There’s a huge billboard of Bob Marley, up on swimming pool hill above Kabul.
He keeps watch over the gargantuan pink and peach coloured homes below and provides a useful reference point for wanderers disoriented in the suburbs at his feet. Only it’s not Bob Marley. It’s his Afghan doppelganger – Ahmad Shah Massoud, the somewhat controversial Northern Alliance leader assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11, and lionised by the US after he was safely six feet under.
In the pre-dawn light, we escape the compound and emerge into almost deserted streets. The usual six to eight lanes of traffic which flows around our Finest Circle roundabout is eerily absent. It’s cold, but not bitterly so, and the night air is still mercifully clear of the pervasive smog. Security stare at us bleary eyed, curious, as we push up the last incline of Street 15 to the billboard and surrounding park.
Ahead, a small man grapples with the lead of a big dog. It’s what we’ve come hoping to see, but didn’t expect to find it so soon.
The full moon has sunk towards the mountains and throws light on the dog’s yellow coat from between the rows of pine trees that line the steep eastern side of the embankment. It’s a toss up whether the man or his dog is benefiting more from the slow-motion hill sprints they’re doing, but the work is only for the dog. On Friday, yellow coat will be harnessed, leashed and hyped to the hilt before being launched by his owner into the midst of a dust circle to fight.
Dog fights here in Kabul are legendary and it’s on swimming pool hill the boys come to train their beasts. Groups of men stand around stamping their feet, dirty black and white checked scarfs pulled close around their faces against the rising wind. As the light breaks over the billboard, old car tyres are roped to the dogs, and the trainers set off round the hill circuit, keeping pace with animals who work doubly hard to drag the extra weight.
It’s not difficult to strike up a conversation with the men. A combination of hand gestures and mixed English and our atrocious Dari ensures just enough traction so we can get within patting distance of the dogs. They’re surprisingly docile around humans but a life without a full set of digits is not worth the chance, and we keep gloved hands safely out of reach.
All around us, locals out for their early morning walk watch on with that increasingly familiar mixture of bemusement and reticence. They do laps of the flat hill top, and seem less ensconced with the sprawling, savage beauty of the city and mountains than with each other – burqa clad women chatting enthusiastically, the men egging each other on to train harder, faster. An old man in traditional pashto garb muttering incessantly to himself, stopping only to peer at the sole western woman standing rugged but shivering on the edge of the path.
Out by the hills, the smog cloud begins a slow roll in towards the city, settling across suburbs and obscuring random buildings. Standing quietly, you can almost see it flow, and it is beautiful, and you forgive what it does to your lungs, the burn it brings to your eyes, the smell it leaves in your nostrils. From behind a break in the eastern mountains, the sun cracks out, a singular glow of light across which two US Army chinook helicopters thud towards the base in town. Their hum vibrates the air; a reminder that not everything here in this dawn light is exactly as it seems.
Big dogs, small boys. The billboard provides a convenient spot to tie these massive animals up while the men kill time swapping tales of epic fights and fearless conquests. At least that’s what I hoped they were talking about. It might very well have been a discussion about what to eat for breakfast.