Cambridge researcher, Mohammad Razai, visits a tailor’s shop in Kabul, Afghanistan:
Kaka Aleem’s old tailoring shop sits uncomfortably across the Abu Fazal, a shrine with a distinctive blue minaret in the oldest district of Kabul. On a frosty winter morning, I jostled along with the crowd that thronged the narrow street leading to the shrine. The gate of the shrine was bustling with vendors, as people tried to force their way in and out. I stood outside Kaka (uncle) Aleem’s shop and was about to enter that a burka-clad woman burst out, two boys leaped out in front of her running boisterously along the street chasing a stray dog. From underneath her skyblue burka a small sack dangled from each arm, and after she had briefly scanned the pavement she ran after the boys.
Inside the shop, a frayed red Bokhara rug and a feather duster were the first things that attracted the attention. The earthen walls, streaked with moss, bulged a little with dampness that seeped down from the roof. A waft of steam from the coal-fired iron hit my face as I approached to greet Aleem – his broad smile and beady eyes displaying a hint of surprise at my appearance. After a firm handshake we sat down; a pot of green tea and two cups appeared instantly as he began to ask about my trip.
“Kabul is bitterly cold in winter, you should have come in spring,” Aleem’s voice petered out – it became low and suffused with sloth; he paused, the contour of his deeply set wrinkles changed. He then turned his face towards the boy ironing a cut out lapel, “would you bring some dried fruits? It’s inside the bag I brought from Mandawi’.
Looking slightly pensive he ran his fingers through his short greying hair, slicking it back carefully – I wondered what memories raced through his mind. He then cleared his throat, “my father, Najib Khan, owned this shop, he was eighteen, he said, when he sat behind that sewing machine,” pointing his finger towards a rusty mud-flecked desk. Next to it was a larger table, on which was an old newspaper cutting made into a sewing pattern; it was placed on top of a navy blue garment with a pair of scissors and a piece of white chalk. He continued, “my father had made bespoke suits to his majesty the King and the royal household, and most men had a sense of taste and style back then. Look what’s happened now!” a brief pause followed to emphasise the significance of what he wanted to say next, “we are swamped with low-rent foreign suits. I sit here days on end; hardly anyone pokes his head through that door and some who do, see my designs as old-fashioned,” at this point he fell silent as if his speech was interrupted with something that weighed heavily on his mind. “You’re too young to remember,” he continued, “Murad Khane was the wonder of Kabul – a place for royal courtiers, it had a rich heritage of Afghan architecture and crafts – timbre framed houses with decorative cedar shuttering made by renowned artisans. Today, it is a rubbish-strewn slum.” He was getting more animated, his voice was rising in anger and quivering, “and who’s to blame? These thieves! These men in foreign suits now running for president, everyone knows they’re corrupt shaytans, devils.” He became quiet again – the silence only punctuated by the rumbling sound of a heavy pair of scissors cutting the blue fabric on the wooden table.
Aleem’s cynicism spoke of a man accustomed to the treacheries of Afghan politics, he talked with conviction and sometimes frightening nihilism. He had never voted, and discouraged everyone from doing so. To him the warlords and others running his country were professional thieves busily stuffing their already bulging purses through bribes, graft and embezzlement.
The long silence was at last interrupted by a loud thudding sound; Aleem quickly got up and started staring sullenly out of the window, the corners of his eyes twitching vigorously, his hands trembling, “it’s funny I get frightened of these sounds now, you would think that I’ve grown used to the now-familiar shrieks and bangs,” he said with a sardonic smile. He then turned and looked up, carefully inspecting the ceiling as if looking for an answer. He went to the corner of the shop and from a distance had another good look through the window. He stood there in the corner, a dark, brooding presence.