The Feast of Eid in a new Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

As George Bush was sworn in as President for a second term yesterday, Shah Mohammed was spending the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha at home in Kabul with his family.

Eid is a time to take stock, reflect on the past and consider the future, and the Afghan businessman was counting his blessings like all good Muslims on the holy festival.

Since the fall of the Taliban who jailed him and persecuted his country, Kabul's economy has boomed, reconstruction is well in hand, and security is better than it was although nobody ever feels completely safe these days.

"Things are definitely better," he said. "Construction workers are making six times as much money and people have cash to spend. To give you an example, I have sold 2,500 copies of the collected works of Shakespeare in Persian in the last three years, compared to only 250 in 15 years before that." But as he cradled his son Timur in his arms, the Kabuli who became famous as The Bookseller of Kabul feels uneasy about his nation's future.

"Corruption is out of control, there is so much poverty even though some are getting rich, and we wonder if we Afghans are really in control of our future.

"Drugs money is rebuilding Kabul and the mafias are stronger than ever. "When I think about my son's future, I really don't know what it will be." Shah Mohammed gained notoriety as a domestic tyrant in the 2003 bestseller by a Norwegian journalist who lived with his family for a while.

He insists she misunderstood his culture and libelled him personally.

Before under the Taliban that he had quietly but bravely outlined the truth about Afghanistan to foreign visitors in his bookshop in the Intercontinental.

The Taliban mistrusted him. They scribbled black ink over human faces on his volumes and locked him up a couple of times. Before that he had survived vicious fighting in the city, and before that Communist purges of intellectuals.

The Taliban always shadowed foreigners closely but they never discovered that he was the source of most of the stories they hated about the grim reality of life in Kabul under their regime. After September 11th he was able to hold court to the foreign press pack that descended on the city, and he is still first point of contact for many visiting journalists.

Shah Mohammed is a fearless and honest critic of men in power, whether they are in Washington or Kabul, and a barometer of opinion on the street in Kabul.

Like other Afghans, years of seeing his countrymen destroy their land while foreigners meddled has made him deeply cynical. "Sometimes I feel I am in the dark, watching a movie," he said. "These warlords are players - they are like actors - and we don't know how the plot ends. We don't know who the director is.

"Perhaps it is the foreign powers who direct the film. First it was Russia, then Pakistan. Perhaps now it is the United States." Over tea and cakes Shah Mohammed complains that there is still no electricity. He has to run a generator. Few can afford such luxuries.

Outside in the winter streets a snowstorm blows in from the Hindu Kush mountains. Grey shapes of huddled men and women in billowing burkhas were moving like a swarm from house to house through swirling snow, a mediaeval scene that belied Kabul's new superficial modernity.

On Eid the poor approach the houses of the rich to beg for meat, and this year in Kabul the poor are legion.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have streamed into the city from the camps of Pakistan seeking a dream of home. Many have been lucky, but thousands more have ended squatting in bombed out wrecks of houses wondering what happened to the rebirth of their country they had heard of in the camps.

Three old men carrying bloody sacks of charity meat through the snowstorm had trudged the streets all day.

"Life is hard in Kabul now," said Abdul Zahair, who spoke up for them.

"It is better for the rich than for poor men like me. I have my children to feed and no job." He had never heard of George Bush. "America got rid of the Taliban which was good," he said.

"But they have done nothing to help my family." Kabul's poor seem to grow in number by the day, women in filthy burkhas risking the roaring traffic to hold out a pleading hand at the foreigners in huge four wheel drives.

A new tribe of ragpickers has sprung up, scrambling for rubbish from the garish villas of the nouveau riche built with drug money. The poor don't seem to belong in the new Afghanistan, the world being rebuilt by America that has created a class of the smart young in jeans, obsessed with computers.

Instead the refugees crawl into the ruins to live. One man, Najibullah, spent Eid trying to stay warm in the one room which he and his six children inhabit in a bombed-out building in West Kabul. His ancestral village was destroyed by Russian bombers. Then they endured 15 years of misery and deprivation in a refugee camp in Pakistan.

They were disappointed with what they found on their return to Kabul, but like most Afghans Najibullah is a survivor. He was trying to make the best of it in his hovel. He thought he had heard of George Bush, but wasn't really sure who he was.

Shah Mohammed tried to visit the United States in November to see the place for himself. He wanted to learn about the people who have done so much to change his country, and to do some business as well. He had an invite from the University of California in Los Angeles. He has supplied their library with books about Afghanistan for years. He had a visa which cost one hundred dollars, getting it with the services of a lawyer who charged him two dollars fifty cents a minute.

Shah M, a notoriously careful businessman even by Kabul's penny-pinching standards, was astonished. He said: "The Americans even charge you to talk to them." When he crossed from Canada and arrived at the US border in November, guards took one look at his Afghan passport and Muslim dress and refused to let him in to the Land of the Free.

"I told them I wasn't al-Qa'ida or Taliban, and that I had hated fundamentalists.

"They kept me for nine hours and even printed out stories about me from the internet to check who I was.

"I told them my country is hosting 18,000 American soldiers, none of whom have visas. I had a visa.

"But they sent me back." After years of travelling to book bazaars in Russia, Iran and Europe, he was forced to trudge back to Canada, where he says he was welcomed warmly by unsurprised border guards. Always one to think of the bottom line, Shah M was most aggrieved about the cost.

"I had paid for flights and everything," he said. "I must have lost around one thousand dollars." Back home he sees US soldiers everywhere on his streets. Most Afghans welcome the security they bring, but Shah M is not impressed.

"They are always chewing gum and wearing dark glasses," he said. "The European troops are much more polite." He was not interested in George Bush's inauguration, like most Afghans who barely noticed the second coronation of their self-proclaimed liberator.

Most were far more interested in enjoying Eid, and in the fate of a notorious warlord who was nearly killed by a suicide bomber in one of the almost-daily attacks by criminals or terrorists. "I don't have an opinion about George Bush," said Shah M. "I don't like him and I don't hate him. "I think most Afghans feel the same way."