The Texture of Time

Original text & photos appeared in HALI 93, © 1997

Tom Cole, an "old Afghan hand", returned to Mazar-i Sharif in Afghanistan's northern province of Balkh during early spring 1997, little realizing how brief the window of opportunity for such a visit was to be. He reports for HALI on some of the realities in a much-beloved land that for almost two decades has endured the tribulations of revolution, invasion and civil war.

The idea of returning to Afghanistan came to me suddenly, with no time given to contemplation or trepidation. It was ten years since I had been to Kabul, then controlled by the Afghan communists, while their Soviet masters wreaked havoc throughout the country, destroying an ancient culture and lifestyle which, for all the harsh realities of environment and traditional abuse of power in Central Asia, was not entirely uncomfortable. It was a land that gave so much to its people.

My plan was to go to Mazar-i Sharif in the northern sector controlled by the Uzbek warlord, General Rashid Dostum. It had been a full nineteen years since I had visited the north. How much had things changed? What could be found in an area now visited by few Western rug and textile dealers?

Flights went from Peshawar to Mazar on what my Uzbek friend Mohammed Khalid called "Dostum's planes". Balkh Airlines had no association with any of the travel agencies in Peshawar, so I ventured across town to the new city where I spent some time trying to locate the "airline office". After being repeatedly misdirected, I finally stumbled upon it in the building housing the local office of the premier national newspaper, The Muslim. Two Pakistanis manned a bare desk with two chairs for visitors: no travel posters, no airline brochures with flight schedules, and no Afghans in sight. They assured me a ticket could be purchased without a problem. No one seemed interested whether I held a valid visa or by which of the authorities claiming to represent Afghanistan it had been issued.
No one enquired about my reasons for going. No one cared about anything, just the money. I left with a ticket of sorts in my

hand -- three pieces of paper cut into the size of a ticket and stapled together -- and high hopes for the coming week. Checking in at Peshawar airport (after my "scheduled" flight had been delayed for a week) was bizarre. I had requested an aisle seat but, without explanation, was told that all seats were aisle seats, and that this would be a flight I would never forget. The plane was a converted Russian military transport with benches on either side and luggage stacked in the middle, unconstrained. We piled in, as if boarding a country bus; I was seated shoulder to shoulder with Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras and Farsiwans (Tajiks), the principal inhabitants of Balkh Province. The usual admonitions about seat belts and hand luggage were distant memories as the pilot revved the propellers and we took off into the azure sky. An Uzbek and his unshrouded wife clung to each other in fright, eyes rolling up, lips moving silently in prayer. Another Uzbek man constantly dabbed his brow with his unrolled turban, contorting his face in apprehension. A modern looking Farsiwan nervously tried to engage fellow travellers in light-hearted banter, though he was the only one laughing. Others feigned sleep. Life is notoriously cheap in Asia, but not to those who face the imminent prospect of losing it.

As we cleared the precipitous Hindu Kush, which had shielded the northern steppes from the Islamic fervor of the Kabul government, the relief was palpable, a reaction to our imminent arrival in Mazar, as well as to leaving behind the battle-scarred territory held by the Taliban, where most of the war has been conducted. Fear of heat-seeking SAMs lurked in the back of my mind, though I consoled myself with the knowledge that no planes had been lost on this flight route.

Mazar airport is small, close to the outskirts of the city. The military presence was unobtrusive: security was tight without being abrasive, an overriding theme of the laissez-faire (in Afghan terms) Dostum regime. Not once did I see aggressive action by soldiers at checkpoints outside the city, and there were none in Mazar itself. Nor did I see the young conscripts point a weapon at anyone or raise a voice, testimony to the manner in which the government had engaged the people's support.

Dostum had long held power in the north, first as a lackey of the communist puppet state in Kabul, later as a mutinous opponent of the ill-fated Najibullah regime and then as a self-anointed

warlord whose portrait adorned every public building, leaving no doubt that he considered himself to have an inalienable right to lead northern Afghanistan.

