by Oakland Ross
Kandahar, Afghanistan -- "Welcome to paradise," declares your Afghan guide, as he aims his four-wheel-drive vehicle beneath a pair of concrete canopies that form the southern gateway to this frenetic outpost of dust, danger and death.
"Paradise" is not a word that springs readily to mind when people think of Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan and epicentre of a ghost-ridden and bloody war pitting Taliban insurgents against the Afghan government.
Based in Kabul, 490 kilometres north of here, the democratically elected administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is backed in its armed struggle by a NATO-led coalition of international armies, including 2,500 military personnel from Canada.
Nowhere is the threat of violence more persistent, however, than in this ramshackle city of some 300,000 souls, perched against a stark mountain backdrop in the Arghandab River valley of southern Afghanistan, a very long way from most people's idea of paradise.
But your guide for the day - call him Abdul - possesses a somewhat twisted sense of humour, to go along with a rather checkered knowledge of his country's history.
In this, he is not alone.
Afghanistan is a land of epic poets, stirring songs, and magnificent dynasties, but it is also a territory whose sense of itself and of its storied past have been ground very nearly to dust by long years of debilitating war.
Meanwhile, Abdul manoeuvres his way through Kandahar's District 5, where cars, motorbikes, horse-carts, motorized rickshaws, and pariah dogs vie for space amid a seeming infinity of spindly wooden kiosks selling apples, shanks of meat, bananas, nuts, and almost anything else imaginable.
As he drives, Abdul keeps up a non-stop commentary about an aspect of life and death in this southern Afghan city that is likely much more familiar to most Canadians, not to mention most Afghans, than anything that may have happened beyond the swirling sandstorms of a distant past.
"This is the main area for ISAF targets," says Abdul, using the four-letter acronym for the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO mission in Afghanistan is known.
Every minute or so, his vehicle lurches around yet another shallow crater in the cracked and broken asphalt, and Abdul promptly rhymes off all the relevant details - the date of this particular blast, the exact number of NATO soldiers killed or wounded, as well as the toll of innocent Afghan civilians who perished in the same explosion or as a result of retaliatory gunfire by the panicked foreigners.
As a foreigner yourself, you half-wish that Abdul would shut up about suicide bombers, but there is a weirdly compelling quality to his gruesome chronicle of terror and mayhem, and so you let him rattle on.
This is your first-ever visit to Kandahar, and you would like to learn a little of the city's distant past to go along with your mostly depressing knowledge of its present.
For a price, Abdul has agreed to act as your guide.
Founded in 1761 at a crossroads connecting the city of Quetta in what is now Pakistan with the northwestern Afghan city of Herat, Kandahar has played a vital part in this country's affairs ever since, but it has never been on the beaten tourist track, not even during the drug-addled days of the 1960s and '70s, when Afghanistan - and its ready supply of hallucinogens - lured hippies and other adventurous travellers from all over the world.
Still, Kandahar has its attractions, none holier than the Mosque of the Prophet's Cloak, located in the heart of the city, directly across the street from the Palace of Government and just a block or so from the intersection where the governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, barely survived a suicide-bomb attack in June.
Housed in a boxy, brightly tiled edifice with a green marble base, the famous cloak - which once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad - was a gift from the amir of Bothara in 1768 to Kandahar's founder, Ahmad Shah Durrani.
The cloak is shown in public only on the most rare occasions, when the city is under armed attack, for example, or beset by a cholera outbreak.
In 1996, however, Mullah Omar - the one-eyed founder of a deeply conservative religious faction known as the Taliban - removed the cloak from the mosque and famously wound it around his own shoulders while a huge, cheering crowd looked on. He declared himself Amir al-Mumineen, or Commander of the Faithful.
That was just before Taliban forces descended upon Kabul and seized control of all Afghanistan.
Five years later, following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States invaded the country and put the Taliban to flight. They have since re-emerged as a determined and bloody-minded insurgent force, centred on this city where the movement was born.
Right beside the Mosque of the Prophet's Cloak stands an even more impressive building, the mausoleum containing the mortal remains of Durrani, Kandahar's founder.
Abdul seems not to be aware of this, however, and instead guides you back to his vehicle in order to convey you northward, past the point where a British military convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber earlier this month, past the spot where another suicide bomb exploded on the same day - "See those windows?" he says. "All broken" - and thence to a hillside north of the city.
Here stands a shrine to Baba Wali, an important religious figure of the early 15th century.
(For these and other details of Kandahar's history, you are indebted to what may be the only extant travel guide devoted exclusively to this country, An Historical Guide to Afghanistan by Nancy Hatch Dupree, published in 1977, and now happily available on-line at www.zharov.com/dupree/ ).
Wednesdays are reserved for female pilgrims at Baba Wali's shrine, but an Afghan policeman eventually waves you through, no doubt because there are no pilgrims of either sex in attendance on this particular day.
The holy man's tomb is an airy affair of many coloured marble tiles, affording a panoramic view of the Arghandab Valley and a distant range of mountains that ride the northern horizon like so many rows of jagged, petrified waves.
According to Abdul, there are at least two other historical sites of note in Kandahar. They include the Chihlzina, or Forty Steps, cut into a mountain wall along the road to Herat. The steps lead to a stone chamber guarded by a pair of stone lions that were carved in the early 16th century to honour the exploits of the Mughals and their greatest leader, Zahiruddin Babur.
But Abdul says the site is located in a dangerous area and is unsafe to visit.
He raises a similar objection concerning the tomb of Mir Wais Baba, a revered former president of Afghanistan and a member of the Pashtun tribe, which dominates the southern part of the country.
So, instead, you repair to the city's pre-eminent hostelry, the 37-room Continental Guest House, which currently has no guests, in order to share an instant coffee and powdered whitener offered free of charge by the hotel's owner, a regal-looking gentleman by the name of Nazir Ahmed.
Later, Abdul conveys you back to your temporary home on a military base located south of the city. Without being asked to, he kindly selects a secondary route, one that is not cratered by the suicide bombs of Kandahar's haunted present.
Praise Allah for that.