Hippies, Russians, the Taliban – Afghanistan has always had a little something for everyone. Now a land in crisis is getting reacquainted with tourists.
I am going to be the only tourist in Kabul, I think as the plane from Dubai touches down between military helicopters and fighter jets. Less than three hours later, I see a small man, holding up a tiny banner, walking amongst the rubble of several bombed-out buildings, followed by people with white sun hats and sky-blue lip protection, all of whom are busily clicking photos of bullet holes in the building walls – a Japanese tour group. Kabul is a funny city. Does that sound absurd? Perhaps fittingly: after all, the Theater of the Absurd was invented in France as a means of demonstrating the insanity of the world and the lost people within it. Not to mention the fact that it was a reaction to the horror of two world wars. Today, Afghanistan has produced a more contemporary variety of both madness and terror. It is called Kabul.
In the city centre, a shepherd leads his flock through an endless stream of cars, minibuses and mopeds. A Toyota Land Cruiser with television screens imbedded in the seat backs overtakes a donkey cart to which is nailed a license plate. In the Deutscher Hof restaurant, the German proprietor serves traditional knuckle of pork and sauerkraut, along with German dark beer on tap. On the street, a leprose woman stretches out a hand with festering craters where her fingers once had been. There are Internet cafes with Italian espresso machines and high-speed connections. Everywhere cell phones are ringing and SIM cards are being sold, along with hands-free phone kits and EasyChargers. And in the bazaars, where alcohol is forbidden, merchants offer their cooking oil in 4.5-litre Johnny Walker bottles, along with large-format photos of half-naked women. Sex sells.
In the past few years, Kabul’s population has shot up to near four million, from just 500,000 in 2001. The city simply cannot cope with so many people, as is clear from the mountains of trash, water shortage and inadequate sanitation. Unsurprising, then, that the child-mortality rate counts among the highest in the world and that the traffic is murderous, let alone the air quality. Ten years ago, there were so few vehicles in Kabul that one could often walk down the middle of the street. Now, a roaring, smouldering cascade of metal forces itself through even the smallest side streets. At night, the headlights of cars are refracted in exhaust, turning the city into a shadow play. To make matters worse, the wind stirs up dust from the rubble of buildings and vapour off of fields fertilised with excrement, sometimes human. Sooner or later, everyone gets the Kabul Cough.
I am staying at the Mustafa, a mid-range hotel, where my cell is just big enough for the plank that functions as the bed. Pinkish-red plaster peels from the walls. During the nightly power outage, I feel my way to the toilet at the end of the hall and suddenly bump into someone. Resisting the urge to scream, I feel a long robe, and beneath it something hard. My hands graze a beard, a rather luxurious one at that. When the lights suddenly come back on, I find myself embracing a Hun-like Pashtun in a nightgown. He indicates his machine gun and says, “AK-47. Good. Very good.” Then we say goodnight.
In the morning, I meet a group of American tourists in the bazaar. They have booked a Kabul City Tour, a package daylong excursion to mosques, mausoleums, the gardens, the Bird Bazaar and the old fortress walls. All of this is organised by a group called the Great Game Travel Company, similar to two other companies operating in the city. It slowly dawns on me that Kabul has discovered tourism. Despite war, crises and kidnappings, excursions are still available to see the remains of the stone Buddhas of Bamiyan, as well as hiking tours in the northern province of Badakhshan. The pioneers of this travel scene are already sending kayaks down the Panjshir River, going snowboarding in the Hindukush, and floating on hang gliders over the sapphire-blue Band-e-Amir lakes. Indisputable proof of this is the new Afghanistan guidebook – hot off the presses from Lonely Planet.
There is even a Minister of Tourism in Afghanistan, which has turned out to be a dangerous job in this country. The first person to hold the position after the fall of the Taliban, Abdul Rahman, was lynched by a mob at the Kabul Airport shortly after taking office. The second, Mirwais Sadeq, died after a rocket propelled grenade hit his car en route to a business meeting in Herat. Nasrullah Stanekzai, the third, is definitely alive but was dismissed almost overnight after a shift of power in the government suddenly put him in the wrong party. Perhaps it has something to do with the fates of his predecessors, but when I visit Ghulam Nabi Farahi, the current incumbent, he does not seem particularly excited to discuss the future of tourism in his country. “A thousand tourists last year,” he says, never once raising his eyes from the television in front of him, where an Afghan Elvis sings “It’s Now or Never.” He continues: “This year 1500. Next year, twice as many.” The promotion of tourism is an important goal for the government, Farahi tells me. The media presents only “bad propaganda” about the security situation in Afghanistan, he notes still watching TV, even though many cities are quite safe. I ask which areas, as a tourist, I should avoid. “Anyone can travel where he wants to,” he replies. “Everyone is responsible for himself.” And with that un-reassuring remark, the interview is over.
