Three Meals in Afghanistan

In cities and villages alike, a country seeking change clings tightly to its past

In the days after the Taliban was toppled, the Bibi Mahro Road from Kabul’s airport was an obstacle course of snipers, roadside bombs, and grenades. But by July 2008, Afghan soldiers flanked the now-glass-smooth pavement, their bodies hidden behind monstrous guns. Some sat casually on white plastic patio chairs. As a first look at Afghanistan, this summery scene was a surprising and incongruous image—one that spoke, perhaps, to the war-as-usual mindset I would encounter in many of the country’s inhabitants.

I share an ethnicity with half of Afghanistan’s people, but my ancestral connection to this place is tenuous. In the subcontinent’s post-colonial era (begun in Afghanistan after World War I, and elsewhere with the end of the British Raj after World War II) allegiances, like homelands, were determined by imposed borders. My ancestors belonged ethnically to Afghanistan; emotionally to India; and then, officially, to Pakistan. My family’s looping narrative of migration—mostly willing, occasionally forced—thus began here. At its root is a legend, dating back more than a millennium, that all Pashtuns have a common ancestor who lived and died in Afghanistan.

This shared heritage ensured that I would rarely be treated as a khariji, a foreigner, as I roamed the country. I looked like people on the street and shared their faith, and often had to devote the first ten minutes of conversations to asserting that I wasn’t actually Afghan. I received numerous invitations to visit, and spent hours sitting for meals with families, talking about the country, its past, and its future.

These encounters were an antidote to the Afghanistan Westerners see through the lens of military campaigns and troop movements. We tend to imagine the country as a desolate and violent place—a moonscape of dirt trails and khaki-coloured mountains with insurgents around every bend. Or we see it as the product of its development statistics: an array of indicators suggesting that despite the insurgency, poverty, and corruption, Afghans’ lives are improving.

The international community likes to talk about transparency, governance, and human rights in Afghanistan. And these goals, in their most basic applications—not having to pay bribes, developing trust in leaders, not being forced into marriage—are certainly things Afghans want for themselves. But the view I got while sitting for those meals, during my first visit and a second one in the spring of 2009, was that though the country might desperately need those kinds of forward-looking changes, it continues to hold tight to its past.

Kabul in 2008 was full of people who were losing hope yet still praying that hope could be restored. The cityscape was a dusty tangle of vehicles, pedestrians, and hawkers. Burka-clad women begged in the streets, reaching up to passing cars as young babies lolled in their laps and toddlers dangled across their shoulders. Children as young as six carried tins of smouldering coal. For the equivalent of a few cents, they would wave some in your face to stave off the evil eye.

There was ample opportunity to confront horror in this city. Ordinary people recounted harrowing tales of war, counting up the personal price they had paid in lost lives and limbs as they poured juice at a stand or arranged vegetables on a cart. They’d tell me their story, then in the next breath invite me into their homes.

On July 7, about a week into my trip, I had an interview scheduled with Asadullah Falah, secretary-general of the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house of the national assembly. I was still in my room at the guest house that morning when I heard a roar outside. It rose louder and louder, then peaked and faded into absolute silence. The eerie quiet lasted perhaps a second or two, then: chaos. People screamed, sirens and whistles blew, horns honked, and helicopters rushed in overhead, whirring low to the ground. I ran out and saw a dark plume of smoke rising to my left, beyond the garden wall.

The Indian embassy had been hit by a suicide bomber. Had I left fifteen minutes earlier, I would have been in the middle of the street when the bomb went off. The bombing, which killed fifty-eight people, the vast majority of them Afghans, turned out to be the worst in a string of recent attacks. Since 2005, the country’s security situation had been worsening, and many pointed to that year’s parliamentary elections as the cause. Warlords and drug barons had been making their presence felt since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, but the elections brought them into formal positions of power, turning parliament into a gathering of feudal lords and power brokers. As a local journalist told me, “Afghans saw that the people in the powerful factions who used to come to power yesterday by gun, today they can come to power by election. It was just a game; it was just a show.”

In the ensuing years, that belief eroded confidence in civil institutions and opened up opportunities for the Taliban and other insurgents. The government, riddled with corruption and profoundly ineffective, was having trouble maintaining control of the country, even with the help of its nato allies. And from the perspective of many Afghans, those allies were complicit in, even responsible for, all that was going wrong.

