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The fortune-teller of Kabul | May Jeong | World news | The G...

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The fortune-teller of Kabul


For centuries mystics have channelled the hopes and fears of Afghans. With the
nation in turmoil, their services are as popular as ever. But can they survive the latest
crackdown by religious hardliners?
May Jeong
Tuesday 1 September 2015 05.59BST

ast November, Abdullah Shari visited a spirit medium. By his own admission,
Shari was the last person you would expect to indulge in mysticism.
Twenty-two years old, tall, handsome, with slicked-back hair, Shari usually
wears blue jeans and a leather jacket, and walks with a swagger. But by that
autumn, he had lost the spring in his step.
Five years earlier, Shari had begun working as a shopkeepers assistant in Kabul
selling carpets, gemstones, and other souvenirs. His customers were the hundreds of
thousands of foreigners who came to Afghanistan following the US-led Nato invasion
in 2001. They were experts, advisors, aid workers, and adventurers, each with their
own ideas about what Afghanistan needed the most. Shari sold them chapan robes
with vertical stripes, the kind worn by former president Hamid Karzai, or Jinnah caps
made from the fur of aborted lamb foetuses things foreigners could bring home and
brag about. Business boomed.
For many young English-speaking Afghans like Shari, the early years of the
occupation had expanded their sense of what was possible. However, the mood had
begun to turn from 2007 onwards, when insurgent attacks rose in response to the
dramatic escalation of foreign troops. That year, 1,523 civilians were killed, an
increase of more than 50% over the previous year. In the years that followed, levels of
violence suicide bombings, assassinations, ambushes continued to soar.
As embassies, NGOs and private contracting companies retreated behind concertina
wire and blast walls, Sharis customers began to disappear. He had once thought that
he might be able to save up for a nice car, perhaps a BMW. Back then, it did not seem
vainglorious to think that a shopkeepers assistant could aspire to such wealth. But by
2013, for the rst time since the American invasion, the shop was struggling to make
rent. Its owner let him go. Shari found a clerical job on an American military base,
but that, too, ended when the camp shut down in 2014 as troops packed up to go
home. Shari had been without work for nearly a year when he decided to go and see
a man named Arab Shah.
Shah is a fortune-teller a falbin, a taweez naweez mulla, a djinn hunter who belongs
to a long tradition of men who practise magic said to predate Islam. Spirit mediums

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inhabit the interstices between the old and the new: in one neighbourhood in old
Kabul, a row of falbin fortune-tellers sit receiving visitors just outside a modern
medical clinic, to serve those who want to cover all bases. These men and the
occasional woman are living manifestations of Afghanistans complicated
relationship with Islam. Before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century,
Afghanistan was home to many other belief systems: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism,
Hinduism, as well as pagan traditions. These beliefs left their marks on Afghan
culture and still resonate today.
Shari was ashamed that it had come to this, resorting to magic over reason, and so
kept his visit to Shah a secret. Only his best friend, Maqsood Sayed, knew and agreed
to join him. In the cab ride across town to meet the spirit medium, Shari considered
his options: remaining jobless in Afghanistan or trying his luck abroad. At weddings,
or over tea, the talk was always about leaving. Recently, a high-school friend had
nearly drowned on a boat headed for Australia. The friend was being detained
Shari was not sure where exactly and sometimes he called home to complain. He
advised Shari to stay put. But Shari wanted to make his own mistakes.
On that early winter morning, the taxi deposited Shari and Sayed in a busy
commercial area at the other end of town, a lively neighbourhood of vegetable sellers,
street food vendors, and makeshift bus stops. Shahs oce was not dicult to nd;
everyone seemed to know where it was. The young men turned onto a side street,
known as Koch-e-Halabi Savi, or, Tinsmith Alley, where workers had been making
wood-burning stoves since Amanullah Khans reign at the turn of the 20th century.
After a wait, Shari and Sayed were ushered into a small room. A naked bulb hung
from the ceiling, shedding a harsh light. Floor-to-ceiling one-way mirrors made up
two out of the four walls, so that you could look out, but those waiting outside could
not look in. Arab Shah, a moon-faced man wearing a shermans vest over a long
perahan shirt, motioned them to sit. From his desk, he checked Sharis pulse rst
on his right wrist, then his left. Next, he raised his thumb to Sharis forehead and
kept it there for a while. Shah did the same to Sayed. He then seemed to run
calculations on a loose sheaf of paper, with an air of martial precision, and delivered
his ndings: Shari and Sayeds futures were bright, but things would get much worse
before they got better. He collected his fee of 30 afghanis (35p, the price of one can of
Coke) each and motioned for the next supplicant to come through. It was over in less
than 10 minutes.
The experience was comforting, Shari told me later. To hear another voice outside
of our heads tell us that everything will be okay. That is what we needed. Shah was
full of platitudes that day of the things will get worse before they get better
variety but among his prognostications was one that Shari now clung to. Shah had
told them that they still had journeys left in them. In other words, should they
decide to join the tens of thousands of Afghans leaving for the better shores of Europe
or Australia, they would nd success.
Shari was not what the UN called a refugee candidate, however. He was not a
member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, nor was he a political dissident. He

