‘Tashakor, Zinda Dillan-e-Kabul’

This article, published in The News on Sunday, Footloose page, Nov 1, 2009 , is an expanded version of my previous report for IPS on the Kabul trialogue

Kabul looks battered. Dusty brown hills form the backdrop wherever the eye turns. Yet it is a city struggling to regain its former glory

By Beena Sarwar

Kabul wall3

Locals cycle past the ancient wall of Kabul

It was once known as the city of flowers, said Zahira Khattak, the ANP activist who grew up in Kabul. Now, the only flowers visible in the city provide splashes of colour through the all-pervasive dust at a few isolated roundabouts — and at the splendid, renovated Bagh-e-Babar (Babar’s Garden) on the city outskirts, the last resting place of the first Mughal emperor.

The city still looks battered — but often that’s because old buildings are being knocked down to make way for high-rises. Some gracious old buildings still stand tall in the midst of the dust and rubble. A series of upmarket high-rise apartment blocks emerge from the dust on the road from the airport. Air-conditioned shopping malls and boutique restaurants cater to the crowds of expatriate workers resident in Kabul, and the Afghani rupee has a better value than the Pakistani rupee. Noisy, unruly traffic bumps non-stop over the unpaved streets. Traffic lights are conspicuous by their absence. There are security barriers everywhere and few women are visible on the streets. The markets close early, but this city is nowhere close to giving up.


Giant poster of Karzai surveys a Kabul street

Things were much worse 10 years ago, when Nafisa Shah, now a PPP parliamentarian, visited Kabul on a reporting assignment for Newsline magazine. “It’s a hundred times better now,” she commented. We were attending a ‘women’s peace trialogue’ bringing together women activists, politicians and journalists from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, organised by Dr Radha Kumar, Director Peace and Conflict Programme of the Delhi Policy Group.

Dusty brown hills form the backdrop wherever the eye turns, with houses creeping up their slopes as the city bursts out of its seams. The Intercontinental Hotel where we stayed is perched on top of a hill. Every window yields more vistas of hills on the horizon.

Two and a half days is not enough to know a city, especially when you are in a two-day seminar from morning till evening. Still, one gets a flavour from some wanderings — and from the Afghan women at the trialogue, convened as an ‘aman jirga’ (peace council).

Apparently this is not a new concept. Zahira Khattak says that women have been sitting in jirgas at least in Afghanistan “for 5000 years. We have jirgas all over Pakistan’s tribal areas also, and we thought why not introduce this concept. We waited for a long time to see what the men would do for peace. There are like-minded women in Pakistan, in India, in Afghanistan, why not get together, make our voices heard by the people in power? There are many suspicions and mistrust between our three countries although we have so much in common. At this meeting, we were able to overcome that.”

Her story illustrates the linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan. She was a student when she met Afrasiab Khattak, now a Senator who heads ANP’s provincial chapter, who had fled to Afghanistan from Gen. Ziaul Haq’s martial law in the late 1970s. The couple returned to Pakistan after Gen. Zia’s death in 1988. Their daughter Zalla, currently studying in New Delhi, was the trialogue secretary.

Dinner at Sufi's

Chilling out at Sufi’s on our last night in Kabul

The Kabul meeting, held at the aptly named Central Hotel, was a follow up to an April 2009 trialogue in New Delhi between Afghan, Indian and Pakistani women, and an earlier all-women peace meeting convened by Pakistani activists in Peshawar.

The Indian singer ‘Ghazal’ Srinivas, in Afghanistan on a promotional tour, kicked off the meeting. He remembered the 2006 Pakistan-India walk from Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi to Hazrat Bahauddin Zakiaria in Multan that he participated in. A Guinness world record holder for singing the same song in a hundred languages, he acknowledged the diversity of the participants by singing in Dari, Pushto, Hindi, Farsi and Urdu.

“We Afghans are in need of peace,” said Afghan parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhel. “We suffer from insurgency under the banner of religion or liberation war… We lose our lives, our lives, our heritage, our honour, our children, our schools…”

Radha Kumar summed up the aims of the meeting: to “foster and sustain peace, deal with conflict and post-conflict situations, fight for women rights and human rights, ensure women’s greater political participation, and make women visible at decision-making especially peace negotiation tables.”

There was much appreciation for the Pakistan Women Parliamentary Caucus, chaired by Nafisa Shah. The Caucus, she said, “is a group of women working above party lines and despite differences for common goals. It is an attempt to build the politics of reconciliation, which is not about assigning blame but on overcoming it. It is not about revenge, but about the politics of alliances. It is an example of how we have reconciled with our past and how we have made our differences far smaller than our common goals.”

Tajik women concert banner with guard on wall

Armed guards keep watch over the open courtyard as crowds gather for a concert by Tajik women

Music by Fahad Darya, a popular Afghan singer rocked the hall prior to the second day’s proceedings. “I didn’t expect to hear Afghan heavy metal,” grinned Alex de Montjoye, a young intern working with the Delhi Policy Group — the only male present apart from translators and waiters.

Her shoulder-length hair brushing a smart trouser suit, Dr Alema — “many Afghans have just one name” — handed out circular blue badges, featuring a dove and white lettering: “Afghan Civil Society Organisations Network for Peace” which hosted the meeting. She coordinates the German-funded Civil Peace Building Program that in September organised a series of peace events including paintings by children and a music concert for 5,000 at the Bagh-e-Babar.

