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Kabul’s only tourist goes shopping – and finds souvenirs

I follow James to a ground-floor room, wheeling my luggage across the thin, red pile of the traditionally patterned carpet. He flicks a switch and a dim economy bulb begins to glow, gradually illuminating the room. Three single beds with headboards and footboards in dark wood are arranged in a U shape, each with a single pillow and several layers of rough blankets. Points of daylight fight their way through the purple lace curtains that cover the windows. I can choose any one of the beds, says James, handing me a large bottle of water, which he seems to have conjured up from nowhere. Once I have parked my duffel bag next to the low glass table that stands between the divans, there is hardly any floor space left. We sit down on the slightly concave beds facing each other and James picks up a flimsy blue plastic bag out of which he produces an off-white tumbaan and a choice of three scarves.

‘It’s not a question of going around in disguise,’ he reassures me, ‘just a matter of reducing visibility.’

Souk to Souk coverI point out that my polar anorak is bright orange, but he assures me it is not a problem. I pull the baggy outfit over my jeans and thick pullover, put my coat back on and then wrap a polyester scarf, the blue and gold chequered one, round my shoulders.

Feeling like the Michelin man, I emerge with James on to the street. I half waddle, half pick my way along the broken pavement, trying to avoid twisting an ankle or losing a foot into the depths of sodden earth that lie between slabs of concrete. The street is lined with parked Japanese cars caked with dried mud. I tell James I think Kabul is the muddiest place I have ever visited. He laughs, saying it hardly ever rains in Afghanistan: nearly all the country’s water comes from melted snow.

We walk past brightly lit stores, each little more than a single room. Mobile phones, groceries, CDs and Tshirts: each shop has found its niche. A little further on, we pass a row of florists where the few real specimens are greatly outnumbered by flamboyant displays of artificial blooms in colours that Mother Nature would be embarrassed to unleash. Apart from the fact that most of the people shopping, talking or otherwise going about their business are men, everything appears surprisingly normal. As we cross a busy road, I am grateful that the traffic is so bad that we are able to wend our way between the crawling vehicles without risking life and limb.

‘We’re going to Chicken Street,’ says James.

I brace myself for a grisly food market-cum-abattoir, but instead find the place full of shops selling jewellery, antiques, carpets and traditional Afghan clothing. Half-derelict buildings from the latter years of the twentieth century stand next to two-storey constructions of indeterminable age, ugly panels of reflective glass alongside shop windows with pull-down metal blinds.

‘Chicken Street has been a big attraction for tourists to Kabul since the days when the country was on the Hippy Trail,’ James tells me, as we pause to look in a shop window. Mineral rocks, some sliced and polished to reveal concentric patterns, line the shelves alongside all manner of items made of lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone prized since antiquity for its intense blue colour.

‘It comes from the north-eastern province of Badakhshan,’ says James, his hands in his anorak pockets. ‘The Sar-i Sang mines there have been worked for over six thousand years; they were the main source of lapis lazuli for the Ancient World. Even that found in the artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb and the royal treasures of Ur came from Afghanistan.’

I look at the penholders, paper-weights and carved animals set out on the glass shelves and, perhaps unfairly, compare their unappealing designs to the wonders of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. As for Badakhshan, I have never heard of it: the only place that makes the news back home is Helmand Province and for all the wrong reasons. The two men in the shop see us peering at the display and, smiling, beckon us to come inside. When they see our hesitation, they quickly appear at the door grinning and fire off a volley of questions in excellent English, asking how we are, where we are from and what we would like to buy today. My heart almost stops as I hear James tell them we are British but, to my surprise, their reaction is friendly.

Kabul elders‘Welcome to Afghanistan!’ they chime, almost in unison. Like everyone I see here, their tanned faces look weathered, a result, I imagine, of the bitter-cold winters and hot, dry summers. They are keen on a sale and the older one with the thick moustache assures us he has beautiful gifts we could buy for our families, vowing solemnly to make us a special price. We smile our excuses, say we might come back later and continue on our way.

A shop selling waistcoats, jackets and hats catches my attention. I am tempted by the piles of karakuls, the typical Kabul caps made from curly Astrakhan fur, and the heaps of traditional pakuls, a sort of woollen beret in earthy colours: either one would make an exotic addition to my hat collection. But, when we go in, I am dismayed to see the place is full of fur coats, aimed, no doubt, at well-paid expats working here. The hook-nosed owner, a man of indeterminable age with greasy hair, emerges from a recess, black eyes flashing. Are we looking for hats? Or perhaps a nice leather jacket? he grimaces, whisking a cheap-looking black three-quarterlength coat off one of the crowded rails and thrusting it at us. Put off by the snarling fox pelts dangling everywhere and the unpleasant, musty smell, I say I am just browsing and make for the open door.

‘Perhaps a nice waistcoat?’ he calls after us, but we are already back outside.

