Karbala begins with Ashura

Zainab Karbala savior III.png

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Karbala does not end with Ashura. It begins with Ashura. Hussain ibn Ali’s (as) ordeal is over. The master of the martyrs has returned to his Lord, well pleased.

He chose death with dignity than life with humiliation. He gave blood to revive human values, to uproot despotism, to pave the ground for Islamic awakening and social reformation.

Zainab bint Ali’s (sa) ordeal has just begun. She will be paraded through the crowded markets of Kufa and Shaam, manacled and chained, along with other female members and children of the holy household. 

Zainab (sa) is no ordinary woman. She is the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) and Fatima bint Mohammad (sa). She is Fasihah (skillfully fluent), Balighah (intensely eloquent) and Alimah Ghayr Mu’allamah (who has knowledge without being taught).

Her mission is equally important, to reveal the truth, to unmask the tyrants, to be an eloquent tongue of her brother’s blood.

Martyrs gave blood and now survivors have to convey the message of that blood to future generations. Zainab’s (sa) mandate is heavier than her brother’s mandate. If blood has no message, it remains unspoken in history.

As Dr. Ali Shariati reminds us, those who died committed a Hussainic act, those who remain must perform a Zainabic act. Hussain (as) is the martyr of Karbala and Zainab (sa) is the messenger of Karbala, the savior of Karbala. We have to choose either blood or the message, to be martyr like Hussain (as) or messenger like Zainab (sa).

The caravan Hussain (as) led from Medina to Karbala was led by Zainab (sa) from Karbala to Shaam. When the caravan halted in Kufa, Zainab courageously confronted the people of Kufa who had betrayed her brother.

“O people of Kufa! Do you know whose heart you have burned, what blood you have shed, and what sanctity you have violated? You have done a monstrous deed, something for which the heavens are about to split asunder and so is the earth, and for which the mountains crumble. You have done something most defaced, duskiest, most horrible as much as the fill of the earth and of the sky.”

When the caravan reached Yazeed’s court in Damascus, Zainab (sa) stood up and spoke with the valor and eloquence of her father. Her speech shook the foundation of Yazid’s empire.

“O Yazid! I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone except Him and do not complain to anyone but Him. You may employ your deceit and trickery, but I swear by Allah the shame and disgrace you have earned by the treatment meted out to us cannot be eradicated”.

She protected the ailing son of her brother when the tents were set ablaze by the soldiers of Yazid. She consoled little children like Roqayya and Sukaina when everything that belonged to them was forcibly snatched away. Zainab was crestfallen with grief but she stood firm because the mandate given to her was heavy and she knew her responsibilities well.

Zainab wrote and recited marsiyas (poetic elegies) that jolted people out of their slumber and eventually led to the decline and fall of Yazidi empire. Today, nobody remembers Yazid, Ibn Ziyad, Umar Saad or Shimr. And everyone remembers Hussain  Abulfazl Abbas, Ali Akbar, Qasim, Asghar. Zainab is the savior of Karbala, who redefined patience and resilience.

Zainab (sa) kept alive the movement of Karbala and inspired future generations to unmask Yazids and Ibn Ziyads of their time.

Her courage, steadfastness and resilience gives sense of hope and optimism to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause, like the women in Kashmir, women in Yemen, women in Palestine, women in Syria, women in Afghanistan. They are the flagbearers of Zainab (sa) who have kept alive her legacy of resistance and resilience.

اسلام على قلب زینب الصبور و لسانها الشکور


Life and legacy of a revolutionary poet



Prof Syed Mohammad Raza.jpg

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Some goodbyes are never said easily. I vividly remember that somber rainy morning, exactly two years ago, when raindrops gently mixed with teardrops.  My uncle, who taught us how to fight against odds, had lost the biggest battle of his life. His tragic and untimely death left us all shattered but gave us a new resolve to carry forward his unfinished mission.

Of course, life is a fleeting shadow and death is inevitable. We all have to depart someday. So, I will not mourn his death. I will celebrate his life, his legacy.

