SHEEP SHIT AND SHISH KEBABS:
A TOURIST IN AFGHANISTAN
by
Daniel John


Three men wrestled a sheep to the ground on the side of the road. One was holding it down, one was sawing off the head, and the third was hacking off a leg. That sheep must have really done something wrong, I thought, to make the men so angry. Then the Flying Coach hit a pothole, my head hit the roof, and when I landed back on the seat, I found myself looking at a landslide of mud and rock that filled up the left half of the road. A creek seeping out from under the landslide had washed out part of the other side of the road, leaving hardly any space between the landslide and a 100-foot drop down to a muddy, churning river. The driver stomped on the gas pedal, and with a great grinding roar, the car leaped like a beast into danger . . . and out like a miracle. There was an inch of clearance on each side. He slowed down for the foot-deep potholes and to avoid the pumpkin-sized boulders, but otherwise went as fast as the car would go. He even drove at full speed when the road meandered up over a solid rock outcropping and through a small river boiling over the top.

Flying Coaches are four-wheel drive vans called HiAce from Toyota, and are narrow like a VW van, only longer. There’s a board fixed between the two front seats to make a third seat, so each van can hold 12 people. The three passengers in back have to enter by climbing in over the back bumper. I’d made a huge fuss about getting the front window seat for the ten-hour drive, making puking motions to show why I needed it.

It was May 3, 2005, and I was on the way from Kabul to Bamiyan in the central highlands, where the Taliban blew up the 2000-year-old Buddha statues.

I live in Brookline, Mass., an upper-middle-class town of 60,000, surrounded on three sides by Boston. It’s thick with therapists and professors, and the public elementary schools close on Jewish holidays since so many of the children are absent. I design, install, and maintain flower gardens for residential clients, and in the winter, I write stories and poetry. The need to go to Afghanistan came over me like a slow tide, starting in the spring of 2004, swamping one good reason after another not to go. I read everything about the country I could get my hands on, but that just made me more convinced that I had to go. By February, 2005, the only remaining obstacle to the trip was putting down the money and buying the ticket. I couldn’t even apply for a visa until I had a ticket. That day I took a nap, and dreamed . . .

. . . I hear a knock-knock-knock! I open the front door. The Archangel Raphael is standing there. He asks me, “How do I buy a ticket to Afghanistan?”
“You turn left onto the sidewalk on Washington St., go to Beacon St., turn left, for a few doors down to Cleveland Circle Travel, and ask for Laura. She will take care of you.” In case he missed any of that, I repeat it. He listens carefully. I am about to repeat the instructions for a third time—

I woke up, leaped into my shoes, walked out the front door, turned left onto the sidewalk, went to the travel agency, and bought the ticket on a credit card that might take me a year to pay off.

After that when people asked me why I was going to Afghanistan, I said, “I don’t know. I just I have to go.” People who didn’t know me thought I was lying. People who did, just rolled their eyes. One said, “Oh, you’re a poet. That explains it.”

“Tourist?” Afghans asked me, puzzled, after I got there. Even the people who worked for aid agencies were surprised. I wasn’t the first, though. A man from Moncton, New Brunswick, had walked in from Pakistan the week before I got there. The advisories of land mines and kidnappers were far more dire for that area than for any other part of the country. I asked him if it was dangerous. “I hurt my knee,” he replied. Personally, I never felt endangered—except in a vehicle driven by an Afghan.

The Flying Coach left me off in Bamiyan, a small town on the high, cold plateau of central Afghanistan. There was little green to relieve the barren gray-brown hills that surrounded the town, circled in the distance by snow-capped mountains. Little shops the size of one-car garages lined both sides of the main street made of mud and deeper mud. Goats, donkeys pulling carts, sheep, lambs, and sometimes a horse argued with the four-wheel-drive vehicles that slowly negotiated the deep, wet ruts. It felt like the Wild West, only in the Middle East. The roads made me feel right at home, because they reminded me of what they used to say in Saskatchewan, Canada, where I was raised: “Pick your rut; you’ll be in it until the next town.” I walked up one side of the road and down another, saying “Salaam!” to everyone I met. They always said “Salaam!” back to me, sometimes while touching their heart with their right hand and inclining the head in a little bow, an extra touch of politeness that warmed a Canadian’s heart.

