The choice was either the snake charmer or the doctor. Hamid decided to choose the doctor. To ignore the snake charmer and take his brother to a qualified doctor was unconventional. But he was making the choice to save his brother.
It was some time since his brother had lost his appetite and the colour of his eyes had changed to yellow, a clear sign that Rahmat was suffering from hepatitis. Hamid was asked by his parents to take Rahmat to the snake charmer who had a shop at the end of their street. The snake charmer was not only famous for catching the most dangerous snakes such as the red skinned cobra, but was also a well known healer who could help his patients with all sorts of problems. He had saved the lives of people bitten by snakes and assisted women yearning to get pregnant. Legend had it that he could cure thousands of diseases including hepatitis.
Hamid’s parents were deeply religious. They believed in rituals and the snake charmer- cum-healer was their first choice for treating illnesses. With God’s help and the power of belief many sick people were cured after a visit to the snake charmer. A huge man, with dark skin, big lips and a long beard, and a most impressive appearance, he attracted people from all walks of life. His shop was bursting with boxes in which he kept dangerous snakes. From time to time he opened one of these and charmed a snake into showing its face to patients. Sometimes, he encouraged the snakes to ready themselves for attack, but controlled them when anyone was startled. He loved these games and could see that his patients were mesmerised, convinced of the amazing power of his dark eyes the power of controlling dangerous snakes. Yet, faced with his brother’s malady, Hamid opted to go to a conventional doctor whom he had met at a wedding two months ago.
“Are you sure it’s the right choice?” Rahmat asked.
Hamid looked squarely at him. “I think the doctor will cure you.”
Rahmat wiped his hand across his forehead, hot with a thin film of sweat. “It’s only that I… I feel afraid that…” His voice trailed off.
“You’ll feel better when you get well.” Hamid clasped his brother’s shoulder. “I won’t let you down.”
Hamid sounded confident but perhaps he was not so sure. Prior to the wedding Hamid had passed Doctor Nasrat occasionally along the narrow alleys where they lived. As was the custom of the good people of Andrabi, they greeted each other politely. It was at the wedding party that someone had spoken about the ability of the local snake charmer to cure the most untreatable sicknesses. Other people in the room agreed that, indeed, God had given him the gift of healing and the power to bring almost dead people back to life. Doctor Nasrat, a graduate of the university hospital in Moscow, listened to these enthusiastic stories without participating in the conversation. Finally, he could no longer restrain himself from saying that the snake charmer was nothing but a con artist. He tried hard to convince them that in today’s world there was no place for superstition. This response shocked the wedding guests. They believed in the snake charmer’s powers and were unhappy with allegations of quackery. For the past 25 years it was he who had treated and cured the inhabitants of Andrabi, not the medical doctor. Nobody believed a doctor was superior to a snake charmer. In fact, they concluded in their hearts that the doctor was probably jealous of his popularity, whose waiting room was packed with visitors from all over the country, whereas no one even knew where Doctor Nasrat’s clinic was located.
Hamid listened attentively to the medical doctor, as he had faith in education. In his school, teaching was scientific and there was no place for people like snake charmers. His science teacher talked about the latest developments of the world, modern technology and even medicine, which was new in a country where most of the people listened to preachers and believed in healers and snake charmers; in a country where mullahs did not believe that Neil Armstrong had landed on moon saying ‘the moon is a holy place and no infidel can step on it’. Hamid felt a bond with Doctor Nasrat. They talked at length at the wedding party and both realized that they got on well together. The doctor invited him to come to his clinic for a cup of tea and to talk about his philosophy of life. Hamid had gracefully accepted, but put off visiting him.
It was late afternoon as Hamid and Rahmat reached Doctor Nasrat’s clinic and found the doctor alone, sitting in an armchair. He looked up from reading the newspaper. “What a surprise!”
Hamid felt embarrassed not to have visited him before. “I was planning to come earlier, but have been so busy at school. I’m preparing for my exams for university entrance, and I haven’t had the time.” It was the best excuse he could think of.
“What subjects are you studying?”
“Literature. I spend most of my time in the public library reading books. I want to study literature and become a writer.
“That’s good, the country certainly needs good writers, who can understand the people and guide them with wise words.”
“I’m not sure if I’ll ever become a good writer, but I love reading and writing.”
“If you study hard and read the right material you will certainly become a good writer one day.”
The doctor turned to look at Rahmat’s pale face. “But I don’t think you came here today to tell me about your future career.”
Hamid was relieved that finally the doctor would allow him to explain their visit.
“My brother Rahmat is sick. He hasn’t eaten much these last few days and he feels very tired.”
