Entry: The Sublime Tomb of Ali (Afghanistan) Friday, October 28, 2005

Lying at the center of the town is the magnificent tomb of Hazarat Ali named Mazar-i-Sharif (The Tomb of the Exalted) for which the city is named. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and the fourth Caliph of Islam. The whole of the Muslim world believes he was buried at Kufa, Iraq, when he was assassinated in 661 AD, but local tradition dictates otherwise. It is said that his body, for fear that it would be desecrated, was carried away on the back of a she-camel until it dropped here from exhaustion. Various shrines have been built and destroyed at this location over the centuries until it was restored in modern times to its present condition.

So in the early morning light, crisp and chill, I wrapped myself in green embroidered scarf, and began my own pilgrimage to the shrine. After depositing my sandals at the counter I walked with the rest of the pilgrims to the entrance of the shrine, stopping briefly at the entrance and holding palms upward in front of my face as a kind of prayer. Then I entered the inner sanctum, the center of a circular room was a cubicle of gold latticework in floral design with the actual tomb situated inside. Ladies in white burkas kneeled at the base with heads pressed against. The men stood, laying both hands and head against the tomb in prayer. Along the edge of the walls sat men and women in meditation, some clicking rosary beads, others quietly reciting portions of the Holy Qur'an. The lighting was dim but the atmosphere both somber and magnificent in the splendour of its ancient Islamic design. I sat near the wall and marvelled at the massive dome above, painted with brilliant colors and intricate details of floral and geometric motif. Niches of infinitely varying patterns cut into the walls added to the effect of depth and dimension. No ordinary man could be buried in such a place.

I stepped outside the shrine to gawk at the outer design of the complex. Fitted top to bottom with a mosaic of earthy glazed tiles of blue with traces of yellow and brown, it dazzled in the morning sun. Every tile seemed to excite its very own cell in the back of my retina.

Walking around the outside park planted with trees and rosebushes, I came across a ground covered in thousands of identical pure white pigeons. A few men had bought some grain from the hawker and were sprinkling the stuff on their heads so that the pigeons would land and feed there. It is auspicious to have a sacred white pigeon from the tomb of Ali peck grain from your head, I suppose. Local legend also says that the place is so holy that a grey pigeon will turn completely white after 40 days at the shrine.

I walked three times around before picking up my sandals. I noticed many beggars around the shrine. Ladies crouched by the sidewalk, anonymous behind their dingy white or blue burkas, with an old withered hand thrust out from underneath. There were the blind, sometimes guided by the hand of a young son or other relative, sometimes woefully alone. Many men and a few children were without legs, no doubt the consequences of landmines. A few of the more enterprising poor sat on the sidewalks and with a simple broom swept up a line of dust for tips.

After having marvelled at the shrine, ran through the pigeons, and doled out a few small notes to the poor, I had worked up quite an appetite. I've gotten into a habit, and I hope it's a wise and healthy one, of replacing one meal a day with the local fruit. I picked up a kilo of plump, red pomegranates to take to my room. It not easy to relate the simple and sublime pleasure of eating a fresh Kandahari pomegranate, which are reputed to be the best in all the world. If it's a particularly good specimen, upon pealing away the outer skin, brilliant red seeds pour fourth like gemstones. I carefully pluck them one by one, careful not to break them (they tend to squirt when broken and will stain your clothes). I can sometimes fill two full cups from each, after which I eat with a spoon. The inner kernel is a little hard but is certainly edible and I'm told is also a kind of medicine for the stomach.

I spent the late afternoon with three brothers in their carpet and antique shop east of the shrine. One whose English was good could convey a few of his many grievances. Afghanistan is not a nice place he declared. There is too much dust here, he said, and it was definitely true. It fills every cubic inch of air, inside and out. Then there is the corrupt and uneducated police and government. Where is there a good government; where are there honest police he asked? Singapore came to mind, but my experience there was too limited to back it up with facts, and my local friends there would surely disagree. He said US soldiers are big buyers at the carpet shop but they always come with interpreters who promise the soldiers a cheap local price then demand in Dari that the shopkeeper inflate the price and pay a hefty commission.

After hearing the Azan, we shared a pot of home cooked squash, eaten with warm, fat roghani nan.


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