“No, I am not but I have lived in Kabul,” I said. “In Kabul Hotel, 1989?” he asked. “Yes, but how do you know?” I asked. “I know because I was there,” said the man who now looked very excited.
I had a closer look at him, trying to remember. “I am Raad, the Iraqi refugee who also lived in the same hotel and we spent many evenings together at that hotel.”
Now I remembered. “But you cannot blame me for not recognising you. You were a teenager then,” I said. “Not a teenager. I was 21,” said Raad.
“That was 23 years ago, you have aged,” I said. “So have you,” said Raad, “but I recognised you.”
He explained that he now had three kids, one of them almost as old as he was when I met him in Kabul. His wife had taken the kids to Iraq to spend Ramazan with her family. He was lonely. So he came to this shisha bar.
“Did not want to go to a regular bar during Ramazan,” he said. “I fast and also try to say my prayers, at least during Ramazan.”
It was a bitterly cold night in Kabul when I had my last meeting with Raad. The year 1988 was ending and a new year, which would see the Soviet occupation forces evacuating the country, was beginning.
The Afghan Mujahideen were still outside Kabul but the Soviet-backed communist regime was showing signs of weakness. In three months, the Mujahideen will push the Soviets out of their country. But, instead of restoring peace, they will bring more bloodshed and destruction. Their infighting will kill more than 50,000 people in Kabul and pave the way for the Taliban to capture the city in 1996.
The Taliban will bring even more suffering and turn Afghanistan into an international pariah by sheltering terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. Al Qaeda will attack the United States and the Americans who helped the Mujahideen defeat the Red Army, will invade and unseat the Taliban. And Afghanistan will plunge into yet another unending war.
But all this had not yet happened. Kabul was waiting patiently for the Russians to leave. Fear and uncertainty had paralysed everything.
Night curfew was the norm. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets.
Kabul Hotel, which closed after being hit by Mujahideen rockets, was still in operation. Inside, a little Iranian girl, Sosan, danced in a room crowded with refugees from Iraq and Iran.
Raad, an Iraqi Kurd, was one of them. He was to leave for France in two days, traveling on a visa issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The others, who awaited their visas, had gathered to celebrate the New Year. They were also celebrating Raad’s successful escape to the West, while lamenting his departure. They promised to meet again but their promises sounded hollow – and they knew it.
Sosan, barely 5, had grown attached to Raad during his 2-month UN-sponsored stay in the hotel. She danced to a taped cassette of Madame Gogoosh, an Iranian singer popular in the Shah’s days but later banned from performing in her homeland.
Suddenly Sosan stopped dancing, embraced Raad and both began to weep. “O Khuda (Oh God),” said Shaheedeh, 12, Sosan’s sister. Iranians and Iraqis, mortal enemies during the eight years of the Persian Gulf War, had become friends thrown together in that crumbling hotel hundreds of miles from home.
“Did you remember Sosan and Shaheedeh?” I asked Raad. “I do and often think about them,” he said. “Met them again?” I asked. “No, although I tried my best,” he said. “I remember, you were going to France, how did you end up in the US?” I asked.
“America is one country that everyone curses and still wants to come here,” said Raad.
“Since I had always liked America and had never cursed it, I kept trying to come here and I did.”
The Kabul Hotel, destroyed after the Mujahideen took over the city in April 1992 but restored again, had seen a lot of action. In mid 1970s, US Ambassador Adolph Dubs was kidnapped by radical Muslims and brought to a room in the hotel. A few hours later the room was raided by Afghan policemen on the orders of the Soviets. Dubs was killed in the shootout.
But the hotel would have presented an eerie sight even without that memory. Its corridors were so dimly lit that people involuntarily looked over their shoulders and quickened their pace when they left their rooms at night.
Even during the day, the place was not comfortable. Despite Kabul’s sub-zero temperatures; the heating had been turned off to save fuel. Kabul’s food shortage, which worsened after the Mujahideen take-over, meant that virtually the same fare was offered on the menu every day.
Chicken with rice, chicken with bread and chicken with nothing.
The hotel could accommodate 200 guests but there were only 50 staying there.
Journalists, diplomats and members of medical teams from the West gathered at the hotel every night and frequently got drunk. There was little else to do in that dismal city.
Friday afternoon was the bright spot of the week. This was when couples in Kabul liked to get married and the hotel had one or two wedding parties on most Fridays. The bridal couples and their guests usually wore western suits and dresses instead of the traditional chadors and loose shirts and trousers seen in the bazaars.
The parties would begin rather soberly, with all the guests sitting together and discussing the weather or politics over cups of green tea. Often there was a small bar behind the main wedding hall, but only the men went there to drink.
After a while, a band would start to play and the men would get up to dance with each other. Before long the women joined in.
But, some of the songs played at these joyous occasions, were surprisingly sad. The lyrics of one ran: “Oh, my beloved, come to me, come to me before it is too late. It will be no use coming when I am no more.”
The sadness was palpable at Raad’s farewell party, too. Everyone had fallen silent. The only sound in the room was that of the cassette player.
“Kiss me; kiss me, as the time to leave has come. Kiss me for the last time as the spring of my life comes to an end,” sang Gogoosh.
“Oh Khuda,” said Shaheedeh again.
“Don’t cry my little angel, don’t cry,” Raad consoled little Sosan. “We will meet again, and in better conditions, in Europe.”
But Europe seemed so far away, and the fears of the Iraqi and the little Iranian girl seemed so real.
Sosan, Shaheedeh and Gogoosh were victims of a revolution that had no place for them. Raad was disowned by Saddam Hussein’s Arab nationalism, which was unwilling to accommodate non-Arabs.
And the people of Kabul were victims of the three dominant political forces in the region: Islamic radicalism, socialism and nationalism. All three forces have contributed to the human tragedy that Afghanistan is today but the Muslim radicals bear the greatest blame.
The nationalists tried to create a Western nation state in a country that has not one but many nations with distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural features. The socialists tried to impose a secular ideology on a people known for their devotion to Islam. The Muslim radicals, who include both the Mujahideen and the Taliban forces, based their dreams of a pure and just Islamic society on people’s attachment to religion. But instead of delivering any of the goods they had promised, they led the country to its worst destruction.
Obscured by the dust raised in these ideological conflicts, are innumerable tales of human suffering and personal tragedy.
“With Saddam gone, Iraq must be a better place?” I asked Raad.
“Well, the Kurdish part is certainly better. The Kurds can now visit their homes, which was not possible under Saddam. But the people are still suffering.”
“The suffering will end,” I said. He laughed and said: “I learned a good lesson here in America. Before I was married, I once said to a girl I had just met that I loved her. She got very upset and said, ‘you should not say what you do not mean.’”
I was quiet.
“How is your country? Seems that you are heading for a big trouble,” he asked. “Seems so but there is still hope,” I said.
“Hope is all we have,” he remarked. “Look at Syria, so much bloodshed. Was it necessary?”
“But don’t you think the Arab spring has brought positive changes to your part of the world?” I asked.
“Perhaps, still too early to predict the outcome,” he said. “I am scared.”
“We all fear one looming disaster or another,” I said.
“Yes, we live between fear and hope,” said Raad, grabbing his hookah.
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