I ask James why it is called Chicken Street, as we saunter past a huge hole between two houses. Foundations have been laid for a new building, but the site is empty. He says it is because many years ago there was indeed a poultry market, only later being replaced by the sort of shops we see around us today. Walking along the road, we are greeted by smiles and the occasional ‘Hello!’ from storekeepers standing in doorways. We stop in front of one shop selling carpets, not the traditional patterns one might expect, but rugs with images of tanks, machine guns and fighter planes woven into them. I try to decide if they are a tasteless gimmick aimed at foreigners or a contemporary version of the genuine article, adapted to reflect life as experienced by people here. I wonder whether I should buy one, the novelty of the strange item starting to appeal.

Perhaps it is the altitude.

Kabul view

James suggests we go to the international bookshop, famous for featuring in the controversial tale The Bookseller of Kabul in which the Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad recounted her stay with the owner and his family, a depiction which he strongly contested. I can buy my stamps and postcards there, James tells me. We make our way along the high pavement, passing stores selling paper, soft drinks or haircuts, until we arrive at a makeshift roundabout where a policeman is half-heartedly attempting to control the erratic traffic.

Red and white barricades stand randomly in the middle of the roads leading to the junction. We wait for a gap between the cars before dashing across the street to the green-fronted store. Inside, it is as quiet and library-like as bookshops the world over. Near the entrance, its walls are lined from floor to ceiling with an amazing selection of publications, mostly about Afghanistan and the region, but in the farther corners of the labyrinthine shop there are children’s editions, foreign-language dictionaries, course books and encyclopaedias. I ponder my baggage allowance for the return flight before starting to select a handful of postcards from the wacky collection that fills the racks. Next to photographs of magnificent scenery and historical buildings, palaces and mosques are pictures of bearded Afghans cheerfully brandishing semi-automatic weapons. Looking at a lurid image of the twelfth-century Minaret of Jam in the Ghor Province, I realise I am unfamiliar with most of the places featured on the cards and feel ashamed that I have arrived in Afghanistan knowing so little about the country’s architectural riches. I reflect glumly on the cycle of violence and poverty, and how the security situation chokes off the development of tourism, an industry that could do so much to help improve the lives of people here.

Afghan stampI take my selection of postcards to the man sitting behind the counter. He is filling out what looks like an old-fashioned ledger. In his late thirties, I wonder if he is the Sultan Khan character featured in the book, but think better of it than to ask. I have never read the work and, for all I know, the protagonist might be eighty years old. With his Western-style shirt and trousers and absence of any form of scarf or turban, the clean-shaven man in front of me looks like any mature student from the Middle East one might see in London. I enquire after stamps and am surprised to be given a handful of specimens dating from years ago. They are still valid, the man earnestly assures me through his thick-rimmed glasses as if reading my mind while I study a stamp commemorating the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Picking up another, I am surprised to see the words ‘Postes afghanes’ in French. A faint smile brightening up his face, the seemingly telepathic bookseller tells me it is because the former king was a Francophile. I wonder which one he means: the last monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shar, was, in 1973, ousted in a coup, a fate he shared with three of his four predecessors. I return to browsing the shelves where tales of Boys Own-style nineteenthcentury battles are interspersed with reviews of the political situation and studies on the role of Islam in the region. I could spend hours in the place: it is crammed full with books one would never come across in a shop at home.

But we must go, says James with a friendly smile, if I want to visit the bird market, the last remaining authentic bazaar in Kabul. I have accumulated a handful of books, but decide to buy just one, a volume entitled Afghanistan Over a Cup of Tea penned by the ageing American Nancy Hatch Dupree, an expert on the history, art and archaeology of the country who has lived here on and off for decades. The text on the back says that each of the forty-eight chronicles can be read in about the time it takes to drink a cup of hot chai. As I finish handing over my Afghanis to pay, James is already hovering near the door. He bundles me out of the shop while ringing his local partner. The call over, he explains that the bird market is less safe than other parts of the city and that the visit will have to be brief.

We make our way back to the guesthouse where Taimur, James’s business associate, and the driver are waiting for us. Clad in a 1950s-style leather flying jacket and a black tumbaan, the surprisingly long-haired man introduces himself in grammatically perfect English with the sort of refined Pakistani accent that makes me think of Benazir Bhutto. In countries where life is hard, looks can be deceptive, but I reckon Taimur, like James, is about thirty.

He says we should get going. We pile into the van and are once again back in the city’s traffic, now gridlocked in one-way streets, moments later free-flowing along wide roads. We trundle over a bridge that spans the narrow Kabul River, its shallow, foaming waters streaming past all manner of rubbish on the riverbed in the way I imagine many urban rivers in Europe used to until comparatively recently. Languishing somewhere at the bottom of the World Bank’s development list of 180 countries, Afghanistan is the poorest place I have visited, but, even so, I find myself surprised, not just by the deprivation, but by the lack of development. In India, too, I saw grinding poverty, but it existed cheek-by-jowl with signs of great wealth, both past and present. Here, as we drive through Kabul, all I see are dilapidated buildings, garbage and what looks like a medieval society dumped, bewildered, into an alien world.

