

Alan Geere spent three months in Kabul this year teaching journalism for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. He runs a communications consultancy for charities and nonprofit organizations (www.the-nose.org) based in England. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Geere thanks Rahimullah Samandar and Mohammad Ajmal Stanakzai for their field-reporting assistance in Kabul.

Herat Is Where the Heart Lives
Written and photographed by Fariba Nawa

This summer, I went home.

After 22 years of exile in the United States, my father and I returned to Afghanistan to renew family connections and explore the 5000-year-old culture and its people. I was eight when my parents took me, my brother and my sister west from our home in Herat to flee the 1979 Soviet invasion, thus joining the six million Afghan refugees who spread across the world.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where some 60,000 Afghans now make up the largest Afghan community in the United States. Immersed in this enclave, I often wished to see what had become of my childhood home. The first time I returned was in October 2000, but I only stayed for seven days. Under the Taliban, Kabul and Herat were silent cities, with no music and no laughter, only whispers of discontent.

This summer I returned for three months, and it was sounds that I noticed first. Indian pop music was blasting from the shops. The click of women's heels echoed on the sidewalks. Girls giggled and teased on their way to school. Most important, people talked freely and passionately. While Afghanistan remains a much-troubled nation, I found that a cultural revival was sweeping it from Kabul in the east to Herat in the west, moving at an amazing pace because people have been so starved for self-expression. Afghans also are afraid that the peace may not last, and they have to seize this moment.

To take the cultural pulse of the country, I did a rather American thing: I took a road trip from the capital, Kabul, 1050 kilometers (650 mi) west to Herat, to see the revival through the eyes of the people I had been missing for two decades.

It was early June when I arrived in Kabul. The city of two million was growing daily with the flow of returning refugees (and more than a few fellow journalists). Everyone was tuned in, either through palm-sized radios or shoebox-sized television sets, to the proceedings of the loya jirga, the meeting of 1500 representatives from across the country that was forming Afghanistan's transitional government, the political embodiment of the country's new beginning.

Everywhere, it seemed, people were working on or talking about reconstruction. They were rebuilding war-ruined homes, schools, libraries and museums—including the world-famous National Museum, from which most of the artifacts have been stolen over the last 20 years. There were also new institutions: One of the most dynamic is Aina, the Afghan Media and Culture Center, founded in June by Iranian photographers Reza and Manoocher Degati, and funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and several other international aid groups. It is the home of at least 30 media-oriented projects, including cinema production, newspapers and magazines. These are run out of 20 offices, and there are a printing press, radio and video production units and photographic and language-training laboratories. Already more than 100 writers and others have found a voice in these new publications, which are virtually free of censorship. Aina has become a central point for innovative ideas and expression.

It came as little surprise that young people, who make up 40 percent of the population, seemed the most impassioned, and this was especially true among the repatriating refugees. My talks with young Kabulis were full of hope, and these days everyone, it seemed, was a reconstruction activist.

On one sizzling morning, I visited the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority (AACA), the clearinghouse for reconstruction money. I was supposed to meet a friend, a returning exile like myself, but instead I met Akbar Quraishi.

A soft-spoken 28-year-old, Quraishi came back from Pakistan in January, three weeks after the interim government had been installed. He had been studying computer science. Now, he works in the technology department at AACA to earn some money; on the side, though, when he's not fixing computer glitches, he's running a youth center or he's writing poetry. He sneaks in the fun work when his bosses aren't looking.

Dapper in slacks and a collared shirt, Quraishi sported a neatly trimmed beard. His concentration and eloquence showed his literary passion.

"Literature and poetry aren't practical," the closet artist said. "So I had to find a more profitable means for supporting myself. But this is where my heart is."

While still a refugee in Peshawar, he published a bimonthly magazine in the two major Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari, called Youth's Desire. He funded it from his own pocket for about a year, until he could no longer afford it. When he came back to his native Kabul, Quraishi opened one of the first youth centers in the city, this time using money raised from private donors.

Now, he's hoping his projects can tap the flow of reconstruction aid coming through the AACA, which so far has amounted to $1 billion of the $4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo last winter by 61 countries and 21 international organizations.

He described his youth center with a big smile and sweeping hand gestures. It's a two-story house where more than 100 boys come to play chess and pool, take recreational classes or just hang out. He wants to start league sports, get another youth magazine going and expand so that there will be a place for girls as well. Although there were a few such places during the Soviet-led regime, the demand has never been greater than now.

"University students come knocking at the door even when we can't fit in any more people. They're starved for free fun," he said.

After the loya jirga concluded with the election of President Hamid Karzai and the plan to draft a constitution, I left the capital in a minivan in the company of free-lance photographer Natalie Retiring; Chicago Tribune correspondent Laurie Goering; her interpreter, Farouq Samim; and our driver, Naseer. We drove out at dawn, as the muezzins were beginning to recite verses from the Qur'an, before the call to morning prayers. We carried two spare tires, a few boxes of mineral water, our cameras, travel bags and not much else. The road to Kandahar was gravelly at best and bone-rattlingly rocky at its worst, all 550 kilometers (350 mi) of it.

