2012
06.09

SYNOPSIS:  MUBIN’S VILLAGE, BAGRAM AIR BASE, CHICKEN STREET, AND YET ANOTHER PICNIC ALONG THE WAY.

Really, the Panjshir Valley could have been done in one day:  Getting up and going a bit earlier, skipping the picnic at Mubin’s future subdivision and if need be, cutting the drive into the valley a bit shorter.  But then, what else would we have done?!  Wasting time is one of Mubin’s talents and picnics are one of his favorite methods.  I am not complaining, just noting.  He is in a bind as much as I am.  He has to entertain me for 16 days and our options have been severely limited.  But I am getting tired of it!

We left the valley and at least took a different way home.  A smaller road which lead us passed Mubin’s, the driver’s and Shirin’s village.  I get it!  Why are these people employed at the ALT office?  They share an upbringing.  The idea of family is very strong here and in other Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries.  In Pakistan Nicole and I were joking that every guide we ever had, no matter how far from Islamabad was either an uncle or a cousin of Saeed’s; and that was always true.  There seemed no end to the extent of family.  The same is true here.  How does ALT operate so effectively in the security sector? Because there are “brothers” and “sisters”, uncles and cousins everywhere in the country who will call in with the latest news from anywhere in the country.  The term brother and sister is used loosely here, since it extends to people who have become close over time either by upbringing, by sharing school or college experiences, etc.

Passing his village prompted Mubin to tell me about the time the Soviets came.  His mother tried to keep her family (six boys and one girl) safe by taking them out of the house and into the countryside.  Mubin, the oldest of them, recalled many nights sleeping near the river and under trees and eventually ending up in Kabul with extended family members.  He was in second grade when this started and his years of schooling were severely impacted by these uncertainties.  His village is located in the Somali Plains, north of Kabul.  It was one of the most fought-over areas due to its flat layout, the close proximity to the Soviet border, and to Kabul.  Stories of the mujahedin (often barely out of their teenage years), their bravery and their injuries abound.  Mubin recalled a few for me.  He said it only takes a few men sitting around at night over a cup of tea, to get them going.

We crossed the Panjshir River, now far outside the valley and there was our picnic stop.  It was a nice one and a typical Afghan style one:  A booth, sitting on stilts at the edge of the river, shielded with curtains on three sides for privacy and open to the dirty brown river for the view.  We sat, read, relaxed and watched the fishermen wading in the current with their nets catching the next client’s lunch.  We were not in the mood for lunch and just shared a huge watermelon.

As we were sitting minute after minute beggars stopped at our booth, fortune telling Kuchi (nomadic) women, kids looking to shine our shoes, or peddlers trying to sell anything from spices to fresh fish.  It got a bit tiring since none of them would take “no” for an answer.

Bagram was on our way and anyone who has only followed Afghanistan news with half an ear would have heard about this:  The big American Airbase north of Kabul.  I wish I had known about this an hour earlier as I would have preferred to cut our picnic a bit short for a detour to get as close to Bagram as possible.  But I also wanted to go to Chicken Street today and had to make a choice:  A small detour only.  For the military buffs, this would have been worth a closer look.  Photography was out of the question as we got near the base.  Bagram is still a nondescript little village in the Somali Plains.  But at the end of the main bazaar street, it feels like a dead end (even though there is a little road out both to the left and the right).  Huge observation towers, fortified lookout booths and rows and rows of those big sandbags blocked the road.   That was the beginning of Bagram, the military base which houses around 10,000 military personnel, presumably nearly all Americans.  It is also the Bagram which is known for a notorious detention camp constantly watched over and accused by Amnesty International for human-rights violations.

The history of Bagram goes way back to the Silk Road and earlier.  Alexander the Great camped out here, gathering his forces for an invasion of India.  It was the summer capital of the Buddhist Kushans and had archaeological remains which by now all have been run over or destroyed by war.

An animal market was held in a nearby village.  An interesting gathering of animals for sale each marked with a distinct strip of color, probably in case they run loose:  Cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and the occasional camel.  I think Afghanistan consumes a fair share of meat every day.  The idea of being vegetarian must be quite a foreign and elite-sounding concept.

Back in Kabul, Chicken Street was on my program.  It used to be the street, obviously, where chickens were sold.  Today, it is the famous souvenir street of Kabul with a heavy emphasis on carpets, jewelry, and antiques.  It does not look like much when you enter.   Like everywhere else, there seems to be perpetual construction going on.  Traffic is slow and bumping along an uneven unpaved road.  But the stores are filled with trinkets and if my luggage would not have been as heavy as it already is and if my cash would not have dwindled to less than $50, I would have been really tempted to go crazy here.  Every store owner greets you with some English phrase like:  Welcome, come in.  Looking is free.  Come here!  Competition is fierce and consumers are dwindling in these uncertain times.

Two stops were fun.  In a carpet store I got a good introduction into rugs and designs.  Afghanistan has quite a tradition in this craft.  Jaffer, the young pockmarked man in the oldest carpet store on Chicken Street was knowledgeable and honest.  His prices were remarkably un-inflated as Mubin assured me, who had been sitting silently in a corner observing our interactions.   Jaffer’s father appeared after a while, delighted to hear that a German was in his store.  More than 40 years ago, he had taken German classes at the Goethe Institute in town and his German was still remarkably good.   I did not buy anything (yet), but the assurance that they could take my visa card was promising.

At the other end of the street there was a small store with a most funny and agile, bald, old man in it.  He too, was dancing of joy over having a German customer.  He insisted on feeding us tea, then sweets, then cherries and with great excitement he pointed to various Pashtun bead works.  I liked those:  Small, affordable and unique.   I had to have one and could finally check off my list:  Afghan souvenir.

And after a dinner at AFC (you can guess what this stands for!) this day, too, had turned into night.

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. I can just imagine how delighted the gentleman was to be able to use his German once more and apparently he did quite well – and even treated you to sweets. You certainly made his day – and perhaps, he made yours as well.

  2. No doubt AFC = greasy chicken with garlic and a few shaved carrots thrown in for color. lol