Monday, Feb 06, 2023

When Kabul was a city with a future

Before the Talibans took control of Afghanistan this month, once there was a Kabul that was a city of dreamers and poets, kite flyers and children trudging to school.

afghanistanChildren play with kites given to them by Afghan Local Police officers in a village in Farah province, Afghanistan, Dec. 9, 2012. (DoD photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Through the incessant rain outside my window in Mumbai, in my mind’s eye I see glimpses of the Paghman range, the mountains that were visible from every room of my first apartment in Kabul. It was the spring of 2006 and I thought nothing of sitting out on our small balcony or standing by the windows. Later, I would be warned about both these things.

In the mainstream media, the events of last week appear as a sudden shift. But Kabul changed long before the Taliban took over last Sunday. For years, many voices tried to tell us this moment was coming.

Suhail (name changed) was one of the first people I met in Kabul; he gave me my first cup of green tea and my first language lessons (“Afghan for the person, Afghani for the money”). It was only in the last few months that I heard him speak about trying to leave Afghanistan. I called him days before the city was captured by the Taliban. “They will do something,” he had said confidently, about the international forces that were arriving in the capital. “They won’t just let everything go.”

In 2014, the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF formally ended its combat operations in Afghanistan. The year before that, many people I knew either left Kabul or made plans to depart. They saw no future for themselves in the city.

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Suhail was different. He travelled abroad for his work and to study. And he always went home to Kabul. His family was growing and he had built them a house on a hill. From each of the windows was a view of trees. He had spent his childhood as a refugee in neighbouring Pakistan. We never spoke about it, but I think he did all this so his children did not feel unmoored.

afghanistan Plane wreck lying on the barren land in Afghanistan (Getty Images)

In my photos there is one taken in Qargha, a scenic artificial lake a short drive north of Kabul, where Suhail took us soon after Nauroz in 2006. I remember his laughter tinged with pride as I exclaimed at the beauty of the landscape, which I found breathtaking. Behind the ruined mud walls on the edge of the city, I saw houses rising, like green shoots in the spring.

What I remember from those rainy mornings in 2006 is the cautious sense of optimism. You could speak of the city in the future tense.


In his memoir In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan (2015; translated from the original Deshe Bideshe), writer Syed Mujtaba Ali describes living in Kabul in the late 1920s. He wrote about its vistas and its markets, its homes and its people, in a way that felt familiar to me. For Ali, Kabul was a city marked by its independence from British colonial rule, and he envied Kabulis this freedom. At the time, King Amanullah was implementing his controversial agenda of modernisation in Afghanistan. By the time Ali published his memoir, it was 1943. Mohammed Zahir Shah was on the throne. He would be the last king of Afghanistan. Soon after his overthrow in a coup in 1973 would come decades of war.

A few years ago Suhail’s son had been shot in the arm. He had been around 12 years old then, and had been playing in his living room when a bullet came through the window, straying from a street fight.

When Suhail was his son’s age, he had been taken by his teachers on a class picnic. They had gone to the Bagh-e-Bala, the summer palace of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, the ruler installed by the British as they withdrew after the second Anglo-Afghan war in 1880. The preceding violence had left Kabul damaged; the British handed over a capital of ruined monuments and gardens to the new Amir.


Since Kabul had come under the Taliban’s control, Suhail had tried to reach the airport twice. Once, he was almost caught in a stampede, he said. As I write, I wait for his news. I think of an afternoon in Panjshir visiting a different friend’s family, who talked about the resistance to the Taliban from the valley in the 1990s. I heard such talk of resistance — small and large — from people I met in Kabul over the years. I didn’t hear much from Afghans about Afghans being saved — these were stories I gathered from the English mainstream media.

Among the many kinds of violence faced by Afghans is their erasure from narratives about Afghanistan. They are often described either as noble victims, or eternal warriors. Afghanistan is described as a “graveyard of empires’, or the setting for “the Great Game”. There is a tone of certitude in such stories — that this ending was pre-ordained, that this violence had to come. Such stories erase the brutalities that unfolded across the country and in Kabul before the current takeover by the Taliban. They also blot out the very idea of a future.

Streets of Kabul Streets of Kabul

Mujtaba Ali was in Kabul when a revolt erupted against King Amanullah. He ended up being evacuated in an airlift from the city in early 1929. From the window of the plane as it took off, he saw his Afghan manservant Abdur Rahman running through the snow, waving his white turban. “Ba aman e khuda,” they had said to each other in parting.
The same words my friends end each conversation with these days. “In the care of God,” they say.

Kabul appears in the rain outside my window, and I draw on a memory of hope that glimmers like the snow glimpsed on the Paghman range. Of a Kabul imagined by those who watch it receding from a plane window, who watch it on the news from afar, or who watch it from the windows of their homes: a city of peace, a city with dreamers and poets, kite flyers and children trudging to school, kicking pebbles on their way. The city I saw, a city with a future.

Taran Khan travelled to and worked in Kabul between 2006 and 2013. Her first book, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (2019) won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award and the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award

First published on: 29-08-2021 at 06:20 IST
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