Prof. Syed Mohammad Raza, ‘Raza Uncle’ or ‘Raza Sir’ for many of us, was an acclaimed scholar and poet of Kashmiri and Urdu. His contribution to Kashmiri literature, especially Kashmiri poetry, will be remembered for a very long time. He taught Urdu at Kashmir University for many years.

Prof. Raza’s love for Kashmiri language, history and culture was unmistakably reflected in his works. In our ‘noon-chai discussions’, he would often lament over the slow and painful demise of Kashmiri language. He wanted Kashmiri youth, including myself, to emulate the likes of Mahjoor, Rehman Rahi and Amin Kamil.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode

He was perhaps the best-known expert on Ghalibyat in Kashmir. He was tremendously influenced by the works of Mirza Asadullah Ghalib. Once, while in Delhi for a conference, he literally dragged me to Ghalib’s grave in Nizamuddin.  Then, we spent hours in the adjacent Ghalib Academy, searching for rare manuscripts.

Apart from being a prolific writer, Prof. Raza was also a voracious reader. There was hardly any space to sit in his small living room at his ancestral home in Budgam. The collection of books ranged from biographies of renowned scholars and poets, contemporary world history, Islamic history, Kashmir politics and poetry books.

He would so passionately talk about Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx, Locke, Avicenna, Confucius, Foucault, Iqbal, Ghalib, Maududi and Khomeini. There was never a dull moment with him around. His scholarly temperament was infectious and his intellectual pursuits were mighty. Literary people tend to be tad serious and somber but his sense of humor was razor sharp, which often had us in splits.

Prof. Raza was also perhaps the best-known marsiya nigaar (one who writes elegiac poems in the memory of the martyrs of Karbala) in Kashmir. He perfected the art of writing nauhas (elegies) in Kashmiri language. During the month of Muharram, he would appear on local television channels to recite nauhas and host special commemorative shows on Muharram. He was greatly influenced by the works of Mir Anees and Mirza Dabir, the two greatest exponents of marsiya nigari.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode. Despite the floods and heavy rain, thousands of people participated in his funeral, which included many eminent literary personalities of Kashmir valley. Rain and tears were virtually indistinguishable as people slowly marched towards the graveyard.

I had flown from Kabul just a few days before his death. We had planned to visit many places and work together on many projects but it turned out to be our last meeting. I lost a friend, philosopher and guide. But, as Thomas Campbell said, to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. He lives on.

 (First published in The Witness magazine)


Why I feel at home in Afghanistan

At Home in Afghanistan

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Working in strife-torn Afghanistan is nothing short of a thrilling, awe-inspiring adventure. It’s like walking on the razor’s edge, groping in the dark, and dealing with myriad glorious and inglorious uncertainties of life.

For many khaarijee (read: foreign) journalists coming to this beleaguered country is tantamount to imperiling life and safety. For me, though, it felt like a homecoming. As Miguel Syjuco writes in ‘Ilustrado’, the ruckus of homecoming is brutally enjoyable.

In October 2013, when the biting chill of winter was beginning to set in, I touched down in Kabul. A small step, I must confess, felt like a giant leap. A fleet of U.S. army choppers quite ominously greeted me at the highly-fortified Kabul airport. It was not unsettling or astonishing. It was a feeling of déjà vu. Indian army choppers at the Srinagar airport is a familiar sight.

Before leaving for Kabul, I was repeatedly warned of dire consequences by some doomsayers and scaremongers. I refused to fret or fume. For someone who has grown up in the Kashmir of 1990s, there is no scope for fear. We have seen the worst.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways.

We, the people of Kashmir, have lived through decades of conflict. We have harrowing childhood memories. We have suffered long enough and sacrificed too much. And yet we have stood firm and resisted all the overt and covert attempts to break our resolve.

Nothing can more compellingly illustrate the unflinching spirit of people than their determination to resist. Afghanistan, like Kashmir, mostly conjures up the macabre images of death and destruction. The war-weary people of Afghanistan, like the people of Kashmir, have been suffering for more than three decades. Both are occupied by foreign forces and both want freedom from occupation.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways. Security situation never improves; spring weather is always unpredictable; municipality workers never show up; public transport is always crowded; loudspeakers go ballistic on Ramadan nights, and weddings are always big and fat.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have always managed to pass off as a local, which makes me, in the words of my Afghan friends, “both an insider and outsider”. The one thing that strikes you most is the extraordinary hospitality accorded by people in provinces. Despite living a life of penury, they know how to make guests feel special, even complete strangers.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have somehow always managed to pass off as a local

I vividly remember my first trip out of Kabul to eastern Kunar province in January last year, exactly eight years after the ‘Operation Red Wings’ in which three U.S. Navy SEALs were killed by Taliban insurgents and one managed to survive.

