Weapons and I

We had just moved to Nawabad, a section of Kabul with relatively newer homes. It was at the northern foothills of the Asmayee, a mountain which sat in the heart of the city from east to west. About six thousand feet high, it was highly favored by the city kids who used its snow-covered slopes with home-made sleds during the long winter months, roamed it in search of spring flowers and played kites on its bare foothills and other promontories during the spring and fall seasons. During the summer months, it was frequented by snake charmers who went there looking for snakes.

My parents moved from our home at Sare Howze Deh-Afghanan to Nawabad soon after the civil war ended. Habibullah Bachai Saqaw was no longer King. Instead, General Mohammed Nadir Khan was now the Shah of Afghanistan. People were happy that peace had finally come and there would be an end to arrests, imprisonment and killings, sometimes by hanging, at the beginning of Char Chatta, the covered baazaar (bazaar) of Kabul. My parents, too, were very happy. Especially so as they had just moved into their own first-ever home in the city. Until then, we were either renting or lived in homes as mortgage-holders on the properties of others.

I missed the old place for I had lots of experiences there: In the beginning of the civil war, my parents sealed off an inner room in our home in such a way that no one could know it was there. In it the family kept some of our copperware, china, a few items of clothing, bedding and the like which we did not need or use regularly. If items of Mother’s and Grandmother’s jewelry were also stowed away, I had no inkling of it.

There was a hole in the roof through which my parents would lower me, from time to time, to find and haul up something they needed. Every time they sent me down with a rope tied to my waist, I felt a sort of pride that I was doing something no one else could. This lasted until the end of the war.

I was playing on the roof of our home one day when I saw a real battle between the uniformed soldiers of Bachai Saqaw and many men dressed like farmers, on the eastern slopes of the Asmayee just west of our home. The soldiers were shooting at the plainclothesmen from some buildings which I later discovered were housing the Kabul drinking water reservoir and government guards.*

After the abdication of King Amanullah (January 14, 1929), his brother Sardar Enayatullah was declared King. Three days later, he and his family left Afghanistan for Peshawar and later joined King Amanullah in Kandahar for a while before going to Iran with his family. It is being said, that upon arriving in Tehran, he recited the first verse of a poem by the great poet of Sheraz, Iran, which says:

Maa badeenjaa na paye hashmato jaah aamadayame
Az bad-e-haadesa eenjaa ba panaah aamadayame
“We have not come here seeking rank and pomp.
“Ill fortune has landed us here for refuge.”

As for King Amanullah, he was encouraged to stay on and fight Habibullah who had taken Kabul and the royal palace and proclaimed himself Ameer. Actually, Habidullah was a thief and a highway bandit in the plains of Shamali. He was born in the village of Kalakan some thirty miles north of Kabul, an illiterate person who had once served in the army of Ameer Amanullah as a soldier. He had elected to take up stealing as a profession. In the light of restlessness elsewhere in the country resulting from negative outside propaganda that the Afghan King had given up Islam and was, therefore, legally not worthy to rule, some elements in the King’s entourage encouraged Habibullah Kalakani, known generally as Baschai Saqaw, the son of water carrier, to raise a revolt and attack Kabul. He agreed and carried the matter through and succeeded. King Amanullah, returned from Kandahar to fight back but was discouraged by some elements of his entourage and he left Ghazni for Kanadahar and abroad. He left the Afghan soil on May 23, 1929 via Chaman and Quetta for Italy. His body was brought many years later to Afghanistan and he was buried beside his late father in Jalalabad.*

The soldiers guarding the reservoir were a part of the Bachai Saqaw army and the attackers were the militia of General Nadir Khan. Father had told me that Nadir Khan was a great soldier. He was once the Commander-in-Chief of the Afghan army and it was he who had conquered the Thal Cantonment of the British India Government during the Afghan War of Independence. It was due to that conquest that Amir Amanullah Khan had his name engraved at the foot of the Independence Monument just to the east of the Royal Palace.

