Magic bus, p.16

Magic Bus, page 16


Magic Bus

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  In Peshawar, the gold was sold off to American and Japanese collectors. Then, the dealers, embarrassed by the sheer quantity of coins – around twenty times the size of all the known collections of early Afghan coins in the world put together – melted down the ancient silver to make tourist trinkets.

  In Kabul, I have one contact; an American who lived around the Muslim world and for thirty-five years considered Afghanistan to be her home. She is in a way a Grandmother Intrepid, an independent traveller whose wanderlust predates the Beatles and Beats. As Gertrude Stein and Paul Bowles – who, like Penny, she knew in Tangier – the defining purpose in her life has been to experience new peoples and lands. Her example – and her Dinner of Herbs, a compassionate portrait of an isolated Anatolian hamlet in the late sixties – had a formative influence on me. Her book’s title comes from Proverbs 15:17: ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.’

  A friend in Bath gave me her number. But her phone isn’t working – Kabul’s three telephone systems tend not to talk to one another – and the city’s power has been switched off until December. So I decide to take a chance and turn up at her door.

  Ashaf drives through Jad-e Maiwand toward the western quarter. Along Kote Sinki, old trolley-buses are stacked like battered Corgi toys, one on top of the other, shot through and burnt out. The Mirwais Cinema is a façade with bearded men playing volleyball in its open auditorium. An office building, its concrete floors like a mille-feuille pastry, lies where it collapsed a decade ago. The Soviet Cultural Centre is abandoned, lop-sided and pock-marked with shell holes.

  ‘This area was green,’ Ashaf says as we cross the remains of a destroyed university. ‘Here was a fountain. That was a cafeteria. There was the women’s dormitory.’

  But as extensive as is the destruction in Jad-e Maiwand, I’m not prepared for the absolute devastation, the sinister emptiness, of Dar-ul Aman – City of Peace.

  In 1937, Robert Byron wrote that Dar-ul Aman was ‘one of the most beautiful avenues in the world, four miles long, dead straight, as broad as the Great West Road and lined with tall white-stemmed poplars’. In 1976, Nancy Hatch Dupree’s breezy Kabul guidebook described the neighbourhood as one of ‘picturesque walled castles, cultivated fields and poplar groves’. Dar-ul Aman survived the Soviet occupation. But, in 1992, after the mujaheddin took the capital, four years of vicious in-fighting reduced the area to rubble.

  ‘We lived on the other side of TV Mountain,’ says Ashaf, gesturing beyond a tangled transmission tower. ‘There was so much shooting here that rockets, with their flat trajectory, often overshot the hill and hit our neighbourhood.’ Like most Kabulis, he is imbued with a basic sense of ballistics and can tell a Stinger from a Blowpipe. ‘That’s when my family moved to Pakistan.’

  Not one building lines the avenue. The ‘walled castles’, villas, carpet bazaar and match factory are gone. Only a few isolated, mustard-coloured walls and smashed rubble-heaps remain. Beneath them, wild dogs pant in the shade. Behind them, for miles, is nothing. Nothing. Dar-ul Aman brings to mind Dresden or Hiroshima after the Second World War.

  Ahead rises the skeleton of the palace, its formal gardens long lost, and beside it the Kabul Museum. Ashaf stops in front of the low official structure, with its collapsed west wing and caved-in upper storey. The museum wasn’t destroyed by the Soviets either. Until three years ago, it housed the finest collection of antiquities in Central Asia. Its Indian ivories, foot of Zeus, Roman bronzes, Alexandrian glass and Hindu Vishnu spanned fifteen millennia of history, with every item having been found on Afghan soil. ‘A Nation Stays Alive when its Culture Stays Alive’ is painted on a bed sheet suspended above the main door. ‘Is your weapon unloaded?’ asks the smaller sign beside it.

  Dunes of grey dust drift across the forecourt. I step over them and out of the scorching daylight. A guard motions me along a gloomy hallway with the battered barrel of his gun. Its magazine is wrapped in duct tape. At the end of the passage, under a single, sallow light bulb, a solitary figure bends over a bench.

  ‘Selaam aleikkum,’ I say.

  Carla Grissmann looks up from her work. Her mouth is tight, her haircut severe. She wears a neat, dark-blue shalwar kameez over her compact and fine-boned body.