I told everybody I was from Canada—which is true, even though I’ve also been an American for 20 years. I made that decision after listening to an Afghan airport officer go on and on about how much he hated “Amreekans.” I was glad to be able to tell him Canadians hated America too, and for the same reason: Nobody likes a bully. Besides, a surprising number of people I met, even in the hinterlands of Bamiyan, had an uncle or a cousin who lived in Canada. I felt I had uncovered a secret Canada-Afghanistan connection, a conspiracy of politeness.

From my hotel room, I could see where the two giant Buddhas had stood, 175 and 120 feet high. The empty niches in the cliff were shaped like colossal vaginas cut so deeply into the rock they were filled with shadow no matter what time of the day I looked at them. The piles of rubble at the bottom felt appropriate to Buddhism. If wisdom is emptiness, then the Taliban had erased ignorance with their dynamite. I was upset to find out Italy had promised to spend tens of millions of dollars to reconstruct the statues: Buddha would not approve.

The first foreigners I saw in Bamiyan were two New Zealand soldiers in tan camouflage clothing, with nasty looking guns and stout body armor. One of them was Maori. They stood side by side outside a small shop on the main street, fingers on triggers. Their presence seemed provocative, like the first move in a game of chicken played with guns. I asked them what they were doing there.

“Oh, we’re with the ISAF,” the New Zealand soldier said. “We have to follow the commander around. Right now he’s buying some jewelry.” He rolled his eyes.

ISAF is the International Security Assistance Force, a multinational police force with soldiers from Croatia, Nepal, Denmark, Turkey, Canada, and others. It helps out the Afghanistan army and the Kabul police with joint patrols and also works with CIMIC and UNAMA and other acronyms.

I saw the four-wheel-drive SUVs of NGOs now and then, but they were usually driven by Afghans. The foreigners kept out of sight, I imagine from fear of antagonizing the locals. That didn’t make all that much sense to me, since from the physiognomies of the locals it looked like every Afghan was a foreigner.

“Isn’t it amazing the faces you see in this country?” I asked the soldiers. “I just saw a redhead with blue eyes. He looked like the boy next door to where I grew up in Canada.”
“Yeah, it’s full of European faces,” the white soldier said. “Makes you wonder!”

The Maori soldier politely looked away. I saw no African faces, though there was everything else. There are seven major ethnic groups and many more minor ones. The Hazaras in the heart of Afghanistan look Mongol or even Chinese, and claim to be the remnants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde. The Pashtuns, mostly in the east and south, have Arab noses that a falcon could roost on, and every day I walked past men who could have stepped out of a Roman fresco. I gawked at a boy with black curly hair in ringlets and facial features so classic he looked like a Greek statue come to life. There’s even a tribe of light-skinned people with blonde children who claim to be the descendants of Alexander the Great.

On my last night in Bamiyan I heard the exotic sound of a female voice coming from outside my hotel room. Entranced, I put down my greasy shishkebab and walked outside. She was standing on the porch talking with a few men, obviously her hired Afghan protectors. The alluring sound of her voice compelled me to walk up and say hello, but I stuttered like a teenager on a first date. Her face was tightly wrapped in a circle of cloth, showing no ears or hair—but other than that, it was naked! The harder I tried not to stare at a bare female face, the more I stuttered. Public space in Afghanistan is male space, even a few years after the Taliban. Most people I saw outdoors were men or boys, and the few women I’d seen were wearing turquoise burqas, polyester tents that make the inhabitant invisible. There’s a square of mesh in front of the eyes so she can see out, but no one can see in. The woman was a Pakistani aid worker with an organization that trained midwives. She told me that Afghanistan had one of the highest childbirth mortality rates—for both babies and mothers—in the world. Later on, she mentioned that all the people who work for NGOs live in the same area outside of town.

“Do you all get together for supper?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she said, and laughed.

I nearly swooned to hear her laughter. How could anyone not fall in love with the creature that made a sound like angel of joy? Then I realized that when I said “anyone—” even in the privacy of my own mind—I meant “any man.” I had only been in the country a week and already “people” meant “men.” I had been colonized.

