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Story Publication logo September 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Countries: Tourism in Afghanistan


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Dost Mohammad Fahim Khairy, an Afghan who left his country in a time of great turmoil and was...

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MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- The kinds of tourists you meet in Afghanistan are not quite the same as those you'd be likely to meet on the Costa del Sol. First of all, there are fewer of them, far fewer -- perhaps only a few hundred a year. But if it can be said that Costa del Sol tourists share at least one trait in common (a love of the sun), today's visitors to Afghanistan share something else: curiosity, perhaps with a dash of recklessness. While post-invasion Afghanistan has never descended into the kinds of violence and anarchy seen in Iraq, it is by no means a safe place to visit. In recent months, the country has seen a tangible resurgence of the Taliban, which has been striking out from its strongholds along the border with Pakistan, bringing casualty numbers to their highest levels since the 2001 invasion.

Yet a visit to the country makes it clear that today, there are two Afghanistans: one at war, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and another at peace, with levels of stability that vary from the jittery and paranoid Kabul to the carefree city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, where I spent most of my time during a reporting trip in May. I stayed at the Barat hotel (one of two in the city, I was told), where I had an entire floor to myself, as did each of the six other guests. The hotel overlooks Mazar's signature Blue Mosque, a sprawling complex of pools, green areas and zones of prayer that becomes a bustling confluence of Mazar life every evening. The sunsets are sublime, with the dying rays catching the thousands of white doves, the splash of children playing in the fountains, the flowing movement of burqas and the wisps of smoke from men gathered to chat.

The tourists I met told me they'd come to see what Afghanistan was like behind the headlines they had read in the West. But others had come with a mission. One woman I met from Switzerland had come to understand the plight of Afghanistan's disabled. She herself was in a wheelchair and had made the journey to see how a country with an estimated 10 percent of its population disabled by war and disease is dealing with the problem. The answer she found: not very well.

I had come for two reasons: to see how Afghanistan at peace had been changed through development, and to see the parts that hadn't changed, relics of oppression both physical and psychic that have yet to become truly a thing of the past. Because to visit the Afghanistan at peace is to have the security and freedom to witness the remnants of Taliban oppression first hand, before they are brushed away forever.

Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th century fortress located 20 kilometers outside Mazar-i-Sharif, is one of these untouched artifacts, an unadulterated testament to the victory of Western forces over the Taliban in the north of the country. It was at Qala-i-Jangi (or "House of War" in Persian) that the Taliban offered its final, dying throes of resistance during the initial offensive by the Northern Alliance, backed by U.S.-led coalition forces. Some 300 Taliban fighters being held by the Northern Alliance in the fortress rose up and fought for seven days before being subdued under extremely heavy artillery fire.

The bullet holes along the walls of the fortress remain unplastered. The rusty remnants of tanks and heavy artillery lie strewn around. Graffiti scratched into black scorched walls say things like "Long Live the Taliban" in Persian and, in Urdu, "In Memory of Mullah Mohammad Jan Akhond," a Pakistani Taliban fighter who died in the conflict. I am told this by my tour guide Shoib, who knows because he was there as a translator for the U.S. army. As the parts of Afghanistan that have been secured since 2001 take advantage of their newfound stability to rebuild, people like Shoib, who have worked as translators for the army and press since 2001, are now also serving as guides for Afghanistan's miniscule, yet slowly growing tourism industry. For anyone visiting Afghanistan, these guides comes with an incredible added value: direct, first-hand experience of some of the most crucial moments in the country's recent history.

Mazar-i-Sharif and the surrounding region is one of the most stable places in Afghanistan, and this stability enables visitors to ignore, for the most part, the reality that much of the country is at war. In Mazar, where troops are nowhere to be seen, it is easy to forget that this security is propped up by the presence of 71,000 foreign troops in the country and dependent on the continued willingness of the United States and NATO to remain there. Walking around on one's own, mingling and shopping are not a problem. Shops offer crafted wood, woolen hats, colorful hand-woven Uzbeck tapestries, and an array of hand-made carpets, some of which depict moments of historical significance for Afghanistan: the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 and the arrival of the U.S.-led coalition forces in 2001.

The changes that have come to Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth biggest city, are so great that in some cases returning refugees who left during the war struggle to find not only their bearings, but the streets and houses where they once lived. Modern glass and concrete buildings have sprung up next to the traditional earthen houses. Many of the roads have been paved, punctuated by elaborate roundabouts that have been built in public-private partnership: local businesses fund the construction and for their efforts are allowed to erect plaques, signs and structures in the center to advertise their businesses.

The city is in flux. Signs of Western influence abound -- new schools, wells, roads all bear plaques attesting to French, Japanese, and Swedish sponsorship. Billboards along the new roads betray a newfound consumerism: Young, confident professional-looking men and women smile out at passersby while conversing on sleek new mobile phones. Yet against the new, signs of the old Afghanistan abound.

And as with Qala-i-Jangi, the faintest details tell the story of the by-gone Taliban era. Windows on the fronts of most houses are narrow horizontal strips located high above the ground. Shoib, my guide, tells me this was not always so. Afghans used to have windows that let in light from the street, but the Taliban deemed visibility of the domestic realm from the outside indecent, ordering that front windows be bricked up.

The cracks along the walls of the Sultan Razia High School for Girls hark back to the school's previous use as a Taliban base in the city. These cracks are the remnants of the bombing of the school by the U.S. Air Force in its assault on the Taliban strongholds of Mazar-i-Sharif in late 2001. The fresh swaths of plaster next to the cracks herald the return of the building to its intended purpose: a center of female literacy and empowerment in Mazar. The school educates 5,000 of Mazar's young women, all of whom were denied education under the Taliban regime. But every positive sign here has a negative analogue elsewhere in the country's less stable regions. The Taliban has made girls' schools like Sultan Razia one of its frequent bombing targets in an effort to undo what is sees as the "creeping rot" of Western influence in Afghanistan.

But not here in Mazar-i-Sharif. At mid-afternoon a shrill bell is rung by a wizened, hunched woman and a sea of girls pours down the stairs, dressed in black tunics and white head scarves, flooding the courtyard outside, where they gradually don their pleated burqas and advance towards the main gate to rejoin the bustle of Mazar.

Artillery and manpower are still the key weapons against the Taliban insurgency to the south. In the rest of the country, concrete does the job. Building roads through once anarchic regions is a means of consolidating the hard-won stability the invasion has brought. International development groups have spent more than $2 billion on Afghanistan's roads since 2001. The infrastructure improvements not only increase development in previously hard-to-reach areas but also rob the guerrillas in Afghanistan's asymmetrical war of their key asset: the territorial upper hand.

Development here may move to the beat of a Western drum, but change comes slower among the people. Legacies of the Taliban era, like the reduced windows, are all around. And they are not just structural. Among the people, there is a fear of retribution, a reluctance to criticize authority; acts of such defiance would have landed you in jail -- or worse -- a decade ago. The message to the West is that Afghanistan is free, yet there are red lines everywhere: the government leadership, the locally eradicated poppy harvest, the hashish cultivation that has replaced it. People are afraid to speak about such sensitive issues, Shoib tells me. Remaking the city has been a question of security, will and investment. The fear deeply instilled among the people by the Taliban years takes much longer to fade away.

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