Ghost of a gracious city haunts Kabul

USA Today
January 25, 2002, Friday, Final Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
LENGTH: 1894 words
DATELINE: KABUL, Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Admittedly, Kabul is hardly on anyone’s tour circuit these days. And the few foreigners in the city now — relief workers, journalists, soldiers and government officials — are more consumed with post-war challenges than tourist attractions.

But there was a time, as recently as 30 years ago, when this remote capital was graced with lovely fountains, flowering gardens, handsome villas and stately monuments. Back in 1972, intrepid tourists — mostly hippies on their way to Nepal — even trickled in here to soak up the exotic ambience and ogle the bearded tribesmen and traders fresh from the Hindu Kush. Even then, though, it was as offbeat as a destination could be.

To discover what is left after decades of fighting and chaos, USA TODAY used a 1972 edition of An Historical Guide to Kabul by Nancy Hatch Dupree (found in a local bookstore), and followed a walking tour of Kabul.

Today’s visitor can but imagine the fascination that once was. Like a trip to one of the city’s many antique shops, it takes a lot of patience — and a lot of rubbing away at the surface — to find the remnants of the city’s historical treasures.

Thirty years ago Pushtunistan Square, considered the heart of the city, was the jumping-off point for travelers. There was the sizzle of street food, the sun reflecting off the roof of the nearby Royal Palace, the chattering government workers and visitors in the Khyber Restaurant and the bustle of the main post office and movie house.

Today, the square is there in name only, its former glory as bruised as the few pieces of fruit sold by street merchants. The central fountain, once touted as the loveliest in all of Afghanistan, does not work. The Khyber Restaurant is padlocked, dusty and stripped of most of its furnishings. The letter “B” is missing from its once-illuminated sign.

The cinema also is closed. The ornate entrance to the Royal Palace complex, which now houses Afghanistan’s interim leader Hamid Karzai, is in disrepair, with chunks of rock forming a faux blockade and a string serving as a gate. Open sewers and a few merchants now occupy what once was the launching pad for tourist excursions.

Describing Pushtunistan Square, the book says: “It is a popular meeting place in Kabul, especially during the summer when sidewalk tables set under gay umbrellas beckon weary sightseers. The Ariana Cinema next to the restaurant shows foreign pictures in many different languages.”

That scene, indeed, is long gone and not likely to resume anytime soon.

Proceeding north, as Tour Number One suggests, takes you to the Kabul Hotel and the nation’s two most important banks, which are all still standing. Today, the hotel is occupied by diplomats from a handful of nations and some ministerial staff of the new government. It is more notable, however, in demonstrating the results of the Afghan civil war. Large artillery holes are still visible in its wall. Part of the hotel is near collapse; makeshift rotting wooden planks and mud bricks provide questionable support.

The banks are empty of customers and money, but would be wonderful vintage sets for a movie. So would the Ariana Airline ticket office, located in the Kabul Hotel, with big counters, intricate metal grillwork and old Pan American Airline brochure holders.

The first historic structure on the tour is the Mausoleum of Amir Abdur Rahman, who ruled from 1880 to 1901. Originally Rahman’s palace, it features red bricks and blue-brick trim, decorated with minarets and an iron and gold cupola. Now, almost all the windows have been blown out. The whitewash that was added in 1964 is streaked with dirt and debris. Efforts are underway to clean the building and collect the rubbish strewn around.

North of Rahman’s resting place are displays of newly made “antique” carpets (artificially “aged” by driving cars over them), in one of several sidewalk merchant areas that festoon the walking tour.

Turning left at the next intersection, near the Ministry of Education building, are representatives of one of Kabul’s newest twist on an old industry: men sitting with long sheets of paper to write out petitions or letters of introduction for the illiterate masses seeking jobs or favors with the government. It is a thriving business as, by many estimates, almost two-thirds of adult Afghans cannot read or write.

But the intersection also offers some of Kabul’s best entertainment: traffic policemen full of zest and good humor, who attempt to bring some order to the swarm of vehicles. They smile, salute, beg, cajole and occasionally thump a car to get some flow to the snarl.

“Rounding the curve on Mohammad Jan Khan Wat (street) one notes many modern stores and small hotels which have sprung up in the past few years to attract the ever-increasing number of visitors to Kabul,” the guidebook says.

Today, this strip of Kabul remains a bustling area, with a pulse that few other areas exude. Rows and rows of open-air booths sell new and used clothes, shoes, scarves and hats. A year ago, the area sold turbans and was a favorite spot for Taliban shoppers; now, flat woolen mujahedin hats have replaced turbans.

