ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan, July 4, 2006 (AFP) – President Hamid Karzai boasts that Kandahar’s pomegranates are the best in the world; others say they contain the Almighty’s miracle cures. Desperate poets liken their shape to the breasts of their veiled lovers.
The fruit — leathery on the outside but juicy and ruby-red inside — is found everywhere in Afghanistan, from the suburbs of Kabul to the green valleys of Kunduz, from lawless Paktika to prosperous Parwan.
But the ones grown in the bomb-shattered gardens of Taliban-dominated Kandahar have long tempted consumers because of their candy-sweet taste and remarkable size — some reaching one kilogramme (2.2 pounds).
Karzai, who grew up in the southern province, rarely misses an opportunity to praise Kandahar’s mouth-watering pomegranates, whether he is at a summit with US President George W. Bush or sitting with tribal chiefs.
The president is also pushing the desert province’s farmers to rip up their illegal opium poppies and replant the pomegranates and other fruits that Afghanistan was renowned for until decades of war kicked off with the 1979 Soviet invasion and left the farming sector in tatters.
But few are under any illusion that pomegranates will replace lucrative opium in Kandahar, the second biggest producer of the country’s 4,000 tonne annual output — more than 80 percent of the amount smuggled into Europe, sometimes as heroin.
A kilogramme of dry opium could bring a Kandahar farmer 140 dollars (109 euros), according to a February report by the UN drugs office and Afghan government, although this would take a lot more land to produce than pomegranates.
The same amount of the fruit fetches about two dollars in Kabul and less than 50 cents in rural centres, says a Kandahar agriculture department official named only Ezatullah.
The other advantage of the opium is that it can be stored for long periods, unlike pomegranates. Until this year Kandahar had no facilities to store the fruit to export them off-season for a better price, Ezatullah said.
"This year we opened a cold storage system which was built by the Indian government. We can store up to 50,000 tonnes of fruit," he said.
That’s more than double the nearly 21,200 tonnes of pomegranates Kandahar produces every year, much of it in the green Arghandab valley, an oasis in the desert that is less than 10 kilometres (six miles) from Kandahar city.
About 20,000 tonnes of Kandahar’s pomegranates are sent outside the province, some of those outside the country. "Namely we export our pomegranates to Pakistan but from Pakistan they are repacked and exported to Gulf countries," Ezatullah said.
"Still, we are far away from challenging poppy cultivation."
Afghans cut the fruit into quarters, and bite into the seedy flesh, the red juice staining their hands and mouths. The fruit is often squeezed into a juice served at Afghan weddings and sold at roadside stalls.
The juice is popular across the Middle East and increasingly so in Britain, with the supermarket chain Waitrose telling AFP one brand had enjoyed a 500 percent jump in sales year-on-year.
Pomegranates are also an important medicine in poverty-stricken Afghanistan where some have limited access to doctors.
"It’s full of the Almighty’s miracles," said a turbanned Afghan Sikh trading in medicinal plants labelled "Greek medical" in a dusty street in the bustling capital.
"The seeds are used for diarrhoea, the skin for anaemia and its fruit for thousands of disorders one might have," he said.
A powder made from dried pomegranate skin can be used for anaemia, which can also be treated with the blood-red flesh of the fruit as can blood pressure problems and hepatitis, some say.
"If you go to any villager’s home there is pomegranate-skin powder," said Aminullah Aziz, an agriculture department planning director in Kandahar.
To treat the fungus-prone pomegranates themselves, farmers unable to afford anything better spread a lotion made from boiled tobacco, soap and water onto the bark of every tree.
In between relentless wars, devastating invasions and domestic battles that make up its history, this Central Asian nation has never lost its poetry, inspired by rugged mountains, crystal streams and green valleys with wild tulips and lilies, but also by the blood and fire of conflict.
And pomegranates — native to an area covering Iran and the Himalayas — are a colourful adornment to Afghan literature.
In spring in mid-February, when winter-yellow valleys turn green, purple and red, poets from across Kandahar and neighbouring regions gather to celebrate the "Anar Gul", a festival to the red pomegranate blossom.
Often they recite verses from Afghanistan’s rich heritage of poetry, which can be surprisingly saucy in this conservative and religious country.
"When my darling smiles, her mouth looks like a pomegranate blossom in spring," says one poem passed down over the centuries.
"God may take my life for pomegranates … They reminds me of my lover’s breasts," mourns another lonely Pashto poem.
And a women’s folk song entices, "Put your hand through the slit of my collar, oh sweet, if you want to touch the pomegranates of Kandahar."