I went to a sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside the mountains of Kunarto to look for the family who helped the American soldier, the only survivor of that deadly military operation. After running helter-skelter for hours, wearing local dress to avoid unwanted attention, I finally managed to track the family. They opened the door and treated me like an honorable guest.

Gulab, head of the family, risked his own life to save the American soldier from Taliban because of an age-old tradition of hospitality and protection among Afghans. “That man had asked help from a Pashtun family so we had to protect him even if he was our enemy,” Gulab told me. His words were impactful and moving.

At his insistence, I spent the night in their modest one-storey home and was accorded wonderful hospitality. From a complete stranger, I suddenly became a part of their family.

Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence

Afghanistan, like Kashmir, is also a breathtakingly beautiful country. Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence. But, quite interestingly, Afghanshave huge admiration for the beauty of Kashmir, which is illustrated by a famous Pashtu proverb: ‘harcha ta khpalwatan Kashmir de’ (for everyone, their country is like Kashmir).

There is some inherent bond between Afghanistan and Kashmir, not simply because Afghans have ruled over us but because there are many things that unite us. A jolly taxi driver in Kabul once told me that he so desperately wants Kashmir to be part of Afghanistan “because both are torn by conflict and both are occupied by khwarijees”. He used the choicest of expletives for India and Pakistan, accusing them of proxy war in Afghanistan. And to my pleasant surprise, he knew Kashmir politics better than many of our commentators, and even offered to mediate ‘peace talks’ between various factions of Hurriyat.

The two action-packed years I have spent in this country have been truly enriching. Waking up every morning to write about suicide attacks, IED explosions, drone strikes, armed clashes and kidnappings is a daunting task. And most of the time, we happen to be in the line of fire ourselves, working under dangerous, life-threatening conditions. According to a local media watchdog body, 2014 was the deadliest year for journalists in Afghanistan.

In March last year, I lost a friend and guide, a courageous journalist who was killed along with his wife and two small children in a hotel attack, a day before Navroz, Afghan New Year. Following the tragic incident, journalists in Kabul announced the boycott of Taliban coverage. Less than a week later, a Swedish journalist was shot dead by unknown assailants just a few blocks from my home.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan

In such a stressful environment, it is important to not lose sanity. A game of cricket at Darul Aman ground, boating in Qargah Lake, horse-riding on Nadir Hill, mountain-climbing in Paghman and fishing at Sarobi helps in some ways.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan, as we saw in eastern Paktika province last November. More than 60 people were killed in a powerful suicide attack during a volleyball match. As expected, no group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Life is a perennial struggle in this country that continues to be a flammable tinderbox. It explodes anytime and consumes anyone. But, the spirit of life refuses to die. Long Live Afghanistan. Long Live Kashmir.

(First published in GK magazine Kashmir Ink)

Responding to existing and emerging healthcare challenges in Afghanistan

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Afghan government, with the help of its international partners, has made indefatigable efforts to create a functional healthcare system in Afghanistan but there are still many hurdles to cross and many critical tasks to accomplish

The decades of war and turbulence have taken a heavy toll on life in Afghanistan. It has also quite severely affected the capacity of concerned agencies to respond to critical public healthcare challenges.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations public health arm, Afghanistan’s health status is one of the worst in the world with some of the health indicators three to five-fold higher than in neighboring countries.

While the local and international healthcare experts, equipped with skills and machinery, have played an instrumental role in setting up healthcare infrastructure after 2001, there are still many hurdles to cross and many critical tasks to accomplish.

Even though there are about 2170 healthcare centers across the country, the quality healthcare service is lacking, forcing a large majority of Afghans to fly abroad, mostly to India and Pakistan, for medical treatment.

