Images of beauty and despair

On the last day I am in Herat, we go out to Bagh-e Shaheed, the Garden of the Martyrs. The office is throwing a picnic for all the staff, and there are nearly 60 of us. The garden is built around a spring, and is filled with tall pines, mulberry, cypress and plane trees. New trees are also growing – mimosa and what they call Russian oaks. The spring has been funnelled into water canals, and these filter through the trees, irrigating the rose gardens. It is almost beautiful. Almost, because sadly, the canals are choked with wrappers, bottles, cans and the detritus of a thousand picnics.

Within a few minutes of arriving, carpets are spread, tea is poured, and card games start. The women gather in their own area, chatting and strolling. A colleague from the Mental Health Clinic has a wind-piano and plays melancholic tunes.

I sketch, walk about the gardens and enjoy the peace. To the edge of the gardens are some old ruins, which I am drawn to explore; but on arriving at the broken-down door, the ripe odour of turds strikes me. I retreat, abandoning my idea of discovering relics. Further up, near the mouth of the spring, men are gathering mulberries from the trees. These are the white mulberries – juicy,but not sweet.

Around the mouth of the spring has been built a kind of concrete wall, which I suppose is a hammam, for washing in prior to prayers. I look closer, and it is a hamman, and it is also something else: a series of latrines. This one is built so that a line of sitters can release themselves, directly into the clean, fast flowing water below.

Now this is just staggering. I understand people crapping in the ruins. I understand that in remote villages, people often defecate near water sources: they then use the water for cleaning. And I understand a child accidentally relieving themselves by a river, when he should know better.
But this effort here before me has been intentional, it is the deliberate expense of money and effort, to create well-built toilet facilities. It has required a real commitment, in fact, to not think about the consequences, for the latrines are right on the water source, not at the end, but at the mouth. You cannot not be aware of the reality that less than 50m downstream, men are washing in the water, rinsing their hair and their mouths, children are swimming, women are washing dishes: but you can, I suppose choose to ignore this. And this, in Herat, Afghanistan’s most cultured and educated city.

I ask the mulberry pickers who built the latrines, and they shrug. ‘But people are drinking this water. It is filthy – they are drinking what people have just made unclean’. Dari allows for quite delicate construction of such matters. The mulberry men shrug again, smiling at my anxieties. ‘The water is sweet’, one says. I throw off the delicate constructions. ‘Look – people have crapped here. This is shit-water. And they are drinking it. Who did such a thing? Why? Can you see this is wrong, is dangerous?’

One man has gone back to picking mulberries. The other looks at me, and grins. I am bemusing to him. ‘Afghanistan be-pursan ast’. ‘In Afghanistan, we don’t ask questions.’

I leave him, and walk back to our group, murmuring his response to myself. ‘In Afghanistan, we don’t ask questions’.

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3 thoughts on “Images of beauty and despair

  1. Hey mate, bloody horrible . . .but great to be reading your stuff. I’ve passed on your blog to a bunch of people of late (and have also linked you on mine). Back into the W Bank today but will email soon. love to you all, k

  2. Oof. I hear ya.

    “This is Afghanistan!”: the phrase that boils my blood these days, and it’s almost always used as some kind of magical, all-purpose explanation for the lack of concern for others, the lack of critical thinking, the lack of long-term planning…

    Yes, this is Afghanistan. Where no one asks questions.

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