Christopher de Bellaigue
Akram Osman’s immense novel Kuche-ye ma, which might be translated as ‘Our Street’, spans four decades of Kabul’s recent history, but stops before the worst bits.[*] I started it when I was in Afghanistan in July, and soon found that reading a few pages became vital to my after-work equilibrium, enabling me to feel optimistic again.
Each morning, out of my hotel room, past the expats breakfasting on the lawn, through three steel-plated doors, each manned by armed guards, and into the crisis. Kabul is sparing with its random pleasures. Young pomegranate and acacia trees are now growing in the Babur Garden, which was obliterated in the civil war. The owner of a well-stocked corner shop, wearing a clean, crisp pirahan, or long-tailed shirt, is courteousness itself. Mostly, however, I searched for a bridge away from this Kabul, for something to suggest that now is not the norm, but the aberration. The past two decades have dumped on this old and cosmopolitan city, destroying its buildings and its culture. And its memory: the old Kabulis fled and the present inhabitants, migrants from the provinces, don’t mourn what they didn’t know.
The buzzword in the new Kabul is reconstruction, but the reality is a beleaguered mafiocracy protected by foreigners. It is the ‘ring of steel’ – a girdle of checkpoints and concrete slabs for keeping suicide bombers at bay – and a speculative property boom driven by illegal land-grabs sanctioned by the government. It is the stench of roadside water channels, which, nine years into the second most costly military occupation in history, are stuck fast with sewage.
Kuche-ye ma opens on a late spring day in the early 1950s, in a small bazaar beside the mosque of Haji Yaghoub. The quiet of Kabul allows us to make out the sound of donkey bells and the clicking of coral rosary beads. The air is sweetened by charcoal, glowing under the attentions of Suleyman the kebab-maker, while his wares – skewered mincemeat, liver and chops, and lobes of pure tail fat – spit and pop over the heat. Not far from where we sit, freshening our mouths with bunches of coriander soaked in vinegar, a grove of willows casts its shadow over the road. To anyone whose ideas about Kabul have been formed over the past 20 years of war and hate, these are surprising images. Another surprise is that Osman’s characters are nothing like the religious fanatics we think we know from the news and TV reports. On the contrary, they live in an exuberantly seedy culture, and speak a worldly Kabuli Persian. Only a few years ago, we learn, Suleyman, who greets customers with a pious ‘Ya Allah!’, was running heroin between Kandahar and Damascus on behalf of Afghanistan’s ambassador to Syria, Shir Ahmad Khan, while ‘Agha’ (Mister), the bony, erect owner of the local antique shop, is said also to keep a brothel.
One evening, a party of revellers led by Mullah Mousa, the local rabbi and money-changer, prevail on the ambassador’s son, the innocent Amin, to have his first taste of alcohol. ‘Life is unsalted if there are no highs,’ Mullah Mousa says. The drinkers toast ‘Amir Ghazi Amanullah Khan’, and this will be an important thread running through the novel: Amanullah, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929, occupies the same place in the hearts of secular-minded Afghans that Kemal Atatürk and Reza Shah do in their countries. Amanullah is the strongman who tried to drag a backward people into the 20th century. He forced the British to recognise Afghanistan’s independence, set up a modern bureaucracy, abolished slavery and emancipated Afghan women – whose symbol became Soraya, his queen. Soraya shocked conservatives by travelling the world unveiled and showing her ankles, and by urging women to ‘acquire enough knowledge to be of service to society’. Women, she insisted, ‘were not created solely for pleasure and comfort’.
Osman does not excel at plot or characterisation; what makes Kuche-ye ma so compelling is the sense that personalities and events are being saved from oblivion. For long periods he neglects the soppy romance between the Communist sympathiser Amin and the rabbi’s daughter Zuleikha, so absorbed is he in his supporting cast and their dark, sinful, enchantingly idiomatic hometown – a place where people do not quit the field of battle but ‘roll up their kilim’, a busybody is ‘the fly in every glass of buttermilk’ and to ‘turn one crow into 40’ means to exaggerate.
