I am in Mazar. Again. The place where this whole Afghan journey really started for us. When we first came here to live, it was Taliban town, and it was harsh, simple and a lot of fun (if you like your fun harsh and simple). Much is barely recognisable these days. The airport where we used to drive out right to the plane, and wander about the runway, is a now a major military and commercial hub. Dozens of helicopters; a constant flow of planes; intrusive, invasive security; attitude thicker than month-old custard.
The drive into town is the same though: about as ugly an entrance to a town as you could get, through the metal workers, the truck yards, the gasoline tanks. And they chopped down all the lovely trees in Ferdosi park, to erect a concrete monument.
Several years ago, I took a photo of this scene below. As you can see, the street was still gravel. The sky was less crowded. Less buildings. Is this progress? Mazar has gotten a lot of trade through Uzbekistan and the Hairaton border, and it has made the town rich, but it has not made it beautiful.
It is still a friendly, open place. I spend a good few hours in the second hand bazaar, I walk all over the town. Getting out of Kabul reminds you that the ideal of the unveiled woman is still a long way off. Not that unveiling is the only indice of progress.
The modernising of the town, in contrast to the conservative gender status makes me reflect more on what progress, or development is here. I spend a while with a group of young people, and we talk about their dreams for this country. They are all based on images of Dubai. I try to explain the unsustainability of Dubai’s growth, that it is a mirage, a fiction. Afghanistan cannot become a Dubai, and should not try. Afghans must have their own dreams.
It occurs to me though, the possible meanness of what I am saying. On what can they base their dreams for this country? There are precious few current, positive narratives from which a vision of the future can be drawn. And realistically, aside from Europe, most countries are not strong on building a future from past cultural and social strengths.
Further on, I come to the men selling amulets, evil-eye tokens, fake fossils, broken pottery. I find one old man with a range of junky stuff, including a belt buckle that reads, ‘Wonderful Wyoming’. He is amenable to a photo and I explain that I want to tell stories of ordinary people, that too many stories are about the violence and chaos. He nods, and another man interjects: ‘We are Dari speakers here. Dari speakers equals peace. Not like the Pashtun speakers. Dari; peace.’
His words reflect a long antagonism between Pashtuns and the other ethnic groups, particularly keen here in the North where memories of the Taliban massacre of hundreds of Hazaras in 1998 are still strong. It was a hard time: intially, after an alliance, the warlord Dostum betrayed the incoming Taliban, and the local people turned on them, winning back the town. That was 1997. A year later, the Taliban were back, and they were merciless – as the Hazara and Tajiks and Uzbeks had been. The slaughtered lay in the street, and the Taliban forbade anyone from going to gather the dead, until they had rotted, or the dogs had eaten them. Such memories endure.