Asadullah Falah was among those who had once acquired power by gun, though by the night of my visit he was sitting squarely on the side of democracy. Part of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen during the ’80s, he had earned the title of commander, which he retained even after the war ended. His job now was to see that the parliament’s upper house functioned smoothly, and to attend to the needs of its members.

I set out for his house after dark, intent on getting perhaps a half-hour of his time. I wasn’t expecting the Commander to say anything controversial, only hoping for an honest assessment of the challenges Afghanistan faced. I assumed the meeting would be between me, my translator Bashir, and the Commander. Language wouldn’t really be an issue—Falah spoke English well enough—but Bashir was his nephew, and the main reason I’d been invited to Falah’s home instead of his office.

We pulled up to the gates, and to our surprise encountered a long stretch of suvs parked outside. Armed guards led us to the living room, where about a dozen men reclined against cushions on the carpet, their gazes fixed on the large TV in the corner. News footage of the embassy bombing cycled through the same severed limbs, the same bloodied bodies, the same wailing woman.

The Commander rose and greeted me. He was a tall man, over six feet, his hair greying and grizzled, with drooping eyes and a permanent, half-amused smile. He led me around the room, introducing me to each of his guests and adding a tidbit to explain his personal connection to them, as in: “Meet Dr. so-and-so, professor of economics; we know each other from our days in Peshawar. This is such-and-such, the former governor of Kunar; we liberated Logar province together. Here is so-and-so; he is in parliament, and we fought in Khost together.”

Most of the men glanced at me and nodded, smiling. Others didn’t acknowledge me at all. The Commander pointed to an empty space on the carpet and invited me to sit. Then he left to sit with his friends at the opposite end of the room. He remained there for forty-five minutes before venturing back to check on me. When I mentioned that it was getting late and asked about the interview, he laughed: “First we eat, then we drink, then we talk!” And he returned to his spot.

Almost two hours after I arrived, he rose and pulled aside a curtain that ran the width of the room behind me, revealing a long dining table covered from end to end with food. As the men made their way in, I hung back, feeling out of place. The doctor of economics who knew Falah from Peshawar paused as he walked past: “The Commander tells me you are a journalist. How do you like our country? ” I told him that other than the bombing, everything was going well. He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “Pakistan. The isi [Inter-Services Intelligence] will never let us have peace.”

I found a place at one end of the table and made Bashir sit beside me. The core of the meal—rice and meat—was no different from the $4 meals I’d been eating at the Herat restaurant, but quality wise it was Kobe beef versus Big Mac. Heaped on several platters along the table were Kabuli rice with fat, golden raisins and carrot slivers, and hunks of lamb that fell away from the bone at the touch of my fork. There were also several plates of mantoo—dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground beef and covered in yogurt and mint—and several varieties of kebab and bread.

The luxuriousness of the meal wasn’t especially surprising, given how well off the Commander was. Not only was he a high-ranking official, but his family owned land in Logar province. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he had moved them to Hayatabad, an upscale neighbourhood in Peshawar.

During dinner, he called out to me from his end of the table and pointed to his guests. He’d already mentioned my background to them, but they wanted to know my specific ethnicity, and my family name, which my father had dropped more than forty years earlier when he came to Canada. I told them, and they nodded knowingly, or perhaps politely.

Watching the men eat and laugh and talk, I thought about their long and often violent history together. They were, in a sense, the only continuity in Afghanistan’s recent narrative, which has been marked by steady warfare for the past thirty years. Intellectuals and engineers and teachers by profession, they had become dissenters, then fighters. Now they were politicians. But as I was soon to learn, they weren’t bound by their new identity and its challenges so much as by who they’d once been.

The guests began to leave when dinner ended. Almost three hours after I’d arrived, the Commander was finally ready for the interview. We sat on the floor, and I started to ask my questions. He sighed often during his replies, his tone alternately condescending and earnest as he recounted the suffering of Afghans before touting his government’s progress. “When we came back from Pakistan six years ago,” he said, “we hadn’t any electricity, we hadn’t any drinking water, we hadn’t one kilometre of asphalt road, we hadn’t one school. We now supply about 60 percent of the electricity in Kabul. And we have established and constructed many schools, so millions of children, daughters and sons, are going to school.”

