Fabled Kabul transcends its cruel history

In a nation where the majority of adults are illiterate, Shah Muhammad Rais understands the power of words. Wedged into the floor-to-ceiling shelves of his Shah M. Book Company's little and curious shop in downtown Kabul, there are enough volumes on Afghanistan's fabled capital city, its romanticized culture of proud warrior tribes, and its recent decades of conflict for a comprehensive library.

There are treatises on the fundamentalist Taliban regime that subjugated the nation before being ousted by U.S. forces in 2002. There are tomes on the poetic Dari language, on glazed ceramics and exquisite carpets, and there are glossy coffee-table books-chunky as paving slabs-by the likes of Steve McCurry. The National Geographic photographer's iconic, pre-Taliban portrait of a green-eyed Afghan teenager is considered by some to be the postmodern Mona Lisa. And there are piles of bandwagon paperbacks rush-released in recent years. Afghanistan: Unveiled chafes against Afghanistan: Lifting the Veil, which rubs up to Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan, et cetera, et cetera.

Published in 1972, when cheap hashish made the oasis city an essential breather on the hippy overland trail, the nostalgic An Historical Guide to Kabul is essential reading. Writer Nancy Hatch Dupree's sparkling account tells of music and dancing and rooftop supper clubs. It recalls Ariana Afghan Airlines flights from Paris and Rome to "a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars, of wide avenues filled with colourful flowing turbans, gaily striped chapans (cloaks), mini-skirted schoolgirls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic". And it makes you want to cry for missing the party.

Traffic has returned. It rarely whizzes. Some avenues are wide, yes. All are rutted, potholed, lined by open sewers, and gridlocked with clapped-out Corollas imported from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, the occasional donkey-drawn cart overloaded with crates of Pepsi and Pringles, and shimmering-new Landcruisers favoured by personnel from hundreds of aid groups. Wry locals snigger at the tinted-windowed vehicles as expensive, gas-guzzling "bullet magnets".

Bruise-eyed street urchins flit between cars to punt the Kabul Weekly for an American dollar, though the cover price is just five Afghanis, or 10 cents.

Most of the kids are orphans and, like many Afghans, are strikingly good looking. Historians believe troops of Alexander the Great of Macedonia-who conquered the region in the fourth century BC-dipped into the local gene pool of tribal Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmens, Nuristanis, and more.

It's common to meet Afghans with pale and blazing eyes, aquiline noses, and fair skins.

Though pictures of scantily clad Bollywood starlets decorate shop windows, there are no miniskirts on Kabul's streets. Women still cover up in public, and far more blue-shrouded, ghostlike figures glide through the city than the "unveiled" literary set cares to admit. Even female beggars plying Chicken Street-original hangout of 1970s travellers-don head-to-toe burqas. Their birdlike calls for "baksheesh" strain through the billowing garments' dehumanizing facial grills.

Chicken Street has regained much of its freewheeling charm, however, and it is lined with ramshackle shops selling lapis lazuli chess sets, muskets inlaid with mother of pearl, and embroidered sheepskin coats (think Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin). Flat, woollen pakol hats-as worn by the "Lion of Panjshir", Ahmed Shah Massoud, who led guerrillas against the Taliban before he became the victim of suicide bombers just days before the 9/11 attacks on New York-are big sellers at US$10 for four. Massoud is revered in modern Kabul, and portraits of the iconic general, looking part Che Guevara, part Bob Marley, hang from municipal buildings and rear-view mirrors all over town.

"Cities like Kabul change a little every day," Dupree wrote back in 1972, when visitors would spend entire days lazing in Chicken Street's steamy teashops. Today, Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide, the first guidebook to the capital in more than 20 years, advises that visitors should not linger due to potential attacks in an area where US$30 "silk" rugs feature tanks, AK-47s, fighter jets, and grenades, with "War on Terror" and "Rout of Taliban" woven into the pattern.

Dupree, of course, could never have imagined the extreme changes that enchanting Kabul would later suffer with 23 years of conflict, starting when occupying Soviet tanks rumbled into the Hindu Kush in 1979, and continuing through a blood-soaked civil war and the wanton destruction by the medieval, black-turbaned Talibs.

Even as their bustling city continues to suffer, hospitality to outsiders comes as naturally to the average Kabuli as breathing dusty air. Gary Jones photo.

Even as their bustling city continues to suffer, hospitality to outsiders comes as naturally to the average Kabuli as breathing dusty air. Gary Jones photo.

In Rais's shop there are books on Greco-Buddhist relics from the days of Alexander, taken from the National Museum and destroyed by the Taliban as idolatrous. It displays tracts on the cultivation of traditional Afghan gardens, once legendary for their fragrant rose beds. Dupree's guide describes terraced Bagh-e-Babur Garden, named after the first Moghul emperor, who established a kingdom in Afghanistan in 1504. There, "a profusion of sweet smelling wild rose, jasmine, and other fragrant shrubs cover the mountain side". During the civil war, opposing warlords controlled high ground surrounding the garden. Trees escaping destruction were chopped down for firewood.

If history has not been kind to Kabul, however, geography has been generous. The winding road up to ravaged King Nadir Shah's Mausoleum, its catacombs offering final resting places for 19th- and 20th-century Afghan monarchs, is flanked by skeletal remains of DC-10s ripped in half by mortar shells. But the view from the top is magnificent, revealing a sprawling, ochre-hued city ringed by mountains craggy and lavender-tinged at Kabul's perimeter, and towering, truly imposing, and snow-dusted to the distant west and north.

From this optimistic vantage point, high above the choking dust and traffic, a soccer match is underway in the sports stadium where the Taliban held public executions. Laughing children skip across wasteland once riddled with landmines, and hundreds of colourful kites swoop across a picture-postcard backdrop. Under the killjoy Talibs, kite-flying, along with dancing, music, movies, and TV, was illegal.

Though there are still genuine dangers in visiting Afghanistan, and the pace of Kabul's revitalization as an intrepid destination is dawdling, it is underway. The city's golf course, established in 1967, has reopened. The Hyatt chain has broken ground on a five-star hotel set to open in 2007. And although newspapers report bombings and kidnappings, hospitality to outsiders comes as naturally to the average Kabuli as breathing dusty air. In short, in this city of massive change, we should not believe every?thing we read.

Book-loving Rais would agree. He was given the fictional pseudo?nym Sultan Khan in Asne Seierstad's international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, and he furiously claims the "low and salacious" book defames and completely misunderstands his brutalized country and its complex and tradition-bound culture. The Bookseller is, ironically, the only publication about Afghanistan that will never grace the Shah M. Book Company's busy shelves.

This article does not encourage immediate travel to Kabul. It recalls the city's history as a unique travel destination, and considers its potential for the future. At the time of writing, Foreign Affairs Canada advises Canadians not to visit the country. You can find out more at www.voy age.gc.ca/ under "travel reports".