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Friday, July 09, 2004

Mashad + Herat

The Shrine to Imam Reza in Mashad

Into Afghanistan
Just the name Afghanistan elicits images of war, of rocket-propelled grenade toting mujahedin aiming to the skies. The burqua is synonymous with Afghanistan, particularly since the rise of the Taliban regime in the mid 1990s, the reality of the burqua’s history as long existence forgotten in the rush to (rightly) paint the Taliban in a wholly negative light. Some claim Afghanistan was a core cause of the Soviet collapse; the British in the mid 19th century forced out in a similar fashion and with similarly high casualties. While the claims of causing the Soviet collapse are highly questionable, there is little doubt that the campaign in Afghanistan through the 1980s was a core trigger for resurgent Central Asian nationalism, and so why the Soviet war here may not have caused the collapse, it may have sped it along and hurt any real chance to keep some sort of union together with the resource rich but economically weak Central Asian states. Today skeptics criticize the approach to the country and suggest the Americans in particular will face a fate similar to the other empires that have rolled though here in history. Provided they have a good deal of patience and something gets done about Afghanistan’s meddlesome neighbours (Iran and Pakistan), perhaps the American experience will be more positive. I certainly hope so, but realize that it won’t be done overnight, and realize that the world will likely tire of Afghanistan well before enough has been done here to cement its future progress.

The Question of Security
The country has undergone quite an ordeal in the last quarter century. Today security remains questionable, with my visit starting after several weeks where attacks on various targets by various belligerents increased. Already my planned itinerary had been modified significantly due to the small but nonetheless significant security risk there is in coming here. Where a good deal of the economy centres around drug cultivation, the land is rough and crawling with terrorist cells and the remnants thereof, one must be highly vigilant of what and who is around them. These things have bred into real banditry that has run rampant over the country, with some using the clear lack of law and order, particularly in the countryside, to seize upon innocent people for profit. With the first Presidential elections slated for September after being pushed back (and likely to be pushed back again), there is considerable fear that there will be an increase in scuttling activity in order to further postpone the elections. Surely a further postponement would be disastrous for this nascent democracy. Whenever the elections are held, however, they won’t be free, nor will they be fair. It will just be a question of whether they are relatively free and relatively fair so as to allow the country to accept the result.

Across the Border

With all this in mind, I headed out early on Sunday morning to the bus terminal in Mashad, Iran, for the trip down the highway to Taybad, the closest town to the border. The bus chugged along though the desert heat with the winds seeming to get stronger and stronger as the kilometers rolled by. Taybad finally appeared, but was little more than a dustbowl. A taxi took me the remainder of the way; the border checkpoint came visible on the desert horizon from quite a distance only because the trucks lined up could be seen through the sand storm that had kicked up. The wind was strong indeed, with the gusts making a noticeable impact on the speed of the vehicle. At the checkpoint I weaved though the parked trucks and idle men passing the time in the few areas shaded from the sun now directly overhead. Once inside the building where passports were stamped out I joined the mob waiting; unlike similar scenes elsewhere I was unfortunate that my being a foreigner did not win me special, faster, treatment. This was surely a sign of few foreigners crossing here. Most of those crossing were Afghan refugees, the men waited in the impatient mob at the front while their families waited more patiently at the back. Every few minutes a name would be called and a man would approach the hold in the wall where the Iranian agent sat looking rather uninterested behind a large wooden desk. Normally a few short seconds after a man approached the window he would then push back into the mob to reach his family and make a clear passage for them. The way out was generally much tougher than the way back in to the front of the mob as with women in tow, the mob would cut a clear passageway without as much as a word of direction from anyone.

In time, my name was called, but this only after a very impatient Afghan guard had arrived to control the crowd. Obviously well trained in dealing with such a crowd, he quickly lost patience and began to threaten the mob before using all his strength and limited tread on his boots to steer the crowd backwards. I have since found this to be a normal method of controlling a crowd here, but often is complemented by a twig used as a whip. I then went on to the Afghan authorities where there was no queue, but the guards made no secret of their favouritism towards their countrymen, as I did not have my passport looked at until there were no Afghans waiting behind me. Now, I faced the task of getting to Herat. Thankfully, there was a bus filled with Afghan refugees returning home with a spare seat, so I took it.

Most of the road into Herat from the border was fresh asphalt and this made for a relatively quick and comfortable ride. Evidence of the wars that have raged here were immediately quite visible. Carcasses of Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles dotted parts of the countryside. Shipping containers, usually clusters of them together formed human settlements. Shops are run out of the same type of steel containers that were once used by the Taliban as execution chambers.

The road into Herat itself looked like the city was just a giant fair of sorts as there were no structures of any sort for a few square kilometers on approach, with trucks and other vehicles parked side by side in what appeared to be a quagmire of what has become of repatriating refugees from Iran. It appeared as if thousands were living in the very vehicles that had carried them and their possessions back to their home country from Iran were no serving duty as homes.

When I got off the bus I had little idea of how to orient myself or find a hotel, the city centre, or anything else for that matter. In time after navigating the dirty streets I managed to find some accommodation. Spartan is probably the most charitable way to describe it. That night, late before returning to my room I saw the only real visible sign of the troubles that lurk beyond the city aside from some US soldiers who rolled by in civilian vehicles earlier in the day. A few men in varied uniforms, likely tied to the regional governor sat in a main square, their 50-calliber equipped Toyota pickup about 20 meters away, parked in the middle of the road.

Early Risers

Afghans rise early in the morning – there is no time change from Iran, meaning that it is already quite bright well before five. I would be curious to know whether the habit of rising early has always been around or is a remnant of the Taliban era where people would be physically punished for missing prayers.

