The Afghanistan That Once Was
To see the aftermath of the utter destruction of Kabul during the civil war of the 1990s, followed by the dark period of oppression imposed by the Taliban, is hardest of all for those who grew up in the Kabul of the 1950s, 60s, 70s or even 80s. For it is these Afghans who can still remember a cosmopolitan city where tradition and modernity mixed harmoniously, a place of old and distinguished character that simultaneously could offer many of the developed world's latest amenities. For the rest of us, a great deal of imagination is required to see into the past, beyond today's thick haze of pollution, out of control traffic, and the haphhazard reconstruction characterized by Pakistani-style narco-palaces, gaudy wedding halls, and forbidding compounds hidden behind barbed wire and concrete barriers.
I am one of those who relies on imagination rather than memory. I only know the complicated Kabul of today, a bustling, spirited and chaotic city sitting atop layers of history and rubble. It's a city from which the educated, the wealthy, and the cultural elites fled, and into which the rural poor, refugees and the internally displaced have settled. There is little continuity today with the period when Afghanistan marched slowly but steadily towards progress until the start of a series of violent interruptions threw it so wholly off track. Still, one can find remnants of that old Kabul and clues as to where Afghanistan might have gone if the secular, democratic and intellectual forces had prevailed over the fundamentalists.
Ever since I started travelling to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, more than anything else the image of the Darul-aman Palace has evoked this brighter past in my mind. Perched on a hill far from the city centre, the gutted palace is pockmarked by its brushes with bombs, bullets, rockets and mines. Empty, windowless and mostly roof-less, it contends with the elements, and with its current residents- Kuchi squatters, as described by Brian Platt here. There are no traces left of the fine French furniture, the royal family portraits, the stately wallpaper or the green gardens that once adorned it. It's a haunting symbol of how much has been lost and of the radical, reverse transformations of the last 30 years.
Yet Darul-aman decimated as it is, still stands, beckoning us not to forget what once was. Earlier this month, stacked on the floor of the bottom shelf and covered in dust, I discovered an old tourist guide printed by the Afghan government of 1977, in the Shah M. Bookstore in central Kabul. Like Mohammad Qayoumi's recent photo essay in Foreign Policy, showing us the Afghanistan he remembers of the 1950s and 60s, it's a window onto a country that not that long ago in history, was safe, liberal, beautiful and future-oriented.
In the tourism guide's section on Kabul, a photo is shown of a bright, white city nestled in a mountain valley beneath a sun that keeps some greenery alive in the dry mountain air. The Kabul River is full of clean, blue water.
Today, only a trickle of water down the river, snaking its way around the heaps of garbage. The old buildings lining the river, I hope, will someday be restored as this part of the city still has the power to evoke an old world atmosphere of commerce, along the stone walls hemming in the river, as shoppers and merchants bustle in and out of the stalls selling everything from gold watches to cups of tea.
From Kabul to Kandahar to Balkh to Nooristan, the guide shows images of smiling, colourfully dressed women, usually in traditional clothing. There are no images of burqas to be found. There are, however, advertisements for the latest styles in fashion and jewelry of the time. One ad shows a slim woman against an urban backdrop wearing a karakul coat, made from the pelts of the karakul sheep of Afghanistan.
In the 1970s, there was an abundance of accommodation types, for everyone from the long-haired, patchouli-wearing hippy trail enthusiast to the discerning business traveler. One could stay in simple Turkmen yurt style huts such as the Hotel Caravan Saray in Mazar-e Sharif or the Bamiyan Hotel, pictured below.
Or, for the more upscale traveler, there was the iconic Intercontinental Hotel, which opened in 1969, air conditioned and with central heating: "offers
your clients all the modern facilities one can possibly think of", including tennis courts, a swimming pool, coffee service, two cocktail lounges, a beauty parlour and banking and postal facilities.
The Intercon stands still, overlooking Kabul from its hilltop. It has played many a role over the three decades since war has been the prevailing norm in the capital, from housing Soviet military officers, to headquarters for foreign journalists witnessing the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, when it was the only functioning hotel left in the city, to being the scene of a gun battle involving a British intelligence agent in 2003. One wing was closed for several years due to damage from rockets. Today, the bullet holes in the restaurant windows are no longer visible, the pool has been refilled after long sitting empty, rooms are being refurbished, and an internet cafe is open downstairs. The hotel is a popular venue for outdoor concerts all summer, where after a long hiatus, Afghan men and women freely mingle once again, listening to popular music under the stars.
Airline advertisements in the guide point to a capital city well-connected to the surrounding region and highly accessible to foreign tourists, but are also a reminder of the radically different governments then in power in the region. Aeroflot promotes its "shortest and most convenient transit route Kabul via USSR to Europe - American - Japan", and the hammer and sickle logo of the airline at the time proudly declares, "connects the USSR with all continents". Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines, today struggling to rebuild itself after owning a single plane by 2001, in the 1970s had booking offices in Amsterdam, Delhi, Frankfurt, Paris, Istanbul, Lahore, London, Rome, Tashkent, Tehran and Amritsar. Iran Air advertised its connections to four continents. At the time, the airline was the fastest growing in the world and one of the safest, second only to Qantas, and flew more than 30 times a week to London. There were also direct flights back then between Tehran and New York. All this abrubtly changed with the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
In the guide, Afghanistan boasts its desirability as a destination for trekking, mountaineering, fishing and taking in a rich array of ancient sites. The section on Bamiyan proudly displays its giant buddhas, which today no longer exist thanks to the Taliban's intentional destruction of these "pagan" symbols. There's photo after photo of colourful valleys, formidable mountains, gushing rivers and the smooth emerald surface of the Band-e Amir lakes in the Hindu Kush. Even Nooristan is touted as a popular destination, a region which today is considered one of the most lawless and hostile parts of the country and where recently, 10 aid workers were murdered by the Taliban.
While displaying the glories of peace-time Afghanistan, the guide also contains hints of the changes not far off by then. The guide was first printed in 1977. The following year the Afghan communist party, the PDPA, overthrew and murdered reformist President Mohammad Daoud Khan, installing a new revolutionary socialist government. The guide's chronology section has a type-written label glued at the bottom, adding, "1978: Under the leadership of Mr. Norr Mohammad TARAKI Afghanistan has been proclaimed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan." Several sections of the guide are censored: a black marker wipes out text pointing out historical sites to do with the monarchy, such as the tombs of kings, though the type can still easily be discerned all these years later. On page 8, the Royal Palace is blacked out and written above in pen is the new name: "People's House". I picture a bureaucrat at the Tourist Organization office in 1978 sitting in front of piles of the guides, marker in hand. Little would he know that within a year, Taraki too would be overthrown and murdered.
Perhaps Afghanistan will manage to pull itself out of the downward spiral that started with the political upheavals of 1978, with sustained international support and the advent of a much more coherent vision of the future than is currently being put forward by the Afghan administration. If so, it has the remnants of foundations to build on, both literally and in the memories of Afghans who once flourished in the belief that their country was on a sure-footed course to modernity and freedom. If we're careful, those foundations can still be harnessed before they disappear altogether.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.