Chicken Street, in downtown Kabul, is a string of souvenir shops. Indeed, the only thing that you cannot buy on Chicken Street is chickens, which are available a little further along, on Flower Street. Shop windows boast everything from blown glass from Herat and embroidery from Uzbekistan, to coats made from the fur of the last of the snow leopards, semi-precious lapis lazuli, Central Asian antiques, kilim and Persian rugs. Some of the rugs feature the face of George W Bush wailing bitterly; others depict the World Trade Center in flames as an F-16 squadron flies over an outline of Afghanistan.
On Flower Street, I meet Gul Agha Karimi, who invites me to his house to recount tales of the roughly 90,000 hippies who used to pass through Afghanistan every year on their way to India and Nepal, back in the 1970s. They enjoyed the undisturbed beauty of the country, the extraordinary hospitality of the people, and the best dope in the world – the vision of the Summer of Love. They met up at Sigis Restaurant on Chicken Street, and partied in the Green Hotel well into the morning. Camping in Kabul was their motto. “All the hippies knew me,” old Karimi says, full of pride. “They all loved my Super Payan Camping,” referring to the name of his campground. We are sitting in his living room, surrounded by a large-screen television, VCR, DVD player, satellite receiver and a stereo. Unfortunately, there is no power. “The hippies went barefoot,” Karimi remembers, rubbing the rough soles of his feet on the edge of the coffee table as we drink syrupy-sweet orangeade. “We thought, ‘How poor these people are, by Allah. Look at them. They can’t even buy themselves some shoes!’” He used to accommodate as many as 300 hippies at his campground, where today sit his small grocery store and 11 boxy, single-story houses for his extended family. “Tourism was one of the country’s most important income sources,” he sighs. “Afghanistan was, as they used to say, ‘mellow’.” It could become that way again; that, at least, is the hope.
At the end of 1978, the hippy dream came to an abrupt halt. Under cover of night, fighter jets flew in over Kabul, some of the bombs falling scarcely 100 yards from Karimi’s campground. The next day, the hippies were gone. The communists seized power through a coup and, when Islamic forces rose up against them, the Soviets moved in. Thereafter followed three decades of war, which reduced the country to rubble. And now, finally – Karimi takes off his cap, puts it over his knee and says, “We have come full circle.” Since the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001, camping is back in style, though only behind reinforced concrete, sandbags and barbed wire. White Land Cruisers – the most visible sign of the presence of international aid organisations in conflict areas around the world – pack the streets of downtown Kabul at noon. The United Nations and its retinue of do-gooders have landed in Kabul, and with them the harbingers of globalisation – speculators and tourists.
The freaks are back again on Chicken Street. Tanya and Richard, for example. Tanya is a nutritionist from South Africa, Richard a political scientist from Australia, both in their early thirties. I get to know them during lunch in the Herat, a restaurant serving Afghan food. Richard wears a full beard and local-style salwar kameez. Tanya is clad in white clothes and a headscarf. They came to Kabul via Pakistan on a yearlong trip through Asia, travelling over the Khyber Pass and through the tribal lands in an overfilled minibus. “Afghanistan has fascinated us ever since university,” Tanya says, beaming. “This trip to Kabul is something we’ve dreamed of for a long time.” Are they crazy, self-destructive adrenaline junkies? In fact, over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that they are genuinely interested in Afghanistan, and simply wanted to see with their own eyes what it is like. Later, Alan joins us. He is Irish, in his mid-fifties, and has been backpacking through Central Asia, having arrived in Kabul via Tajikistan. “The media always shows the same images,” he says, “suicide bombings, kidnappings, the al-Qaeda videos. And then you are standing in front of the vegetable stand in the bazaar, you want a couple of tomatoes, and the guy is smiling at you. And all of the images you have got through the media just suddenly fall away, and all that’s left is the interaction between two human beings, as human beings.” That alone, he tells me, makes all of the risks of travelling in Afghanistan worthwhile.
