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In the land of the Panjachinar

FOR a panic stricken moment, just before a short trip to Kabul, no book on Afghanistan comes to mind. Then suddenly, as the news spreads across the bookshelves, they stumble out, like old men being invited to visit a childhood haunt. From the back rows and from under forgotten piles, they emerge... Eric Newby, Robert Byron, Peter Levi, an old issue of National Geographic, and Babur himself. Eager companions on a flight over a hard-bitten landscape — brown plains, deep gorges, precipitous ranges covered with winter snows magically arranged by whimsical winds, narrow valleys with their hint of a river and that sign of human fortitude, a terraced field... .

The cold in Kabul is clean and crisp. It gets quickly to the bone. The leafless skeletons of poplars and panjachinars stretch thin arms towards the sky, blue for only a brief while and then white, indistinguishable almost from the snow on the hill beyond. The eye searches for a patch of colour, but it is rare.

A man in a blue overcoat and a grey fez, an odd picture of old world elegance against the gritty background of sentries, check posts and guard dogs, rushes home. A young girl waits in a deserted windy street, her black shawl bunched to her flushed face with her hands.

Lure of the land

All too soon the sun decides to pack in for the day. The mountains pull their white covers over themselves; the only sign of their existence are the occasional brown ghostly ridges, calligraphic forms written by a heavenly hand. The snow begins to fall and it falls all night. In the morning the large flakes have settled softly into the cradles of pine needles on the tree outside the window. Dried mulberry and soft walnuts are served besides blazing log fires. And as the warmth spreads, it's easy to understand the lure that this land has long held for explorers and travel writers.

A few were allowed to travel inside the country after the First World War. Among them was the National Geographic's Maynard Owen Williams, the man who had once visited the tomb of Tutankhamen. Restricted to a six-mile radius around Kabul, he was given special permission to visit Bamian and, engrossed in his photography, nearly fell off the brow of one of the now shattered Buddhas. Williams has left behind, in a 1946 article, memorable snapshots of a Kabul in 1941 where even the prime minister rode a horse and camels outpaced gaily decorated lorries. He recalls women in white burqas with modestly revealed two tone sandals... turbaned fruit sellers with amiable eyes surrounded by bright red apples, yellow melons and festoons of lady-finger grapes... . birds in quilted cages in soft carpeted shops and bare-limbed poplars... Walking on the black ice on Chicken street today, it seems half a century has not changed too many things.

Robert Byron, in his 1930s classic The Road to Oxiana, does not pause too long in Kabul, reserving his best prose for the charms of Herat. He and his companions are delighted to find a hotel, which has writing paper in each bedroom but disappointed with a German shop that refuses to sell them hock without a permit from the Minister of trade. The British legation, which today lies in disuse, was then furnished like "home... without any mosquito nets or fans to remind us of the Orient." The Englishness of the legation was completed with roses in full bloom — with the local ministers vying for cuttings — a garden full of Sweet Williams, Canterbury Bells, Columbines and tennis with six uniformed ball boys. Only a purple mountain beyond reminded the travellers where they actually were. Perhaps it is the pollution today but I could not discern the sweet smell of the small yellow-green oleaster flowers that so decisively defined Afghanistan for Byron.

Captivating garden

The same garden also captivated Peter Levi, travelling 40 years later to Kabul in the company of Bruce Chatwin. For Levi, Kabul was "an untidy town surrounded by wheat fields like rough mats and by grey and black mountains still fretted with snow at the end of June." His writing may lack the grace and light touch of Chatwin's accounts but makes up by sheer hard work, exploring and describing each region of Afghanistan. Levi's account "The Light Garden of the Angel King" draws its title, trifle inaccurately, from the inscription above the Shahjahani mosque, made from grey Kandahar marble, just below Babur's grave. One can imagine Levi musing, his well-thumbed copy of the Baburnama in hand, "with awe and almost with disbelief" among the mulberries and the ancient panjachinars, their trunks gouged with Persian graffiti.

"Within a day's ride from Kabul," writes Babur, " it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls. But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt." On the day we visit Bagh-e-Babur; there is snow everywhere. The terraced gardens, the surrounding walls, the caravanserai, the water channels are all being given a new lease of life. "Kabul's rhubarb is excellent. The quinces and plums are also good, as are the citrus fruits. One variety of grape, called ab-angur, is superb. Kabul wine is intoxicating," said Babur. Now his beloved fruit trees are being planted again in the garden. The swimming pool, described by Williams in 1946 as "gold flecked by autumn leaves" besides which he saw wives of the foreign diplomats sunning their brown backs, is no longer there. All this would surely have pleased the king who conquered Delhi but wanted to be buried on this hillside in Kabul, under an open sky. To quote Mulla Muhammad Talib Mu'amma'i, whom Babur himself quotes:

Drink wine in Kabul citadel, send round the cup again and again/For there is both mountain and water, both city and countryside.


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