  ‘I’ve been hoping to meet you for a long time,’ I add.

  ‘I don’t know you, but khasta habasheed?’ she replies. Considerate. Confident. ‘You may be tired. Have some tea.’ She offers me a stool, pours hot liquid from a slender Thermos into a pair of chipped cups, then sits down and looks at me. The thinness of her aged face magnifies her grave, guileless eyes.

  We chat for a moment, mentioning names and finding the strands which connect us, but her attention quickly shifts back to the shards of broken pottery on the worktop. She is impatient of small talk. To hold her attention, I tell her, ‘I’ve come to ask why you’ve spent your whole life travelling.’

  Carla responds with a thrust of her chin. Her eyebrows rise, as accentuated as a circumflex. ‘Your timing is immaculate,’ she says. ‘Tomorrow I leave Kabul for the last time.’

  Carla was born in America, but America was never her home. From her youngest days, Carla longed for the wider world. Her life-long rush toward it began with her parents’ divorce. In 1932, Carla moved with her mother to Berlin and then – when the Nazis invaded Breslau – to Norway and Switzerland. After the war and Columbia, she returned to Europe to live in Paris. Her mother married the French consul in Tétouan and she moved to Tangier.

  Her ten years there and later in Tunisia gave her a deep affinity for Muslim society, and the value placed on family unity.

  In 1968, she visited Turkey and, hungry to experience village life, she found – or was found by – Uzak Köy, her Anatolian hamlet ‘held in the cupped palm of a rise of high land, overlooking a broad dry riverbed crawling out of sight around the feet of retreating hills’. Its forty families lived in and out of each other’s homes, praying, fasting, even sleeping together. Among them she found a generosity of heart, a welcoming community based on integration and camaraderie, as she did two years later when she happened on Afghanistan.

  ‘Kabul was always an ugly city,’ Carla tells me in her museum workshop. ‘On a trip to India, I stopped here and thought what a hideous place. Then I went for a walk. Along the walls of the palace, I saw a soldier sitting on his guard box. He had a geranium on his epaulette. When I got close, he shouted, “Selaam aleikkum, Hanim!” He made a sweeping gesture towards the teapot and said, “Chai!” There were tomatoes ripening in the sun and his supper boiling in a Russian pressure-cooker. He looked me – everyone looked me – in the eye. I thought, “Oh, this is wonderful, I want to stay here for ever.”’

  ‘This was 1970,’ I ask.

  ‘Or thereabouts,’ she says.

  Carla found a teaching job at the university. On her first day, a student asked her, ‘Madame, how many children do you have?’

  ‘None,’ she answered him.

  ‘How many brothers and sisters?’


  ‘Mother and father?’

  Carla shook her head. By then, her parents were dead.

  ‘Madame, this is a great tragedy.’

  Carla turned the conversation, asking the young man, ‘How many people in your family?’

  ‘Too many, praise God,’ he laughed.

  Carla uncorks the Thermos. I raise the tea to my lips and, over the rim of the cup, watch her face. Her complexion is porcelain white, her neck long and slender. She wears no make-up.

  Carla tells me she lost her heart to the country and its good-looking, independent people. She divided her time between two worlds, dining one night on caviar at the French Embassy, then, the next morning, heading into the hills with her grocer’s family. They’d chase wood for a fire, butcher a chicken, never be home by midnight.

  ‘I remember laughter, music, tablecloths spread under the trees, the phht-phht of the pressure-cooker,’ she says, her quick
laugh like a string being plucked. ‘Once I rode on the roof of a bus (inside which were two sheep and a bag of rice for another picnic) high into the Hindu Kush, winding through an indescribable landscape, thinking, “If I have to go, let me go now. Let me breathe in this beauty and go.”’

  ‘I don’t think it’s possible to travel like that any longer,’ I say, sensing the losses beyond the ruined building.

  ‘I was lucky,’ she tells me. ‘I was the right age at the right time.’

  When student unrest closed the university, she came here to the museum. The Peace Corps conjured up a salary and Carla chose to start at the bottom, in the toilets which hadn’t been cleaned for twenty-eight years, armed with her Swiss Army knife, a hammer and boiling water. Every few hours, she reported to the director on her progress, digging back – as she put it – through the Islamic Age, into the Bactrian century, toward the Bronze Age. When she completed the work, he proposed mounting a plaque on the wall. ‘This site excavated by Miss Carla Grissmann.’

