A Journey to Afghanistan

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By Jila Baniyaghoob*

November 2001

As the airplane lands on the runway of Kabul Airport, I stare out of the windows. The wreckage of planes, the legacy of decades of civil war, is scattered everywhere. “Look what the Afghans have done to themselves and their national resources!” my colleague exclaims. He is absolutely right. The wreckage is just one of numerous testaments to those bloody days.

We walk the short distance between the airplane’s steps and the concourse. The terminal is an old one-story building with a few rusty desks and chairs inside. Everything around here is shabby. The doors, the walls, the furniture: everything is ancient. By contrast, the airport staff is exuberant and courteous.

A man approaches us. “Hello, I am your inspector today.” He takes us to the Customs section, where the officers are all standing behind a big counter. Some of the women officers are dressed formally in skirts and jackets. Others are wearing short headscarves and a long-sleeved shoulder-to-knee uniform. It’s intriguing to see all these female civil servants at the port of entry of a country notorious for limiting the role of women. I wonder if they are there merely as window-dressing, to make a good impression on foreigners: “Afghan women are not as neglected as we thought!”

I take a yellow cab from the airport and ask the driver to take me to the city. Kabul is full of clean, brand-new taxis. As soon as you step into the street, Toyota cabs line up in front of you, ready to take you wherever you want to go. My driver says that they were recently imported.

During my stay, every time I took a taxi, the drivers asked my nationality. “You are not Afghani. Let’s see…. You must be Iranian. Correct?” When told them they were right, they invariably started an excited conversation with, “I just came back from Tehran a few months ago!” All of Kabul seems to either have spent some time in Iran or to have a close relative who has done so.

Now I am in Shahr-i Nou Street in downtown Kabul. Shahr-i Nou means New City. The big park on this street is named after the street itself. In Kabul, parks are usually empty. Very few people go there to have “fun.” The great majority of people encountered in the park are either pedestrians cutting through to a neighboring street, book-lugging students trying to study, or homeless people, who sleep in every corner.

On this street, as on any other street in Kabul, you can hear loud music from every shop. Almost all shopkeepers put their tape players in front of their stores, with the sound volume cranked to the highest level. The songs are mostly Indian and Iranian. Afghans particularly love Iranian pre-revolutionary pop music of the 1970s. The audio/video stores are covered with big posters of Iranian and Indian artists. Interestingly, the price of CDs and video- and audiotapes is very low.

A young man who runs a small music vendor’s stand is eagerly trying to sell me a few tapes. He points to the pictures of the singers on the backs of the tapes and says, “None of them are back from exile. They are all in the West.” And then he smilingly continues, “But when things get better, they will come back. I’m sure they will!” The volume of the tape player is so high that I can hardly hear him. “Would you please lower the sound?” I plead. He reaches out to the tape player and touches one of the buttons. I don’t notice any change in volume. Evidently, he has a hard time muting his favorite singer.

Where do these tapes and movies come from?” I ask. “My friends bring them from India and Pakistan,” he shouts. “How’s business?” “Not that good. People have no money to spend on entertainment. I mean, people don’t have any money at all!”

* * *

Before leaving Tehran for Afghanistan, my friends gave me advice. “Be careful, you can easily get sick. There are all sorts of diseases out there: typhus, cholera, malaria, you name it. Don’t even touch their food and water. Take as much canned food and bottled water from here as you can.” When I arrived, I learned that the supermarkets in downtown Kabul carry all kinds of canned goods from Iran and Pakistan. They also have plenty of Pakistani-manufactured mineral water. I hadn’t needed to carry all that stuff from Tehran at all.

But a young shopkeeper who owns a supermarket on Gol-Forushiha (Florist) Street tells me that only foreigners and wealthy Afghans buy his mineral water. “The majority of Kabul residents have no choice but to drink the unfiltered water, even though it’s unsafe. They just can’t afford to buy purified water.” I think of Muhammad, an Afghan physician who works in one of Kabul’s hospitals. “During two decades of civil war in Afghanistan, almost all water purification facilities in the country were destroyed,” he once told me. “That left only a small segment of the population with potable water. Now many Afghans suffer from water-borne chronic diseases.”

I used to think that if Kabul residents didn’t have access to filtered water, at least they had unfiltered running water in their taps to do their daily washing and laundry. I soon realized that I was wrong. Almost none of Kabul has running water.

To be more precise, there is such a thing as running water, but the water system is not working most of the time. Only government buildings and some residential neighborhoods in Kabul have an hour or so of running water in their taps once every twenty-four hours. Those Kabulis who are blessed with this limited access to water save every bit of it in containers for their use throughout the day. Others who are not so lucky have to wait in line for hours in order to fill their jugs from the hand pumps installed at a few locations across Kabul. There is no water pressure in these pumps: you have to struggle for each drop of water.

Sakina is an Afghan-American who was working as a professor in the United States; she says she came back to serve her country. She rents a small apartment in Kabul for an astronomical $1,000 a month. Despite her high rent, her apartment has only half an hour of running water a day. All the water goes into gallon containers. “To take a bath, we warm up the water in a big pot and then use a bowl to pour it over our bodies,” she explains. “Taking an old-fashioned shower with hot water running from the tap is like a distant dream,” she says wistfully.

Her neighbor, Fatima, is a housewife with a husband and several relatives to look after. Her family used to have the same water problem, until they decided to deal with it once and for all. “We dug a well and installed a water pump to end this nuisance. At least this way we have plenty of water for cleaning—although drinking water still needs to be bought separately.”

