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A Tale of Two Hotels, a Buddha Behind Each


By Mujib Mashal

October 25, 2017

The two hotels are separated by a 400-yard stretch of asphalt road, but they seem worlds apart. What unites them are the remains of a pair of giant Buddha statues, one behind each, and the history of Afghanistan’s Bamian Valley — its fortune fluctuating with that of the Buddhas.

The Gholghola Hotel is a $5 million property with luxury suites and 99 items on the menu, including Ukrainian salad and spaghetti Bolognese.

Down the road is a two-room adobe hut, rented for $50 a month on a yearly contract — or until the municipality of this central Afghan province comes to raze it. It’s called the Fairness Hotel (for men and women), based on the sign to the right side of the property, or the Mohammed Hussain Hotel, according to the sign on the face of the property.

“We have beans, and we have soup,” Mr. Hussain declares as soon as a new guest walks in.

The Fairness Hotel is not really a hotel. It’s more a side-of-the-road joint, with a back room that a friend from Mr. Hussain’s village uses as overnight storage for the cabbage and squash he sells in the bazaar.

More than a dozen wasps are buzzing inside. When Mr. Hussain’s fifth-grade son and apprentice, Paiwand Ali, picks up the broom to sweep the bread crumbs, he pulls his hoody over in case one of the wasps attacks his head.

"They won’t touch you, as long as you don’t touch them,” Mr. Hussain assures his son — and every new customer who sees the wasps first thing when walking in.

Across the way, Gholghola is a pet project of a construction mogul, Hajji Nabi Khalili, the brother of Afghanistan’s former vice president, Karim Khalili. Mr. Khalili, the hotel owner, personally selected the chandeliers and the wallpaper with subdued motifs reminiscent of old New York hotels.

With a staff of 38, the establishment maintains a high standard, but can barely meet costs. Even at peak tourist season, only half of the 45 rooms are rented. But for the Khalili family, with Bamian long the stronghold of their politics, profit was never the priority.

“There was a need for a good space — for tourists, for officials, for visitors,” said Azghar Yusufi, the hotel manager. “In terms of quality and standard, this is the highest place we have in Bamian.”

Before Karim Khalili became the soft-spoken vice president of Afghanistan, with his brother profiting in his shadow, his unruly faction controlled Bamian during the 1990s civil war among warlords. Now his men are clean-cut for a new democracy, but in those days they inspired fear.

One barber in the bazaar remembers when one of Mr. Khalili’s commanders came for a haircut. He had long disheveled hair, and hanging from each side were several grenades.

Another time, the barber said, another of Mr. Khalili’s fighters walked into the shop in a hurry. In his hand he had a tiny plastic bag containing four head lice. He handed the bag of lice to the barber and, with a smirk on his face, said: “I am going to the front lines, and you take care of these. If they get skinny or fat by the time I come back, you know what will happen.”

The Gholghola Hotel has a portrait of the former vice president woven into a small carpet in the lobby. It also has many paintings of the giant, cliff-side Buddha statues that made this region famous around the world before their destruction at the hands of the Taliban in 2001.

“The Buddhas were the identity of Bamian,” said Ustad Abdullah, 63, a biology teacher cutting greens for his cows in the fields nearby. “I am confident they will rebuild the Buddhas. But maybe they should leave them like that — to show what the Taliban did?”

Mr. Abdullah recalled the week in the spring of 2001, when the Taliban first shelled them with tank artillery. Then they detonated a huge amount of explosives — about 11 truckfuls, according to the researcher Abas Arefi — placed in the statues, leaving only the frames standing

In local oral traditions, the Buddhas used to have jewels in their headgear, even diamonds in their eyes. When the residents woke to see the morning sun reflected off the statues, they would feel as if the giants were protecting them.

From the balcony of the suites ($130 a night) at the hotel, life in the valley unfolds like a painting.

One late October afternoon, the outlines of the old Buddhas, still visible in their frames, looked hollow, the small puffs of dust traveling in front of them seeming to fill their stomachs. Narrow paths crisscrossed the fields in front of them, where men and women picked potatoes, or tended to cauliflower and cabbage. Flocks of sheep grazed. Little water channels fade into the distance in the fields, as if created with the gentle tip of a paintbrush.

Most of the houses at the Buddhas’ feet are made of mud resembling the sandstone the statues were carved from some 1,500 years ago. But there are washes of color — in the foliage of the poplar trees, and in the neon orange-and-turquoise sweaters of the children herding two wobbly sheep.

At Mohammed Hussain’s place, a pot of tea, a loaf of bread and cabbage salad is included in an .80-cent lunch of beans, or $1.20 lunch of beef soup.

If you ask nicely, you will even get a fresh pepper.

Mr. Hussain and his son leave home at dawn. They fire up the samovar. For breakfast, they serve tea and eggs.

For lunch, Mr. Hussain cooks about nine pounds of beef and four pounds of beans. Paiwand Ali brings fresh bread from the bakery around the corner.

Mr. Hussain knows how many of his customers like their food.

An old man, hunched over his bowl of soup, felt with his fingers two pieces of meat served on the side in a tiny metal saucer.

“This one is good,” the old man said, feeling one piece. “This other one is too tough.”

The tough meat was replaced. “For you, of course,” Mr. Hussain said.

A man in a green cap, and the worn-out suit of a clerk who has only one, walked in. He bellowed a big hello, and then said, “I will have half an order of soup.”

“I can’t do half an order,” Mr. Hussain said.

“I will take a full order,” the man replied. “Make it greasy!”

After eating, the men pour cup after cup of tea from their individual teapots, hug their knees and stare into the commotion of the bazaar through the window.

“A girl lost her purse in the bazaar, and would not stop crying,” one customer said. His young son, sitting next to him, stared at the wasps buzzing overhead, going in and out of a hole in the ceiling.

“Maybe her phone was in the purse, and her boyfriend’s number in the phone,” said Mr. Hussain, taking a break to sip tea in the red plastic chair next to the samovar. “These school types — they all have boyfriends.”

Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul.