“they’ve learned to shoot but not to read”

Phillip Corwin was part of a UN team in Kabul who tried unsuccessfully in April 1992 to transform power from Afghanistan’s last communist president to the country’s first Islamic one. When the war broke out in the city and he felt so desperate for not being able to do anything, took a pen and a paper and like a good Afghan in such moments, expressed his feelings in the following poem:

Waiting for the End: Kabul, 4/92

The soldiers smile their smile of pride;

each heart contains a fist inside.

The land they left has gone to seed;

they’ve learned to shoot but not to read.


In villages with holy names

they’ve seen the sky explode in flames.

In godly mountains thick with pines

their pets have been deformed by mines.


In playgrounds meant for girls and boys

where lethal pellets lay like toys,

a child that only played at war

has two less fingers than before.


For decades long the feringhee

dispatched their best technology

to help the people kill themselves,

then granted aid to fill their shelves.


Now we sit like stumps and wait

as rival armies infiltrate,

as women blot their skin with mud

and stock their cellars with cold food.


My landlord is inured to war,

has seen it many times before.

The only hope, he says, is faith;

the only waste is useless death.


The source of the poem: this book.


Kabul 1993

The documentary Massoud L’Afghan (1998) by French journalist Christophe de Ponfilly who committed suicide in 2006, has some horrifying images of Kabul city during the civil war. In the above clip we see Masoud’s men shelling West Kabul from TV hill and then driving a tank on Kot-e Sangi Street towards Dehmazang with wide victorious smiles. … You can see the rest of the movie on YouTube which is about Masoud’s life.

Afghanistan’s first cross-dressing politician!

Bibi Hakmeena, is a 42 year old female member of provincial council in Khost province. She always appears in public in a Pashtun-style turban and salwar kameez  which makes her possibly the first cross-dressing politician in Afghanistan. …No joking,  read the full hilarious story here. … in Khost, for goat’s sake!

A couple of years ago there was a Belgian documentary I saw in French Cultural Center in Kabul called “Afghanistan, le choix des femmes“, which was about the first Afghan female governor Habiba Sarabi and probably one of the strongest female warlords, Commander Kaftar, both Hazara women.  I was especially impressed by Kaftar whose behavior was so like other warlords. Although not a cross-dresser, Kaftar looked way more manly than Hamid Karzai, whose balls are internationally under question in recent years.

The taste of Kabul air

Darul-aman Road, Kabul / Sep. 2010

The polluted air is probably the most distinct urban characteristic of Kabul city. This air claims 3000 lives each year, which is higher than the number of civilians killed by NATO forces and Taliban combined.

This beautifully shot report by Karishma Vyas gives some good insights into the problem:

One issue which was not noted in the report is Kabul’s lack of any mechanism or infrastructure for human waste management. Kabul doesn’t have a sewage system, this makes you wonder where all the the human waste in this over-populated city of 5 millions go? According to Prince Mustafa Zahir, the director of Afghanistan Environment Protection Agency, a considerable part of it goes into air. “According to our lab tests”, he told a reporter in December last year, “the Kabul’s polluted  air contains 32 percent human waste, in the form of powder”!  Well, in other words, those who live in Kabul city, literally eat $hit on a daily basis without knowing it, (no offence)!

This is a major health and social problem in Kabul, which is getting worse every day. The Kabul municipality has proposed a plan for construction of Kabul sewage system which will cost $850 millions. This is a lot of money that no one will pay, I am sure.  The corrupt officials in the government, would rather eat shit than investing money in infrastructure.

The Kabul “sea”

The dry Kabul “sea” / September 2010

In his famous memoire, Babur the Mongol prince who conquered Kabul in 1504 quotes the following poem about this city by an Indian poet Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat:

Drink wine in Kabul citadel, send round the cup again and again // for there is both mountain and water, both city and countryside. (Babur 2002, p. 153)

بخور در ارگ کابل می بگردان کاسه پی در پی // که هم کوه است و هم دریا و هم شهر است و هم صحرا

But considering the original Persian poem, my translation is more faithful, if not necessarily beautiful:

Dine and drink wine in Kabul citadel, cup after cup // you have city here and country, you have mountain here and sea

The original Persian poem says “sea” but instead the English translator has preferred “water”; the Kabulis will not like this if they hear it. In Kabul everybody refers to Kabul River as darya-e Kabul or “Kabul sea”, even though for most part of the year it is completely dry. In Afghanistan we don’t have a sea, so people get excited by any running water and call it a sea. This is basically a linguistic problem, but somehow suggests how a nation’s nature can shape its culture and way of geographical thinking.

Sea or river, the topography of Kabul city is structured on that beautiful twisting line which in finer days could inspire many princes and poets. Today it’s a dry and dirty space where street kids and runaway dogs hang around. Not a poetic place at all.


Babur (2002). The Baburnama: Memoires of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Thackston, W. M., trans. & ed.). New York: Random House

The code for pimps?

An interesting report in WSJ about a new urban myth in Kabul city: the number 39.

When I was in Herat city, the number 39 was notoriously believed to be the code for pimps. No one wanted to have it on his car license plate, cell phone or even age. If you asked someone “how old are you?” he would say “around 40” or “1 year less than 40” if it was in the passport office. Sometimes people used 38+1 instead of 39 when had no other choice. In 2004 when I came to Kabul I didn’t notice this attitude towards 39, and I was so happy to see Kabulis were not superstitious like Heratis who probably imported this odd idea from Iran.