Sakina and Fatima represent a tiny fragment of Afghan society. They both spent several years in the West, and so have enough savings to be able to rent nice apartments in an affluent neighborhood. That’s affluent by Afghan standards. Compared with those in other world capitals, there’s nothing special about these flats. To Afghans, though, the buildings are luxurious. Their rent is twenty times higher than average salary of an Afghan civil servant. Drilling a well in Kabul costs $300—six times more than the monthly salary of a government bureaucrat. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that very few Afghans are wealthy enough to be able to dig a well in their backyard or buy bottled water for their families.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the renowned Iranian filmmaker whose movie about life under the Taliban, Journey to Kandahar, made headlines across the world. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, he and his family moved to Kabul. “When you see the life of people in Kabul, you think, ’God, these people are really miserable!’” he told me. “But don’t forget that Kabul is the capital. People here enjoy a much higher standard of living. Believe me, people here are much better off than they are other parts of the country. Go to southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, to see real poverty with your own eyes.”

“But those people even don’t have healthy water to drink!” I protested. “Well then, just imagine elsewhere!” he replied.

* * *

If you haven’t been in the absolute dark before, come to Kabul!

Electricity is a rare commodity here. The city has no power most of the time. The power shortage is more obvious at night than during the day: the sunset brings endless, frightening blackness into the Afghan capital. But without power, Kabul’s days are as backward as its nights. Walk past any butcher’s and you will see meat and poultry hanging out in the open. Revolted, I ask a butcher about this. “I stopped storing meat in the fridge ages ago,” he says. “What is the use of a refrigerator if there is no electricity? Sometimes I think I should have sold my fridge, because I never have the chance to use it.” I look more closely at the meat. Outside for hours, it seems to have changed color from red to black. But I’m not sure. There are so many bees and flies sitting on it that it’s hard to make out its color.

“Downtown” Kabul houses foreign embassies, movie theaters, several fancy restaurants, and some shopping areas. Thanks to them, the downtown nights are not as gloomy as they are in the rest of the city. All the embassies in Kabul have their own electrical generators. The generators are very noisy, although I haven’t heard anybody complaining. Evidently, Kabul residents are getting used to the sound pollution.

Stores that don’t have power generators use lantern floor-lamps to light up their businesses and create enough light for pedestrians to watch where they step.

Yasin, a government employee who spent several years in Iran, informs me, “There are neighborhoods in Kabul where you can get up to two hours of electricity a day. The rest of the city doesn’t have that much luck with power. There’s only one exception to this rule: government facilities. They have electricity most of the time.” He pauses for a few seconds and adds, “After all, if they can’t generate enough electricity for those few key ministries, they’d better close down the government all together.”

As Yasin is talking about electricity, I remember the interview I had with Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, just a few days earlier. It was evening when I got to his office in the penthouse of the Foreign Ministry building. I was asking my second question when suddenly the electricity went off. The Minister’s office fell into total darkness.

Immediately, the head of the Afghan Foreign Ministry’s public relations office, who was present, reached into his pocket for his lighter. A few seconds later, one of Dr. Abdullah’s staff entered the room with a flashlight in his hand. He almost blinded his boss when he mistakenly focused the light on the Foreign Minister’s face. Then he moved quickly to light up an oil lamp so that I could continue my interview.

Although the episode was very strange to me, Dr. Abdullah didn’t seem to be surprised at all. He was as calm as if the whole thing was part of his daily routine. From the time the electricity went off until the lamp was lit, this Afghan official sat quietly on his sofa answering my questions, unruffled.

I was amazed at how efficient his employees were at lighting up the place. I admit I never expected to conduct an interview with a Foreign Minister in a dark room, with a flashlight. We completed the interview; the electricity remained off. When I made my farewells, one of the diplomats told me no electricity was expected any time soon.

I walked out of the Minister’s room. It was incredibly dark. I was frightened and disoriented: I hadn’t a clue how to find my way out of the building. As I was thinking over solutions, the same diplomat appeared, holding a flashlight. He stood up there and lighted the stairway so that I could see my way down the stairs. My only fear was that he might decide to turn the light off and go back to the office before I got to the first floor. But he waited long enough for me to make my way to the entrance gate. When I reached the Foreign Ministry’s front yard, it was so dark that I could hardly see the trees and flowers around me.

My mind returns to Yasin, who is still talking about Kabul utilities. “You see, the water situation here is not any better than the electricity is. There is no healthy water. We have to stay in line for hours to get a few drops. Then, when you’re about to carry your hard-earned water home, the wind starts blowing and dust falls into your water container. Before you know it, the water has turned into mud.”


It’s still dark out there. I’m in my room, reading the Afghan newspaper Aftab–which ironically means Sun—by the light of a kerosene lamp. The front-page headline reads, “Western Kabul is Still Wounded, Silent, and Alone.”

The article continues, “As soon as the sun goes down, life in western Kabul goes into hibernation. If you haven’t experienced absolute darkness, just spend an evening out there. The nights are so dark; you begin to feel sorry for yourself.”

The Americans and the dreams of a young Afghan warrior

Nineteen-year-old Najibullah is wearing his traditional Afghan costume. Its bright colors go well with his green US-made military overcoat. Najib is now a member of the Youth Committee of Afghanistan’s National Movement Party (ANM), but not long ago he was a member of the Mojahedin militia, fighting the Taliban. Najib was only a 13-year-old boy when he joined the Mojahedin. For years, he served under the late commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in the mountainous region of Panjshir valley, north of Kabul. He never had the chance to pursue an education and still doesn’t have a high school diploma. That’s why these days he is studying hard to get his high school degree. As he puts it, “I want to make up for my lost childhood.”

