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We step over rubble spattered with pigeon droppings, our footsteps echoing down the open corridor. An old man before us rocked on his heels as if he had been lifted by the sound before he settled and stood without moving again in the decay of Darulaman Palace, a royal residence built by German architects in the 1920s. He gnawed on a piece of bread, tearing at it with the one tooth remaining in his mouth. Two quarrelling squirrels scrambled over fallen ceiling tiles and broken concrete for crumbs. The old man ignored them. Squinting, he watched boys flying kites in the distance, the glass skyscrapers of downtown Kabul catching the sun beyond them. Blurred by heat waves, women in blue, body-length veils inflated by their movement walked past the boys like totems.
Coco, my colleague Zabiullah, called to the old man in Dari. Uncle.
He ignored us. We offered him a bottle of water. He took it and drank. Zabiullah explained that I was a reporter from the U.S. The old man said nothing.
Fat clouds inched across the sky covering us in shadow. A breeze tugged at the old man’s long, grey beard raising it like a sheet, and he put the water bottle down and gathered his beard in his right hand as if it was a rope and we listened to the far-off noise of cars carried by the wind. Clutching his beard, he stared at the remnants of a garden gnarled with weeds, cluttered with pink, plastic bags and other trash. Then he turned, faced us with turbid eyes.
My name is Kaka Kabir, he said, in a hoarse, brittle voice.
He was born in Tea Chardi, a small village near the palace that no longer exists. He recalled fields of rice and streams with fish but little else about his early life. He did not know his birthday or his age.
We had our own happiness, our own sadness, that is all, he said.
His cousins worked in the palace as laborers. When he turned twelve, the old man joined them. One day the king, Muhammad Nadir Shah, saw him and asked his cousins, What is a young boy doing here? The cousins answered, he is an orphan and belongs to no one. The old man was not an orphan. His cousins only said that because they had not asked permission to bring him. The king said, I will keep him to entertain my family, and took him to live inside the palace. He was paid one Af a day to watch the king’s two children and all the food he wanted. At that time, the old man said, one Af would buy seventy kilograms of wheat enough to last two months.
In 1933, an assassin murdered the king. The old man lost his mind with grief. He had lived like a prince eating the finest meals and wearing the best clothes. He left the palace and retreated to the top of a mountain in Wardak province scavenging like a beggar for food and shelter. After one year, a woman from a nearby village saw him and took pity and fed him. She also found him a girl to marry. He took his bride to Kabul and returned to the palace. It was your home at one time the new king, Zahir Shah, told him. He put the old man in charge of three gardens and one hundred and fifty cows.
Decades passed. His wife bore him seven children. Then the Russians invaded in 1979 and occupied the country for ten years. During that time, women could wear pants like a man, the old man said. That was not right. With pants, the crotch shows. Men noticed and it created problems. His wife showed respect for him by covering herself in a burqa so no other man could see her body. She was the queen of his house. She died years ago.
When the Russians left in 1989, civil war convulsed the country until the Taliban took control in 1996. Its fighters entered the palace, whipped the old man and killed his cows and trampled his gardens. He and his wife fled to the mountains again. In 2001, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Americans came and removed the Taliban. The new government advertised jobs and hired the old man to be the palace gardener once more. He cleared weeds, used cow and human faeces for fertilizer.
I took care of all the flowers, he told us. There is no water now because of a drought otherwise you’d not see all this death in the ground. When I was a boy, the water was clean. Now it is dirty and not drinkable. I’ve asked the mayor of Kabul to make a well for me but he does not come here. There is only one flower left from that time.
He indicated a solitary rose drooping against a cracked wall in which curious lizards cocked their heads, and then he swept his arms encompassing everything around us. Carpets once filled these halls and water flowed in canals through colourful gardens, he declared. Small trains brought construction materials. All of that has changed and the old man along with it. He was younger then, now he is not.
One afternoon, the daughter of Zahir Shah visited. Why don’t you reconstruct the palace? he asked her. Instead of that, I will give money to poor families, she told him. If I rebuild, war will destroy it again. Better to keep it as an ancient place. Its time has passed.
The old man stopped talking. We thanked him for his time and gave him another water bottle. When we reached our car at the bottom of a hill below the palace, I glanced back. The old man stood where we had left him, diminished by distance, his beard turbulent in the wind, the fractured ground, boundless and bare stretching far away.