The way it was: The Afghanistan I saw

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Afghanistan had great ethnic, scenic and cultural diversity. It also had streams of cascading colours ranging from turquoise to rust. Above all it was a country at peace with itself. Looking back at Afghanistan, it’s proud mountains, quiet valleys and leisurely pace of life one can only choke over old memories

In 1968 it only cost ten rupees to reach Kabul on a bus from Peshawar. A special bus had been engaged to take a busload of students on a study tour, which made it even cheaper. Going up and down the Khyber Pass, across the flat stretch through Jalalabad, over the Hindukush Mountains into the Kabul valley was tiring as well as an exhilarating experience. From Lahore we took the train. In Kabul thanks to one of our Afghan students we were able to make a good deal for a stay in a clean hotel. While I was the delegation leader doing everything from keeping everyone’s spirit up and curiosity alive, all small matters concerning food, transport, boarding, lodging and maintenance of account etceteras, etceteras were left to Professor Khalid Anis and his student confidants. Yousaf a tall, fair and handsome orderly of the Principal, who at the college was often mistaken by visitors for being the Principal himself, was actually in real charge. He advised what was best for us to do and we happily agreed. He was proud to have served with English Principals. He never said in so many words but considered working for Shakir Ali bit of come down.

For the next few days we rested in Kabul, strolling unpaved dusty roads depleting our pockets shopping and entertaining ourselves on Indian films in an open-air cinema. Finally we set forth for Bamiyan, Mazar e Sharif and Balkh, on a black metalled road built by the Soviets. It has been without parallel one of the most memorable journey of my life. Once we crossed the Sarang tunnel, which connects Kabul to the Northern Afghanistan, we approached the Central Asian Steppes, an endless expanse of rich green grass carpeting the entire prospect without a tree as far as the eyes could reach. I wondered how many armies must have swept through these hills on their way to Isphahan, Baghdad or Istanbul. I wondered how many brave and treacherous warriors had been swept under their thick turf. There are so many small inert undulations on the slopes and the valleys that one really could not conjecture, what or who lay under the thick coverlet. While lost in reverie wondering, vainly speculating about obscure truths a herd of wild horses with flying manes swept into view. I could not have imagined the mutability of rich moments and the inevitability of eternal time could have been demonstrated with greater truth? The Steppes have seen all. How many armies need further scar them? When will the gods cry out, ‘Hold enough’, I wondered?

In order to go to Bamiyan our bus steered off to the left on a dusty road. The road to Bamiyan meanders along a cheerful emerald stream. The wheat crop was just ankle deep providing the right contrast to set off the almond blossoms, which have not dimmed in my memory to this day. At Bamiyan we checked in a hotel built on a flat broad hill in centre of the valley. The two statues of Lord Budha, one smaller than the other, have been carved out of live rock and are almost as tall as the cliff itself. The Bamiyan valley, like a huge bowl, is peaceful and quieter than the Courtyard of Lions at the Alhamra palace. The Presence of Lord Budha adds a divine dimension, which makes it also sublime. There were rough stairs hewn out of rock, which led visitors to the very crown of Budha’s head, which was so big that huddled together we had a photograph taken of us.

The upper part of the niche that surrounds the Divine Head was decorated with frescoes. These frescoes depicted human forms with flying draperies, closer in tradition to Chinese art. At the entrance to the Bamiyan valley if one crosses the stream and climbs up the hill, there is a monument in ruin, which I learnt later, has much more elaborate and better preserved Budhist frescoes. I can only hope that a believer of recent times hasn’t accidentally wandered up there looking for a stray goat.

The Afghanistan I remember was a country where things seem to have stood still. A person could travel a hundred or a thousand years backward without having to stress his fancy. During our journeys sight of a glistening jet plane defining its trajectory with a stream of white cloud against a sharp blue sky was the only occasion the senses were briefly pricked to the present tense. Afghanistan had great ethnic, scenic and cultural diversity. It also had streams of cascading colours ranging from turquoise to rust. Above all it was a country at peace with itself. The Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Pakhtuns, the Shias and the Sunnis intermingled and lived in harmony. Looking back at Afghanistan, it’s proud mountains, quiet valleys and leisurely pace of life one can only choke over old memories.

Mazar e Shareef which was to be our next stop is famous for having the Mazar if Hazrat Ali. The local Sunnis insist that Hazrat Ali is actually buried there and not at Najaf. At the shrine I was a bit intrigued to come across a man holding a blind man with a rope tied to his neck, He was leading the blind man like an ass around the Mazar in circles. When I enquired of someone why the man was acting in this strange manner, I was informed that the blind man was pleading with abject humility to have his sight restored. I was confided that a number of people had regained their eyesight in the past by following the similar practice.

Balkh is about twenty kilometres from Mazar e Shareef and about ten kilometres short of the former Soviet border. The fertile valley of Balkh is nourished by a natural spring. The Tartars destroyed the city most of it now lies buried in permanent ruin. Our local guide proudly asserted that it was amongst the most ancient cities of the world. Balkh also takes pride in having an exquisite mosque embellished with glazed tiles and an abode of spotless white pigeons. There was not even one bird I saw with a blemish. The place was blooming with Irises. The Iris that is so hard to grow here flourishes like our gainda there. The flowers bear blue, white and yellow colours, with their petals the size of a young lady’s palm. It was not the season for fruit, but I found the street carts loaded with lettuce, which pedestrians loved eating at all times of the day. The crisp and crunchy lettuce plant was always first immersed in a large terracotta pot and then handed over to the customer for a small coin. I discovered later that it was not a solution of vinegar in which I believed it was doused but plain water in order to rinse it. Personally I would have liked to have my lettuce, after it had been rinsed, to be dipped in a light solution of vinegar and salt. The true Lahoris go a step further and prefer to have everything with that awful black salt. They find its offensive odour just the right thing to pep up the liver and tune in the digestive system. The street vendors without even asking sprinkle its dark granules on everything in sight, ranging from pears to peaches, oranges and watermelons to guavas, apples and even persimmons. Personally I regard it a chemical weapon. It spares almost nothing. An immediate cognisance needs to be taken of it. One can’t swear to individual predilections. But the people of Balkh, I tell you liked to have their fruit and lettuce just bathed in plain water.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist