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Roses in Kabul: A visit to Babur Gardens, Afghanistan

Young girl admiring the roses, Riding the busesThis garden in Kabul, Afghanistan, was developed around 1528 AD and was the ‘last resting place’ of Babur, the first Mughal emperor.  The Aga Khan Trust for Culture recently restored the 11-hectare garden and “the historic character of the site with water channels, planted terraces and pavilions” has been re-established.

In 2002, Kabul was a bleak place.  The airport runway was littered with the wrecks of bombed airplanes, UNHCR tarpaulins lay over damaged houses in place of roofs and an 8 pm curfew shut down the city every night creating an unnatural and eerie silence.  In wasted sections of western Kabul, returning refugees moved into hovels, covering the spaces meant for windows with the colourful rugs they had carried with them – to and from Pakistan.

Babur's Tomb, Riding the busesDuring assignments in Afghanistan, Friday was always my day off.  In the early years, I spent the six days prior to a Friday trying to identify a place to visit that had not been partially or completely destroyed by civil war.

On one of those Fridays in 2002, an Afghan colleague introduced me to Babur Gardens – a place of past glory and beauty that represented to him the possibility of a future totally unlike the broken and wounded city that lay before us from our viewpoint above the site.  Of course, at that time there was not much to inspire hope other than an awareness of an impressive history and an understanding that Afghans with the help of committed outsiders were determined to recreate a green space, respectful of Mughal design and welcoming to women, children and families.

Looking up the watercourse, Riding the busesSince that time, I have visited Babur Gardens on a number of occasions.  It is one of those wonderful public spaces that provide the resident a respite from the heaviness of city life and life in Kabul is particularly heavy.  When I visited the gardens in May of this year, I was accompanied by my young female interpreter, my driver and escort.  It was as much fun to watch them as it was to enjoy improvements to the gardens and the Queen’s Palace.  My interpreter kept saying, “Oh, I wish my children were with us” and the two men forgot the seriousness of their mission to keep me safe and began to relax, laugh and entertain me with stories.  Their appreciation of the garden and their sense of pride in its restoration were obvious and uplifting.

Brown is the prevalent colour of Kabul – a little green in April, a little white in December but mostly brown all year round.  When spring arrives, a visit to the gardens is particularly appealing because millions of lovely pink blossoms cover the fruit trees bringing great delight to the Afghan families picnicking on the lawns.  But it is May that appeals most to me because in May, Babur Gardens is filled with the blooms of roses – big, beautiful, healthy, luscious roses – the kind that I can never hope to grow in my own garden in Canada.

View of rebuilt West KabulAnd therein lies the paradox of life in Kabul—delicate roses in a city of cement walls and armoured vehicles.  As much as it is discouraging to witness the walls getting higher, it is hopeful to observe the thousands of roses growing all over Kabul, not only in Babur Gardens, but in small spaces around the city – on highway mediums, in empty lots and apartment-building courtyards—tended by people who have suffered and continue to suffer but who find pleasure and perhaps a quiet joy in the beauty of their roses.


By Barbara Reinhardus

Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus

© Riding the buses 2013

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