Afghanistan Part One: Every Man A King
Peshawar, Pakistan – Kabul, Afghanistan
The Japanese were playing dress up. We were all sitting in the dirty, cramped office of a Pakistani travel agency waiting to go to Afghanistan.
The previous night they had all gone out and had bought the dull blue veils that the Taliban made people wear.
I sat on the couch watching them put these garments on, giggling and laughing, twirling around playfully. There were five Japanese: two boys and three girls.
One of the girls looked at me. “What do you think? I like it.” I touched the veil, it was starchy and stiff. “Afghan clothes,’ she said quietly.
“I think they are ugly,” I said flatly. I was annoyed by the Japanese.
Her friends stopped laughing and looked at me.
“Well,” she said quietly, looking away from me. “I just think they are nice.”
I hated this pretending. Life is wonderful with a Western passport and a bank account with thousands of dollars. It’s nice when you aren’t forced to wear these clothes, when you can take them off when you please. It’s nice to be able to have choices.
One of the boys who worked in the travel agency sat down next to me on the couch. He was looking at the Japanese girl.
“She is pretty, no?” he asked, leaning into me. His breath smelled bad.
She was looking at herself in a full-length mirror.
“‘No, I don’t think so. Not really.” I said.
“I don’t like girls,” he said, looking at me. “Only boys.”
“Only boys? Why?”
He shrugged. “It is my way.”
The boss of the travel agency came into the room. He was wearing a Panama hat and was holding a wooden cane. One by one, he handed us his business card:
The Prince Mahir Ullah Khan. Publisher and Chief Editor: The World Problems Magazine.
He told us all to sit down on the couches and chairs. He wanted us to listen to him.
“When you talk to Afghan police,” The Prince said, “do not speak English.”
The Japanese wrote his instructions down in little neon notebooks. Japanese people always have gadgets.
“If we are with you, then Ok. No problem,” he went on in a last ditch effort to get more money. He wanted us to hire the boys in the office as our “guides.”
“No guide, then, maybe some trouble for you,” he said cryptically. He adjusted his panama hat and waited for this to sink in.
He was standing under a banner that said, “all we want is peace for world. ”
Around the room were photographs of smiling Westerners. I noticed he wore a lot of rings. I didn’t trust him; he seemed slimy to me.
“That is stupid,” I said, breaking the silence. “They are gonna know we are foreigners. Look at us.”
I was getting angry.
“Look at me. They are gonna know. One look at us. Look at our shoes. Nobody would dress like this.” I was going to Afghanistan with idiots.
“No, no,” The Prince protested, waving his cane around. ‘You can look Afghan. Yes. Same with them. Some Afghans look Japanese..”
I got up from the couch and went to the balcony. I looked out onto the thinly populated road. People had started to work, hammering and putting stuff into trucks. It smelled like poverty; smoke, rotten vegetables and fresh shit. It was still dark outside.
There were two cabs, one for the Japanese and one for me. They all wanted to ride together, Japanese with Japanese.
The boy from the office wanted to carry down my bag. All of us walked down the spiral stairs. The staircase was welded onto the brick wall and it shook and moaned under our weight. I feared it would break and we would all come crashing down to the ground.
My cab was an old Mercedes Benz that had been painted bright yellow. I hopped into the front seat. Hanging from the rear view mirror was a compact disk with Arabic writing and a long iron model of a fish. There was no radio, only a void filled with red and black wires, which poked out from the slot like snakes.
My driver got into the car and the taxis departed neatly, one right after the other. I silently hoped that we would lose the Japanese backpackers. I didn’t want to have to go all the way to Kabul with them.
I liked driving through Peshawar in the early morning, liked how we were able to glide smoothly through the city streets; no traffic, no donkey carts, no bicycles in the way. When I was a child I used to wake up early and ride my bike at 4 a.m., just to ride on the empty streets. I would ride right in the middle of the road in the darkness.
With no cars on the road we drove fast, honking the horn every few minutes. The CD with the Arabic writing would dangle around restlessly.
We came to a building and stopped. The driver pantomimed a shooting gun. “Khyber rifles,” he said, pointing to the office building.
To go to the Khyber Pass, you have to have an armed guard. Mine was named Mustafa and he carried a Kalashnikov. His left hand had been injured and he wore a fat bandage over his thumb. A tiny spot of blood showed through the white gauze.
