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October 31, 2003

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Meditating in the Ruins

Ali Zaker

Here I was. Standing with my recently acquired Afghan friend in the hall of Kabul Theatre that was. I say 'that was' because the space I was standing in was once a theatre hall. A fantastic one at that. It had all the paraphernalia of a theatre that would make any theatre centre, anywhere, feel proud. The rows of iron lattice on which the cushioned seats used to be are still there. But gone are the cushions. The skeletons of the boxes made for the exclusive audience are still there but the seats aren't. The steel structure of revolving theatre without the platform, the huge passage way to roll in the sets, the light and the sound consuls, the box offices all stand in a desolate state. Only that they have all been reduced to near rubbles.

Earlier, on my arrival I had met a number of Afghans; both educated and not so educated; and all of them, while talking about their country, ended their discourse with a sigh. I knew, within a few days, why in Afghanistan, 'sigh abound'. Later while talking to friends and colleagues in Afghanistan, we named it the “Afghan sigh”.

I had been to Kabul on a very short trip. Like every visitor to a new and war-ravaged land I had started the tour expecting nothing. In fact, I was even crestfallen to have found that the city did not have a good enough place to stay. We were recommended some Guest Houses. These are more of a middle class type hotels that have sprung up after Kabul became open to outsiders.

As a matter of habit, I had felt uncomfortable at the prospect of living in such a hotel. These rest houses usually have a common bathroom for every two/three rooms. This reminded me of my dormitory days when one would have to wait to do the necessary until someone else occupying it was through.

We usually had two meals a day in the Guest House --breakfast and dinner, the lunch being had at the place of work or in a restaurant, whichever was convenient. A typical Afghan meal usually comprises whole wheat bread and whatever one chooses to eat. You have the option of meat and a kind of daal, with salad. Salad, I was told, is a recent innovation, introduced after the foreigners kept coming to Afghanistan. I took a liking to the Afghan bread. It looks like naan but quite different from the conventional naan. It should be four times the size of the naan that we know. The Afghan bread is very well done and is, therefore, hard like biscuits. There is no special reason for me to fancy the bread, but, I suppose you may at times like something even without any particular reason. In my meals, with a health restriction on consumption of meat imposed on me, I used to chew on the bread and try to relish its taste, which must have been intrinsic to it and let it be the main dish on an Afghan table from time immemorial. My colleagues asked me how such an apparently bland tasting thing could entice me so much. Good question, I thought. Then it dawned on me that the Afghan bread, like Afghanistan itself, grows on you. Just as its perched earth, scorched buildings, dusty roads and the inquisitive eyes of its children.

The first sight of the place, its facilities and utilities are deceiving unless you have been around for a few days, met with the people, talked to them, visited their homes and endeavoured to have a “feel”. I learnt from them how miserable were the days of the infighting Mujahedeens and how torturous were the days of the Talebans. I went through the streets in west Kabul. It is like a ghost town being inhabited by the poverty stricken masses. Each building is a skeleton of what it used to be. Each individual is muted by the events that have ruled over them for past so many years. They look almost with absurd disbelief at the visitors. They hardly trust anybody, especially after so many years of inhuman existence caused by human beings, some their own and some invading the land.

This was amply reflected when young boys, ill-clad and gloomy, stuck their heads into our car offering something to sell and said in almost perfect American accent “wanna buy?” They would even respond to your bargaining, be it the city map of Kabul or an antique piece but their pensive eyes, however, would give away their inner self which is one of uncertainty and fear.

The friend who had taken me to the Kabul Theatre took a speck of dust from the wall of the destroyed building and said, “no Afghan could do such a heinous deed of destroying a property which was their pride, these must have been the enemies of the Afghans”. I only wish to God that he was true and that, at long last, the Afghans would emerge as a nation under some leader who would be given an unperturbed lease of control all over the country for a logical period of time.





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