The End of Chicken Street

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Myself and Friend Nawab standing at the entrance to Chicken Street

As I’ve stated in earlier posts, Afghanistan was once famous as a passage from East to West for trading empires.  And Kabul, while an ancient city, was not really historically the center of Afghanistan, until relatively recently.

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Kabul used to be a place where livestock and other trading goods were exchanged and stored.  It is my theory that the city was founded where it is because the Kabul River came so close to the mountains in the part of Police District 1 known as “The Lion’s Gate”, that it made a handy place to pen up livestock.  Traders only really needed to put some barriers across the narrow corridor there and they had an instant pen.

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Bala Hisar circa 1879 – Photo by John Burke

From there, the city grew along natural patterns based on terrain and socio-cultural pressures.  The area just past “The Lion’s Gate” made up the Shar-e Bazaar of Kabul, which was dominated by the fortress Bala Hisar.  The other main fortress was across the Kabul River in farm country, and that fortress was called Sher Pur.

In 1879, the British invaded Afghanistan for the second time, (the first time was from 1838 – 1842, which ended in the complete destruction of the British Army there) and when the British consul was killed, they burned the original Shar-e Bazaar, which was located at the foot of the Bala Hisar, in what is now known as Police District 1.

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Map from the paper “Recent Developments in Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw and Central Bazaar Districts” by Andreas Dittmann

The area still has an extensive market, but the city grew northwest, across the river, towards the Sher Pur fort after the destruction of the old Bazaar, in an area that is now known as Shar-e Naw, which means “New City”.  And when the Civil War came, Bala Hisar was fought over extensively, which resulted in even more destruction of Shar-e Bazaar.

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Chicken Street 

Shar-e Naw was largely untouched by the Civil War, which preserved two of its most noted features; Shar-e Naw park and the Central Bazaar, more popularly known as “Kuchi Murgha” or “Chicken Street.”

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Chicken Street is a wondrous place, where Westerners may come to see, smell, touch, and purchase nearly everything that is exotic about the East.  80 carat Emerald?  I’ve seen and fondled one there. Lapis lazuli, rubies, tourmaline, you name it.  Afghan carpets?  Tons of them.  Exotic foods, to include a French bistro, where one can hang out with supermodel-looking girls?  Check.  How about a one of a kind Model 1895 big game rifle, just like Teddy Roosevelt used?  I’ve played with one there.

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There are artists painting and selling their paintings.  Fresh fruits, vegetables and exotic spices, including really high quality saffron at bargain basement prices.  Nuristani carved furniture.  I’ve even seen the cape from an endangered Snow Leopard.  Ancient coins and other antiquities abound.  And the beggars are plentiful and even entertaining, with my favorite being a young man who does a comedic imitation of a beggar, intentionally making ridiculous claims of his families’ hardships and then laughing about it after.

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But starting about 2010, the people who own the property made a huge mistake.  In their excitement to maximize profits and to make the experience more modern, they started destroying the cozy run down little shops that made the experience so cool.  Some of the old shops are still there.  My friend Wahid, whose carpet shop appears to be an 8 x 10 foot room, but if you check out as being “ok” you are invited back to a rat’s warren of passageways until you arrive at the upper floor, which is large and luxuriant.  Some of my best memories are of sitting at his table, drinking chai and eating his Herati snacks while discussing the problems of Afghanistan, America and the world.

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Rubble from the shop tear down 

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Modern buildings replace the old

But these little shops are gradually being torn down and are replaced by huge, chrome and glass multi-story mega-complexes.  Unfortunately, as this construction is going up, potential customers for the business they promise were not going to Chicken Street anymore because of Western risk aversion and withdrawal from Afghanistan. And for Westerners, the greatest attraction to Chicken Street was its cool and exotic feel.  Ironically, if you want the flavor of the “old” Chicken Street, you need to go back South East, over the river to Shar-e Bazaar.  Shar-e Bazaar has been somewhat restored to its mysterious, intriguing and inviting self.  But I have yet to see another Westerner there.  Really adventurous shoppers will stop and have a bowl of Shorwa, or soup, at one of the many mobile carts, there.

