My dream with journalism is to travel to the frontiers and send their stories to breakfast tables thousands of miles away. Join me for my first chapter, in Afghanistan, summer 2006. These are my letters to you.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Stepping off my Yak

After two exceptional months in Afghanistan, the time has finally come for me to board a plane to carry me back to another planet.

Tomorrow a flight will whisk me from Kabul International, climbing steeply as a precaution against the many CIA-supplied Stinger missiles that remain unaccounted for in the country, and take me as far as Dubai, where I plan to have dinner with a friend in the shocking bright lights of this other-worldly Arab metropolis. From Dubai I will fly to London, where I will have two days and perhaps a pint and a pasty. On Aug. 9 I will return to Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

I would like to thank each of you for your encouragement and support. It has been a great pleasure to write these letters over the past two months. They have given me reason to live this experience deeply, and the sense of accountability to observe Afghanistan accurately and compassionately. I know this is a place to which I will return in the future, to tell more of its people's stories, I hope.

Before I sign off altogether, I have a couple last tidbits to add.

Yesterday I met with a member of the extremely secretive Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. Karim showed up to our interview on an old bicycle. He is a poor man, with white hair and crinkles around his eyes when he smiles. In his immaculate shalwaar kameez, he could be anyone taken off the streets of Kabul. But in another life, he is a Maoist and a RAWA organizer. Because RAWA members are rarely authorized to speak with the media - our meeting was arranged through a secure source - Karim began by giving me a message from headquarters.

"It is vital," he told me, "that you write down exactly what I say and not a word more. If you give the wrong information it will have severe consequences for RAWA."

Karim has reason to be cautious. This 30-year-old underground activist organization has seen its founder assassinated by a branch of the KGB, had its protests attacked and recently been followed by government spies. With false names, clandestine meetings and hidden cameras, the organization has all the elements of a John la Carré novel. But its members can only wish their dangerous realities were fiction.

Using secret cameras, RAWA filmed a number of atrocities during the Afghan civil war and the Taliban's five year rule. Many of the people connected to the crimes now hold positions of power in the government. RAWA is seeking to hold them accountable. As an organization, it draws its ideological foundation from the Maoist school, which is considered heretical by many in this Islamic society.

"Afghanistan is an Islamic society, but it also has scholars and intellectuals," Karim told me. "When people are educated, they are interested in these ideas. Idealism is common everywhere, and it's just the same in Afghanistan. Throughout the world it's always been a struggle between idealism and materialism."

Before he turned into the corridor, and disappeared "like water into the ground," Karim took me by the hand and looked me deep in the eyes.

"For the union of the people," he said. "Even in America."

* * *
Today is my last full day in Afghanistan. I will probably go out for a kebab and a fresh almond ice-cream to commemorate it. But before that I have another interview scheduled. This one is with Youssaf Khalil, a principal advisor to Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, the famous warlord of the Afghan civil war, who disappeared without a trace into Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces after the fall of the Taliban. The last time I was in Kabul, in 1995, it was Hikmetyar's shells and planes that shook the city at night. I am told Youssaf Khalil is leading a peaceful life now, and teaches at a university. There are even reports that he has become a gynecologist. Regardless, we may have a small score to settle...
Until the next time I see you all, khoda hafez from Afghanistan.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Driver, Seven Bakers and a Man with a Gun

Khalid is a 22-year-old driver. He is clean shaven and looks young for his age. He studies economics at Kabul University and learned fluent English while he was living in Pakistan, escaping the Afghan wars. Whistling over the rutted Kabul streets in his taxi late one night, we got to talking. I asked him what he wanted for his future. His answer sounded tired for his otherwise youthful banter of girls and parties.

"In this country you can't decide what to do, or do what you decide. You just have to live it and see what happens. It's not like a stable country in the West where you can choose your profession and just do it."

Now he earns a living by driving around a taxi for foreigners, late at night when all the local ones have retired. Development workers and journalists pass his number around at Kabul bars: "This guy's good," they say, eating chips and spilling drinks. "Five bucks, and he'll take you anywhere in the city."

I asked Khalid what he would want if he could have anything, if Afghanistan were a stable country like the West. He didn't hesitate at the question.

"I'd like to be a teacher," he told me.

The truth of Khalid's statements can be seen in the long queues outside the Iranian embassy every morning. The typical third-world 'brain-drain' is something not entirely relevant to Afghanistan. Afghans are some of the proudest nationalists in the world, and although millions fled the country during the 25 years of fighting, millions returned when the Taliban were ousted and the faintest hope of a peaceful future glimmered on the horizon. Now, however, as the security situation remains tenuous, as jobs are scarcer and scarcer to come by and as rents in Kabul have skyrocketed due to an inundation of wealthy NGO workers living here, many are looking to return to their lives as refugees.

