Afghan spirit burns strong amid ashes of despair

The ancient city of Herat is both gifted and scarred by its rich but brutal history

Distorted and discordant music clashed with the torturous squeals of the rickety Ferris wheel as Abdul Zahid helped a rare customer into a gondola. “Our business is bad since the suicide bombing,” said Zahid, who operates his ride in the amusement park in the western Afghan city of Herat.

“The attack was on the American consulate, not the gardens,” he said. “This park is secure, but the people are terrified.”

Since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, Herat has largely been peaceful. But in September 2013 the Taliban launched an attack” on the city’s US facility. A truck bomb detonated by the main entrance initiated the assault, then multiple gunmen and suicide bombers ran through the destroyed front gate and engaged in a shoot-out with the stunned defenders.

All the Taliban were killed before they could enter the actual consulate building, but not before images and footage of a key US installation under fire were beamed around the world, just a day after the first anniversary of the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Bengazi that left US ambassador Chris Stevens dead.

Jihad Museum
As Zahid pushed the start button again, his dilapidated big wheel carried the infrequent passengers up into the sky, from where they could look down on the half empty park and picnic areas below. Not far away was the US consulate, still looking impregnable despite the Taliban's efforts. Beside it was the Jihad Museum, built to preserve the history of the mujahideen's fight against the Soviet invasion 30 years earlier. The museum had not been so lucky, with windows, doors and exhibits destroyed by the attack.


Located in the west of Afghanistan, Herat is an ancient city. Once the capital of an empire that stretched from Iran to China, it takes great pride in its cultural legacy. The five remaining minarets of the Musalla Complex are the most famous attraction, and a major part of Herat's bid to be named a Unesco World Heritage Centre.

Standing on the edge of a wasteland, looking at five crumbling minarets that seem one good push away from collapsing, it is hard to believe this was once one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Built in the 15th century, the Musalla Complex was a wonder of its age. But in 1885, the British were meddling in Afghanistan and, fearing a Russian attack, blew it up, leaving only a few minarets. It was an act of cultural vandalism that rivals the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan over a century later.

Drugs and despair
Gazing at the minarets in the golden light of the evening sun, any melancholy I felt for a lost architectural beauty was quickly eclipsed by the unfolding human tragedy beneath the towers. Hundreds of men and boys were dotted around the complex, walking sluggishly or sitting staring into nothingness, like an army of zombies.

Others were squatting in small groups, covered in blankets and scarves. Tendrils of smoke rose slowly over these pitiful piles of rags and ragged men, while the telltale flicker of orange flame beneath revealed opium and heroin, carefully prepared on aluminium foil. A sense of despair rather than violence hung over the place, and talking to addicts who could still string a sentence together, it was clear that many wanted help.

“There is no work, no one will employ me, I can’t find a job, and despair has driven me to drugs,” one young man told me.

Another said, “The government should help us, and I beseech my countrymen for help.” But they said the only time they saw a government representative was when the police came and beat them, in an attempt to move the problem elsewhere.

Asked how they could afford the drugs if they were broke and unemployed, the addicts said opium was cheaper than food, and it drove away the hunger pangs, the pain and the cold. These scenes are repeated across the country, and it is now estimated that there are at least 1 million drug addicts in Afghanistan, out of a population of 35 million, one of the highest ratios in the world.

Heart of glass
Sultan Hamidi is, by his own reckoning, about 72 years old. For half a century he has handmade the traditional blue glass that is a symbol of Herat. Hamidi is a great storyteller, a seanchaí, and he claims that his family has made glass since the time of Genghis Khan. Clearly he has heard the old adage, "never let the truth stand in the way of a good story", and once again it is apparent how much the Irish and the Afghans have in common.

Hamidi’s shop is like an Aladdin’s cave, piled high with swords and shields, flintlock rifles and telescopic sights, stone statues and wooden carvings, pewter bowls and finely engraved water jugs, and everywhere, the blue glass of Herat. Glass cups, goblets, plates, vases, and more. He says he is too old now to make the glass himself, but he owns the last remaining kiln in Afghanistan, and employs five men, all of whom he has taught.

The workshop is just a few doors down from Hamidi’s store, and the fires burn long into the night. Watching the glassmaker at work, it was striking how simple his requirements were. In an open fronted, mud-walled room bathed in the warm orange light from the kiln, sat a man with severe kyphosis.

His hunched back throwing strange shadows on the uneven wall behind him, he used only fire, water and a blowtube as his tools. And yet he was able to draw the glowing molten glass from the flames, just a small glob on the end of his blowpipe, and with a few quick breaths, and then some controlled but wild looking swinging of the pipe, a shape would start to form.

A quick dunk in water, and suddenly the most amazing blue glass was in his hands. Then another dip into the fire, but now a long thin drooping string of molten glass appeared, and with a few deft spins of the tube, a flick of the wrist, a handle emerged, fused to the original piece. It was magical, a joy to behold, and more than that, it said so much about the Afghan spirit.

Billions of dollars have been spent in the country, much of it wasted or embezzled, and very little has reached the common man. And yet here, without electricity or modern tools, an Afghan artisan carried on his craft, the way it was done before the foreigners came, and the way it will be done long after they have gone.

About the author

John D McHugh is a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker and has worked extensively in Afghanistan since early 2006. His recent documentary for
Al Jazeera – Afghanistan: A Tale of Three Cities – can be viewed online at

This is the first in a series of three articles on Afghanistan as President Hamid Karzai comes to the end of his second and final term in office and the country prepares for the departure this year of US troops.

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