Herat has one of the most complete and most beautiful shrines in Afghanistan, the 12th century Masjid-e-Jami, or Friday Mosque.  It is in style and layout very similar to the shrines of Uzbekistan and Iran:  Pishtaks, court yards, minarets, and beautiful tiling.   No wonder, as it was heavily restored in the 15th Century Timurid Period.  You just can’t get away from Timur, it seems!  We got up at 6 AM to see it at the early morning hour and at the best light.  It was great.  Hardly any people at this hour either.

This mosque originally was built entirely out of brick and stucco.  Only in a few small sections has the original brick work been preserved.  The appearance would have been drastically different.  For the most part the shrine now sports drywall in the Iwans, and brand-new tiling made at a workshop integrated into the mosque complex.  Unfortunately, that was closed.  One of the most interesting objects of the complex was a 13th Century bronze cauldron filled with a cool drink, which used to greet pilgrims.  These days, it has been put behind lock and key inside a dusty glass and wooden pavilion.  What a shame.

I am dressed just about as impeccably as can be with my loose clothing and my nearly stylish head scarf, but at the mosque, as early in the morning as it was, and outside prayer time, there was a turbaned man who nonetheless found fault with me:  I did not wear any socks!  Neil, my travel companion surrendered his socks, but the point of the matter was that other women also came in with slippers and without socks and they were fine…  oh, well.

A second visit at the office responsible for giving out permits to the sites in town was as unsuccessful as the first.  For whatever reason, we were not worthy of the official stamp of approval.  We only could try to go anyhow and convince the door-keeper otherwise.  But that, too, failed.  We were left with some beautiful external views of the fantastically restored citadel which seemed to be closed to everyone and all.  Why bother with the restoration, I ask?

Right across the citadel was one of the old cisterns in town, the Malik Cistern.  I had seen many of those, much bigger even than this, in Iran.  These are typically round buildings dug deep into the ground, which can store water (even ice) to supply the population during droughts.  This one had been nicely restored as well, and became home to an artist’s workshop!   Landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes were displayed up high in all kinds of media.  About six students were busy at work copying pieces of art as the master artist walked around looking over their shoulders.  That was the last I had expected here!   Through our tour guide Mubin, I found out a bit about the artist Mohammed Ebrahim Habibi:  Under the Soviets, he had gone to Pakistan and studied art.  And based on the Soviet invasion, he painted a canvas about his country with visual commentaries on the atrocities that went on at home:  shelling, explosions, bombed out homes, people losing loved ones and limbs.  After the Soviet’s defeat, he returned to Afghanistan and the canvas was briefly displayed at a government office.  But when the Taliban took power, they sliced and discarded it.  The artist had to flee again; this time to Iran.  About ten years ago he returned.  He found the discarded canvas, repaired it, and was allowed to open a private art school in the restored cistern of the town.  That’s where he and his canvas are today.

Except for this one canvas, most of his art is rather conventional and not even very good (I am sorry to say and I definitely leave this open to individual tastes).  But I liked his story and even more the fact that today he is teaching a young generation how to be artists.  If you would see his pictures you would find nothing of the reality of life here; everything is pretty, idyllic, and romanticized.  Perhaps, the tragedy of life as it is, sits too close to his heart to paint it.  His art is an escape into an idealized world which hopefully will become reality in Afghanistan, some day, again.  This was a great visit and one we did not even plan on or need a permit for.  So it goes.  Surprises like this are always the best.

After a big and delicious lunch and an hour of sleep, we went off to one of the few surviving older parts of town where much of the bazaar is located.  We walked for more than three hours and saw everything from bakers to tailors, carpet shops, blacksmiths, carpenters, burqa-stores, and tire-recycle shops.  That was perhaps the most unusual craft:   An entire alley of shops was dedicated to the recycling of old tires, big and small.  From car parts to ropes, to waste baskets and water buckets, just about anything you could imagine was created out of these tires.  We watched the workers cut these huge tires, remove the steel lining and go to work.  As all the other jobs, this was hard work, especially in the heat.  And everywhere you saw fathers and sons working together.

According to Mubin, the literacy rate in Afghanistan is still only around 30 percent.  More and more illiterate parents send their kids to school, but many still depend on them for work.  As a result, a whole row of people were sitting alongside the mosque offering writing services.  Any illiterate person could go there and dictate whatever document they needed; it is a service like having your shoes fixed or your clothes tailored.

