War Memorial Gary Trouton

Sabul and others

September 2007

David Rawlings, a cabinet maker specialising in the conservation and restoration of antique furniture, has lived and worked in Stoke Ferry since 1980. Earlier this year he was asked by VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) to help with a major project in Afghanistan. He spent February and March in Kabul. This is his diary!


A friend of mine living in Primrose Hill had offered to give me a bed for the night before I left for Kabul the following morning but I got off at the wrong bus-stop and got lost. I must have wandered around for at least half-an-hour looking for the right address and thought that this did not augur well for my two months stay in Afghanistan. My friend expressed some surprise that I had failed to follow her simple instructions and I could feel that she was more than a little concerned about my ability to find my way to Heathrow. Consequently, the following morning gave the taxi-diver detailed instructions as to where to take me.

I got lost again in Dubai airport, a glorious cathedral to air travel, where I was to change airlines for Kabul. Dignified Arabs in their flowing white robes moved like acolytes through the crowd but they all seemed too busy for me to ask the way to Terminal 2. Then, it seemed from nowhere, a hand beckoned, "Come, come with me" He appeared a respectable looking chap and I went. I followed him to a very smart looking 4WD and was directed to sit in the back. 'The strange but exciting idea that I was being taken hostage crossed my mind and I remembered briefly looking at my travel insurance before I left home, which stated that I was insured for £10,000 upon death but for £25,000 for loss of one or more limbs. I could see the logic of this, but I was slightly reassured to think that I was worth more hopping about on one leg than I was dead.

A boy of about ten leaned over the back of the passenger seat and started to chat; I was glad to be distracted from my morbid thoughts. His father was rich, very rich (the driver I assumed was just that, his father's driver) "He's a billionaire, not just a millionaire, but a billionaire," he said to make sure I'd heard correctly. The boy explained that he was going to be a lawyer when he grew up. Perhaps he had the idea that was how he could become a billionaire like his father. The more he talked the more excited he became and my thoughts returned to the idea that I was being taken hostage and that his friendly chatter was just a ruse to distract me, The street lights became dimmer and we appeared to be going in open country-side. Surely Terminal 2 was not this far out!! Anxiety began to replace my initial excitement.

Then we pulled off the road and my friendly Arab, after taking my bags from the boot, deposited me at the entrance to Terminal 2. A few dollars changed hands as my anxiety seeped away. It was about midnight now and my plane for Kabul was not due until 6.30 in the morning. I spent a pleasant night in quiet surroundings talking to a quiet American who was travelling to Kandabar to build barracks for the British Forces. Kabul Airport consisted of a small concrete building in the process of construction, or was it demolition? Luckily I was met by another friendly American, the CEO of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation where I was to work for the next two months.

The drive from the airport to the Foundation was my first view of Kabul, and the dominant colour was brown; brown houses, brown snow-capped mountains and brown mud. The mud was everywhere and, as most of the old houses were built of mud bricks and the outside rendered with yet more mud, when it rained part of the buildings appeared to be returning to the earth. The road was pitted with pot-holes and this made it difficult to decide which side of the road we were supposed to be driving on, as the main concern was avoiding serious damage to the vehicle as we swerved to left and rigid maneuvering round the craters.

The Foundation was housed in an eighteenth century fort built in the traditional way with mud! (A few weeks later we were to have a short visit from a 'Mud Architect' to advise on the construction and maintenance of mud buildings). The Foundation was set up to preserve the traditional crafts of Afghanistan and with an International (Spanish, American, Canadian, Swedish, English. Polish, Swiss and Afghan) staff, atmosphere in the fort was inspirational and the motivation of the young students to learn was refreshing to a jaded ex-teacher.

The Ceramics Department consisted almost entirely of potters from the village of Istalif about an hours drive north of Kabul. The Calligraphy Department teaches miniature illustration, illumination and biomorphic design and the Woodwork Department had taken craftsmen from the surrounding country-side to carry on the traditional Classical Kabuli and Nuristani carvings. The latter being very close to what we would recognise as 'chip carving'.

I was assigned to work in the Woodwork Department, giving lessons in wood technology and technical drawing. Here there were five Ustads (master craftsmen) and 25 students (By far the youngest was Sabul. He was about 12 years old and liked having his photograph taken). Although they were under cover the workshop was cramped. The Foundation had been in existence for less than a year and temporary workshops had been built to house the craftsmen for the approaching winter(06-07). But now new premises were being planned by the Mud architect. At the same time a Regeneration Programme is taking shape in the centre of Kabul - in the ancient bazaar of Murad Khani. This will provide infrastructure for the community, level and pave the streets, install water and sewage and deliver other services. The key engine for all this will be the Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture; placed in the heart of Murad Khani"

When I first visited the site in February 2007, the task of reconstruction looked daunting, and that was after 2 metres of garbage had been cleared from the site as confirmed by the tide mark at this height visible on the surrounding walls.

