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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

September 7th: Herat

On September 7th 1978 I was in Herat in Western Afghanistan.

I couldn't help but be struck by the changes in Herat since my visits in 1972 and 1973.  Some parts of the new town were almost unrecognisable with new buildings.  The traffic had changed and you now had to be careful when you stepped into the road.  There were taxis and minibuses and three-wheeled scooters - it was beginning to feel like an Indian city.  There were still the painted trucks, maybe a bit more modern, and donkeys bringing food into the city, but the horse-cabs were dying out.  There were still foreigners arriving, many beginning to freak out gently, wearing Afghan clothes, smiles beginning to break out on their serious faces.  They smoked their hashish in their hotels and tumbled out to eat or go to the tourist shops.

I rarely saw foreigners in the Old City now, around the partially covered bazaars called Char Su, but I was attracted by the antique charm of the area.  I wrote this in a tea-house near there:

Stopped into chaikhana on the broad street with the looms, between the mosque and the metal bazaar, don't seem to have chai-houses in the bazaar streets themselves - I'd have liked to have recorded what I saw there. People mainly friendly, a few over-anxious to sell but they're easily dealt with. Tried on some hats in the hat corner of the covered bazaar. Barber shops with pictures of combs and scissors. Better looking fruit, all the shops making tin boxes, trays, ovens. A lute shop in the octagonal building in the middle of the road, mediaeval English towns had such things. Behind the white facade of newer streets lie earth walls, sometimes with fancy patterns as in Mashad, and earthen streets with central open gutter.

In this chaikhana there is more light and air than often. People eating stews with cut up pieces of bread, you cut up your own bread and the man puts stew on top. 2 men eating now and another just starts. Only I drink tea in a little bowl, sugar in first. Blue and white washed walls, raised sides with simple kilims. Flower pictures and some Farsi writing on the walls. He keeps wood to break up to use with the samovar, also I think there is dung to use as fuel, maybe kindling. Two big samovars by the window as usual, and stovepipes above. Water for washing from a container with two taps, goes into a basin with fretted rim and by a funnel into a receptacle, all hand-made in the bazaar. A mynah in a battered metal cage beside me, and a finch beyond in a separate cage. Owner is friendly, pointed grey beard and little cap on his short hair, wears a nicely cut fawn to beige Afghan suit.

Herat had seemed most exotic in 1972, full of men from the north in colourful costumes, few vehicles in the streets.  We ate meals in raised restaurants where you climbed up to the reclining area on rugs; old men sang and played music on ancient instruments for us; the common local dress for any male over the age of ten was the chapan, a highly coloured quilted jacket with overlong sleeves which hung loose on top of the arms.  We had camped outside the Park Hotel, and one night there was a wedding of well to do people, where there was music and the women danced freely without veils.

I had seen the sights in 1972, helped by the guidebook to Afghanistan by Nancy Hatch Dupree which had been recently been published and was being sold at the Tourist Office.  We were shown round by a schoolboy for an arranged fee of a couple of shillings.  We went round the glorious Friday Mosque, enjoying the coolness of the columned recesses and greens of the gardens.  We saw the workshop and simple kiln where the tiles were being recreated by artists and fired.   One of the artists told us how he was saving patiently for bride-price: he expected he would have enough when he was an old man and then he would take a young girl as his wife.  We saw the tomb of Jami, the Sufi poet, and the huge minarets and mausoleum of Gowher Shad. The boy told us how most of the minarets  had been destroyed by the British, as if it had happened yesterday.  He took us to see a windmill beyond the suburbs, which involved climbing into one of the dome-roofed compounds so characteristic of the area.  In the afternoon we drove outside the city through fields and over a little bridge to the shrine of Gazargah.  I wrote this when I got back to England:

The shrine itself was surrounded by a thick grove of trees casting their shade across the sand. The coloured tiles were peeling off the structure of the main buildings, and this added to the natural atmosphere of the place. I was unprepared for the number of people in the main courtyard, as the outer areas were quiet and inhabited by a donkey and the birds. But inside were collected a large number of beggars squatting or lying among the tombstones which are planted in no order around the courtyard. Many of these pilgrims were blind, or had deformed limbs, or amputations or sores.  A white robed old man greeted us and pointed out the features of the holy place, a tomb of black marble which looked like metal and was carved most intricately it was kept in a room to one side behind a locked door for which he produced a key from the folds of his robes; and an a ancient tree studded with nails, which had been hammered in by the faithful as a prayer.
Gazargah is a centre of Sufi ritual.  Jason Elliot recounts in An Unexpected Light from 1999 how he  stayed overnight and witnessed Sufis and Talibs enraptured there.  The guardian who looked after him was possibly the same man I met in 1972.

It is hard to imagine that the city I saw and is described by others such as Veronica Doubleday in Three Women Of Herat was about to change. Barely six months later in March 1979 the army mutinied there under Ismail Khan against the new government and their Soviet masters and thousands were killed.  When Nick Danziger visited in 1984, as described in Danziger's Travels, the city and countryside was being bombed and strafed in continuing conflict and reprisal.

Erich Siegel's video of Herat in 1972 on YouTube and here, from Afghanistan Before The Wars.  Luke Powell has great photographs from 1974 here.  Noor Khan has pictures from the 1970s here.

Patrimonia Mundi:  Panoramas of Herat, including Gazargah.  

Herat 1975:  Picture by Gregory Melle, CC

Gazargah:  Picture by Sven Dirks, CC

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