Oxfam, a global aid and charity organization, in its 2013 annual report stated that 25 percent population in Afghanistan still has no access to healthcare services. Ministry of Public Health earlier this year said one in every ten children in Afghanistan loses his or her life before reaching the age of five.

The public healthcare challenges in Afghanistan manifest itself in multiple ways. The lack of healthcare infrastructure, shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, lack of robust government policy, sub-standard drugs in the market, precarious security environment are some of the major hurdles.

While lot of money has gone into establishing tertiary care hospitals across Afghanistan, the standard and robust healthcare infrastructure is still missing in many parts of the country

The former president, Hamid Karzai, who accompanied his wife to India for medical purpose earlier this year, was often criticized for not paying enough attention to healthcare sector in Afghanistan.

His predecessor, Ashraf Ghani has looked comparatively proactive in the early part of his tenure. His wife, Rula Ghani, has publicly expressed concern over the abysmal quality of maternal healthcare system and shortage of female healthcare professionals in Afghanistan.

Healthcare challenges and the response of government
In a post-conflict country, the challenges of creating a functional healthcare system are always massive. Over the past 13 years, the Afghan government, with the help of its international partners, has made indefatigable efforts to rebuild the healthcare system that was lying in ruins following the years of war. While lot of progress has been made, many challenges continue to persist.

According to observers and medical practitioners, health status has improved considerably over the past 13 years, but lot more needs to be done. “We have come a long way in past 13 years in terms of healthcare infrastructure and service delivery,” says Dr. Musa Wardak, orthopedic surgeon at Shinozada Hospital in Kabul. “But there are still many loopholes that need to be plugged and the onus lies on all stakeholders, including the government and private sector.”

While lot of money has gone into establishing tertiary care hospitals across Afghanistan, the standard and robust healthcare infrastructure is still missing in many parts of the country. Consequently, a large majority of population living in provinces still have no access to quality healthcare services.

The shortage of skilled healthcare workforce makes the matters worse. “We lack latest procedures and support facilities here and doctors don’t always have the requisite skills to deal with emergency medical cases,” says Dr. Shapoor Musa, a Kabul-based doctor.

A large majority of Afghan patients fly to India for advanced medical treatment. “Patients from Afghanistan who have come here have achieved good results and are now referring their friends and relatives too,” says Dr. Yash Gulati, senior consultant at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.

In early 2002, soon after the establishment of an interim government, the Ministry of Public Health announced the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) to ensure basic healthcare services reach to majority of population in Afghanistan.

The scheme has been instrumental in the delivery of basic healthcare services, especially in provinces, but many challenges persist. “It was a good step to ensure basic healthcare services are provided to citizens, but we still have not done enough to provide primary healthcare services,” says Dr. Parvez Meeri, who works at Nasir Khusrao Balkhi Hospital in Kabul.

The main challenges in rebuilding healthcare system in Afghanistan, according to Dr. Ruhullah Rasik, doctor at Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul, include lack of infrastructure, abysmal security, economic problems, lack of access to healthcare facilities, lack of coordination between government officials and healthcare providers, shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, especially female doctors and mid-wives.

“It is important to address these concerns to have healthcare system that is at par with other countries in the region,” he says.

Impact of war on healthcare
The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be dangerously volatile. The armed insurgents, even 13 years after the intervention of international community, refuse to retreat or surrender. This insecurity, according to observers, is the biggest impediment in delivery of healthcare services.

Landmines pose biggest threat to women who have to reach hospital or children who have to go to school. They also damage roads, like in Kandahar province, making it difficult for ambulances to reach the remote areas. Every month, hundreds of expecting mothers and other critical patients succumb before reaching hospitals.

Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction as the country with most landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEC), which make it difficult for health workers to reach far-flung provinces. Many local and foreign health workers have been the victims of landmines and IEDs and many of them have been kidnapped by armed insurgents for ransom. “It is unfortunate that even doctors have been at the receiving end,” says Dr. Fazal Ahmad Nawabi, Kabul-based medical consultant.

Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction as the country with most landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEC), which make it difficult for health workers to reach far-flung provinces

According to officials in the Ministry of Public Health, the cases of polio have alarmingly shot up in recent months following the draconian ban on anti-polio vaccination drive by armed insurgents in a number of provinces.