It all looked pretty much how I remembered it. Turkmen shepherds tended flocks of fat-tailed sheep; small camel trains ambled into the city loaded with fodder and wood. Signs of battle were limited to a few burned-out Russian tanks and armored personal carriers, left as reminders of the Soviet invasion. Close to the border with former USSR, Mazar never experienced the shelling and mass destruction of other Afghan cities and has always been a relatively secure place.

The Tomb of Ali in the center of Mazar-i-Sharif around which all life in the city revolves. The pavement glistens after a spring shower as clouds swirl through the sky.

Mazar is the site of the most revered Islamic shrine in Afghanistan, the Tomb of Ali around which the city is built. The Shrine dominates local life: pilgrims from all over the region traditionally pay homage here, hands raised in prayer as they converge from all directions.
Aged and handicapped mendicants, astrologers, purveyors of

medicinal herbs, as well as widows and orphans of the war throng the surrounding square. Oral historians animatedly recall the glories of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet for the illiterate masses. The fabled white pigeons thrive, nurtured by the faithful. Life has not changed here, on the surface everything is as it has always been.

A palm reader/fortune teller seated on the grounds surrounding the Tomb of Ali reads the Koran while awaiting a request for his services.

An oral historian recounts the glories of the past and the teachings of Mohammed the Prophet, on the grounds surrounding the holy Tomb of Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif. His white turban identifies him as a "haji" or one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mazar is full of refugees from other parts of the country, now most notably from Kabul. The rebellion in Tajikistan too has produced a sizable refugee population, but they are confined to UN agency camps on the northern outskirts.

I was told that the rug market had grown during the war. Before, most goods went directly to Kabul, but the influx of refugees and uncertain road conditions through the formidable Salang Pass have contributed to an expanded marketplace.

The main rug bazaar is adjacent to the Shrine, have contributed to an expanded marketplace. The main rug bazaar is adjacent to the Shrine, just east of the city center. I had been warned in Peshawar not to expect much in the way of carpets but the textiles were abundant and I soon found that my hopes for a good score would not come without relentless rummaging through the dusty piles. Only five stores out of perhaps forty prided themselves on dealing in old rugs.

The fabled white pigeons of Mazari-Sharif. It is said that if a gray pigeon should join the resident droves, it too will turn white in a short period of time.

A man seated in the doorway of a shop selling excavated artifacts. In the window hang beads unearthed and recently strung together. Also featured is Russian porcelain, including teapots, cups, bowls and saucers from the 'Gardener' production in Bukhara.

The prices asked by the diggers themselves preclude the idea that there must be bargains about. I was shown a rusty steel axe-head engraved with the profile of a lion for which its owner had paid $1,500 to the man who had actually taken it from the ground! I did manage to buy a small Seljuk gold ring, for a pittance really, considering its about seven hundred years old, but I was lucky. Some people are getting rich from this business, and the wealth still underground is astonishing.

It takes many forms, from antiquities to semi-precious and precious stones (agate, lapis, tourmaline and emeralds), natural gas, oil and other minerals. It is, of course, the gas and oil (not to mention uranium) which tempted the Soviets, as well as the dream of building a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to that coveted warm water port of the Arabian Sea. The "Great Game" goes on.

Incredibly, it is the United States that has in effect created the Taliban, providing ample money to buy loyalties in a push for total control of the various ethnic groups and their lands.

The war has become an essentially ethnic struggle with the Pashtun Taliban battling Farsiwans, Hazaras, Turkmen and Uzbeks. The stake in this game are high, alliances fickle, and loyalty is often paid to the highest bidder, as evidenced by the rapid chain of events which led to the fall of Dostum's regime a matter of weeks after my visit.

The north is a country all unto itself. Dostum printed his own money in Russia, mimicking the Kabul currency in appearance, even though there are no banks at all in the city. Rates on the private money market, housed in a new building known as the Kefeyat Market, fluctuated wildly depending on the proximity of the Taliban forces; he closer they got the higher it went. The rate had been as high as one lak (100,000) Afghanis to the dollar at open point. I caught it on the downside, a mere 56,500 Afs (Afghanis), but I was still a multi-millionaire; I could have lived

in Mazar for the next twenty years without a thought to earning money! But this was Dostum's money and one wondered on what it was based.

