11 November 2015

Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 535-559:
By the 1970s Afghanistan had many of the rudiments of a modern state. It was reasonably secure, and you could travel and picnic and see the sights with comparatively little risk. Foreigners who lived in Kabul in the last days before the Communists took over – diplomats, scholars, businessmen, engineers, teachers, aid workers, hippies – later looked back on that time as a golden age. So did many of the very thin crust of the Afghan middle class who lived in Kabul and some of the big cities.

In the 1970s much of old Kabul still stood, a rabbit warren of streets, bazaars, and mosques, still dominated by the great fortress of Bala Hissar, a place, the Emperor Babur said more than four hundred years earlier, with ‘the most pleasing climate in the world … within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where the snow never falls. But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.’

In the centre of the city was the imposing Arg, the fortified palace build by Abdur Rahman, the scene of one violent turn in Afghan politics after another. Amanullah, Abdur Rahman’s grandson, commissioned European architects to build him a monumental new capital, a vast palace, the Dar-ul Aman, on the south-western edge of the city; and a summer resort in Paghman, a village in the nearby hills, complete with Swiss chalets, a theatre, an Arc de Triomphe, a golf course, and a racecourse for elephants. Across the road from the Dar-ul Aman palace stood the Kabul museum, which was opened in 1924 and contained one of the richest collections of Central Asia art and artefacts in the world: flint tools forty thousand years old from Badakhshan, a massive gold hoard from Bagram, glass from Alexandria, Graeco-Roman statuary, ivory panels from India, Islamic and pre-Islamic artefacts from Afghanistan itself, one of the largest coin collections in the world, and more than two thousand rare books. A grandiose British Embassy, built in the 1920s as a symbol of British power, lay on the northern edge of the city. An equally large Soviet Embassy lay in the south-west on the road to the Dar-ul Aman.

‘Kabul’, said a guidebook sponsored by the Afghan Tourist Bureau, ‘is a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues filled with brilliant flowing turbans, gayly [sic] striped chapans, mini-skirted school girls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic.’

Those were the days when Kabul was on the Hippie Trail and thousands of romantic, adventurous, and often improvident young people poured along the road from Iran through Herat and Kabul to India, driving battered vehicles which regularly broke down and had to be repaired by ingenious local mechanics, seeking enlightenment, drugs, and sex, living on nothing and sometimes dying on the way.

But behind that fragile fa├žade lay the real Afghanistan, a land of devout and simple Muslims, where disputes between individuals, or families, or clans and tribes, were still settled in the old violent way, where women were still subject to the absolute authority of their menfolk, where the writ of the government in Kabul barely ran, and where the idea of national rather than family or local loyalty was barely formed.

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