In restive southern Helmand province, local insurgents announced a ban on anti-polio vaccination campaign in March this year, leaving many polio-affected children at high risk. Many fresh cases of polio have been reported from this province.

After Helmand, according to reports, insurgents also banned the anti-polio vaccination drive in eastern Nangarhar province recently, apparently in protest against government-imposed ban on motorbikes in some parts of the province. Dr. Moqadas Meraj, Deputy Director of Nangarhar Civil Hospital, says the insurgents have made their demands clear.

“Taliban have asked the government to lift the ban on motorcycles but the governor of Nangarhar province has turned down the demand,” she said. According to Dr. Meraj, about 30,000 children have been deprived of anti-polio vaccination drops because of the ban.

Healthcare professionals, especially those affiliated with foreign NGOs, have often been targeted across the country. In April this year, an American doctor and his two friends were killed by an armed insurgent masquerading as a security officer at Kabul-based Cure International Hospital, which is operated by a U.S.-based charity organization.

“The attack was a grim reminder that even foreign doctors who save precious lives are not safe in this country,” says Dr. Munir Samim, Kabul-based medical practitioner.

Maternal and child healthcare
Addressing a gathering of female health workers in Kabul recently, organized by Afghan Society of Obstetrician and Gynecologists (AFSOG), First Lady Rula Ghani expressed concern over the abysmal quality of child and maternal healthcare system in Afghanistan, and emphasized on increasing the number of female health service providers.

According to a report by Save The Children, an international children’s charity organization, at least 3,000 newborn babies die daily within 24 hours of birth in Afghanistan. The report states that 1 in 34 babies die within 24 hours of birth daily and main reasons are premature birth, prolonged labor during pregnancy, infections and high blood pressure.

Medical experts say the newborn babies lack proper care after birth in Afghanistan, which exposes them to medical bugs. “Newborn babies need proper care and attention which is lacking here,” says Dr. Samim. “We have a children’s hospital in Kabul, but when you compare the facilities there with hospitals in neighboring countries, it is not good enough.”

Maternal mortality rate, which was once the highest in the world, has significantly improved in recent years.  According to the State of Afghanistan’s Midwifery 2014 report released recently by the Ministry of Public Health and the Afghan Midwifery Association, there has been remarkable progress in improving the quality of maternal and reproductive health services in Afghanistan.

However, only 23 percent of the needs for maternal and reproductive health services are currently met in Afghanistan. According to the report, a four-fold increase in investment in midwifery is required over the next 15 years to meet 60 percent of the needs for maternal and reproductive health services.

According to Ministry of Public Health, in 2002, there were only 467 midwives in the country. Today, there are almost 4,600 midwives working in Afghanistan who have played key role in bringing down the maternal mortality rate from 1,600 to 327.

According to the United Nations, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Afghanistan is around 5000 but only 30 percent of them have been tested

“There is a need to increase the number and efficiency of educated professional midwives and improve recruitment policies, career pathways and retention policies,” says Dr. Annette Sachs Robertson, UNFPA Representative for Afghanistan.

Ahmad Jan Naeem, acting Minister of Public Health, says lack of security is a major problem for female doctors in provinces. “We have provided them additional facilities and increased their salaries, but the problem of security is a big challenge,” he says.

Emerging healthcare challenges
While existing healthcare challenges persist, some new and potentially dangerous health challenges have emerged of late. On December 1, which marks the World AIDS Day, Ministry of Public Health announced that the cases of HIV in Afghanistan have shot up by 10 percent.

According to Ministry officials, a total of 1694 cases have been registered by the government monitoring systems, but the actual number is likely to be higher.

Mr. Naeem says the outbreak of HIV is primarily due to lack of awareness about HIV virus, use and abuse of drugs, poverty, illiteracy and growing number of immigrants coming from Iran. “Ministry of Public Health has set up many prevention centers, consultancy centers and curative centers to check the outbreak of HIV in the country,” he said.

According to the United Nations, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Afghanistan is around 5000 but only 30 percent of them have been tested. Urmila Chanam, a public health professional and gender rights activist, believes the rise in HIV cases could be due to low number of people going for testing, which makes early detection impossible.