I had been warned that it could be "quite cold" in February as we were nearly 5000 feet up so I took a good supply of thermals and lots of layers of clothes. All rooms in the fort were heated with a stove called a bukari - a bucket of saw-dust with a hole in the middle. Lighting this was a little tricky; a lighted newspaper spill (the thick paper of the Afghanistan Times was excellent) was dipped into the hole and if you were lucky the surrounding sawdust ignited. Timing was important as the saw-dust usually burnt itself out in five or six hours but one of the simple pleasures in winter was going to bed with a glowing bukari.

In Afghanistan nothing is made for export, almost everything is imported including tools for the workshop. Tools of varying quality came mainly from China, Iran and Japan and of course the colourful Pakistani trucks trundled through the Khyber Pass. The Japanese tools were the most difficult to handle as the saws were sharpened to "pull' not 'push'. Looking for "Made in Britain" in the Kabul bazaars was a fruitless exercise!

I knew nothing of Afghanistan apart from what I had learnt from the media and I had a bare six weeks to brief myself before my departure on this exciting journey. I had been warned to be careful when leaving the security of the fort and going into 'hostile areas' but only once did I feel isolated. I had arranged to be picked up by transport from the Foundation in Chicken Street in the centre of Kabul but it didn't arrive. The battery on my mobile phone was dead, so I hailed a taxi. I couldn't make the driver understand where I wanted to go and a small crowd gathered. Things were getting out of control....

"Having trouble?" said a distinctive voice from the pavement. I told him my problem which he solved immediately. "Don't give him more than 100 Afghanis." Every aid worker accepts these occupational hazards and learns to adjust while exploring a foreign religion and a. strange country. Islam is not just the religion of Afghanistan; its observances are an essential part of the social life. I remember particularly one afternoon in the middle of the working day all the students gathered in the workshop and one of their number started to chant and the rest joined in. The few Dari words that I knew were inadequate to find out more. I could get no answer to my questions as to whether this was a special day, or that they just seemed to do whatever the mood took them. The greeting 'Salaam Aleikum"- Peace be with you - with the hand over the heart seemed to me to be a very pleasant greeting at the beginning of the day. It soon became clear that in any attempt to understand the Afghan character it is necessary to embrace their religion which is such an integral part of their lives even though some of them may have 'lapsed1.

I was kept quite busy with teaching and trips to the Timber Merchant in Kabul where great bulks of cedar a metre square and eight metres long were man-handled onto the handsaw. There were also visits to the Museum where craftsmen wrought delicate spider-web patterns from the same wood. It was during these outings that I discovered that not all the roads in Kabul suffered from pot-holes and as a consequence the traffic speeded up. A traffic controller was often stationed at busy junctions, officiously waving his arms about and in danger of being run over and universally ignored by the streaming traffic.

Afghanistan is a 'dry' country and it was obvious that the only people who knew where to get a drink were international aid workers. The Gandemak* turned out to be the local,

although it was not very local! One did not pay directly for the drinks but bought a book of tokens for the "Kabul Cricket Club" at a cost of $49!!! As far as I could tell, the clientele consisted solely of international aid workers as was the case with other watering holes.

*Gandermak, I latter found, was the last stand of the British in the first Anglo-Afghan War 1842

One Foundation colleague was Zabi (I'm sure I could not have got my tongue round his proper name even if I knew it) whose parents had fled to Germany to escape the Taliban. He was an architect and had the offer of a job with Richard Rogers in London. He was debating whether he should stay in Afghanistan where his skills were desperately needed or take the prestigious job in London? There must be many such dilemmas facing the young Afghan. Abdullen, the quiet efficient interpreter had once worked on the 'Afghanistan Times' and his brother had made a perilous sea voyage to Australia. His brother-in-law, who later attempted the same trip, found his over-loaded boat sinking and was rescued by a cargo ship.

Literacy classes were given to those who came to the Foundation without the ability to read their own language and English classes to help overcome the difficulties between the Afghans and the staff of the Foundation. On top of this we could volunteer to learn Dari, a branch of Persian spoken in Afghanistan.

