It’s 4 a.m. on a cold November morning and still pitch dark outside. The streets of Kabul are deserted, and the only souls on the street are the few Afghan soldiers patrolling heavily militarized checkpoints nearby. But there is a bustle of activity ongoing in the small bakery run by 64-year-old Assadullah, who like most Afghans goes by only one name. The brightly lit shop stands out in the otherwise dark, empty street in the war-torn city, as eight men work in perfect rhythm, mixing flour; kneading, rolling, and marking the dough; and baking a variety of breads in a large clay tandoor, a traditional oven.
The unmistakable smell of bread wafts through the small workshop and into the streets as customers start approaching the glass window as early as 5 a.m. for their first serving of naan, a staple in every Afghan meal. Shiny, round, soft and chewy, naan is about 20 centimeters in diameter and costs 10 afghanis, or 13 U.S. cents, per piece.
“Naan is very important part of Afghan life, not just as food, but also as a social ritual,” Assadullah says as he helps pull several breads out of the tandoor and display them on the storefront. He points out the significance of bread in major life events. “There are special naans made for weddings or to welcome someone who has returned from Hajj,” he says. “If you go to meet someone who is unwell or had an accident, it is customary to take naan, or even when you go to someone’s house to end a feud and make peace, you take naan.”
Assadullah has been working in this industry for over 50 years, since he was 12 years old. He has seen it all from the window of his shops: the coups, the battles, the civil wars, the invasions, and the growing insurgency, all the while consistently baking thousands of breads every day.
“My family moved to Kabul from Behsud for better opportunities, but we could barely make ends meet. So I quit school in fourth grade to start work in a naan shop a few kilometers from here. I started as an intern and was taught the art of baking by my khalifa,” or teacher. He narrates his story as we sit across from the warm tandoor and are served with chai and, of course, naan. The one in front of us has a design of two interlocking hearts and is prepared for an Afghan ceremony to confirm the arrangement of marriage between two families. It’s topped with a generous serving of sugar, but it uses less flour but has egg and sugar in the dough, he explains.
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