I met Najib in the beautiful garden of the ANM’s headquarters on Zanbaq Square in Kabul. “Najib, your name reminds me of Dr. Najibullah, the last President of the Afghanistan Communist regime [1986-92],” I begin.

He smiles. “Dr Najibullah was a good guy,” he says. “He served our country in many ways.”

It’s just what Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Iranian movie producer, told me to expect.When I visited Makhmalbaf at his home in Kabul, he remarked, “These days many Afghans feel nostalgic about Dr. Najibullah’s time in power. They think he was a great man and regret the fact that he was murdered by the Mojahedin. God bless his soul!”

I ask Najib, “Well, if Dr. Najib was so great, why were the Mojahedin fighting him?”

Najib just smiles and replies, “Well, to err is human!”

Safiuddin is another young member of the ANM. He, too, is preparing for Kabul University’s entrance exam. He opens the conversation by saying, “Once again, our country is on the path to war and destruction.”

“Why, Safi? Why do you think the future is so unpromising?” I ask.

He shakes his head and continues in a sad tone, “These Americans.” He sighs and pauses for a few seconds. His eyes are fixed on the huge trunk of a tree on the other side of the yard. Then he adds, “When I see these foreign soldiers, especially the Americans, everywhere in our cities, my heart aches. I think it’s exasperating for all Muslims to see Yankees in their country.”

Safi is not alone. Most Mojahedin soldiers that I met in Kabul share this view. They were all uncomfortable to see occupying troops, especially American soldiers, in their neighborhoods.

Safi continues, “These Americans want to forcefully impose all aspects of Western lifestyle on Afghans. They think they can create a modern Afghan society overnight! Their first target is our women. They go to our female relatives and claim that they want to liberate them from the yoke of centuries of oppression. How? By encouraging them to wear make-up, fashionable clothes, et cetera, et cetera! Of course I am against the Taliban-style restrictions on women. But I think what the Yankees are trying to introduce into our society is equally wrong. I am sure we are not ready to embrace this so-called modernization. The push for westernization only ends up widening the social gap in our country. The end result? More contradiction and more disagreement. That’s why I think Afghanistan is doomed to another round of bloody civil war.”

As I listen to Safi, I wonder if his concerns about the future of his country are real or merely reflect his ideals as a young warrior who spent the best years of his life fighting to create an ideal society. It is understandable that he should be deeply troubled: the principles and values he fought for are disappearing from his beloved country before his eyes.

Makhmalbaf has done extensive studies on Afghanistan. “In the last century,” he said, “the rulers of Afghanistan twice tried to bring about modernization: once under King Amanollah Khan (in the 1920s) and the second time under the Russians, during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Both times the Afghans reacted very negatively. The truth is that Afghan society lacks the required conditions, particularly the economic strength, to transform into a modernized, urban-dwelling society.”

A few feet away from Najibullah and Safiuddin, Sayyid-Nabi is engaged in a lively conversation with the members of the ANM Central Committee. They are sitting in plastic chairs around a table, in the shadow of a huge tree. Sayyid-Nabi, the head of the Youth Department of ANM, is also a top diplomat with Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry. He is a veteran of Afghanistan’s civil war and spent years fighting alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud, or as he calls him, “the Commander-in-Chief.” He claims the two of them were old buddies. “The ANM was established by a group of Massoud’s friends, colleagues, and followers. We started this party to materialize our late leader’s hopes and visions.”

Other prominent members of ANM include the Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah; the Minister of Education, Yunus Qanuni; and the Minister of Defense, General Fahim. Although the newly formed ANM doesn’t have a Secretary General yet, many of its members told me they believe General Fahim will be soon elected to this position.


Right in front of the Foreign Ministry, two paperboys are chasing me. They are begging me to buy a copy of their newspaper, Anis. I look at them: they are barely ten years old. I reach into my purse and buy a copy of the paper. But the second boy is still asking me to buy another copy from him. I tell him that he is selling the very newspaper I just bought from his friend. But he doesn’t listen to me. He begs me non-stop. “Please, for heaven’s sake, buy a copy of the paper. God bless you ma’am!”

I think, “What the hell! I’ll buy another one from him. It won’t bankrupt me. Even if I don’t need it, somebody in Tehran might find a use for it!” I take an Afghan bill out of my pocket and give it to the young boy. Seconds later, two other paperboys run toward me. They carry another Afghan newspaper, Hiyuwad. Just like their colleagues, they eagerly try to convince me to buy.

I smilingly tell them, “I just bought the paper! Not one, but two! See? It is more than enough for me!”

They check out my papers and say, “But our paper is different from the ones you bought!” And then they start begging again. In a matter of minutes, I surrender. Now I have Hiyuwad as well.

After I pay for the paper, I look at my watch and tell them, “It is around 11 am. Aren’t you supposed to be at school?”

Hamid, the 11-year-old paperboy, looks at my face and says, “We study in school every day from 7 to 10:30 am. Then they release us to come and sell papers!”

I ask them about the name of their school and their grades, but they don’t want to answer my questions. Then they start murmuring. They are pointing their fingers at a foreign woman who has just come out of the Foreign Ministry building. Then Hamid runs toward her. Mahmud, his colleague, shouts, “Try to sell one for me while I am answering this lady’s questions!”

I follow Hamid with my eyes. He approaches the woman and start talking to her nonstop, trying to convince her to buy one of his papers.