Nonetheless, the “people” were sincere, honorable, and kind. One day, a shish kebab seller, with a Taliban-length beard about a foot long pumped my hand up and down while speaking Deri loudly and slowly so that I would understand. (Luckily there was someone nearby who could translate.) “Welcome to my country. Please, have shish kebab and tea! Never mind about paying. It is my honor.” He stirred the charcoal on his long, narrow grill until a small flame spurted into life. Wood is so precious they sell it by the kilo in the markets, even digging up the roots and sawing them into convenient chunks. He sent me upstairs to a small room with Turkish carpets, where a few other men were already eating. A teenage boy brought me the shish kebab with one shaker of salt and one of a spice mix, green tea with lots of sugar, and the nan they serve with everything. Then he turned on the TV and we watched women in short skirts and scanty tops flaunt their tits and asses to pounding loud rock and roll while they lewdly wrapped themselves around a male singer.

It had been a long time since I had seen more of a woman than that which shows from underneath a floor-length tent. I tried to act like the other customers, and eat greasy lamb while watching rock videos of half-naked women, but I started to get aroused. This made me want to shoot the TV. Which is one of the things the Taliban had done when they took over. Then I wanted to stand in front of the TV and preach against hypocrisy. That made me feel like a member of the New England branch of the Taliban. In an attempt to distract myself, I went upstairs to use the toilet. But I nearly gagged at the odor, so I couldn’t linger there. In the end I compromised like a Canadian—where every choice is equally miserable—and ate the rest of my kebabs facing away from the TV. The other people seemed to have no trouble: a few young men, a much older man who must have lived through the decades of war that had cursed this country, and one fussy man who started shaving with a disposable razor as soon as he finished eating his shish kebab.

Women in Afghanistan continually perplexed me. One day, I was trying to figure out the price of pistachios from a street merchant without knowing the name for the units of weight or the denominations of money. His friend joined in to help, but since he didn’t know any more English than the seller his participation only made the discussion more torturous. This was the kind of event I enjoyed, since it demanded maximum involvement from all concerned. While the three of us were talking, a blue burqa appeared in our midst and a tiny hand came out with a few Afghanis in it (an Afghani is worth two cents). We continued with our business. Half an hour later, long after I’d purchased the pistachios, I realized I hadn’t noticed when she’d left. I remembered a quiet, plaintive voice, but that was all. Because she was a woman, she was beneath the notice of men.

Another time, I stared at a woman who had only a handheld scarf for a veil. Even though her ears and every single hair were tightly hidden, her face was bare naked. She caught my eye and stared back at me while she slowly covered her lips with her scarf, then uncovered her lips, then . . . slowly . . . concealed her lips again. I looked away, blushing with shame. Was she angry at me for staring? Had I made a pass at her? . . . Or was she a prostitute?

I caught the last seat on the 5:00 a.m. Flying Coach back to Kabul. As we rattled and bounced over the potholes the sun rose hot and dry over dun-colored hills bare of vegetation. In every tiny valley where there was a trickle of water, there was a village, with fragile mud-brick houses hanging onto the sides of the round, ancient hills. The ruined hulk of a Soviet tank, stripped of its treads, turret and gun, frequently ruled over the center of town.

The Flying Coach stopped for tea after five hours of relentless bouncing up, down, and sideways. The toilet consisted of an open field behind some buildings in the tiny village that had the teahouse. I walked a long way from the buildings, thinking I was being hyper-discreet. To my surprise, one Afghan after another detoured a good distance around me, then went much farther, way out into the field, and squatted down in the wheat until they were nearly invisible. I felt like an exhibitionist because I was standing up. Most of the men in Afghanistan wear an outfit called a shalwar kameez that looks like pajamas. The top is loose and flowing, has a little collar, and comes down to the knees. It’s normally worn with a vest or even a vest and suit coat and looks quite elegant. When a man is squatting, it covers everything.

Except the smell. For the first week I thought that sweetish stink was sheep shit. I had little problem with that, since I like barnyards and don’t mind the way they smell. I didn’t even mind eating in one, when the smell blew through a restaurant. After the first week, it dawned on that I wasn’t in a barnyard, I was in an outhouse. Maybe the reason the stink was sweetish was because the entire population had diarrhea. My culture clicked in, and disgust replaced nostalgia. There were some nights I couldn’t sleep in my hotel room untill I put Tiger Balm in my nostrils.