“It is high time that the accurate estimates of the most-at-risk-populations are etched out at the earliest so that policies, interventions, planning and implementation could be executed at quick speed to arrest the spread of HIV in Afghanistan,” says Ms. Chanam. “It would be a good strategy to adopt the rapid scale up model adopted by countries like India to boost its coverage of HIV response from 8 provinces at present to all the 34.”

Another emerging health challenge is the rising number of polio cases in some provinces. According to Ministry of Public Health, fresh polio cases have been reported following the ban on anti-polio vaccination drive by Taliban insurgents in some provinces like Helmand, Nangarhar and Khost.

Some polio cases have also been identified among refugees from northern Waziristan who have settled in Khost province. According to Public Health Department officials in Khost province, the refugee children have not been administered polio vaccination and that makes them more prone to this disease.

The battle for eradication of polio in Afghanistan – one of the only three countries besides Pakistan and Nigeria on World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of countries – continues. According to WHO, both Nigeria and Afghanistan present grim cases as the number of cases creep up. In February this time, Kabul recorded its first polio case in last 13 years.

Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) recently dropped another bombshell. According to ARCS, heart diseases in Afghan children have alarmingly increased of late. A country-wide study conducted by ARCS showed most cases of heart disease in young children coming from eastern Nangarhar province and the most commonplace disease is holes in the heart, which according to medical practitioners is a congenital heart defect.

“ARCS assessment shows the disease has assumed alarming proportions, especially in Nangarhar province, and most of the patients have no access to medical care,” said Sarma Afzali, media officer in ARCS. According to her, most of the families cannot afford the treatment, and they do not pay much attention to daughters who suffer from these ailments.

Future of healthcare system 
Healthcare system in Afghanistan has seen significant improvement over the past 13 years, but to establish a functional and robust healthcare system, it is important to pay attention to primary healthcare needs of people, believe experts.

At a time when international community is getting ready to pull out of Afghanistan, there are speculations that the country will be abandoned and the healthcare industry will collapse.

“If anyone is of the impression that the health industry will collapse post 2014, following the drawdown of international forces, they are mistaken,” says Dr. Abdul Habib Azizi, who works at Helmand Military Hospital. “The gains of past 13 years are irreversible.”

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Bagh e Babur: First Mughal’s final resting place

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The first Mughal emperor who ruled Kabul for many years and built ten gardens in the city had expressed a wish to be buried in one of them, which is famous today as Bagh e Babur

Bagh e Babur (Babur’s garden), the final resting place of the first Mughal emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, is one of the prime attractions in Kabul, located on the high slopes of Kuh-e-Sher Darwaza, southwest of the old city. Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, where he is considered a national hero, Babur made inroads into this landlocked country in 1504 through Hindu Kush Mountains and captured Kabul, at a time when there was a wave of rebellion against the ruling Arghun dynasty from local populace and they were forced to retreat to Kandahar. Martin Ewans in Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics writes that Babur took advantage of the situation and established his new kingdom and ruled over it until 1526.

In 1505, writes VD Mahajan in History of Medieval India, Babur led his first expedition to India because of the insufficient income his new kingdom was generating, which he mentions in his memoirs Baburnama. “My desire for Hindustan had been constant. It was in the month of Shaban, the Sun being in Aquarius, that we rode out of Kabul for Hindustan”. He died on January 5 1530 in Agra, and as per his wish, his body was moved to Kabul and buried in Bagh e Babur.

Spread over 11 hectares, Bagh e Babur is the largest public green space in the city, which was decimated into rubble during war

The garden remained a revered site of pilgrimage for Babur’s successors. Jehangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor who ruled from 1605 until his death in 1627, visited the site in 1607 and constructed a prayer platform with headstone facing the grave of Babur. His son and fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan came on a visit in 1638 and ordered the construction of tombs and a mosque in the garden. Over the years, it became a famous historical site for tourists coming to Kabul.

Spread over 11 hectares, Bagh e Babur is the largest public green space in the city, which was decimated into rubble during the years of war. After the ouster of Taliban, the restoration work was done by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and UNCHS Habitat. They redeveloped the gardens and restored the buildings after conducting an archaeological survey.

