AT 50, Ahmad Shah has been battling addiction for more than 30 years. Now, after three decades of dependence he is finally on his way to recovery at a newly opened drug treatment centre in Kabul. Located on the site of what was once the largest foreign military base in the country, the Ibn Sina drug treatment centre currently houses more than 800 other men struggling with addiction.
However, even here, Shah, a native of the eastern province of Ghazni, stands out. Whereas the majority of the 800 other patients first encountered illicit substances — including opium, heroin and crystal methamphetamine — in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, Shah had his first exposure in Kabul.
Even his substance of choice, alcohol, sets him apart from the other patients. “I never touched a drug in my life,” he says proudly, but that pride quickly dissipates when he recounts his decades-long battle with alcoholism that spanned several countries across two continents.
Shah was 18 when he had his first taste of alcohol in the Communist-ruled Afghanistan. Though at the time alcohol was readily available, it was still very much the domain of well-to-do urbanites who had the financial and social resources to access it. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs and businessmen, access was not something he lacked, and he quickly grew addicted. Soon, he found himself needing two to three bottles a day to function.
Exhibiting a penchant for the arts — drawing, calligraphy and painting — from an early age, Shah’s family feared that his addiction would rob him of his obvious talents. But, somehow, he managed to function and even use his art to help fund his growing addiction. “People have always bought my artwork for a lot of money.”
Unlike many other patients, Shah never had to work on construction sites in Iran, where Afghan refugees are often discriminated against. He also never lived in squalor among hundreds of other addicts under the bridges and in the parks of the Afghan capital. Instead, he travelled across Europe and Asia, where he studied art for eight months in Kiev in Ukraine and worked in Russia and Poland.
During the final year of Taliban rule, Shah travelled to Austria, where he tried to seek asylum. After three years of waiting, he returned to Afghanistan. “It became increasingly evident that I could wait forever and I still wouldn’t get asylum.”
When he returned in 2003, Shah found himself in a new Afghanistan. The Taliban — who had banned music and films, much less alcohol — had been replaced by the Western-backed interim government of Hamid Karzai.
Even the newly flourishing war economy that came with the US-led invasion worked to his advantage as he found an entirely new customer base for his art.
But that new, lucrative income source also helped fuel his addiction for another 13 years. Though prices soared — between $40 and $150 per bottle — under the Karzai government (who also outlawed the sale of alcohol) Shah, once again flush with cash, began frequenting stores in the capital’s Kochei Gol-foroshi, Flower Street. There, he and hundreds of other Kabulis would patronise stores that dealt in the contraband substance. Shah carried on like this for years.
It wasn’t until earlier this year when Ashraf Ghani, the current president, ordered that Camp Phoenix, a former US-run military installation, be turned into a drug treatment centre that Shah seriously began to consider kicking his dependence on alcohol. Shortly after the centre first opened its doors in January, Shah voluntarily turned himself over for treatment. “It was the best thing I ever did. I wish there was a centre like this years ago.”
After going through a modified 45-day treatment plan, Shah has become a model patient at the centre. His skills have been put to use in everything from signs and paintings to murals that the ministry of public health, which oversees the site, hopes will beautify the former military base that was stripped to the bare bones after the US handed over the site late last year.
Beyond the beautification of what was once the largest foreign military base in the country, doctors at the centre hope his talents will serve as an inspiration to other Afghans dealing with substance abuse. “He could have easily let the alcohol get in the way of his God-given gift, but instead here he is using it to the benefit of other people dealing with the same difficulties as he is,” said one doctor at the centre.
Shah has even begun teaching art courses at the centre. Among his three pupils is one doctor. “With my sobriety and my art at my side, I am confident I can go back out into the world and reconnect with my family. I will never be able to express my gratitude,” says Shah in paint-soaked clothes near one of the murals that fill him with much pride for what he has managed to accomplish in the last few months.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2016