Doctor Nasrat was in his early thirties but even at that young age most of his hair was already grey. Tall and slim, he did not follow the fashion of the time and dressed modestly. He was wearing a grey suite which somehow matched his grey hair and made him look handsome.
“Sit down here,” he indicated a chair to Rahmat, and started to examine him. He looked closely at his eyes, his throat, his ears; he put his stethoscope on his chest and then suggested that a blood sample should be tested in a laboratory.
“Yes. You have hepatitis, but maybe there might be other complications.”
Hamid was troubled. He realized the reason why most people preferred the snake charmer. It did not cost as much, the homemade medicines were cheaper and he never asked patients for tests. As if the doctor could read the worry in Hamid’s face, he explained, “The man in charge of the laboratory is one of our comrades. He will not take money from you and you don’t need to bother about the cost of the medicines. I will help you with that. I will give you some drugs which should cure it. There is no charge.”
“But Doctor Nasrat I cannot accept your kind gesture. I should be able to pay.” Hamid responded with embarrassment.
“Would you take money from a poor man for reading one of your articles? Dear Comrade, we are not here to make a profit. We are here to help people in need.”
The doctor counted out tablets into a small bottle and handed them to Rahmat. “These are new drugs from Russia, they should work well.”
As the two brothers began to leave, the doctor handed a book
to Hamid. It was a novel called ‘Mother ’ written by Maxim Gorky.
“Read it and tell me what you think of it by next Friday evening. We will meet in one of the comrades’ house. I will drop by to pick you up.”
Half-way home, Rahmat stopped in the street to face Hamid. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I won’t say anything at home.”
Hamid was not so preoccupied with what to tell their parents, but was reflecting more on what the doctor had mentioned. His mind was busy thinking, ‘Why had the doctor been so generous? Why had he used the word comrade to address him? What did this reference to comrade imply?’ Above all he was intrigued about the purpose of Friday’s meeting.
The night passed without further incident. Rahmat who was only two years younger than Hamid, respected his elder brother and never disobeyed him. He also had faith in his brother. That was the reason why when Hamid told him that the snake charmer was not the right person to cure his illness, Rahmat agreed. Taking Rahmat to the medical doctor was not only because Hamid did not believe in superstition, but there also was another reason. He loved his brother and wanted to make sure that he was cured properly. For him modern medicine was the only way to help Rahmat. During the visit to the doctor, Rahmat kept quiet and only spoke when the doctor asked him about his health. He had a quiet nature and always kept his opinion to himself, not like Hamid who was outspoken. He also went to modern school and yet he felt science was a tool, which could explain Islam well. He was religious, but like his brother knew that the snake charmer had nothing to do with religion and curing people.
“Thank you Allah for making me healthy again,” said Rahmat, and kissed the white marble stone with Koranic inscriptions.
Here lies the king of Islam who sacrificed his life for Allah, his spirit is surrounded with rays coming from heaven.
Halima, their mother, was happy that her sons had been to the snake charmer and that he had cured Rahmat from the horrible illness. But now she had given them a new task; to thank Allah by going to the nearest shrine, Shah-e do Shamshaira, to take some halwa that she had cooked to give to the poor who gather at the shrine.
“Rahmat, we know nothing about these shrines.” Hamid was standing behind Rahmat. “What do you mean?”
“I was in the library the other day and happened to pick up a book about the local history of shrines in Andrabi.”
“So what did you find?”
“Well, the Peer-e Boland shrine has nothing to do with Islam?”
“You mean the place mother took us to every Wednesday to
“Yes! You know nobody is buried there.”
“What! It’s not possible.”
“Yes, I’m serious. When the British were leaving Kabul after their defeat in 1842, they realized that they couldn’t take their heavy weapons with them. So they buried them on the top of the hill, fixed a flag on it and named it the shrine of Peer-e-Boland; the holy man on the top the hill, to keep it safe.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“If you don’t believe me, don’t. The place was intact until they invaded Kabul again. They opened up the hole and took all the weapons out, but kept it as a shrine to make sure no one suspected anything.”
“And now poor women are swallowing the dust of the shrine?”
“Yes. They’re stupid! They’re swallowing the dust created by
“So you’re telling me that Shah-e do Shamshaira is also a fake person?”
“No, thanks to Allah it’s not fake; otherwise you and I would have finished the halwa together, because I wouldn’t let mother ’s halwa go to waste.”
“So what’s the story behind this shrine?”
“He was Arab.”
“What! I thought he was Afghan.”