When I asked him about Afghans’ obvious frustration with the government, specifically the security situation, the corruption, and the lack of services, he grew impatient, then tsked and smiled indulgently before deflecting. Non-answer piled upon non-answer until he finally wrapped up the interview with “We hope on our God, as we received support during our jihad with the Soviets. Everybody [has come back] from abroad and made their houses and their agricultural fields. Now I’m thinking everybody has a car in their house.”

I thanked him for his time and started packing away my recording equipment, but he told me I couldn’t leave yet. I hadn’t met his wife, hadn’t had tea. And he had something to show me.

The Commander’s son, who’d sat with us at dinner, brought in some weathered photo albums, and an animated Falah began to tour me through his jihad days. He’d cut an impressive figure back then: a wiry frame, with a handsome face accentuated by a long beard and the pakol perched on his head. In many of the shots, he stood with other armed men in shalwar kameez and pakols, or sometimes jackets or shawls. They posed on mountains or while trekking through valleys. On one page, they threw snowballs at each other, and on another slid down snowy hills on their backsides, holding their guns aloft and laughing. The album also contained professional shots by photojournalists, emphasizing the men’s common heroism. One showed the Commander posing with a Stinger missile. He told me, with evident pride, that he was the first to receive the weapon.

Falah explained that he had been given the rank of commander by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a man from a powerful religious family who was the spiritual guide of the mujahedeen, and who became the country’s first president after the collapse of the Communist government in 1992. Mojaddedi now serves as president of the Meshrano Jirga and chair of the Independent National Commission for Peace and Reconciliation.

The Commander’s wife soon brought out a tray of cups and a flask of green tea and placed them on the floor in the middle of our circle. A pretty woman wearing a floor-length skirt and a long top, with her hair tied in a messy bun, she appeared to be much younger than the Commander. She sat down across from me, gave me a friendly look, and poured the tea. When the Commander paused to take a sip, she said something to him and nodded in my direction. “My wife is asking if you are married,” he said. I indicated that I was, then, anticipating the next question, said I had three kids: two girls and a boy. Her eyes widened. Why, she wondered, had my husband let me come so far by myself? And who was looking after the children in my absence?

I’d encountered this line of questioning elsewhere in South Asia, and had initially believed the women were envious. In fact, though, they generally just felt sad for me, thinking my husband didn’t care enough to protect me by keeping me close to home. It was always a sobering lesson in cultural relativism. I told the Commander’s wife my husband was good with the children, and that if there were problems my mother lived nearby.

When we finally finished with the pictures, it was after 1 a.m. The Commander wanted to show me some videos, but I had to leave, so I thanked him and we said our goodbyes. During the ride back to the guest house, I thought about how he had been most lively and at ease while talking about his days as a fighter. Questions about his political life and the future of the country had produced stilted answers.

Why was it that these old fighters had been tapped to lead Afghanistan, I wondered? They weren’t providing physical security—the Indian embassy had nearly been blown up that very day. Nor were they providing economic security. Contrary to the Commander’s claim, every Afghan most certainly did not have a car.

Ireturned to Afghanistan almost eight months later, in March of 2009. The country was even further on edge. Prior to this second visit, there had been acid attacks on schoolgirls in Kandahar and an accidental bombing of a wedding party by nato forces. Insurgency was on the rise all over the south and east. The International Council on Security and Development had just released a report estimating that the Taliban had a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from barely over half the year before. Kabul was wrapped in extra layers of razor wire, and government and foreign buildings had been fortified with thicker blast walls and bigger sandbag piles, leaving the streets virtually impassable.

The weather my first week mirrored the city’s funk: cold and rainy, with a perpetually gunmetal grey sky. Determined to leave Kabul this time, I set out with Bashir in a dark green suv with questionable brakes, bound for Mazar-e-Sharif. The city, home to several hundred thousand inhabitants, lay eight hours to the north, toward the border with Uzbekistan. The plan was to meet up with workers from the World Food Programme and head farther northwest, to Maimana, in Faryab province.

