Main content

Kabul: City Number One - Part 5

Adam Curtis

Tagged with:


The King of Afghanistan was called Mohammed Zahir Shah. He believed in modernity.

His family had ruled the country for over 150 years and he was driven everywhere in a black chevrolet.

Zahir Shah loved to show off how modern his country was. The key place was the Kabul International trade fair in 1956. Here is a picture issued by the King showing the site glowing at night.
But the fair became a battle in the Cold War. The Americans discovered that the Russians and the Czechs were planning giant pavilions but the United States had nothing. Then they found a visionary designer called Buckminster Fuller. Fuller had designed vast radar domes in the Arctic as part of America's nuclear early warning system. These domes watched the whole world in case the Soviets launched their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

Here is Fuller in front of what he called his "radomes"

Fuller believed his domes represented a new way of organising the world as an interconnected system run by computers and managed by an elite group of technocrats, like him, who he called "Comprehensive Designers". He produced visionary schemes including building a vast dome over Manhattan.

Now Buckminster Fuller was given his chance in Kabul. Here he is telling the story.

Here is a still of the talking cow in the Kabul pavilion that Buckminster Fuller was rude about. Plus the talking chicken that was next to it.

The next modern thing the King wanted was a national airline. To get one he went to another cold war visionary called Juan Trippe. Trippe ran Pan American World Airways and, just like Buckminster Fuller, he believed his modern technology - his jet-liners - could create a world-wide system that both extended American power and brought stability to the world.

Trippe set up Afghanistan's national airline - Ariana. Again the King produced glowing images that showed his country had joined the modern world system - "Air Age Globalism"

It didn't all go well. Soon after the first jet, a Boeing 727, was delivered to Ariana it crashed into a house outside Gatwick airport. It was 1.30 in the morning in January 1969. There were 66 people on the plane, 50 died.

Here is a report - including local people who describe rescuing Afghans from the wreckage.

18 months later the King of Afghanistan flew to Britain on an Ariana plane for a state visit. He landed safely and he and his entourage caught the train to Victoria station where the Queen of England was to meet them. As they did so, Valerie Singleton from Blue Peter was organising a very special Afghan way of greeting the King.

But the Pan Am jet planes were only part of Juan Trippe's vision of how to spread American power and help make the world a better place. He also built hotels in the cities that Pan American flew to. They all looked pretty much the same and had one name - Intercontinental. Trippe summed up the idea behind the Intercontinental:

'Mass travel in the jet age may prove to be more significant to world destiny that the atom bomb. For there can be no atom bomb potentially more powerful that the air-tourist - charged with curiosity, enthusiasm and goodwill, who can roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races.'

So in 1969 Kabul got its Intercontinental Hotel, managed by Pan American. Here's a postcard of it, and a link to a 3-D model of it you can fly round in Google Earth

The Intercontinental was perched above the city with wonderful views. It was where the western businesspeople, the diplomats and the rich tourists all stayed. But it also quickly became the place for the Kabul elite to go - for tea, for parties, and for weddings. They were the modern people of Kabul who were helping to make the King's vision come true.

They were also a "slimy opportunistic clique" - according to Nancy Hatch Dupree. She was an American archaeologist who knew everyone in Kabul.

And then rock music came to Kabul, courtesy of the Intercontinental Hotel.

The Intercontinental's food and beverages manager asked a musician called Claude Selvaradna to create a house band for the hotel. Claude had been a sergeant in the Sri Lankan army but now he lived in Kabul and he knew that rock music was the future. He brought in some musicians from Sri Lanka and put together a band he called The Esquire Set.

Claude was happy to let the Esquire Set drink, but he was firmly against drugs. He believed that good rock music was possible without drugs. The Esquire Set started at the Intercontinental Kabul in 1971 and soon became a major attraction - especially at themed evenings which included a "Kung Fu Dance".

Here is a picture of the Esquire Set playing, plus a live audio recording of their version of Whole Lotta Love.

And then the hippies came to Afghanistan. They didn't stay in the Intercontinental but instead went to the cheap hotels around Chicken Street in Kabul, including The Number One Hotel started by the Italian conceptual artist Alghiero e Boetti. And they bought lots of Afghan coats. Here is a great postcard of one of their favourite shops. Note the photo of the King in the corner.

The hippies didn't see themselves as tourists. They thought they were against western capitalism and imperialism. But this was a comforting story they told themselves to hide from themselves that all this experience was only possible because of their immense political power. They too were part of the dominion of the west.