Wordlessly, he got into the back seat and we began to drive again. Far-flung landmarks I had seen before were going past me, waving me goodbye; Peshawar University, Airport, the bazaar. The pieces of life in Peshawar I had seen were being left behind as I headed toward the Afghan border. The outskirts seen only from a distance slowly filled my line of vision slowly replacing the things that had been familiar.
There had been over 25 years of war in Afghanistan. It was a place of violence. Aid workers were being kidnapped, attacks on Westerners were increasing and much of the country was firmly off limits. People were being beheaded.
There is a kind of chauvinism in travel, a machismo; I was going to Afghanistan because it was forbidden. I wanted to go because I was afraid. I would justify it to myself, look past the danger, look past reality and convince myself I had to go there.
The fact was that I had no business in Afghanistan; no reason to be there at all other than the fact that it was there. For me it was just a large blot on the map, a place only heard about and never actually visited.
I hadn’t told my family what I was doing because it was selfish and reckless. If something happened to me, they would lose their only son needlessly; a waste.
We drove past an Afghan refugee camp. From the open window I watched two girls holding hands, skipping down the road. The homes were all made of dirt, a sea of biscuit-colored dwellings housing people whose lives were fucked from the start.
The sun was coming and I could feel the heat begin to rise. It would be a hot day.
Muhammad pointed across the street to a collection of buses and trucks stacked high with furniture and people. “They return to their place.” He told me, waving his hand. “To Afghanistan.” In front of the buses, a large herd of goats ate from a garbage pile along the riverbank.
We approached the “Smugglers Bazaar” and passed a sign: Entry of foreigners is strictly forbidden.
Pakistani law did not reach this land. It is a tribal area with tribal rules. From this point on, nothing would be able to save me from the repercussions of my own stupidity.
The smugglers bazaar was where people went to buy guns, hashish and alcohol. As we drive past the storefronts I saw pistols and bottles and whiskey displayed in window displays. This area was a kind of no-mans land, neither Afghan nor Pakistani, a tiny swath of land ruled by no one. Several weeks ago, two Australian backpackers had been kidnapped from here.
This region is a kind of Afghan “trail of tears”; during the Russian occupation millions of displaced people came this way, finding refuge in Peshawar.
My little yellow taxi pushed deeper and deeper into the bazaar until we came out the other side. Then the land became empty and brown. An abandoned mansion sat across the street from an equally abandoned graveyard; poverty and death.
Since the US led invasion and the subsequent fall of the Taliban government, millions of Afghan’s have gone back to an uncertain future in their homeland. Each Monday and Wednesday, buses filled with people make the trip over the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.
Every inch of the brick walls that lined the roads were covered by advertisements for Pepsi and Coca-Cola; clashing red and clue logos engaged in a fierce battle for an emerging market.
My yellow taxicab climbed up the windy scrub brush hills. I saw the Japanese standing on the side of the road, taking photographs of themselves in various positions. The Japanese like evidence of things; photographs, souvenirs, addresses.
The land was sparsely populated and raw. There is little work so people live off the land. We passed by a small knot of housing I watched a woman making her way across the dirt road carrying a basket of vegetables on her head. The enveloping black veil she wore made her body seem like a three dimensional shadow.
In the rearview mirror I watched the Japanese get smaller and smaller until disappearing altogether.
The Afghan-Pakistani bordertown is called Torkham. It was a place of great poverty. The car was swallowed by a surging crowd. Children were reaching their hands into the windows, shouting at me. They would thrust chewing gun, bottled water, phone cards and bananas at me through the broken window of the taxicab. I watched one boy push his way through the crowd, a grim expression on his prematurely aged face. On his back he was carrying a car engine.
We pulled into a parking lot. A building half filled the lot with dark shade. Several feet away was the Pakistani border post, a green and black iron fence with a white crescent moon.
I went into an office and they took my photo and stamped my passport with a murky dark red stamp.
I paid my guard his money and walked into Afghanistan.
On the minibus to Kabul I sat next to a man named Ali Shafiq. He had the bloated face of someone who was once thin but had since gotten fat. He wore a fancy blue shaalwar kamiz. He was Afghan but had been living in Pakistan for several years. He had married a Pakistani woman and was the owner of a small business that repaired broken television sets. He was going to Afghanistan to see if he could open a business there as well.