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Friend Zok, for once in front of the camera, at the literal “end of Chicken Street”

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About hotmilkforbreakfast

I am a researcher, a writer, a former soldier, an academic and a lifelong learner. All text and pictures are copyrighted and are not to be used without express permission of the author.
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67 Responses to The End of Chicken Street

  1. John says:

    Damn those Afghans – they are denying us Westerners a “cool and exotic” experience by daring to modernise and maximise their profits!

    • But you miss the point, entirely. Modernization kills off the appeal of Chicken Street, which is what drives profits there. The developers lack the basic understanding of why people come to Chicken Street at all to shop. Smarter developers would’ve found a way to modernize and maintain while retaining some of the charm. I’m definitely not someone who thinks people are some kind of exhibits at zoo, but the “old” Chicken Street is someplace developers could’ve and did make into a destination spot for tourist dollars.

    • Zok says:

      Hi, John. I see your point here. Consider, however, reading Drew’s blog from the beginning. His blog is the story of Afghanistan that does not involve fifty cal, but needs to be read in its entirety.

      A few lines from my entry written in August: “Rather than viewing and accepting Afghans as some alien, perhaps extraterrestrial species, our team merged ourselves into their culture as much as possible….Over-romanticized notions of preserving human groups as “living museums” have played a detrimental role in the western perception of Afghanistan.”

      Chicken Street is turning from the Bourbon Street into Disneyland. Will that turn things into something better, or worse, I do not know. But the charm of that traditional central Asian city we fell in love is rapidly disappearing.

      • Zok, I’d even be happy with Disneyland. At least Disney understands why people come there. No one will go to Chicken Street to visit a reproduction of the local Wal Mart, which you can get anywhere. Locals do not shop there, due to the high prices and inaccessibility. Tourists; even war tourists won’t go there if it’s just like every other place.

  2. ashanam says:

    The developers must have confused foreign shoppers with themselves. They like new and shiny. Tourists must like new and shiny too.

  3. Progress is good, but not simply for the sake of progress. Everything must be driven by a need. I think these developers completely missed that. I’m sure their thoughts, though, were that if everything is ‘shiny and new’ in America (or so they perceive), then making things that way in Kabul could only be positive.

    Thank you for sharing the pictures and the story!

  4. segmation says:

    I like reading blogs about different places and places I might never get a chance to go to in this lifetime. Glad to see there is art and artists on Chicken Street still!

  5. uzmawan says:

    It was a pleasure coming across your blog. When we read books or social media shares, we learn how fascinating this country has been once. Media doesn’t highlight its beauty. Modernization is good, but I wish they also considered preserving history and culture. Keep spreading the positive news!

    • To me, Afghanistan is still achingly beautiful. And the people there are amazing. I think they definitely get short shrift in the media.

      • Editor says:

        … And how good was to find some booze in Chicken Street, early 2002 while the Taliban were still “almost ruling” in the South, or assisting to the first Buskashi after the liberation, elbow to elbow with Fahim Kahn… Or just enjoy the first traffic jam broken by a “Metro Police” officer with a RPG at his feet… Happy to be able to feel anyway what my friend Sergio told me about the Afghanistan he took pictures of in the 70’s

  6. ashanam says:

    Nice to see you on Freshly Pressed. Congratulations!

  7. westerner54 says:

    Wow, so interesting. It seems like developers the world over have the same problem: they seem to forget to take the important first step of figuring out what makes a place unique before they begin tearing down and rebuilding. It’s even harder in developing countries, I know…but it’s still too bad. Look forward to reading more of your posts now that I’ve discovered you, thanks to Freshly Pressed!

    • The feeling is mutual; I like your cabin a lot. On developers, yeah… that’s a pretty universal issue. Though some places, like Italy, the history is so thick that people can hardly thrive, with all the regulations concerning development. In the end it needs to be a well-thought-out compromise.

  8. Margarita says:

    I’ve noticed a homogenization in my travels over the past couple of decades. While not as exotic as Chicken Street, the changes are noticeable. Living in New York, we can get items from anywhere in the world right here in our own back yard. While it’s comfortable to take a stroll through my back yard, it was a lot nicer to take a stroll through someone else’s back yard that was so different from mine, years ago…

