KABUL — Just after 7 a.m., Ramzan Haidary opens the old wooden shutters to his tiny workshop and unrolls a patched awning over the sidewalk. Then he sets out a rack of polished boots, assorted shoelaces and a pair of yellow ladies’ sneakers, unpacks his satchel of hammers and awls and pliers, and climbs onto his cushion to await the day.
It is still early. The sidewalk is wet because the fruit vendor next door has just sprayed the mangoes and apricots he bought from the wholesale market at 5. Across the street, a teenage boy is sharpening a knife next to a wire basket full of unsuspecting chickens. Around the corner, a canary starts to chirp as an old man hangs its cage next to a display of used shirts and trousers.
A half-dozen blocks away is the glitter and glare of Shahr-i-Naw, the Afghan capital’s fast-developing commercial district: new glass-walled mini-malls, garish wedding palaces, iPhone and laptop stores with gunmen outside, and displays of brand-name sports shoes, many imported from China.
But this older urban crossroads, anchored by a police post and a family-owned pharmacy, is smaller in scale, slower in pace and steeped in personal relationships.
Haidary’s business is little more than a cubbyhole next to a shade tree, but he has occupied it for 18 years, and everyone knows him. Every day he puts out a couple of wooden crates covered with bits of carpet, and there are always one or two people sitting on them, chatting and watching him work.
A white-haired man of 65 with an elfin face, Haidary rides his bicycle to work and back. On a good day, he takes in about $7.
“If you don’t have experience like me, you can drive a nail into your finger,” he says, grimacing as he presses a thick needle through several layers of leather.
Many of his customers are old acquaintances of modest means who are hoping to get a few more months’ wear out of their shoes. Times are hard, with a long-running insurgent conflict driving away investment. Despite the urban building boom, many people are out of work.
A grizzled porter named Muhammad Gul parks his wheelbarrow on the sidewalk. The two men greet each other familiarly and begin bargaining. Gul’s shoes are falling apart and need new soles. Haidary inspects them and asks for 60 cents. Gul says he can afford only 30 cents.
“I haven’t found any work this week, but I have guests coming, so I have to look decent,” he says. They settle at 40 cents.
In some ways, the community seems frozen in time, unaffected by the war raging in the countryside. People take pleasure in traditional niceties, content to do a little business and pour a little more tea. Yet decades of conflict and upheaval have left their mark here, too, although the scars are subtle.
Gul’s left hand is paralyzed from a shrapnel injury he suffered when he was a soldier 30 years ago, fighting for the Russian-backed government against an array of Afghan militias.
“I use my right hand to push my cart, but I can only use the other one to balance it,” he says.
Qadam Shah, who opened his next-door dry-goods shop “during the time of King Zahir Shah” in the 1970s, says he has finally stopped letting customers buy sugar and rice on credit, and he complains that the world of wholesale import has become nasty and devious.
“There is no trust anymore,” said Shah, 58, who stocks cooking oil from Kazakhstan and paper towels from Turkey. “Kabulis used to be educated and honest, but so many of them left. There was too much war and insecurity. Now everything is fake, and everyone tries to cheat you and disappear.”
The allure of new possessions can be costly in other ways, Shah says. Recently he heard the news about a neighborhood boy of 13 who had his heart set on a pair of sports shoes in a shop. His father told him the family could not afford them. That night, the boy killed himself.
The Hussaini pharmacy on the corner is even older than Shah’s shop, and the family has suffered through several generations of violent loss. The founder, Mir Fazel Hussaini, was imprisoned by the communist regime in the 1980s and never seen again. A decade later, during the civil war, a bomb destroyed the pharmacy and killed two of his sons. A third, Mirwais, rebuilt the business.
“We stayed to keep my father’s name alive,” said Mirwais Hussaini, 34, whose cramped premises are full of potted plants and family portraits. “Things are better now, but these days a suicide bomb could explode unexpectedly on any corner. People are afraid all the time.”
The twists of history also run through this nondescript pocket of the city. The police booth and fruit stand are decorated with posters of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary anti-Soviet militia leader who was assassinated in 2001. A block away is the fortified compound of Abdurrashid Dostum, an Afghan vice president and former militia leader who is under investigation in connection with the brutal assault of an elderly politician.
It was Dostum’s rockets that destroyed the Hussaini pharmacy in 1993, when his forces were fighting Massoud and other militia leaders to control the capital. These days, the men guarding Dostum’s house often come to Haidary to have their boots polished, and when he leaves to pray at the local mosque, one of them usually strolls over and sits outside, keeping an eye on his tools.
Haidary doesn’t talk much as he hunches over in concentration, hammering and stitching and polishing, but he seems to relish the company and the conversation. After 20 minutes, he hands over Gul’s newly stitched shoes with a grin, and his customer smiles in satisfaction.
“Nice and neat. Just what I wanted,” Gul says, offering a gnarled hand in thanks.