Midwinter city breaks in all the wrong places: Afghanistan

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque and Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Mazar-i-Sharif.

So this episode takes place back in February, when I was tangled up in the forest of red tape and consular interviews and demands for parental and spousal permission that accompanies any attempt to gain travel documents for Central Asian countries. In this bureaucracy-befuddled state, a minibreak sounded just the ticket, and location-wise the fact that you could get the relevant travel documents in a couple of hours with no questions asked was all a country needed to recommend itself to me. Uzbekistan has only one neighbour which is so enthusiastic about handing out visas, and so it was that within a couple of days of hatching this brilliant plan I found myself eyeing the Uzbek-Afghan border post with a vague sense of apprehension and wishing that I would think my decisions through a bit more thoroughly sometimes.

Street vendors in Mazar-i-Sharif.

The border is delineated by the murky brown Amu Darya, still imposing this far east before fading into irrigation-drained ignominy before ever reaching the Aral Sea. When it was still the Oxus, Alexander the Great floated his armies across the river here on hide rafts in order to ravage the eastern satrapies of the Persian empire; now the two countries are linked by the Soviet “Friendship Bridge” (all the better to invade you with, my dear). It’s a remarkably sharp dividing line – I’ve never crossed a border where the contrast of the two sides has been so absolute. On the Afghan side, there was an atmosphere of barely-suppressed chaos quite unlike the ordered blandness of Uzbek Termez. The traffic was heavy with exuberantly decorated lorries redolent of the subcontinent, auto rickshaws and dignified old men on donkeys, everyone wrapped in shawls and blankets to keep out the freezing wind. I was painfully aware of the fact that I was the only woman on the street, and felt increasingly uncomfortable as I waited for my ride – not so much unsafe, as keenly aware that here far more than anywhere else in the world, anything could happen and quite probably would.

On the drive through barren, windswept and snow-sprinkled desert to Mazar-i-Sharif, we passed convoys of the international troops stationed nearby: Swedes, Croatians, Germans, and, of course, Americans, rolling slowly past in their humvees, holding up the traffic for miles behind them – they are said to be under orders to shoot at any car that comes too close, so everyone keeps a careful distance. Although Mazar and its immediate environs are considered “safe” by Afghan standards, an awareness of the war penetrates everything and there is a tension in the air that is palpable (although how much of it was I imagining, because I knew?). Mazar itself is an odd, mixed up city with expensive new glass buildings (“mafia money”, muttered my host darkly) standing side by side with mud houses along unpaved, heavily rutted and rubbish-strewn roads, while the immense mountains of the Hindu Kush rising to the south. Electricity is intermittent, so the city reverberates at night to the rumble of hundreds of private generators. Sometimes I could believe I was in any Central Asian city, as I was pursued by carpet salesmen, moneychangers and taxi drivers , but then I’d turn a corner and see a tank easing its way ominously down a side street. I couldn’t stop staring at the tanks whenever I saw them, they seemed so unreal, as though I’d stumbled onto a film set by mistake. I don’t think I’d even seen a tank outside of a museum before, and didn’t that slam home to me just how unbelievably I am to have been born somewhere where that’s the case. Mazar may be peaceful, but it doesn’t stay that way spontaneously.

Lady in a burqa at the Blue Mosque.

The heart of the city, and the only ancient building of note is the Blue Mosque and shrine of Hazrat Ali, the burial place of the Prophet’s son-in-law, and another hugely important site of pilgrimage for Muslims. I’d seen a photo of this building at an impressionable age, and had been determined to see it for a long, long time. Although much smaller and arguably less impressive than the Haram in Mashhad, it makes a better impression because it isn’t cut off from the secular city like the other place, and it’s easier to take it all in at once. Rather than glittering gold, every inch is covered with the bright blue of lapiz lazuli, the colour always synonymous in my mind with Afghanistan. The weak wintery light didn’t do it many favours, and it’s decorated at night with unevenly hung strings of flashing lights that unfortunately bring to mind the Christmas decorations at my local shopping mall back home, which is not a good thing, but at dusk it becomes special. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, and unlike in Mashhad, no one suggested I try, so I circled the walls and again, watching women in blue and white burqas feed the flock of pure white doves (every seventh dove contains the soul of a saint, and the overall effect is so holy that should a grey dove join the throng, it will turn white within forty days) and men in jeans and leather jackets loiter drinking tea in defiance of the snow.

