The Story of the Afghan Cab

by Savitha C Muppala on  March 8, 2010 at 6:25 PM Lifestyle News   - G J E 4
In the 30 years since Ghulam Ali bought his yellow-and-white taxi and drove it home from Saudi Arabia, all of Afghan life -- from expectant brides to dying war wounded -- has occupied its back seat.
 The Story of the Afghan Cab
The Story of the Afghan Cab

Once a gleaming source of pride that made Ali a big man in a city where traffic was dominated by horse-drawn carts, the 1973 Toyota Corona sedan is now a rusty shadow of its former self.

But Ali is no less proud of the opportunities the car gave him and his family after his return to Kabul from the oil-rich Gulf kingdom in 1977.

"It certainly didn't look like this," he said of the car, stroking the broken steering wheel, bandaged now with a piece of plaid cloth.

What could only generously be described as a jalopy looks as if it would be more at home on a scrap heap, waiting to be cannibalised for what little useful metal it has left.

And while 52-year-old Ali admits to sometimes feeling embarrassed being seen out and about status-conscious Kabul in his creaking heap, he says the car has been a close and constant "buddy" through good times and bad -- for both him and for Afghanistan.

"It has always been a good car. It's like my buddy," he told AFP.

In the three decades Ali has owned his Corona, Afghanistan has been in almost constant conflict -- a Soviet invasion and long occupation, a war to drive out the Russians, a civil war, an extremist Taliban regime and, now, another vicious war against Taliban militants.

To Ali as to every Afghan, these past 30 years have brought a mixture of fortunes, but throughout it all, he said, his greatest joy has been weddings.

"This car has seen 264 brides -- right here in the back seat," he says, pointing proudly at the tatty upholstery.

"I kept a record of every bride who sat in my car, and the date of her wedding -- that's how I know the exact number," he said.

In the mid-1970s, Ali was working as a labourer in Saudi Arabia, saving his meagre wages in the hope of putting enough aside to be able to change his lifestyle.

By 1977, he had scraped together enough to start looking around for a good car and, as luck would have it, one of Saudi Arabia's many sheikhs was selling his four-year-old Corona for the equivalent of 60,000 afghanis (12 thousand dollars), or half of Ali's savings of five years.

Ali didn't hesitate and says the car transformed his life, as the plan all along had been to save enough money so that when he got back to his hometown he could become something more than a day labourer.

After buying the car -- in those days a shiny silver -- he drove back to Kabul, via Iraq and Iran, and immediately started his own business, selling secondhand clothing imported from Europe.

Never did he think of the Corona's resale value, uppermost in the mind of most Afghan car-owners, as he never had any intention of selling it.

The greatest joy of becoming a businessman at that time, he said, was driving his own car to work every day.

But the joy was shortlived. In December 1979 the Soviet Union's military machine rolled over Afghanistan's northern border, ostensibly coming to the rescue of a weak communist government.

But the invasion signalled the start of a 10-year occupation which descended into a brutal war that claimed the lives of a million people.

Another four million people fled to neighbouring countries as refugees, and Afghanistan's agriculture-based economy was reduced to dust.

As Afghanistan descended into the horror of war, Ali's life, too, spiralled downwards, he said, as his business went bankrupt.

It was the Corona, he said, that came to his rescue.

As bombs and rockets rained across the country, Ali said goodbye to his sleek silver friend and transformed it into the Kabul cab it is today, painting its panels alternating yellow and white and declaring himself a taxi driver.

As the car aged over the years, its attraction as a bridal carriage declined, but it found a new role during the 1992-1996 civil war -- pressed into service getting wounded people to hospital.

"Many of my passengers during the war were wounded," Ali said, wincing at the memory of a conflict that the UN says left more than 80,000 civilians dead.

"In just one day I evacuated six wounded," he said.

That war gone, the ultra-religious Taliban took over and although their brand of control was harsh in the extreme -- banning music, dancing, games, television and education for girls -- Ali's life was peaceful.

As long as he did the right thing according to the authorities, he said, he could get on with the quiet life of a taxi driver.

Which is just what he did, earning a steady income that has helped him raise seven children, the oldest of whom, a 20-year-old son, is studying engineering at university in Moscow.

These days -- with the country mired in yet another conflict as US and NATO troops battle a Taliban insurgency in its ninth year -- Ali is proud to still be inching through Kabul's gridlocked traffic on appalling roads.

While his passengers are few -- mainly because his car does not look like it would make it around the corner -- taxi drivers with good cars are increasingly vulnerable to kidnap and robbery, and Ali says he feels safe.

"At least no one would steal it from me," he says with a wry smile.

"No one is interested in an old car and an old man. We're safe at least."

Source: AFP

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