Once again I was woken to the rising cries of the muezzin. Below, in the square connected to the Darb Khosh, carpet dealers are rolling out their crimson wares. It was an everyday scene in an altogether remarkable setting. 14-year-old Mohammed, the sullen relation of lazy-eyed Jalid, the Hotel Jaam’s manager, entered my room with yet another pot of green tea. The curtains of the open window were flailing again, and the wind smelled of rotten mangoes and car fumes.
Like the searing winds that swirl around it for 120 days a year, Herat is a city whose history rarely sits still. The wide plains that characterise this region of Afghanistan have made it difficult to defend. Its strategic importance as a trading route between Pakistan and Iran have made Herat the trophy city of successive vanquishers. Persian, Russian, British and Afghan troops all fought to acquire this prized domain within their spheres of influence. It was the birthplace of the Timurid renaissance.
More than a pawn of empires, Herat has also played host to some of Asia’s greatest personalities; Jenghiz Khan, Tamerlane, Queen Gawhar Shad, Shah Rukh and Babur all made their mark. It was famously at the end of Robert Bryon’s ‘Road to Oxiana’, the confirmed Afghanophile gladly wrote: ‘Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex.’ Were her glories still intact, or had the scars of war consigned Herat to the scrapheap of historical anonymity?
The Hotel Jaam was full of Pakistani salesmen or groups of Afghan traders passing through. All would leave their bedroom doors wide open. We would gather in the lobby for dinner, a horde of ‘shalwar kamiz’ (the flowing robe-like clothing) and beards, glued to an old TV that seemed to show solely Bollywood music videos, 2nd rate action movies or the occasional anti-Taliban video sequence. Contrary to ‘hippie-trail’ perception, few Afghans smoke. It is, after all, a luxury not many can afford.
My days were spent soaking up the loaded feel of the streets. I would walk up the Jada-i Qumadari, to the old carpet and curio shops, full of dubious trinkets, muskets and knives amassed from fields and forts, and coins scavenged from the Musalla complex. While Shah Rukh (think chess) was responsible for the original complexion of the city, his remarkable wife, Gawhar Shad, started building this complex of mosque and madrassa (school for the teaching of Islam, and Islamic law) in 1417. What used to be 30 of the world’s tallest, most ornately-tiled minarets are now 5 wind-worn, leaning towers, and the ‘complex’ is little more than a rubbled wasteland with a main road running through its centre. Byron believed it represented ‘the most glorious production of Mohammedan architecture in the fifteenth century’. It is yet another Afghan treasure, like the Buddha’s of Bamiyan, violated by war.
There is something deeply historical about the atmosphere of Herat. Afghans themselves seem to represent all those years of consequence in their appearance. The face of an Afghan man mirrors the fate of his country. Furrowed brows and weathered skin reflect a life surrounded by conflict and climatic extremes. Great wreaths of facial hair and a handsome nose uphold a weighty dignity. And then the smile. It demonstrates the warmth of character so unique to these people. To the westerner who is so fortunate to see such radiance in a land of supposed gloom, it is an inspiration. Herat’s streets are full of such faces, walking and hawking along pock-marked asphalt, dirt and debris, where crazed cyclists dodge past horse-carts decorated with red pom-poms and bells and stalls selling all sorts, sidle the thoroughfares.
“It was easier under the Taliban”, said Yusuf, former de-miner for OMAR (Organisation for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation), referring to their lack of restraint when it came to the job of accessing and exploding the ordinances. Esther, a Swiss doctor, showed me around the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Orthopaedic Centre. When asked about the Afghan people her face unmasked a raw emotion. “I’ve been trying to come here for years”, she said, as we moved through rooms of mine-victims, some paralysed from the waist down, some tetraplegic, others limping around with the aid of crutches. Many victims, if capable of using their arms, are employed after treatment in the making of others’ prosthetic limbs. “Many of our patients have relations who were in the Taliban. They don’t resent them”, she said. “I find the culture fascinating”, she sparkled intensely, and informed me that a female colleague believed the burka to be a source of liberty, like an invisibility cloak. The awful problems were evident enough but it was her inspiration, and her source of inspiration – the Afghan people –that gave one hope.
I had seen enough evidence of wars; the bullet-peppered walls of the Citadel, the guns-for-cash placards, the preponderance of crutches and cripples were all too visible. I had spoken to and seen many Afghans caring for their past, now I wanted to find Afghans who sought a bright future.
On my final day, I visited the Masjid-i Jami. It is undoubtedly Afghanistan’s finest surviving example of Islamic architecture. As I stood awe-stuck in the huge white marble courtyard, figures began to emerge from the shade of the hooded portals. They were University students preparing for an English exam the following day. Naturally, they hounded me, but my exasperation soon turned to admiration. I was being corrected on the passive tense and was subject to further enquiries of conjugation. They knew of Chaucer, quoted Shakespeare and venerated the classical 18th century English writers. Their youthful ambition in this harmonious, virtuous setting made me forget about war and suffering for an instant and believe that, more than just a hopeful future, Heratis are the possessors of something unique.
For this article I was awarded the Irish SMEDIA Award and shortlisted at the UK Guardian Student Media Awards for the category of Travel Journalism.