If the golf greens are black, this must be Kabul

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Haji Iqbal Rashidzada tees up for the first hole. It's a tricky shot. He stands on a bare patch of dirt on a small brick building, about a hundred feet above the green. To the left is a major hazard, a bombed-out building shot full of bullet holes. In between is about 371 yards of desert brush and thistle.

And the green, well, actually it's black: a large round patch of sand covered in oil to keep the sand from blowing away.

Challenging? You bet. But the point is, it's a golf course, in Afghanistan.

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Whack. Mr. Rashidzada sends the ball sailing into an impossibly clear blue sky.

"It was like this before, when I used to come here as a kid; just desert and we used to tee off with every shot because there wasn't any grass," says Rashidzada, an Afghan now living in Dubai. "When I went to Peshawar and I saw a real course with grass, I thought they had made a mistake."

The Kabul Golf Course is like most things in Afghanistan, a work in progress best seen in terms of potential than reality. It might seem crass to be opening a golf course when hundreds of thousands of Kabul residents still live without proper shelter, but this is the way development happens in a postwar zone.

Schools and clinics and roads are built, electricity and water are restored, and here and there the trappings of a prosperous prewar society are revived.

And for those who can afford it - mostly foreigners and affluent Afghans - it's a welcome taste of normality. The nine-hole course dates back to the more relaxed era of King Mohammad Zahir Shah. It was relocated to its current site in the 1970s, and declined as Afghanistan descended into decades of civil war. At one point the grounds served as an Afghan military base before being rigged with land mines.

Rashidzada looks around the course. "I'm glad to see it's still here," he says.

'A fixer-upper'

For others, the nine holes inspire not just nostalgia, but hopes for the future.

"I look at the potential of this place; it's a great piece of real estate," says Wafi Amin, an official with the Afghan Finance Ministry in charge of privatization. "This is definitely a fixer-upper. It needs water, it needs grass. You have to make it green again and bring in trees. But once you bring the land back, then everything else is cosmetic."

Two months ago, the Kabul Golf Club was a minefield. Forget clubs: The only metal rods being swung around here were mine detectors. A nonprofit agency used the course to train deminers and mine-sniffing dogs to locate the buried explosives.

Green fees for a warlord

But with spring approaching, Afghan officials and US military planners decided to open up the golf course for its original purpose. Three Soviet tanks were hauled away, along with other detritus of war.

The final demining process was paid for by US military funds aimed at the disarmament of local warlords. But the $10 per person green fee actually ends up in the hands of a warlord, a Northern Alliance commander named Engineer Abdul Rashid.

Mohammad Bashir, the local golf pro, started working here more than 30 years ago. Back then he was a 10-year-old kid, working as a caddy. Now his 10-year-old son, Mohammad Rashid, is following in his footsteps, working as a caddy and picking up the game on the side.

Clubs buried from Taliban

"I learned the game by watching the foreigners, and hitting pieces of wood with a spare club," says Mr. Bashir. "Then a Frenchman named Mr. Gauster sent me this set of clubs," he says, pulling out a 7-iron that he has had for 20 years.

During the Taliban times, he buried his golf clubs, since the Taliban frowned on all sports as distractions from prayer and proper Islamic practice.

Bashir takes a practice swing, head down, and sends the ball straight at the green about 100 yards away. Rashidzada shakes his head and smiles.

"I'm just wondering how these guys kept it up, when they couldn't play for a decade," he says. "I've been playing for 15 years, and I still can't get my game together."

Shabash!

The third partner in Rashidzada's threesome is an Afghan businessman named Haji Abdul Najime, who now lives in New York. He takes a swipe at a neon-yellow ball and sends a cloud of dust - and the ball - flying.

"What a surprise to find golf in Afghanistan," says Mr. Najime with a broad smile.

A few hundred feet away, Najime's ball lands within chipping distance of the green.

Rashidzada raises his eyebrows. Bashir shouts, "Shabash," which means, "well done."

Najime pleads beginner's luck. "I'm not so good. I'm so-so."

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