As we drive around the city, spending ridiculous amounts of time in traffic jams, I am impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit shown along the streets of Kabul. Young men weave their way in and out of traffic, hawking their wares. Some are selling boxes of tissues, others air fresheners or mobile phone top up cards. One comes along with a bundle of windshield wiper blades on his shoulder. He lifts the one on our vehicle, and snorts dismissively, telling our driver that the hinge is worn and will break soon. He pulls out a new one, still wrapped in plastic, and points out that it is the same size but a better quality. Our driver tells him to go away, and even though he’s speaking the Pashto which I don’t understand, there is no doubt from his voice that he is adding certain adjectives to the verb!
A bit further on we are approached by a young man holding a tin can. The can has a handle crudely welded on, and there is smoke billowing from the top of the can. He approaches the car and makes a circle around it, wafting the top of the can with a small piece of cardboard to produce a billows effect, which generates more smoke. He puts his face close to the mouth of the tin and blows, and the smoke drifts across the hood of the car, on to the windows, around the back door. He is chanting as he moves around, but I cannot make out the words. It reminds me of a smudging ceremony conducted by many Canadian First Nations, where people are purified by sweetgrass smoke.
“What is that?” we ask our driver. He tells us that what they are burning is called spand, and that the smudgers (as I think of them) are singing a poem to bless the vehicle and bring good luck. We wind the window down and ask a young man to show us what he is burning. He gives me a pinch of small brown seeds, dotted with some which are green, they look like a mix of fenugreek and cumin. He has glowing charcoal in the bottom of his can, and when he throws the seeds on to the fire they crackle and pop. We allow the smoke to billow in. It is harsh on our lungs, and yet has a sweet under-taste. We give the young man 20 Afs, about 40 cents, and he continues to circle the car, chanting all the time.
Later, once we are eventually back at our office, we go to the Internet to find out more.
We discover that we have witnessed a modern manifestation of an ancient ritual, dating back to the reign of a King of Persia called Naqshband, who was born in 1317 CE. He was considered to be a Zoroastrian, and drew on traditions dating from the 6th century BCE (the time of Zarathustra) to establish his own. King Naqshband established the quasi-magical rite of burning the seed of the esfand plant to ward off the evil eye. From the magic of Google it is discovered that:
“Esfand was well known among the ancient Indo-Iranians. Dioscorides provides in the 1st century C.E. the earliest description of the plant, calling it pêganon agrion. Later Greek authors refer to it as persaia botane” (Flattery and Schwartz, pp. 35-42, 144-48).
In contemporary English we call it wild rue, or sometimes Syrian rue, with the Latin name Peganum harmala. It is an invasive plant, found in many gardens across the western United States and Canada.
Over time the name has changed slightly, and now the word Aspand (which refers to a class of Zoroastrian Archangels) is more common. In many Persian communities aspand is burned as a way of sweetening the air in a house, and in many areas the spirit of Naqshband is still called upon to destroy the Evil Eye (Bla Band). Across Afghanistan and Iran, and many other regions of the old Persian Empire, a spell-prayer is recounted:
Aspand bla band
Barakati Shah Naqshband
Jashmi heach jashmi khaish
Jashmi dost wa dooshmani bad andish
Be sosa der hamin atashi taze.
Here is the common English translation:
This is Aspand, it banishes the Evil Eye
The blessing of King Naqshband
Eye of nothing, Eye of relatives
Eye of friends, Eye of enemies
Whoever is bad should burn in this glowing fire.
And so we continue on our way to our next meeting, safe in the knowledge that we have been blessed. We continue to dodge the sellers of air fresheners and windshield wipers, the old men and very young children who are begging, the other young men with the burning aspand. They pass between the cars and trucks, the buses and the bicycles, weaving and chanting, and every so often receiving some change through an open window. How much do they know of the 800 year old tradition they are continuing, I wonder, and what would King Naqshband make of them?