The two paperboys who sold me their papers earlier also run toward the foreign woman. In a matter of no time several other paperboys gather around her. A few of them also run toward me. One of them is trying to sell an Arman newspaper, the other Aftab, and the third Rouz, a magazine for women.

This time around, without any argument, I buy a copy of each paper. I realized that I didn’t have the heart to argue with these poor kids.

Then I turn my face toward the foreign woman. Just like me, she has her handful of magazines and newspapers. These little paperboys managed to defeat her as well!

But the boys don’t stop there. They are still trying to sell even more copies of their papers to me. I ask, “Boys! How come you only pick out foreigners to sell your papers to?”

One of them replies, “Very simple: Afghans don’t buy newspapers at all. They don’t have money to begin with! Only the foreigners have money to buy from us.”

I quickly glance at the papers I bought. All of them have at least one full page in English. The paperboy’s answer has told me why.

Most of the paperboys in Kabul are orphans. Most of them lost their parents during the Afghan civil war. Now they are left without any home or family to shelter them.

A few months ago, a French NGO set up a dorm for these orphans. The dorm houses close to 100 of them. The staff provides the kids with a place to sleep, and during the day, gives them newspapers to sell.

One of the staff members tells me, “Our limited resources only allow us to provide the kids with shelter. We don’t have enough money to fill their stomachs… so we finally decided to give them a bunch of newspapers to sell so that they can feed themselves. They used to be beggars. Now they can sell papers and go to school.”

I ask him, “but the number of Kabuli orphans is well over 100, isn’t it?”

He says, “I know. But when you don’t have enough resources, what can you do? We all know that helping only 100 people of the 23 million population of this country is a drop in the ocean. But that’s all we can do for them.”

He pauses for a second and continues, “Nonetheless, we have succeeded in turning 100 young beggars into 100 paperboys. That’s an improvement. If others do their homework and help the Afghan kids as much as they can, they can make a real difference in this society.”

His words remind me of Makhmalbaf’s movie, Journey to Kandahar. In one of the scenes, an actor says, ‘If everyone tried to illuminate the life of others by a candle’s worth, we wouldn’t need the sun anymore!”

For a slice of bread

There are too many children begging on the streets in Kabul. They are everywhere; on every corner you see them chasing pedestrians, asking for food. “Please! I am starving. I haven’t had anything to eat for days.”

These hungry kids know who the potential life-savers are. They don’t waste any time asking from their equally poor fellow-citizens. They just run after foreigners, the ones who might be kind enough to spare a few pennies.

They seem very efficient at extracting money from the pockets of passers-by. There are so many of foreigners in Kabul these days. You see the kinds stop them on the streets and bother them so much that they finally abandon the battle and throw them a few pennies. From UN peacekeeping forces to Western humanitarian agencies’ employees and foreign reporters, no one is immune to these hungry, pushy, omnipresent little souls. “I swear to God, I haven’t had anything in my stomach in several days!”

Some of them have come up with more respectable ways to milk the pedestrians. You see some of them carrying a deformed can in their hands, pretending they are burning incense for you. But when you get closer and take a look at the dirty can, you find nothing inside. Once I saw an eight-year-old boy in Kabul’s bazaar carrying a filthy tin pan full of water, trying to sell “drinking water” to people. He carried a plastic mug to serve his potential customers. The mug was so dirty you could hardly recognize its original color. The boy stopped me and my colleague, begging us to buy a glass of water from him.

I looked at his ragged clothes and unclean hands. He seemed so fragile and skinny. His face was pale. I told him, “Thanks, but I am not thirsty.”

He said, “Well, if you need no water, would you please spare a few cents so that I can buy a piece of bread for myself?”

I was about to reach for my wallet when my colleague warned, “Have you ever thought what would happen if you were to give every time you saw a beggar on the street in Kabul? Keep distributing money like this and a few days from now we will find ourselves as penniless as they are!”

He was right. From early in the morning when we left our hotel, all we saw on the streets were kids asking for food or money. There is no part of the city that is without them. Sometimes the emotions are so overwhelming that you decide to help one of them with some small change. But as soon as you pass the money to one small boy, uncountable numbers of his peers start running toward you from every corner, hoping to obtain something from your generous hands.

After thinking about my colleague’s advice, I decided to be heartless and ignore the small boy’s plea for food. The little kid didn’t want to lose his potential customers. Two blocks away, he was still following us, begging for money.

Soon he started pulling on my colleague’s sleeves. “I haven’t had food for two days…. I swear I am starving. Please be kind to me!”

My colleague forcefully pushed back the boy’s hand to release his sleeve from his grip. Then he stayed motionless for a few seconds, gazing straight into the child’s eyes. The boy stopped begging. He seemed to be scared of my colleague’s menacing look. I was scared too. I looked at my colleague. What did he want to do to this poor kid?

A few seconds passed. My colleague reached into his pocket and took out a blue-back Afghan bill and gave it to the boy.

I started laughing, “What happened? Wasn’t it you who preached to me a few minutes ago about not giving money to beggars?”

He says, “You’re right. But I realized I’m not as cruel as I thought I was.”

Then he continued, “The poor kid wasn’t lying. I’m sure he hasn’t had anything to eat in the past two days. I mean, nothing!”

I said to myself, “Welcome to Afghanistan. In this country, even if you want to be cruel and remain indifferent to people’s pain, you can’t!”

I believe Afghan beggars are the only beggars in this world who don’t exaggerate their misery when asking for help. They are really needy and when they say they are hungry, they mean it.

The endless army of Afghan beggars is mainly made up of children and women. The women, covering themselves in burqas, sometimes carry an infant in their arms.