The Islamic New Year fell on March 21st. Holiday time! I decided to celebrate the first day of 1386 by having a haircut. Very few of the streets in Kabul have street names and it is important to take notice of landmarks as you get further from base. The mosque is doubly useful here as at pavement level the mosque is spotlessly clean and you can see the minaret streets away. At times the mud shops were punctuated by a new building in concrete enclosed by a high wall. Rising above the wall classical columns supported elaborate arches pointed in primary colours. The structure seemed to be left there like a house on a Monopoly board, the tasteless, grandiloquent gesture of someone who had returned to Kabul with money. The problem of people without money was more immediate. The beggars are many and persistent and, although we were advised not to weaken, the easy way out was to give a few Afghani. This eased your conscience and allowed you to walk free for a few moments. One particular figure in a full blue burka stuck closely to my side, one of the many war widows of Kabul. If I walked close to a line of cars I could scrape her off my side. That seemed a good idea, until we met up again at the end of the line. Such persistence had to be rewarded.

It was easy to find a Barber's shop and I was given a slow and careful haircut followed by a head massage. I planned to spend the rest of the day exploring the area. Looking into a shop of unidentifiable food a voice behind me said "Hello!" I turned to face Sabul, the twelve-year- student, smartly dressed in a pin-striped suit (his Friday best) and his little sisters about six and four respectively. So we all went shopping. What exactly we were shopping for was not clear. We went into a toy shop. Did Sabul or his sisters want a cuddly bear? No. We went into a sweet shop. What about some sweets? No. We walked further down the road and came to a kite shop. The shop sold just kites, string and spindles. Did they want a kite? Of course they did. Kite flying is the national sport in Kabul We bought the kite and everything to get it lathe air and took it back to the fort.

There was little wind and I was doubtful that we would launch our red and yellow kite but Sabul appeared not to notice. I was directed to guide the delicate thing skyward while Sabul lugged on the cord. To my astonishment the kite shot into the air almost vertically. Sabul skillfully let the kite head for the freedom of the skies. In dumb show he instructed me how to hold the red of cord in the crook of my arm and feed the cord into his hands. The kite rose higher and higher and what currents of air held it up I don't know, unless it was the spirit of Sabul. The green and yellow kite rose above the muddy and pitted streets of Kabul into the lapis lazuli sky. Higher and higher above the grandiloquent villas of the rich, higher then the minaret, higher than the moving figures in their blue burkas. Suddenly Salad jerked on the cord and the diminished kite made a dipping arc to the left, another tug and the kite dipped to the right

Sabul was happy. He was happy controlling the movements of the kite and feeling the tug as it rejoiced in its freedom in the blue Afghanistan sky. I was happy watching his skillful handling of the kite and his intense concentration. I had found my kite runner. On New Year's day 1386.1 had found the kite runner of Kabul. No, that was not strictly true; the eponymous hero of Khaled Hosseini's novel was about the same age as Sabul, but Hosseini's Amir ran after the kite after it had been cut down by an opponent's cord covered with glue and ground glass. The maneuvering in the dipping arc was the way to cut the cord of the other kites so that they fell to earth. The owner of the last kite in the sky was the winner. Sabul was content to fly his kite without any fear of it being cut down.

The Taliban had forbidden kite flying by what twisted logic or perverted puritanical morality it is difficult to comprehend. The decrees relating to women and other cultural issues of 1996 stated that," To prevent kite-flying the kite-shops in the city should be abolished"

Did Sabul have any memories of the Taliban? Perhaps instinctively he did .Afghanistan is still not free, it is certainly not free of poverty. It is calculated that Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world. We were lucky to be living in the fort with comfortable beds, the rooms kept clean and tidy, hot and cold running water and cooking that would have been acceptable in a London hotel. My stay there was a short one and I had a return ticket, and I must have missed a lot that I should have noticed. Coming back to the excesses of England part of me wished I was back in Kabul

On the retrurn journey to the UK via Dubai, patiently waiting in a long queue for Passport Control I was quietly approached by on of the acolytes.

"You look tired Sir. Have you just come from Kabul?"


"Will you follow me please?"

Now I really was being taken hostage, but in the most refined, polite anal subtle wny~I was taken to the front of the long queue.

"You don't mind if this gentleman goes before you,, do you. He's just come from KabuL' he said to the chap at the front of the queue. He bad no time to reply as I was called forward to have my passport checked.

*The Kite Runner" by Khaled Bosseini. Bloomsbuny 2003


I am indebted to James Cornford for editing the above piece. Correcting all my spelling mistakes and my bad English.

David rawlins

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