"Tehran is the finest city in the world," one old man told me, eyes flaring behind thick glasses. He had spent 14 years there as a furniture maker. "It is clean, it is advanced and you can earn 20 times there what you earn in Kabul!"

* * *

I spent yesterday morning in a bakery down the road from the Open Media Fund office where I work. I had been buying naan from the place for weeks and grew to like the family of bakers who worked there, seven days a week, 15 hours a day. I brought my camera and shot two rolls of slides as the seven brothers went about their work.

One man formed the dough into rough balls, then chucked them up to another who dusted them with flour and threw them to his brother who spread them into a rough circular shape. This man then tossed it to another, who printed a grid design in it with his fingernails. The bread was then passed to a man with his arm bandaged from fingers to shoulder and blackened by smoke. His job was to spread the dough on a firm pillow, then reach into the cavernous clay tandoor oven in front of him and slap it on the sides. After a couple of minutes of cooking, another brother scrapes the loaves off the clay with two long iron rods and tosses them to the front of the shop where they are brushed with milk and piled in steaming stacks.

The make about 2,000 loaves a day. The wheat that goes into the bread comes tumbling down into the country from Turkmenistan, in huge sacks on the back of a Russian truck. After years of war and persistent drought, Afghanistan cannot even provide enough wheat to feed itself.

The night before I was talking to a security guard outside the office, from Badakhshan province. He was telling me about his life as a soldier.

"For five years I fought with Massoud," he told me, tapping the cheap Chinese copy of a Kalashnikov draped across his lap. "Before that, I was 13 and throwing rocks at the Russians."

As we talked, a helicopter beat across the night sky above us. It flew with no lights so as to not be shot down.

Today at the office, the dining table was bursting with conversation about the government's plans to create a new Vice and Virtue Department. During the Taliban times, this Orwellian, special police force zipped around the capital in the backs of Datsun pickups, looking for anyone violating their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.

Women were beaten for wearing high-heeled shoes, or going out of the house without a male family member escort. Men were beaten for beards that weren't fist-length or longer, or for being caught with a music cassette.

The government claims the new department will not use violence as one of its means to spread a knowledge of Islam. I talked with spokesperson Mohammed Sharif Robati about it at the Ministry of the Hajj and Islamic Affairs.

"It's not at all like the old one," he told me, between two vases bursting with fluorescent plastic flowers. "This one will not have a whip or a fist. When we see someone smoking, we will shake them by the hand and tell them they are foolish for wasting their money and hurting their health."

Nevertheless, Afghans are worried that the revival of this institution might bring about a reversion to the draconian hell they endured under the Taliban for five years. One of my colleagues is not about to see that happen. He has an AK47 burried in the floor of his room in case the Taliban try to return.

"This country has a future," he told me once, looking up to the Afghan map above his desk. "I'm telling you it has a future. And if the Taliban try to come back to Kabul, they're going to have to cross a thousand dead bodies to get here - including mine."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Between the Teeth of the Pamirs

Photos by David Elliot

Of a thousand scenes of beauty, the image that will stay with me the longest is this. We were three days' ride into the Pamirs, following a turquoise river as it gurgled over a 15,000 foot steppe. We were riding west, into the last golden rays of daylight when we rounded a corner and the horses caught sight of camp a mile away. They whinnied in unison and took off in a gallop. It was all we could do to hold on as our tall steeds thundered down the valley towards the shepherds' yurts, embraced on all sides by the eternal snows bleeding at sunset.

Exhilarated by the same joy that Marco Polo must have felt tracing the same route 800 years ago, we splashed across the river, dismounted, and were greeted by the warm welcome of several families of Wakhi nomads who kissed our hands and muttered "peace be upon you." We had wanted remote, and we had arrived.

A week and a half earlier the four of us had piled into a rented Land Rover Prado in Kabul, awash with the adrenaline of impending adventure. David Elliot, a wry British businessman and development worker was at the wheel, next to him his 15-year-old son William, and in the back his daughter Anna and I. We pulled out of Kabul, our eagerness flowing fast and powerful.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of our valiant car. The poor thing had probably seen its glory days in the height of the Russian invasion 20 years ago, and had gone downhill from there. It sported an inexplicable sticker on the back windshield that said "Smart One." As we limped our way up to the 11,000 foot Salang Tunnel at walking pace, we were beginning to have severe doubts that we could boast the same.

Whatever the pace, we wound our way through the spectacular craggy mountains, past the rusting skeletons of Soviet tanks, sometimes alone, sometimes in ambushed pairs, sometimes part of an entire graveyard of military metal. They had long been scavenged for useful bits of scrap, and their tracks were used as the inconspicuous speed bumps that sent us bouncing into the air at random intervals when we mustered up enough momentum to warrant them.

We passed through the Salang Tunnel at midday. This tunnel was the Russians' vital artery in their invasion of Afghanistan and it was here that thousands of their soldiers died in fires and ambushes from 1979 to 1989. Later it was a strategic centerpiece for the civil war and was periodically mined and destroyed. It was declared safe and reopened for use in 2002. But travel through it today and you have an eerie sense that there is more than just a 12,000 foot mountain bearing down on you in the stuffy, diesel-thick air.

Beyond the Salang Tunnel, we rolled happily downhill, descending into the lush valleys of Baghlan. We passed orchards of apricots and almonds, vineyards and fields of young wheat. Finally, at the end of the day we pulled into Kunduz, a bustling, sweltering city and our stopping place for the night. The streets jingled with the bells of horse drawn carts as proud-faced men in turbans bargained for bridles and saddles in the bazaars. Between them swished silent women in shining white burqas.

The first hour of driving the next day had us in Taloqan, the next major city and the end of the paved road. A mere 30 minutes later and we were lying in the dust, jacking up the car to change our first flat. With nearly bald tires and a death-trap road that can't have improved much since Marco Polo's predecessors whistled down it in camel caravans, it was a procedure we were to become professionals at. By about the 26th puncture, had you replaced our simple wrench with a pneumatic drill, we could have changed tires for Nascar. And on a 40 degree slope to boot.

We pushed on, through mountains dotted with wild pistachio trees, following rivers the color of melted rock and being careful to stay on the closest resemblance to a road for the Soviet mine fields that lay beyond. Every so often we would pass a mine clearance team crawling on the ground with metal detectors and visors over their faces. Their resting colleagues were dark-skinned and chain smoking in the shade. Red painted rocks declared the presence of the hidden explosives.

We arrived at the provincial capital of Faizabad at dusk, long enough to change money, buy supplies for our trip and regain our senses with a bowl of delicious freshly made almond and cardamom ice-cream.

The next day's journey was through some dodgy parts of the country. The road took us through some very conservative villages and by midday we were in the heart of one of Afghanistan's major opium growing centers. We drove through huge fields of poppies swaying in the breeze, many bursting with magnificent purple and pink flowers. We were in the midst of dreamily taking in the beauty of it all when a group of Afghans appeared in the road, waving frantically for us to stop. We did, and in rapid, unintelligible Dari, they told us something which appeared of great importance, and included the (fortunately bilingual) word "mine." Having seen mine clearance crews all day, we assumed they were telling us there was another team ahead, and were impressed with their severity on the matter. We gave them the thumbs up, and pulled off. They stared at us wide-eyed.

Around the corner we had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a large group of people huddled in the road. We got out to investigate and were quickly shown a circle of rocks in the middle of the road, and a length of electrical wire leading from it to a pile of stones where, attached to a crude board, a string led off to a clump of bushes. "MINE," we were told definitively. We didn't need much more persuasion, nor did we feel much of a need to linger, so we piled back into the Prado, took it off the road, through a ditch, and up again on the other side. We assumed it must have been an improvised explosive device waiting to be detonated under a prime target. The target may well have been the German military, who patrol the area and, in the height of harvest season, have recently started a severely unpopular opium eradication program.

Mines safely behind us, (the ones in the road anyway) we continued our way on through the mountains, crossing powerful snowmelt rivers and rattling over fragile roads above sheer cliff faces. At the end of the day we arrived in Eshkashem, where the headwaters of the ancient Oxus river make a sweeping turn to the north to open the door to the Wakhan Corridor.

The next morning we awoke and stared into the Wakhan. On the opposite side of the river was Tajikistan. A few dozen miles to the east was the Pakistan border. At the end of the valley in front of us was the Chinese frontier. We were some of the handful of travelers to experience this sight in recent years.

But we weren't there yet. And our prospects took a dramatic about face an hour later when we were seated at a table in the leafy compound of the Tajik-Afghan Border Police. We had come to ask the Commander's blessing on our journey. The Commander was in the next village, however, and we found ourselves staring into the steely eyes of his deputy, with an immaculately trimmed beard and a pakool resting confidently on his head. He jabbed a finger into what we thought was an impressively official letter that we had brought from the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, declaring that we were four foreigners who wanted to see the Wakhan and posed no immediate threat to anyone.