A block away is the Mandawe bazaar, the largest in the city. It is here, as in other markets, that the visitor will find a true taste of Afghanistan. Alive and vibrant, these open-air emporiums are full of color, smells and curios. There are spices, clothes and ribbons, all types of household goods, arguing customers and burqa-clad women, each with four or five children in tow. Money changers bark out ridiculous exchange rates, kabobs smoke over charcoal, and vendors brandish an array of almonds, walnuts and pistachios. Steaming piles of shor nakhot — hard peas with hot sauce — are irresistible. Bicycles weave through the crowd, and the occasional donkey will nibble one’s jacket.

The tour continues on Asmai Street, which will eventually intersect the Kabul River, now little more than a rivulet from the three-year drought, where garbage is thrown and drinking water withdrawn. The National Gallery, which had almost half of its collection destroyed by the Taliban, is on the left. It is to reopen soon.

The road goes on to the Masjid-i-Shah-do-Shamshira, the Mosque of the King of Two Swords. Although dusty and dirty, it remains in relatively good shape and is in use. (Most mosques are closed to women and foreigners.) There are some holes in the roof, damage from the Afghan civil war. It is a favorite hangout for pigeons, so walkers beware.

From here, the tour requires a car. The next stop is Babur’s Garden. On the way, one can see the old walls of the city snaking up the hillside. Sadly, the once-popular hike along the city walls is no longer possible because land mines are planted along the path.

Babur’s Garden once was proclaimed the most beautiful in Asia, with trees adorning its graceful verandas, terraced gardens dotted with fountains and elegant tile work on the various mosques and structures. “Magnificent stands of chinar trees shaded reservoirs situated behind the mosque and above the tombs and a profusion of sweet smelling wild rose, jasmine and other fragrant shrubs covered the mountain side,” the guidebook states.

Almost all the trees are gone, either taken as firewood or destroyed during the fighting. The garden sat between three hills, each controlled by a different Afghan warlord. The drought has parched the ground.

Remarkably, Babur’s tomb (he founded India’s Mogul empire and established a kindgom in Afghanistan in 1504) is largely unscathed. There is some graffiti written on the structure and a few chips of marble are scattered about, but Babur’s resting place still has a dignity unmarred by the cockfights that take place on other parts of the grounds every Friday.

The drive to Chilsitoon Palace is next. A government guest house and summer royal palace, it is where the British Durand Mission, charged with drawing the borders between Afghanistan and British India, was housed in 1893.

The route was one of the most picturesque in Kabul, with fields of crops, “villages and poplar groves.” It is now dried out, and the villages have been destroyed. This was a front line of the war. The palace itself, built during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman, is full of holes, most of the roof is missing, but there is just enough of its elegance remaining to evoke sadness for its glorious past.

Next stop is the Kabul Zoo, on the bank of the river. Although most of the structures have survived, many of the animals have died from a lack of food and care. The highlights are Marjan the blind lion, who lost his sight when an angry Afghan threw a hand grenade at him, and Samboo the bear with no nose, also a victim of a mad Afghan. There are two wolves, three vultures, one eagle, three owls, two porcupines, one falcon, one deer, some pigeons and one tiny wildcat.

This is the Valley of Chahrdeh, which the book says, “retains much of its original pastoral beauty. Picturesque walled castles, cultivated fields, poplar groves and herds of sheep and goats alternative with the city architecture, especially toward the end of the four-mile avenue leading to the heart of Darulaman (where King Amanullah built his new capital to celebrate the country’s independence from British India in 1921).” It is now all ruins.

On the city’s southern outskirts, the Darulaman Palace and the nearby Kabul Museum are more symbols of devastation. In 1972, “large ornate villas surrounded by lush gardens were built by members of the aristocracy in the area behind the museum building,” says the guidebook. But because both the palace and museum sat beneath a mountain contested by rival warlords, they are now shot full of holes and have signs warning of land mines.

The tour nears its conclusion at the Mausoleum of Timur Shah (1773-1793), now the home of enterprising young boys selling small wads of toilet paper. The resting place of Afghanistan’s second king and one of its most revered rulers is now a massive toilet.

On the way back to Pushtunistan Square is the Central Post Office, the country’s sole operating post office and international call center. Like a time warp, it still has areas designated for “International Telegraphs” and “Telephone Trunk Calls.” Fittingly, all the clocks have stopped. Outside the building, old men sit with envelopes and glue to help prepare letters. Inside, the workers cheerfully promise speedy delivery and offer beautiful pre-Taliban stamps for collectors.

For a last encounter with the city’s tortured past, take a detour to the Christian cemetery in an old residential part of the city. It is the final resting place for visitors who came here over the ages and, for a variety of reasons, met their doom. Some died of food poisoning. Others were shot in Kandahar. Many died during drug deals.

The cemetery is a solemn site where history breathes softy. Old walls have crumbled from age, not war. The caretaker plants trees, rather than cutting them for cooking wood. But the stories of a country and its visitors are there, one of the hidden oases in a tourist desert.

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