We sat on the bus and talked.
“How much was your visa,” he asked me.
“30 bucks.” I held up three fingers. Thirty.
“Thirty?!” he was aghast.
“But..Pakistanis pay same. And Pakistani is enemy of Afghanistan. You know this? Pakistani is enemy of Afghan people. It is them who were supporting Taliban. Most Taliban came from Pakistan..from Pakistani madrassas. I think for you…for Americans, they should make visa free. Because America is helping people of Afghanistan.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “You think?”
“Yes,” he said.
The van started its engine and began to drive. I was glad he wasn’t angry with me. I had no idea what would happen if I told people I was from the United States. Would they hit me? Spit on me? Anything was possible. I had seen people get beaten up in Pakistan. Big crowds surround you and hit you and kick you. No one helps. Old people hit you with shoes. They beat you until you fall onto the ground then they stomp you, kick your face. Whenever I would see these things I always wondered if it would happen to me in Afghanistan. I wondered how well I would be able to fight back against a large crowd.
“Were you here during the Russian war?” I asked him.
“Yes, but I was small. Small child, like he,” he points to a boy standing outside looking into the window. “My brother was martyered…in Herat. I was 8…we have not found the body yet.”
“Is it better now? I mean…then the Russian time or the Taliban?”
“Now?’ He exhaled. ‘Now is harder. In that time you had only one group, Russians, to fight. Now you have Arabs and Pakistanis and many others. Algerians, Chechens.
“Russians were…they were humans, very cruel but they thought like regular people. They want to go to their home, live, have a family. They don’t want to die so they go away if you hurt them. Now there is Arabs and the Moslems and they are thinking different. Thinking about God. The communists…they were political. Al-Qaeda, they are religious. Now is harder.”
The road was unpaved. “Now is bad road but…soon they are making better. Now is little road, you see?” he pointed at the dirt trail. “Chinese are making this. Later comes concrete. Afghan people will make this. Before it was worst way to come. 15 or 20 hours, maybe. Now 7 or 8. It’s ok.”
I looked out the window and watch the mountains that have kept out invaders for thousands of years. There is hardness to Afghanistan; mountains, deserts, hard winters, famine, war and death. It is a hardness that overshadows the other things about it, blots them out.
“Your age?” he asked.
“26,” I said.
“Same me. Same,” Ali Shafiq tells me. “But lives are different…because of wars.”
I had fallen asleep. We came to a rest stop and Ali woke me up. “You can see Ry-ver,” He said. “Cold water.” I got out and saw people sitting around on blankets eating watermelon and praying.
Ali and I walked to the river. “My wife, Noshira,” he said, showing me a passport. “She is not in Afghanistan but soon she come here. I get her Afghan citizenship. This is the family passport. Now is good time for Afghan people…jobs and money is here. NGOs are here, American soldier, journalist. Everyone is making money now. Good for Afghanistan.” Ali Shafiq got down on the ground and started to pray. I bent down at the foot of the river and dip my head in. It was mid afternoon and hot.
After he prayed, we went into the little restaurant and ate kebabs.
“What do you think about it? The war.” I asked him. “Be honest.” I winced at my question. I had supported the war in Afghanistan because I thought it would help Afghan people. I wanted him to tell me that I had been right.
“In Afghanistan, no one liked Taliban,” he said, wiping his hands. “They were our enemy. It was Arabs, almost all Arabs and Pakistanis. Almost no Afghanis were part of it…it was kind of an experiment by Arabs. To make perfect country. Perfect Islam country,” he chuckled.”Then…I think they would have kept going but then 9/11. But…they try to do something with America but America is more strong. More strong than Taliban!” he shouted and laughed. “This was some…joke. Fighting America. But…it’s good. Now we can do things, have jobs, go to school. It’s good.”
I asked him where he was when he heard about 9/11.
“Here, in Afghanistan. They show on TV and I call my cousins in Virginia. I say, ‘now what we can do?’ Maybe it’s not us, we don’t know, but now there will be problems here. In this region. My cousin was asleeping, I say, ‘put on TV, look,’ and she did and didn’t understand it. My cousin is in Australia and she call me and say ‘what is this?’ Nobody can know what is happen.”