"Do you know how far we are from Kabul?" he asked us. "This means nothing to me. You are in our territory now."

He let the words hang in the air. We were sitting between him and a pair of remarkably well-kept Russian rocket-launching trucks. It was not exactly a position to negotiate.

Fortunately we had a contact in town who knew the Commander, and after a quick call on the radio to clear up the confusion, we jumped in the Prado and were on our way once more, through the gateway of the Wakhan Corridor.

We had hoped to make it to the village of Gaz Khan in a day's driving, but treacherous mud and persistent flats had other plans. That afternoon, in the middle of crossing a nearly-boatable lake in the middle of the road, we found that we were stuck in two feet of mud. The car was perched at a precarious angle, and the wheels had no traction whatsoever.

"Shit," was David's one-word assessment.

The construction worker we were giving a lift suddenly started laughing from the back seat. His bright green eyes sparkled. "Kam kam mushkil khub ast!" he said, "Sometimes a little difficulty is good!"
As often happens in a crisis situation in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, about 20 men appeared to help dig us out with shovels. The local car expert, a man who owned the only vehicle in the surrounding villages - a rusted, broken down Russian jeep in worse shape than ours - showed up to lend his services. Using a jack under three feet of water, he raised the car and with the rocks we all carried down from the neighboring fields, built a small road under it. Two and a half hours later, to cheers of "Al hum dulillah," "Thanks be to God," our Prado crawled out of the mud pit. We stayed in the next village when the village elder invited us to be his guests.

We awoke the next morning and looked up to find the stern face of Wali Jan, the chief of Gaz Khan village watching us. He had the chiseled features of a mountain man and wore a Russian winter hat and green sports jacket over his shalwaar. Good God, I thought to myself, still groggy from sleep, here was the man to put your life's savings on in a buzkashi match. Suddenly he burst into a smile, revealing two perfectly symmetrical gold teeth.

Wali Jan had heard about our desire to take horses into the Pamirs and had come to help. We left the car where it stood, in a more pitiable state than ever: covered in mud, with two punctures and a four wheel drive system that we had just realized was a complete hoax. We were not sad to be rid of it for a few days. We caught a lift to the next bridge in a miracle passing car, and then walked into Gaz Khan.

We slept at Wali Jan's house and in the morning woke to the sound of whinnying horses. We saddled up and hit the trail. We rode all day, following the river that cuts Tajikistan and Afghanistan in two. On the Tajik side there were electric and telephone poles. On the Afghan side, it had been two days since we had seen electricity, and we were miles from a telephone. We slept at a camp of nomadic Wakhi shepherds, who move around the mountains in the summer with their flock of 300 sheep and descend to the valley to hold out the fierce winters. We slept in a felt yurt with an open roof that let in the light of a thousand stars.

We were saying thank you and goodbye in the morning when one of the old women told us she wanted to sing a song. We waited to hear it, until she told us it was a song for departures, and ushered us to leave. We mounted our horses and turned them to the dark cloud of snow flurrying in from the Tajik Pamirs looming directly in front of us. And the women of the camp sang. It was a haunting melody which seemed to set the mountains humming in a timeless harmony. With waves of chills from more than just the cold, we rode until we could hear them no more, and then rode on in silence.

We continued riding for five days, staying with shepherds camped at the base of the snows. One day we rode yaks to climb a 15,500 foot snowbound pass that would have been impossible for horses to climb. The yaks were broad-backed and sturdy, moving over the rock and ice like a four-wheel drive vehicle. Every so often they would bellow to each other, spooky sounds like orcs.

On the fifth day we descended from the mountains to the valley and the road. We dropped 5,000 feet in altitude to the village of Kip Kut. That night we soaked in a natural hot spring. Slipping into the steamy, sulphurous water, we felt every inch of our burned and cut skin cry out, but what ecstasy!

I got to talking to Bara Khan, the keeper of the spring. Like many people of the Wakhan, he told me he had never been to Kabul. Looking at the last sun on the mountains around us, it felt as though we were in another country altogether. I was reminded of what Anna had told me about the Masjid Jomeh in Herat, that within its tiled walls it held some of the only square meters in Afghanistan that hadn't been bombed to oblivion in the fighting. The Wakhan resonated with the same stillness. The war had never reached up into its lofty valleys. Not in the Russian invasion, nor in the civil war that followed. The mountains reverberated peace.