The high-minded Zuleikha is less memorable than, say, Shir Ahmad Khan’s toxic mother, Alieh Begum, who applies electrodes to errant servants and specialises in the kind of foul couplet for which Oriental seraglios, Kabul’s included, were once renowned. Alieh Begum persecutes Amin’s mother, the long-suffering Hasineh, whose fate allows Osman to evoke in a single long sentence the brutal arbitrariness of Afghan life: some people claimed that Hasineh
had been taken off as booty when the former king plundered the Shamali Valley, and only later on, when it came to dividing the spoils, passed on to the ambassador’s family, while others related that in the catastrophic and home-wrecking famine and drought of 40 years ago, when out of fear for their lives the famished people of the north dragged their beloved children to the bazaar, she had been exchanged [for a few kilos of wheat].
And so, with a flourish, Osman reminds us that his main ambition is to tell the modern history of his country. He describes Afghanistan’s experiment with limited democracy, and its parliament of poets and intellectuals, before the arrival as prime minister of the authoritarian Muhammad Daud in 1953. Daud is brought to power by his cousin and brother-in-law, Zaher Shah, but the monarch is used to being overshadowed by his more dynamic relations, and is decidedly the junior partner. Daud throws the opposition into jail, educates a literate bureaucratic class and stirs up separatism in the Pashtun-majority areas of western Pakistan – while Zaher Shah watches, fretful for his throne. The prime minister allows himself to be courted by both superpowers, boasting that he uses Russian matches to light his American cigarettes, but a new politics is emerging, with the pro-Soviet left squaring up to the uniformed and religious right, and Daud is forced to resign. Later on, Amin’s friends are arrested and he finds himself under surveillance, but the man following him turns out to be a friend and fellow-traveller. ‘This is the first time,’ Amin is told, ‘that the fox is held accountable by his tail, and the security of the roads entrusted to the highwayman.’
Perhaps inevitably, given Afghanistan’s former function as British India’s bulwark against the Russians, Kuche-ye ma reflects popular hatred of the British Empire and its policies – which, even now, are regarded as infinitely more devious than those of contemporary America. Such resentment is, of course, not confined to Afghanistan. When Agha says, ‘Those pasty-faced British are responsible for all our woes,’ we might be anywhere from Diyarbakir to Delhi. The remark may be designed to raise a smile, but Osman’s anger at meddlesome foreigners is sincere, and more than justified. In 1973, Daud topples his cousin in a republican coup, only to turn against his leftist allies and lose his life in a Communist coup in 1978. After his murder the Communists rifle through his possessions in search of evidence of an opulent lifestyle, but find only some leftover rice and spinach and a couple of apples in his fridge, and a few suits hanging in the wardrobe. It’s the kind of detail that Ryszard Kapuściński might have included, and have then been accused of making up. In Osman’s hands, it has the ring of truth.
Kuche-ye ma effectively ends at the close of the Cold War, when Afghanistan ceases to matter to Russia and the United States, Yeltsin abandons Najibullah, and the various mujahedin groups start fighting over the carcase of Kabul. In a single battle lasting 21 days, Osman writes, Kabul is destroyed as a functioning city, and as a consequence ‘culture in all its forms dies. The theatre dies and the magazines and newspapers die, the bookshops and the archives and the museums die,’ and works of art are carted off by the lorry-load to Pakistan and beyond. What follows is only a series of further endings.
One of the remarkable things about Kuche-ye ma is that its author has not set foot in the city since 1992, the year – Najibullah’s last – Osman was posted to the Afghan mission in Tehran; from there, he went to Sweden, where he was given refugee status. Kuche-ye ma’s vast length – 1347 pages – bears witness to the poisonous leisure of exile, but it may be that by transplanting himself to Stockholm, and thereby missing most of the horror, Osman has been able to preserve the sensations he transmits so lovingly – the sound of bells, the taste of coriander.
