Return to Kabul

Tarquin Hall has been visiting Afghanistan for 17 years, and is still struck by the toughness of its

The potholed streets of Kabul are a sea of frozen mud and black ice. Decrepit taxis with threadbare tyres flounder in treacherous ruts. We pass a man chopping wood who, despite the sub-zero temperatures, is working in open-toed sandals without socks. Further on, two women in blue burqas and heels struggle along the broken pavement, peering down at the terrain through the cotton grilles of their suffocating garments.

Five years after the Taliban turned tail and fled, there are still only a few surfaced roads in Kabul, now a city of nearly four million people. Yet, for the capital's elite, the moribund infrastructure is not an issue. Dozens of four-wheel-drive vehicles make easy work of the icy conditions. They roar through the streets, carrying UN employees, stony-faced Americans in sunglasses, and many a warlord-cum-member of parliament from one fortified compound to another.

Sitting high up in our big Land Cruiser with its heating on full blast, I can't help but feel self- conscious. I have spent the past few days interviewing Afghans from all walks of life who tell me how disillusioned they are with the international community and Hamid Karzai's government. Jobs are scarce and government salaries pathetically low; state-employed doctors receive just £25 a month. And yet ostentatious villas with mirrored ceilings and sweeping marble staircases are popping up in exclusive neighbourhoods. One of these Afghan-baroque pal aces is owned by the police chief of a certain city. "Everyone's on the take," an aid worker told me. "When I tried to organise a football match between two schools recently, an official demanded a bribe to issue the permission."

But today is a holiday. It's the start of the four-day Muslim festival of Eid ul-Adha in commemoration of the Prophet Ibrahim. It is a good day for butchers, but not for four-legged animals. Any family with means has bought at least one sheep, goat or cow for slaughter. Our host, Wahid, has splashed out on a water buffalo. As we arrive at his modest home, the animal stands in the mud-walled courtyard while the local butcher sharpens his knives. My wife and I watch as the beast's legs are trussed up and it is toppled over. The butcher mutters a prayer and slits the animal's throat. Blood spurts out across the muddy snow and a last breath escapes through the buffalo's nose.

I grimace and Anu goes pale. Both of us are meat eaters, but, like most westerners, we have become bizarrely disconnected from the ines cap able reality of death. Anu asks for some water and is taken to a room in the house where all the women are gathered. I hear raised, excited voices greeting her as she enters. They belong to faces I will never see. My place awaits me in the guest room where a dozen men sit on lustrous Bokhara carpets and saddlebags positioned round a wood-burning heater. My driver and I are greeted with equal decorum and plied with cups of green tea, dried mulberries and walnuts.

During 17 years of visiting Afghanistan, the God-gifted realm of the Afghans, I have gradually shed the romantic, Boy's Own notions that first encouraged me to travel to this country when I was 20. I have seen too much death and misery, too many betrayals and broken promises. Afghans are only human. Sitting there, however, I am reminded of how tough they are. Wahid, who works as a translator, fled across the mountains into Pakistan when the Soviets invaded in 1979. His father died along the way and he had to fend for himself and his mother and sisters in the refugee camps. He survived disease, hunger, the civil war and the Taliban. He is now studying to become a doctor.

Like the dozen other young men in the room, Wahid is also married with children. He and his friends are mystified as to why, at the age of 37, I don't have children. "Don't you like them?" asks one, bouncing a young girl on his knee. I explain that in my culture, many people are having kids late in life because of career pressures and the lack of family support. But the hard truth is that until recently I have put off trying to have a family, fearing the financial impact. I don't admit to this, but the company looks bemused anyway. Sitting among men who have struggled through acute hardship, I feel suddenly ashamed.

It is not the first time in the past few days that I have been struck by how soft we westerners have become, or how much our culture has discarded or forgotten. This impression is driven home when the meal is produced. Great platters of buffalo pilau are laid before us and a prayer to the Prophet Ibrahim is recited.

I have to admit that I know nothing about Ibrahim, but when Wahid tells me the story of how he offered to sacrifice his son Ismael to God, I realise he is talking about Abraham. "The same story appears in the Bible," I blurt out. "He is also recognised by the Jews," says my host. "Ibrahim was the founder of monotheism. We remember him every day in our prayers."

Wahid piles my plate high with pilau. I eat until I feel as if I'm going to burst, but he still mocks me. "You have taken nothing!" he says.

Over yet more glasses of tea, I chat with the other men. One is an engineer, another runs an import-export business, a third is a bodybuilder; the man on my right is a former shoeshine boy who now works as a manager for a foreign news organisation. "We need a strong Afghanistan without outside interference," is a constant refrain. By the time I make my excuses and leave, I am convinced that if Afghanistan is producing many more people like these, the country's long-term prospects are promising.

Wahid sees me to the gate, where I am reunited with Anu, who is carrying a bouquet of plastic flowers. She tells me about how feisty and self-assured the family's women are. Outside in the street, a crowd of impoverished Afghans has gathered. They don't ask us for anything. But, as we drive away, we see Wahid portion up a quarter of the buffalo and share it among them.

Tarquin Hall is the author of "Salaam Brick Lane: a year in the new East End" (John Murray, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war