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