One afternoon, on my way back to my hotel from the bakery, a burqa-wearing woman grabbed my hands and told me in a low voice, “Please, for God’s sake, help me. I haven’t had food for two days.” I took out a loaf of bread from my bag and asked her, “Is this enough?” She nodded her head in satisfaction, took the bread from me, and raised her hands toward the sky to pray for me. My hand was still in her hand. She asked God to grant all my wishes. I looked carefully at her face, covered by the mesh veil of the burqa. I could see the tears running down her cheeks.

“Why are you crying?” I asked.

“I have four orphans, ma’am. They are all small children and we have no breadwinner in my family,” she replied.

“What about your husband?” I asked.

“The war….” She couldn’t complete her sentence and burst into tears again.

An employee of an international humanitarian agency in Kabul told me, “There are too many widows in Afghanistan. Many of them have three or four kids and no source of income. The only assistance they might get is the sporadic and scarce financial support some of them receive from the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and a few international NGOs.’

The Kabuli women and children are desperately in need of food. That’s why these beggars will happily accept anything that can fill their stomachs, from a piece of cookie to a loaf of bread. But soon again, they have to grab another pedestrian to ask for something to live on. This is their endless struggle for survival.

It’s all about brand new cars!

It’s almost a year and a half since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Despite the presence of international forces in their country, many Afghans are troubled by the fact that there has not yet been any significant improvement in their lives.

In Kabul there are over 800 humanitarian agencies, established mainly by Westerners, to oversee the distribution of international aid to Afghanistan. But I heard from many disillusioned residents that they are anything but efficient. I even heard some people accusing these foreigners of deepening the social and economic gap in the country by creating a class of nouveaux riches.

Among these critics is Emir, an Afghan journalist. His face reddens in anger every time he talks about humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. “Our civil servants, even our cabinet ministers, are paid a monthly salary of no more than $50,” he says. “But the local staffs of these NGOs get as much as $800 to $1,000 a month. If you happen to be a foreign employee of these organizations, then your salary runs to a few thousand dollars a month. Thanks to international donors, these people can easily afford fancy houses and brand-new cars. This means more inequality in our society. They are spending a huge amount of this badly-needed money on themselves.”

He raises his voice and adds, “How on the earth do you think these foreigners get the money to pay their bills?”

He doesn’t wait for my answer. “If you think they pay for their luxury life by themselves, you are damn wrong! All they do is channel the funds allocated to reconstruct our country into their own pockets!”

“But no one would expect them to fly all the way to your country to help the people for nothing,” I ventured. “Don’t you think they are entitled to a decent life in exchange for their service?”

He looked me in the eye and replied, “Absolutely! They have every right to receive reasonable financial compensation. But I don’t believe they have the right to rent an uptown house for $10,000 a month and drive a brand-new car with the money given to them to empower the poor people of Afghanistan. I also don’t find it acceptable for them to spend donors’ money on gourmet food, vegetables, fruits, and alcoholic beverages brought to this country aboard American airplanes. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I didn’t respond. He wasn’t waiting for my reaction. All he needed was somebody to listen.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf shares some of these concerns. During my visit to his house on Butchers’ Street in Kabul, he told me, “I am pretty sure none of the international donors that promised financial help to Afghanistan will honor their promise. Some of them have already withdrawn their pledges, others have decided either to suspend their aid or to spend it through international organizations rather than through the central government in Kabul. In my neighborhood alone, some 20 international NGOs have mushroomed in the past couple of months. All these humanitarian agencies are recipients of financial assistance from different foreign countries. First things first: right away they purchase several new SUVs and rent themselves a big mansion. The overhead expenses of the average NGO are equal to what it spends on its projects.”

Makhmalbaf sighed and continued, “It’s a bizarre story. These days you see an ever-widening economic gap in Kabul, thanks to these so-called humanitarian agencies. Their presence has produced price gouging and rent hikes in the city.”

The Iranian movie maker is very skeptical. As far as he is concerned, in the past 18 months nothing has improved. “They claim they have already invested $1.6 billion in this country. Then you ask what has happened to this money. Has anything changed? No! Not even pavement on the roads. All you see here is dirt. Dirt and nothing else. They talk about Afghanistan’s reconstruction all the time. Where is it? I couldn’t find a single building being reconstructed. Thousand of damaged houses are yet to be repaired. No one does anything about them. All you see is a bunch of fancy cars on the streets. That’s all foreigners have done in Afghanistan since the Taliban were unseated.”

I asked Dr. Abdullah, the Afghan Foreign Minister, about the NGOs in his country. He echoed the others’ concerns about financial mismanagement and unrealistic expenditures by humanitarian agencies. “Of course we can’t generalize about all these agencies,” he remarked, “but overall there is a real problem out there. I am convinced that these NGOs must change their approach to become more functional. There are some NGOs that truly try to reach out to people. Others are here for the sake of their own profit.”

The dapper official also wanted to strengthen his government’s position. “The Afghan administration would prefer to serve as the channel between international donors and the Afghan people,” he said. “That way, not only can we make our bureaucracy more efficient, but also people will start to trust the central government in Kabul. So far, the bulk of international assistance has been distributed through NGOs. But now things have started to change; government agencies are assuming more responsibility. If people want to create a stable central government for Afghanistan, they must grant it a bigger role.”

