Kabul: It’s the first of three Eid holidays in this city of a little more than four million people. Most streets are empty, and shops and businesses shuttered. Cars with families going somewhere or groups of people are a common sight, but people celebrating on the streets are hard to come by. And policemen and security officers are very visible, patrolling the streets in their olive SUVs.
This isn’t Eid-ul-Fitr as described by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns. He writes of people dressed in new clothes visiting friends and relatives with gifts, thronging the streets for last-minute shopping, women greeting one another with platters of sweets, residents decorating houses in the evening with festive lanterns and firecrackers blazing their way through the night skies.
That was probably how he remembered it in the 1970s.
Spiritual feast: (Clockwise from top left) a kite seller at Nadir Shah Hill overlooking Kabul. The hill is a popular picnic destination for residents of the capital; Mohammed Azim Rahban with daughters Sonia, in black scarf, and Tahmina at his flat in Kabul; Noorul Hadi, who is from Pakistan, serves a platter of burgers to a group of young men in Tolo Restaurant in the central district of Shar-e Nau; teenage boys ride horses at Nadir Shah Hill. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
In 2011, Eid, one of the two most important festivals of the Muslim calendar, is definitely a much more subdued affair in the Afghan capital.
In the evening, there is some music to be heard but only in some parts of the city where a few roadside eateries and restaurants open for business. Small groups of young teenage boys hang out at these places. Men also drop by to order takeaway as their families wait in cars along the kerb.
“You know, in the 1970s and 1980s, Kabul used to be like Paris in terms of freedom and Eid was much more fun then,” says Mohammed Azim Rahban, a former employee of the Soviet-backed Afghan Communist regime that was overthrown in 1992 by the Pakistan-backed Mujahideen.
“Today there is nothing much to speak of. During Eid, it used to be so lively, so happy. Now people are very subdued, there are worries about security and people generally don’t go out of their homes much,” says Rahban, now in his mid-50s, over cups of green tea, platters of dry fruits and cakes that families still offer to visitors dropping in during the festival.
There is no tradition in Afghanistan of making siwaiyaan, a sweet dish of thin toasted noodles, dried fruits and milk that is made during Eid in India. What’s abundant are trays of flaky sweet rolls dusted with powdered green pistachios. “This is made of wheat flour and sugar, and fried not baked. This is the traditional sweet of the festival,” explains Rahban’s eldest daughter Sonia, an air hostess with Afghanistan’s private carrier Kam Airways.
Huma Sofi, a volunteer with the non-governmental help group Women for Afghan Women in Kabul says she bakes cookies with plenty of dry fruits for occasions.
“Cakes and cookies are a staple as are dry fruits. You know Afghanistan has been a centre of dry fruit trade... For us women, the first two days of Eid mean cooking for family and friends, it’s mostly on the third day that we sit back and take rest.”
Unlike Rahban, Sofi sees more reason for cheer about Eid in present-day Afghanistan. “To hope is part of the message of Eid, so I am positive. We had darker days before under the Taliban,” she says, referring to the rule of the Islamist student militia over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
“We can listen to music, look forward to programmes on television; families go for picnics. These were not possible during the Taliban regime. Yes, there are security issues, but there are special arrangements too.” she adds.
Ahmad Rasouli, in his mid-40s and employed in the hospitality industry says, the Eid holidays are “time for people to take time off work and be with their families.”
“Some people use the three-day holiday break to go for short breaks to Qargha—situated west of Kabul or to Parwan to the north of the Afghan capital. Children especially look forward to this,” he says.
Another favourite pastime for the children and teenagers during the Eid holidays is flying kites. A popular site for this is the Nadir Shah Hill, a dusty, rutted expanse, overlooking Kabul city. Shouts and shrieks pepper the air as kites get entangled, and are freed or cut loose on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon.
Mint’s Elizabeth Roche is in Afghanistan in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Over the next week, we will bring you exclusive on-ground coverage from the country.