I do not remember the place of my birth for my parents left it when I was still an infant. I was told that the family had been allotted two rooms in a big house that belonged to my father’s uncle. My grandmother and her younger son, who was seventeen or so, occupied one of them and my parents used the other. One of these rooms served also as the living/dining room until late evening when the beds would be spread out on the floor. During the day, bed sets consisting of a blanket, a mattress and a pillow would each be rolled in a large piece of cloth and used as lean-tos placed along the walls. The family and any guests would sit on narrow mattresses and lean on the rolled-up beds.
The floors were usually made of a smooth plaster of very fine earth combined with wood ash and the dried-out flowers of the cattail rush which rendered a fibrous feathery substance. These materials were mixed with water, kneaded well, and called seemgil. It was then used to create a very smooth floor, difficult to crack, thanks to the rush ‘flower’ fibers. Such a floor would be as good as cement. Years later, imported cement was used for floors by those who could afford it. Still later, in the 1920s, Afghanistan began to manufacture cement and its use became more common.
In most instances people would either buy and spread reed mats on their floors, or have them woven wall-to-wall on the spot. This was the job of craftsmen from the southern province (later to be renamed Pactya) who
specialized in such floor coverings. Depending on the finances available, these straw or reed floor coverings would then be covered either with felt rugs, gilims, or hand-knotted carpets known in the Western world as oriental rugs.
Poorer families used only small pieces of straw mats to sit and sleep on. In the provinces, where the summer heat was intense, some people preferred to sleep on straw mat spread on their kutts (durable wooden frames woven tightly with reed ropes, sometimes in beautiful designs, sitting on four legs about 2 feet above ground). In such regions people simply covered themselves with a thin shawl at night.
Blankets and mattresses were filled with cotton, made fluffy by craftsmen known as naddafs, and the pillows were generally feather-filled. Years ago these naddafs would come to the streets of Kabul and call out their profession and homeowners would hire them in to fluff the old cotton padding of their mattresses or new cotton purchased for stuffing.
Families generally ate out of one large plate or bowl. They used no forks or spoons; their fingers were quite adept. It was generally understood that hands were to be washed before sitting for any meal. People also drank out of the same receptacle which was either kiln-baked, imported aluminum or manufactured tinplated copper containers.
During my childhood, china cups or glass containers were relatively unknown to the masses. When the economy improved, people were able to buy separate plates, cups and drinking glasses, first for house guests only, and later also for family members.
The same can be said of cooking utensils. They were either earthenware aluminum or tinplated copper pots. Bread was predominantly baked in individual homes on flat iron plates over hot wood and dung fires. In colder regions where it was advisable to make more than one use of the fire heat, people would build vertical ovens into the ground and arrange for the excess heat from the oven to be transferred via a labyrinthine structure underneath the main room of their home. This room, known as tawakhana, would have its floor made up of flat rocks turned smooth with seemgil and would thus be kept heated throughout the winter. There would be another baking oven elsewhere on the property for summer use.
The first house that I remember living in was one that had a small brick-laid yard. As you entered the yard, there was a room to your right, one straight ahead and yet another, a couple of steps lower, to your left. This latter room was our guestroom. Each one of these rooms had a back room, separated from the front room by sets of windows and a door. In other words we had six rooms some of which were used as store rooms or extra bedrooms. I do not recall the location of the kitchen in this house. Perhaps it was on the roof along with the inevitable toilet facility. A stairway led to the roof where we slept during the summer months and where clothes were hung on wash days and where I also watched the scenes of the battles against Ameer Habibullah, (aka, Bachai Saqaw).
We never lived in a home with a tawakhana. In the beginning, mother baked bread over a hot iron plate in the kitchen. Years later, the dough would be sent to the local bakery for baking. And then we had a vertical baking oven in our own purchased house. This was inside the yard to the right of the entrance and we could not use its heat to heat up any room.
In winter, when it snows profusely in Kabul, our family slept under a huge quilt, about twelve by twelve feet or more, placed on top of a large low table-like structure we called “sundali”. Immediately below the center of the sundali there would be placed a “munqal”, a container of charcoal ember covered with a thick layer of ash. Those with baking ovens made use of the still burning wood charcoal from the bottom of the oven after the bread was baked. The heat would reach everyone with the huge quilt spread out on all four sides. The charcoal container had short legs which rested on a square, metal-sheet-covered board to protect the carpet or other floor covering from catching fire. Cotton mattresses were placed on all four sides of the sundali. Every morning these mattresses would be replaced by smaller narrower ones and the wrapped bedding would be used as lean-tos on all four sides of the sundali. The huge quilt would also be folded on all sides so that we could sit around the sundali and cover our legs with it. Many years later we could afford separate rooms each with its own iron wood-burning stove. Our kitchens were always far away from our living and sleeping quarters mainly because of the wood smoke and the strong smell of spices so common in our cooking.