An Uzbek rug dealer in Mazar-i-Sharif

A member of the Hazara tribe, many of whom were persecuted mercilessly during the rule of the Taliban due to their fierce resistance.

Dollars were in high demand. In the parallel economy no Afghan currency is accepted for imported goods. If one wants a Japanese TV or a satellite dish made in either Iran or Pakistan (about 20% of the population of Mazar have these), or even a Japanese thermos, one pays in dollars. Afs are good only for food and other humble household necessities. There is a premium on dollars in small denominations: no one wants to accept Afs in change for a dollar purchase.

Telecommunications are handled through Uzbekistan and Russia. If one wants to call Mazar one must first dial the Russia country code, then the Moscow code, then the Uzbekistan country code and finally the four digit local number. And the connection is good! The Iranians have recently installed a new local phone system, but is far easier to make an international call than to dial across town.

Trade with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan flourishes and it is these traders, with their truck and transport businesses, who bring textiles and rugs to the Mazar marketplace. I had the good fortune to meet one of them, Habibullah Dost, who had established himself in Charjui in Turkmenistan. He remembered me from times past in Kabul and generously dined me in the evenings, offering Uzbek textiles and a few Tekke tent bags, through none were quite my taste. I bought a Lakai needlepoint from another dealer who had a shop in Dushanbe, a transport business and a suitcase of embroideries in hand. Oddly, the Kungrat style of Lakai embroidery is shunned by these Afghan dealers. Asking about such pieces, the invariable reply was that they knew what I was talking about, that such things are still available from the Lakai, but that they thought no one wanted them! The allure of silk is compelling and the Afghan traders could not understand why I would want to buy an "unrefined" woolen embroidery.

A rug merchant, a member of the Hazara tribe, dressed in 'shalwar kamees' more appropriate for residents of eastern Afghanistan or Pakistan. His clothes are made from a fine Japanese cotton material and he sports a 'karakul' or lambskin hat on his head.

Two young boys tend their father's antique shop in Mazar. Note the ikat which hangs from a stack of rugs behind them. The boy on the left is wearing an embroidered shirt from Kandahar.

My search for old rugs continued with more hope than success. Two Hazara brothers who manned an unassuming hole-in-the-wall shop invited me to their home to see the old rugs which they had been amassing for some years. Expectations ran high as we flagged a taxi. Their home was a traditional Afghan estate established by their grandfather some fifty years before, with beautiful gardens of almond trees intermingled with grapevines surrounded by high mud walls and the domed medieval roofs of neighboring houses.
The Hazara brothers told me that their uncle had a shop in Peshawar, as do all the other shopkeepers who deal in old rugs. They ship everything to Pakistan as soon as they get it,
thus accounting for the lack of anything good in the Mazar bazaar. Their uncle, though, has a shop selling new rugs. Those that I saw were being made for the Afghan market only: typical red rugs with fil poy (elephant foot) or octagonal gol designs filled the bazaars, as did new flatweaves. Many of these were made by the Farsiwan rather than the Turkmen master weavers of the area. Mazar is divided into neighborhoods, not strictly determined by ethnicity. Weaving of traditional "Afghan" red rugs also takes place in the predominantly Turkmen districts where the craftsmanship and wool is slightly better than the inferior product of their Tajik neighbours.

A fragmented 'Beshir' torba, cut to be used as an 'ok bosh'.

I did find an absolutely wonderful fragment of an Uzbek torba, cut and shaped for use as an ok bash. Their ambitious starting price was laughable, but it rapidly fell spectacularly to a more affordable rate. I paid happily and we headed back to the Shrine, sharing public transport with a few women and children.