We passed through only two small towns along the way: Charikar, in Parwan province, right outside Kabul; and, two hours later, Pul-i-Khumri, in Baghlan. The bazaar in Pul-i-Khumri was chockablock with live chickens, shoes and socks, children’s clothes, cheap plastic toys, and fruits and vegetables. It was just after Nowruz, the Persian new year, and Afghans were still in celebration mode. Women in high-heeled shoes and burkas, the bright silk of their shalwars peeking out from underneath, strode along the roadside, kicking up dirt and dragging along children dressed in their Nowruz best.

After Pul-i-Khumri, the sights were only occasional: a shedlike store with crates of bottled water stacked outside, or a young boy waving a green flag to indicate that he was collecting alms for a mosque. More frequent were the small mounds, marked with sticks bearing fluttering green cloths, that showed where a martyr had fallen. In accordance with Islamic tradition, these men had been buried on the spot, anonymously, with no ritual bathing or wrapping. They could have been from recent years or from decades ago; the only certainty was that they had fought and died.

We stayed the night in a guest house in Mazar, and in the morning Bashir dropped me off at the World Food Programme office. The trip from Mazar to Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, was once a bone-cracking seven-hour journey across the Dasht-e-leili desert, but now would take us about three and a half hours along smooth asphalt. The Chinese had built this section of the roughly 3,000-kilometre ring road that connects Afghanistan’s cities, a project conceived during the ’60s but soon abandoned because of fighting. It was resumed in 2001, but eight years, $2.5 billion, and scores of workers’ lives later it remained incomplete, with many sections, especially in the south, in need of constant rebuilding because of bombings or neglect.

Our trip along this intact northern section revealed an Afghanistan much different than the one in and around Kabul. It was a kaleidoscope of emerald fields studded with bright red flowers—gul-e-lalaee, the symbol of Nowruz. Alternating with these pastures were huge tracts of wheat where women toiled in brightly coloured scarves and dresses, and herders grazed camels and long-haired goats.

Soon the weather started to turn, and the crisp, sunny day gave way to cold and rain. We reached Maimana, then set off for the village of Bellar Say in a convoy of three UN trucks, with a police escort to deter kidnappers. Our progress was slow, moving along slippery, often unmarked dirt trails that sometimes narrowed to strips of gravel barely as wide as our truck. The main form of transport in this region is still by donkey.

We eventually stopped on a plateau, where we were greeted by a half-dozen men. I exited the vehicle, and the cold began to cut through my five layers of clothing. Mud seemed to crystallize around my boots. The men, wearing no more than flip-flops or flimsy loafers with no socks, led us up the steep, slick path toward Bellar Say. As we fought for traction, Abdul Hameed, the local wfp staff person, spoke with the villagers and translated their replies. More and more people joined the group, some wanting to voice an opinion, others simply listening.

The region had been plagued by drought in recent years, and many were suffering from a chronic, low-level hunger that hindered their long-term health and their economic prospects. Neither opium poppy cultivation nor development were under way in the region, so able-bodied men were often working outside the country, typically in Iran. Those who were getting by helped out those who were worse off. To fill in the critical gaps, the villagers laboured for food provided by the wfp. Despite the hardship, the rains had made them cautiously optimistic. Perhaps this year’s harvest would be fruitful.

As we carried on up the trail, one of the men invited us for lunch. I was embarrassed by the offer, because our hosts would have to slaughter one of their precious few sheep and serve rations meant for their children. But to refuse the offer would have been a great insult.

Finally, we arrived at a cluster of dark brown mud buildings. Children with dirty faces and running noses crowded around. Some wore jackets, others sweaters. Some wore boots but no pants. Women in scarves with pink and green and purple leafy patterns peered out from behind doorways and windows. Those who were out in the open turned to face the nearest wall. There were men in our group, strangers, and while women in these mountains didn’t wear the burka, they were strict about their privacy.

The men led us to a large edifice with only one room. The floor was covered with faded rugs and strewn with shabby cushions. A breeze blew in through holes where doors and windows might have been. We removed our shoes at the entrance and sat cross-legged on the floor; the moist cold seeped in, settling into my ankles and knees as I leaned back against the wall, my eyes adjusting to the low light.

