Mazar-e-Sharif Afghanistan


Sacred shrines – Ancient settlements

[Photo right: Shrine of Hazrat Ali, one of the Islamic world’s most sacred buildings and Mazar-e-Sharif’s number one attraction.]

Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan and some 400 kilometers northwest of Kabul, is the nation’s second largest city and is in better shape than much of the country as it managed to avoid most of the war, existing as an autonomous region until the late 1990s. Getting there by road involves a trip over the Salang Pass (3,363 meters) and through the mile and a half-long Salang Tunnel (opened 1964) which is preceded by another three miles of mini-tunnels (basically half-tunnels designed to keep snow and rocks and other things off the road).

Departure for Mazar-e-Sharif was again at another insane hour which we learned was twice as insane because we couldn’t get to where we wanted when we wanted. Farid and I took two seats in a car that wasn’t an official taxi but seemed like a safe bet, safe being a relative and sometimes broadly defined term. There was the driver, Bobei, and two young guys going to some town about half an hour east of Mazar. The drive out of Kabul is on an excellent road, but as soon as we began climbing into the mountains the condition rapidly deteriorated. Potholes, bomb craters, blown-up bridges, rocks, overturned tanks and mine fields lined the way.

We reached the bottom of the Salang Pass at 9:15 am to find a line of parked cars. Turns out there was daily construction on the tunnel and the road was closed on both sides from about 8 am until somewhere between 5 and 7 pm! We were going to have sit here all day and then finish the trip in the dark!

Bobei the driver went off to hassle with the police, determined to find a way around this mess, while the rest of us hung out in a field with dozens of other travelers. In the middle of the field sits a UN-built school. Okay, it’s a tent, but the kids all carry UN book bags. I had previously noticed that one of the UN contributions to the education of Afghan children is to supply them all with book bags that bear the UN logo. I wonder how much the bags cost… and I wonder what the teachers’ salaries budget is?

I was, no surprise, the only foreigner around so I attracted a lot of attention. Of the numerous individuals who came and went, two people, strangers to each other, merit a little discussion. One spoke some English, the other did not. The one who spoke English was a young man with a decent position with one of the larger NGOs. He wasted little time in commencing a lecture to me on Islam versus Christianity (never mind that I’m not a Christian), morality, east vs west, culture clashes, and the more he spoke the more he came across as an extremely narrow minded individual. For the benefit of the other people observing this conversation, Farid translated some of this young man’s ramblings back into Dari. Things got more interesting when Farid translated to Dari the young man’s assertion that Christianity was a nonsensical religion because Christians worship Santa Claus. It took myself, Farid, and several more knowledgeable Afghans to explain to this guy that Santa Claus was Finnish folklore popularized over the past two hundred years or so in western societies and had nothing to do with Christianity other than the fact that it is connected with a Christian holiday. Having been prejudged that as a westerner I must be a Christian who looked down on Islam and Muslims didn’t sit well with me but fortunately from having already had conversations with several other locals about my own beliefs on religion, cultures, etc I had a few allies and I only had to sit back and smile while several of the Afghans put this young man in his place for me.

One of my allies, and is the other individual I referred to in the previous paragraph is a mullah. This man of about 60, at first only observed me, then realizing I had a translator began to ask questions of me through Farid. The basic questions, having been asked of me dozens of times already were done without my involvement but, the conversation then got around to my religious views, my views of the Afghan people, of aid agencies, the international military presence, and so forth. And I can say I made a new friend.

In the true spirit of Islam, he respected the somewhat odd synthesis of Buddhism and Islam that comprise my core beliefs, seemingly quite appreciative of some of the Islamic elements that make up my own unique brand of faith. He was also one more in a long line of Afghans who would like the aid agencies and military to either do something more useful or go home. He was instrumental in humbling the arrogant NGO worker, and told me in so many words what he really thought of him, and as several other Afghans had joined in, the young guy had already disappeared. The mullah soon left, departing with the comment that he was thankful for having met me and that our conversation had improved his opinion of westerners. He had the same effect on me in raising my own opinion of conservative Islamic mullahs.