Of primary importance the following day, Monday, was to arrange a plane ticket to Kabul My initial plan had been to cross the country by road, but weeks ago the security situation dictated that I change my plan. Ariana Afghan Airlines is not the most organized outfit so I was left wondering when the flight would leave the next day and what time I was to return to buy my ticket.

Around Herat
In the meantime I thought it best to explore some sights, particularly the awe-inspiring Jameh Mosque. I have read that the Taliban used the mosque as a base of sorts. However, it either escaped serious damage during that dark period or the men and boys who toil away in one corner making replacement tiles with painstaking detail have been at it quite a long time and with a great deal of success. There is little evidence of any previous damage to the structure of the wonderful tile-work on the facades, dome, and minarets.

The Jameh Mosque, Herat.

I decided to go out later that day to search for boots with a good tread, as my sneakers are woefully inadequate for this place. My search of the shops in the bazaar of the city yielded some interesting things. A considerable amount of the goods available for sale were quite obviously donations from Europeans or North-Americans in one of those common appeals that go out in crisis situations for donations of old clothing. Dutifully, and wanting a clear conscience to do something good for the world, people donate. Unfortunately, the goods are apparently not sorted very well either at the source or when they are received as there is a good number of goods that are completely unsuitable for Afghanistan, such as rollerblades. Hundreds of pairs of rollerblades for sale, when the roads in the city are in a state of disrepair and are covered in debris that would make rolling anywhere quite difficult, even if the traffic did let up enough to allow for it.

A Talk with an English Class
That Monday night I joined an English class for some discussions. The usual questions came out, such as what I thought of X, Y, and Z in the world today. My political views have been tested quite frequently on this trip and I have developed what I feel to be quite diplomatic answers that both do not sacrifice my own views while also being careful to be thoughtful in explanations for my rationale in order to get my view across. What do I think of the war in Iraq? I won’t tread into it here – come visit an Afghan English class with me to find out what I think.

There was also considerable discontent about the way things are unfolding in Afghanistan – the uncertainty surrounding the elections; the virtual certainty that Hamid Karzai will be ‘elected’ President; and why security has decreased in recent months. Tactful and carefully thought out answers seem to work best in answering these queries and I treaded through only one minefield – the minefield of religious thoughts and beliefs – but emerged after a few minutes somewhat unscathed after making an error in thinking that my earlier views had been accepted so easily and at face value that I felt I could be equally honest there.

I’m Forced to Rise Early
Tuesday morning I awoke early after foolishly agreeing to an obscenely early 5 AM appointment to meet the person who had taken me to his English class. I said that Afghans seemed to rise early, and this is perhaps the clearest evidence of it. Off to some famous minarets first, then to a friend’s shop for breakfast only to find that he wasn’t there yet. The minarets were probably about four stories high, taller than anything else in Herat. I didn’t know how to answer when I was asked if there was anything in Canada as tall as them. Once I picked my jaw off the ground I said simply “Uh…yeah, I think so.” I would have thought that this fellow, a seemingly relatively well educated guy would have a better idea of the West, particularly given the trigger for the war which toppled the Taliban. I suppose seeing 100 story buildings smoldering after being hit by jets is hard to put in perspective when you have never seen anything taller than four stories. Heck, I can still hardly believe the WTC pictures so for somebody over here it must be hard to grasp the concept of a skyscraper.

One of the giant minarets, Herat.

A quick tour of the bazaar in search of the boots that I couldn’t find the day before came next, only to find that the bazaar was still locked tight. By the time I returned to where I was staying I was already running quite late for my 8am flight to Kabul and my frustration grew quickly after I found that my passport, safely under lock and key in the safe, would remain there until the manager got there as he was the only one who knew the combination. It turned out to be a great test of my patience as the hour of my flight ticked closer and closer still. I was told to be at the airport by 7am but did not even leave the city until about 7:45am, after being told that the plane’s first flight of the day was the one I was on. Had I known it was coming from Kabul, I wouldn’t have seen any need to rush, as a delay would have been a virtual certainty. The flight was delayed by quite a while and the aircraft itself did not even land until about 8:30am. In time we all weaved through the tiny security room where bags where given a cursory security check. What had been a mob in the tiny terminal building formed a neat line on the tarmac in order to board the ageing Boeing. On the field were piles of planes and pieces of them; a tail from a MiG poked up, easily recognizable amidst the waste of previous destruction. US forces were positioned around the Ariana plane and watched the fields while we boarded, but evidently without much concern or perception of real threat.

A Deathtrap

Once everyone was onboard, we taxied away and within a minute were airborne. No sooner had we gained some altitude but did an old lady up front need medical attention, complete with oxygen. Not exactly something that inspires confidence, particularly when the pilot had already been adjusting the controls as if he though he were in a fighter-jet. Sharp jolts came to be the norm. Then, it felt as if we entered into a freefall, the passengers all gasped before a stunned silence came out, then an audible collective sigh of relief as the pilot seemed to correct for the harsh turbulence that we ran into.

Using the controls of the aircraft sharply continued, and when the pilot suddenly cut the power significantly to begin descent, I again found my hands gripping the armrests tightly. All of that was nothing compared to the approach to Kabul.

Kabul at Last

Street scene, Kabul. No, not all the women wear burquas...

I knew Kabul was in situated amongst mountains before I got here. However, I would never have thought that they would be so large and wrap around and through the city to the degree that they do. Sharp turns at low altitude, followed by one last adjustment before we bounced down the runway. My heart pounded until we stopped safely on the tarmac.


Chicken Street, Kabul.