Joyful marriages; grinding poverty; going home.
The drive up to Belkaab begins benignly enough; except for the heat and dust, there is not much happening. We pass Sar Pol and pay respects at the grave of Yahya bin Zain, grandson of Imam Sajjad (A); history tells us he was beheaded after a fierce fight here in Sal Pol and his head sent to Iraq. Up ahead, we stop at a local restaurant and have Kabuli rice for lunch, a kind of pulao; quite yummy actually, if your stomach is used to eating out, like mine is now, alhamd’Allah. It is not hawker food that makes you sick in the tummy in countries like Afghanistan (Kabul Belly), India (Delhi Belly), rather it’s the water. Hot, piping food immediately consumed is relatively safe; this I have learnt over the years. Our appalling road ordeals are repeated as we then climb up towards Belkaab; the air thins out rapidly and it is chilling cold again at altitudes where we encounter snow, now in June. I have to scramble for my warmers and sweater again but these are packed in my suitcase, so I battle getting them out, donning them in the jostling back seat of the vehicle; we drive into Belkhaab 12 hours later. A quick, light, late night dinner and it’s snuggling into blankets again; they smell of sheep and goats. I go to sleep a happy man however; this house, though ancient and mud built, actually sport an eastern toilet and a hammaam with adequate supply of hot water – what luxuries!
We participate in a mass wedding the next morning, a hundred very poor couples who have no chance of affording their marriage ceremonies and rituals get united, thanks to CAI donors. We have a turnout of about 10,000 people from in and around Belkhaab; it becomes abundantly clear crowd control is going to be a problem real fast, even though there is a security cordon around us with the Governor and other top officials in presence. Armed police with Kalashnikovs and plain clothed security men and women with sticks struggle shooing away uninvited crowds; it takes a long time to get some semblance of control and the ceremonies begin. I am nervous throughout however, for even a single incident, however minor, would most certainly result in a stampede with disastrous results. This event, you see, is unique for these hapless people; nothing like this has ever taken place here and the excitement is too much. The ceremonies end with an invited comedian who has the crowds in stitches, the couples included; they laugh and laugh until some have streaming tears. I am so happy, I thank Allah CAI (I) could be the cause of this happiness, albeit temporary in nature. There is also lunch for invited guests, about 1,400; nothing doing, as the lunch ground is thronged with crowds; I later learn that the meal prepared for 1,400 guests actually served 5,000 comfortably. A miracle, I say, no less.
The afternoon is spent touring Belkaab and surrounding areas, and to initiate CAI sponsored water project that will bring safe, pure and usable water to about 30,000 people who now use contaminated water, resulting in clearly avoidable waterborne diseases; even deaths in children. An aalim once remarked that poverty in Afghanistan broke his back; this is so true. I am fortunate and privileged to have travelled the world, to some very poor countries in Africa, Asia and Middle East; nothing compares to the grinding Afghan poverty and this is so evident now. Water is obviously a major issues and this is reinforced to me in an unbelievable, horrible manner. I witness a boy, about 8 or 9 go on his knees and hands, and then lap up water like an animal from a spring; this act is later repeated by 2 other children, girls, sisters perhaps. My eyes see this but my mind refuses to accept the horror of it. That tiny spring gushes out a thin stream of drinkable water but is too shallow for the children to scoop it so this animal instinct is practiced. It is such incidents that tear my heart asunder and make me feel so hopeless about Afghanistan sometimes; I initiate the water project later that afternoon. The Governor, pleased he can now boast of one more major achievement under his belt, invites us to his home for dinner and we feast once again that day. It is to Mazaar Shariff the next morning.
Surprise, surprise, the driver is no other than the comedian from yesterdays wedding ceremonies. Not only is he a fine comic who provides entertainment to Wasi, Basheer and Hussein Pur who have a gala time laughing, he is a poet as well, reciting couplets in praise and tragedies of Imams (A), alternating our moods from merriment to sorrow. These are some of the toughest roads I have ever travelled trough in my life. We meet no other traffic save a couple of trucks throughout the drive, a testimony people don’t risk driving through these hostile roads. I feel like being tossed into a concrete mixer for 18 hours and then let out when we arrive in Mazaar Shariff. So beaten up, I naively agree to Basheer’s suggestion of a massage and skin cleaning at a local hammam, which is surprisingly, immaculate.
When it is my turn for the scrubbing and clean up in a hot steamy cabin, I literally weep tears of agony at the treatment from a massive man who labors my body every which way and angle. Fat, warm sweat drop from his face and body on to mine as he scrubs my body raw, then slaps away at regular intervals as if it is naan dough he is getting ready for the tanoor, not a living, breathing and a very tired me under him. I honestly look pink when I see my face in the mirror back at our hotel room; startled to see myself after 5 days. I have forgotten how I look, there are no mirrors in the remote parts of Afghanistan I had been. While I really liked the scrubbing up at the hammam, I didn’t care for the massage; it was too hard, the man too rough.
Unable to keep my eyes open after a dinner of very good pizza and coke, first meal where I did not have nan or drink chai, I collapse in a bed that is much too soft after sleeping on the floor for last 5 nights. Exhaustion takes over however, and I sleep the slumber of the dead. Early next morning, we inspect 2 deep water well projects CAI has sponsored and head for Kabul. The roads are asphalt for the most part and car mercifully air-conditioned, for Mazar is super hot. Another harrowing 7 hours drive; the taxi driver chain smokes, listens to 1960’s Hindi songs and drives like a man possessed by Iblees himself, we mercifully arrive in Kabul. I spend the next day at the office with Wasi, Basheer and others who make CAI run like a fine oiled machine, going over and auditing accounts and records. Kabul is shut down with a security corridor; President Karzai is meeting with many tribal leaders, including the Talibaan; we decide to stay put at the office and not venture out. Next morning, I am taken to the airport and fly without incident to New Delhi and on to home in suburban Mumbai. It is late night when I get home; daughter Maaha Zainab is fast asleep. But she feels for me when I join her in her bed; she hugs, I fall safely asleep.
You can view few photographs of this trip here.