The garden is covered by high walls and a beautiful caravanserai greets visitors at the entrance. From the caravanserai, the terraces and white marble watercourse give a magnificent look. Both sides of the ground are dotted by herbaceous beds and saplings, some of which have special mention in Babur’s memoir. From the top 14th terrace, overlooking the garden is Babur’s tomb. It was his favorite garden among the 10 gardens he built in Kabul city.

He was buried in Agra initially and was reburied in this garden a few years later. According to legend, he had expressed his wish to be buried under open sky, so his grave is open, encircled by a marble screen. On the headstone, the inscription reads “the tomb was erected for the light-garden of the God-forgiven angel king whose rest is in the garden of Heaven”. Babur’s grand-daughter, Ruqaiya Sultan Begum is also buried there.

The garden has seen a steady increase in number of visitors in recent years since the new management body under the Bagh e Babur Trust was formed, with support from Kabul Municipality, the Ministry of Information and Culture and AKTC. Kabul without Bagh e Babur will be incomplete, a desolation.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Freezeframing travel adventures



Syed Zafar Mehdi

Travelling around the world, exploring beautiful places, staying in luxurious hotels, shooting beautiful locations, understanding different cultures and getting paid for it

Who does not want to hop around the world, stay in luxurious hotels, shoot beautiful locations and amazing cultures, and get paid for it. Photography and travel are no more strange bedfellows. The compulsive travelers are fascinated by photography as much as the amateur photographers are fascinated by travelling. The travel photography as a profession has emerged as a seriously interesting and challenging career avenue.

Travel photographers mostly focus on people, festivals, wildlife, architecture, and anything that is eye-catching and intriguing. With firm grip on the finer nuances of camera work, they manage to freeze-frame the inherent beauty of people and places.

The avenues and opportunities for travel photography have grown immensely. While most of the travel photographers still opt for freelancing work, many others choose to work for their employers. “It doesn’t really matter who you work for, as long as you have got the hunger to immerse yourself into the art. You must enjoy what you do, and travel photography requires lot of patience and stamina,” says Ahsan Rasikh, Kabul-based photographer.

With firm grip on the finer nuances of camera work, photographers manage to freeze-frame the inherent beauty of people and places

For Mikel Dunham, Nepal-born, globe-trotting photographer and blogger, the creative high of clicking the extraordinary shots in an ordinary setting is a greatest reward for any photographer. “The fun of travelling around the world, exploring beautiful places, and clicking photographs is unparalleled,” he says. However many of them stress that this field is extremely demanding and rigorous, especially for starters. “It is easier said than done,” says noted travel photographer and journalist Ajay Jain.

The opportunities for travel photographers are galore. But according to the legendary photographer, Olivier Follmi, patience is the key. He says it may take years for aspiring travel photographers to reach a point when they start reaping the rewards of their work. Photography, according to him, is not as much a struggle as selling the photographs.

The opportunities for travel photographers are galore. But according to the legendary photographer, Olivier Follmi, patience is the key

The avenues are umpteen and it depends on the person how he capitalizes on the opportunities, says Naimat Rawan, a photographer based in Kabul. According to him, the attitude, hunger and passion are three important characteristics that make a successful travel photographer.

Selling the travel photos is the most viable option, as there are publications willing to splurge heavily on acquiring the copyrights of pictures. Putting the pictures on stock photography sites is another option, as you get remuneration every time someone buys your picture. “It also helps you get noticed, as people keep coming back to those sites in search of quality pictures,” says Dunham.

Nowadays, aspiring travel photographers go for professional training and degree courses to hone their skills and survive the cut-throat competition. Photographers take writing seriously now, as it comes handy while writing detailed captions or small articles, describing the scene and setting. That way, photographers also pocket more money. The most happening places for travel photography today are Paris, Venice, New York, Switzerland, and African nations. Back in Afghanistan, Bamyan, Takhar, Nooristan and areas in Northern Provinces are top destinations for travel photographers.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

“We embraced you in your death”


Agha Shahid Ali

Dear Shahid!