And when he became ill, the Amir sent him to Paris in France as his ambassador so that he could also be treated there. He later resigned from his post and continued his treatment when Bachai Saqaw started his revolt against the Amir and finally caused the Amir to go into exile. Now Nadir Khan had returned to Kabul to save it from bloodshed and other atrocities perpetrated by Bachai Saqaw. Hence the fight that I was then watching.

Suddenly I saw a lot of men rush up the mountain toward the reservoir saying “Ya Char Yar!” (O, Four Companions! an allusion to the Four Caliphs of Islam). Soon there was a big fight between the soldiers and the militia. Several men fell to the ground screaming in pain. There were loud cries of Allaho Akbar, Allaho Akbar (Allah is Great). Swords and large knives glittered in the morning sun as they were swung around wounding people on booth sides. More men fell. Soon, there were very few soldiers left and the fighting seemed to be over. Just then some militia rushed to a locked door and broke it with the butts of their rifles. The men rushed in, only to come out almost immediately and just stand there not knowing what to do next. All this was happening within my hearing. I heard someone say there was only water there. So they had broken into the reservoir believing it was the storage for ammunition and guns. Shortly afterwards I saw them running down the slope with cries of Allaho Akbar. They had conquered the guards of the Capital’s water reservoir. I did not see any soldiers there any more. The militia, however, came there again and again and shot many volleys at the city below. They were perhaps shooting at the strongholds of the soldiers elsewhere in the city.

All this was very exciting to me. As soon as it seemed to have ended, I rushed down to tell my mother and grandmother what I had just seen from our roof. But everybody was mad at me for standing there on the roof all the time watching the fight especially while all those bullets were being fired in every direction. I assured them that none of the bullets were fired in the direction of our home but this did not help any. I was forthwith ordered to a room for the rest of the day and its door was locked from the outside. I cried and cried and finally fell asleep crying. Later that day I was let out and warned not to repeat the incident. Thereafter, I simply did not tell anyone what I saw of the ongoing battles.

On another occasion some kids and I went to the main street close to our home to collect blank cartridges and used bullets. Many of them were lying around on the street corners. We found some bullets whose conical ends were bent upon impact with rocks. Those we did not gather.

We enjoyed whistling through the narrow openings of the cartridge shells by holding them at a certain angle and blowing into them. That was fun. I brought some home and was immediately reprimanded for doing things I had been forbidden to do. My treasure of the day was confiscated.

Yet another time I saw a man with three rifles by his side and lots of cartridges adorning him. He sat by the way side and was busy separating and counting a heap of mixed coins. I recognized the coins. There were the big dull red tangas, three of which made one rupia. There also were some bigger, thinner yellow coins which were sanars and, of course, there were the paisas. The silver half rupia pieces were smaller than the rest. These were called Qerans. The rupia coins were thicker larger silver ones. The man was separating his rupias and qerans from the rest of the coins. When this was finished, he produced a long narrow bag from his waist and, pouring all the rupias and qerans in it, tied it around his waist again. I also knew the bag. It was called hamyani and all travelers carried their money in them. He then started on the tangas and the rest of the money. In all the time he was doing this, he did not bother to look up even once to see that we were watching him. The sanars and the paisas followed. He put all the other coins in handkerchiefs and put them away in the middle of his shawl. Only then he looked up and seeing us, smiled, perhaps at the thought of having impressed some small city kids with his riches. He offered each of us a few paisas and we took them. This time, I received a fine spanking from Grandmother for accepting money from a stranger. I was also under house arrest for a good many days as no one knew how to make me behave.