We had convinced Mubin to dispense with the driver we were going to have today and to do this day on foot.  Both Neil and I are quite OK walking for hours and we definitely enjoyed this opportunity to “be free”, to see, and to smell.  The smells can become quite challenging given the trash and the open sewage canals.  But it was all worth it.  In Kabul we will be put inside a car again soon enough.

Very few areas of the bazaar have been restored, notably one large hall.  But others, gorgeous courts with shops and living quarters above them, khans similar to those you would find in Syria, are visibly neglected.  They serve as parking lots, trash heaps, or at best as storage areas.   Some of them are noticeably old, built with beautiful brick-patterns, but their beauty seems to go unnoticed.  In some areas the old mud-brick city wall can be made out.  Most of the time it has been incorporated into newer houses, shops, or courtyards.  Many of Herat’s old buildings have fallen victim to war.  This area, one of the few that is left, will soon be victim of neglect and lack of funds.  But life has to go on.  People who have barely enough to subside would be hard-pressed to consider the historical value of what little they can call their own.  I understand, even though it saddens me.

At a chaichone (tea house) we finished the day.  We came by a narrow, dark and dirty stall furnished with wooden beds and lined with old carpets to sit on.  The man at the back of the stall brews tea and there you sit, sip, and chat.  At this hour the chaichone was empty.  At night, rows of men would be expected there finishing off the day.  As everywhere we go, people start to crowd around us and within minutes we had a few onlookers who found it most interesting to watch us drink our tea.  We have been welcomed with smiles just about everywhere throughout the bazaar.  I asked people if I could take their pictures (only men, of course) and often was granted permission.  I hope you will enjoy the weathered faces of some of these people as much as I do.  With their turbans and their traditional shalwar kameez (loose pants and shirts) they look beautiful.  I wish, Mubin, our tour guide would dress in traditional garb.  But he has to wear western-style clothes as part of his office protocol.

After less than four hours of walking, I was pooped again.  A delicious dinner buffet awaited us at the hotel.  And so went another day in Afghanistan.  The views from the hotel roof garden are spectacular, particularly in the evening and morning sun.  When you look down at the traffic and the people of Herat, you can almost forget where you are.  But this peaceful surface deceives even here.  Outside of the center of town things are not calm.  You have to know where to go and where not to go.  I certainly could not have done this alone.  I am usually the spot of attention – all heads fling around when I walk by no matter how conservatively or dark I dress.  I am used to that and pretend I don’t notice.  But it is comforting to have Mubin and Neil with me.  I am not sure how I would feel without them.  Most people are friendly, but at least one guy gave me a very nasty look and the finger as I walked by.   How many hostile thoughts there are, I will never know.  Mubin has talked about how many people have been educated about foreigners and have a positive outlook.  But even he estimates hostility in the population at over 50 percent.  In Herat, there is law and order.  The government is in control.  That is not the case in much of the rest of the country and as always, what we can see on the surface is less than half the picture.

I enjoy understanding and practicing a few recurring phrases which I have mastered so far, such as:  What is your name?  Where are you from?  How long will you be here?  How old are you?  What time is it?  How much does this cost?  Nice to meet you.   I am a teacher.  I have a son, etc.  Dari and Farsi are so close.  People understand what I say, but they have to slow way down and reduce their vocabulary to a few essentials for me to follow them.  It’s a good ice breaker when I approach strangers.  It usually helps to endear them to me just a little bit.  One of the ALT drivers told me that too often he is meeting foreigners (and that holds mostly true for Americans) who after 10 years in the country still have not made any efforts to learn the local language.  What that tells the locals does not translate into mutual respect, or acceptance.  Given the last hundred years of foreign behavior on top of that, no one wonders that anti-foreign sentiments run so high.

Good night.

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  1. Fascinating…that bazaar would be sooooo interesting to experience!!
    I looked up Mohammed Ebrahim Habibi on the internet, but could find no information. I was hoping to find the picture he did that the Taliban destroyed,but no luck…he is not to be found.
    I am sure that being the “point of interest” and having Afghani men give you nasty looks (and obscene gestures) cannot be comfortable, but it is not hard to see why they do not like foreigners. So many have come into their land to wage war. Amazingly they have all left with their tails between their legs. It will be interesting to see how Obama gets us out of there…and when!!! (I hope it’s Obama who will have that job.)
    And aren’t you glad for all the hours you spent on Farsi at the UofM!!!! lol

  2. Fantastic pictures -and I noticed the arches before I saw the tires – what do they not sell at the Bazaar? An art studio in the cistern – what a wonderful surprise for you. This was a good day in spite of the socks and the closed doors to the citadel.