Cries from a war ravaged land

AWAITING my dental appointment I was a little apprehensive. I knew a large filling was crumbling away and would at least need replacing.

Aidan Semmens

AWAITING my dental appointment I was a little apprehensive. I knew a large filling was crumbling away and would at least need replacing.

In such circumstances it's natural, surely, to fear future pain and possible unknown complications. And I did, even though I have great faith in Dr Abdollahi, who I have found to be an excellent dentist - as well as being one of the few round here still practising through the NHS.

Meanwhile, Ismail was also seeking help with tooth trouble.

He found it in a small office behind a big sign proclaiming, in English and Afghan, “Dental Clinic”. It was on the first floor of a rickety five-storey block that looked either half-finished or half-demolished.

Ismail's English may not be perfect, but it is infinitely better than my Afghan and conveys beautifully, I think, the reality of his world. So I'll let him tell the rest of the story himself.

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“I needed a dentist, searched and found this clinic in this building built before war.

“Here I met an illiterate dentist trained by his father. When he couldn't find the source of my pain, decided to pull out my tooth.

“He found the problem tooth at third try. I lost two extra teeth but my pain finished. I think this is black humour.”

And I think that reaction says quite a lot about Ismail, as well as about life in his home city, Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

Almost incredulous, and acutely aware of the contrast between his dentistry and mine, I asked him if his story was literally true.

“It is true,” he said, “but it is also usual for this land.”

I don't know a great deal about Ismail - how old he is, for example, what his job is, whether he has a wife and children. But I do know he is an acute and highly civilised observer of a country that has seen more troubles than most, and continues to do so.

The fact that I can count him as a “friend” when neither of us has visited the other's country, nor is likely to, is one of the wonders of the internet.

His home page in the photographic community we both subscribe to lists his age as “Not enough to die” and his favourite game as “Life”.

His gallery of favourite photos by other people is full, tellingly and charmingly, of pictures of women - not pornographic, not even mildly so, but all showing the sort of western attention to beauty and style that for now remains unimaginable in Afghanistan.

In Kunduz, as in Kabul, most women still wear the kind of all-over covering that was obligatory during the reign of the Taliban.

Ismail explains: “Before 2001, women have to veil themselves and even if veiled, they couldn't walk outside without a man (husband, brother etc), otherwise they were cudgelled by policemen.

“So fear penetrated to their spirit. They were too fearful and mostly still they are here,

so they lost their humanity.

“To be woman in Afghanistan is not easy.”

Despite frequent mentions in the news - of troops (even royalty) deployed or withdrawn, battles with Taliban outposts, rumours of Al-Qaeda hiding-places - we seldom hear much about the day-to-day reality of life in Afghanistan.

But I think it's important to reach where we can behind the headlines.

If humanity is to have any hope it's vital that ordinary people, like Ismail and me, are able to make contact, to try to see into each other's realities. For that, the internet is a tool of unprecedented usefulness.

Ismail's own pictures, and his comments upon them, to me form one of the most informative and moving collections on the web.

His camera equipment is obviously very basic by our standards, but that hardly matters given the power and fascination of his pictures.

They cannot be reproduced here at a very large size, but I have tried to get as many as possible on the page so you too can share his amazing vision of his homeland. The captions as well as the pictures are all his.

Sadly, he will not be able to see them in print. When I offered to post him a copy of today's Evening Star, his reply was poignant and revealing.

He has no address - not because he is homeless, but because “there is not any stable address system here”.

A land of cities with no postal system seems hardly to belong to the modern world, does it? In such a world, thank goodness for the internet.

My visit to the dentist passed off almost painlessly and I have had no further trouble since. I have another routine appointment in six months.

I can only hope for Ismail's sake that he doesn't have to revisit his own dentist so soon.