“I have been planning to visit Afghanistan for a long time, but – which may surprise some – the previous political situation seemed less favorable to me,” said Dawid Mikoś, author of the travel blog masaperlowa.pl, in an interview with PAP. PL.
PAP.PL: How did your passion for travel develop? You choose less popular places and discover them for your readers, why such directions?
Dawid Mikoś: I wonder a lot about it, and it’s hard for me to find the right answer. I think it’s just curiosity about the world and people from other cultures. I used to go there a lot and now meeting people is just as important to me. I am happy when someone invites me to his home or to dinner – it is always a great honor and a great joy for me to be able to observe such a daily life. Especially if I am particularly interested in the culture of such a place. The Pearl Mass project is constantly evolving and I hope to present the next parts soon.
PAP.PL: Where does the blog’s name come from: Masa Perlowa?
DM: When I was in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, I read about decorating temple walls with mother-of-pearl. For some reason this fact stuck in my memory and when I started my blog the name was basically ready. Mainly because I knew there would be a lot of content about the world of the East on it.
PAP.PL: We remember the images of the dramatic evacuation from Kabul where masses of Afghans fleeing the Taliban swarmed, many people died then. You made the decision to go where so many wanted to escape at any cost.
DM: I certainly do not recommend such a trip to anyone. Afghanistan is a very unstable country and traveling there is very risky. But I don’t mean so much terrorist attacks (because they mainly happen in Shiite mosques or police stations, bazaars, schools, so you should avoid such places completely), but that, for example, standard insurance will not apply. touristy. Nor can we expect consular assistance (there is no Polish diplomatic mission or any other country in the European Union). The roads are in dire condition and no traffic rules apply. Healthcare also leaves a lot to be desired – at least the public one. In this case, we must forget about European standards. You should prepare well for such a trip and draw up a disaster plan in case something suddenly occurs. In particular, you need to have proven contacts – people you can count on in any situation, especially the critical one. I have long planned to visit Afghanistan, but – which may surprise some – the previous political situation seemed less favorable to me. The country was divided – some parts were ruled by the central government, other districts were controlled by the Taliban and others were controlled by local warlords. Now the power is basically concentrated in one hand, which makes the logistics a bit easier. The Afghans themselves believe that security has increased, but it is difficult to assess to what extent this is true. However, Afghans can move relatively freely in most of the country for the first time in decades – this allows them to see their country, go to places they only knew from stories or the internet. Of course, the Taliban rule has other consequences, such as restrictions on women.
PAP.PL: What is the situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule? Reports about the living conditions of women are especially disturbing: the old laws have returned, they cannot go to school and travel without male help, and the hijab is mandatory for them.
DM: As we hear regularly, from time to time the Taliban introduce new restrictions – on traveling independently around the country, on education and finally covering your face in public places. Of course we find it shocking from a European perspective, but it didn’t all come out of the blue. The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns, the most conservative people in Afghanistan. There, in the south, in Kandahar and the neighboring provinces, it is standard for women to do the housework and take to the streets with blankets – but at most for shopping. It is tradition that the Pashtuns get to know their husbands after they get married. Everything is arranged in advance by the families. A wedding – I was also invited to such a wedding – are two separate ceremonies – one for men and one for women. After spending a few days with my friend in Kandahar, I never saw his wife or mother again. Gender segregation is a cultural and identity component.
Unfortunately, poor, uneducated families don’t feel like sending their children to school, especially their daughters. These people would have to get married and take care of the household after the age of 12, so the restrictions on education didn’t impress these people. They also failed to impress wealthy families in big cities who can afford to send their daughters to private schools where there are no restrictions. However, the Taliban has not been consistent when it comes to enforcing the laws they enact. It all depends on where we will be. It is therefore not yet clear what, for example, the actual enforcement of the masking order by women will look like…
PAP.PL: Afghanistan is a country whose history begins in the 3rd millennium BC. What is the condition of historical places?
DM: Naturally. Did you know, for example, that the city of Kandahar was founded by Alexander the Great and that there are remains of its citadel to this day? In the town of Bamian, we reach a place where huge Buddha statues have stood in the rocks for centuries (blown up by the Taliban in 2001). Today you can enter the caves where the former inhabitants of these regions lived and bathed. The whole city of Herat is full of monuments – there is a citadel, a blue mosque and Sufi temples. In the center of every town there is a market where you can buy basically anything, but the nose is drawn to oriental spices and the eyes are drawn to artisan workshops, where various everyday objects are made by hand. The attraction itself, of course, is Afghan cuisine – certainly one of the best in Central Asia, incomparably better than Persian cuisine. In addition to the ubiquitous kebabs, we will get palaw everywhere, ie rice with meat, vegetables and herbs, or my favorite manta dumplings.
