Not too long ago, Afghanistan was the target of America as it has become a terrorist haven. It is not on any traveller’s list of destinations and probably won’t be in my lifetime. Who knows where this country will lead, all I know is that I have enjoyed my temporary visits. I have been to a place where angels fear to tread so when my husband and all the male members of the family were called by the late King Zahir Shah, I had no qualms in following him. I flew to Afghanistan not knowing what to expect but full of enthusiasm and anticipation. Just a few hours after landing at the airport in Kabul, I was subjected to six and a half hours of bumpy, zigzag mountain routes not to mention crossing a one car wide bridge with no railings hanging in between the mountains about four hundred metres high. It was torturous to begin with and extremely dangerous especially at night. My excitement turned to anxiety. We crossed the bridge with my eyes closed and my hand tightly holding on to my husband’s arm.
What I was going through at the time was far from my wildest dreams. There were no streetlights …. electricity was available to only a few. It was an emotional experience from anticipation to anxiety and moved on to an overpowering sense of achievement especially knowing myself to be so fearful of almost everything. I never played any type of ballgame in my youth for fear of getting hit by the ball. I never learned to swim for fear of drowning. I avoided any activities that would put me in danger or give Afghanistan: in the eye of the beholder by Arlene Rafiq me pain. So, going through what I just had was something for the Guinness Book of World Records. Stern looking men with guns in their hands not knowing what they had in mind was enough to put anyone into a frenzy. A long dark tunnel built by the Russians for their own interests can give you goosebumps after the many horrible stories you hear about that tunnel.
It wasn’t so much the dark Salang Pass that was scary; it was the reality of driving through a tunnel inside a mountain that created goosebumps all over. Passing through several galleries covered with snow and the smell of diesel all over was suffocating. I was told that hundreds of men died inside that tunnel during the Russian occupation as the opening of the tunnel was covered with snow and the people inside the tunnel were buried inside. More men carrying guns stopped us asking questions all along the mountain route. It was good to be with someone who is highly revered in the country, my husband Sardar Abdullah Atiq Khan Rafiq, a member of the former ruling family of King Zahir Shah. My first day in Afghanistan can be compared to a young soldier who has never seen a gun much more asked to go to war. It was like pushing someone into the lion’s den. I had no fear only anticipation of the excitement that was ahead of me. My husband took me to Puli Khomri in the north of Afghanistan to attend an important meeting with the UN Food Organisation. My husband’s family before the Russians took over had huge tracts of agricultural land and were the major producer of cotton, sugar beet and wheat. I was hoping that the UN would see the importance to revive the irrigation system covering 1600 hectare of irrigable land that would feed farmers and returning refugees. It would also create sustainable source of income for 800 families that are now under the UN Food and Shelter Programme.
Passing through the mountain routes was an exhilarating experience. Layers of almond trees blooming with white flowers adorn the mountains of Afghanistan. Mud houses built on top of the mountains looked very charming. Women covered from head to toe in their colourful burqas providing contrast to the otherwise monochromatic colour of mud, clear, clean water cascading down the mountains was enough to clear the mind and to touch the soul. It was like being in a meditation camp or spa. Who said that this country is God forsaken? There is so much beauty around here to explore and to appreciate.
The drive down the mountain stopping for kebab and freshly baked Afghan bread was a real treat. It was interesting to interact with the locals, mostly men staring at me like I came from another planet. Now I understand fully well.
Afghanistan is a man’s world. Women are either inside their homes or wearing burqa when outside and there are not many on the streets of Afghanistan. So, a woman like me, thank God, got away with face uncovered, with long, red fingernails was enough reason for these men to stare.
It was not enough that I wore a Chadari to stop them from staring. I am after all a woman – which was enough to draw attention. Their eyes show both enthusiasm and disbelief that there is a woman not fully covered. In my book, a true sight of men not used to seeing women.
Despite the weird behaviour, there is so much respect for women in this country or maybe I was seen as just one of the boys. These men jumped into an opportunity to offer me hot tea and whose cup I took first got the biggest cheers.
The guns they were holding were put aside and started friendly chats with my husband and our convoy of bodyguards who were also fully armed and equipped. We left after our high tea, Afghan style heading back to Kabul.
Kabul is chaotic to say the very least. There is no order on the streets, driving was a free for all. People seem to be busy with something but it was quite hard to detect. Everything is available only one has to know where to find it.
Chicken Street has everything that Kabul has to offer including imported goods from cosmetics to food items – except oddly enough or chicken! Even items that were not supposed to be sold are available for sale such as food packs coming from the US that read very clearly and in bold letters NOT FOR SALE.
My husband took notice of this and bought this to the attention of the vendor. They hid the items from view after that. It’s bonanza time for entrepreneurs selling antique items from the famous lapis lazuli to furniture pieces and carpets of varying designs and sizes. Every carpet has its own story from the number of looms to colour and design. It was enough to feast the eyes of any discriminating shopper. Prices are quite high but the high priestess of bargains could not be fooled, true to my nickname, everything I bought was a steal. I was not sure though if it was my bargaining gift or being with my husband that did the job. I would like to believe that I haven’t lost my touch when it comes to getting what I want for less. The shopkeepers seemed to be happy selling to me, so there must be something there that I was not aware of. Oh well, who cares! I was happy with my purchases and the sellers were happy selling to me.
For some strange reason education in Afghanistan was not for everyone. It is very rare to find someone who went to high school. Education was only for the rich, very few women even got to secondary level but what surprises me is the intelligence of boys around 9 -12 years old. They would come and sell books and will tell you stories of their life and a synopsis of the books they are selling and in English. They are fast learners and very persuasive. I bought some books only because I wanted the boys to feel motivated and show pride that they were good and should go back to school. One older man whose daughter took a liking to me would come and visit me as she wanted to learn about the world outside of Afghanistan. Her father came and saw me teaching the girl how to read. I never saw the girl again. Today, there are many clandestine schools that teach from elementary to high school and also some skills so they can find a job and not just confined inside homes taking care of everyone in the family. It is still discouraged as the parents want their daughters to stay at home and learn household chores for when they get married, these girls do the same thing for the husband’s family. It is a vicious cycle of looking after everyone but herself.
Whatever the country lacks in material comforts the beautiful scenic countryside more than makes up for it. Along the way, the landscape changes from rocky hillsides to a more picturesque area. A view of Afghanistan countryside, crisp air and magnificent scenery is a sight to behold. The drive down the mountain to stop for kebab and freshly baked nan bread was a real treat. It was very interesting to interact with locals, mostly men staring who are still not used to seeing women. Their eyes show both enthusiasm and disbelief but friendlier now than before when they looked at me as if I came from another planet. At least that is how I saw the encounter.
After a long and tedious trip down the mountain going through traffic in the city, I emerged feeling immense satisfaction. A few hours of calmness is just what I need. Getting home with all the comfort, I started thinking of all those people I’ve met on the road who had very little but seem happy and contented. Happiness has nothing to do with what you have … it is how you make it.