In the teahouse we took off our shoes, washed our hands without soap, and sat down on the floor of a large room covered in Turkish carpets. The young boys brought everyone chai sabz (green tea), with a heaping tablespoon of sugar already in the cup, and lots of nan on the side. The man I sat next to on the Flying Coach paid for my tea. It was only twenty cents, but I could tell this was a significant amount of money. I would have dishonored him to refuse it. It was a small gesture, but it made us comrades.

A few minutes after we got in the car, the back wheel blew off with a bang. The vehicle lurched as it came to a wild stop. The errant wheel rolled on ahead of us, across the road, and into a ditch. The passengers spread out behind the car and combed the mud for the errant bolts. I tried to count up how many wheel nuts (pich) we still needed to find, starting with “yak”—the word for “one.” But I kept forgetting the word “yak.” Every time I did, they would tell me, “yak!” and then I would slap myself repeatedly on the head and yell, “Yak! Yak! Yak!”

Eleven men nearly wept with laughter. Whenever we found a wheel nut, I cheered, grabbed the hand of the man who bought me tea, and taught him to do a high five. Every time I did this, he looked at me in astonishment then doubled over, choking with laughter, as did everyone else. I couldn’t figure it out. Either I’m a hell of a lot funnier than I think or else physical comedy until recently carried the death penalty.

I had a halting talk with a man who looked to be in his late 70s, with bowed back, stiff gait, a deeply tired, wrinkled face, and few teeth. He had two wives, and was deeply impressed that I had three. (I didn’t attempt the concept of ex-wives, since we only had one verb tense to work with.) I asked him how old he was. “Fifty-six,” he said proudly.

“Me, too,” I said, “Fifty-six!” I quickly shook his hand and said, “We are both old men,” but it didn’t help. The translator looked back and forth from the old man to me, first in amazement and then in sadness. If I’d lived in Afghanistan for the last 56 years I might have looked 78, too. Eventually we found five out of six pich, which was close enough. Then we roared on bouncing away again.

I flew from Kabul to Herat, a city near Iran. On the plane I sat next to a well-dressed man and his wife and said, “Salaam,” to both of them. They had a two-year-old boy and a baby and looked like any young, attractive family. His English was rudimentary and all I had for Deri was a little tourist phrasebook, so we had a lot to talk about. His wife murmured to him now and then, but never spoke to me. It took half an hour to get across the definition of poetry, since that word wasn’t in my little book. I didn’t know if he understood or if he just gave up trying. Then I gave the little boy my pad and pen to draw with. His parents were visibly impressed with my generosity.

When the plane landed the husband said, “Come with me,” in such an imperious manner I felt I had to obey. The wife put on a burqa as she exited the plane. But it wasn’t the full burqa. The center front panel from the waist down had been torn off, leaving her hands free. While wearing the full burqa over her clothing, a woman has to bend down to the ground, pick up the front edge of the tent off the floor, then peek her hands out from under the fabric to grasp things. This is such a severe inconvenience women were trying ingenious ways of altering the burqa—now that the Taliban were gone—without getting rid of it entirely. I’d even seen one burqa where the front panel had been removed from floor to chin, leaving the startling sight of a woman’s breasts leading the way as she walked but with no face to follow them.

“Wait here,” the man said, after leading us to the parking lot. He went back to the plane to get luggage, leaving me alone with his wife next to the chain-link fence. Normally I would have spoken to her, but the burqa confused me. I remembered the Muslim prohibition on another man seeing or hearing the wife, so I stood with my back to her. That way the husband would see that I was not only not talking to her, I was being so respectful I was not even facing her. The sun was hot and glaring. I began to sweat. I could only imagine how hot she was getting under polyester. When he finally got back, we all piled into a car driven by his brother or cousin and drove right to my hotel. When I reached for my wallet, he waved his hand dismissively in that deeply generous manner of Afghans, and said, “No money, no money.” I thanked him profusely and got out. His wife in the seat behind me quickly hid her chest with a scarf and I just as quickly looked away but it was too late. She’d been nursing the baby. She ripped into her husband in the unmistakable tone of the pissed-off wife. I was so confused I nearly had a headache. After I’d gone to so much trouble to avoid looking at a woman’s face, I had seen something even American women are shy about. And after specifically not talking to her so I wouldn’t hear her voice, I had to listen to her rich female tones as she lambasted her husband.