Hope you are in fine fettle, wherever you are. It has been exactly 11 years now since we lost track of you, leaving a void and emptiness. Let me assure you, the void has not been filled yet, and the emptiness is still there. I never met you, but I can see you around me all the time. I don’t know if the night is cottage industry or the day is brisk emporium. But, you said the world is full of paper, write to me. So, I am writing, from far away, a city where you were born.

I was in school far away from my homeland when you took the long walk back to heaven far away from your homeland. You wanted to return to Kashmir to die in autumn, but changed your mind later, only to be buried in Northampton, not too far from the grave of your beloved poet Emily Dickinson. We, the people of Kashmir, still embraced you in your death, as we did in your life. Life and death are immaterial, because you will always live in our hearts and minds.

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Autumn in Kashmir
Autumn in Kashmir
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You left suddenly, shockingly, without posting us a farewell letter. But I know you had already announced your impending departure by dreaming, with soaring imagination and brutally beautiful imagery, at the ghat of the only world. The night of ghazals drew to an end. Quite rightly, love doesn’t let anyone survive, at least it did not let you. But, how did you muster courage to pen down the last verse on your own life? It is something only you the witness and martyr – could do.

We would have loved to hear more from you, but perhaps you were getting late for recitation sessions in heaven. You have not posted a letter from there yet. Your country had no post office then. It still has none. What happened to the solemn promise of meeting again in Srinagar by the gates of the villa of peace? Our beloved witness, you had to be there on that promised autumn afternoon, when soldiers return the keys and disappear. But, you left us, and left behind your lingering presence.

“Your country had no post office then. It still has none”

You struggled with your health and the pain was too excruciating and unbearable for you in your last days, but you fought valiantly, as you did all your life, with words and that characteristic smile. Your smile was unnerving and the sense of humour was classic. I still wonder how you always managed to break into peals of laughter in the middle of a serious conversation or a poetry recitation. I am sure you will agree, there was an inherent pain veiled in that grin, that mirth, that smile and that laughter. Sometimes a smile conveys more pain than tears, and tears express more joy than a smile. I envy the angels, for they must be having a gala time in your amazingly warm company.

“You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry”

You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry. You also loved to cook good and authentic food, as you did once for America’s celebrated poet James Merrill, who had tremendous influence on your poetry. Do you continue to cook for the angels now? I am told your undying passion for ghazal had partly to do with your beautiful relationship with Begum Akhtar. Do you still carry the cassette of ‘phir wohi farmaish’, or have you moved on to other singers? You loved Faiz, and in you, Faiz found a genius translator. You were closest to your mother, and her death literally devastated you. The long, painful journey from Amherst to Kashmir must have haunted you till death. But, as you consoled yourself, compared to your grief for her, what are those of Kashmir, and what are those of the universe. I want to ask, do you still move in your heart between sad countries? Do you continue to wake and feel the fell of dark, not day?

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“Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition?”

Kashmir, your beloved place of memory, has not moved an inch since you left. Nothing has changed on the ground. Death continues to turn every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala. Freedom’s terrible thirst is growing, as more boys are mowed down in cold blood. There are more grieving mothers now, and many more homes are set ablaze by midnight soldiers. I know you did not tell the father of 18 year-old Rizwan that he was no more, but how did you do that? It is so difficult to hide the news of cold-blooded murders of young boys from their fathers. There are many Rizwans now, resting in marked and unmarked graves across Kashmir, the half-inch Himalayas that shrunk in your mailbox.

Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition? Well, his killers have just got a clean chit. Did anyone tell you about 9 year-old Asif who was literally bludgeoned to death? Do you know how 11 year-old Irshad breathed his last after being hit by pallets? Did anyone tell you about the brutal murders of 13 year-old Wamiq, 16 year-old Inayat, and 16 year-old Zahid? Did you hear about 24 year-old Neelofar and 17 year-old Asiya, who was gang-raped and murdered and dumped in a nearby lake? The list is too long. It gives me shudders to go on naming them.

However, as Rizwan had asked you: I am sure you still put Kashmir in your dreams every night.

“It rains as I write this; mad heart, be brave.”

New Delhi


(First published in The Friday Times, Pakistan)