Hitherward the Breeze
His eyes light up, as Atiq Ullah Ansari, rais or chief priest of Mazar-e-Sharif, is introduced to me by my guide. “Aap Hindi hain?” which means, “Are you from India?” Many Afghans speak a smattering of Urdu or Hindustani. He then embraces me with spontaneous warmth and leads me to his heavily carpeted room at one end of the mazar. He is a tall man with broad shoulders, trimmed beard and a waistcoat matching the light-blue turban. He gives the conversation an astonishing, non-theological twist. “Bada afsos hai aaj tak; Bismillah Khan guzar gaya bechara” (“My sorrow has not ended to this day; the great shehnai player Bismillah Khan is no more”). Some friends from the Indian consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif have sent him Bismillah’s latest collection. There are oases of Indian culture enthusiasts throughout Afghanistan. Filled with all the incantation of the Taliban’s excesses, this musical conversation is an indescribable relief. Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif are chalk and cheese.
American bases built by Kellogg Brown and Root and numerous other groups down the line sometimes leave five-star comforts in the shade. Long ago, in Haiti, I ate Alaska king crab, lobster, squid and the choicest cuts of meat from around the world. By those yardsticks, workers employed to build the US consulate in the heart of Mazar-e-Sharif are slumming it. At $88 per day, Renaissance is the fanciest hotel in the city. I have a room with a temperamental faucet, erratic hot-and-cold and a split air-conditioner which sounds like pebbles in a drum. But across the hallway, the consulate workers sleep peacefully, which is something I cannot say of my predicament in the hotel. Why? Being handymen and mechanics, they have fixed their own faucets, geysers and AC.
The menu of eggs, toast, chops, steak are drowned with beer, scotch, vodka or gin lined across a wall-to-wall bar. The barman, 30-year-old Raju from Nepal, is in desperate hunt for papers that would legalise his stay. Mike Grissin and Reaan Slabbert from the US and South Africa, supervising work at the consulate, have promised to help.
Who says folks are fleeing Afghanistan?
Fruits of Lament
The love-hate between Iranians and Afghans in the north, who speak Persian or Dari, derives from a civilisational overlap. It is not just an overlap, it is a jumble, threads in a knot. Mazar-e-Sharif with its exquisite blue-domed shrine to Hazrat Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, is the capital of the Balkh province. This is a contentious issue because, according to a majority of Muslims, Ali was buried in Najaf, Iraq. About 80 km to the north is the steady flowing Amu Darya, with a friendship bridge linking Afghanistan to Uzbekistan, not far from Ferghana where the first Mughal emperor Babar was born. The roads in any habitation from Mazar-e-Sharif to Amu Darya, lined with tarbooz and kharbooza, huge 10 to 15 kg oblong fruit, give clues to Babar’s lamentations. In Babarnama, he laments the things he missed in India. Somewhere at the top of the list are watermelons—sweetest in the world grown in the dry heat of Khorasan, overlapping Balkh, Uzbekistan and Iran.
The Rabia Folio
About 20 km from Mazar are the ancient ruins of Balkh, which evoke the sort of sentiment at the heart of Shelley’s masterpiece, Ozymandias (King of Kings), whose statue is now a lonesome wreck: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”. But the monotony of the wasteland which is Balkh is broken by an imposing monument which houses the 10th century grave of Rabia Balkhi, the first woman poet of modern Persian. Two things worth noting. The first woman “Persian” poet was born in Balkh, now in Afghanistan, a consequence of the usual civilisational overlap. Second, a great woman poet of such antiquity in the land where the Taliban are opposed to women’s education! Some day, in a distant future, Rabia Balkhi’s statue should be mounted on a mighty pedestal in Kabul.
Hooves on the Sand
Note these linkages. My guide in Balkh is a tall man of noble bearing, Shahrukh Mirza. He is a proud descendant of Timur, or Timur the Lame. Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamerlane the Great dwells on the poverty, bloodshed and desolation Timur left behind through most of Central Asia, Caucasus, Baghdad and India where he massacred at will and routed the Delhi Sultan, Mahmud Tughlaq, in 1398. Shahrukh, hospitable, helpful and warm, has no idea that his ancestry resonates with me differently. Which does not detract from the fact that in Shahrukh I have probably made a friend for life, such is his trust and affection.
An elderly Uzbek lady said to me with great innocence: “You are our brothers: after all, Babar was our king, he was also your king.” She had no idea about the impending storm around the Babri Masjid!