Dispatch from Kabul
Photograph by Shelby Duncan
I told myself I wouldn’t return to Kabul until I finished my new album and film. Now that everything is finished and soon to be released, I knew I was ready again. My parents were headed there for meetings so I came at the same time. I have been traveling to Afghanistan since 2002, so it has been quite a journey: a physical journey, a journey through time, and an inner journey that has really transformed me. Afghanistan is the biggest gift in my life. This country teaches me more than I could ever quantify, but I try to through music, film, and writing like this.
Lately, there have been a lot of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. In the last two years there have been more frequent suicide bombings than any other time in all of my travels. This is probably due to the change of power, a new president and government as well as a lot of funding withdrawal and troop withdrawal. This is the make-or-break point for Afghanistan, so we are all feeling a lot of pressure. I was prepared to feel very depressed when I arrived, to be honest, however I have been pleasantly surprised.
The first thing I noticed when I landed was all of the paved roads. This is a big deal. I wish it had been done sooner, but I appreciate it so much. There are also so many trees now lining most of the streets and the areas that were already green are even lusher. There are many, many roses too. There were back when my father was a child, but in my first years of traveling here you only saw the roses in some private gardens. Now they are everywhere! Vibrant, colorful roses. Seeing nature return to Kabul is by far my favorite development I have ever seen here. Nature heals us. The vibration of trees will have infinite benefits for the people of the city. There are also a lot more massively large cement military barricades, which is very depressing. Those came up in the last few years due to all of the attacks, but there is an amazing graffiti project that a group called “Art Lords” have been doing where they paint the walls with giant eyes that symbolize anti corruption. Like “We See You” is the message. So there are paradoxes here for sure.
The worst among the changes I have seen, however, are all of the heroin addicts. There is like an entire city of addicts using all day long out in the open under the bridges here. Men, women, little kids, there are so many that it is the worst image of drug addicts I have ever seen in my life anywhere. Afghanistan has historically provided around 98 percent of the worlds heroin and opiates. The people never really used like this though. They smoked a little opium at most as well as hashish. In the last few years an influx of Afghan refugees returned from camps in Iran where they learned to shoot heroin. There are now at least 2 million addicts in Afghanistan. I was so devastated by what I saw, that within minutes I had to walk away. I felt such sadness for my people. I could feel them looking at me with shame in their eyes and I had to look away out of respect for them. I went back to the car, closed my eyes, and sent them prayers. It felt like the most respectful thing to do.
On this trip I had the privilege of traveling to outside of Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif and Balkh! Mazar is a lot hotter than Kabul, but it was so peaceful and clean. There is an energy that emanates from certain lands. I feel it whenever I leave Kabul for other provinces (Kabul is too much of a city to really feel it) and I feel it in rural India as well. There is a certain kind of soul of this region. And I can feel it healing me and giving me information at deeper levels. It started to happen when we got off the plane in Mazar. Different lands have different energies and different medicines. This region has a very particular kind of vibration.
We visited the famous Blue Mosque in Mazar and it was the most beautiful work of architectural art that I have ever seen in my entire life—the Taj Mahal included. It was so incredibly breathtaking that I was absolutely in awe. When we got inside the mosque, the energy was so powerful and beautiful that I was literally transported. My parents were ahead of me and an old man motioned for me to sit before him. He started to pray for me. My mom sat down next to me, and these two old men were praying for us. I have never felt such powerful intention from someone praying for me. I was so moved that I almost burst into tears. It was so special. I felt my ancestors with me, and I felt the lives of the people in the mosque with us. It is hard to describe the moment, it happened so quickly, but it was cosmic and beautiful.
We traveled to Balkh the next morning. Balkh is an ancient city, a 5,000-year-old city, that they call it the Mother of Cities. The history of Balkh is obviously very extensive, so I will leave it to you to read about it, but it was once the center of Buddhism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. It is very famous for being the birthplace of the poet Rumi (Afghans usually say Mawlana or Jalal ad-din Muhammad Balkhi). We visited the ruins of Rumi’s home, which was also a school as he taught there. I am extremely lucky to be able to visit this site. There is currently no museum, or sign, or gate. It’s just some ruins in the center of an ancient village. The only people who travel to Balkh at this time are locals, Afghan internationals, archeologists, journalists, and possibly some NGO workers here. It is a tremendous privilege to visit these sacred sites before tourists have access yet.
After visiting Rumi’s home, we drove over to Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, a beautiful 16th century Timirud/ Uzbek-era shrine that the Aga Khan Foundation is restoring. Again, my breath was taken away. Resting before the shrine is the grave of Rabia Balkhi. Rabia is a famous Afghan poet who died when her brother killed her for falling in love with his servant Baktash. She wrote her last poems in blood on the walls as she died. There is a park surrounding her grave and the shrine. It is so incredibly beautiful! There were families all around.
We then visited another archeological site that the Aga Khan foundation is rebuilding, and I met the sweetest man. He lives in a tiny hut with two cats and two birds. One of his birds is precious and acts like a guard. It is so small, yet it chases the roosters away and even people, he said. This man has lived alone with his animals for 15 years. A tribal dispute in Mazar broke up his family and he lost everything. This precious man broke my heart.
On our last night in Mazar, we went to a carnival. The carnival blew my mind. Hundreds of families having so much fun, hanging out at night—I was really wishing this celebratory vibe for every part of the country.
I am exceedingly sick from eating ice cream at the carnival, but it was the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted, so it was worth it.
When we returned to Kabul I had a Facebook message from the current acting mayor of the city. He’s been following my work for some time now, and wanted to meet with me. He has asked me to be part of his team in advising on how to create some positive change in the city. It’s wild because I have been having so many ideas to bring more celebration and unity to the people. So I will share my ideas and see if they like them. I’ve learned that the more we just say “yes” to the adventure with an open heart and loving intention, all kinds of magic will unfold.