Women walked freely in Mazar, either in full chador or completely unveiled, as they had been doing for many years.
Unveiled students from Balkh University strolled the dusty streets chatting, holding hands and laughing as young girls do everywhere, I walked around this great city, brandishing my camera and feeling perfectly relaxed. One woman wearing complete chador approached me, asking me in English to which country I belonged. I replied, she nodded approval and hurriedly rejoined her young daughter, excitedly relating her adventure

With the bazaar yielding so little of interest, I negotiated an excursion by taxi to Balkh, 18 kilometers west of Mazar, for 400,000 Afs. Balkh, ancient Bactria, the "Mother of All Cities", the seat of great empires including that of Alexander the Great, is now a tiny village with not much happening. Ruined walls surround it and the entrance is manned by malangs (itinerant Muslim mendicants) tending the tomb of Baba Koo Mustaan, a legendary saint in ancient Afghan history. To the rear of the city is another ruin, the remnants of city walls from the time of Genghis Khan. The Mongols overran Balkh and slaughtered every soul within: the bleached bones unbelievably still litter the ground. Reading the accounts of Balkh written by Elphinstone in 1815 and Vambery in 1863, it is clear not much has changed in two centuries

The beautiful ribbed dome of the mausoleum of Abu Nasr Parsa in Balkh dating to the 15th century, under renovation at the time I saw it in March, 1997.

The grave/tomb of Baba Koo Mustaan, the patron saint of 'charas' in Afghanistan. On Afghan New Year (March 21, the first day of spring), many people including even King Zahir Shah would regularly journey to Balkh and pay tribute to this legendary figure in Afghan history, then return to Mazar-i-Sharif to pray at the mosque. Surrounding the grave are dormant grape vines.

We left Balkh under a certain amount of duress. During a final commiseration with the malangs, while I observed them partaking in a holy sacrament, a notorious badmash (bandit) approached to get a closer view of us, perhaps intending to commit unspeakable depredations upon the strange foreign visitor. He was cautioned that I came as a journalist and guest of the Governor of Balkh Province. This was not entirely untrue as I had spoke with the Governor only minutes before, declining his generous offer of green tea and pilau. It was enough to send the badmash away in search of easier prey. I remained oblivious, immersed in Afghanistan of the distant past.

Returning to Mazar, we passed through a huge fort situated between the two towns. Its walls were built by the great Nader Shah in the mid 18th century when he to conquered this land. General Dostum's troops were firmly ensconced, and it seemed inconceivable that this would be the scene of the last great battle in the Taliban offensive to come. Sadly, as we go to press, that battle rages, much sooner than I had ever hoped or imagined.
Afghan hospitality is legendary and I fondly recall how generous, gracious and inquisitive the people were. The common person on the street was still able to smile as our eyes met. Young Afghan students who have only known war were anxious to practice their English; the young man at the desk of my hotel was honing his computer skills on a sophisticated laptop, navigating Windows 95, hoping to contribute to a brighter future for his country.

But the future is a mirage in shifting desert sands. The past is much more real, while the present is an incongruous source of unease and exhilaration. Vladimir Nabokov wrote of "the texture of time": returning to Afghanistan provided a remarkable demonstration of this graphic imagery for me, as the past and the present are so closely intermingled, with so little definition. As for the future, the Afghans will inevitably say that only Allah can know what will happen. Let us all hope that Allah is merciful and compassionate: these people deserve much better than they have had these past two decades.


Ostensibly the war against Osama and al Qaeda has freed Afghanistan from the grip of fundamentalism and the Taliban. In reality, it represents a return to what Afghanistan has always been, a lawless (free) land with a weak central government. The US presence must irk some, especially the Russians, but apparently the general loathing for outside involvement in the internal affairs of the government has been minimized by comparison with the awful state of affairs PRIOR to the US and allied occupation. Pockets of resistance remain, holed up in the mountainous terrain of east and southeast Afghanistan, the traditional sanctuary for these conservative, Pashtun elements.

But the Taliban rule proved to be anathema to the spirit of the Afghan people, even more so than the current occupation by coalition forces; that's how bad the Taliban were! Individual freedom is cherished by all Afghans and the Taliban edicts attempting to control the personal life of each and every Afghan, their calls for jihad and an insane attempt to revert to a stone age version of fundamentalist Islam were ultimately met with disbelief and repugnance. The struggle for peace continues, the political infighting for control of the spoils of war (natural resources, oil & gas pipelines, etc) persists, but the bloody battleground for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is hopefully over.

Original text & photos appeared in HALI 93, ©1997
All photos and text by Tom Cole, © 2003
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the author.
I also wish to thank the publishers of HALI for permission to reproduce this article on the site.

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