Plans changed, and instead of going up north I am in the west – in Herat. All the happier for it too. I have always wanted to come to Herat, and here I am, blogging from Herat, listening to the Doors, nibbling on the season’s finest grapes, and with a breath-taking view of the Herati skyline dominated by the Friday mosque out in the distance.
The first thing that catches the attention of a newcomer to the city is the broad, well-paved and preserved, and tree-lined streets of Herat. At least that is what caught my attention coming from Kabul with its permanently congested and pot-holed roads as our noisy convoy with its escorts zipped through the long drive from the airport into the city via Injeel district. For all his faults, the former Emir has done admirable work with the streets of Herat. His forced destruction of multi-story buildings that were built too close to the road and his broadening of the city’s main streets into 60-meters-wide thoroughfares bring to mind the same serious-minded implementation of “imminent domain” that is so needed in Kabul’s alleyways. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why some here tend to wax nostalgically about the Emir.
Then it is the history. It is there in the huge citadel, the magnificent Friday mosque, the strikingly beautiful Minarets that are all in such heartbreaking state of disrepair, the tombs of Gawhar Shaad and Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, the historic four gates of the city, the square with a Soviet tank and statues in memory of the brave Heratis of the 24th of Hoot all over it, and on and on…
When a city has been around since 2,500 before common era, it is fair to say that it collects quite a bit of history’s dust on it. And while it is tragic that the historic sites here are falling apart and see little efforts at preservation, this poverty actually adds to their magnificence and grandeur.
Tall, unpretentious, humble and yet humbling, unadorned, un-ticketed, aloof -and around for only a short while more. Like heroes. Like beauty.
I had tears in my eyes when I saw the minarets. I imagined them as five tall and beautiful goddesses all condemned to gradual death by an angry Zeus. Seeing them, one is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, this is the first time you have seen them, and you must take a picture with them while they are still there. On the other hand, damn you if you dare to take out your nifty digital camera and affix your ugly mug in the foreground of that azul sky and the beautiful goddesses.
Third comes the wind. No, the famous story about the wind of a hundred and twenty days is not some fairy tale. The gales here are strong enough to push you off the rooftop of your hotel. This is why the moment you step out of your vehicle you see why it is that all the trees here appear like little green leaning towers of Pisa. Eating on a rooftop last night I could not help but laugh at the way the wind-inflated thighs of my Khareji colleague’s trousers appeared like those of a Sumo wrestler – he was wearing a ‘Peran Tambon’ (and yes that is the proper name for it; forget Shalwar Qameez.) The wind is enlivening here. It invigorates you. And unlike Kabul’s afternoon winds, the wind here does not bring along with it vast quantities of dust.
After the streets and the history and the wind, it is the Heratis that make Herat great. Their endearingly idiosyncratic Farsi accents, their Persian features and polite manners, their relative cosmopolitanism, their industrious and entrepreneurial spirit, their love of and patronizing of arts and literature (evident in their frequent use of poetry in speech), and the fact that until things got really bad with security here, the city’s parks were filled with families out picnicing at night! I seriously like that.
I arrived here yesterday morning, and spent most of yesterday outside the city and in the countryside. Speaking with people. One old man had served in the Afghan national army with people from Jaghori, the district where I come from, back in the day – perhaps 1950s. He showed me an ancient “Hawz,” an ancient domed structure where water collected from streams was kept for drinking. The structure was falling apart. It had been around for 300 years, around the same length of time that 6 generations ago his great grandfathers had moved into Herat from one of the “Mashriqi” (eastern) provinces. He also showed me ancient houses bombed to rubble by the Soviets.
He walked around his village with me and talked at length about why it was so important for people of my generation to join hands together and to rebuild the country. And then he invited me to be his “Mehman” with such genuine sincerity that I felt bad for having to refuse.
I will be in Herat until Thursday. From tomorrow on things are going to be rather busy. This is why I will go out and absorb more of Herat this very afternoon. Till another post.