“What Afghan! We were all Hindus in those days. When the Arabs came to convert our people to Islam, they fought hard. And all their soldiers and their commander, Shah-e do Shamshaira, the leader with two swords, were massacred. They were buried where they fell and later when houses were built on the graveyard, the people kept the shrines.”
“Don’t tell me we were Hindus?”
“Yes, we were Hindus and today on shab-e baraat we remember the death of the Muslims who were martyred. The book I was reading explains that shabe-e baraat, the sacred night, is the night of deliverance and we observe it with a nightlong vigil of prayers. That’s why we light candles every Friday night. Andrabi’s famous for being a town of shrines and the graveyard of martyrs.”
They walked back home along the narrow streets avoiding the wider streets used by cars. They arrived at the central square. Children were playing topdanda, similar to baseball, and some others were running around playing catch. The square was located at walking distance of less than 5 to 10 minutes from any house and was used for many activities. It was also a car park in all seasons. Sometimes, adults played football or volleyball. During Eid children brought boiled eggs and challenged each other to an egg fight. One child would hit the tip of the egg of the other child, being careful of the impact on his own egg. The first eggshell that cracked was the loser. The winner took the egg of the loser. In winter, the square became a ground for other sports. Boys indulged in snowball fights or joined in ice-skating.
As they passed the mosque, a beautiful musical recital captured their ears. The sound of the Koran recitation occurred after early morning prayers at dawn when the children came to the mosque to learn to recite the Koran and in the evening. The mullah taught them with a melodious voice and they repeated the verses. Andrabi was very spiritual.
As they passed the north gate, Hamid turned to his brother, and said, “I discovered other things from the book that I was reading.”
“Please don’t knock my faith.”
“No, this gate reminds me of the history of Andrabi. Andrabi was part of the old city where guerillas fought against the British for Afghanistan’s independence some 130 years ago. It had two main gates: this one in the north, on the edge of the river and the other in the south, facing the mountains. Here was the best place for the Afghans to attack the British, and then they disappeared in the mountains to the south. Now the gates have gone.”
“It’s a shame.”
“Well they don’t serve their purpose any longer. They used to keep Kabul safe. Now it is the responsibility of the government and the police force to provide security and gates are no longer necessary. The city entrance and exit is left open through the night for people to get
in and out.”
Andrabi was changing even if no one could see it. Houses were built of mud, stone and wood and lasted for a long time. So what had changed in Andrabi if it was not the landscape? It was the people. Gone were the days when the centre of education had been the mosque. Today, parents sent their children to school and some even went on to university. Such cultural changes met with resistance by the traditionalists and religious people, led by the mullahs of the mosques, who were not happy with this change of direction. After the codetta and the change of government from a monarchy to a republic in 1973, changes in the attitudes of the people became even more apparent. They really felt that the best future for their children was a proper education and that the new government should assist the new generation’s formal schooling. So it was the soul of Andrabi, the people that were changing. Some clung with traditional values, some claimed modernisation.
The other change was the influx of migrants to Andrabi. People, mainly from the northern villages of Afghanistan, migrated to the old part of Kabul and found Andrabi to be a favourite destination. Andrabi was in the heart of Kabul. The arrival of the new population created a class structure that had not existed before. The indigenous occupants of Andrabi referred to themselves as the real Kabulis, which in fact they were, and they called the new arrivals immigrants. In making decisions related to the community of Andrabi, the Kabulis had the upper hand.
Hamid and his family belonged to the upper class and were real Kabulis. His father, Abdul, had a small grocery shop near the mosque and spent his time between the house, his shop and the mosque. His two sons were taken to the mosque at a tender age, much earlier than
school, to learn about Islamic teaching. Their father encouraged them, nurturing hopes for them to become government officers in the future with a strict religious upbringing. Hamid completed his primary education in the mosque under the apprenticeship of a famous mullah, a graduate of Deoband, India, before pursuing his formal school education. The second son, Rahmat, however, continued his Islamic studies parallel with his formal schooling. Hamid’s parents were happy with both children and did not interfere with their choices. Continuing Islamic learning made their younger son Rahmat a fervently religious young man. Hamid, on the other hand, became more of a romantic, spending hours in the public library, writing poetry.
The Kabul public library was not far from Andrabi and Hamid could easily walk there whenever he wished. The reading rooms were crowded with whispering researchers and political activists. Hamid was thirsty for knowledge and frequently eavesdropped on the researchers to discover more literary work. Usually, he showed little interest in politics. However, one day he overheard the conversation of two young men addressing each other as comrade. It was unusual for people not to address each other by name, and Hamid’s curiosity was piqued.
What would he discover at the meeting?