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Afghanistan before the Revolution, the Russians, the Wars and the Taliban

In the late Sixties and Seventies Afghanistan become a mecca for Western travellers. Traveller and rug hunter Tom Cole has spent many years wandering the East, taking pictures and recording his thoughts. 'Afghanistan before the Revolution' tells of a lost era, when Afghanistan was the cultural epicentre of Asia. In Part One of an ongoing photographic essay the author sets the scene and recalls the Friday afternoon dog fights which were once a weekly feature of life in Kabul.

Spring rains have nurtured the usually brown hills, turning them green for a few short weeks. This is a view of Sarobi, a small village located on the road between Kabul and Jalalabad. Spring is a traditional time of renewal, but never so evident as in Afghanistan where cold and bitter winters give way to a short, but pleasant spring season before the torrid heat blankets this mostly desert land during the stifling summer months. (Photo by Tom Cole) The village of Tashqurgan, just east of Mazar-I-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The peaceful village life was seriously disturbed by events subsequent to the overthrow of Daud and the establishment of a communist regime. (Photo by Tom Cole)

I first went to Afghanistan in 1970, as a young man taking a leave of absence from my university studies. While not immediately enthralled by the place, I was struck by the medieval quality of life there, as if time had stopped some 500 years before, and I, as a 20th century traveller, had stepped back in time.

Afghanistan existed in a time warp, a truly medieval culture steeped in the turbulent history at the fabled crossroads of Asia. Scythian culture had flourished here at an early date, to be later influenced by the Greek hordes of Alexander the Great and subsequently dominated by the Kushan Dynasty www.geocities.com/Athens/Atlantis/4128/, when Buddhism was introduced into this area. Until the Arab invasion in the 7th century CE, Buddhism reigned supreme giving rise to astonishing monuments such as those found in the city of Bamyan located in central Afghanistan.

I have commented elsewhere (Hali 93, pp.68ff.) on the fabulous wealth which lies beneath the ground of Afghanistan, preserved in varying states of decay – ancient cultures swept away by the sands of time, as well as by the bloody swords of invaders and other tumultuous events of history. In the 12th century Genghis Khan laid waste to vast areas of this country, killing countless people in the process. But through it all, the Afghan people managed to maintain a singular identity in spite of their ethnic and multi-cultural diversity. Over time a distinctly Afghan way of

life was forged, including a musical tradition which reached its zenith at the Mughal courts of Babur; classical Indian music as we recognise it today is directly descended from this tradition. In a sense, the Afghan identity was a unique blend of sophisticated Central Asian urban existence and a roughly hewn but highly developed tribal steppe culture. The wholesale destruction of the country by recent political events should not only be measured in wasted lives and economic ruination, but also in the extinction of a unique and isolated way of life, with which relatively few outsiders became intimate before it was swept away. But for those who had that opportunity, it cannot be forgotten.

Most casual observers regard the Communist coup in 1978 as marking the wrenching of this isolated land into the present, but actually events had spun out of control just five years earlier with the coup of 17 July 1973 and the overthrow of King Zahir Shah by his brother-in-law, Mohammed Daud. Daud assumed the presidency of the newly declared Republic of Afghanistan, while the beloved King vacationed in Italy, where he remains to this day. With the thinly veiled blessings of the Soviet government, Daud declared support for a greater Pashtunistan, a policy meant to incense the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government of Pakistan with the implied threat of further partition of that country; all this occurred on the heels of the 1971 Bangladesh war which had already seen Pakistan, a US ally, lose a huge amount of territory and material wealth.

The ruins of a lost city. Ruins like this as well as potential excavation sites dot the landscape of Afghanistan, testimony to the long history of this land locked desert region. (Photo courtesy of Afghanistan Online)

It was the Daud legacy which allowed the Soviet army and its "technicians and advisors" to establish a firm foothold in this tiny, land-locked country located at the crossroads of Asia, eventually contributing to the chaotic and calamitous events of the last 20 years. Soon after, Daud reasserted what has always been recognised as the independent Afghan mind, adopting a more lenient manner of government towards his people, but resisting the control of his Soviet masters. In 1976, with relaxed visa regulations, travellers flocked back to what had been a haven for young Westerners, and life and business in Afghanistan returning to some semblance of normality. It was at this time that many of the photographs in this first part of an ongoing essay were taken.

April 1978 marked the first Communist revolution, or Great Saur Revolution as it was known in Kabul. Despite the imprisonment of many Communist leaders in the armed forces, such as Mohammed Tarraki and Hafizullah Amin (both subsequent prime ministers), Daud was unable to impose his authority over Communist sympathisers in the Afghan Air Force, much of which had been trained in the Soviet Union. In the ensuing revolt, Tarraki and Amin were freed, the government was overthrown, and Daud killed. More than a political legacy was destroyed. Daud was actually a member of the royal family by marriage and, in a sense, his revolt was an internal palace affair.

The eventual attempt at .communisation of the independent people of Afghanistan resulted in a harsh polarisation of society, wreaking havoc on most Afghan lives and giving the opportunity for Islamic fundamentalism to rear its ugly head in a land unsuited and unused to this form of tyranny.

