Friday, June 17, 2016

City of the Dead in Kabul

It is a cemetery hosting both death and life. It is a cemetery like few others. At the Kart-e-Sakhi cemetery in western Kabul children hustle to make a living. As mourners return to the gravesites of their loved ones, the children are there to offer their services. The children are paid to ease the broken hearts of mourners. They do this by sprinkling the graves with water in a ritual that reflects a venerated tradition in Afghanistan. Sprinkling water on graves helps to free the dead of sins committed in life.
A family visiting Kart-e-Sakhi, which comes to life on Thursdays and Fridays, the Afghan weekend. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

The sprinkled water helps the mourners keep their memories fresh. There is a well close to a shrine and children fill their buckets. When a potential client is spotted there is a rush of children, smaller buckets in hand, jostling for attention, to be the successful one paid to sprinkle water. Once a client makes the selection from among the children, the winner steps forward with confidence and those who await another opportunity, step back with respect for the process.

The children enjoy what they are doing. And they're proud of earning money. They earn about ten afghanis in return for each bucket they sprinkle on a grave. That represents the price of a loaf of bread. Tips enhance their earnings substantially. Kabul's cemeteries are bursting both with the dead and the living. At off-times the children play marbles. Elsewhere at the cemetery men smoke joints.

Children washed the grave of a relative during a visit to the cemetery that also included a family picnic. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
Young lovers come for privacy. On the weekends the highlights are cockfights. Ornate headstones have begun to crop up there. An initiative of Muhammad Zahir, once a sculpture who built fireplaces and fountains whose business failed in a depressed economy, and he turned to headstones. "We were left making these headstones, because death is easy here", he said. His headstones are priced at $250 and up. Up as high as $3000 for elaborate ones.

The headstones are for men. Women, lesser creatures than men in the patriarchal society, do not merit headstones. Even their names fail to appear on their graves. What is inscribed is their relationship to a man: "Here rests the daughter of Muhammad Haider", or "Here lies the late mother of Muhammad Raza". Some things do not change, either in life or in death.

There is a rigidly enforced limit of space set aside for individual graves: 1.5 metres by 2.5 metres as approved under Shariah. "We are facing a lack of space for graveyards in the city", explained Abdul Rahman Ahmadzai, director of the department of the Afghan Ministry of Religious Affairs. Which administers the 30 cemeteries in the city.

When day is done, the children whose ages range from five to thirteen, set out all their bills to be sorted. One of the youngest of the group at six, Khushnuma, engages in a failsafe ritual to ensure she goes home with a respectable salary. "If they don't pay her, she just starts crying", Ajmal, ten, explained. "I have worked 80 afghanis today all on my own", she said with huge satisfaction.

Zikrullah, 14, left, and Ajmal, 10, carried water containers through the cemetery. The boys earn money by sprinkling water on graves, an old tradition that is believed to help absolve the dead of their sins. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

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