When next I went to the street, it was with a little neighbor girl. A passing cotton candy seller stopped to inquire if we wanted to buy some of his delicious sweets. I told him we had no money. He said it was quite all right and that he would sell us some for the little bangles the neighbor girl was wearing. She was pleased and he helped her take them off and he put them in his pocket. He then gave us large puffs and went his merry way. We both ran home with our acquisition only to be told that I had foolishly allowed the salesman to steal the little girl’s silver bangles for some candies worth less than a sanar. Our excitement was very short-lived for Grandmother took what was left of the cotton candies and ran to the street to recoup the silver bangles. She was pulling me along with her as she ran. Of course, the man was nowhere to be seen. We returned home empty-handed and I was again punished for having done something terribly wrong in the street. O, God! Why was it that all my ideas of having a good time were wrong? And why did Grandmother treat me so harshly? It seemed she had a greater say in my life and activities than my mother. Father also always supported her position on matters around the house. I loved her when she was good to me. I got the best piece of meat at dinner, money and candies during Eid or Jashn festivals, fruits and nuts whenever we had some at home. She saw to it that my clothes were clean and neat whenever we went out. She was my shelter and protector at home and in the street when I was badly treated by someone. But I hated her when she punished me for every little thing she thought I had done wrong and for telling Father on me when her own punishment of me was not considered enough. This love and hate situation continued for many years. Later in life, however, I found out that she was right most of the time and I should indeed not have done most of the things that I did during my childhood.

During the Bachai Saqaw period, which lasted about a year, Father was out of a job for a while and then he went to work for the Electric Company. During the last years of Amir Amanullah Khan’s rule, he was a clerk in the Afghan Parliament. Father missed his old job and always hoped that some day he would again be able to work for the government. During the civil war, he was secretly helping the militia of General Nadir Khan. There were times when many men would come to our house at nightfall, eat, discuss matters with Father and among themselves and later go to sleep in our guest room. At times, they would talk rather heatedly and that generally woke me up. In the mornings, they would be gone by the time I woke up. Sometimes they would leave their rifles and ammunition in that room and Father would simply lock the room. Sometimes they would bring lots of money which they shared among themselves. Father rarely talked to us about them and they seemed to have a high regard for him. They always spoke Pukhto.

One evening Father told me that we would be going somewhere that night. He warned that it would mean a long walk. I was thrilled and ready. In the past, he had taken me with him to some really pleasant parties. I thought this would be something similar. But, no! This one began in some excitement and turned in a tiring experience.

We went to the guestroom after Father unlocked it. I saw four or five rifles and many bandoleers there. I was made to wear several rows of bandoleers around my shoulders and my waist. Lengths of rope kept everything in place on me. I then put on one of Father’s jackets to cover the bandoleers. I thought I weighed a ton right there. An old shawl was then wrapped around me and I was ready. I did not have a shawl or a jacket of my own. The fact that I was wearing them gave me a feeling of a grownup man, something like the militia that I had seen at times in the street with all those bandoleers criss-crossing their velvet vests. Father then wore the remainder of the bandoleers of cartridges, hung the rifles on his shoulders and had grandmother wrap his shawl over all of them. He then announced our readiness. Both mother and grandmother silently watched us as we left the house. I saw tears flowing down their cheeks and was puzzled. Were we going to war? Did this mean that we may not come back? But Father did not show any sign of worry or concern. And there was no reason to weep. We were simply going somewhere and Father knew what he was doing. I knew we were safe in spite of all those guns and cartridges, for Father had, time and again, warned me of the danger of handling cartridges and he would not make me wear them if he knew we would be in danger. As I walked by his side down the street, I felt great. Father chose to take the back alleys and I trudged along with him as best I could. The weight of the ammunition slowly began to bear down on me. I thought of the war that was going on. What if we came face to face with the enemy? We had the weapons. We could do battle right there and then. Did Father think I was grown up now? The mere thought elated me. I felt like seventeen already. Ammunition weight, go away, right now! Alas, We both soon discovered that I was only seven years old and way too young to walk long distances with all that weight. So we paused from time to time in dark spots along the way. I was asked to sit on the ground for a few minutes. Then Father would lift me up and we would walk on again.

I have no idea how long it took us to reach our destination, an inn in another part of the city where Father found the Pukhtoons who used to come to our home. We entered a room with many people gathered in it. They greeted Father and expressed anxiety over the long distance we had covered with all that weight and immediately removed the ammunition from us. I was offered fruit and candies and Father was treated with a cup of hot tea and lumps of gur (brown sugar in lumps). I suddenly felt light as a feather and very pleased with my accomplishment. But I also felt very tired and was soon fast asleep with my head on Father’s laps. I woke up in the morning to whispered conversation between Father and some of the men I had seen last night. Tea, hot bread and salty soft cheese constituted our main breakfast. I was especially treated to a piece of rote, the flattened sweet bread, which I liked so much. Afterwards we said goodbye to our Pukhtoon friends who thanked us again for the delivery of the weapons during the night and started on our way home.