At about 1:30 pm, just as the field had filled with locals taking afternoon prayers, our other two passengers came running towards us – we were leaving NOW! There was a man with a very sick son who needed to get this child to a doctor in the town of Pol-e Khomri, an hour or two the other side of the Salang Pass. Bobei had managed to make himself the ambulance.

Before the gate could be lifted to allow our passage, a sizable and not very happy crowd encircled the car. I wasn’t at all comfortable with this situation, having dozens of sets of eyes peering in at us, “how come you get to go…”, but before anything could turn ugly, the gate was lifted, and Bobei leaned on his horn and pushed his way through the crowd. Bobei and the other two passengers celebrated by smoking some hash. THC and I don’t agree so I declined to join, but it smelled good. I asked how it was we got to be the lucky car to transport this man and his child when there were dozens of vehicles waiting. Bobei didn’t speak much English but he knew a few words and when Farid translated my question, he said with a wide grin, “Bribe! Bribe!”

Halfway to the top of the pass we were stopped by a soldier who was quite intent not to let us go any further for any reason. The tunnel was closed and that was that. Turn around and go back. There was a lot of pleading, most notably from the sick boy’s father, all to no avail. As the soldier was getting more impatient with our lack of rearward progress the man’s superior came out from the post and approached the vehicle. Hearing that there was a sick child he took one look into the back seat at this kid (who really was in bad shape) and said, “I am a Muslim. I have a heart. Go.” As we pulled away I looked back and saw the two in a discussion of which I was glad not to be part of.

[Photo left: The Salang Pass shortly before the infamous Salang tunnel.]

We soon reached the Salang tunnel, which is a wretched excuse for a tunnel as there are no lights, no ventilation, and the road is riddled with potholes and parts of it are covered with ice. Going down the other side there is an especially high concentration of military hardware and mine fields.

Once off of the mountain, the road vastly improves and the scenery changes every so often, making this anything but a monotonous ride. Mazar-e-Sharif lies at an elevation of only 377 meters. But first we’d pass through a valley cut by a crystal clear river with some, albeit limited vegetation around it. This is then replaced with rolling hills and scrub grass, then a small stretch of land covered with red wildflowers that were gone but two days later. And in between were mine fields as well as the occasional group of nomadic herders with their tents, camels, sheep, and dogs. And I still haven’t figured out yet how they’re managing the land mine problem. We then traveled through a narrow canyon before coming out on the Mazar plane where a low mountain range lies to the south and Uzbekistan is off to the north.

I heard a lot of indigenous music of a variety of styles. There was hardly a ride in any kind of vehicle where the driver didn’t play Afghan music. Sometimes it was pop music, sometimes traditional music. I recall being especially entranced by one cassette we were listening to along this latter part of the trip. Farid explained that it was traditional music of northern Afghanistan, though borrowing of course, from other regional styles. Highly percussive and highly improvisational, a singer, often a preteen boy, sings poetry to an only loosely defined melody which the band is quite at liberty to alter as they like. An individual song can be four minutes one day and twenty the next. It quite fit the mood – hearing this music on what was in fact a pretty good auto sound system, driving through the heartland of Afghanistan to the views of rocky outcroppings, nomads on camels, overturned rusted tank shells, whatever element of the Afghan landscape was at hand, it worked the mood.

The other two passengers got out at a town about half an hour before Mazar-e-Sharif. On the way to Mazar, Bobei suggested that we’d need a car to visit Balkh, the town twenty klicks west of Mazar and home to most of the historic sights in the area. Seeing as Bobei was a driver, had a car, and lived in Balkh he further suggested he was a logical choice. Hard to argue with that logic. We reached Mazar just after sunset and headed for the Aamo Hotel, one of the few lodging options in town. Bobei left us there agreeing to return in the morning. Bobei was, so far, a likable, spunky guy. He drove a little too fast sometimes, but I had traveled with worse.