But last year when I went to Kabul, a friend of mine who is a car dealer told me that the 39 thing has arrived from Herat to Kabul as well, and now no one buys cars with a 39 on its license plate. He told me stories about a guy who resisted the sweeping urban myth and said it was bullshit, but after a month he begged him to “melt” his car.

The number 420 is also a nationally recognized bad number in Afghanistan which means a dishonest and villain person. People use it to tease each other, to curse, or in Panjshir to compliment! (However I’ve noticed that in Canada the number 420 has a better reputation ;)

There is an ancient Islamic science of numbers known as Abjad, in which each alphabet letter is coded with one number and then instead of using a certain number you use a word, a phrase or a verse of poetry to express something.  Most of the classical biographers used a poem to say an important date. Even some old grave stones have a poem instead of the exact date of the death of the person. Probably they believed it was easier to memorize a poem than a number.

Even today some Abjad numbers are widely and respectfully used in all Muslim countries like the number 786. Muslims usually begin a speech or any writing piece such as a letter with “In the name of Allah the most compassionate the most merciful” which is the first verse of Kuran. Since a piece of paper bearing the holy name might be unintentionally disrespected by throwing, burning or  smashing, so the people instead started to use 785 which is the Abjad number for that verse.

I am not sure if 39 has an Abjad basis as well, but to me it seems very ridiculous. The notion of “pimp” in Afghanistan had already been covered with myths. One was the vague Dari term we use for pimp: mordah gaw, which literally means “caw dead” or “someone whose caw is dead”. We don’t have any other equivalent for pimp in Dari; Iranians use other words for it. I have always been wondering what kind of connection there might have been between a pimp and a dead caw? This is even more bizarre than the connection between a pimp and the number 39.

At which city to stay?

Abul-Fazl Bayhaqi (995-1077) the great historian at the court of Ghaznavid Empire has said:

Do not stay in a city which does not have a just ruler, a proficient physician, and running water.

.در شهری مقام مکنید که در آن حاکمی عادل، طبیبی حاذق، و آبی روان وجود ندارد

Does Kabul have any one of these three?


The quote from Mosafer’s blog (in Persian).

Zahak’s last Facebook ‘status’

Zahak's body arrives at Bamiyan Airport, June 7, 2011 (Photo: Hadi Ghaffari/Facebook)

Zahak's body arrives at Bamiyan Airport, June 7, 2011 (Photo: Hadi Ghaffari/Facebook)

Yesterday, Jawad Zahak’s body was welcomed like a hero by the people of Bamiyan. According to local reporters, about 7 thousand people waited at the Bamiyan airport from 1:00pm to 6:00pm until two helicopters from the Ministry of Defense arrived with the body of Zahak and his companions.  The people are yet to make a decision where to bury him: Bamiyan city, Yakawlang district his birthplace or Mazar-e Sharif where Zahak allegedly asked his heirs to bury him to be close to the tomb of Abdul-Ali Mazari.

Zahak's last Facebook 'status'

Zahak was not a highly educated person. However his dedication to public service and courageous and sharp language made him a powerful political figure in Hazarajat. He had a Facebook account and occasionally shared his thoughts with his friends in a grammatically broken Dari. His last ‘status update’ can sum up his entire political struggles in the post-Taliban Bamiyan:

Bamiyan, the undiscovered land: neither the international community nor Mr. Karzai and his cabinet know that Bamiyan is one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. If they knew, they would allocate at least a small percentage of those billions of Dollars coming from the foreign donors to the central government, for the reconstruction of Bamiyan province.


A Bamiyani blogger just wrote that Mr. Zahak will be buried in Bamiyan city in Gulzar-e Shuhada (Garden of Martyrs) cemetery.  And also the three other men killed with him were not his “companions” as the media reported, but ordinary passengers who got caught by the abductors on June 3 based on ID cards they carried with themselves that showed they were working for the government or foreign NGOs. Mahdy Mehraeen a photographer in Bamiyan has published a collection of photos from the funeral at The Republic of Silence, a popular Hazara website.

“…they have enemies in every direction”

In 1832, Alexander Burnes an Englishman in the service of British India government on his way from Kabul to Bukhara passed through Bamiyan, and out of curiosity, paid a visit to a Hazara family in that province. His description of the Hazaras in 19th century interestingly resembles the today situation, with one little exception that now the Hazara people know about money – even if they don’t own a lot of it.

“These people have no money, and are almost ignorant of its value. We got everything from them by barter… a traveller among them can only purchase the necessaries of life by giving a few yards of coarse cloth, a little tobacco, pepper, or sugar, which are here appreciated far above their value. The Huzaras are a simple-hearted people, and differ much from the Afghan tribes. In physiognomy, they more resemble Chinese, with their square faces and small ayes. They are Tartars by descent, and one of their tribes is now called Tartar Huzaras. There is a current belief that they bestow their wives on their guests, which is certainly erroneous. The women have great influence, and go unveiled: they are handsome and not very chaste; which has perhaps given rise to the scandal among their Soonee neighbours, who detest them as heretics. Were their country not strong, they would soon be extirpated; for they have enemies in every direction.” (p. 177-8)

Burnes , A. (1834).Travels Into Bokhara; Being The Account of A Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary, and Persia; also, Narrative of A Voyage on The Indus, from the Sea to Lahore. Vol. 1. London: John Murray