The long line for an Iranian visa

The visa section of the Iranian embassy may be the busiest of all foreign offices in the Afghan capital. The long lines of applicants for an Iranian visa who gather outside the embassy in Kabul’s New City (or as the Afghans call it, Shahr-e Nou) has become a daily occurrence. People start arriving in front of the embassy around 4:00 am, hours before sunrise, hoping to be the first ones to get their paperwork completed. As soon as they realize I’m an Iranian journalist they encircle me, begging me to convey their pleas to embassy officials. Several of them approach and ask if I could pull some strings to help them get their visas. Poor things! They can’t grasp that I’m a simple reporter without connections in high places.

Nazer is a 44-year-old man who lived in Iran, with five members of his family, for years. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 he decided to return to Afghanistan without his wife and children. Now he wants to go and fetch them.

“How come you decided to leave your family behind and return to Kabul alone?” I ask him.

“I wanted to test the water, not to rush,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if Afghanistan was a livable place for my family. I needed to see things with my own eyes before moving here. Now that I’m sure of the situation I want to go back to Iran and help my family move to Kabul. But the Iranian embassy refuses to issue me a visa.”

“But your family can move here without you, can’t they?” I ask. He gives me a nasty look. “What? Are you kidding me?” he angrily replies. “How can I let a woman and four small kids travel such a distance without male company? That’s absurd!”

I approach someone else, an old man in white Afghan dress and black turban. “My family and I want to pay a visit to the Shi`i holy shrines in Iraq, but the Iranian embassy turned us down,” he informs me.

“But sir, don’t you think you came to the wrong place?” I say. “In order to go to Iraq you need an Iraqi visa, not an Iranian one!” “But I need Iran’s transit visa to get from Afghanistan to Iraq,” he answers decisively. “We can’t fly all the way from here to Iraq!” Vahid is a young Afghan lad whose family lives in Tehran. He says he hasn’t seen his family for a year. “I want to go to go to Iran to visit my wife and children,” he tells me. “All I need is a ten-day visa, but the embassy won’t grant it.”

“Isn’t your family planning to return home to Afghanistan?”

“Not yet!” he says. “Our house was ruined during the war. They can’t move in until I can provide them with shelter here.”

Everyone standing in line at the embassy had a story to share. Some were cut off by others who were trying to get my attention. Sometimes several people would start talking simultaneously, making it impossible for me to understand any of them. They were all trying to convince me that they had legitimate reasons to travel to Iran. One couple who waited outside the embassy since 3 AM told me that they wanted to go to Iran for a pilgrimage to the shrine of a Shi`i saint in Meshed. A man told me that he wanted to travel to Tehran in order to sell his house. He insisted that his physical presence was necessary to sell the house because all the documents had been issued under his name. There was an Afghan teenager who had been born and raised in Iran. He wanted to go back to ask for a copy of his high school diploma so that he could take Kabul University’s entrance exam. Another young man was so desperate to go to Iran that he bribed the Afghan guards of the Iranian embassy to let him into the embassy ahead of others. He told me that his mother was terminally ill. He wanted to go to Iran to visit her on her deathbed.

The consular officer at the Iranian embassy wasn’t buying these stories. “Most of those tales are fabricated to get the visa,” he tells me. “These people simply want to go to Iran and stay there. The truth is, life is very hard in Afghanistan. Afghans who used to live in Iran are not willing to live under these difficult circumstances. No matter how hard their life was in Iran, at least they had drinkable water and electricity. Here there is no healthy water, and the outbreak of all sorts of communicable diseases threatens them and their families.” According to embassy sources, 4,000 to 5,000 Afghans apply for an Iranian visa every day. Out of this large group, only about 80 or 90, who meet all the draconian criteria and are able to produce the required guarantee of return to Afghanistan, are able to obtain one. An Iranian diplomat tells me that the majority of those who qualify for the visa are Afghan merchants. “Unfortunately,: he adds, “many of these merchants, who have given us all sorts of guarantees of return to their country, don’t keep their promise. They never come back to Afghanistan again. For example, 340 people traveled to Iran on business visas to participate in the Iran-Afghanistan Joint Business Expo. Only 170 of them came home.”

“Afghans live under very harsh conditions,” he concludes. “They’re desperate to get out. If they’re allowed to travel to Iran, there’s no way that they’ll want to come back here again.”

Another officer at Iran’s Consulate General tells me, “Only two embassies in Kabul issue visas to Afghans: Iran and Pakistan. Other countries simply don’t let Afghans enter, because they know that nobody who leaves Afghanistan will return to it.”

I ask him about the teenager who wanted to travel to Iran to get his high school diploma. “That’s nonsense,” he says. “These are all poor excuses to get to Iran. A simple exchange of letters between the embassy and Iran’s Ministry of Education could take care of everything. But these people insist on going there in person. Why? Because they want to find a way to get out of their country and never come back!” Mohsen Makhmalbaf agrees. “Any Afghan citizen who has spent any time overseas, even the ones who have just visited Iran—they are no longer willing to live in Afghanistan. The standard of living here is lower than it is anywhere else. Just take the case of civil servants: in the past nine months, none of them have been paid a dime. Even the police and security forces haven’t been paid their salaries. You talk to them and they tell you that they haven’t been paid in months. You wonder how they can survive penniless. They say, ’Well, we hang around. Maybe things will get better soon!’”

English language in high demand

These days, after-school classes are a hot commodity in Kabul. The most popular ones are English as a second language and preparation classes for the university entrance exam.

Most of the young people who sign up for English classes have economic motives. They hope to learn enough English to find a job with one of the foreign humanitarian agencies that are mushrooming all across the country.

Hamid is an interpreter for a Frenchwoman. He told me that he managed to get his job with an NGO after taking six months of English. Thanks to his new job he now earns $800 a month, while his father—a civil servant—is paid only $50 a month.

