Opium nights, ecstatic dervishes in watchful Kabul

Opium smokers huddle together in Kabul

All lights were extinguished as soon as the chanting of mystical verses by an amplified voice scraping a higher consciousness subsided. Then, in a thundering, shuffling crescendo of devotion, the assembled mystics rose as one unconscious body to lurch back and forth in allegiance to the Divine.

It was then that, through the sweat and noise I noticed the sweet smell of hashish curling in through an open window. It was rising from the lane below where a group of mystics and down-and-outs squatted in a circle around a fire to partake in more mortal pleasures.

I wasn’t the only one whose nostrils were tickled by the distinctive aroma. Annoyed at the interruption, the sheikh of the brotherhood stomped out mid-zikr to caution those outside that their illicit pastime was disturbing his own holy communion. If they could not make the effort to attend, he scolded, at least they should not actively disrupt his séance.

“I’ve told them time after time not to smoke hashish but you know how stubborn Afghans are,” he grumbled after the zikr had ended and he sat sipping tea with a guest, a couple of attendants sitting at a respectful distance. “Of course it gives the worst image to the neighbourhood, the locals now think that this is all we dervishes do.”

But that is not all that this sheikh of the Qaderi order known around this neighbourhood as the Doctor does. He trained as a medical doctor in his youth, first in Kabul before the wars started when its university was still a regional beacon of knowledge and students came from Germany, Russia and India, and then in academic exile in Lahore where he met Arabs for the first time. But instead of being the enlightened beings in whose language Allah had delivered his revelation, the Doctor found them narrow-minded and petty. Their fundamentalism, inspired by the Egyptian strands of Sayyed Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood that would develop later into al-Qaeda’s governing theology, lacked any of Subcontinental Islam’s mysticism. The shock of realization created in the sheikh a lifelong distaste of Arabs even before some of them flocked to his country to wage jihad against Godless Communism and – with the help of Pakistan – contribute to Afghanistan’s transformation from a modernizing kingdom into a war-wracked caliphate.

Now he is back in his hometown dispensing spiritual treatment and medical advice to followers and strangers alike, one of the few native Kabulis still clinging on in a once-verdant city whose ruins and flashy glass buildings alike betray the effects left by war and its profiteers. Its population inflated from half a million in the Nineties to over four million today as refugees and countryfolk flooded in, driven by fear and hope. Though Sufi shrines are perceived as a refuge of the poor and oppressed, the neighbourhood locals treat with respect the succession of pilgrims singing devotional melodies during midnight liturgies or lifting their hands in supplication at the graves of mystics. As for the odour emitted by hashish and opium pipes, these are hardly unorthodoxies in Kabul.

It is 8am the next morning and the Doctor stands amid billowing dustclouds, uncommonly indignant for a man who has just woken up. A few minutes earlier, his devoted if slightly doddering servant blazed through the shrine in a fit of early-morning activity, brushing the cushions and carpets with such gusto that they expelled prodigious quantities of dust.

“The hashish has eaten this man’s mind out,” sighed the sheikh resignedly. “All he does is smoke, day in day out.”

His five minutes of activity completed, the housekeeper had already retreated back to his room, closing and locking the door behind him. Nothing though could block the telltale smell of hashish trickling out once more.

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