In the countryside, in those early years of my childhood, families lived in just one big room together with their livestock, generally one milking cow, or a sheep or a goat. All cooking, eating, sitting, and sleeping was done right there in spite of the smoke, the smell of livestock and the aroma of spices. There usually was one vent in the roof, which helped some.
Our earlier homes in Kabul did not have much of a yard and we, therefore, did not have a lawn or trees, or even a bed of flowers. I always longed for these. We used to grow some flowers in pots. The most common ones were geraniums, petunias and snapdragons. The first flower I ever planted was a huge petunia in full bloom that I uprooted from a spot by the wayside, away from any homes or farms. The family quizzed me extensively to make sure I had not taken it from some flowerbed. I was then given an old pot and shown where to dig some soil for it and exactly how to go about planting it in the pot. They told me that it might not flourish as it was already in full bloom and the root system also seemed quite dry. Well, it did not. I was heartbroken over the withered flower that just one day ago had looked so beautiful where it had been growing without any chance of a drop of water during the entire summer. Here at home I had killed it with all the care that anyone could ever give it. I blamed myself for removing it from the spot where it was doing so well.
Not all houses were alike. Depending on the financial background of the owners, there were many huge houses, some even mansion-like, with metal roofs, gates and driveways for horse-drawn carriages and even cars. Some had sizeable yards with shade and fruit trees, lawns and flowerbeds tended by professional caretakers.
One of our homes, mortgaged from its original owner around the time that I was in the l2th grade at school, did have a pear tree. We were there for just one year. That year I had some fun with the pears from that tree. At first, my sister and I and our three brothers, were instructed to wait until the fruit was quite ripe in order to pluck and eat it. But we soon discovered that as a pear ripened, it fell to the ground, of its own accord, and got smashed to a flat watery mush. With proof thus available, three of us mercilessly attacked the tree. I think I had more fun than my brothers and my sister. I could easily climb the trunk, reach past major branches and get to the pears, far out of the others’ reach. Sometimes, I would benevolently offer them a few.
You can’t imagine my ecstasy when, years later, I finally bought a plot of land, a little less than half an acre in size. I walled it in and had the ground floor of my own two-story home built in one corner. Then I planned the courtyard months in advance of the next spring which seemed never to want to come. My plan consisted of things that I had always wanted to have: A greenlawn, an orchard, hedge bushes and, of course, several beds of flowers, and garden vegetables. Within three years I had a veritable fruitery with grapevines, apples, pears and plums and flowerbeds with rare seeds sent to me by a dear friend from the United States, as well as many common Kabuli flowers.
Quite a few of the homes we lived in had wells in them. The well water was mainly used for washing, cooking and, where feasible,
gardening. Drinking water came to most of the city through a pipeline system distributing it from a central reservoir some distance up the eastern edge of the Asmayee.
Originally the water came from a number of springs in the summer resort of Paghman some fifteen miles west of the city. This was during the reign of Amir Amanullah (1919 – 1929). This water was delivered to homes by a special class of people called saqaws. They used huge tanned sheep or calf pelts, pulled off the carcasses, whole and uncut, except for the leg and head openings. Of these openings, the legs were either sewn up or tied permanently. The neck section was left open. The saqaws filled these hides, called mashks, through the neck opening, at the public faucets strategically located on residential sidewalks throughout the city, tied the opening with leather cords, and then hauled them on their backs to customers’ homes. The fee figure for this service depended on the distance between a customer’s home and the public faucet.
In earlier years during the dry summer months, these very saqaws, using the same mashks, were also leased by the Municipality, to carry water from the city brooks and spray the otherwise dusty city streets every day. The brooks originally diverted quantities of the Kabul River water for the farms around the city, but by the time they reached the farms, they were used as refuse dumps, and for washing all kinds of dirty things along their route through many residential areas and even people’s homes.
When the ill-effects of this pattern became known to both the homeowners and the city health authorities, the saqaws were required to use separate mashks for the delivery of drinking and cooking water to people’s homes. Of course in our city there were many people who could not afford to buy water for drinking and cooking. In such instances male members of families would fetch water from the nearest street faucets. They usually used a special contraption consisting of a wooden bar, some three or four feet long, with iron hooks attached to both ends from which two wooden bars, about two feet long, would be hanging. The outer ends of these bars also had hooks attached to them which would receive water pails or earthenware jugs. The men folk would fill their pails or jugs with water from the faucets in turn, and placing the wooden bar on their shoulders, would haul home their water. In almost every yard there was a special stand for three or four water jugs. They had earthenware covers. When needed, the jug would be tilted and water was poured out, and the jug was covered again for protection.