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was not running away from famine or civil war, but from the slow death that comes
from having little control over ones life. To the rest of the world, Shari and Sayed
were ghting-age males, or, at best, economic migrants, and the gates of the
richer world were closed to them.
***
Afghans have been going to see fortune-tellers for centuries but reasons for visiting
have changed over time. When Arab Shah began telling fortunes nearly two decades
ago, most visitors came to see him about matters of love or money; now they chiey
come to ask how they can leave the country. They want Shah to use his vatic powers
to tell them which smuggler they should use, and what would be a reasonable fee.
Shah serves as a receptacle for the hopes, dreams and desires of Afghans who have
lost faith in their country and want to get out.
The war may be winding down for Nato forces, but long after foreign troops have left,
the civil conict in Afghanistan will continue. Forty thousand Afghans were killed or
injured in 2014, and so far this year casualties among Afghan police and soldiers have
been 70% higher than last year. Nobody knows how long it will take for the inchoate
peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgents to nally stop the
killing, or if they ever will.
Every weekday morning, a serpentine queue forms in front of the passport oce in
Kabul. Nearly every travel agency in the city now runs a side business in fake visas.
(The going rate for paperwork and travel arrangements that will get you to Europe
ranges from $5,000 to $25,000.) In 2013, the United Nations Refugee Agency
registered 36,081 Afghans seeking asylum in developed countries. In 2014, that
number increased by almost 40%. Many more are making the journey abroad
undetected, to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. And each day, some of these people
wanting to ee Afghanistan and some who have already left turn to Shah for
guidance.
Afghans who have managed to get to Europe or Australia and then begin the long
process of seeking asylum send photos of their lawyers to Shah via free messaging
apps. They want to know if these foreign men and women can be trusted. The
unlucky ones call him from detention facilities in Greece, Germany and the UK. Many
of these calls tend to come through on Sundays, and Shah has learned to keep the
afternoons open. As business is brisk, he has also hired an assistant, Sadeq Nazari,
whose duties include managing his bosss ve mobile phones two Galaxys, an
iPhone, an HTC, and an ersatz Apple Watch. Nazari, a former metalsmith, is a shy
young man. Owing to his aching timidity downcast eyes, hunched gait, sad and
sober countenance or intense loyalty, he does not like to gossip about his employer.
Instead, he spends most of his waking hours sifting through the 70 or so calls and
messages that ood in each day through Skype, Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp.
Shah, a jocund man of 45, has a round face that is a mark of wealth in Afghanistan. He
is proud to have eaten lunch at the same restaurant for the past eight years. Each time
he orders the same dish, mahicha, a lamb shank stew. It is known as the preferred

