Afghanistan in the early 1970s was not Shangri-La-but it was intoxicating
A TIME BEFORE WAR
Afghanistan in the early 1970s was not Shangri-La-but it was intoxicating
In a small grove of orange trees near the centre of Jalalabad, a crowd of 30 or so had gathered in a tight circle to watch a magician perform. The kids who squeezed through to the front laughed and clapped at the simplest tricks, and everyone loved the big finale, except perhaps the man who agreed to take part. The magician untucked the volunteer’s turban, unwound it with a great flourish and scrunched it into a ball in both hands. Then, springing up, he tossed it high into the air where it burst into flame and vanished altogether. The audience roared with laughter and applauded, but the volunteer
was angry—until the magician slipped a hand into his vest and slowly pulled the full length of the turban out of an unseen pocket. That got the biggest cheer of all.
Laughing Afghans? Hard to imagine. Things are so bad now that many aid officials wonder if the country can be salvaged even if the U.S.-led coalition succeeds in ousting Osama bin Laden and the ruling Taliban. It makes me sad. I spent a month there, arriving on New Year’s Day in 1973, prior to the fall of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, before the country began being ravaged by revolution, war and famine.
It was not Shangri-La. Most people were poor beyond anything I’d seen be-
fore, there were few paved roads and even the comparatively modern streets of Kabul, the capital, were lined by open sewers. The state of public health was atrocious—a staggering percentage of Afghans suffered from intestinal diseases, tuberculosis and cholera, and the infant-mortality rate was just about the world’s worst. In Kabul one day, after my friends and I had come to a stop at an intersection, a boy of 9 or 10 approached the passenger side of the van begging for “baksheesh.” I didn’t notice the outstretched hand because of his sickeningly disfigured face—his nose had been eaten completely away by leprosy, leaving a blackened crust of a scar above his upper lip and between his eyes. I groped for some coins and dropped them into his hand as we pulled away. I couldn’t look at his face again.
Life was harsh, but it was at least livable. There weren’t millions of displaced Afghans huddled in refugee camps. The only invaders were nomads whose camelborne caravans traversed borders with impunity. Kids didn’t play with Kalashnikovs or get blown to bits by antipersonnel mines. And despite the alarming public-health statistics, the general populace seemed remarkably hardy. An aid-agency doctor in Kandahar explained that having been exposed to so many diseases, children either died young or grew into adults who were immune to just about everything. “Once an Afghan survives past the age of 4,” the doctor said,
“the only thing that’ll kill him is a truck.”
The landscape, an uncompromising collision of barren deserts and forbidding mountains, is breathtaking. And back then, the place just oozed with intrigue. It was a way station on the overland route from Europe to India and beyond for backpackers and shadowy smugglers who traded in everything from rare horses to hard drugs. Foreigners would meet at dinnertime in hippie cafés in Kabul to swap books and travel tips about places they’d seen along the way. Inevitably, the smells of barbecued kebabs and rice pilaf would give way to
the pungent aroma of burning hashish.
The sense of adventure was intoxicating enough. To me, Afghanistan was wild and exotic, a little dangerous yet terribly alluring in some inexplicable way. Where else could you find a national sport that makes hockey look timid? Buzkashi is what polo might be like if Genghis Khan had set the rules. Often played in valley bottoms, with spectators watching from the slopes, the game is fairly simple. A beheaded calf or goat is placed in the centre of the field and riders try to scoop it up and carry it around two posts placed about a mile apart. The rider who does that and then puts the carcass inside the designated goal is the winner. The rules, however, I allow competitors to use I unlimited force to steal the § goat from an opponent. Fa| talkies aren’t as common as s they used to be, but it is not “ unusual for players to break arms or legs during a game and still continue to play. It’s a nation of Bobby Bauns.
Afghanistan was no spa, but it was endearingly cheap. My tiny hotel room in Kabul cost about 30 cents a night. The floor was hard-packed mud, and the heat was supplied by a small airtight stove. The wood-framed bed had a camel-hairstuffed mattress (in winter, the room was too cold for bedbugs to survive) suspended on a taut rope sling. Some firewood was included in the price, as was tea in the morning, but the toilet, such as it was, was down die hall. There was a shower, but it cost a few extra afghanis (the currency, not the people) to get one of the hotel staff to build a fire under a big iron water tank.
So much of the country seemed to have completely missed the past 600 or so years. In many towns, donkey carts outnumbered cars. It was often tough to tell the ancient ruins from the functioning buildings in places like Ghazni and Mazar-i-Sharif. Yet ominous signs of Cold War politics were everywhere. The superpowers were waging a not-too-discreet battle for influence in Afghanistan because of its strategic location, bordering on the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan and oil-rich Iran, then still controlled by the U.S.-supported shah. The Soviets and Americans had established huge walled compounds in the capital, and tried to buy favour with the king and his parliament with foreign aid handouts. They even chipped in to build the first trans-Afghanistan paved highway. With the Soviet invasion in 1979, that relatively benign competition for influence grew into a devastating battle for absolute
control. And the rest is bloody history.
Unlike in some neighbouring countries, the people we met were routinely friendly and welcoming to us. Curious, too—ours was a world as remote to them as theirs was to us. One day in Kabul, I helped a friend who had a throat infection find a hospital where, we were assured, there was a doctor who spoke English. That turned out to be an exaggeration, but a man who we think was a doctor did examine her and prescribe some penicillin, and she did eventually get better. During the long wait for the examination, we were alone except
for another young couple. We smiled and used our scant command of Farsi to exchange how-are-yous. After a while, the woman took off her veil—a rare event and, we were told later, something of a compliment to us—to reveal that she had a cast on a broken arm. They asked about where we were from and what it was like. We did our best to explain, although I’m not sure how much of it they understood. It was a sweet moment.
It was a different time and such a different place. But since Sept. 11, and especially since coalition forces started bombing, I have been thinking of those experiences a lot. So much has changed, yet I’m certain some things haven’t. If outside officials ever get around to the postwar reconstruction of the country, they shouldn’t try to fix what ain’t broke. The infrastructure has to be rebuilt, the government and public-health facilities should be replaced, and after years of drought, a hungry nation needs food. But given half a chance, the people of Afghanistan will be just fine. El
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