November 12, 2009

Mohammed Abdul's Heroic Battle To Save Kabul Golf Club

An interesting email landed in my inbox today from a friend deployed to Afghanistan, his third Middle Eastern tour. Besides the normal queries about life at home, frightening descriptions of what is going on in his life and lamentations that he wished it were all over and that he could set down his medical gear and not need to piece together soldiers and civilians, was an interesting note:

"I played golf today! It was the most incredible thing...and I even took a short lesson. Who would ever have believed that, just outside of Kabul?"

I won't share much more than that, as the letter was a personal correspondence. It did give my mood a lift, however, to know that one of my good buddies got a very well deserved break on Veteran's Day. Let me describe what he saw and experienced. I had drafted this entry back in the summer, but stuck it in the electronic file cabinet because Patricia Hannigan, the fine writer and blogger posted an entry about Kabul GC before I finished mine. Enjoy.

Even in the midst of a seemingly eternal war, Afghanistan's Mohammed Afzal Abdul's is still fighting to save the Kabul Golf Club. First, the Soviets invaded and parked their tanks on the 7th hole and turned the course into a military base. After that, the Taliban blew up the course's clubhouse and bar because they served alcohol. Later, when the extreme Islamists, the Taliban, were driven out of power there by the Americans, a guerrilla war broke out to shatter the peace. Kabul GC is unfortunately located in one of the more dangerous places in the outskirts of the city - dangerous being a relative term in a country where seemingly no place is safe from terrorist attack or gun battles between Taliban fighters and their American opposition.

Originally six holes, Kabul GC opened in 1967 , closed in 1978, and reopened in 2004. During these three decades it has undergone several changes. It relocated to its present site in 1973 after a coup d'├ętat and completely closed following a 1978 communist coup. It lay dormant until reopening in 1993 but closed again in 1996 when the Taliban banned sports. Not even the defeat of the Taliban freed it totally: after the US invasion in 2001, the course was used as an area for training the military in the fine art of land mine removal.

Eventually, the course was allowed to re-open. In the process of restoration to its present state, three Soviet tanks and a multiple rocket launcher were removed by a nonprofit agency in order to free the fairways of "movable obstructions." Strange things are found on golf courses everywhere from time to time, but few courses have ever needed to extract derelict tanks in order to be playable.

Sara Sidner of CNN details Abdul's incredibly brave efforts to preserve The Olde Game in his country in a fantastic CNN.com entry:
Why would anyone open a golf course in Afghanistan in the midst of war? One man in Afghanistan can answer that question with the kind of conviction that is hard to challenge.

"Why not?" Mohammed Afzal Abdul said. "I like very much golf."

Actually he loves it -- which could explain why Abdul has taken it upon himself to run the only golf course in the country. He is so passionate about it he has risked his life for the love of the game and the crumbling course. I'll get to that in a second.

First I've got to give you a good mental picture of the course. It is located on the outskirts of Kabul. To get there you have to drive along a road that is considered risky, especially for foreigners, because of the threat of being robbed or kidnapped.

If you are not careful you will drive right past the course. Besides a dilapidated sign, the only hint there is a golf course here are the red flags on the hole-pins waving in the wind.

It's an 18-hole course, if you use your imagination.

Kabul GC used to be a verdant place, filled with ardent golfers, but no more. Today, it is barren, with oil greens (oiled sand), and is hardly indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside. The "greens" are black and the fairways a sandy brown strewn with rocks and the detritus the war brings.

Mohammed Abdul worked here more than 30 years ago, when he was ten years old. Back then, he was a caddy. Today he's the head pro, and does practically everything that he can do to make the course a better place, which is to say keep it a golf course at all. That may not seem like much, but then again, consider his circumstances - that Kabul GC exists in any form in 2009 is a testament to his constant and unabiding love for the place and for the game that is played there. That golf balls flies here, even if it is over ground that hardly resembles what we expect to see when we play, is proof of his success. Best of all, his son, 10 years old himself, works with him and is learning the game the way his father did - by carrying bags.

Playing is obviously a challenge, all other conditions being ignored. The ground is hard. Shots from the fairway are like the land, and the state of the country itself: brutal and unforgiving. It's all rough, and it's all hazard. Perhaps that explains the rules, clearly stated inside the clubhouse:

"Attack the course! Play aggressively. There are no gimmes. This is golf with an attitude."

Indeed. As it happens so often, golf imitates life. In Afghanistan, there are no gimmes and one can never quit. Even if the only thing the players here are trying to do is to preserve an old tradition that gives a cloying semblance to life there as it once was. For a homesick American like my friend, it was a respite for a little while in a land of horror and misery. For a while, he got to chase a little white ball towards a stick in the distance, and no matter the opulence of a given course - or complete lack of it, in this case - the game remains the same. Put the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible. And have fun doing so.

For more on Kabul Golf Club, please visit The Golf Girl's entry on the course.

2 comments:

  1. I wish I could show this post and the pictures to all the people who insist on calling golf a game of elitists.

    I'll admit that when I started reading it, I was thinking the same as a lot of people - "why a golf course when there is a war going on ?", but the more I read, the more I realized just how important it is that symbols like this remain open for people to see.

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  2. I'm so glad to hear the course is still surviving, albeit barely by the sounds of it. A few weeks ago I tried to go back to the website and it was no longer live...so naturally I assumed the worst.

    Sara Sidner must by quite an amazing woman to be over there reporting... and playing the occasional round of golf.

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