Homeowners with their own wells, often did not bother to use the municipality water even though they could carry it home at no cost. They would use the same well water for drinking, cooking, washing, and laundry. Some influential government employees, rich residents or big merchants had the Kabul Municipality extend the water pipeline into their homes, have a water meter installed and pay the monthly meter-readers’ bill for all the water they used. Pipeline water was not turned on all the time. It came on perhaps two to four hours a day and people would fill all sorts of containers with water so that they would have enough water until the next day.
Wash day was usually once a week. On this day, people who did not have a well, would buy river water from saqaws.
Our homes did not have the equivalent of today’s western bathrooms. People used outhouses, usually in a remote corner of the courtyard, with a small door on the street-side. The door was for the removal of waste matter by farmhands for use as fertilizer. The latter came to the city very early in the morning to gather the refuse from the toilets a few times every week and carry it off to their farms. For this purpose they used donkeys, whose braying disturbed the most desirable early morning sleep of the residents.
There usually was a small room in every house with a wood-burning stove on top of which there was an iron tank with a faucet. Homeowners heated water in these containers and then the family would mix hot and cold water to bathe. Some people, on the other hand, went to separate public hamams (baths) for men and women. I used to go to the one nearest our home with my mother and grandmother until I was about seven. Then they refused to let me into the women’s public bath.
Our first home with modern toilet facilities and a cesspool came into being about eight years or so after I returned home from my studies abroad, joined government service and acquired the necessary financial re
sources through a loan from the Government Mortgage and Construction Bank. The residential plot was sold to me by the Mayor of Kabul on a seven-year installment plan and the house was designed by the city Engineering Department for a nominal fee.
Our earlier homes did not have better functional situation. We required a guest room which was usually kept for guests only. So early on, when a guest came, the family would crowd in one room and the other would be used by the guest or guests. As our family grew in number, depending on the number of rooms available at the time, we would sleep in groups of two, three or more in one room. I shared a room with my grandmother. My father and mother and the then youngest child shared another and the rest of the children slept in a third bedroom. We had separate beds which, at first, consisted of a mattress, a pillow and a blanket and no sheets or bed spreads.
Years later kutts (cots) came into our home, first for the older members and then for all of us. There were eight of us in the family by the time I got married. During summer months kutts were comfortable to sleep on especially on the roof. But the carrying of the bedding from inside several rooms all the way to the roof was quite a chore and I was almost always one of the persons who had to haul bedding up and down.
All our homes, except for the very first when my parents lived with Dad’s uncle in the heart of the old city, were located around the Asmayee
Mountain, first on its eastern foothills, then on its lower northern, and finally, on its lower southern slopes. A major consideration in the choice of these homes was the amount of sunlight that came into various rooms in the morning or the afternoon.
When we moved to the south side of the Asmayee, we had more sunlight for longer periods as the distant mountains caused later sunsets as against our earlier homes when the Asmayee itself, with its over six thousand feet height, blocked the sun in the early afternoon during winter months.
Another reason for our preference of the later homes was their proximity to schools. There was no bussing for students and we either walked or rode bicycles. Also, the roads on the southern side of the Asmayee were asphalted as against the paved roads of the northern side. Of course, later on, when the New City was planned on the plains north of the Asmayee, asphalt roads came to that section first. The southern side Development Plan came into being many years later.
And where I finally built my own home, the streets around me were not even paved and remained so for several years. I was lucky as my home was right along the only asphalted road in the area leading to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The process of paving and black-surfacing the streets in the newly developed regions of Kabul began in the Sixties. Our section was named
Jamal Maina after Sayyed Jamaluddin Afghani, a famous Afghan philosopher, emancipator, and revolutionary personality. He traveled all over the Middle and Near East and Europe and finally passed away in Turkey. His remains were brought home and buried in a mausoleum later to become the focal point of Kabul University.
We had electricity ever since my childhood. There were occasions when certain sections of the city would have electric light on alternate nights of the week. This, however, did not last long. Our electricity was generated by water and, as I grew up and the population of Kabul increased, more and more hydroelectric power was generated and everyone enjoyed a continuous supply of electricity for lighting and heating. When we did not have power for some reason, we used candles or kerosene lamps.
The countryside, even near the city of Kabul, did not have electricity until the late seventies. Smaller cities and towns gradually got diesel generators which supplied electricity during the early evening hours only and candles and kerosene lamps remained in general use all over the country.
By the late Sixties and early Seventies, major water conservation and regulation schemes were in place on the Helmand and Arghandab Rivers in southwest Afghanistan. The Arghandab Dam was completed and its hydroelectric generators supplied abundant electricity to Kandahar
and some neighboring towns and provinces. In fact, it was considered a major source of revenue for Afghanistan if some of the huge electric output of the Kajaki Dam, built with the technical and financial assistance of the United States, could be sold to Baluchistan. But relations with Pakistan worsened politically and the possibility was never realized.