The official warnings from governments all over the world make it sound as though any foreigner who so much as sets foot on Afghan soil is as good as dead. In the afternoon, as I make my way down to the bazaar surrounded by a stream of Afghans, several armoured cars suddenly appear in front of me. Above, a soldier cowers behind a machine gun. It is then that I notice the flags on the sides of the car and understand: these are my countrymen. These are Germans. “Hey. How’s it going?” I hear myself saying. The man takes his hands away from his weapon, shoves his sunglasses up onto his forehead and calls out, in a Berlin accent, horrified, “What … man, what the hell are you doing down there? You can’t just … just run around here like that!” The convoy springs back into motion and, as it pulls away, the soldier calls out, “Hey, just take care of yourself!”
Perhaps it is the silence that wakes me up the following morning, the holy day of Friday. The traffic that normally rumbles by my hotel window today produces only a soft murmur. In the blue morning sky, doves glide peacefully over the city. Then, something strange happens. As if in response to a hidden signal, one flock of perhaps forty birds makes an abrupt right turn toward the south. A split second later, a dull boom sets the crystals on the lampshade in my room jangling. When I arrive in the breakfast room, other hotel guests are crowded in front of the television. Breaking news: CNN shows rubble lying around, clouds of smoke rising, frantic reporting that a suicide bomber has hurled himself into the middle of a military convoy in Kabul. I saw the doves and felt the boom, yet it still seems as if the news is coming out of some faraway place. It is only then that I start to feel goose bumps crawling over me.
Later the same day, I meet Osama bin Laden. In the Bird Bazaar in Kabul, behind the Pul-e-Kishti Mosque, in a narrow side street crammed with the booths of traders, there are hundreds of cages, chirping at every pitch, and the sharp smell of droppings. A bird dealer offers me a budgie imported from Germany for a thousand Afghanis, roughly twenty dollars. He sees that I am not interested, but invites me anyway into a cave-like back room for tea. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Osama bin Laden,” he says, and points to a second man holding a finch between each of his fingers. “And this here, this is Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban.” They double up with laughter. The most wanted man in the world, who in Kabul is called simply ‘OBL’, pours me tea and yells in the direction of the other bird dealers, “And all of them – al-Qaeda!” Everybody joins in the mirth. It is difficult to decide whether this is gallows humour, sarcasm or ridicule. In Kabul, jokes about the protagonists of the country’s crisis are popular. As I am leaving, the bird dealers inform me that in Dari and Pashtu, a new Spanish word has come into use of late: anything that one perceives as horrible is called Guantanamo.
Beneath a sign depicting a pack of cigarettes with the slogan, Enjoy the taste of America!, I flag down a taxi and head out of the pulsing downtown into western Kabul, a completely different world. It is dead quiet. Whole districts, destroyed in the civil war by feuding mujahideen, lie in ruins. On a hilltop above the field of rubble, the Darul Aman Palace once flaunted its neoclassical magnificence. Now it is a bullet-ridden, bombed out, burned-up shell of its former glory. Despite the grave danger of landmines, locals in rags rummage for anything usable. In an archway blackened with soot, emaciated youths shoot heroin into their arms with what must be rusty needles. A young woman clings to life in the delirium of some horrific skin disease that is eating away her face.
Not more than ten minutes later, the scene changes dramatically. I find myself asking how, when I was packing for Kabul, I forgot to throw in swim trunks. On Street 4, in the part of the city called Qala-e-Fatullah, I find myself in L’Atmosphére, yet another of Kabul’s parallel worlds. The ‘Latmo’ is, according to the brand-new Lonely Planet edition, one of the most beloved international meeting places in the city, a place for the young and the beautiful. Next to a swimming pool in a secluded garden, foreign bathers are able to relax, laying their bullet-proof vests aside for the moment, next to tropical cocktails, sun creams and the newest Vogue. Two American women glide through turquoise water. French people slurp pastis. Journalists sit in the shade of pomegranate trees, typing stories about the attack that took place this morning. An army helicopter flies in from the west and circles around the pool, the only place in Afghanistan with a bunch of half-naked women on display. The pilots prefer to cruise the Latmo on Friday, I am told, when the largest number of beach babes are out and about. As for Afghans, they have to remain outside of the Latmo due to the ban on selling alcohol to locals, or so the owners claim.