There are glimpses of modernity, but they look as if they will leave with the troops when they finally go, or otherwise quickly succumb to whatever follows the withdrawal.

‘Where has all the aid money gone?’ I ask.

Taimur says some has gone on reconstruction and on improving roads, such as the one to Bamyan in the centre of the country, but a lot has simply disappeared.

‘You know, my friend, Afghan society is very different to that in the West,’ he adds, turning to face me from his seat in the front of the van and echoing James’s words with a slight lecturing tone. ‘You can’t expect everything to function here like in your country.’

‘What do you think will happen when the international troops pull out?’ I venture, deciding to change the subject.

Looking again at the road ahead, Taimur utters a short, cold laugh. I cannot decide whether it is of resignation or because he considers my question naïve. His gaze still fixed at some point beyond the windscreen, he says the Taliban will be back in power within a fortnight. James is more optimistic: he thinks enough people will be reluctant to see a return to the sort of regime they had before to prevent that scenario. They make light of their diverging views, as if the discussion is one they have aired many times before. They agree to differ and we drop the subject.

A short while later, our silver van pulls up amidst a chaotic mass of vehicles, some parked, others with their engines running. Ostensibly, we are at the side of a road, but it looks more like a yawning gap between two rows of crumbling buildings separated by a hotchpotch of lorries, cars and carts. Crowds mill about in front of hole-in-the-wall shops above which colourful hoardings advertise everything from mobile phone services to baby food. Hawkers wander around, some limping, as they try to sell pens, paper handkerchiefs and little bags of nuts, wizened hands proffering cheap goods while weary faces silently tell of souls that have tired of life. Taimur appears nervous: since the end of the discussion about the country’s future, he has made half a dozen phone calls, the subject of which I could only guess from the intonation and, whenever he looked at the driver, from the expression on his face. He tells James to wait in the van and then, turning to me, says we will only be able to make a quick tour of the bird market, known locally as the Ka Farushi bazaar. I slide open the door and slip out into the noisy, messy world of the shopping street, meeting Taimur in front of the vehicle. He stomps off towards a gap in the buildings where a narrow lane, the Alley of the Straw Sellers, the strangely-named home to the bird market, begins.

Souk to Souk coverI walk briskly after the stocky figure, doing my best to keep up and feeling very conspicuous in my bright orange parka, despite my tumbaan and voluminous scarf. We dash through the bazaar, my attempts to linger and look at the doves, canaries and finches that fill the stacks of cages being curtailed by Taimur’s constant exhortations to hurry up. Among the cooing and chirping that fills the air, I think I recognise the sound of a nightingale’s whistle, but there is no time to investigate: I do not want to lose sight of my guide among the stallholders and shoppers. Scurrying along, now and then I catch a faint whiff of avian odours, but the cold air does much to suppress what in the heat of summer must surely be more pungent smells.

‘These are kowks,’ explains Taimur, suddenly stopping in front of a row of domed wicker cages containing plump birds with red legs and feet. ‘They are a special type of partridge,’ he says, his eyes widening. ‘We once had this British man who came on one of our trips. He knew everything about birds and he told me they are Chukars.’ As he says this, Taimur’s chest seems to swell like those of the birds themselves. With their grey and buff plumage, black collars and coral-red beaks, they look very much like the red-legged partridges found in Europe. Squatting in their cages, they seem content with their life of captivity and I wonder if they would know what to do if they were ever released.

‘And people eat these?’ I ask.

‘No! The kowks are used for fighting! It is a very popular sport here: men are gambling a lot of money on them. On Fridays, they take the birds to the park and make them fight.’ Taimur studies me for a moment and then turns and marches off.

As I follow him, I am vaguely aware of bearded men in traditional dress and coats, dark eyes watching us from beneath white turban caps and mushroom-coloured pakuls as we hurriedly make our way through the cluttered street. Everything seems brown or beige, the buildings, the mud, the woodwork, even the smiles. After we have scuttled our way for a few more minutes, as if finally having satisfied a child’s misplaced curiosity, Taimur tells me that we have seen all there is to see and that we should turn back. I am disappointed: I had expected a visit to the ancient market to be one of the cultural highlights in Kabul with the opportunity to meander and browse. Instead, I have seen nothing more than a blur and have scarcely had time to absorb my surroundings. I get no sense of hostility or danger and wonder if Taimur is not overplaying the situation. But I am unfamiliar with the society and its ways. I know I might not pick up on signals of which he is astutely aware: my safety is in his hands and I have no choice but to scurry after him, suppressing my irritation. As we climb back into the Hiace, James asks cheerfully how it was.

‘Quick,’ I huff, and try to smile.

Extracted from Robin Latchford’s very excellent new book, ‘From Souk to Souk‘. Pictures, however, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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