The English language “institutions” are privately run. Most of them are nothing but one or two overcrowded rooms offering courses in English, computer science, and university entrance exam preparatory work. As many as 400 or 500 students may fit in a single English class. Classes are mixed: boys and girls sit side by side to learn to speak English. The maximum tuition for a six-month class is about $5. The instructors are Afghans who have spent a few years in Pakistan or have a degree from a Pakistani university.

There are some boys and girls among the students who have motives for learning English other than finding a well-paid job. Farida is a young woman in blue jeans and a blue overcoat. She has a very thin navy-blue scarf on her head. She tells me that she decided to learn English because she loves to communicate with the Americans who are currently in her country. Zohal is Farida’s classmate. She comes from a wealthy family and her father is an engineer. This young woman is only14 years old, in the seventh grade. At the end of English class, she and Farida walk back home together. Their house is on Sedarat Street, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the Afghan capital. Boys stare at their fashionable clothes and “modern” look as they sashay past. Neither of them seems to care about the reactions of passers-by.

Zohal plays with the English books in her hand. She turns to me and says, “Like Farida, I would like to learn how to communicate with foreigners and fit in.” Then she pauses for awhile and continues, “But when I am out, my look makes me a little uncomfortable.” I glance at her clothing. She is wearing a red overcoat and a pair of black pants, with a see-through scarf over her head. “Why are you uncomfortable about the way you look?” I ask her.

She replies, “I am worried about people’s opinion of me when I dress up…and the way boys look at me!” Under the Taliban, both Zohal and Farida were homeschooled. Back then, it was illegal to provide any kind of education, including home schools, for girls.

Apparently Zohal’s father is the greatest supporter for her education. She tells me she has also signed up for computer courses because “He says that I need to learn modern science.”

And then there are the preparation courses for University Entrance Exam (UEE). Many young Afghans furiously compete to get into the university. Each UEE class accommodates 500 to 800 students. Classes are so big that instructors have to use a loudspeaker. Students are not allowed to ask any questions during class time. As one of the instructors put it, ‘If only half the students want to ask a question, the situation gets out of hand. There is no time left for teachers to lecture!”

If a student happens to have a problem or needs a clarification, he or she must make an appointment with the instructor. The appointment must be made five days in advance and the meeting may last no longer than five minutes. The registration fee for UEE courses is about 200,000 Afghanis, almost $5. If a student want to make an appointment with a teacher, it costs another 20,000 Afghanis, or half a dollar, for each five-minute session.

Medicine and law are considered the most prestigious fields for college students to enter. Each year close to 18,000 students participate in UEE. Only the top 2,000 are qualified to apply for either law or medical school.

“All my comrades hate women!”

After the collapse of the Taliban regime, there was an explosion in the number of print publications in Afghanistan. The trend has continued to grow over the past two years. However, despite the dramatic increase in the number of magazines and newspapers, readership is still negligible. So many unread papers raises questions about the viability of journalism in this war-torn country.

To find out more about the status of the Afghan press, I talked to an Afghan expert. Mir Hossein Mahdavi is the editor-in-chief of Aftab, a weekly. We met in his office in western Kabul. The editorial office of Aftab is a 36-square-foot room covered with a red carpet. There is no furniture other than a desk and four or five chairs. “Afghans have neither the culture nor the economic power to subscribe to our newspapers,” he told me. “That’s why the average circulation of an Afghan newspaper is somewhere between 500 and 3,000 copies. Our customers? We sell most of our papers either to government agencies or to foreigners.” According to Mahdavi, three dailies, close to forty weeklies, and ten monthly papers are currently being published in Kabul. All of the three daily papers—Anis, Armaan, and Hyuwad—are state-run.

Mahdavi also uses his office space to teach English and computer courses. He says he needs the money to pay the bills for the magazine. During my visit, he handed me a copy of the latest issue. The lead article on the third page was headlined “A Romantic Letter from a Terrorist.” I find it a little strange to see tabloid-style stories like this in a serious political publication like Aftab. Mahdavi tells me that he wrote the article himself. “I tried to address some very serious issues in this essay,” he insists. He reads dramatically, “Take an empty jar and go to the spring to shout my name into the silent valleys. I try to acknowledge your presence by shooting bullets in the air. My love! There is no need to be worried anymore; we will be together forever. I will celebrate our reunion by killing two of my worthless prisoners. As a way to give you a red-carpet welcome, I will hang my machine gun on an apple tree and bring you a basketful of fresh red apples… But my comrades will not appreciate seeing you around. I am not sure why, but they hate women… My darling! If you can’t come and see me, just let me know. I will risk my life to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of your house. Yet I am certain that on my way to visit you I will be stopped at the checkpoint and they will arrest me!”

Mahdavi is a Tehran University graduate with a major in physics. His writing style is much closer to Iranian Persian than to Afghan Persian. Afghan magazines that use Iranian terminology and idioms usually have editors and/or columnists who have spent some time in Iran.

Mahdavi says that so far, international donors have allocated some $10 million for the Afghan press. But Kolhar, one of the Aftab columnists, is not pleased with the way the financial aid is being distributed among publishers. “Out of $10 million,” he observes, “Six million went directly to the Ayine Publishing House, a media giant run by foreign NGOs.”