  Her days at the museum were the happiest of her life. But her paradise became a war zone with the bloody, 1978 pro-Moscow coup. She refused to leave Kabul, even though battles rocked the country, and had to be tricked away to India.

  For the next twenty-five years, Carla divided her time between London, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, returning to Afghanistan whenever a visa could be obtained. She saw the museum building laid to waste during the civil war. She watched its staff scattered by savage misfortune. She witnessed the destruction and looting of 70 per cent of the collection. When, in 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul, they recognized the value of her experience. Carla was permitted to continue compiling an inventory of the remains of the collection, working amongst the rubble with neither electricity nor running water.

  Then, in August 2000, the moderate Mullah Hotaki proposed mounting an exhibition to mark the museum’s rudimentary reorganization. He invited fifty rural mullahs to the opening. The centrepiece of the show was a partially draped figure, an exquisite fourth-century painted clay Bodhisattva. Without warning, one of the mullahs spat at the Buddha. Then, like poison spreading from a wound, the other men started to beat the brittle clay with their bare hands.

  ‘That was where it started,’ Carla tells me, unable to keep the emotion out of her voice, ‘and we didn’t get the message. These semi-literate, provincial mullahs were only doing what they had been taught to do.’

  The Taliban believed that the depiction of living creatures promoted idolatry and was ‘un-Islamic’. The rural mullahs were hurried away to the next room but, six months after the incident, a high-ranking delegation led by Qadratullah Jamal, the Minister of Culture, arrived at the door with sledgehammers, axes and armed guards. Day after day for two months, they broke into tin trunks, opened packing cases, removed the carefully wrapped objects and smashed them. When they finished, they drove to Bamiyan to blow up the massive Buddhas. The world’s greatest collection of Central Asian artefacts became one of the great cultural tragedies.

  A sharp, shallow cough cuts short her story. In the half-light, she closes her hands around the shards of pottery in a protective reflex.

  ‘I can see the loss,’ I say. ‘I can try to describe it. I know the past is gone for ever. But to feel it…? The absence is almost too painful.’

  Carla does not hesitate to respond. ‘You must feel it,’ she says. ‘You must take it into your heart.’

  She lifts herself from the chair. I follow her sure step back down the forlorn hallway. The light from a broken window catches a fringe of fine silver hair beneath her headscarf.

  Around us work carpenters and plasterers, financed by the British Museum and UNESCO. The building can be restored but little can be done to rebuild the collection. Like the memories of earlier times, that which has been lost is gone for ever.

  In the foyer is a fifteenth-century black marble basin from Kandahar. On the wall hangs a twelfth-century calligraphic frieze from Laskhar Gah. Opposite it is a reconstructed mosque. ‘These were only left because of their Islamic phrases,’ says Carla, pointing at the script.

  Above a dozen empty stone plinths are pinned photographs clipped from a 1974 guidebook: the lost Kushan king, the pulverized Bodhisattva, the shattered Bagram ivories which had depicted swirling naked courtesans.

  ‘The delegation laughed like children as they smashed the statues,’ says Carla. She looks away and touches the corner of her eye. ‘The museum employees could do nothing but watch.’

  The loss didn’t end then. Not so long ago the museum’s main corridor was still lined with steel filing cabinets containing its collection of 40,000 coins, including some of the Mir Zakah hoard. All the coins, including many dating from the time of Alexander the Great, had now been looted.

  I should ask Carla about the staff members killed when a rocket blew away the museum’s top floor. Or the security guard shot dead by a looting warlord. Instead I see only the waste wielded by the men with axes, smashing millennia of history.

  ‘What happened to all the fragments?’

  Carla nods toward a double metal door. I push through it and into Basement Store No. 4. To my left, a wall of barred windows looks out over a wasteland, the former museum garden. To the right is a sight of equal devastation. The storeroom is filled with carved rubble on boxes, in crates, stacked up to the ceiling. Here is a broken stone finger, there a blinded eye, everywhere lie countless jagged stones.

  ‘They look for matching colour,’ she tells me, smiling sadly, holding two reunited pieces temporarily cemented together.

  ‘How many work here?’ I ask.

  ‘Four or five men,’ says Carla. ‘If they each find two matches a day they are happy.’