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dish of strongmen and gangsters, and Shah believes it to be a healthier and more
virile alternative to the standard Afghan fare of kabuli pulao, braised lamb over rice.
Every day, around noon, he can be seen slurping meat o the bone, and throwing the
remains onto the table with great relish. He takes a childlike joy in eating, and this
attitude extends to social interactions as well. His daily routine involves empathising
with the misfortunes of others, but he remains seemingly unaected by the trauma
that has become his lifes work.
Shah treats fortune telling less as a mystical gift than as an occupation. His magic is
imbued with a spirit of scientic inquiry: just as an electrician or a baker learns how
to install wiring or knead dough, Shah believes that mastery of mysticism can be
achieved through hard work and practice. When I rst met him in April 2014, he
proudly showed o his professional and academic accolades: print-outs in neat
frames above his desk. His email signature reads Sayed Arab Shah, Hypnotherapist,
and lists the half-dozen ways in which he can be reached. Shah is not a pedlar of
charms, but a specialist in the occult.
Shahs self-consciously modern approach to his work has drawn the ire of the older
generation of spirit mediums, who criticise him for operating outside the gentlemans
agreement of the trade. That is, maintain the ction that you carry divine
preternatural powers, encourage deication by others, be vague on sources and
methods. None of the established mullas many of whom enjoy the patronage of
powerful men such as warlords, politicians and patriarchs of prominent families
wished to speak to me. Shah pointed to this as an example of their cowardice and
chicanery. I studied. The other mullas, they are uneducated. Thats why they dont
want to speak to the media. They are liars.
Over the course of a year, I visited Shah more than a dozen times. I met his family,
listened patiently as he tried to convert me to Islam, attended his mothers funeral,
and sat through a seance. Together we analysed bootlegged DVDs about paranormal
activities and discussed major world events, including the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
He made me a brass amulet meant to keep me safe while reporting, and I explained
the sorcery of American congressional politics to him.
According to his estimation, Shah sees as many as 1,000 customers a month. Most
hear of his service by word of mouth, but others nd him through the TV
commercials Shah regularly airs on local networks. On these adverts triumphs of
psychedelic music and computer graphics he promises prospective clients that he
could help them quit addictions such as cigarettes, hashish, or wine. His clients
come from a wide variety of backgrounds. During the time I spent with Shah, his
visitors included a man who came to get his daily ration of water blessed, another
who worked as a security guard at the presidential palace, a woman whose husband
had taken a second wife, a civil servant who came to get his palm read, a boxer who
came to seek help for his migraines and a middle-aged woman, a judge, who came
complaining of depression.
Shahs most popular service is a taweez, a tailor-made amulet containing Quranic
verses that serves as a talisman. The rolled up paper can be used as a good-luck charm

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as well as for black magic. Ghulam Sakhi, a pawnbroker, is among those who come for
Shahs taweez service. Last December, he travelled six hours by road from the
northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to visit Shah, in the hope of getting his wife back.
Sakhi told me that in 2010, he had met and married an Afghan woman in Turkey.
They lived there for some time before moving to Afghanistan. Then, in October 2014,
his wife disappeared, taking their one-year-old son and $50,000 in cash with her. She
had sold the family gold.
For weeks, Sakhi did not know where his wife was. In time, he learned that she was in
Iran, on her way to Europe. She was supposedly planning to fabricate a story about
her husband being killed in a suicide attack, and use her status as a widow to seek
asylum. Sakhi believed that his wife would come back to him if she did not nd
success. And so he had come to Shah hoping for a taweez that would make her legs
feel heavy, so that she wouldnt continue on to Europe.
For Sakhi, a man of modest means, Shah was his only resource; in a country that lacks
social services and functioning institutions, men like Shah play the role of a village
elder, a judge, a psychiatrist, a xer of all things. Often, the supernatural is a practical
solution to the inconvenient facts of life: extramarital aairs, male infertility and so
on. I once heard about a man who was said to have lived for years with a shishak, a
lascivious semi-phantom female spirit. In the end, it emerged that he was having an
aair with a married woman. There was also the fertility mulla who would help
women bear children. Childless women would pray with him in a private room
overnight, and soon enough, their bellies would swell.
It would be easy to call Shah an imposter, a swindler playing tricks on the gullible. But
he has the numinous quality of a man who considers himself part of a world beyond
ordinary human understanding. Many of his clients appear to be in awe of him, and
the truth is that they need Shahs powers as much as he needs their patronage; their
faith is a necessary and sucient condition to Shahs magic. Shah legitimises their
suering and gives shape to it, oering an explanation and a balm.

