Frontline World

AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

Grandmother's House
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Busy street in Kabul

Taxis and buses crowd a busy intersection near a traffic circle in west Kabul. An influx of returning refugees and rural Afghans has increased the city's population significantly. Residents are building homes on the surrounding hillside, where Kabul's poorest live.
Outside the airport, my uncle waited for me. We caught a cab to my mom's childhood home in Karte Parwan, or the Quarter of the people of Parwan, a province northwest of Kabul.

About 40,000 taxis jam Kabul's streets, competing for space with boys and old men pulling fruit and vegetable carts and a heavy flow of bicycle riders. There are no demarcated lanes and few lights in the city, leaving it up to dozens of traffic policemen to whistle drivers through busy intersections.

Most census figures out of Afghanistan are dubious, but some estimates hold that Kabul's population has swelled to somewhere between 3 and 4 million from a prewar figure of less than 1 million in the mid-1970s. Land mines, drought and insecurity have increased migration from rural areas to Afghanistan's major cities.

Billboards at the side of the street

Street signs advertising Kabul's many growing businesses. At right is a billboard for Roshan, one of two private mobile phone services. At left are billboards discussing the dangers of opium use and production.
The cab we climbed into was a newer Toyota model, decorated with postcard-sized stickers of Bollywood film star Aishwarya Rai dressed variously in saris and small halter-tops. Photos of Indian film actors adorn stores, and their movie soundtracks blast from radios around Kabul. Not many Afghan pop culture icons are visible. Certainly there are no Afghan female pin-ups.

It was early June when I arrived, and aside from posters calling on people to register for a voter card, there were few signs on the streets that historical elections were going to take place.

After weaving through Kabul's congestion for 15 minutes, we turned onto an unpaved street leading to a house my mother's father bought in the late 1950s. Many Tajik Afghans from the Northern Alliance's rural base in the Panjshir Valley live in our quarter. The faction's trademark SUVs -- with tinted black windows and photos of Ahmad Shah Masood taped to windshields -- roamed our neighborhood regularly. Masood is the late Northern Alliance hero who was killed in a suicide bombing linked to al Qaeda two days before 9/11.

Since I stayed at my uncle's during previous visits, my grandmother was surprised, but welcoming when I crossed the doorway with my luggage. I liked the idea of staying in a house full of family history. Plus, I would get my own room here.

Nafas gul

Nafas gul, the second wife of the great-grandfather of FRONTLINE/World Fellow Roya Aziz, offers fresh mulberries cooled in a stream during a trip north out of Kabul, in the Shomali Plains. The vast plains used to be known for their agriculture, including mulberries -- an Afghan delicacy -- and grapes, but they were hit hard during the Soviet-Afghan war and served as a front line between warring forces of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The fighting virtually destroyed the plains.
"May you never be tired," my great-grandmother said when we greeted, using a Dari expression told to people who've undertaken long trips or hard work. My great-grandmother Nafas gul, who is in her 60s (far older than the average life expectancy of 42 for Afghan women), is really my great-grandfather's second wife. She lives in the house with two of her eight daughters.

During the summer, electricity in our quarter was on for most days and nights. In the winter of my previous visit, we only had a few hours of power in the evening. But many parts of Kabul are without electricity year-round. Hundreds of generators and gas lamps hum across the capital.

Our house was fortunate in other ways too. Water would come through a tap in the yard every two days, long enough for my family to fill tin barrels and buckets to use for cooking and washing until the next ration. Many Kabul residents have to go to neighborhood pumps to get water.

Nafas gul cooking

Nafas gul, the second wife of the great-grandfather of FRONTLINE/World Fellow Roya Aziz, is baking bread in a tandoor, or coal oven, in the backyard of the childhood home of Aziz's mother, in the Karte Parwan district of Kabul.
The night I arrived I was fed qabuli, a rice dish with sugared raisins and carrots, a fancy dinner usually reserved for guests. In my first week back, Afghan state-television -- the only channel available -- aired a documentary about Susan B. Anthony, a not-so-subtle way of promoting women's suffrage to Afghan viewers.

My aunt Nazee wasn't following the program, but she asked me about women's voting rights in America.

"Women got the vote in the early 1920s, years after the U.S. created its constitution," I told her. I asked her if she had registered for the election.

"Yes, I want to vote," she said. "It will bring us peace."

Many Afghans I spoke to viewed the upcoming presidential elections not as a choice for a particular candidate, but a vote for popular participation and security.

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