His Kabul has gone, but Kuche-ye ma and the work of a few other nostalgic authors will be useful in the future, infused as these books are with a sense of community that has vanished, and which the country needs to recover if it is to survive. Today’s Afghanistan is a carve-up between the various groups that make up the country, and modern administrative structures – ministries, parliamentary groups and the general staff – have bent under the pressures of race and sect. The country’s top Tajik politician (Muhammad Fahim, one of Karzai’s two vice presidents) looks after his fellow Tajiks, while the top Hazara politician (Karim Khalili, the second vice president) promotes the Hazaras. (Hazaras are perhaps the unluckiest people in Afghanistan. They have distinctive Mongoloid features and they are Shia, which makes them a minority twice over.) Control over the Afghan National Army is vigorously contested between the Pashtuns and the Tajiks. How national will it be? The theory is that the Pashtuns have Karzai and his band of clients and hangers-on to look out for them, but many Pashtuns feel that the president represents no one but himself, and look to the Taliban instead.
In the past these divisions might have been softened by a shared belief: in the monarchy, in modernisation, in Communism. But the new Afghanistan has only one ideology, which is represented by the Taliban and combines visceral opposition to the foreign occupiers with political Islam in its most extreme form. There is another element: an illness rather than an ideology, carried by the government and propagated by injections of foreign cash. This is greed, and it shows itself in the huge corruption that ordinary Afghans have come to associate with the government and its foreign paymasters, and which has delegitimised both.
Kabul may never have been very virtuous, and it has seen much brutality, but for a good part of the 20th century it was reasonably diverse and cultured. This changed in 1992 when the mujahedin occupied the city. The holy warriors were greeted with shouts of ‘God is Great!’ but an estimated 30,000 Kabulis were killed and 100,000 wounded in the first year of the civil war that followed, and many atrocities were committed against non-combatants. There were public executions in the football stadium, a morals police force was set up, tanks rode over mountains of alcoholic drinks and a Sunni leader announced: ‘There are two tribes I cannot abide: women and Shias.’ The Taliban imposed further ‘Islamic’ restrictions after they seized the capital in 1996, including an effective ban on girls’ education and on music and other forms of entertainment, but they stopped the raping and looting. By then, however, the majority of the city’s population had fled.
To the few old Kabulis who returned, the mujahedin and the Taliban are part of the same nightmarish continuum. They represent the triumph of uncouth and backward peasants over a superior, urban way of life. In Kuche-ye ma, Osman writes of the ‘reeking men with long hair, beards and pakuls, who utterly changed the appearance of the city’. The old cosmopolitan symbols, the women in skirts turning up for work at government offices, the cafés and the drinking dens, disappeared, along with festivities at the spring equinox, cockfighting, pigeon-fancying and strolling musicians during Ramadan. It does not suit Afghanistan’s current occupiers to acknowledge the brutal philistinism of the mujahedin groups, because many of their leaders were reinstalled in power after the Taliban’s expulsion, and some of them, men like Khalili and Fahim, now run the country. But the old Kabulis haven’t forgotten, and this helps to explain their nostalgia for Daud, Zaher Shah, King Amanullah; for anyone, really, except the Afghan Communists, whose assault on cherished institutions such as land ownership and dowries have not been forgiven.
While I was in Kabul, my Hazara driver Hassan and I were given a tour of the old city by an elderly shopkeeper called Haj Suleyman. He had never left the place of his birth, and refrained from speaking badly of any regime in case it might come back. Photographs from his youth, when he helped out at his father’s shop and spent the afternoons selling refreshments at the nearby Behzad cinema, showed a smooth-cheeked young man in a sports jacket. He had been a habitué of the cafés, something of a brawler, and an admirer of the 1950s Bollywood siren Madhubala. Now, Haj Suleyman wore a white pirahan and had a beard you could lose your fist in. He personally delivered the call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque. He twinkled roguishly and I was reminded of Agha in Kuche-ye ma, who stops shaving when the Taliban arrive and ends up making his living selling opium.