Naan bread is served with every dish. We will also be served tea everywhere – usually green and heavily sweetened.
PAP.PL: The cultural center and capital of Afghanistan is Kabul – a city in the Hindu Kush Mountains. Tell me about its “pearls”, customs and inhabitants?
DM† Like any capital, Kabul has its own rules. It’s an Afghan metropolis – there are historic sites, beautiful mosques, old bazaars and slums, but also modern neighborhoods – almost as we know them from major European cities. It is very difficult to find a simple description of this city. It is certainly very chaotic and terribly polluted. At the same time, it is ethnically very diverse – you can see very different faces and costumes there. I was most impressed with the gardens founded by Babur, the legendary ruler of Central Asia, the Blue Mosque, where – in the graveyard – children fly kites during the monsoon, the bird market and Chicken Street, which was built in the years Seventies was a favorite place of hippies and where you can now buy handicrafts and souvenirs.
PAP.PL: Before you left for Afghanistan, you were in Iraq. How do you remember that trip?
DM† I remember my geography lesson in elementary school when my teacher talked about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – it seemed so unreal back then. I never thought I would ever go there… For the past few years I really wanted to visit the Arab part of Iraq, but it was not easy. At home, I have an old Lonely Planet guidebook published in the early 1990s that states that it was already difficult to get into the country at that time because of the ongoing wars. When the opportunity arose to leave, which was right after Pope Francis’ visit in March 2021, I immediately packed my things and set out. I was probably the first Pole to go to Iraq after entering tourist visas. This change also came as a big shock to the Iraqis themselves, as the country was certainly not – or perhaps not yet – ready for tourists.
PAP.PL: If anyone has traveled to Iraq in recent years, it was mainly soldiers from the US and Europe …
DM: And of course those who wanted to join the so-called Islamic State. The visitors ‘from the West’ therefore did not associate themselves very well with the Iraqis. Many people did not understand what I was actually doing in this country and this mistrust was evident at almost every step. It was only after they gained trust and people realized that I had no ill intentions that they opened up to me and were ready to talk about different aspects of their lives. Unfortunately, the last few decades in Iraq have been difficult, which of course affects the mentality of the inhabitants. It surprised me all the more that some people – especially young people – see an opportunity for themselves in this country. They were also proud of their rich history and monuments.
PAP.PL: After all, Iraq is the cradle of civilization. There are historical places such as Baghdad, Babylon and the ancient city of Ur.
DM: However, there is still no typical infrastructure that would allow easy travel in Iraq. For most people, their Iraq journey begins with the capital. Although Baghdad was founded in the 7th century, there are few strictly historical sites of interest in the capital other than the beautifully restored Abbasid Palace. The collection of artifacts in the National Museum is remarkable. It’s worth strolling down the Booksellers Street or visiting a traditional Iraqi cafe. The symbol of the city are two green domes, or a monument to martyrs.
The aforementioned Babylon is today an archaeological site in the modern city of Al-Hilla. Most of the objects of the ancient city of Mesopotamia are reconstructions, of course, as the original buildings are deep under the sands of the desert, but the whole thing is still very impressive. My big dream was to see the minaret from the 9th century AD and the mosque al-Askaruch in Samara – a haircut, and the army did not let me in … I also well remember the journey through the backwaters of the Euphrates , where the Arabs of the mud and the expedition to the ancient city of Ur, ie the place where Abraham is said to come from – a figure important for all monotheistic religions, and where today you can see a ziggurat restored in the time of Saddam Hussein . Two other Shia city holidays, Karbala and Najaf, are also of interest.
PAP.PL: Do you take travel souvenirs with you?
DM† I used to collect magnets. Now I almost always go with my camera to document what I see. That is sometimes an extra difficulty, but also something that gives a lot of satisfaction. Movies are a better souvenir to me than a postcard, magnet or mug. I know there are people who will look at them, but I am by no means forcing them, and above all, I respect the rules of the place I go to and the people I meet.
Interviewer: Magdalena Jaroszewicz (PAP.PL)