Life after a suicide attack

Today, I narrowly missed a suicide attack in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood.

Wazir Akbar Khan is a well-known locality, housing several offices, stores and bungalows. The suicide bomber chose the Finest supermarket to let death loose.

Finest is an upmarket chain that is very popular with westerners because it stocks everything they crave – from a wide selection of coffees to premium cigars and packaged salads.

Its popularity with foreigners seems to be precisely why it became a target.

Just a couple of hours before the attack, two journalist friends and I were parked right outside the supermarket, waiting to pick up another journalist and head for lunch.

The journalist we picked up left as soon as we finished the meal, but frantically called us minutes later with the news. It was surreal to watch on TV flames leaping out of the store and a body in a shroud lying on the road outside.

My mind went back to a post-dinner chat I had with a colleague just a couple of days earlier.

As we were driving on the Airport Road, we kept hitting what seemed like the potholes so common in Mumbai. My colleague turned to me and said: “These craters were caused by suicide attacks. This road is a favourite of the bombers.” I learned later that this was because so many foreigners use this road.

Today, as we drove towards my guesthouse, Kabul seemed to have taken the attack in its stride. There were people chatting on the roads, drinking the light tea that they so love and shopping in the supermarkets that dot the roads.

In Kabul, nothing can stop life from going on.

Gabbar & Tulsi in Kabul


Yeh Dosti... from Sholay is still popular in Afghanistan over three decades after the film released.

Yeh dosti, hum nahi todenge…,” Faiz bellows in his thick Herati accent, startling diners at the guesthouse where I’m staying in Kabul. Faiz, who works for a technology firm, is here for a training workshop and claims to have seen at least 10,000 Indian films. Including some Rajnikanth-starrers.

He’s lost count of the number of times he’s seen the cult classic Sholay and says he loves “Gabbar Khan”.

Faiz is not alone in his Bollywood obsession. His friend, Dawood, and a doctor-turned-supply-chain-officer, Ahmed, I’ve befriended also can’t get enough of the kitsch and drama that define Hindi films. The more melodramatic the film, the more they love it.

Ahmed points out that the Feroze Khan-Hema Malini song from Dharmatma, Kya khoob lagti ho…, was shot in Bamiyan, the province once famous for its massive Buddha statues carved into a hill face. The ‘Bamiyan Buddhas’, as they were known, were dynamited by the Taliban, who believe idol worship is a sin.

It’s difficult to exaggerate Bollywood’s influence in Afghanistan.

Ahmed recalls that the Salman Khan hit Tere Naam (In Your Name) made hairstylists very rich. The floppy hair style that Salman sported for most of the film was instantly adopted by young men across the country. They would simply walk into barber shops and say “tere naam” and the stylist would know what to do.

Many young men opted for the close-cropped style Salman sported in the last part of the film. Whenever people would spot a youth sporting the style, they would say: “Tere Naam ho gaya.” (He has turned into Tere Naam.)

Incidentally, the popular Indian soap opera, Kyun Ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because The Mother-In-Law Was Once A Bride), produced by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, is airing here. It is dubbed in Dari and has many Afghans hooked. They know it simply as ‘Tulsi’, the name of the lead character.

There’s simply no escaping Bollywood. Or Ekta.

Memories of Emperor Babur and King Amanullah

Here lies Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, the first of the Mughals. Though he died in Agra in 1531, his remains were transferred here, to the Bagh-e-Babur (Babur Gardens), in 1540 as per his last wishes. The marble headstone was commissioned by Emperor Jehangir, Babur's great grandson.

This mosque was erected in the Bagh-e-Babur by Emperor Shah Jahan during his visit to Kabul in 1638. For those who don't know, Shah Jahan was the one who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz.

The Bagh-e-Babur, built in 1528. Notice the median and the water channel, a precursor of the famous 'char bagh' design that the Mughals used for all their landmark constructions.

The once magnificent and still imposing Dar-ul-Aman (Palace of Peace), built by King Amanullah about 90 years ago. The palace was destroyed twice -- once by the Soviets in 1978 and once in the 1990s during clashes between warlords.

The bullet holes and gaps punched into the walls by rockets are still visible at the Dar-ul-Aman.

Kabul is dotted with localities such as this, illegal homes precariously perched on rocky hillsides. In that, they resemble some of the shanty towns in Mumbai, though the houses look very different.

The Deh Afghanan (Village of Afghans) square. This is considered the city centre and is normally pulsating with hawkers, shoppers and businessmen. It was navigable when I went there because most shops were shut for the Friday holiday.

Mosque at Deh Afghanan.

An Iranian Shia mosque not far from Deh Afghanan.

In Kabul, tragedy and hope drive a 4×4

Hafizullah is my driver and my friend

Hafizullah, my driver, epitomises the tragedy as well as the hope of Afghanistan.

Hafizullah is 23 years old and was born during the Soviet occupation of the country. He gets a faraway look in his eyes as he describes how his father, a bus conductor, fled Kabul for Peshawar to escape the madness.

The frontier town in neighbouring Pakistan is favoured by many Afghan refugees because of its proximity – it is only three hours’ drive from Kabul – and because Pashto is spoken there.

Over the years, Peshawar has turned into a centre of Afghan music, art and Pashto cinema. In fact, now, Pashto-speakers from Afghanistan can simply walk or drive through the border without a passport or visa.

Hafizullah’s father worked as a driver in Peshawar, where the family grew. Today, Hafizullah has five brothers and two sisters.

Hafizullah started his schooling in the crowded, dusty and bustling frontier city. But when the Soviets were repelled, his father decided to return home. They sold their belongings and came back to Kabul, full of hope for the future.

That hope was shortlived. The Soviets were replaced by a brutal Taliban regime that stopped schooling for girls, made traditional clothes and beards compulsory for men, banned most of the arts and built a wall of extreme conservatism around Afghanistan, shutting out the rest of the world.

As the economy became virtually non-existent, there were few jobs and a teenaged Hafizullah was forced to leave school and become a driver himself. Amid all this, his father passed away.

Today, Hafizullah is still a driver, but he dreams of studying business administration. He’s taught himself English, which he speaks with some degree of fluency, though he tends to get the genders mixed up.

“I became a driver to support my family, but I don’t want to be one all my life,” he says. “I’ve decided to study business administration – first get a diploma in it, and then a bachelor’s degree.”

Hafizullah tried applying to a college, but the timings wouldn’t allow him to keep a job alongside. He’s currently looking for an institute that has classes either early in the morning or at night.

The determined look in his eyes leaves me in no doubt that one day he will be a business executive.

I have been in Afghanistan for only three days, so I’m no expert on the country. But I can’t help feeling that Hafizullah’s story is the story of millions of young Afghans.

And so is his determination.

Kabul, through a lens

This boy runs a small store in Taimani. His eyes reminded me of the famous 'Afghan Girl' photograph that appeared in National Geographic.

...and his smile lit up the shop.

'Naan' bread sellers in Taimani, the neighbourhood where my office is. They were delighted when they heard I was Indian, but made it clear they wouldn't allow a photograph if I was a Pakistani. Many Afghans blame covert Pakistani support for the Taliban for their problems.

This sweet is commonly sold on the roadside. It looks like the Indian 'jalebi' and is guaranteed to give you diabetes with the first bite itself.

This little fella tried to sell me a battery-operated car in Shahr-e-Naw. Boys will be boys, he probably figured. On a more serious note, he's at an age where he should be playing with these toys not selling them to ensure survival. Across the world, poverty has the same face.

Ishmatullah mans this store outside a restaurant in Shahr-e-Naw. He readily posed for a picture and then thanked me for taking it.

Fish on sale in Taimani. When I asked my journalist friend Farid Ahmad what variety this was, he replied: "Afghan fish."

Kabul: First impressions

January 11, 2011

My first full day in Kabul. It’s colder than anything I’ve experienced before.

My colleagues at Pajhwok – the news agency that has contracted me to train their journalists – estimated that it was 4 degrees Celsius in the day time. But it was the wind chill that made it unbearable for me – a lifelong Mumbai resident for whom ‘cold’ means 15 degrees.

***

I went for a walk with my friend and colleague Farid Ahmad through the Taimani neighbourhood where Pajhwok has its offices.

Taimani comprises a main road – a rough, corrugated strip of earth that is an axle-breaker for cars and back-breaker for those inside – and several small streets that branch off from it. Small businesses, from naan bread sellers to real estate agents, line the road that is covered with the white powdery sand that swirls across Kabul.

It is very similar to where I’m staying, Shahr-e-Naw, a busy locality in central Kabul, dotted with restaurants and boutiques selling bright-coloured – hold your breath – ball gowns!

The mannequins rubbed shoulders with kabab and dry fruit sellers. Little boys hawked their wares, from socks to battery-run toys.

I asked a restaurant employee to pose for a photograph at his fresh fruit counter. He did so happily and then thanked me for taking his picture. Afghans are more than polite.

***

Last night, Farid and another journalist friend Lotfullah Najafizada whisked me away from the guesthouse no sooner than I had checked in. We went for a buffet in a restaurant in a mall.

As we walked in, Lotfullah told me security had been stepped up there because of a suicide attack in the vicinity a while ago. The ‘stepped-up security’ comprised a guard who gave us a cursory patting down and waved us on.

The food was fantastic and, I was told, so were the desserts. But in Afghanistan the desserts tend to be in violent shades of red and orange.

I stuck to the meats.

***

By the way, both Lotfullah and Farid think I should have no problems here. It seems I “look like an Afghan”, have an Afghan-sounding name and – most importantly – I come from the land of Bollywood.

I buy the last argument. There are pictures of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar everywhere. One of the Pajhwok employees even asked if I could introduce him to Aishwarya Rai!

***

There are pictures of Ahmed Shah Massoud everywhere. The ‘Lion of Panjshir’ was killed days before 9/11 and is a hero to most Afghans.

Note to self: Must buy a ‘Massoud cap’, a thick round one he favoured, to complement my Afghan looks.