Kabul, since 1776 the nominal if forever ignored capital of Afghanistan, hides itself within thousands of forbidding walls. Mounds of ancient brick race up hillsides, remnants of the fifth-century ramparts that failed to preserve decadent Hindu rule from Mughal conquest. Every private house and most public buildings are set inside mud and brick enclosures that give the city an unwelcoming air. Behind the walls, in gardens needing rain, lie separate huts for women, for cooking, for eating and for receiving guests. Only the shops open directly onto broken pavements, with random displays of carpets, stationery, books, computers, cameras, jewellery and mobile phones. The customers, like the shopkeepers, are men, most of them clothed in traditional sharwal khameez and jaunty turbans. 'Now and then,' Robert Byron wrote in 1933, 'a calico beehive with a window at the top flits across the scene. This is a woman.' Contemporary Kabul is closer to Byron's description than to a 1977 guidebook's city of 'mini-skirted schoolgirls'. The schoolgirls are now matrons, who venture out in their beehives to shop in the Women's Bazaar. Their mini-skirts long abandoned, they would not dare to enter a tea house or linger in a public square.
LRB 18 November 2004 | PDF Download