Establishments such as these count among the many refined venues for the absurd in Kabul. They are populated with specific kinds of people: employees of the countless registered aid organisations in the city, consultants with daily fees of a thousand dollars, bodyguards and other trigger-happy security ninjas with perfectly sculpted bodies. There are supposedly as many as 15,000 foreign civilians currently in Kabul – until recently, more than the US Army had stationed in the whole of Afghanistan. Sitting by the pool, I get to talking to Rahraw. He is half-Afghan with an Italian passport and works in radio. As he explains, it is a sad fact that most foreigners who live and work in Kabul only experience the city through their armoured limousines, 24-hour security services and barbed wire. “But how are you going to help someone you never get to meet?” Rahraw asks, frowning.
Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan expectations of the international community have been high. But this optimism is slowly fading, as visible results are hard to come by. Now, they call the aid organisations ‘cows that drink their own milk’. The lifestyle of many foreigners in Kabul also arouses the anger of the local people: freely available alcohol, brothels disguised as Chinese restaurants, luxurious parties. Later that evening, Rahraw invites me to such a celebration. The music is loud, and the bar has a wide selection of wines and cans of beer cooled in a barrel of ice water. And Johnny Walker Red Label, the same bottles that the merchants in the bazaar will later fill with cooking oil. When I enter, about fifty people are dancing on the well-lit terrace, as the devout in the surrounding houses try to sleep. Their neighbourhood is pitch-black, with only the spire of a minaret floating in the night sky – a luminous eye, admonishing. “Not safe here,” says Rahraw, and points to the wall around the garden, barely three metres high. “For a rocket, no problem,” he says. Indeed, the dance floor is an incredibly easy target – probably the most dangerous spot in all of Afghanistan, when you come to think of it.
When the beer runs out I leave, and spend the entire night wheezing – the Kabul Cough. I have to get out of the city, breathe, see a little nature. So the next morning, I take a taxi to a place that one would hardly expect could exist beyond the ravaged edges of this city: the Kabul Golf Club. The course belongs to a former warlord, and it is the only one in Afghanistan. It became functional after the landmines were removed, and the carcasses of three Soviet tanks and a rocket launcher were taken away. The only thing missing now is grass. The nine holes are barely distinguishable from the surrounding dusty, sunburned hills; the greens are not green but black, seemingly created from a mixture of sand and motor oil. The highlight has to be the bombed-out army bunker after the first hole. Two rounds cost ten dollars; one year’s membership, sixty. Much to the amusement of my instructor, I leave the course after a couple of amateurish hits and wander up to Qargha Lake.
On the shores of this immense reservoir, a surprisingly idyllic landscape awaits. Afghan families have made themselves at home on platforms next to the water. Protected from the wind by billowing curtains, they sit on rugs and smoke water pipes. Pakistani music drifts out of loudspeakers. Colourful paddleboats lie on the shore. After a certain point, I can accept no more invitations for tea, so I walk a little further along the shore and sit down on a lonely bench. Off in the distance, a motorboat draws a line of spray across the silver-grey surface of the lake. Behind it rises the jagged ridge of the Hindukush, the mountain silhouette dissolving into a reddish haze. For the first time on this journey, I have the feeling that I have arrived – and that I want to stay. Ah, Afghanistan!
Lost in the moment, I notice the men only after they have crowded around me. Six long-bearded Pashtun with AK-47s, looking down on me, scowling. Are they bandits? Some warlord’s soldiers? Taliban? “Passport! Passport!” barks their spokesman, a giant with a scar slashed across his right cheek. I give him what he wants. The group crowds around to study my passport. Almost 200 countries produce passports, and my life now seems to depend on whether I have one of the right ones. All at once, the man slaps the passport shut, calls to another walking along the shore with a vendor’s tray, and orders Pepsis – a can for everybody, one even for me. He gives me my passport back and says, “Germany good! Germany very, very good!” They take me over to the street and insist on calling me a taxi – because there are bandits here, they say. Finally, a car appears. The men stroke their guns and shake my hand. I get in and the taxi takes off – back to Kabul.
Text By Michael Obert
Translated by Jason Nickels