While I am talking with Mahdavi, a group of journalists and editors from other newspapers come in. Mahdavi and his staff have invited the group as part of their effort to set up an Afghanistan Free Press Foundation. Mahdavi hopes that such an institution will turn into a nationwide umbrella organization capable of supporting all Afghan journalists and promoting their work. So far the group has had a series of successful meetings with some Afghan cabinet ministers and international agencies in the country. They are trying hard to get support for their dream organization from all possible sources, including government grants and international donations.

One of journalists who showed up for this meeting is Abdul-Qahhar Sarvai, the editor in chief of the Payame Mellat magazine. He says that currently there are very few people who work as full-time staff for newspapers, because Afghan newspapers can’t afford to hire full-time staff. Abdul-Qahhar believes 90 percent of columnists in Afghanistan are untrained amateurs.

The ruins of Western Kabul

My husband Bahman is also a journalist. We are traveling together in Afghanistan. This morning we take a taxi to go to Kabul University. As soon as we sit down, the cab driver glances at us in his rearview mirror and says, “You must be journalists. Aren’t you?”

When we answer yes, he goes on, “I hear that the Iranian press is not that free. Every now and then the authorities shut down an independent newspaper. Here in our country the papers are free to write about whatever they like!” he boasts. He pauses for a while and gives us another look in the mirror, watching our reactions.

“In the middle of the messy situation here in your country, how did you learn about the limits to free speech in Iran?” Bahman asks with a smile. “I’m telling you, man, I follow Iran’s developments religiously!” the driver insists loudly. “It’s fascinating to learn about politics in your country, especially when it comes to the crackdown on the independent press.”

The 25-year old-cab driver, in his white Afghan robe, keeps talking non-stop about the state of the press in Iran and Afghanistan. Once in a while he asks our opinion. We are doubtful about how to handle his endless questions and decide to remain silent and listen to his lecture on journalism. Among other things, he shares a story that happened quite recently. “A while ago, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information ordered a newspaper to close down after it scorned President Hamid Karzai. When the President found out about the incident, he was very upset. He ordered them to lift the ban from the paper. Then he summoned the Minister of Culture and rebuked him for limiting freedom of speech!

“President Karzai believes that journalists can write about whatever they want to and no one has the right to censor them,” the young cab driver proudly concludes. My husband turns to me. “Did you hear that?” he says. “Even the Afghans have more freedom than we do!” Kabul University is located in the western part of the city. On our way there, I notice that the further we get from downtown, the more destruction is visible. All you see is the remains of ruined buildings lining both sides of the street. These neighborhoods were leveled either during the Afghan civil war or as a result of US bombardments. I ask the cab driver to pull over his car so that I can take a few pictures. He happily obliges and helps me to find the best shots. As I aim the camera, he provides me with background information about the civil war. “Do you see that hilltop? That’s where Mazari (the murdered chief of the pro-Iranian militia) used to station his troops. And over there, that’s where Ahmad Shah Massoud used to deploy his troops.”

Western Kabul was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles among ethnic groups in the early 1990s. For years, Afghan factions from Pashtuns to Tajiks to Hazaras were engaged in a cycle of endless violence that claimed thousands of innocent lives. As I’m zooming in my camera on the ruined houses, I suddenly spot a woman standing in the middle of the rubble, checking me out. When she realizes I’m gazing at her curiously, she immediately hides herself in the rubble. Then she stretches out her hand to grab her child away from my sight.

Puzzled, I turn to the driver and exclaim, “I didn’t know there were people living in the ruins!”

“Of course!” he says, matter-of-factly. “There are many families still living here. What else do they have to call home?” I look back again at the never-ending line of broken buildings. It’s a freezing, blustery day at the end of autumn. The wind is so fierce that I fear it might take us off the earth at any second. My limbs are numb from the cold. Kabul has a reputation for being windy, but here in western Kabul it’s windier than anywhere else in the city. According to my driver, sometimes the wind turns into a sandstorm that crushes everything in its path.

“I wonder how these people can live in these damaged houses in every kind of weather, especially now that winter is around the corner,” I ask. “It’s certainly very difficult, but what else can they do if there’s no place else they….”

He leaves the sentence incomplete. I turn to him to see what happened. He is coughing. Apparently, as he was talking, a sudden wind blew a blast of dust into his mouth.

As in other parts of the city, there’s no sign of reconstruction in western Kabul. I can’t find even a small building or a symbolic sign of renovation. Gazing at the ruins of the city, I think about Makhmalbaf’s comments. “The Americans didn’t even bother to rebuild the buildings that they themselves bombed,” he said. “When you ask them, they say they paid for the war and have no money left to rebuild the country.” Perhaps the Americans are right. After all, no one should be forced to pay both for screwing something up and for bringing it back to normal! We return to the taxi and keep going. As we approach the campus we find a big crowd of university students demonstrating in the street. They’re furiously chanting slogans. The slogans target a wide variety of issues, but it seems that the protesters are particularly angry at the president of the university.

I stop one of the students. “Why did you boycott classes and gather here?” I ask.

“All of us here failed at least one of the final exams,” he says. “Today we are asking the professors to give us another chance to take the tests.”

“Do you want to retake all the tests?”

“No, just the ones we failed!”

We visit the vice president of the university, who shares his thoughts about the demonstration. “Since the collapse of the Taliban regime,” he observes, “it has become quite fashionable among students to boycott classes every other day and stage some demonstration on campus. Every day they have something new to nag about! One day it’s about failing the finals, another day, about poor service in the dining rooms. It goes on and on and on.” He makes it clear that the university has no intention of rescheduling anybody’s finals.

A few days later, the daily demonstration turns into a riot. Several students are killed.

*Jila is an Iranian Journalist .She can be reached by email at: [email protected]