They even created their own new global industry. The hippies began the heroin trade between Afghanistan and Europe.

Here are some "travellers" experiencing Afghanistan and Pakistan and philosophizing as they go. Plus a good moment when they meet an Aghan and his camel in a sand storm.

And here is part of an interview with a girl who went on the trail to Afghanistan and beyond in 1970. The still is of the house in England where her parents lived. You can feel a strange uncertainty in her interview. It is the feel of a class no longer comfortable with its own values and its power, confused and adrift in a wider world. Enormous changes were happening all around them which they can only dimly glimpse through the bubble of their own experience.

The film finds her at the end of the trail on a rooftop in Delhi. The programme commentary later says that she came back to England and had psychiatric treatment. I would love to know what happened to her subsequently.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

By 1970 Kabul was becoming one of the central parts of a western network that stretched across the Middle East and into Asia. A dream of a new world order where everyone becomes westernised, listens to rock music and is a tourist - or a traveller. A new global network - just like Buckminster Fuller and Juan Trippe had envisaged.

But there were forces emerging who saw that network as a powerful symbol of their oppression. They were the Palestinians. They believed that the west - and in particular America - was colluding with Israel to prevent them returning to their homeland. And they were about to attack the two central symbols - the jet plane and the hotel.

It began in September 1970 in Amman in Jordan. And what happened there would lead, eventually and in strange contorted ways, to the apocalyptic horror conceived in Afghanistan 31 years later.

First a group of Palestinian terrorists hijacked four airliners all bound for New York from different airports. Two were American - Pan Am and TWA, the other two were BOAC and Swissair. They landed three of them at a desolate airfield in the Jordanian desert. The Palestinians promptly renamed it "Revolution Airport".

Here are some film rushes from the airfield and reports of what happened next. All the passengers - British and American - are struggling to make sense of this new thing, the "skyjack". Then the women and children from the planes are released and driven to safety in the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman.

But at that very moment King Hussein of Jordan decided that he must crush the thousands of Palestinian fighters who were refugees in his country. The hijack had been the last straw, and he unleashed his army on the Palestinians. The hotel immediately became the centre of the battle and the freed hostages found themselves trapped yet again, accompanied this time by a bunch of western television journalists.

For days the westerners hid in the hotel from an enemy outside that none of them could see. The journalists were reduced to interviewing each other. One of them, called Murray Sayle, sees what is going to come towards the west.

And then the Palestinians blew the planes up. But they let all the hostages go before they did it.

In 1973 the King of Afghanistan got hit in the face by a volleyball. His doctor told him he was fine, but the King didn't trust Afghan doctors. So he flew to London to see an eye specialist. Here is the US ambassador telling Washington what has happened.
Then the King went to a rest cure in Italy, and while he was having a mudbath in Ischia off the coast of Naples his cousin (who was also his brother-in-law) deposed him.

Nothing really seemed to change in Kabul. There were strange reports that "religious fanatics" were targeting emancipated women in the city. They threw acid at them. In all two hundred women were hospitalised with burns. One man was arrested and 5,000 Afghan women gathered outside the Prime Minister's office shouting "Give him to us, Give him to us!" But Afghans still went to nightclubs.

And then the first Afghan rock band was formed.

Azam Parwanta lived in Kabul. One evening his cousin Jamal Masumi came round and they went for a long walk. They both confessed to each other that what they dreamed of was forming a band which would play western rock at the Intercontinental. They decided that evening to make the dream happen.

Here is a picture of Azam and his cousin rehearsing. They called their band The Stars.

Azam set out to plan his assault on the Intercontinental. There was no sheet music in Kabul, and Azam couldn't really read music anyway. So he listened over and over again to his favourite song on cassette tape until he had worked out all the parts. And then he gave it to the band. It was Nights in White Satin.

Here is audio of The Stars playing Nights in White Satin. The Stars were going to fulfil their dream - to make it big in Kabul - but more of that in a future instalment.

Meanwhile in Britain Afghan fashion had trickled down the social layers - until it reached Jonathan King and Top of the Pops. Here he is in a sleeveless Afghan coat on Top of the Pops (I'm sorry its black and white).

And the Afghan hound had by now become the most popular dog in Britain. Here is a report about its popularity, and film of the new sport of Afghan hound racing at the Wolverhampton Dog Track. But in both cases the Afghan hounds had a terrible tendency not to do what they were told and instead started attacking each other.

Tagged with:

More Posts


Kabul: City Number One - Part 4


Dubai 1975