$10, a rate that still took a bit of bargaining, got us a dingy room with a bathroom down the hall (no running water). At the Aamo, $20 will get you your own bathroom though I don’t imagine the room would be much better. We were anticipating a rare change in food from kebabs! pulao! bread! as there’s a local sort of Uzbek dish called mantu, which is a ravioli dish. But they didn’t have any that evening, so dinner was another meal of kebabs! pulao! bread! My approximate twentieth consecutive meal of this sort.

The main attraction of Mazar-e-Sharif is the Shrine of Hazrat Ali which sits in a large square in the center of town. Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, and founder of the Shi’a branch of Islam, assassinated in 661 AD, may or may not be buried here, most would say he is buried at Kufa, Iraq, near Baghdad. However there is a legend that says his body was transferred away from that location via camel and it was here, in present day Mazar-e-Sharif, where the camel dropped dead and the body buried. The site is so sacred that all pigeons that come to reside near the shrine will turn white within 40 days. Seeing as the hundreds of pigeons are indeed white except for a few new arrivals still in transition that display only a small amount of coloration, I’d like to see someone come up with a better explanation for the white doves of Mazar.

After the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, most of the other area attractions are in Balkh where civilization dates back several thousand years.

[Photo right: kid seen wandering around the ancient walls of Balkh]

Bobei picked us up on time and raced back to Balkh. First stop was the ancient walls. Scattered around the area are the remains of the old city’s walls. There’s not much of them left, they are now but tall mounds across the countryside, but they stretch on for a few kilometers and the fact that they are still here is impressive in itself.

Next up, The Shrine of Khwaja Parsa, a theologian from Herat who died in Balkh in 1460. Located in the same Central Park as the Shrine of Khwaja Parsa is the Tomb of Rabi’a Balkhi, a 9th century poetess who, as legend has it, had an illicit love affair with her brother’s slave. Finding out of this, the brother killed the slave and Rabi’a Balkhi slashed her own wrists, committing suicide.

[Photo below: inside the Tomb of Rabi’a Balkhi]

Rabi’a Balkhi wrote Love’s Web (an obvious liberal translation seeing as the rhyming scheme is in English and not 9th century Dari):

I am caught in Love’s web so deceitful
None of my endeavors turn fruitful.
I knew not when I rode the high-blooded stead
The harder I pulled its reins the less it would heed.
Love is an ocean with such a vast space
No wise man can swim it in any place.
A true lover should be faithful till the end
And face life’s reprobated trend.
When you see things hideous, fancy them neat,
Eat poison, but taste sugar sweet

In pre-Taliban days young women would come to the site to seek help in their own personal affairs. I have no idea if this tradition survived the war and Taliban years.

We visited a couple of other small masjids and shrines the names of which escape me and none was particularly memorable. At one, a number of children walked in the shade of some trees, picking berries and humoring themselves. A foreigner was certainly a source of humor, at least until I pulled out a camera. The kids, mostly girls, shrieked and ran off to the safety of another stand of trees some fifty meters away. A man of about fifty with a long thick beard walked over and began talking with Farid. As soon as the man learned I was a writer – grand prize if you can guess what he said… “Where’s all the aid we were promised!!! Look at these kids,” he said, “running around like wild animals, yelling, running away from foreigners. They need a school! Where’s the school we’re supposed to have?”

In this part of Balkh there is no school for these kids. This man, who is some kind of village elder was very upset at the lack of a school he felt was owed this village. “And what about restoration? This is supposed to be a famous historical area, look at these places. Terrible condition.” So there you have it, one more in a long line of disgruntled Afghans dissatisfied with the international aid community. Are you listening? Balkh needs a school. Wild animals disguised as children are running amok.

