By Dominic Medley
This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of the The Travel Club by Bradt Guides www.bradtguides.com
In 2003, all new proposals – which in those days were just emailed ideas – came to me (Hilary). A guide to Kabul, which would be sold by street kids? Absolutely! I was determined to continue the plan of publishing guides that would actually help the local population, something we had achieved two years earlier with our guide to Rwanda. Every now and then, I had argued, we needed to publish a guide that was not expected to make a profit but one that was definitely needed (in fact both Rwanda and Kabul surprised us by making a profit). Kabul had to be done quickly to catch the surge of foreigners in the city, and Tricia, the editorial director, threw herself into the challenge with her usual vigour, setting other projects aside to design a new mini-guide format and work flat out with Dominic and Jude to create the book in record time. In his own words, this is Dominic’s story.
‘Brace yourself, we’ve just had a request for a review copy of Kabul from the News of the World! We ought to have a competition for the headline they’ll give it!’
That’s the email I received in June 2003 from Hilary Bradt shortly after the new Bradt guide to Kabul was published. It was the first in a new series of mini city guides. From delivery of the manuscript to having books on sale in Kabul took less than three months, which Tricia Hayne, our editor at Bradt, told us was the fastest turnaround they’d ever done. Six thousand copies were printed initially (3,000 for delivery in Kabul), followed by a second run of 1,000. I also have in my possession at least four different pirated versions of varying quality. But how did all of this happen?
In February 2002, I arrived in Kabul with a colleague to set up a journalism training project for Internews, the US-funded media development NGO. The airport was chaos. The transport minister, Abdul Rahman, had been assassinated just two days before, after he was pulled off a plane by a mob – originally thought to be pilgrims, but government officials were later accused. Pilgrims returning from the Hajj to Mecca prayed on the runway outside the terminal building as a departing Boeing-747 blew their clothes and suitcases everywhere. A media team I saw had no problem getting through customs with a box of six bottles of wine.
Someone shouted ‘Faisal Guesthouse’. We’d heard about that place during our preparations in Islamabad, and so we joined them. Within half an hour we were having soup, chicken, chips, rice and green tea (a staple fare with eggs for the coming weeks), and negotiating a long-term rental at a house in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul.
It was just three months after the brutal Taliban regime had been dislodged from power and fled following the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks and the subsequent US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Now Afghans were returning to Kabul and the foreign community was pouring in. There was such a great euphoria and atmosphere in the city.
But things were not always like this. As bestselling author and correspondent Ahmed Rashid wrote of life in Kabul after the Taliban takeover in 1996:
‘Kabul quickly became a ghost town; women became invisible and social life outside the home next to impossible. Cinema halls were shut down, the radio played only religious speeches and cafés were closed. The only place where social interaction took place was the mosque.
The revival of Kabul’s social life after November 2001 was dramatic in the extreme. Within days of the retreat of the Taliban and even though the majority of people were desperately poor, the bazaars were once again thronged with people, women appeared in the streets for the first time and music blared in every bazaar. As education and clinics and hospitals revived with the help of international aid agencies, women were back at work in large numbers.’
My colleague and I had to find a house for both living and journalism training. We needed to buy everything from knives and forks to the generator. I frequently changed up to US$5,000 in the money market, and although one dollar was worth around 40,000 afghanis and the largest note was 10,000 afghanis, I never felt any threat walking through the streets with plastic bags of cash. The only time I packed an emergency grab bag was after an earthquake.
There was a curfew of 22.00 in those days. I remember attending a wedding of Afghans returning from Moscow. The party and dancing started after lunch to beat the curfew. But a few cars were late returning home. We were asked for the password or night word at a checkpoint. Our driver just said it was the same as the one the driver in the car in front had given!
The guidebook had humble beginnings. A BBC friend in London connected me with Jude Barrand who was also working in Kabul (Jude died from cancer in 2016), and we soon realized there was little information in one place on the new developing city. By September 2002 we had produced a small A5 pamphlet, initially printed on office printers and later at a printing house in the city. Our introduction said:
‘So you made it off the UN or Ariana plane. And you’ve arrived in Kabul for the “Great Game.” Welcome. Salaam a-laykum! Kabul is constantly changing. People have returned with great speed and in huge numbers. Businesses are starting up and competition, especially in the guesthouse business, is thriving. A few restaurants have opened, curfew is getting later, and it’s time you began to see the sights on that Friday off. Of course we’re aware this guide will very soon be out of date, so please send us any ideas and suggestions. Inshallah, you’ll have a safe and enjoyable time, but no doubt full on visit.’
Distribution of the pamphlet was never a problem – we just went door-to-door delivering to offices, guesthouses, restaurants – anywhere frequented by foreigners and returning Afghans. But the most rapid method was to give out free copies on the street and in traffic jams, mostly to children, who were often found selling things.
By early 2003 Jude and I were in discussions with Tricia, having approached Bradt as the most likely publisher for our guide. Initially only a small print run was discussed, but Jude stood firm: ‘There is a need for thousands of new guides here. The 3,000 we printed last year went in a flash, and everyone is clamouring for the new edition so I know we will have no trouble selling 500. Everyone wants a piece of Kabul at the moment and a guide to the city is a souvenir as much as anything.’
Bradt’s Kabul mini guide was the first to the city since the 1960s when the famous historian Nancy Hatch Dupree had published a series of tourist books covering Afghanistan. Interestingly the second edition of her Afghanistan guide was impounded after the April 1978 revolution. She only got the 10,000 copies released in 1992 after the mujahedeen entered Kabul (following the Soviet occupation of 1979–89).
Jude and I were thrilled when reviews flooded in for the guide: ‘Book of the week’ and ‘a must read’; it was even referred to as ‘a good stocking filler.’ Wanderlust magazine reported Bradt had set an ‘impressive precedent’ with the book, while The Sunday Times said the guidebook had put ‘something back into the city it describes’.
And that was key for us from the beginning. Jude and I bought 3,000 copies from Bradt for delivery to Kabul. We then gave a group of our street-kid friends ten copies each for free, after which they could then buy more books from us for $5 and sell them for $10 or more. Soon we had a rolling distribution network up and running and some money being put into well-deserving pockets.
I haven’t been to Kabul since September 2018 when I completed two years as an advisor to the American general commanding US and NATO forces. For sure it’s not the same as 2002 and 2003 when Jude and I worked on the Bradt guide.
The Taliban and other terrorists carry out vicious bombings and assassinations, most recently against many media friends I trained as journalists. The number of foreigners in the city has declined and most of the hotels and restaurants we loved to visit and recommended in the guidebook have long closed.
But Afghans are finding their way and standing up for the future. I hope the international community will continue to support them.
I miss Kabul. Every day.
Dominic Medley OBE was in Kabul from 2002 to 2018, initially training Afghan journalists and helping establish media outlets. He later worked for the United Nations and NATO. Twitter @DominicMedley.