He excused himself to use the restroom. On the TV a music video was playing a music video by the Backstreet Boys.
Onward. We passed into a dark, dusty tunnel. It was noisy and chaotic inside; the tunnel felt alive with movement. I wondered who burrowed through the rocks.
“Afghans are never thinking about fu–ture,” he stressed this word. “This tunnel was built by Zafir Shah but only for one car. Built in old times. All these trucks, what can we do?” A long line of trucks sat idling, filling the tunnel with exhaust.
“He did these things, but only he was looking for himself. To get woman, to get some money. He is back here, you know….after Taliban he came back as ‘Father of the Nation.'” Ali laughed. “But what is this, ‘father of the nation?’ Just a joke.”
We made out way past the tunnel and onto a wide, smooth road. “Chinese building this road. First German, then Chinese.”
In my head I pictured Germans in Lederhosen and Chinese in silk robes building roads in Afghanistan.
“Why don’t Afghan people build them?”
“We don’t have this. Experience to building roads.”
I wondered to myself what experience Afghans had in firing stinger missiles at airplanes or executing women.
The road was brand new. I looked out the front window and saw the black asphalt tarmac snaking forward toward brown hills.
The road to Kabul was lined with black, T-shaped telephone polls that have no wire. Every hour or so there would be security roadblocks manned by young Afghani police.
“Are the Americans ever here? I mean, is it only Afghans doing this job?” I hadn’t seen any American people in a long time. I was curious to see soldiers. I thought about strutting up to them and giving them a soul-shake. Wondered what they would think and say to me.
“Sometimes the Americans are here,” he said, “in the beginning of war, there were Americans. But now…you only see them sometimes, maybe once a week. They stand in the back and watch. If there is some problem, then they come. One years ago, there was American soldiers and they are checking papers. One man, he sit in the back of the van, he is like…some kind of crazy, you know? And…he say to us, in Farsi, I hate the army and I kill them if they talk to me. So…Americans, they check everyone and come to him and he is talking in Farsi, ‘don’t come to me,’ and they say, ‘get out from car,’ they are yelling. He doesn’t come and they shoot him. We say, ‘hey hey, he is crazy, wait, we talk to him’ but the soldiers didn’t listen. They killed him. Shot him.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s well…you know. That shit happens.”
I didn’t really know what to say.
“It happens like that,” I continued. “The soldiers are just kids, you know? They are scared too. Most of them had families back home, children and wives. No one had expected to go to war.”
He listened closely.
“See, the army for some people is a good deal. For some people there are no jobs, so they can go to army to get a job. Make money to feed their family. But then…there was a war and all those people came here. It’s complicated…”
A black horse ran across a field. I stopped talking to look at it. “No one cares for animals here. Maybe this horse will run into mine. Land mine. There is many in this area…well, not as many from before but still. In the far areas, where animals go, they are there.”
A windstorm hit and soon the grey minivan filled with dust. Around my neck I had a black and white checked scarf.
“Here, you must put this way,” Ali explained, and showed me how to tie an Afghan turban. I followed his hands like a child learning how to wear a tie.
Ali pointed at the hills, “only it is good to go in groups. You see all the cars and trucks are going together?” he pointed at the back and front.
“This is because there is some Taliban here,” he pointed up and around. “In these hills. Two days ago they come and capture taxi. Kill the man and…assault the women,” he said quietly, looking down.
By “assault” I knew he meant the women had been raped.
“They cut the throat,” Ali said.
“Even me, all of us, we are scared of them. They are like animal, yeah? Who lives in hill and sometimes comes and hurts the people.”
I looked up at the hills and wondered if I would be hurt in Afghanistan.
The minivan came to a stop. It was late afternoon and the sun was setting into the mountains. Small tracks of dirt road cut into the hillsides. The sun was reflecting off the iron roofs of all the trucks and buses; tiny sparks of sun-light being dulled by the huge dust clouds rising toward the sky.
Cars and trucks sat idling alongside the narrow mountain road. Some drivers had turned off their engines and were drinking tea on folding chairs outside their trucks. A lone policeman ran around, trying to restore order; people were laughing at him.
“He is not good man,” Ali told me. The worst insult.
“He is making some money for himself,” he said, “I will open roadblock for some baksheesh. This is the Afghan’s problem. Every man wants to be the king.”