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! xoM

  9. Pingback: The End of Chicken Street | IshaiyaFreshlySqueezed

  10. I think that’s the thing when you fall in love with a place, or your memory of a place, as I did of my own childhood growing up in the south of Spain (before it became so commercial and like the rest of Europe) there is a real sense of loss, almost mourning when it changes. It affects you on a profound level like the loss of an old friend, or loved one, as I discovered when I returned to the town I grew up in some thirty years later. It is even worse when it seems to happen before your very eyes as it obviously has in Chicken Street. And you’re right, change for the sake of turning a coin is not always a well thought out change because it has fundamental implications whether everyone in question wants it or not. It tends to be irrevocable. However, isn’t that just the way of the world?
    We all strive for betterment to one degree or another I suppose, and that will always have implications and consequences for ourselves and those around us. I treasure the memories that I have of the place I once knew, as I’m sure do you.
    Thank you for your insight and the rekindled memories of my own. A most interesting post.

    • Thanks for the comments and for reblogging.

      I think the real tragedy is that with just a little forethought, most people and places can experience change that adds value.

      And the irony is that in cases like this, they are subtracting objective AND subjective value of their property through shortsightedness.

      A town in America where my home is has intentionally advocated a “traditional modern” approach to this, that results in charm AND modernization. I think this is not a bad approach, but for sure some places can overdo it.

  11. Reblogged this on IshaiyaFreshlySqueezed and commented:
    Very insightful and a great read!

  12. Thanks for that, interesting, educational and saddening at the same time, yep we [the west] are a cultural cancer. And, i think it would be fair and realistic to say the bigger contributors to cultural cancer is the USA.

    • Oh, I don’t agree with that. One of the reasons I don’t agree is that it has become “Conventional Wisdom”. I guess that is just part of my natural optimism that doesn’t make it America’s fault for all the world’s ills. One could just as easily blame Pakistan or India for their cultural influence, (Though I don’t do that, either) because this style of architecture is most common there.

      • I can only reflect on seeing wherever I go in the world, and ok I haven’t seen it all, Ronald’s beaming smile and the enticing smell of KFC along with the fact that the only currency of real interest is the US Dollar. This is the cultural cancer I am referring to. The US seems to blanket bomb it’s culture over others and it gets to the point where the pockets of original culture that remain are seen as quaint, quirky and from a bygone age.

  13. Sam Mcneil says:

    Hello,
    I greatly enjoyed reading this story. I’ve seen many good buildings changed I from the old into not necessarily better “new,” simply for the sake of change. Thank you for you pictures as well. I will visit again!

  14. It is one of the countries I really want to visit. I keep myself up to date with Afghanistan history, politics etc but your blog is a good insight into what the country is like now. But I believe that somehow the charm of Chicken Street is taken away by these new buildings and shops. So how was your experience there?

  15. GP says:

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

  16. Chas Spain says:

    Thanks for posting this one – it’s a real insight to a global phenomenon. I remember as a child going to a market in Bandung and seeing what seemed like hundreds of varieties of rice of every shade from blonde to black stored in large woven baskets. There was no plastic. Throughout the world we are witnessing the pressure to superimpose a monocultural market place as a mode of ‘necessary development’. Although it might be nice to imagine the Afghan people will benefit – the reality is that small traders and artisans are squeezed out as franchise operators move in. We’re all poorer for this – particularly when this story tracks back to the production and trade in food. The irony is that parts of western culture are rejecting this model. In Melbourne for example Starbucks failed to gain a real foothold as a franchise model (compared with London where it has made its appearance on every street corner) and the Victoria and other city markets are much loved as Melburnians mostly prefer owner operated cafes and the option of buying from food markets. At the other extreme, large Australian consortia developers have successfully exported their mega shopping centres to all parts of the globe which inevitably impacts on existing small businesses.

    • Thanks for the comments. It seems that one form of commerce replaces another. The store replaced the travelling saleswagon, and the A&P replaced the store, and the megamart replaces the A&P. And then people long for the simpler forms of commerce, so boutiques spring up.

  17. drjeff7 says:

    beautiful post. Congrats on FP. I have become increasingly interested in history and enjoyed reading a bit about Afghanistan. All we hear about int he US is was and the like. You make it seem like a lovely place and really bring it to life
    DrJeff7
    http”//heritagebreedsfarm.com

  18. This post is just beautifully enlightening.

  19. Hyacinth says:

    This is just another example of what happens when developers believe that they can improve a thing and increase the profit margin. However well intentioned they may be, the energy and character is destroyed in the remaking and the thing/place becomes a poor shadow of its former self. More glitzy in a Disneyland kind of way, but poorer nonetheless. What is really sad, is those that come later never know the difference.