***
Shah was born in Samangan, a province in northern Afghanistan, and grew up in
Kholm, a small town an hour north of the regional capital. Despite a decade of
development aid, the region remains largely untouched. In 2015, just 5% of
Samanganis have regular electricity and only one out of ve can read and write. Most
live as they have always lived: growing wheat and barley in the elds, tending to their
grapevines and pomegranate trees.
When Shah turned 15, his family moved to Kabul, where he nished high school.
Soon after, he claims, he went to work for the national spy agency. In his telling, he
rose through the ranks at the National Directorate of Security, and became the head of
a criminal investigations unit. Shah claims that 25 men reported to him, although he
also told me that he lost touch with his colleagues. I was not able to reach any of
them.

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Shah, who is usually generous with his time, grows reticent when asked about his
former career. Often he begins a sentence with I used to hunt political criminals,
and ends by saying I cant tell you any more. When I protested, he would simply
add: We were hunting down foreign jihadis. Mahfuz as, he would say
its a secret. Better not mention it again. It is dicult to tell how much if any of
Shahs account of his career as a spy is true. The only supporting evidence is the
terric marksmanship he displayed when we went shooting at a ring range one
afternoon last winter. An old man sitting on a cinderblock charged 1 Afghani (0.01p)
for every shot at a neat row of buttons. I got one out of 10 tries. Shah hit the button
every time.
As part of his training, Shah says that he was sent to the Russian city of Volgograd.
Here, as a young ocer, Shah encountered the world of metafizik that would become
his lifes work. On most days, Shahs desk is strewn with books and CDs on subjects
such as telepathy, hypnotism, palm reading, dream interpretation, clairvoyance, and
telekinesis. At the heart of his business, however, is his gift of communion with
djinns. It is the djinns, Shah explained, who give mystics their supernatural powers.
They tell Shah whether the currency trader calling from Utrecht calling on Viber
should buy kroners or euros this week, or whether young men like Shari should go
east (Australia) or west (Europe). Most female mystics were silly and became
possessed by djinns, Shah said, while assuring me that his interactions with djinns
were professional, and wholly in line with teachings of Islamic scripture.
According to the Quran, djinns are ghosts: spirits that wander the earth. As God
created angels from light and men from clay, he is said to have created djinns out of
re. Djinns live, die, ght, make love and experience passion as humans do. They
keep to themselves, and prefer sparsely populated parts of the world: ruins, jungles,
marshes. They can also travel long distances at the speed of light. The prophets
Solomon and Moses are said to have had the power to speak to djinns. In
10th-century Jerusalem, Solomon even got an army of djinns to build him a 70-metre
defensive wall between the Temple Mount and the City of David.
Scholarship is divided on what djinns look like. They are said to be protean, most
commonly appearing as birds, cats, dogs, snakes, donkeys, lions, goats on at least
one occasion, even a water bualo and other humans, usually beautiful women.
Extreme weather can scare them away, as can large dogs. They prefer the hours after
sunset and before sunrise.
To summon djinns, you must go to a deserted area, ideally a cemetery, but barring
that an unattended construction site on the outskirts of the city will do. Each djinn
has a name, and you must write this down on a piece of paper and burn it, along with
musk, saron and incense. To see them, you have to have belief in them, Shah
explained.
From the day I met him, I had been lobbying Shah to take me to meet the djinns, a
trip he makes every few weeks. He always found an excuse to postpone. This was for
my own good, he explained. They cant do anything to me, he would say. But its
you I am worried about. They could hurt you. You could die. He would add, I will