At a tea break, the high profile Afghan parliamentarian Shukriya Barakzai chatted with former Pakistani senator and federal minister Aneesa Zeb Tahirkheli of the breakaway Pakistan People’s Party (Sherpao) group and Indian academic Renuka Mishra. The former two had participated in the first Afghanistan-Pakistan peace jirga of August 2007 in Kabul, attended by over 600 chieftains, tribal elders and politicians, including a hundred women. Shukriya Barakzai had presented the vote of thanks to the entire jirga on behalf of Afghanistan.

The follow-up jirga planned in Pakistan has yet to take place. Activists are pushing for the inclusion of women in the ‘jirga gai’ (executive council) being formed with 25 representatives from each side “like in the main Jirga,” said Aneesa Zeb. “Moreover, it should be a continuous process. Regular meetings will bring contentious issues to the table and help us move forward.”

The Kabul meeting stressed the inclusion of women in peace negotiations particularly given the threats women face in the domestic sphere and by radical groups. Added to these threats are policies and laws that reduce women’s rights. It was in fact the “disappointing” first draft of personal law that catalysed Afghan women to hold “the first demonstration in Afghanistan”, said activist Nargis Nehan, noting that “most of the laws and regulations are drafted by (male-dominated) political parties and government”.

The meeting’s recommendations included working towards a Women’s Peace Commission comprising 15 women from the region, a multi-lingual website enabling participants to exchange strategies, ideas and experiences, and a subsequent trialogue in Pakistan.

Blue masjid

Blue masjid in central Kabul

“Afghan women have been bearing this conflict for 30 years,” notes Bushra Gohar. “How they have dealt with it, we also learn from them. So Kabul was the right place and next we are going to meet in Peshawar hopefully and continue with this process.”

“We are aware we have so many internal problems,” says Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra. “Our armies are conducting many operations against their own people… I’m not saying we’ve resolved all the questions or found their answers, but this is a very good start, and it is very necessary to take it forward.”

There was little time for sightseeing or shopping but on the second day, I snuck out for lunch. It was a strange experience to be walking down a Kabul street, feeling perfectly safe but conscious of my uncovered head. Haider Ahmedi, an actor and filmmaker I know from the Women Broadcasting for Change network, took us to Sufis, a ‘designer restaurant’ with traditional floor seating as well as western-style tables. Behind the tastefully decorated courtyard where we sat rose a monstrous three-storey house. The war has obviously hugely enriched some people.

Afghan women are tremendously strong and capable, perhaps because of the adversities they’ve had to deal with. No surprise that the managing director of Afghanistan’s largest media group, Killid, is a woman — Najiba Ayubi whom I had met in Jakarta last year. Ever good-natured and hospitable, she took some of us to the Bagh-e-Babar — lush gardens carpeting a hillside, full of groups of men, families with children, and couples (some holding hands). Security guards with guns kept watch. Some, still in uniform but apparently off work, lolled about on the grass. One of them called out a greeting.

Almost every Afghan we encountered spoke some Urdu, having either transited through Pakistan or lived their as refugees (mostly with warm memories). A jeweller Najiba took us to was a devotee of Hazrat Data Ganj Bukhsh. Besides the Kabul shop, he has an outlet in Lahore’s Liberty Market as well as in Delhi. He told us that Najiba could have his entire shop, if she wanted because she had got a spiritual leader who has a daily programme on a Killid Radio Show, to call him.

Sunset over Bagh-e-Babar

Sunset over Bagh-e-Babar

Najiba had got tickets for a concert by Tajik women in the ancient open-air stone courtyard adjoining the Bagh. Outside, security guards cursed and pushed back the hordes of men waiting to get in. The tension was palpable as we were whisked inside — the only four women present in the crowd besides a few among the row of young expat workers behind us, including some Pakistani girls. As darkness descended, armed security guards clambered onto the long catwalk-like stage, apparently to make their presence felt before Madina Saadat came onstage and blew us away.

Tajik singer in Kabul

Tajik singer wows a Kabul crowd

A petite young thing in a black leather skirt over tight black pants (she later changed into a shiny shalwar kameez-like suit) with a powerful voice, she smilingly accepted the notes (perhaps song requests) that men held out to her, hand on heart in that gracious gesture characteristic of the region. Cell phones lights pierced the darkness — lots of photos and videos were taken. There was much wolf whistling and dancing but no rowdiness, and hardly a beard in sight. Another singer came on, but Madina was clearly the favourite. A security officer rang Najiba’s cell to suggest we leave early, before things got more rowdy. Making our way out, we saw a few bearded, turbaned Taliban lookalikes at the back. They too seemed to be enjoying the music and dancing.

I left Kabul with memories of extraordinary warmth and hospitality, a city struggling to regain its former glory, and an expanded network in the ongoing struggle for peace. Tashakor, zinda-dillan-e-Kabul.


3 Responses

  1. Beena:
    Thank you so much for posting this travelogue. I dont’ disagree with you on a single point. I just wish more of the world could see Kabul for what it is, and not what CNN says it is, or the Taliban say it is.


  2. Nice article.
    More power to Peace.



  3. This is an interesting article. Before watching these images, I was of the opinion that Kabul would be like ruins.


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