Haj Suleyman showed us a few century-old houses, some of them with moulded plaster and decorated timbers, which had been home to Kabul’s most important military and bureaucratic families (and are now being restored by the Agha Khan Foundation). We walked up Morde-shu or Corpse-Washer Street, and ended up at Kharabat Street, where the young members of the royal family had had music lessons, far from the mullahs’ disapproving gaze. We passed a boy whose donkey was laden with scraps of melon skin for someone’s hens, and a chipped concrete stanchion for a loudspeaker that had once blasted out Radio Kabul for the benefit of people without transistors. I spoke to a baker, who said that the mujahedin had behaved like the Mongols, slicing off fingers for the rings on them. Haj Suleyman took us to a shrine, housed in an ornate wooden building at the top of Kharabat Street. A man polishing a ribbed screen around the tombstone told me that the shrine had housed a Quran of great antiquity, which people would come and kiss. The Uzbek forces of General Rashid Dostum, he added, had stolen the Quran. The cinema had lost its roof in the fighting. (Now, riddled with holes, it is a depot for imported vegetable oil.) No one knew what had happened to the loudspeaker.
Towards the end of our tour, Haj Suleyman showed us a wooden mosque that the Americans had restored. We passed the grave, sunk beneath the pavement and protected by a metal awning, of one of the martyrs of the early wars against the British. Then we walked back to Haj Suleyman’s shop, where he met an old friend who’d returned that very morning after two decades of exile. To look at the placid, unsurprised expression on his face, you wouldn’t know the man had ever left.
It was the end of the tour. I said goodbye to Haj Suleyman, but Hassan just walked off towards his ancient Corolla. When I asked him the reason, he told me that Haj Suleyman had referred to Hazaras as bini puchukha, or ‘those with squashed noses’. Haj Suleyman was a Sunni Tajik – even if his own nose was far from aquiline.
The following day, my last in Kabul, I had an appointment to see the musician Saleem Bakhsh. (His late father, the great singer Rahim Bakhsh, has a walk-on part in Kuche-ye ma.) Saleem was brought up in Kharabat Street, but now is more often to be found in a modern complex of small offices rented by musicians. During the Taliban years, he had taught in Pakistan, and toured Europe and the United States. Saleem bore himself with pained dignity. His eyes narrowed when I told him that my hand was getting tired from noting down what he said.
Saleem’s son Raji was with him, a chubby man in a pressed white pirahan, and after asking his father’s permission he performed a beautiful raga, accompanied by a tabla player. I thanked them and then my eye fell on an improbable poster showing Raji in a satin shirt, gazing sultrily and holding a guitar. Raji looked apologetic. The market for traditional music was shrinking, he said, and he was obliged to make a living by performing well-known pop songs – in Hindi, Urdu, Persian and Pashtu – at the glitzy wedding salons that had sprung up around the city. He had played at a wedding party the previous night. One of Karzai’s nephews had attended ‘with an army of bodyguards’. For a moment after he said this I had a feeling that the raga and the pressed pirahan had been an act for my benefit, and that the real Raji was the shiny Latino one. Saleem Bakhsh coughed discreetly. ‘The old music,’ he said, ‘will stay alive.’ He smiled. ‘Is your hand too tired to write that down?’
I spent part of my last afternoon in the courtyard of a house belonging to a middle-aged Kabuli called Fazul. The house, Fazul told me, had been damaged in the civil war, and the family fled to a suburb, where they were robbed of their possessions by supporters of the man who went on to run Afghanistan’s judiciary. The family had returned and rebuilt the house, laying out a rug between the charred fruit trees, restoring a semblance of normality. After the occupation, Fazul had found a job with a security firm contracted by the US Embassy. It had not been an easy job to come by, and wasn’t without danger, given the Taliban’s policy of targeting collaborators and their families, but it provided a decent wage by Afghan standards. It allowed Fazul’s own children – he ruffled the hair of one of them, a solemn boy sitting on his lap – to lead relatively carefree lives. In many ways, Fazul was in an enviable position, but he was troubled by the violence he had witnessed – and perhaps committed. He and other Afghans of his age, he said, had grown up ‘complex-ridden, and sad, and full of hate’: ‘Afghans of my generation are like polluted water,’ he said, ‘rusty with impurities and poison. Generations must pass before we are clean again.’
[*] The novel was published last year in Iran.