I was not wearing Father’s old jacket any more. It was gone. The shawl felt good around me although I had a hard time keeping it from slipping down my shoulders. We were returning via the main roads. We soon passed by a bridge. Father described it as the Yak-paisagi bridge. When I questioned him about the bridge costing only one paisa to build, he laughed and said that at one time every one who crossed it to the other side of the Kabul river, would pay one paisa to the Collectors. He added that Amir Amanullah Khan had abolished the charge and renamed the bridge Ali Mardan Khan bridge but people still called it by its old name. Walking on, we came to another bridge, the Puli Khishti bridge. I recognized it for I had already gone shopping to the baazaar over that bridge with my parents on several occasions. It was really a spectacular bridge built with red brick. Kabul’s covered baazaars started here. It was always very crowded. There were all kinds of shops on both sides of the covered baazaars. They seemed to be in two layers, one sitting on top of the other. The lower shops started from the floor of the baazaar and reached a height of about four feet. One had to sit or bend down to do business down there. Mostly cobblers, shoe polishers, locksmiths and many other small business salesmen worked there. The shops above them were the more specialized ones. One never did go into the shop. One only did business standing in front of it most often to the detriment of the small shop owner below. In the Puli Khishti baazaar they sold, gold and silk embroidered caps, silk and cotton turbans, gold thread paizars (a very ornate footwear both for men and women), chaplies and regular leather shoes. Father had bought me a pair of paizars from this baazaar only a year ago. He had a Peshawari friend in a section of the baazaar called Sarai Zardad. He did most of his purchases from him or through him. I loved to hear him speak Pukhto with Father. He spoke our language so beautifully. It was his language too, but he did not speak it like my countrymen.

Toward the far end of the baazaar there were shops for people who sold all sorts of candies and cookies, dried fruits and, in spring and early summer, falooda and sheeryakh. These last two items lasted as long as there was snow on the nearby mountains. The main ingredients of falooda were snow, some kind of cream, brown or white sugar, powdered pistachios and rose water. Sheeryakh was solidified sweetened cream, sugar and milk (using snow and salt as agents.) Once or twice a year we were treated royally by Father and ate falooda and sheeryakh in these shops. These were the only shops which had sections curtained off for men and women to enter, sit at tables and eat these most delicious items in family privacy.

On this day we also passed a third bridge, called the Baghi Umoomi (public garden) bridge. I had also seen this one before. It led to some public gardens built by Amir Amanullah Khan for public enjoyment. Right across the bridge there was a beautiful circular bandstand or a speakers’ podium that had a metal roof. It overlooked the gardens where people sat to hear someone speak to them or to listen to the Municipality’s music band. Also, people mostly from out of town, used it during the early afternoon to escape the heat of the sun. Further on, the gardens’ flower beds and shrubbery hedges were carefully looked after by the Kabul Municipality. To the south of the gardens, there were some soccer and hockey fields.

When we finally reached home, it was nearly noon. We were greeted so eagerly by everybody that you thought we had just returned home after years abroad. Very soon we learned that the night before, agents of Bachai Saqaw had arrived at our door almost immediately after our departure, and had searched the entire house. Afterwards they had said they had definite information that Father was harboring men from Nadir Khan’s army who also kept their loot in our home. They had further stated that they would come again in the morning to take Father away for questioning. This they did that very afternoon. Thank goodness, he returned later safe and sound but said that the Pukhtoons would have to stop coming to our home for a while as our street would be under surveillance for quite some time.

Luckily the Bachai Saqaw forces were defeated shortly afterwards. He was captured and killed. Kabul, once again, became a peaceful city with King Mohammad Nadir at the helm. It was no longer dangerous for me to go into the street or to the nearest baazaar on small errands such as buying groceries and things which Grandmother herself did during those bloody civil war days.