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check the weather on Google and let you know in the morning, settling the matter.
Invariably, the weather was too cold or too cloudy or too whatever. Once, he told me I
could not join him since I was on my period.
Still, his clients come to him, every day of the week except for Friday, the Muslim day
of rest, from 8am until 4pm. One Saturday morning last December, it was 20-year-old
Asma Ander. A few months earlier, her father had paid a smuggler $15,000 to get her
to Hamburg, Germany, where she was to join her ance. As often happens, the
smuggler had run away with the money. His oce, which was located in a business
centre downtown, now stood empty.
Soon after getting engaged, Ander had dropped out of college to prepare for the trip,
and now she found herself unmoored and without prospects. When she told her
ance that the smuggler had disappeared with the money, he accused her of stealing
the funds herself. Her face fell as she relayed his message to me. The ance stopped
answering her Viber messages and Skype calls. For an Afghan woman, having an
estranged lover can be a kind of death sentence. If he called o the wedding, she
would become a marked woman, unt for any other union. Her failure to marry
would itself have consequences: single and uneducated, she would live out her
remaining days in her parents home, viewed by many as a wasted womb, little more
than another mouth to feed.
Ten months after the smuggler disappeared, Ander turned to Shah for help, paying
him 100 afghanis (1) to tell her fortune. Shah said: the smuggler will pick up his
phone; he will apologise for his absence; he will get you the visa to Germany as
promised; he will take you to Turkey for the agreed-upon sum, and from there, you
will take the train north to Hamburg, where you will join your ance, who will forgive
you for the misunderstanding. All will be well. You are to live well there. Ander could
not see how her fortune could come true, but for the next few days, she experienced a
kind of optimism that she had not felt in a while. I chose to believe him, because
what other option do I have?
That was in March. As of September, Asma is still waiting. She watches TV with her
cousin Sunil, 23, who is also waiting for a visa so that he can join his wife-to-be in
London. They ip between Hindi movies and the news, which has been dominated by
reports of carnage across the country since spring. We lead a boring life. There is no
entertainment. There is no work, either, Ander said. Her younger brother Murtazar
told me that he worries about her; he catches her crying sometimes.
***
Underneath the veneer of monotheism, Afghanistan is a country of competing belief
structures. If you know what to look for, remnants of ancient traditions are
everywhere: the street children who weave through the interminable Kabul trac
swinging tin cans of incense not unlike the Christian thurible meant to ward o the
evil eye, or the popular celebration of Nowruz, which marks the Persian new year.
These vestigial remains of old beliefs are under constant threat from religious
conservatives who consider them haram. Salasts who advocate a strict adherence to

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the Quran, argue that these practices diverge from Islam a dangerous accusation in
a country where blasphemy is punishable by hanging.
Shah has many enemies, but his most formidable detractor is a clean-shaven,
suit-wearing TV personality named Fahim Kohdamani. From 2009 to 2012,
Kohdamani produced, directed and starred in Biya wa Bibin, which roughly translates
to Come and See. Every episode featured Kohdamani ambushing a fortune-teller
and engaging them in a debate over the legitimacy of their trade according to Quranic
scripture. I am an educated man, Kohdamani told me earlier this year. I am a
religious scholar, and these so-called mullas are eecing the uneducated masses.
According to his critics, Kohdamanis personal crusade against fortune-tellers has
another dimension. Shah is a Hazara and a Shia, as are most of his customers. They
believe, with some justication, that they have been persecuted by the Sunni
majority. (Although Sunni Muslims are widely assumed to be the dominant group in
Afghanistan, the exact demographic makeup is a matter of ongoing dispute. The last
census, attempted in 1979, resulted in the death of 80 census takers.)
In 2009, Kodamani was jailed for three months after Afghanistans Ulema Council, the
countrys most powerful Shia institution, led a complaint against him for defaming
the Shia faith. Kohdamani, who is Tajik, argued that his arrest was an example of Shia
Irans unwelcome inuence in Afghanistan. The Ulema Council, meanwhile, pointed
to Kohdamanis aliation with the so-called Northern Alliance, who terrorised the
Hazara population during the civil war of the early 90s, are predominately Shia and
live in the mountains of central Afghanistan. (In the 2014 presidential campaign,
Kohdamani served as a spokesman for Abdul Sayyaf, a warlord whose militia is
accused of the death and disappearance of as many as 750 Hazaras in 1993.)
In one of the episodes of Biya wa Bibin, which aired on Emroz TV, the countrys
fourth-largest network, Kohdamani proled Shah. Kohdamani told me that he had to
visit Shah twice. On the rst visit, Kohdamani alleged, Shah ran away from the
camera. Kohdamani claimed that Shah had begged him, o screen, not to shoot the
segment, which would involve an intellectual duel between Kohdamani and Shah.
According to Kohdamani, Shah conded in him that although he knew the fortunetelling business was a fraud, he was doing what he had to do to provide for his young
family. Shah rejects this account. In his telling, Kohdamani did visit him twice, but
after a lengthy discussion about Islam, Kohdamani conceded that Shah was a pir, a
holy man, and that the two became good friends. Kohdamani denied Shahs claims of
friendship. I absolutely reject this, he told me.
In the episode that eventually aired, Kohdamani quizzes a cowering Shah on various
aspects of Islam. Their profession is a crime, Kohdamani told me. They think they
can just grow a beard and wear a turban and call themselves a mulla! (Shah said that
more customers, not fewer, visited him as a result of the show and thanked
Kohdamani for the free press.)
Earlier this year, Kohdamani and other orthodox Muslims found the perfect martyr
for their anti-fortune-telling cause. In March, on the eve of the Persian new year, a