But the next day I said, “Salaam,” to a woman on the street with a naked face. She grinned hugely, but didn’t look at me or say anything. Success, I thought, and smiled back at her. I said it again to two schoolgirls, of which there seemed to be hordes in Heart, all in the same uniform but with faces. One said it back to me, then they both burst into giggles. I felt I was on the right track, until the next day at the market when I said “Salaam,” to two women dressed like nuns, but with faces showing. They ignored me, but the man walking behind them did not. Even with a baby in his arms, he glared at me with a burning rage made only stronger by helplessness: he could not prevent my infidel eyes from stealing the sight of his women’s faces. They were probably his wife and a sister, and being the male relative he would be responsible for their safety when they were outdoors. I tried earnestly to avoid the group, but ran into them twice more by accident. Each time I got the same response from the man even though I avoided looking at his women. I’m sure he thought I was an American trying to dirty his women’s faces with my eyes . . . thereby wounding his fragile, vulnerable honor.

Since I had to bribe a man to get a plane ticket to Herat, I didn’t have a return, so after I arrived I went to the Ariana Airlines office to buy a ticket back to Kabul. Two barefoot young men sat on a dirty blanket on a cot, watching a small TV hooked up to a DVD player. They looked at me blankly when I spoke English. I already knew how silly it was to hurry in this country, so I just waited and smiled a lot. An hour later, a third young man came who spoke some English. He seemed to understand everything I said except “I need to buy a ticket to Kabul.” He invited me in for tea, then poured fresh water into a banged-up old kettle, put it on a tiny propane burner, then sat on the floor on an old blanket and patted the space next to him. Two other men wandered in and the five of us all sat around.

“We are soldiers,” he said after a while, showing me his dogtags.
“For Ariana Airlines?” I was mystified. The national airline was a Kafkaesque nightmare. The airports suffered long periods of lethal sloth alternating with a panic that sent men scurrying in every direction like cartoon mice. I’d seen seated passengers hauled off planes right before they took off, I suspect because someone with more money had come along just in time and bribed somebody. Ariana Airlines needed a lot of things, particularly secretaries, schedules, and airplanes. I hoped not mechanics, but I was sure not soldiers.

He shrugged and turned on the TV. We watched a Turkish rock music video, then one in Hindi. I took one more step into being colonized, and suddenly it was easy to watch half-naked women dancing to rock music. Foreign women on TV were in their own category; the same standards didn’t apply, so there was no hypocrisy. None of us understood the languages, but girls plus rock and roll is a language all by itself. It’s not true, that contemporary bugaboo of American culture taking over the world. I was watching world culture racing around the globe and delight to meet itself.

My friend put in a third DVD, obviously homemade. Arabic script came on the screen. “That means ‘In the Name of Allah,’” he said. Then heavy rap music came on, with deep, male American voices, chanting over and over again, “Blow my whistle, bitch, open up and put it in, blow my whistle, bitch . . . “

“What does that mean?” he asked me.
“I don’t think I can translate,” I said, wide-eyed with shock.
He switched to a DVD from Iran, followed by a pirated MTV video, and then more Turks. I got up to go.
“Do you like to dance?” one of the men asked.
“Yes,” I said, and since there was a rock song on I did a little break dance, a little hip-hop, and a little Marx brothers. The five young soldiers laughed like to die, pounding the floor and nearly weeping for joy. If I was that funny, then the Taliban must have killed all the clowns.

