Airport Security*

September 8, 2007

No, I did not get to see the citadel of Herat from up-close. And no, I did not visit the famous candy shops. That, plus the fact that I did not get to roll at the “Rolling Saint” just about leave enough reasons for me to visit this great city again.

The only thing that came close to dampening my spirits about the whole experience was the treatment at both airports, in Herat and in Kabul. Somehow on this day ISAF soldiers from the Italian contingent in Herat had decided it was time to pay a visit to the airport and review routine security procedures with their Afghan counterparts. This mostly involved tall and rugged-looking Sicilians (don’t know for certain, but almost all rough and tough Italians on screen are from there) in shades and dour faces -because remember, the great Pavrotti passed away on Thursday- standing around with hands on their hips at the airport, while the Afghan police and security folks took the inanity of their useless security procedures to new heights.

This involved the following in the case of the poor chap immediately in front of me: opening a giant suitcase, spreading the contents out on a table, thumbing through each piece of wardrobe, unzipping the side-pocket of the suitcase, taking out a little bag, opening it, taking out a small notebook, and shaking the notebook – probably expecting a little sachet of heroin to fall out. Of course none did – that stuff usually goes untouched and undetected, and through much more previliged channels. Once we were through with this, the bags would be put through the electronic screening machine. And in the intervening 10 minutes, the rest of us -including the bored Italians- stared at the whole spectacle thinking “Come on! That is a bit excessive even for bearded people named Muhammad Ali at JFK.”

I will spare you similar details about Kabul airport, but suffice to say that I got further affirmation of the mentality that seems to prevail among all civil servants, government employees, and officers of the law here: “Just because you can make life harder for others -especially if they are Afghan- you should. Treat them as first-rate suspects and frustrate the hell out of them. Make them hate you. Because, by the authority vested in your uniform by the law and the government, you can do it.”

Moral of the story: do not under any circumstances get separated from your minister or ambassador or assorted other government dignitary or Khareji while travelling by air in Afghanistan, or there will be a sudden and steep drop in the quality of service and a disappointing loss of preferential treatment.

(*This post will leave no doubts that I’ve got “blogger’s mood swing,” but whatever…)


Last day in Herat

September 5, 2007

Last day in Herat. After a long day’s work, went to the shrine of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Was taken by the meditative peace of the place and the confluence of giant white turbans. Remembered verses from Khwaja’s “Munajat Naama.” Held up my hands, touched the discolored marbles, then put both my hands to my face.
In and out. It was getting dark.
Entered the Friday mosque and saw the rows already formed. Shoes in hand, ran across the tiles and took my place in the last row. Prayed in my own heretical and syncretic way – with hands now open on my sides, now over-lapped.
In and out. Late for a dinner.
Have an ealy flight tomorrow. But have not yet examined the citadel up close. Having read Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game,” cannot leave Herat without visiting the citadel. So got to get up very early. Hence the shorthands.


So many jeans!

September 4, 2007

I have an urgent proposal for the Afghan government: in the interest of national security, make it mandatory for all its senior employees to take crash-courses in the art of public speaking, with an emphasis on brevity. This morning…

But alas! I am not allowed to dwell on the negatives…

So we are back to gloating over Herat. It is so easy to take electricity for granted here, but thinking back to Kabul, the fact that Herat has regular power supply with no, none, zero blackouts in my three days here -thanks to separate deals with both Turkmenistan and Iran- seems such a blessing. Remote villages located at distances of as great as 40 kilometers from the city have electricity on a regular, round-the-clock basis, even if they don’t have paved roads all the time.

Both today and yesterday afternoon a group of us visited the shops in Bazaar-e-Malik (roughly “The King’s Bazaar”.) This is like Herat’s equivalent of the Chicken and the Flower streets -put together; except that here you can find the real stuff, at prices a lot better, and with the green tea and sweet “Halva” flowing non-stop to, literally, sweeten the deals. And of course the streets are a lot wider, which, only if you have ever been to the Flower street, you could appreciate. The main trade of the Bazaar-e-Malik in Herat is in carpets, waistcoats, shoes, and Burqas. Upon seeing a couple of the latter as we were driving past them yesterday, a Khareji among us wondered aloud: “So how come so few people actually wear jeans if there are so many shops selling them?”

(to be continued… )


Four Things I Love about Herat

September 3, 2007

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.