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young woman named Farkhunda Malikzada began to excoriate the fortune-tellers


selling amulets near one of Kabuls oldest historic shrines. In response, one man
accused her of having burned the Quran. The crowd, inamed, formed a mob around
her. The 27-year-old, whose name means martyr in Arabic, was stoned, beaten, set on
re, and left to die on the bank of the Kabul river.
The religious conservatives were quick to respond, demanding that all taweez charms
and taweez naweez mullas be banned. Salast members of parliament spoke out in
favour of the ban. By the following week, President Ashraf Ghani had ordered an
investigation into Malikzadas murder, and the Religious Aairs Ministry had banned
all fortune-tellers and amulet sellers across the country. The Kabul police arrested 47
men suspected of being part of the mob that killed Malikzada. Three men convicted
of the murder are serving 20-year sentences, a fourth man 10 years.
When I called some fortune-tellers around the city to ask how the ban was aecting
their business, many said that they were lying low for a while, but that, as ever, things
would go back to normal again. They had survived all these years because they served
a social need, and they were unperturbed by this latest attack on their calling. The
country was heavy with frustration, and frustration was good for business. Shah, too,
received a visit from the authorities. He said: I told them, this is not a taweez naweez
centre, this is a hypnotism darmani, a clinic for the treatment of depression. Shah
reiterated that he was a medical professional, pointing to the framed certicates on
the wall. The men went away and did not return.

***
One Sunday in January, I visited a fortune-teller named Haji Agha. Like Shah, Agha
was making most of his living from those who wished to leave Afghanistan. Agha had
acquired some renown among visa applicants after he accurately predicted when an
Afghan who had worked as an interpreter for the US marines would receive his
much-delayed US visa. He told me the time. He told me the date. He told me there
would be loud noise, rain, and that I would y west. He knew, even down to how
many miles I would travel, the interpreter told me. He did not want to be named, for
fear of appearing backward and superstitious in his new life in the United States. Im
telling you, the man has secret powers.
When I visited Agha in the plywood guardbox that serves as his oce, I asked him
about the weather. Afghanistan had been experiencing an unusually warm and dry
winter. No snow would mean drought later in the year. Without enough water for
farming, more men would end up joining the Taliban in order to feed their families. A
warm winter heralded a bloodier spring. Agha, who has only one tooth and a bulbous
nose that takes up much of his wizened face, blew on his tesbih prayer beads, and
thumbed the pearls as if on an abacus, as if he were running some transcendent
calculation. He then went into a trance-like state. I checked my phone. Some time
passed. It was likely ve or so minutes, but felt longer. When Agha spoke, he said:
After seven days, we will have cold weather. And the level of violence in the
country? The situation will get better.
A week passed. In the early hours of one Sunday morning in late January, a truck
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carrying tangerines piled into a gas station, killing three including the driver. The
Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a Kabul police spokesman,
the explosion broke a three-week spell of peace the city had enjoyed.
A few hours later, snow began to fall across Kabul. It was the rst of the season.
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