Downtown Kabul is Fat City, Afghan style. The first shock for a new visitor is how undamaged and commercially busy it looks. On my second day, I bought a camera, one of a large range, from the only Hindu shopkeeper left in town, and French cheese and Carr’s water biscuits with sesame seeds from a shop in Flower Street – which had a far more elaborate choice of English biscuits than most of the better US supermarkets.
In the exchange market, huge sums of money change hands every day. Or rather, huge piles. With the Afghani at around 38,000 to the dollar, and the largest note the 10,000 Afghani, you need to bring along a shopping bag if you change $100. There is even a new international hotel, set up by an extremely brave and enterprising returned Afghan emigré from New Jersey. For a variety of reasons, it would be difficult to fit it into the Michelin star system, but it certainly deserves five stars for effort.
Most days, there is a traffic jam on the main roads; and since the Kabul Valley is a depression between mountain ranges, it’s not surprising that I detected the beginnings of smog. There are no traffic lights, but white-helmeted traffic policemen do their best at some of the crossroads: given the way Afghans drive, their job probably demands more physical courage than any other in Kabul today. Their colleagues in the Interior and Defence Ministries do not help the situation by cordoning off huge areas of the central city every time a Western official drops by – which in February seemed to be practically every second day. Passage could sometimes be assured with a 50,000 Afghani bribe, however, or by waving a Western passport.
Through the roar of the traffic and the incessant squawking of the horns can be heard the tinny sound of Indian film music: with the Taliban gone, urban Afghans have lost no time in reindulging their old love of Bollywood, and the video and cassette shops are doing a roaring trade. The film industry, too, is pushing out new shoots in the shape of music videos made for leading Afghan singers. One was filmed in London and features a romantic scene outside what appeared to be Willesden Green Tube Station – an impossibly exotic scene for the vast majority of Afghans, just as your average Afghan bazaar is for newly arrived visitors from London.
In the former upper-class residential area of Wazir Akhbar Khan, the Western embassies lurk behind high walls and rolls of barbed wire, while the NGOs and media organisations have taken over the villas of the former elite. Repeated lootings have emptied the villas of much of their stuff but in every other respect they resemble their equivalents elsewhere in South and Central Asia. Each of these organisations indirectly supports a small village of relatives of their Afghan staff – not to mention the beggars who cluster round their gates. Except among diplomats, attitudes to security are carefree despite the best efforts of some Western security firms to peddle their services. One reason is the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), patrolling in their jeeps and more rarely on foot.
Fat City lasts for between ten and thirty minutes as you drive out of town, depending on the direction and the traffic. Then, long before you reach the border of Kabul’s sprawling municipal district, which is the area controlled by the ISAF, the intact houses run out and the great fields of ruins begin, stretching across the plains and climbing up the surrounding foothills. These are the relics of the Mujahedin bombardment of Communist Kabul during and after the Soviet occupation, but more of the years 1992-96, when, after the Communists fell, the Mujahedin groups turned on each other and tore the city and the country to pieces.
And out in the ruins, the heirs of the Mujahedin are waiting: the various militias of the Northern Alliance which captured Kabul in November after the US Air Force had broken the Taliban lines to the north. There are Hazaras from the mountains of Hazarajat to the west, and Pashtuns from the handful of Pashtun groups which joined the Northern Alliance to go on fighting the Taliban. Most, however, are Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley and surrounding areas: the people of Commander Ahmed Shah Masoud, strongman of the Mujahedin ‘Government’ in 1992-96, who was assassinated by al-Qaida (or the Taliban) last September.