I talked to Samim. Charming in his manner, with tanned skin, a thick head of black hair and a mustache, he is part of the educated middle class that is desperately needed to rebuild the country, but which is also deeply frustrated by the lack of job opportunities and training. Now 26 and a full-time interpreter, he was in his last year of medical school when his education was interrupted, and his training has been too poor to allow him to treat patients, he said. He spent most of the 23 years of war in Kabul, where he learned to speak fluent English at a language institute. In our conversations, however, we spoke in our native tongue, Dari, the common language of the northern regions.

As the hot air and dust blew in our faces, he and I admired the vast landscape of smooth-rolling hills and dry desert. We rode past nomads on their camels in Ghazni province, home of the Ghaznavid Dynasty of the 10th century. After three years of drought, rain is again nourishing the acres of green here, and so Afghans who had become refugees because of the drought are returning, too. We could see orchards of apricots and peaches.

At intervals during our talk, Samim helped Naseer fix first one, then another, and another—in the end, seven flat tires. "I want to find a way to go to an English-speaking country, re-study medicine and then come back," he says. "Of course I'll come back. I put up with war for this long; I want to be here to help heal the country."

As night began to fall, we had still not arrived in Kandahar. Luckily, there was no curfew there as there had been in Kabul, where residents had to be in their homes by 11:00 p.m. Finally, 17 hours after leaving Kabul, we entered the historic gates of the city. Despite the late hour, shops were still open. In the streets, three-wheeled motor rickshaws whizzed by, and men in striped turbans strolled on paved sidewalks.

Kandahar is the second-largest city in the country, with 450,000 people, and the central, ethnically Pashtun city, complete with old and new quarters that reflect several eras. The old city, much of which has been destroyed by the wars, is classical Afghan, with its mud-baked walls, its dome-ceilinged rooms, its central courtyards and its fountains. The new city, which emerged during King Mohammed Zahir's modernization project in the mid-19th century, boasts whitewashed three-story buildings with balconies and windows all around.

Kandahar was the first capital of Afghanistan at its inception as a separate country in 1747. Before that, western Afghanistan was governed by the Persian Safavid Empire, and the eastern region was part of the Mughal Empire. The founder of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, whom Afghans affectionately call Ahmad Shah Baba, built an Afghan empire that stretched from Mashad to Delhi and north to Samarkand—about twice the size of Afghanistan today.

The city still has four gates, which open onto the highways to Kabul and Herat. There are numerous historical sites, including Chihil Zina, a monument of 40 stairs propped on a hill overlooking the city. Atop a steep stairway is a chamber with Arabic inscriptions on its wall testifying that the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, built the monument in the 16th century.

The next day, the Ministry of Information and Culture invited me to the opening of a new literary association and told me that Wassel Hosanyar, a clothing merchant turned poet, was going to read. He had just published his first book, Za ow Sham (The Candle and I), a series of romantic poems dedicated to the current Afghan enlightenment.

"I have come out of the darkness and the candle's flame is giving me strength," he said. The candle, of course, symbolizes for him the new peace in Afghanistan. A close translation of one of his poems echoes the same message.

     "The heart of my nation has burned with missiles and weapons, 
     But I fell on the sand in this storm still content, 
     Because these weeks, I see new revolutions."

Comfortable in traditional starched, white, loose pants and a knee-length shirt, Hosanyar sat cross-legged outside the ceremony on a plastic chair, his deep brown eyes gazing back at his watching fans.

At 30, he has been writing poetry for eight years in exile in Pakistan. He's self-taught, inspired by renowned Pashto poet Khushal Khattak, the Greek philosophers and Shakespeare. For Hosanyar, every image is a poem. Fans say he owes his popularity to his upbeat subjects of love and romance.

"You don't need a formal education to be a poet," he said. "You need to have talent, creativity and a variety of books to read. Every word of my poetry is a part of my body. I don't like just one or the other."

From Kandahar, I traveled with a Spanish writer and a German photographer on the three-hour drive west to Lashkar Gah ("Place of Soldiers"), a city in Helmand province. My earliest memory of Afghanistan is from my family's two-year residence in this historic city, which in the 1970's was called "Little America" because of its rapid modernization. I was four, and I recall a narrow trail along the clear water of the Helmand River. On the other side were fields, probably of wheat and barley; villagers were washing clothes in the river, and I ran with other children, barefoot. I remember that once, during a rain, there was a rainbow over the farms and the river.