Now the land I knew lies in ruins, in both a figurative and literal sense. Not a life has gone untouched by the unimaginably violent struggle for political supremacy. Not a single family can claim to have gone unscathed; everyone has lost loved ones. The material culture of the land too has been tragically destroyed; the Kabul Museum housed some of the world's rarest and most beautiful art objects, primarily the products of sophisticated Buddhist cultures. Today the museum building is in ruins, its precious holdings smuggled across the porous border with Pakistan and sold in the bazaars of both Peshawar and Quetta. Shattered lives, shattered buildings, shattered bodies. Countless grave markers honour the shahid or martyred ones, as the Taliban attempt to restore their view of law and order in this rich land, relying upon the wrath of Allah to persuade the people to conform to their vision of a brave, new fundamentalist world.

The game of buzkashi, a traditional game played throughout Central Asia. Riders struggle to deposit the carcass of a dead goat into a goal at either end of a large open field. (Photo courtesy of Afghanistan Online)

Afghans enjoy all types of sporting events, an interest common among Central Asian steppe cultures. Everyone has heard of the famous game of buzkashi, immortalised in the James Michener novel, Caravans. It is the archetypal steppe game, a violent and dangerous enterprise undertaken on a special breed of horse somewhat akin to a polo pony. But their interest in sport extends beyond this classic game.

Fridays in Kabul were always special, marking the holy day of the week when businesses closed, families gathered for large meals and the men congregated on the outskirts at the road which runs to Paghman to watch the dog fights. In these photos are captured the joy of victory, the violence of the sport and the enthusiasm of the patrons and sponsors of the game.

The dogs, while not accorded the same sort of attention as their fabled steeds, were a source of pride among the Afghans as well as essential to the livelihood of the nomadic peoples. Used to protect flocks of sheep and goats, these animals were bred and trained to be both extremely aggressive and fiercely loyal. It was

natural that such confrontations should be arranged and they became a focal point for wagering large sums of money. These animals did not fight to the death – the value of the beasts was too great – but only until one showed no further heart for the fight and turned its tail in retreat.

Sadly, such events are now a thing of the past as the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government has banned just about everything the Afghan people considered pleasurable, such as buzkashi and even the music that was so dear to their hearts. One can see in these photographs the large and diverse crowd of people who enjoyed this spectacle, including army and police officials as well as the general public.

With this photographic essay I hope to remind those who know and inform those who do not about a lost Afghanistan. Throughout history this land has suffered terrible fates, and undoubtedly it will heal itself again, but only Allah knows how long that may take. In the meantime, savour these photographs of a world that has disappeared; I know I do.

The 'compere' of the fights (center) introduces the contestants and their owners to the gathered crowd. He may also provide gamblers with some historical information on the dog's form. (Photo by Tom Cole)

The crowd gathers in anxious expectation as a rather large dog is brought into the arena by his owner. Some of these dogs are massive, and this one is an especially strong looking animal. (Photo by Tom Cole)

Squatting comfortably on his haunches, a contestant waits for his turn to have his valuable beast compete. Another man inspects the dog, keeping his distance as these dogs are trained to be protective and will attack. Though not innately violent, these dogs are exhaustively trained to show unqualified loyalty to their owner. (Photo by Tom Cole)

Waiting their turn, a solitary man and his dog watch and wait patiently. (Photo by Tom Cole)

A proud owner parades his animal prior to the fight. Gaily adorned with festive woollen pom-poms, they await their chance to compete in the Friday fights, where much money is often wagered on the outcome. (Photo by Tom Cole)

The owner of one of the prized beasts exercises his dog. A game of tug of war strengthens the hound's jaws, preparing him for the test ahead. Note the multi-coloured woollen pom-poms which adorn the animal's neck. The Afghan penchant for dressing things up with colour in the midst of their harsh brown environs knows no bounds; even their ferocious beasts are not exempt. (Photo by Tom Cole)

The dogs are upright on their hind legs as the struggle begins. The men standing close by are their trainers, while rich owners lounge nearby, keeping a close eye on the proceedings. (Photo by Tom Cole)

Under the watchful of eye of the opposing trainers, one dog appears to be set to take an advantage. The thick coats of fur and tough skin protect these animals from the brutal mauling one might assume they suffer. Seldom did I see blood on these beasts but surely they felt pain, enough to surrender at some point in
the battle. (Photo by Tom Cole)

Joyous owners and trainers of a victorious beast carry the dog away from the field of battle, rejoicing in the hard fought victory. Needless to say, much of the joy is realised from the enormous sums of money which are accrued on the outcome of the fight. (Photo by Tom Cole)

Members of the gathered horde participate in the recreational use of charas during a break in the action. Charas, a derivative product of the hemp plant, was commonly used throughout Afghanistan but public consumption was frowned upon. The dog fights were the only occasion I ever saw men engaging in this practice in public, including army officers. (Photo by Tom Cole)
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. © 2003 Thomas Cole