  There must be more than 100,000 shards of carved stone in Basement Store No. 4.

  ‘This room is Afghanistan’s history now.’

  Behind us, a French archaeologist picks through the pieces, sweeps back his hair, and says nothing. Nothing.

  Carla asks me for a drive back into town. She folds the veil around her head, as fastidious about her appearance as she was with the broken shards, and says goodbye to two old men in suits in an empty office. Ashaf opens the Datsun’s rear door for her. She perches on the seat beside me.

  ‘You said this is your last trip,’ I remind her as we drive away from the City of Peace.

  ‘I know that I could stay,’ she answers me. ‘I could get a grant and be useful at the museum. The younger staff have only ever known a ruined building without electricity. That’s why I gave them all copies of the museum guidebook. But…’ Another cough leaves the sentence unfinished. She sits in silence for a moment. Then she says, ‘I weep for the Kabul I knew and loved.’

  On the pavement, a veteran in a wheelchair combs a cowlick of black hair out of his eyes. A scrawny boy yanks on the lever of a hand-pump. A woman’s burqua balloons in the breeze of a passing truck.

  As we near the martyr’s shrine on Char-i-Shahid, Carla asks to stop at the ‘English’ cemetery, established in the 1880s for the British dead of the second Anglo-Afghan war. A heavy wooden door opens through its high wall. In the wide, cloistered space are about two hundred graves to adventurers, soldiers and diplomats. Here lies Zou Xing Zhi of the Chinese Embassy and the Henley family who died in a road accident on the Salang Pass in 1969. On the west wall are recent memorials to British, German and Italian ISAF casualties. The flowers are still fresh on the grave of aid worker Bettina Goislard.

  ‘We used to eat wild rhubarb boiled with chunks of potatoes, served with salt and pepper,’ says Carla, walking along a path of white marble chips lined by pines. ‘And fresh radishes, sold braided like a string of garlic. And melons, dear God, the melons. Babur wrote about them, deep and heavy and spilling their juice. I used to sit on my rooftop in the evening and hear flutes playing.’ The intensity of memory animates her and sets off the cough again. When she catches her breath, she looks at me, at once sad and accepting, and says, ‘Then, last month on the UN flight, I
realized I didn’t recognize a soul. It’s another world now.’

  It is the time of afternoon prayers, and the light has taken on an unexpected, golden beauty. Carla moves along a line of graves, her fingers lightly tapping each stone. Mark Aurel Stein. Frederick Mewgard. 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment. She gestures for me to follow her to a long row of wooden crosses, some of them without names, along the back wall of the cemetery.

  ‘In 1971, coming home from a picnic, I met a young Englishman on the bus,’ she remembers, stopping by a forlorn grave. ‘He was very ill and I took him to the hospital. He died and the doctors asked me to call his parents. They said, “You’ve been to England. You must know where they live.” But the hospital didn’t even know his surname. They knew only that his name was John. He had sold his passport. His identity.’ She turns to look at me. ‘Why did he come here to die at the end of the road in anonymity?’

  ‘To catch a glimpse of his paradise?’ I say.

  ‘Lost souls,’ she says, looking over the sixties graves toward those of the murdered aid workers. ‘Like the lost souls of the terrorist movement today.’

  At nightfall I walk along broken streets back to the hotel. The only light comes from passing cars, kicking up dust, illuminating the pot-holes, and from the hissing glow of gas lamps burning above fruit stalls. In bakeries hunched men slap long rafts of na’an into pit ovens. A teenage trader sits at his roadside desk, empty but for stacks of mobile-phone cards at his right hand and US dollars on his left.

  At nine o’clock, the city, which resonated all day with the sound of bicycle bells and grinding gears, falls silent. The streets become deserted. Even though the Taliban’s nightly curfew has been lifted, old habits die hard.

  I climb up to the roof of the Mustapha, balancing a tea glass on my notebook, to write under the stars. Around me Kabul appears enchanted; silhouetted houses stepping above the black fastness of the rock, free of dirt, flies, death. I will the clocks to stand still for a minute, to be frozen in time, to let me capture the moment. Of course the vision is a fancy, an evasion of all that wounds and defeats us in daily life. I reach for my pen to put the thought into words when a trembling seizes me, thinking of the real darkness that will descend again on Kabul in the light of morning.

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