He then spent fifteen minutes coaxing the kids (who have no school!!) to come pose for some photos thinking that maybe if he got the kids (who have no school!!) together and I took their photo maybe somebody would pay attention and see that this area of Balkh gets a school, “so the kids won’t run around like wild animals”. So here they are:

Wild animals” in need of a school!

The village elder who spoke to me is on the far right. He is also pictured below. The girl in the picture next to him is his daughter.

We then visited the Masjid-i-No Gumbad aka Masjid-i-Haji Piyada, reportedly the oldest known Islamic structure in Afghanistan, dating to the early 9th century. There’s not much of this small masjid now, just a few pillars and a recently constructed metal roof to keep off the elements. A very ornery mule stood tethered to a pole near the entrance whose protest at our arrival was one of the most hostile receptions I was to receive in Afghanistan. I think the mule was al-Qaeda and I’ve considered alerting the US embassy to issue an advisory concerning travel to Balkh due to reports of terrorist mule activity.

[Photo left: Ruins of the Masjid-i-No Gumbad.]

Bobei treated us to lunch at his house and it was a proper meal of mantu, which along with the dinner that was to come later, was my only break in twelve days from kebabs! pulao! bread! Bobei’s family includes three kids, two boys and a girl, a wife who avoided us, and a grandmother who entered the room a couple of times and eyed me rather suspiciously each of those times.

Like a good host, Bobei cranked up the generator so we could watch videos, in this case Iranian music videos that originate from the United States and break all rules concerning appropriate female dress. Apparently these things are quite popular.

[Photo right: A peak inside public transport, Balkh.]

Bobei returned us to Mazar. He was going to return to Kabul the following day and did we want to be passengers? Well, he had gotten us this far alive, so why not? Given the day-long closings of the Salang Tunnel, he wouldn’t bother arriving until one pm.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Mazar-e-Sharif. It’s a bustling little town and one place you don’t see bullet holes and shell damage on every building. Actually, you don’t see any at all. But there are still the requisite pieces of military hardware lining the road between Mazar and Balkh.

The Shrine of Hazrat Ali is in a large park in the center of Mazar-e-Sharif surrounded by bustling city streets. After walking the full circumference we entered the park encountering what was to be the heaviest concentration of beggars I would see anywhere in Afghanistan. Farid had a tendency to give money to almost every beggar he met. Noble, I suppose, but not something I support, but it was his decision so I saw no reason to say anything about it. Until here. Most of the beggars here were not Afghan but members of a Pakistani tribe called the Qual. [Note: Farid provided this spelling and searching this name on Google as well as several spelling variations brought up nothing, so I can’t be positive I have this name correct.]

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and avoid making sweeping generalizations, especially negative ones, on a group of people, but these Qual are about the most miserable, nastiest flotsam I have ever met. No sooner had Farid handed out one small Afghani note that a whole flock of beggars came (which is to be expected) but did they stand still with their hands out? No, they began grabbing at Farid and trying to grab the cash out of his hand and showed no appreciation for the charity they were given. I can accept this behavior in one or two individuals but this was characteristic of all of them. I did finally convince Farid to maybe just this once, withhold charity a bit and he agreed.

The following morning we were purchasing some nuts when several of these Qual women approached us. That we didn’t immediately hand them money didn’t sit well with them and one of the women started cursing us. The nut seller, an elderly Afghan man began cursing back at her and Farid followed and several other Afghan men in attendance joined in. Once the woman and her followers disappeared, no easy feat, Farid told me that the woman had said to him, “First you clean the Taliban’s dicks, now you clean the foreigners’ dicks.” The nut seller then jumped in with a retort that said in essence that the woman should be grateful to be allowed to stay in Afghanistan, if she doesn’t like it, she can go back to Pakistan, and who is she to be behaving this way and giving the Afghan people a bad name in the eyes of their guests (me). Several others were echoing similar statements that all said in essence, “Piss off all of you crazy women!” Farid added these women were notorious for engaging Afghans in public arguments, walking away and bashing themselves in the head with a rock, and then filing an assault complaint with the local police. Whatever. From what little I saw of them, they were quite miserable to be near and I can see why they aren’t very popular with the Afghans.

