On millionaires’ row in Herat, elaborate palaces are being built by businessmen who have made fortunes from exploiting the needs of the new Afghanistan – or selling heroin. A heady mix of Iranian, Italian and Gulf influences, the houses have created a new school of design: Narcotecture. But many are worried the ancient city will soon be lost in the blur of development.
May 2007: Guests who come for tea at Mohammad Zaher Faqiry’s house never have to worry about being caught short if they need the bathroom. He has 11 of them. “I have four houses in Afghanistan, but this is my favourite. I like the design and the walls, the doors, the tiling.
I picked it all out myself,” says Faqiry. The €210,000 mansion also boasts four kitchens, nine bedrooms and a video-security system.
Meanwhile, on the ground floor of his three-storey home, the exterior of which is covered in green mirrored glass, a swimming pool is being dug out. His pride and joy, however, is an octagonal room on the roof that is reminiscent of a Chinese pagoda but which, Faqiry explains, is actually modelled on the Pyrex sugar bowl that he brings out when he serves his guests green tea flavoured with saffron. The pagoda “was my idea, not the architect’s,” he says proudly. Hameed Younus, the architect who designed Faqiry’s house, using an Iranian template, says that such flourishes are usually the owner’s idea. “Once a businessman sees something excessive at a friend’s house he immediately feels he has to outdo him,” he explains.
This is a side of the new Afghanistan that few outsiders ever see. While headlines are dominated by the war between the Taliban and nato troops in the south and east, a growing cadre of businessmen are making fortunes. Most of them are choosing to make their homes in Herat, the country’s westernmost city, 120km from the border with Iran. And what homes they are. Wedding cake-shaped palaces in pistachio green and candy pink are springing up all over the city, their outer walls richly decorated with Corinthian columns, Egyptian birds, rococo and baroque flourishes – and acres and acres of mirrored glass.
New neighbourhoods look like a cross between a seven-year-old girl’s doll’s-house fantasy and a bad acid trip – although the drug of choice in this country would, of course, be heroin. Afghanistan is the world’s opium supplier. Over 90 per cent of the poppies that end up as smack on western streets are grown here, and the €2.1bn a year industry is credited with helping spawn an architectural style that gives new meaning to the term “heroin chic”.
Not all of the money fuelling the city’s building boom comes from opium poppies – it’s certainly not the source of Faqiry’s fortune – and some of it has been earned in legitimate business associated with the billions of dollars of foreign aid that have flowed into Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. More money still is derived from the rampant corruption surrounding the rebuilding of a country that had been bombed back to the Stone Age after a quarter of a century of fighting. Other fortunes belong to businessmen returning from exile such as Faqiry who spent the war years in Dubai and Turkmenistan.
Faqiry’s family runs a trading company based in Dubai that imports machine parts to Afghanistan and owns shopping malls and motorcycle assembly plants in Herat. He sends his three oldest children to the €1,500 a year Turkish high school in the city, but the street outside his high-walled mansion where he parks his black Mercedes is a dirt road.
“We own the land next door to my house and I have already planted some trees – we are going to have a garden,” Faqiry says, adding that he will have to finish importing marble from Iran to complete building the house before he thinks about talking to the neighbours about repairing the road. “People in power say they have no money for roads or drains but a lot of them are as rich as Croesus,” says Jolyon Leslie, the director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a charity that is renovating and fighting to preserve Herat’s ancient mud-walled citadel, one of the few left in central Asia.
Although the bottom has fallen out of the commercial rental market, the construction continues apace. “Fifty per cent of the commercial space we surveyed in the old city is empty. It makes no commercial sense, so why are people still building?” asks Arash Boostani, a consultant working with the aktc. “When you have dirty money from drugs or guns it is better to invest this money in construction,” he explains.
Herat’s medieval heritage is slowly disappearing under concrete, as the nouveau riche build their poppy palaces. Development is destroying Herat’s history faster than the fighting ever did. And despite the conspicuous consumption, many ordinary Heratis remain desperately poor, living in slums that run with raw sewage. Traditional mud-brick Afghan buildings are cheaper to build, cooler in the summer and warmer in winter than the cement and marble homes mushrooming across Herat, but no one wants anything so old hat. “People want new-style Iranian homes to show they are modern,” says Hameed Younus, who supervises engineering projects for the Department of Urban Development and Housing for a salary of €37 a month, but makes most of his money designing houses such as Faqiry’s on the side.
Many of the people charged with regulating the city’s building run design or construction companies so there are few checks and balances. Zeheda Salihi, a 45-year old woman who works as an architect at the same government department as Younus, agrees that there is little control over the new buildings springing up over the city. Once she has completed a design, she has no input over the finished product and frequently finds the clean lines she envisioned covered in mirrored glass. “Sometimes I don’t recognise the buildings as the ones I have designed. It’s chaos,” she says. Mohammad Nasir Hussaini, a builder who returned from Tehran four years ago, says that he never saw such obvious displays of wealth in Iran.
Haji Bashir Ahmad Hamkar, an electric cable importer, has built two identical houses, each costing €120,000, next door to one another: one for him and one for his brother. That way, when he invites friends around for a party, the women can gather in one house safe from the prying eyes of the men who congregate in his cavernous reception room. “We have musicians to play rabab and harmonium, we eat kebabs and we dance with each other,” said Hamkar. Women are never invited to socialise with the men unless they are related. Five years after the fall of the ultra-conservative Taliban regime, some two million girls are back at school and women are allowed to work, but there is little mingling between the sexes. And Mrs Hamkar, whom we are not allowed to meet, did not get to pick out her interior furnishings. “My wife and I discussed it.
We made the decisions together, but really I am in charge. I am the boss here,” stresses Hamkar as he surveys his reception room proudly. Looking at the results, it may not have been wise to exclude her from the decision process. The orange dining table clashes with the pink and green flowers on the ceiling, which do not enhance the appeal of the yellow plastic flowers in vases on the tables, or the black granite floors. Upstairs, the decor is more extreme. Blue fluorescent lighting on the second floor lights up the wood-panelled walls in neon hues.
Habibullah Nasiri, whose family has run a trading company for three generations, has knocked down their traditional mud houses and is building a €1.5m complex with six houses for him, his brother and four uncles. Inside, white marble jostles for attention with black reflective glass and ceiling panels in pink, purple, and gold. One house has a mosaic outside the front door of two pandas embracing, another sports a wall tile mural of a dreamy looking Afghan shepherdess sitting in the snow next to an unseasonably red basket of pomegranates.
“Every family has chosen different designs for the inside of their homes, but we all live together. It is like a commune. We share each other’s profits and losses,” Nasiri declares. He walks around the houses which are in varying states of completion, and enters his uncle’s home where a two-metre high crystal chandelier hangs in the stairwell. “We imported it from Italy. It cost €2,200,” he tells me as he turns it on and 50 candle-shaped bulbs blaze into light. For some in the new Afghanistan, the future looks very bright indeed.
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