For, with my usual impeccable sense of timing, I had arrived at what turned out to be the coldest week of the year, as a sudden freezing snap enveloped the whole region. Dozens of people were killed in avalanches on the main road south to Kabul, all the water pipes froze (except those in the public baths, and now I know it only takes three days without a shower to overcome my terribly British reticence regarding com`munal bathing) and the 80 km stretch of (good) road between Mazar and the border became so dangerously icy that I had to prolong my stay for several days. I spent a considerable amount of time huddling around coal stoves in unventilated rooms trying to remember if this was how people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, while my friends reminisced about how lovely the region was come about April or so. One of my hosts was a DJ at a multilingual Mazar radio station, and decided to take full advantage of this opportunity to inject some English into his programmes, and thus my discovery that there is nothing so terrifying, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, than a live microphone that someone expects you to talk into. My international broadcasting career began with a slightly uncertain introduction to the Black Eyed Peas, and hearing my voice coming out of the car radio while creeping along beind a convoy of tanks was one of the odder moments of my life.

The name means Nine Domes

No Gumbad Mosque, Balkh.

We were on the way to Balkh, a small market town about half an hour from Mazar with a lot of stray dogs and rubbish in the streets and two thousand year old city walls and not a lot to distinguish the fact that it was once Bactria, the mother of cities and a pearl of the Silk Road. Ravaged by earthquakes, droughts, Jenghiz Khan and other occupational hazards of Central Asia, there is now barely anything to remind one of its glory days as the place where Zoroaster was born and the Alexander the Great was married and more trade passed through the markets here than through Samarkand and Bukhara combined. The remains of a mosque and mausoleum crumble in the filthy central square, and I suddenly thought about what London might look like in 200 years, which was not a very pleasant thought so I stopped thinking it. But a little way out of the city lie the ruins of the oldest mosque in the country, over thousand years of decay but still standing, with the faintest traces of lapiz lazuli in niches covering every column, which were once studded with the gemstones. UNESCO had covered the whole thing with an awful corrugated iron roof and there was no one there but the caretaker’s cat and chickens (who got on surprisingly well) but it was still living; people still come on Fridays to pray there. Later, back in Mazar and politely trying to convince the local carpet salesmen that I really did not need a carpetal representation of Amir Timur (and let me just take a moment to say that no one, be they Ayatollah Khomeini or your pet Labrador, is improved by putting them in a carpet, and it is a mistake to try), I was offered silver Bactrian coins dug up from the fields around Balkh (I wish I could say it was my ethical stance against the looting of cultural heritage rather than a lack of cash that made me demur, but that would be very, very untrue). Bactria was still there, still not quite dead, and I thrilled at it.

Except that getting starry-eyed over romanticised versions of the past when the present is so imperfect and the future is so uncertain is troublesome here more than anywhere. At dinner with a family I’d met at the shrine, we sat around an oil lantern eating pilau, admiring babies and discussing wedding plans and politics. The presence of the coalition troops inspired no great ire in anyone I spoke to: “Only backward people hate the Americans. Everyone else just wants to work for them” (although it’s worth noting that I was also told that “only backward people wear burqas”. In a week I saw precisely one woman apart from me who wasn’t wearing a burqa.) Yet there is clearly discontent: the day before I arrived, a Taliban member of the Afghan police force had killed two Swedish soldiers and their just outside the city. The local lad had been engaged, and working with the troops to save money for his marriage later that month. This story was the main topic of discussion for that week, but spoken about with resignation, in the knowledge it would soon be superceded by another tiny tragedy, even here, in the safest part of the country. Still, the consensus seems to be that things are slowly, slowly getting better. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that the presence of the coalition troops here was daft. This is not really the place for a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the invasion, but Afghanistan felt so much more foreign to me than anywhere else I’d ever visited, so self-contained and self-involved that the very idea that any Western power could successfully impose by force an alien form of government on this country seems ludicrous and the very height of hubris. I suppose it remains to be seen. The troops don’t seem to be going anywhere for the moment, and they keep some kind of order in Mazar, but I can’t see where it is going to end.

Back at the border, the Afghan official ran an uninterested eye over my passport, then invited me to share his lunch. Across the river I knew I could expect an hour’s wait, a thorough interrogation and a search of every pocket and bag. I figured I could stay just a little longer.

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