Fixing what he can in Afghanistan
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan
The bicycle man prefers working in the sun, sitting on a cushion nailed to a wooden block, stretching out his right leg, the one with a missing foot, taken years ago in that instant when a man’s life veers another way.
Abdul Hibib has been fixing bicycles for almost 30 years. His hands are quick, clicking gears, moving across spokes as if he’s plucking a harp. So much worn rubber and troubled history have rolled past him. His country tumbled from war to war while he tinkered with bicycles, outlasting the Soviets, surviving the Taliban.
There’s plenty of trouble left, but nothing more urgent this day than tending to punctured tires and crooked rims. He’s patient, exacting. A man with a roadside business learns things.
"With a bicycle, you don’t sit in traffic."
Rusted chains, broken pedals, bolts and battered lights -- he knows where they are, rummaging through his shed -- wrenches in a tin box, a hacksaw on the table, and shriveled inner tubes, strands and strands of them, hanging above sprockets and oil stains.
Hibib tells you about his plastic foot before you notice. Not that you would notice. It doesn’t betray him; it slips into his black loafer the same as the good one, leaving only a slight tic in his gait. It’s more about him wanting you to know the cost of things, what gets robbed and what you lose along the way.
He started out teaching math in an outlying province, but ended up in a military institute and became a police officer. It was 1981. The Soviet army was hunkering down for a long fight; tribal lords and mujahedin plotted control of the country. Hibib stepped on a mine and spent 43 days in a hospital.
He got out, fastened on the fake foot and headed over the mountains toward Kabul, the capital. "I started fixing bicycles to feed my family," he says. "I had no money for anything else. There were a lot of bikes back then, not like today with all these cars."
The defeated Soviets trundled away and eventually the Taliban seeped in, turning the country into a dangerous jigsaw of public executions and women billowing through alleys in bright burkas that seemed cut from the sky. Schools closed, music was forbidden, a man could be killed over the length of his beard.
But, still, the bicycles rolled.
"The Taliban didn’t bother me, but my children couldn’t get an education. I tried to teach them at home, but children need a school," says the 50-year-old father of seven. "My younger children are in classes now. I’m working to send them to university. I want them to study abroad and bring back what they learn to fix Afghanistan."
He grasps a bent rim, breathing lightly, the sun in his gray-black beard, his hands a diary of scrapes and cuts, seldom resting. He twirls the rim; it wobbles and he stops it, bending it some more and then spinning it again, hypnotic almost, the blur of rust and steel.
"I’m a professional."
He lifts the rim, studying the perfect circle he has restored.
"I’ve taught 60 young men and boys how to fix bicycles. They’ve gone out and started their own businesses," he says. "They’re my students. I guess they’re my competition too, but if I can teach someone to feed his family, I’m proud of that."
He sits on the roadside in front of his shed just north of Kabul’s center. The dirt is spotted in oil and grease that drenching rains won’t wash clean. Across the way, lemons and peppers clatter on weighing scales and the fruit sellers move in the shade of stalls lined up like TV screens for Hibib to watch. He doesn’t; he works, even when Mohammad Hidar, an elfin man in boots, stops his pushcart, empty of firewood, and sits waiting for conversation.
A helicopter skims overhead. Pickup trucks of police splash through the mud. There is war, but it doesn’t always seem so, not here on the safe side of the snowy mountains, but sometimes it comes; booms like thousands of inner tubes exploding at once, reminding everyone that the Taliban came in hard and are going out the same way.
"We don’t want the fighting anymore. I lost my foot," says Hibib, the whitish bump of a shrapnel scar visible on his wrist.
"I see the blood of Afghans in the streets. I don’t want this. It’s not the way to make the country whole again."
Razor wire curls like thin silver snakes along the blast walls. American and NATO soldiers ride low in Humvees the colors of sand and dust, and kids with smoldering cans hustle through traffic selling smoke wisps that bring good luck and keep bad spirits away.
It’s not much, this rough dirt, this splintered shed, that Hibib calls a business. It seems an outpost in a crowded city, tucked between lumber men and mechanics, not too far from a graveyard. He’s been here longer than most, slipping a key in the padlock every day, watching old men and boys haul limping bicycles his way.
"Some people say they’re ashamed to stand next to a bicycle man. Maybe it’s because they don’t see that value of things and they look at you on the side of the road and think they’re better," he says. "But there are other kinds of people too. Some of my old classmates are doctors and generals, and when they see me here fixing bicycles they’ll get out of their cars and sit and have tea with me.
Another rim, the squeak of a spoke.
"I was 21 when I started this," he says.
He drops a wrench in the tin box, fidgets for another. The wind blows through the holes in his tarp, lifts the inner tubes that hang on nails next to his coat, which he doesn’t need when the sun is out and his sweater is thick.
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