Waking up in Afghanistan

I awaken at dawn to the sound of the call to prayer as if the loudspeaker from the nearby mosque is mounted to my bedroom window. At first I am foggy-headed and then gain gradually increasing clarity of mind. The morning sun slowly brightens my room penetrating the sheer white curtains with black embellishments. I lie in bed cherishing those last moments under the warm covers and listen to the community waking up outside my third floor room.

Roosters crow. Birds begin to sing softly. Sleigh bells chime to the beat of the clapping hooves of the horse who wears them – first softly in the distance, then louder, and then softly again as they fade into the alleys and pathways leading toward the rising sun. Laborers also begin to venture toward the main road in search of a day’s work.

IMG_2095Outside the beautiful walled garden filled with fruit trees and foliage, dogs sniff and paw in the field of trash searching for their morning meal. Shopkeepers prepare their stalls and welcome their first customers while fresh, warm naan wrapped in newspaper makes its way from the bakery to the families’ sufras[1] covered with breakfast and tea. I sit on the floor with Bibi, Ali Khan and Ismail eating my fresh naan with sweetened cream and homemade jam and drink my tea.

As the sun lifts higher into the sky and schoolchildren begin to appear in increasing numbers, I begin to make my way from Dasht-e-Barchi to my office at Star’s A Branch in Dehbori. Girls in their black uniforms with white head scarves, walk in groups of two, three, four and five, sometimes hand-in-hand. Boys with backpacks on their shoulders kick the dirt as they walk, and begin to congregate near the outer gate and wall that surrounds their school.

IMG_2061We make our way slowly over the bumpy and rutted dirt roads, avoiding ditches, deep puddles, pedestrians and stray dogs who don’t get out of the way. Fruit and vegetable sellers meticulously arrange their colorful products – polishing them with a cloth, dusting them with a gently swinging rag all while talking to their neighbors and greeting familiar passers-by. Old men sit in doorsteps and in shop entrances drinking tea and quietly watching the activity outside their doors and windows. The familiar burqa-shrouded woman parks herself on an empty patch of ground opposite the row of red, insulated Payman ice cream carts and waits passively and patiently for the few afghanis that benevolent strangers may pass her way.

Spandi (2)

Photo by Asif Photography

It’s rush hour and the busy main street is filled with Milli buses, minivans, cars, taxis, and bicycles. I spot the commonly seen pieces of red cloth hanging from the side mirrors and backs of vehicles which are hung to ward off evil spirits. Young boys called Spandi with black, smoke-stained hands weave through the slowly-moving morning traffic with their tin cans of the smoking herb, spand, which is also known to protect people from misfortune and evil spirits. They stare pleadingly into car windows with desperate eyes trying to sell the smoky blessings from their smoldering spand and do not walk away no matter how long they are ignored or how many times a driver says ‘no.’

IMG_2064Office workers, manual laborers, students and shoppers move along the crowded sidewalks and nobody seems in a hurry. A bouquet of bright balloons makes its way toward Mazari Square. Donkeys stand on the side of the road like statues fastened to their primitively-made two-wheeled wooden carts. The cart drivers with their heads wrapped in panjshiri scarves or white-knitted kufi caps perch on the edge of the carpet-covered carts staring absently into the distance. A dozen or more old, dusty wheelbarrows are lined up diagonally against the curb like soldiers waiting for their next commands.

IMG_1757We approach Mazari Square with the carved image of Baba Mazari looking over the crowds like a sentry. The traffic police seem to function only in two extremes – standing dispassionately or shouting and waving their hands vigilantly. But no amount of effort can magically create order out of chaos on these overpopulated roadways. Drivers beep their horns and maneuver into unimaginably tight spaces as cars, trucks and buses inch their way around the circle. People are calm, patient and seemingly unfazed by the congestion, exhaust fumes, and daily gridlock on the roads. A row of motorcycle rickshaws wait their turn heading south toward Darulaman Palace. Dozens of minivans sit to the east and north, picking up and dropping off passengers where the traffic diverges at the square.

Two burqa-clad women sit on the pavement like bookends on the north and south ends of the Pol-e-Sukhta bridge. A herd of sheep grazes in the garbage in the median between the divided streets which head toward Kota-e-Sangi. The shoeshine man sits near his shop on the corner. Traditionally-dressed and western-dressed men and women jockey through traffic, along the crowded sidewalks and across the busy intersections. The city is awake, alive and teeming with activity. Somehow, the mood seems tranquil as it does at all times of the day. In spite of the overpopulation, pollution and constant disorder, I never saw people in the streets get angry or aggressive or foul-tempered.

After the bridge, we take an immediate turn to the east and follow a back road along the polluted Paghman River to avoid the interminable traffic jam on the main road. As we approach the campus of Star Educational Society, more and more young people are walking along the street carrying bookbags and notebooks and talking cheerfully with their friends. They follow us into the courtyard where throngs of fresh-faced, stylishly-dressed high achievers await their morning English classes and dream of changing the future for their families and their country.

[1] A sufra, also known as a dasterkhan, is a plastic cloth that is laid on the floor like a tablecloth.

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