Afghanistan 1976

The streets of Herat are full of smiles from men in waistcoats and turbans, the ends of which fall to the waist. The bearded stranger cannot see if the women are smiling: they are in full length chadors, with a gauze panel over their face. The streets are unsurfaced, full of dust, horse traps pelting down the road, their red tassels flying, and camels and donkeys going at a much slower pace carrying men and goods. Highly decorated lorries deliver goods to the mud-walled caravanserais, several-storeys high, at the back of the bazaar.

 

There are no pavements, but there’s lots of activity outside the wooden stalls and shops, some glass-fronted most not. Men squatting down and eating melon invite the stranger, with a simple hand-gesture, to join them; he smiles his thanks and is distracted by the street-barber who is shaving a client’s head, using mud in the absence of shaving cream. The next distraction is the bird shop, the occupants of tens of birdcages hanging on walls and metal hooks send out a blanket of noise onto the street while the butchers, displaying the heads and guts of recently-slaughtered animals, attract a blanket of flies.

The bearded stranger emerged into this daily life from a café, all windows and doors open to the streets but muggy from the intense heat. The back tables are lit with dim red lights and candles, and are populated by the hippies who crossed the border from Iran, have found their cheap dope and who decide, each day, that they don’t need to leave Herat. He walks past the mud-walled fort which sits on a rise in the centre of town; it’s appealingly decrepit, but the site has been a castle since the time of Alexander the Great. He wanders down some of the small back streets, lined with mud houses, children playing and turning to stare. He walks to the Mousallah, once a wonder of the Islamic world, a royal complex of which six minarets, now standing apart from any building, remain from the original twelve.  He is told about the old mosque with its famous pistachio tree: people stick a nail in the trunk to make a wish, and take it out when they are satisfied. It’s too far so he doesn’t go, but turns back to the shops.

 The Citadel in Herat

The Citadel in Herat

The shops sell everything, and much is being made on the premises. There’s an alley where men and boys are bent over copper, beating it into pans; there are craftsmen making intricate bracelets and setting stones in silver rings; leather-makers are softening their raw material, tooling it into vivid patterns and making it into boots and bags and clothes. The tile-maker tempts the stranger into the factory. Experts are engaged in the stages before decoration and firing. Some are melting down copper to get blue; others are cutting paper shapes and using the pattern to chisel out that shape on a tile; perhaps a flower, perhaps a geometric shape. The stranger doesn’t want to buy tiles but is happy to be tempted into other shops.

In a music shop the salesman plays a tambour for the stranger; he also sells antique pots and can label them as fake so they are allowed to be exported.  Shopkeepers offer tea but aren’t angry if there’s no purchase. They are persistent though. The stranger is moving down the street pricing leather bags, coloured woollen waistcoats, fur hats; soon he is followed by children, envoys from the shops, saying ‘yes mista, 130 Afghanis OK, mista?’ The prices are heavily reduced from the initial ask, down from 800. But then, back in the shop and glass of sweet tea in hand, the bag will cost another 170 if the stranger wants the leather properly oiled and polished. Surely he does?