After two decades of war and turmoil, Kabul is back in the hands of the Taliban now. The question is: Will its new Islamic rulers turn what was once “The Paris of Central Asia” and “The Switzerland of the East” into the second Islamic state on earth after Madinah
Syed Khalid Husain | Clarion India
“KABUL’S splendour cannot fall into the grasp of words”, its climate “resembles Paradise”, its water is “so glittering”, its “soil radiant” and its grapes “may provide you aab-e-hayat (nectar of life)”. So wrote the 19th-century poet-philosopher Dr Sir Mohammad Iqbal while describing the glory of Afghanistan’s capital in the 1930s, when the 3,500-year-old city was famous for its beautiful mosques, sprawling gardens and temperate climate.
And in infinite love for Afghanistan itself, Iqbal said: “Asia is a body built of clay and water and Afghanistan is a heart in that body. If there will be peace in Afghanistan, there will be peace in Asia. If there will be turmoil in Afghanistan, then there will be turmoil in Asia.” The Poet of the East is highly regarded in Afghanistan and Iran, where he is known as Iqbal-e-Lahori (Iqbal of Lahore) for his Persian works.
For over 260 years, from 1709 to 1973, Afghanistan was ruled by eight kings and two dynasties. Each ruler had worked for the Asian country’s development, progress, prosperity, tribal unity and social cohesion.
As a monarchy and then a constitutional monarchy, Afghanistan saw relative stability and, by the 1960s, a brief era of modernity and democratic reform. From the 1930s to the 1970s, there was a semblance of a national government. A poor country, it had built national highways and formed an army to defend its borders. All those decades, Afghanistan was a role model for the rest of the world as an oasis of peace, representing tolerant times for both itself and the rest of Southwest Asia.
The 1960s and 1970s in particular are known as Kabul’s golden era, when the city was a blend of both modern and traditional, wrote Afghan-American economist and freelance journalist Nilly Kohzad in an article on the Gandhara RFEL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) news portal. The city showcased the nation’s progress and was known as “The Paris of Central Asia”. It was a modern city and a hub of innovation, progressive ideas and urban living.
These were the times when women paired miniskirts and headscarves, people enjoyed personal freedoms, and hippies and travellers flocked to the city from around the world, reminsces Nilly. The city of gardens ringed by snow-capped mountains became a quirky and off-the-grid tourist destination. There was peace and serenity all around.
In the 1970s, Kabul was an enchanting little city, with gardens, trees, quaint bazaars, and magnificent mosques and palaces. “It was the Switzerland of the East,” according to Pushpa Pathak, a former senior adviser for urban reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. “People used to honeymoon here.”
However, with the advent of the Cold War during the 1970s, competing interests in the bipolar world and Afghanistan’s proximity to the Soviet Union worked to the detriment of this landlocked country. On July 17, 1973, King Zahir Shah, the country’s last monarch, was overthrown by his cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan, with the help of the pro-Soviet military. Daoud Khan had turned Afghanistan into a republic, providing the Soviets an opportunity to plan for a coup five years later and inviting the Red Army to invade Afghanistan.
Before the Soviet invasion and the rise of the Mujahideen and Taliban, Kabul natives and urbanites — known as Kabulis — basked in their safe and modern city. A minority elite and upper-class group, Kabulis relished their advanced city, which was starkly different from the Afghan countryside neglected by the government. Residents of the capital held powerful sway over the rest of the country as Kabul’s ideologies, lifestyles and power dynamics carried considerable influence.
“I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Thomas Gouttierre, a former academic at the University of Nebraska, recalled of his decade in Afghanistan to The New York Times. He lived in Kabul from 1964 to 1974.
Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is among the many foreigners who had the chance to experience Kabul in its heyday. He says his travels to Afghanistan profoundly impacted his life and career.
“I hitchhiked across Europe. It used to be called the old hippie trail,” he reportedly said of the overland trips from Europe to India and Nepal through Afghanistan. “The first time I went to Afghanistan was in 1971. I was an undergraduate student, and I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan; I was just travelling. It was very easy; you just catch buses and trucks. Other people were going to Europe, but I thought I’d do something more interesting. I later became fascinated by the country and returned for research,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara.
Unfortunately, after almost half a century of political turmoil and military invasions by the Soviets and Americans, Kabul is now a shadow of its former self. The charm immortalised by Allama Iqbal and others has lost its shine from the decades of violence and oppression, and seems a distant memory for its residents.
When the Soviet tanks arrived to seize the country in the winter of 1979, many elite Kabulis knew they had to shelter elsewhere. During the civil war that began after the collapse of the Afghan socialist regime in 1992, many Kabulis were forced to flee their homes once again, and a majority migrated to the West.
The exodus heralded the end of Kabul’s golden era. For former residents who revisited their city after decades away, the nostalgia ran deep.
Saleh Keshawarz, an engineering professor at Connecticut’s University of Hartford, was born and raised in Kabul’s Karte Char neighbourhood. He’s made many trips back to his roots, noting that much changed, both culturally and aesthetically.
“Coincidently, I left the country for America exactly one day before the fall of Daud Khan’s regime (in April 1978),” he told RFE/RL Gandhara. “But since the fall of the Taliban in the early 2000s, I have returned many times.”
Back in Kabul, Mr Keshawarz found himself in a changed city, one seemingly at odds with his memories. “Streets were damaged; lamp-posts were covered with bullet holes. All the buildings were in a bad state,” he said, adding that the most difficult part was seeing the low morale of his fellow countrymen. “The air is polluted, cars are not regulated, and the country suffers from a lack of proper clean drinking water, which can result in health issues for residents.”
“It was like a nightmare,” Mr Keshawarz added.
Mr Barfield says the city has changed, too, from how he remembers it. “It’s an entirely different place. It was a shock to see how levelled it was; the old Kabul I knew was razed. It was a mess, just wall-to-wall rubble.”
For both natives and foreigners, the reality on the ground in Aghanistan has drastically changed over the past four decades. After two decades of war and turmoil, Kabul is back in the hands of the Taliban now. The question is: Will its new Islamic rulers turn what was once “The Paris of Central Asia” and “The Switzerland of the East” into the second Islamic state on earth after Madinah, a political entity established by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 622 AD under the Constitution of Medina, which represented the political unity of the Muslim Ummah (nation)?
The writer is a senior journalist based in Singapore. He may be contacted at [email protected] or +65 91195711