(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Firsthands On — مباشر من كابول

Afghanistan: Part One

The dispatcher at the taxi stand was confused; I was a paradox. “But… you’re wearing Pakistani clothes!” And yet, I had the Urdu skills of a wooden chair. At the airport, my looks earned me little but… was it discrimination? The metal detector security guard merely grunted and poked, assuming a man in my dress would be unable to understand words in any language. I thanked him in an Arabic unaccented by any South Asian phonology… American maybe… maybe French. Eyes widened.

Deep down, I think the entire week’s travels were underwritten by a mantra burning under my tongue at all times: Stereotype this, fuckers! To Pakistanis in Abu Dhabi, I was at first fellow Pashtun but soon an idiosyncratic western tourist; to Arabs I was a laborer… with an American passport; sitting in the airport terminal, I was at first look a resource to Afghans searching with questions in Pashto for their gate, but soon just Lebanese, for that was what I told them. To me, Afghanistan was half war-zone, half news imagery, half quotes and impressions, observations and assertions disconnected from their footnotes. The other half was blank. When I landed in Kabul in Afghan shalwar kamees and Pashtun sandals, I joined the files of other men in the same clothes, in similar chappal, with comparable skin tone — I wanted to be blank, too.

Sharp brown mountains and splashes of greenery flowed toward the capital as the plane landed. A small group in western clothes with boxes of gear mixed with the passengers in hats, vests, colors boisterously disembarking. Military planes roosted along the runway; a pair of helicopters kicked up dust. Commercial budget airlines are all parked mixed up together like parents’ cars out on a suburban street, waiting for kids at a bar mitzvah.

On the bus that shuttled us from the terminal to the exit through metal and cement barriers frosted with barbed wire, the driver served me tea. Another driver collected me from the parking lot to bring me to my room in the Gandamack Lodge, secure behind two sets of towering cement walls and barbed wire, two metal gates, a guard house, and security with AK-47s. (We stopped only to collect American Dollars and Afghanis from the high-end, western brand-stocked supermarket Spinney’s, also manned with armed guards.) It was sunny and warm inside on the garden where a table of Americans was ordering brunch, birds whistling to each other. From here (and as I’d discover, from a million other places), Afghanistan was very pretty.

The manager and the guests told me that they never felt unsafe walking in Kabul during the daytime, that the streets were lined with police and well-meaning youth, infinitely more intrigued by westerners than wont to harm them. Still, I left the compound in Afghan clothes, saying little to the officers casually manning the ubiquitous checkpoints around the city. One pair, a young policeman in uniform with Asian features and his scruffy backup in a wrinkled red plaid shirt and jeans, took special interest in me, “the Lebanese”. Red plaid shirt was cleaning his rifle, laughing: “You look Afghan!” From afar, maybe — and that may have altered my relationship with the city — but from up close, I always felt like they knew otherwise. They knew, and it didn’t matter.
[Mom, stop reading here.]

“Can you show me how to put that together?” I said, sticking my chin at the dismantled gun the plainclothes officer (was he even an policeman?) was inspecting. He smiled a big, friendly smile. I sat in the guard’s chair by the gate, in the little covered shed hardly wider than my shoulders and listened to instructions as he began to jam the pieces of the AK back together. He blew dust out of one cavity with the rifle balanced on his knee — I had wooden walls on three sides with him as my fourth. Plaid shirt was looking down, visibly occupied with cleaning, but I saw something else: the barrel was pointed straight at me. My mind knew that the gun couldn’t function — the magazine was in his hand, half of the machinery was on a chair — but it wasn’t enough. On reflex, I squeezed myself against the wall of the tiny shed. What if? I grappled with a thousand questions at once: why they would want to shoot me, why this was such a good place to do it, how could they have known I’d ask them about the rifle, how I was going to be late to meet new friends for lunch at Le Bistro, how the gun looked really old, how I holyfuckingshit really didn’t want to be sitting there right then.

I stood and stepped to the side as he clicked the magazine into place. We shook hands and they waved me through the gate. I’d taken a wrong turn anyway — this was the driveway to Hamid Karzai’s palace, not the road to Le Bistro.

[Ok for Mom again]
Fridays in Shar-e Now park in the heart of Kabul, men watch animals fight. Fighting animals are status symbols and prized possessions, with tiny fighting quail fetching up to several thousand dollars — many years’ salary for most Afghans. They win money in betting, sure, but real winners glean honor from their birds’ bloody beaks. Today, near the intersection of the famous Chicken Street and Garden Street, a small crowd circled around battling birds.

Two handlers stood in the center fanning caged birds to make them angrier or calm them down (I couldn’t tell). They lifted the cages, suspense building, and stood back to monitor the carnage… of two birds staring at each other. But patience is rewarded with these duck-shaped gray birds standing tall in the Afghan original sport of kawk (partridge) fighting — not to be confused with cock fighting , which is also popular around Afghanistan, along with bull fighting, quail fighting, dog fighting, and egg fighting, where I try to crack your hard-boiled egg with my hard-boiled egg.

On another side of the city, families picnic and chill in the Bagh-e Babur gardens, designed by the Mughal Empire and, since 1544, the resting place of its founder, Zahir al-Din Babur. Lush and vast, the eleven hectares abound with Mughal architecture and shisha smoking, but also with children in grimy clothing, selling anything, begging for anything else. To visit this city is to bear witness to its conflicts: bomb-blasted ruins and five-star hotels, extreme poverty and cautious opulence, incontrovertible dynastic history and shifting political instability. Cradled by the hills of Kabul, the park looks out on minarets in town, on the houses that climb up over each other, on the remnants of the ancient wall that used to defend the city from everything.

At night, westerners take hired cars to a small list of restaurants and bars. The Gandamack Lodge was one of them, with cans of Tuborg for $6 and doubles of French Pastis for ten bucks. For expats working in development or contracting, boredom blends with comfort — the more adventurous find their wings clipped, the work-driven still have their Happy Hour. Everywhere the procedure is the same: knock and a door is opened in a heavy metal slab. One or two guards search bags and pat you down. The next door buzzes and opens with a click, and you exit the city into a Lebanese or Italian or French restaurant that could be anywhere at all.

This was the life for one segment of the population in Kabul, many of whom live and work comfortably without ever leaving the capital. But after a few days, others say, it’s not enough. Not dangerous — that’s not the problem — but not enough. There’s still way more out there.

All the pictures from Afghanistan here.

1 Comment»

  Sarah wrote @

Love your work. I just can’t stop reading it.

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