    This is a popular business model in the destination resort industry. The model is simple. A location with existing appeal and potential is targeted. The pitch to local government and business is “re-development”. The local government is promised increased revenues to cover those much needed projects and business owners are wooed with visions of previously unrealized opportunities for profit and success. The developers tear down/improve an entire section of town and proceed to create a self-contained village. The local businesses at the other end of town watch with anticipation as their tax dollars subsidize this miracle of commerce. Finally, the rent up begins and the new village is populated with corporate store fronts designed to appear as local boutiques. None of the local small businesses can afford the price of entry but still they cheer them on, surely all the saviors promises will come to pass.

    Slowly the small businesses shut down, one by one, many leave town and they take the middle class with them. But the village is loved by the visitors who think it is just as it should be-and the locals hang out at the other end of town – just like the Shar-e Bazaar.

  20. Pingback: The End of Chicken Street « gypsycanyon's Blog

  21. Hyacinth says:

    i’m new to this. I wanted to reblog to trendingreality.com, but it went to my original page gypsycanyon where nothing is. Do you know how to redirect it?

  22. Pingback: The End of Chicken Street | shantanuhadap

  23. 4myskin says:

    It’s sad to see so much history and “feel” destroyed. Thanks for sharing the real Chicken Street with us!

  24. I’ve spent my whole life watching the things I love disappear. It started with the widespread obliteration of large parts of my home town in the north of England in the mid to late sixties and has pretty much followed me wherever I have roamed. “Urban renewal” was the catchy phrase the grand schemers and planners of Britain’s miniest of booms – in the form of North Sea oil – coined for the wholesale destruction of entire districts at a time all across the country, but with particular zeal when it came to the old neighborhoods, markets, theaters etx… flattened as if some sort of alien smart bomb had been able to take out everything on the horizon save for the street lamps, cobblestone roads, boarded up pubs and forlorn churches.
    In fact, the rampant destruction of native and regional character on a global scale has led me to take the drastic measure of never revisiting any place for which I hold cherished memories, as the result has always left me saddened.
    I’m sure in reading this we all have our own ‘Chicken Streets’ to look back on with an anguished sigh; perhaps the name is still there the soul has been surgically removed.
    Personally I think the only way this ‘post-war’ mindset of urban renewal will ever be replaced is when we, the majority, realize that it is our culture, our heritage… not the developers, and begin to elect officials who see the benefit in saving whatever remains of our uniquely characteristic architecture that the curse of the developers will be abated. Then we can begin the business of ensuring the rents stay affordable enough for we the ordinaries to actually afford them!
    It’s a thorny problem for sure but the issues you raise here hold deep consequences to society – in terms of fairness, respect, and the societal alienation of the large swaths of our indigenous populations.
    The sooner the issue of cultural genocide is taken off the trivial list, the better.
    Excellent blog.

  25. Xenogirl says:

    Oh nooo…. I am incredibly sad to read that Chicken Street is disappearing. I’ve spent several afternoons there during all three of my trips to Kabul in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Oh I could just cry. At least I still have my photos.

  26. Anarya Andir says:

    That’s really sad they’re bring it down. Usually whenever there is a move to ‘develop’ a place, a lot of unique places are lost. It’s a similar situation here too from what I gather.

    I just saw this on Freshly Pressed and was really happy. Congratulations on that! Very well deserved :) :D

  27. paulguildea says:

    This was a brilliant piece. I went from wanting to rush there and sense and taste the experience, to the down in my boots feeling of copy cat capitalism. We are creating a world today that soon will have no yesterday.

    • It’s not only copycat capitalism, it’s copycat capitalism without a purpose. To begin with there is only a handful of potential customers; once the charm is gone, there will be NO customers. The futility is saddening.

  28. Pingback: Mandawi Fire | hotmilkforbreakfast

  29. Great photos giving a great sense of place. And sad to see the same pressures there as here in Spain.

    • Thanks. I am also aware of Spain’s issues. When I travel I make the conscious effort to avoid any kind of “popular” destination. I have fond memories of Spain’s rural areas near Cadiz in 2007.

  30. Pingback: Buzkashi Boys (Or how I’ve evidently been living under a rock) | hotmilkforbreakfast

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