Before I left Herat I went to see the minarets, which were all that remained of a vast temple and university complex from 1417. Huge round towers made of mud brick stacked several stories high had stood for centuries. There were only five left out of the original 20 or 30. Four were in a square and one was off by itself, with a hole in its side and tilting dangerously. It was wrapped in four great steel cables that were anchored to a huge cement block buried in the ground. A nearby sign announced, “5th Minaret Stabilization Project Care of Italy.” When they were new the minarets had been completely covered with 1/4 inch-square tiles arranged in ornate patterns, but now only a few sprinkles of color on dun mud remained. I avoided the little piles of poop here and there and sat in the shade under one of the minarets and began to meditate. A hard rain began to fall, hitting me on the head and tinkling on the stony ground . . . tinkling? I opened my eyes. Tiny, fingernail-sized tiles were falling off the minaret, little bits of deep purple lapis lazuli and brilliant turquoise.

I didn’t know where the bus was going or how to ask for help, so of course I got on. I brought out my little map of the city and soon there were seven or eight polite, friendly men trying to find a way to explain things to me in a language that shared hardly any cognates with English. The little blue tents in the back tittered quietly to themselves, looking and sounding like another species. Women used the back door of the bus and only sat in the back. I wondered if a Rosa Parks would get anywhere in this country by demanding a place in the front of the bus . . . and thereby acting like a whore. Why else would a woman want to sit with strange men?

A man gestured to me to get off with him, then pointed the way to my hotel. I hopped on a bicycle cab the rest of the way. The mobile phone number, email address, and web page of the pedicab company were painted in large letters on the side of the little wagon with a roof in which four men, a boy, and I all sat hunched behind an old man pedaling furiously down the street.

BBC TV that evening reported three confirmed dead from a grenade thrown into an internet café that was known as a gathering place for foreigners. Several days later, I met some German men who had been in that café an hour before it was bombed. One of them said, “It could have happened in Berlin, in London, in Manhattan. There’s no way to know, so why worry?”

On my last day I wandered through the Kabul bazaar. A little boy ran past me with a goat’s head in his hands, dripping blood. He took it to a man on an old bicycle and wedged it on top of the rack which was already draped with long ropes of some greasy yellow internal organ that hung down around the back wheel. The air was filled with thick, choking dust and that sweet stink. I almost walked right into a man pulling a large wooden cart that ran on car wheels. It was filled to the brim with soft, bloody lambskins. Lamb carcasses hung nearby, minus heads and feet. Stalls were crammed into every conceivable cranny. One man sat next to a pile of onions, another behind a pile of cucumbers. Sellers tended to arrange themselves by category, so anyone wanting potatoes, for example, had ten sellers to choose from, all sitting next to each other. The Kabul market was so huge there were many potato sections. The moneylender district was jammed tight with men sitting behind great piles of bills stacked on scarves on the ground. Some men walked around like mobile ATMs, with inches-thick wads of money in rubber bands stacked wrist to shoulder on one arm, and another row of wads of bills balanced on top of the first. Each man had thousands of dollars worth of currency, but there were no policemen or soldiers around. Afghanistan was dangerous in ways America wasn’t, but it was also safe in ways America wasn’t.

The tens of thousands of men milling around me in the cacophony of the bazaar looked like they had just walked out of the Bible. They all wore various combinations of scarves, shawls, and shalwar kameez. I stuck out like a suckling pig at a Muslim banquet in a brand-new journalist’s pocket-vest, jeans, and sneakers. The sneakers in particular got a lot of attention. Everybody else was in sandals. After a few hours among the crowd I suddenly had the sense the market was a vast stomach, and I thrilled with the feeling of belonging: I was the same as each person around me and with every human being in the world. I was just one cell in the great pulsing belly of humanity.

The hotel found me a taxi driver to give me a short tour of Kabul in the few hours I had left. He was about 18, diffident and polite. He drove me first to the famous Yellow Mosque, but it was locked, so he led me to a building across the street. I took off my shoes and stepped inside a room that opened onto a small yard filled with stone coffins. They were draped in green polyester and rested on biers waist high above the ground. A man was quietly weeping as he leaned on one. There was a deep, tragic sense of wrongful death. I could almost hear the trumpet call for righteous revenge. We walked into a tiny room filled with a huge glass box three-quarters full of flags and scarves and banknotes. There was just enough room for one person to squeeze between the glass box and the walls. The upper edge was as high as my head and decorated with gold filigree. My driver gestured to me to make a donation, so I pushed a 100 Afghani note over the gold filigree and let it fall into the box. Then he kissed the green-fabric covered book lying on a shelf in front. I followed suit. As my infidel lips touched Muslim silk, a beam of white light with a greenish tinge shot down from heaven, enveloped the building, and sank deep into the earth. It felt like the light of Islamic forgiveness blasting away the darkness of the desert nomad’s greed for revenge.

