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.

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[*] The novel was published last year in Iran.