Mohammed the Bacha
While I was staying in Kabul, I came in contact with a lot people. Now, nearly thirty years later, only a few stick in my mind. They are the memorable ones, the ones I'll never forget.
One was the bacha at the Green Hotel, where I stayed for several weeks. A bacha is a young boy anywhere between 10 and 22 or so who acts as a jack-of-all-trades. This one, whom I'll call Mohammed because I don't remember his real name, spent a grueling day seeing to the wants and needs of the 35-40 odd Hippie travelers who stayed in the hotel at any given time.
12-year-old Mohammed was always up at the crack of dawn to pray before his working day began. It was he who would cook breakfasts for people and then serve them as well. He was responsible for what little cleaning took place in the building. He cleaned the toilets. He helped people move their bags outside when they were ready to leave. About the only thing he didn't do was assist with guest registration or accept payment for anything but food.
But he was always smiling, often making jokes in his very basic English. He also spoke Pashto and Dari, the Afghani version of Farsi, not to mention Tajik and probably Uzbek as well. But he had never been to school; he had never seen a doctor; and he had not seen his family for five or six years when they brought him to Kabul and effectively sentenced him to years of indentured servitude. For all his labors he was paid a princely 120 ($1.40) afghanis a month, given a place to sleep, and food to eat for his being at the hotel guests' and the manager's beck and call almost twenty-four hours a day. How he managed to keep his sense of humor and his sunny disposition was beyond me.
Then one day, he disappeared, which worried many of us. When he did reappear two or three days later, some friends of mine and I noticed a huge lump on his forehead. One was a nurse and she immediately realized that the poor kid had a gigantic boil. He told us it hurt a lot, but that he didn't have enough money to pay for any kind of medication since had been told that the tetracycline he needed would cost about $5 for a full course, representing some 4 months' wages. From our point of view, even as "penniless" Western Hippies, medication costs were minimal in Afghanistan. So what we did was to take up a little collection, and took him off to the doctor. They lanced his boil, we bought the medicine, and he was up and around almost immediately.
The Beggar Woman and the Little Boy
Another person I shall never forget was someone I never actually communicated with. But I saw her each time I walked to the general post office. There was a bridge across the usually dry Kabul River that I had to cross on the way from my hotel. On the opposite side of the bridge I would always see a little woman, crouched down on her haunches and leaning against the abutment, totally covered from head to foot in a filthy light blue burqa. She would put her hand out from under the folds of the garment and in a plaintive voice ask for one Afghani in Dari, which I could understand after a fashion. It was hard to fathom that inside that old, tattered, and dirty shroud hunched a human being. Sometimes I placed a coin in the outstretched hand, sometimes I didn’t.
After passing her by, I would cross the road to the rather dilapidated post office building. On its veranda I would almost inevitably run into a little beggar boy of about seven. He was very friendly, but it was always a shock to look into his face because he had a hare-lip -- and probably a cleft palate -- which had never been corrected. The result was that he had a row or teeth that curved upward and then down again and looked rather like the outline of a scribbled cursive "I" without the "dot."
One morning when I passed by the woman, the boy was sitting beside her with his head resting on her shoulder and sound asleep. I then realized that he had to be her son. I will never forget either one of them, for there but for the grace of God go we... In light of current events, I wonder if either one of them is still alive in a Kabul now laid waste and in ruin…