We were driving out to the Ministry of Education and our route took us through the centre of Kabul. There are the large wide boulevards one would expect from a major city of 3.9 million people (according to the 2011 census), and then the narrow winding streets one would expect from an ancient one – there is a written history of over 2000 years, and recorded settlement for three and a half millennia. Kabul is located in a large “bowl”, surrounded by a ring of mountains. The city itself is at 5900 feet (1800 metres) above sea level, and the mountains tower above.
Like all old cities, the various streets are home to a particular type of vendor. There is Butcher Street, for example, which is lined with shops selling lamb, chickens, goat, and sometimes beef. The meat hangs skinned and bloody from large hooks in the door and window jambs. The chickens are still alive, predominantly white, and crammed into mesh cages. People haggle over prices, then walk away carrying a bird or two by the feet, or with a basket of meat.
On other streets the modern world has been absorbed. We drive along one where every shop sells computers or related items – printers, fax machines, software. On another we pass travel agent after travel agent, all with special offers for flights to Dubai, Istanbul, Islamabad – even London and New York.
The Kabul River runs through the middle of the city. It has been long tamed, and is now bounded by stark concrete walls which control and funnel the water in a straight line, almost like a canal. The river itself rises in the mountains to the west, the Koh-e Qrough, and then flows east.
In the centre of the city is a large market, which spreads along the streets on both sides of the river. Narrow footbridges are always busy with people crossing from one side to the other, in search of a particular item or special bargain. Men push barrows piled high with vegetables or fruit, or with racks of clothes for sale. Many of the goods are from China or India, trucked across the mountains from Pakistan. The roads have been carved along old paths, those worn by generations of herders and traders. They cross the fabled Khyber Pass, and other less known valleys.
It is from these mountains that many of the people who are fighting to destabilise Afghanistan emerge, walking narrow tracks from their bases outside the country. These are the people who do not want a reconstructed Afghanistan, who cannot countenance the idea of a democratic state.
In Kabul, thirty years of conflict have left a shattered city which is slowly rebuilding. Municipal work crews in bright orange coveralls work the streets, collecting rubble, sweeping the gutters, emptying the large garbage containers which have started to be placed around the city. They work slowly, methodically, in a human-intensive manner. People still throw garbage on to the streets, of course, but things are getting cleaner.
The Kabul River is running pretty low at this time of year. There is some water, but not much, and most of that is ice. The people at the market use it as a sort of giant dumping ground, and it is not very attractive. The municipal crews haven’t got there yet, and beneath the concrete banks lie piles of mouldering garbage bags, filled with who knows what. Sometimes one sees some semi-feral dogs or cats scavenging around, sometimes some crows. But mostly, just grey ice dotted with garbage.
Perhaps the municipal workers don’t bother to go to the river because they know an ancient truth. In the spring, when the snow melts, the water will cascade out of the western mountains. It will surge across the great bowl, and be channeled in to the artificial confines of the Kabul River. There it will collect all those bags of garbage, and sweep them east, through the valleys beneath the mountains where the narrow tracks run. The river will flush itself clean.
It reminds me of something one of my favourite professors used to say. He was an avid amateur computer programmer, back in the early days when people used to write their own statistical programs. We were graduate students, and he cautioned us to be careful of the data we were entering. Just remember, he would exhort: “Garbage in, garbage out.”