When we reach Tank-e-Tel, the Dasht-e-Barchi shopping market, a woman in a black and white headscarf (the hijab) stands out from the rest. She is negotiating hard with five men, at the successful outcome of which currency exchanges hands. Laila Haideri has taken Susan to buy her wedding dress. Susan, the bride-to-be, looks a bit lost but is clearly entranced by the lineup of mannequins in bridal gowns.
Laila was just twelve when she got married for the first time. As if to compensate for this, she seems intent on making this a really memorable day for Susan and Ali, two drug addicts who are being rehabilitated. When Laila decided to set up a camp to help addicts like her brother, her second husband deserted her.
Susan was brought to the camp with two of her children by a police officer. She didn’t know where her third child was. Her face showed scars of a terrible car accident. It was here that she met Ali. He is a handsome quiet man who is as committed to looking after Susan’s kids as being her partner. In Afghanistan, female drug addicts need to be invisible, and often live in denial.
Susan and Ali whisper to each other in the backseat when we cross the Pul-e-Sukhta. “It is the bridge under which the city’s drug addicts gather,” says Laila. “And what I saw was that ordinary people are even more sick than the drug users. They were throwing stones under the bridge to make fun of them. This affected me a lot. I had to do something.”
Susan and Ali’s wedding will be held at the Taj Begum. Fittingly, it is the restaurant in which inmates from the camp work as part of a gradual re-initiation into society. The customers are mostly friends of Laila’s from the art world. The money they earn goes into the care of the new addicts that turn up at the camp. As the light begins to fade and a musician starts to play the damboura, the evening comes alive. It is a warm safe haven that Laila has created, right in the middle of a harsh city.
~ Text by Ruhani Kaur