Afghan Bloom Can Afghanistan weather the storms after the U.S. withdrawal?

by Mariam Ghani

Shells the artist’s family found in their garden in Dar ul-Aman.

My parents have a house in Dar ul-Aman, a neighborhood on the western outskirts of Kabul that was once a separate city, when Kabul was much smaller than it is today. To build their house, they bought a plot of land whose parameters were drawn up by King Amanullah’s city planners in the 1920s, during Afghanistan’s first grand rush to modernization. Then, to settle a dispute over property rights, they bought the land again. This disagreement was one among thousands that have clogged and corrupted the Afghan courts since the early 2000s, when an influx of returned refugees brought landowners who abandoned their properties during the war years into conflict with those who squatted, developed and cultivated abandoned houses and land.

Once the dispute was settled, a wall was built, then a house and then a garden, which grew from roses and spindly shade trees to a profusion of flowers, an orchard, a kitchen garden, a greenhouse, a grape arbor and a raised takht — a platform covered with the cushions known as taushak and screened with bamboo — for sitting outdoors even in the heat of summer. On first visiting this walled garden, most say it is like “a piece of old Kabul,” suggesting that, to those who remember, it seems like a remnant of the prewar city rather than something constructed in the civil war’s wake.

Every time we turn over the soil in the garden, however, we find reminders of other times and other inhabitants of this patch of land. In the first few years, it seemed that the new trees we planted would never succeed in putting down roots, until we finally dug deep enough to remove the last of the stones from the old walls and foundations, most of which dated back to the Amanullah era, when a civil servant or royal cousin was allotted this land and built a family house upon it. Once the trees’ roots were settled, we had to turn to the problem of their leaves, which were choking in the dust that blows in from the plains. This problem has only grown more acute over the years, even as more and more gardens are planted across the city, because the dust storms passing through the city now pick up oily particulates from air pollution (mostly vehicle emissions, exacerbated by the poor quality of available fuel) and coat leaves with sticky dirt that must be washed off regularly to allow photosynthesis. The wartime deforestation that caused the dust storms has also stripped the ground of its mineral-rich topsoil, so we bury iron around the fir trees to keep them evergreen.

During my latest visit, this past June, my mother was absorbed in tracking down the source of a persistent drainage problem in one corner of the garden. All hands pitched in to dig a hole, so she could see what might be diverting the water away from the plants that needed it. Barely three feet down, however, the soil started to fall away from the spades. A long, deep trench already ran under fully 10 feet of the garden, just by the west wall, and it was filled with hundreds of spent shells.

The soldiers who guard our gate looked over the trench and pronounced that a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher must have been sited there, sometime during the 1991-1996 period when the territory of Dar ul-Aman was contested, first by rival mujahidin groups and later by the mujahidin and the Taliban. It’s likely a member of one of the rival groups had fired the RPGs at the Dar ul-Aman palace, where several different groups had camped out during that time. Of course, back then, there was no wall between the plot of land where our house now stands and the Dar ul-Aman palace, to our west; almost every structure for a mile around had been reduced to rubble.

We unearthed the shells and piled them against the wall. We filled in the trench and built a new joi, a small irrigation canal, to carry water to all the plants and trees in that corner of the garden. We couldn’t decide what to do with the shells. I think they may still be piled there in the garden, awaiting an outcome.

In Afghanistan, history is very close at hand, buried in shallow trenches all across the landscape. The slightest excavation may uncover another unknown story, or another trace of a story already known. Is it better to walk lightly toward the future, so as not to disturb the dead, or is it better to dig deeper, and settle past accounts before accounting for present needs? Is it possible to plant a new project of modernization in the ruins of old failures without first examining the ruins to discover or remember why and how those past projects failed?

SOURCE: FOREIGN POLICY COM

Categories: Afghanistan, Asia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.