Another day going north…  And since there is only one road, it’s the same road I have been on for the umptiest time.  I asked Mubin if we could not go south for a change, but he claimed that there is nothing of interest for a long time except desert.  I have to trust him on this.

Istalif is a village at the western edge of the Somali Valley.  It’s picturesque, especially, since you can have a fine view from a maple-tree park across the village which is climbing up the opposite hill.  In the far, far distance you can make out the white rooftops of the military base Bagram.  When you look at Istalif you understand how hard hit especially small villages in this plain were.  There are bombed out houses next to new construction.  People seem to abandon their homes rather than to rebuild them.  With the relatively cheap and quick mud-brick construction that makes perfect sense.

While I was scanning the village for photo opportunities, a young woman approached me and wanted her picture taken with me!  That is something that has not happened since the first time I arrived.  I was thrilled and in exchange asked her to have her picture taken with my camera as well.  That was Tamina, on vacation here from Jalalabad – another town I would have liked to see between Kabul and the Pakistan border.  But like everything else outside of the larger cities, I was not permitted to go due to security risks.  Tamina was a student of English and hoped someday to be employed by the American Services as translator.  I wonder how many people like her are there, who prepared over the last few years for employment with the foreign forces and who after 2014 may have their dreams and hopes shattered as the troops and the employment opportunities vanish.  Tamina was happy to hear that I knew about her famous name-sake:  The bride of Rostam whom he supposedly married at Takht-e-Rostam at the stupa near Masar-e-Sharif.  I wish I had had more time to chat with her, but her parents and her young brother were waiting and so we parted after just exchanging a few pleasantries.

Mubin, in typical fashion had planned another picnic; this time, a lunch picnic.  He had picked up deep-fried triangles and a spicy sauce which we consumed next to the village stream.  A little ice-cream parlor was located with a beautiful view into the valley.  A young man saw us sitting there and without much hesitation came up to me:  “Hello, do you speak English?”  Since I confirmed, he sat down to talk.  He was from the village and had learned English in Kabul.  Now he is teaching young children in a private school how to speak English, as a part-time job.   He hung out with us until his share taxi, which was filling up in the village square, was ready to leave for Kabul.

At the entrance of Istalif, a sign pointed to the existence of a school for girls sponsored by the Belgians and the French.  I tried to find out more about it, but neither this young man nor the guy at the ice cream store knew anything.  Obviously, the girls of the village were going there.  But did it cost money?  What was their curriculum?  Who were their teachers?  My questions remained unanswered…

The only reason to visit Istalif is its pottery tradition.  The pottery is so pitifully rural, heavy, and crudely glazed that it is almost charming.  It’s no Chinaware and no Meissen Porcelain but it’s all there is. If there were anything else to visit around here, we would not have ever have dreamed of making the stop.

The village was on its dreamy, quiet midday break.  The men came and went to the mosques, the women were invisible, and the children probably were still in school.

After I dutifully purchased two small souvenir pieces, we returned to Kabul to see the Bird Market.  It is the oldest part of the bazaar in Kabul and one that still lives up to the promise of its name.  Most of the stalls in that one narrow street are filled with birds; from singing birds to chickens, but nothing exotic.  One stall stood out for me since the owner also had two German Shepherds docked in the back, obviously his pet dogs.  If anything, I would have thought that dogs would be uncommon as pets, but from the rooftop of ALT I had actually seen another man walking his dog on the first evening here.

And after the bird market, Mubin and I went out for dinner.  I begged him to walk and to leave the gun behind.  To my astonishment, he agreed.  We went to our favorite restaurant, the Herat Gardens and ordered food.  Mubin had mentioned how his family had come from riches to poor and I wanted to hear more about it.  I asked him to tell me his story.  Mubin loves to talk and I must have pushed the right button:  he recalled his and his family’s story under the Soviets and the Taliban.   It was an eye opener!

As the oldest son, he felt responsible to save his family from having to sell every carpet they owned and finally, the family estate.  Recently married, with a 7 months old son, he smuggled himself out of the country to Iran to find work to support his parents, his six younger brothers and his sister as well as his wife and child.  For nearly two years he was gone, wearing one set of clothes, picking up old shoes along the way, working in construction sites, doing double-shifts in dirty old car repair shops, and slowly but surely making more and more money to send home.  He kept no more than what he needed for dry bread and tea for himself and eventually returned home with the same old clothes he had left.  The story was so emotional for him that at times he had to stop to fight back his tears!

This was perhaps the first time that I saw a Mubin “behind” the Mubin I had met.  The one you meet is funny, talkative, but also moody, arrogant, and at times quite selfish.  Against this backdrop, I got a very different picture.  I understood why he has little patience for beggars or people who don’t work hard.  I understood better why he is so deeply religious.  And I could see what a steep, hard road he had walked to reach the top on which he now stood.  I also understood that it was his contribution that got all of his brothers started on the ALT business; without Mubin, no ALT.  Yet, today, all five brothers work together.  It is Mubin who is on the outside, the loner, the one who goes his own way.  Nothing makes that clearer than the fact that in that beloved subdivision of his, the entire family is building a huge duplex for all:  The parents, all brothers, their wives and children.  But Mubin is building a separate house, just one street over for just his family (wife and five children).  I wonder…

We must have sat at that restaurant for three hours or more, exchanging stories.  I am very glad we had this time.  It gave me a much better appreciation for Mubin, but also a greater appreciation for a company such as ALT and the fate of numerous other migrant workers who went a similar way.  Mubin not only went to Iran once, he also went to Pakistan.  And he made it very clear that if the situation in Afghanistan changes for the worse again, he will once more pack up and leave, this time with his entire family in tow, and this time to Dubai.  In anticipation of the worst ALT is expanding already in Dubai.  This is a bunch of very smart, driven and hard-working people.  My hat is off to them.

It was late at night by now but Mubin agreed to walk back to the ALT compound.  It is only 10 minutes away, but  this was my first night walk through Kabul without our gun.  Fun!  It seemed safe enough to me.  There were few people on the road.  In front of many compounds the armed guards were pacing.  In fact, there is probably no more-guarded and fortified city anywhere than Kabul.

Good night.


3 comments so far

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  1. How interesting to at last hear Mubin’s story. Perhaps you will even find out more now that the ice has been broken. There are stories like his right here in Ann Arbor of people who have struggled so to save their families and make a success of their lives – and they have made it.

  2. Greeting from an extremely wet Wimbledon,

    I’m glad to see your website glitch has been sorted out and that your photographs are becoming a little more green. The “invisible women” phenomenon is becoming tiresome though; I’m not sure how the Afghanis manage it so efficiently but your experiences are making me more and more glad that I had the opportunity to visit the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province. I will have to keep that vision of traditional Muslim life firmly in mind when I visit Afghanistan so as to keep reminding myself that this level of misogyny is neither excusable nor inevitable.

    My trip does seem to be on so I might as well enjoy the rain while I can.

  3. It’s too bad Tamina didn’t have more time…I bet you could have found out a lot about how women live/cope/feel in Afghanistan from her.
    Interesting that Mubin is the outsider in the family and had to struggle so hard to make it to where he is today…one wonders if he can compare in any way how he felt to how women in his country feel. A struggle is, after all, a struggle…again it seems like Afghanistan is a country of such contridictions!!!
    And is it his choice to build his house away from the rest of the family…is that how he announces to the world that he is the “one”…like you, Elisabeth, I wonder…