Two weeks ago, I was asked to go on a mission to Kabul with an international organization. I decided to travel through Tehran to see my relatives. Then, I flew to Kabul via Mashad. The plane was packed with Afghans and Iranian businessmen.
I am stationed in Kabul for the next three weeks. I know that many Iranians are curious about Afghanistan because of the cultural, linguistic and historical affinity between us and this country. So I’ve decided to share my first impressions.
The first and lasting impression I have of Kabul is nostalgic. The city is familiar to many of us who remember Tehran in the old days. Large and beautiful yet simple homes, surrounded by sunny balconies, and Persian gardens filled with red roses and “mikhakis” in tiny clay pots.
Afghans address you by your first name, with a “jan” (dear) in the tail. I am therefore lovingly “Banafsheh Jan” to all my Afghan colleagues, both men and women. I call them back with “Jans” too, but I feel shy when I have to call men “jans”. Altogether, my Afghan colleagues are enchanted to have an Iranian work with them. They love speaking Farsi with me.
On the plane, I sat next to an old Afghan couple. They had fled Kabul years ago, and happily settled in Mashad. They were Shias, and they loved Iranians. Their neighbors had wept when they announced their plans to return to Kabul.
I sat next to the wife who wore an Iranian “chador,” but looked every bit an Afghan, and recited in her sweet Dari accent, stories about Kabul and Herat back in the old days. People were given free land in Kabul, and it used to be prettier than Mashad, she told me.
This sweet old lady made sure I got my share of airplane food whenever it arrived, even if that meant waking me up when I was sleeping. I never exchanged words with the husband, but he lovingly reminded his wife to make sure she had her seat belt on whenever the ride was bumpy.
Rugged mountains announced our entrance into Afghan airspace. Every now and then, you’d see tiny patches of green around small rivers or streams surrounded by a few homes high up in the mountains. I wondered how I would make my way down to the valley or the next “abadi” if I were stranded down there, fixing my eyes on the imaginary trails I'd take. I wondered how these people got there in the first place, and why.
The landing in Kabul was unexpected, because there was no town in sight over the high mountains and hills until we arrived. The old lady gazed through the window, and uttered what many of us do or feel when we return home: “boo-ye vatan amad; boo-ye vatan amad.” (“The scent of home; the scent of home…”)
I hardly ate on the plane, too worried about the carbs I could accumulate having bread and biscuits. But I was reminded that the food meant a lot as we packed it for the couple’s relatives back home.
At the airport, we were greeted by a large picture of legendary Afghan warrior “Ahmad Shah Masood” and old military planes and helis grounded during the war years. They looked like broken toys, but large ones. We drove through the Masood square, in wide alleys surrounded by lots of tiny shops and open fruit stands, with Farsi signs all around.
We gave way to a UN/NATO armored vehicle just before the square at an intersection. I gazed at the soldier on the vehicle, he gazed back until he disappeared. He wore heavy military clothes, had a big helmet on, and a big gun. All I could see were his eyes. I had never encountered a sight like that before.
An hour later, I heard that the international community had received some threats. An hour later, I saw three foreign men with heavy guns taking a stroll on the street. They looked like hired militias, and I can tell you, their sight was unpleasant. They are new additions to Kabul I am told.
Despite this, the international community in Kabul is, relatively speaking, at ease. After all, this is a large city, and most threats remain just that. So I keep to my business of working hard, and relaxing in the hotel garden after work. A driver takes me back and forth, as he plays Kabul radio with songs from Andy and Mansoor.
The food is great, so delicious you can eat your fingers with it. It’s fresh, and my God, they know how to cook spinach here. I’ve had the best Kebab at the “Shandiz Kebab House of Kabul” and enjoyed Chinese food and dumplings. I paid in dollars which seems to be the norm around here. The Chinese food was better than in the U.S., and slightly more expensive!
My hotel room is small, but very clean. I have a satellite television, a phone that doesn’t work (everyone uses cell phones here), a small shower, but no closets. So I hang all my cloths on a hanger which conveniently has many handles to hold three weeks supply of clothes.
The room is inspiring me to live as simple as I can while here, read in the evenings, and wake up with the sound of the rooster in some backyard as I did at 5 am this morning.