We put our shoes back on, got into the little cab, then inched our way through the honking, dusty rush of Kabul traffic to the great, wide boulevard of the palace of Dar-ul Aman, or City of Peace. At one time, there must have been grand houses along both sides of the street. It had been a battleground between Hekmattyar and Massoud, the leaders of two of the militias in the civil war that followed the Russian defeat and preceded the Taliban invasion. The most intact houses had only a few walls left standing. We drove slowly through the devastation to the city-block-sized royal palace that King Amanullah built in the 1920s. Most of the roof was gone, and the walls and upper floors were torn apart by huge holes where rockets had scored direct hits. The building had a shattered, tragic dignity. It was wrapped in a tall chain-link fence festooned with razor wire and posted with large signs saying, “KEEP OUT ISAF CANADA NO PICTURES.” It looked like the place where a conspiracy would meet at night to plan the next predictable, vicious outburst according to the code of vengeance that rules the Middle East: Kill my brother, and I will kill two of yours.

As we left I asked the driver to stop at the soda stand near the gates. I could hardly swallow my throat was so dry from the Kabul dust. Either that or I had taken too deep a breath of the suffering in this country. I rolled down the window and paid for two cans of Sprite without getting out of the car. I opened a can of soda, took a long thirsty swig, and glanced up at the palace. For a split-second I saw a blast of pure cleansing white light rising from the earth and engulfing the ruined building, then shining up into the sky like a searchlight. I didn’t understand. In most traditions divine light descends from on high. But it was clear from the sight of the upwelling light that what needed to happen was for the building to be torn down and a brand new one erected in its place. I wanted to tell the Italians to get their priorities straight. This country didn’t need a ten-story Buddha or its minarets straightened. It needed a concrete symbol of central government.

The driver spoke to me in Deri and motioned to his watch. He meant we still had time on the tour. He repeated what he’d said, and I recognized the word for zoo that he had used when we’d passed it on the way here.
“Yes, yes!” I said, immensely relieved, and roared like a lion.

“Yes, yes!” he said, and roared back at me, then told me the word for lion and had me repeat it back to him. Next I did a monkey sound; he imitated me, then taught me the word for monkey. By the time we got to the zoo we’d been through dozens of sounds, I could say the names in Deri of all of those animals, and I felt a lot better. He stuck so close to me our arms were touching the whole time he led me around the small, desultory zoo. I felt like an old, infirm, slightly dotty uncle—that he loved deeply all the same.

When he said goodbye to me at the airport he hugged me the way Afghan men do when they feel affectionate, with a gentle embrace and a light kiss on each cheek. I felt blessed by the entire country.

There was a bleak seven-hour wait at the Kabul airport. One of the airport soldiers told me that when the Taliban came they lined up all the computers on the runway and machine-gunned them. I flew to Dubai, then watched movies all the way from Dubai to London and London to Boston. Many hours later I collapsed in my bed in Brookline, exhausted from petty irritations. I didn’t have jet lag going to Afghanistan, but I had a severe temporal misalignment every evening for a week after I got home. My body couldn’t understand which when it was in.

This didn’t end until a week later, when I took the dog for a long afternoon walk through the woods near the Chestnut Hill mall. Suddenly the memories of Afghanistan bloomed all around me, one after the other. I stopped in my tracks the experience was so intense. I was there again, in the Flying Coach bouncing over potholes and honking its way through herds of goats; in the market seeing the wagon full of bloody lambskins and walking among thousands of men dressed according to the Bible; feeling the awkwardness with the women covered in blue polyester, and my fear of causing offense; then sitting under the minaret in Herat when the tiny tiles of lapis lazuli came unstuck and fell onto my head, tinkling on the dry, stony ground like hard rain.

“Tash-eh-koor (thank you),” I said to Afghanistan, touching my heart with my right hand and inclining my head in the manner of respect.


Published by The North Dakota Quarterly: Spring 2007