A young man with chapped lips and a wispy moustache and beard entered carrying a jug of water and a palapchi, a wide-rimmed bowl covered by a plate that acted as a sieve. He went clockwise around the room, holding the palapchi under each person’s hands and pouring the water so they could wash. Then the food arrived: huge piles of coarse Kabuli rice and stringy lamb on large steel plates, one for every two people. I knew this was the best food they had; nothing less would have done for a guest. We ate with our right hands as the old men, like those at the Commander’s house, quizzed me. When I told them my family was originally from Pakistan, they lit up. “Does she speak Pashto? ” they asked, hoping to speak to me unmediated. Their shoulders slumped when I replied that I only spoke Urdu.

I asked whether they would vote for Hamid Karzai in the upcoming elections. There was little alternative, they said, and anyway they were happy enough. They mentioned the gravel road we’d driven up on, which had been built under the Afghan government’s National Solidarity Programme. The new path made it easier to move about, they said—to bring in supplies or visit the next village over. Had they ever considered leaving for the city? I asked. One of the old men, wearing a checkered turban, shook his head. They would be lost without their families and relatives, he said. I replied that many think success means leaving village life behind. Success, he told me, means different things in the city and the village.

It seemed that in the countryside, they wanted the life they had always had, only slightly better—more work, easier passage, regular rain. We finished eating, and three men came to pick up our plates. I’d barely made a dent in my share, which had been enough for five people. Here, food was never wasted, and hungry villagers would be waiting for the meal I left behind.

Iheaded back to Mazar-e-Sharif four days later. It was Friday, a day off in Afghanistan, and on the ride east I saw scores of families sitting in the fields among the tulips, food spread out on blankets. Friday picnics are a tradition here. Mazar is mainly Tajik, and the legendary home of the tomb of the son-in-law of Muhammad, Hazrat Ali, who is revered by Shia Muslims.

By early afternoon, we’d reached the wfp guest house, a large, multi-storey building behind a tall steel gate and a stone boundary wall, tucked away on a side street on the outskirts of town. I joined a handful of staff having drinks on the patio near the swimming pool. The sun beamed down on a garden filled with newly planted fruit trees, and I sat with three men, all Muslims from Tajikistan, as they toasted the holy day with rounds of vodka. They were in their late thirties or early forties, and were on multi-year contracts providing logistics or security assistance to international agencies.

The guest house had a cook who took special orders, Eastern or Western style—a welcome change from the Afghan staple diet of rice and meat, with the odd eggplant thrown in, that I’d grown accustomed to. That day, the choice was fish or a noodle and vegetable combination. Everyone else had long ago finished their meals, so when my stir-fry arrived I ate alone, listening to the drinking Tajiks gripe about UN procedures and bureaucratic wrangling. One of them complained that unhas, the United Nations flight service, cost him nearly ten times as much as an Afghan airline would. But, he said, he’d lose his insurance coverage if he flew commercial. These were the kinds of costs that hindered development and made donors angry.

From the Tajiks’ perspective, little had changed since they had arrived several years ago, and certainly little for the better. To these men, UN careerists all, this country was just another underdeveloped, intractable place. We carried on chatting while one of the kitchen staff came by and picked up the leftovers and dirty dishes. The men got up soon after, leaving me to sit by myself.

I thought about the Commander, the villagers in Bellar Say, the Tajiks, all of them bound up in the grand international effort to create a modern state out of Afghanistan. Those in power were still mired in their warrior pasts. Ordinary citizens comforted themselves with nostalgic thoughts. The internationals simply bided their time and grew increasingly cynical.

Afghans have a term, ishqi watani, that refers to a deep and abiding affinity for one’s people, culture, and identity. Essentially, it means an unconditional love of the homeland. But the state—or at least what we in the West think of as a state—has never really existed in Afghanistan. There have been attempts to bring reform through monarchy, through secularism and Communism. The country has had kings and presidents. None have matched up well with Afghans’ ideas about what it means to be Afghan. Ishqi watani has helped Afghans endure thirty years of war. But it has also kept their gazes fixed upon their battles to preserve, not looking ahead to where they could go.

Naheed Mustafa
Naheed Mustafa has produced documentaries for the CBC, and has written for The Atlantic, The Walrus, and others.
Tim Hetherington