HERAT, Afghanistan: High on a hill overlooking the western Afghan city of Herat is A Thousand and One Nights, a popular restaurant where enormous platters of steaming rice and juicy kebabs are served by dwarves.
As the famous hot winds of late summer blow through the restaurant’s open pavilion, the lights of Afghanistan’s center of culture twinkle far below and diners, mostly men, recline on divans covered in handmade carpets.
Fragrant smoke from sheeshas, the tall hubbly-bubbly pipes with flavored tobacco, scents the air as the massive meals are washed down with pots of black tea sipped through cubes of sugar.
This is Herat’s prime location, above the university campus and not far from the US consulate being built in a former hotel and due to open next year.
But it is the waiters who draw the most attention here.
Abdul Jabber Mohammad, 19, 30-year-old Burhan and Abdul Rahman, 18, stride between the divans in their uniforms of bright blue shirts, black trousers and striped waistcoats.
Each standing barely 1.2 meters tall, the waiters hoist huge round trays onto their shoulders, and carry the sheesha pipes high to prevent the sparks blown from the embers burning their heads.
Diners stare and take photographs, nudge each other and point, but the three men say they don’t mind. Indeed, they all agree, they love it here.
“I’m very happy here. I’ve got a job, I’m earning money and I’m supporting my whole family,” Mohammad told AFP.
Despite being able-bodied, the three men are classified by the government as disabled, though they are not entitled to any of the benefits that go to, for instance, war veterans who have lost limbs.
“The government does nothing for us,” said Mohammad. “So if we can’t find a job and earn our own living, we’re on our own.”
Attitudes toward people perceived as disabled in Afghanistan are mired in tradition and religion, with old Persian texts referring to physical and intellectual disabilities as having been bestowed by God.
As a result, disabled people are treated with affection, and the waiters at A Thousand and One Nights say they do not regard the attention they receive as either hostile or unwelcome.
“They are not seen as disabled but can sometimes be the brunt of jokes and often are not taken seriously,” said Barez Ainak, who runs the restaurant.
“I decided to have the dwarves working here because they couldn’t get good jobs anywhere else. I thought it would be an amusing talking point for my customers as they are very friendly and get on well with everyone,” he said.
“It is good for them, and it is good for us. For them, it’s a proper job and they love it here, people love them and they are happy.”
Mohammad – the oldest of six siblings and the only one “not normal height,” he said – agreed, saying: “I’ve never felt anything negative from anyone here and I think it’s because I have a job, and I obviously enjoy it and work hard.
“At school sometimes my friends would make fun of me and even now some uneducated people make jokes or pass comment, but we just ignore it,” he said.
Herat, capital of the eponymous province, is heavily influenced by Persian culture, a city where the old courtesies have been ingrained for centuries. The city, 150 kilometers from the Iran border, was settled 5,000 years ago on a fertile plain that made it the region’s breadbasket.
When Alexander the Great passed through in the third century BC, Herat was a thriving Silk Road trading center renowned for its carpets, crafts and architecture.
By the 15th century, Herat had blossomed into a center of poetry and literature, known as the Florence of Asia, of which it was said that one only had to stick out a foot to kick a poet.
Like elsewhere in Afghanistan – one of the world’s poorest countries, exhausted from 30 years of war, lacking infrastructure and industry – unemployment is high and prospects are few.
Mohammad was determined to finish secondary school, he said, because he believed in the importance of learning in a city famous for its poets and intellectuals. Body-building was his hobby, he said, explaining his broad shoulders and strong arms.
After finishing his studies, “the Culture Ministry wanted me to work as a clown on stage which I thought would have been embarrassing, shameful.
“My uncle came here to eat one evening, he saw the other guys working here and so he told the manager about me. That was a year ago.”
Abdul Rahman has been working at A Thousand and One Nights for five months and says he wasn’t confident of finding good work when he finished school.
“It’s great,” he said, his arm around the taciturn Burhan, the veteran with three-and-a-half years at the restaurant.
“The three of us are best friends, so it is just great that we can all be here together,” said Rahman.