Anyway, that’s enough on the Qual. If you’re in Mazar you’ll recognize them by their more Indian features, colorful albeit dirty clothing, and that none cover their faces. The few Qual who don’t beg can be seen selling bracelets on the sidewalk, but most do beg and they can be extremely aggressive. They would probably rob you of anything they could get their hands on (I was warned to be extra careful of my belongings when they were around) given the opportunity. In a way, it seemed unfortunate and even contradictory that they should be so plentiful around such a sacred place as the Shrine of Hazrat Ali .

The shrine is at times only open for women and this afternoon was such a time so I’d have to return in the morning if I was going to get inside. I did get inside the next morning, relieved that I wasn’t charged the $5 foreigner fee that is capriciously levied on foreigners, but it was a short visit. Within a few minutes of my entry they began chasing all the men out of the complex – it was women’s time again and would be so for the remainder of the morning.

Bobei came to pick us up at 1 pm and then scooped up two more passengers before we hit the road. All was fine until we reached the Salang Pass around 5:30 pm. It wasn’t open yet. Fortunately it was a short wait, as it did open around six pm but it took awhile to get through as there was a huge crush of vehicles creating a completely disorganized queue which took about forty minutes for us to get through and Bobei, the aggressive driver that he is pushed his way through better than most.

Once through the gate we began our climb up the pass encountering both a setting sun and dense fog. Hmm, dense fog at dusk on a high mountain road with no guardrails and mine fields up to the edge of the road – Bobei, slow down please. And he did, to a point. It seemed so simple to the rest of us. Get behind another vehicle and let them find the way. If they miss, well, better them than you. Selfish, sure, but we’re talking winding narrow mountain roads without guardrails. But Bobei just had to be first racing off into the darkness where one miss would have us over the edge crashing through mine fields.

Well, we did reach the tunnel alive, thankfully, but were then stuck in another large traffic jam. At several areas, due to snow and ice, traffic was reduced to a single lane. And seeing as the gates on each side of the pass are opened at the same time, guess what happens? You get gridlock in an unventilated tunnel! Fun. This took close to an hour to sort out and to my knowledge nobody succumbed to asphyxiation that night, at least none of us. At one of the logjams a van was balanced precariously on a sloping piece of ice at what, maybe a 30-35 degree angle? When we passed the vehicle, I was praying the thing wouldn’t fall, as apparently were the passengers inside, all jammed up against the opposite side of the vehicle. I wondered why nobody was bothering trying to help the van get off the ice?

Exiting the tunnel on the other end we had another surprise, snow! Bobei, slow down. But he had none of it and this already aggressive driver had gone through some kind of metamorphosis into an animal more wild than the children of Balkh. We broke free of the snow and fog zone rather quickly but Bobei began driving his car like he was racing it – literally, pushing the limits of the road, his skill, and the vehicle. He would race any vehicle that tried to pass him. He did a lot of insane things. Just think of something stupid you can do on a lousy mountain road at night and he did it.

Okay, we did make it to Kabul in one piece, though Bobei had fallen out of favor with all of his passengers and his usual extroverted self was now rather sullen, perhaps over the friendships his driving seemed to have lost. I don’t normally say things like this, but I seriously believe that this man is not going to be around to see his children grow up. I only hope the taxi is empty when it happens. The ride from the Salang Pass to Kabul was without a doubt the most dangerous ride I’ve taken in my life. And protests had no effect on the man. I suppose the Afghan passengers were leaving their fate to Allah so I did the same, sleeping the final hour and a half that came following our brief dinner stop, never knowing or wanting to know what road horrors I missed.

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