Lashkar Gah is home to Qalai Bost, the vaulted gateway to the ruins of a fort and castle dating from the Ghaznavid era. So famous is it that it appears on the 10,000 Afghani note. In the 1970's, the late President Mohammed Daoud Khan filled the gateway to the top with bricks as a stopgap preservation measure, in order to keep the fragile structure from toppling.

Rosta Malang is the semi-official guard of the gateway, and he spends part of each day leaning against its side, crouching on the red dirt. When I approached him, I found that his life was a history in some ways as rich as that of the structure he attends. Malang had lived through all the regimes, all the bombs and rockets, sitting in the same corner, fingering his tasbih, or prayer beads.

He believes he's 80 years old. He has been widowed three times. Each wife, he said, he loved dearly, but all of them died in childbirth. After his third beloved died, he bid farewell to the material world, and he found peace near the ruins of the great kings. "I gave all my love to them. Now I give it to God," he said in a voice that quavered with age.

He said he wanted to die under the archway, which was indeed in danger of collapsing, despite the bricked-up doorway. UNESCO is spending $3 million to refurbish about a dozen historical sites in Afghanistan, including this one. I hoped they got here in time. I squinted under the sun to view the grand structure before me, and I felt privileged to be one of the few tourists around. Malang said that this year they have had about 50 tourists, the most he had seen in six years.

My final destination was my hometown, Herat. My father was already there, enjoying time with our family. My love and fascination for this city of 330,000 people comes partly from my personal connection, but also from its rich history. Located on the border of Iran and Turkmenistan, Herat was the cradle of culture and civilization in the region, especially in the golden 15th century, during the Timurid Empire. Art, architecture, poetry and literature flourished there.

More than anywhere else, national reconstruction and the cultural renaissance are visible here. On a drive around the city, I saw workers paving roads, building a state-of-the-art addition to the old public library and creating a new park.

Herat is the wealthiest province in the country, which partly explains its rapid development. The Afghan transit trade, which has been going on for millennia, begins in Herat and ends in Pakistan, daily transporting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of goods ranging from electronics to fabrics. Each truck pays customs fees to Herat province.

Though Herat was destroyed during the war against the Soviets, it was rebuilt after 1992, and the Heratis, as the people are called, are not as worn as residents of the other Afghan cities. They come to the present day with zest and a seemingly insatiable motivation to produce and create. Age-old Herati crafts now blossoming again include thick blue glass, silk shawls and tilework. Many of the craftsmen work in the vicinity of the magnificent Friday Mosque, and from morning until evening prayers they try to meet the demand of their customers.

The city is a haven for art, including students such as one I met, Roya Hamid. At 24, she seemed to personify Herat's energy and will. She was accepted at the local medical school, but joined the faculty of fine arts to follow her artistic aspirations. During the six years when women were forbidden to work or go to school, Hamid took art lessons at home. She now has reentered the university as a third-year student. Her most prized work is her oil painting of a woman, shown behind bars; a tear, her symbolic cry for help, falls on an image of the Ka'bah at the center of the Holy Mosque.

"This is how I have felt for the last six years. But we have been freed now," she said.

Hamid uses every free minute to work, even though she does not have a studio. She lays her papers and colors on the family carpet and hunches over them to draw. But her love is drawing intricate miniatures on blue glass goblets. It takes her a month to finish a gold-bordered design, brushing delicate, detailed strokes of color on the curved surface.

"I used to draw half-heartedly, not knowing who would see my work, but now I'm better and quicker. It's this sensation, this time. We feel that if we don't take advantage of it, somebody might take the opportunity away from us. I don't dream of returning to 15th-century Herat, but that time inspires me to make the 21st century an even greater era."

Fariba Nawa is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Islamic cultures. Her work has appeared in the London Sunday Times, Mother Jones, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. She lives in New York, where she is pursuing a master's degree in journalism and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University. She can be reached at [email protected].

Throughout history, Afghanistan's high mountains and deep valleys have helped its peoples preserve their independence, but often at the cost of unity among themselves. The resulting strong regional and ethnic divisions are still generally intact, despite the extensive population displacements that have taken place since 1979. Tajiks, who are of Indo-European stock, live mostly in the northeast and the west; Uzbeks and Turkmen, both of Turkic origin, live in the north-central region. South of them, in the central mountains, live the Hazaras, who are of Mongolian origin. In the east and south are the majority Pashtuns. But it is the Tajiks who hold most of the key posts in the Transitional Government that is running Afghanistan until the elections in 2004—with the prominent exception of President Hamid Karzai, who is Pashtun.

In this human geography, Islam has been the most important force for unity since its coming in the eighth century. From the final decades of the 10th century through the 11th and 12th centuries, Afghanistan was the seat of powerful Muslim kingdoms: first the Ghaznavid Dynasty, then the Ghorid Dynasty. During these periods, Islam spread from Afghanistan to northern India, and today almost all Afghans are Muslims.

This article appeared on pages 14-31 of the November/December 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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