Life on Stonecutter Street

KABUL — Farhuddin Ba Deli stared out the window as the Kabul taxi crawled through downtown and turned on what is known in Dari as Stonecutter Street.

His brown eyes looked out past the bustle of shop owners and fruit peddlers and pushcart operators to some place far beyond the street.

“I have bad memories of Stonecutter Street," says Farhuddin, a heavy sadness in his voice and words that trail off at the end as he remembers the war years.

Stonecutter Street was where he came of age in a country ravaged by war. It’s where he and his father and four brothers endured the darkest days of all the many years of fighting in Kabul. The father and mother were starting their family when the Soviets invaded the country in 1979. They learned to live with war through the decade that followed as the Mujahedeen fought to force the Soviets out.

Stonecutter Street just off the Shor Bazaar was home for the Ba Deli family through the civil war as the brutal and corrupt warlords, backed by the U.S. to defeat the Soviets, fought for control of the city. They survived the intense fighting in 1996 when the Taliban surged to power.

Farhuddin lost three brothers in the many years of fighting. He lost his leg as a boy when an errant rocket struck the street.

“My brothers died on this street. I came to hate this street,” he said, the sadness in his eyes turning to something else, a resiliency that is hard-edged but not void of hope.

It was on Stonecutter Street in 1994, when he met Seamus Murphy, an Irish photographer now with the photo agency VII. Murphy brought his soulful gift and dogged determination for storytelling to a 15-year body of work that captures the darkness and the light of Afghanistan. It is chronicled in his book, "Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible" (Saqi Books).

When he was on assignment that day in 1994, the world didn’t care much about Afghanistan. It was a failed and ruined state, refuse from the Cold War. Murphy was there working hard to chronicle the fighting and looked up at a second-floor apartment window where the Ba Deli family lived in a building that had been punched by mortars and pocked by machine-gun fire.

He waved to the father, Abdul Sami, who in turn motioned to him to come up for tea. Murphy took the invitation and ended up spending the night with the family and beginning a relationship in which he chronicled their lives, the deaths, the marriages and the births of the sons of a new generation over the next 15 years.

“What hooked me and brought me back to the family again and again was that they represent more than just the family themselves. They are symbolic, a metaphor for the condition of the Afghan people,” explains Murphy.

When Murphy first met them, Stonecutter Street looked like the end of the world, a bombed-out ruin. At that point, Farhuddin’s mother had died after giving birth to the youngest of the brothers. And the oldest brother, Abdul Sabour, had been killed several years earlier. He was 19 and was killed fighting on the side of the Communist government forces of then-Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah against the Mujahedeen fighters.

When that happened, the father asked his other sons to vow to never join a militia or fight in a war. In the heavy war years of the mid-1990s, the father and his sons struggled with poverty and hunger as the fighting raged around them. Murphy captured them in this period dressed in rags and their eyes filled with fear and despair. Eventually, the brothers' hunger drove them to serve in the legendary Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces. They volunteered so they could earn the 60 cents a day paid to foot soldiers.

They defied their father’s wishes. They put on the uniform because they needed to eat.

“They did it to survive, so we could survive,” says Farhuddin.

Farhuddin honored his father’s request and has never fought on any side in a country where few men can make such a claim.

“I don’t know any champion or great man worth fighting for. Not then, not now.”

In 1996, a stray bullet fired from Taliban positions on the hills killed the second brother, Abdul Shakur, 21, at a checkpoint in the south of the city. Thirty-two days later, the next brother in line, Abdul Shafur, 22, was killed when a Taliban rocket slammed into a barracks.

“Both the bullets and the rocket that killed my brothers were Taliban, and I hold them responsible for my two brothers' deaths in 1996,” says Farhuddin.

He remembers that climate of fear that the Taliban brought with their puritanical beliefs and an enforced climate of fear that sucked the joy out of life for the Afghans.

“We were scared. They ruined life,” said Farhuddin.

The father was never the same after losing two more of his sons. The grief broke him. His health failed and he soon died as well. The brothers were despondent. They felt they had nothing left but each other.

Again Murphy came knocking and photographed them, and the cumulative effect of the years of loss and loneliness is there like a dark cloud over the landscape of their faces. The departed members of the Ba Deli family were buried on a hilltop cemetery above Stonecutter Street. Today, men and boys are free to run among the gravestones and chase after colorful, hand-crafted kites that were banned under the Taliban.

Murphy came and went on assignments, always stopping in to see the two surviving brothers, Farhuddin and his youngest brother, Farhad, and he became a part of their lives. When it was difficult to find them in the fall of 2001, it took a year to finally track them down again.

By 2002, Farhuddin had gotten a job as a tailor. He finally saved enough money to pay for a wedding and he was married in 2003. Murphy was trusted enough by Farhuddin and the family that he was allowed to photograph his wife without the modest covering of the burqa, a rare glimpse behind the veil in an Afghan marriage. Farhuddin and his wife now have two sons and they live in a new house on the Western fringe of Kabul. His brother Farhad also has a newborn. The family is slowly coming back.

Murphy and I were invited to a ceremony for Farhuddin’s young boys, a proud rite of passage for the fathers of boys in Afghanistan. It was a traditional Islamic circumcision of the boys who are 5 and 3. There were prayers over the boys by five Muslim clerics, chanting blessing from the Koran. The little boys were brave. Their father cared for them and loved them and held them as the local doctor prepared for the procedure. A goat that was to be slaughtered in celebration of the boys was baying in the background, its bleating mixed with the sound of the clerics chanting the Koran. In a land where so much blood is spilled, the day seemed surreal with so much laden imagery of sacrifice and what it is to be male in a traditional society.

But for Farhuddin it was a day to celebrate and reflect on how life is slowly getting better.

“This was a great day in my life … . My sons are well and healthy. It is a very important day for a Muslim family, “ he said, beaming as he prepared a tray of tea cups for his guests.

After the surgery, his sons were sleeping on a daybed next to him and he stroked their hair and looked lovingly and proudly upon them.

“They were very brave,” he said.

And he reflected on all the years of life and death and the Taliban and in every word he seemed to capture a quality of the Afghan people that is as rugged and enduring as the landscape: resiliency.

“It is really life. Fifteen years has passed with ups and downs. Some times very tough situations ... . What I can say is that it has been a bad time, but now it is getting better, not worse. Things are getting better. I have hope.”