Bara Khan told me the farthest he had been to his village was one time that he traveled to the Wakhan's mouth at Eshkashem.

"I have no reason to go beyond Eshkashem," he told me, "After Eshkashem there is simply less and less peace."

I nodded, feeling his words strike chords of truth deep within me. Yet the next day we would start our long return journey to Kabul. Anna had a flight to catch to France, and David and I had work to go back to. I wondered what we would be leaving when we quit the flanks of these mountains at daybreak. We had tasted the lotus of the Wakhan, and perhaps that was as much a blessing as a curse. The last of the sun slipped over the toothy peaks, and we walked back to our tent in darkness.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On the Road of Marco Polo

Kabul is a hectic city even under the best of circumstances, and is pleasant to escape every once in a while. Several friends and I have planned such an escape, to the Wakhan Corridor. The Wakhan is a wild frontier land that connects Afghanistan to western China (see link to map on sidebar). It is the path Marco Polo traced 800 years ago as he followed the Silk Road. For lack of a motorable route we will take horses from the mouth of the corridor and ride as far as we are able. It will be a journey of about two weeks. The seasoned greybeards of Kabul tell me that the Wakhan is a dangerous place. Not because of its security situation, but because when you visit once, you will not be able to stay away for long. I will be in touch when I return, in'shallah. In the meantime, khoda hafez my friends.

Bomb Blasts Rattle Kabul's Calm

The damaged Ministry of Commerce bus in north Kabul. (AFP photo)

The streets are quieter than usual in the Afghan capital of Kabul after it was rocked by four roadside bombs in the past 24 hours. No one has yet taken responsibility for the bombs, which targeted the Ministry of Justice, a bus carrying Afghan Army recruits and another bus carrying workers for the Ministry of Commerce.

Two bombs exploded Tuesday, while another two ripped through separate busses within ten minutes of each other on Wednesday morning. Initial reports indicate that two people were killed in today’s blasts, while dozens were injured.

At the scene of the first explosion in the city center Wednesday morning, a vegetable cart lies in cinders. The yellow wall of the building behind it is pockmarked with shrapnel. Kids have gathered to stare at the damage. Ilias, a shopkeeper nearby who goes by only one name, saw it all happen.

He watched as the explosion hit the bus, which then spun out of control and crashed into a shop selling gas cylinders, causing a fire which burned for an hour.

“The sound was very loud,” he said. “Flames leapt 20 meters into the air. The enemies of Afghanistan are many. This is a place of war and there will be many dead in the future.”

Shir Mohammed was across the street making flatbread in his bakery. He said he saw the bus explode and skid into the shops 20 meters away.

“When the bomb exploded the driver was badly burnt and couldn’t control the bus,” he said. “He crashed into the shops. Around eight or nine people were badly burned.”

Ten minutes later, at 7:40, a second explosion hit a bus in northern Kabul carrying Ministry of Commerce officials to work. Dil Agha, a butcher, was cutting up meat in his shop when it happened. He said he saw one person dead and several injured.

“I was scared, why wouldn’t I be?” he said. “The one who died had a hole in his chest. The others had their hands and faces destroyed.”

Both of the bombs were believed to have been hidden on roadside carts, and their explosions were not very powerful.

Tuesday, a bomb exploded at roughly 12:10 in the afternoon outside the Ministry of Justice, injuring seven, Afghan police said at the scene.

The bomb appeared to have missed its target and was not very powerful, as no one was killed. Still, the windows of the several-story Ministry of Justice building were shattered from the blast and a corner police observation point was ripped to splinters.

Workers were working to clean up the area three hours after the explosion, piling up the shards of glass for removal. On the sidewalk a dark stain of blood spilled into the gutter where it was lost in rubbish. Tight-lipped policemen cordoned off the scene, hitting people with lengths of rubber to disperse the crowd.

The seven injured were rushed to Emergency Hospital in Shahre Nau for treatment.

Today the streets of Kabul are quieter than usual, and convoys of Afghan police can be seen zipping through the traffic. The backs of their pickups are filled with Kalashnikov-wielding policemen. The Afghan Army has positioned soldiers at roundabouts throughout the city.

However, to most residents of this city desensitized by 25 years of continuous war, life goes on as normal. A mere 50 meters from this morning’s first bomb scene, people can be found haggling for spices and selling watermelons.

At each bomb scene, the cleanup was fast and thorough. Yet, the attacks have broken the relative calm that Kabul has enjoyed as the Taliban’s insurgency gains momentum in the south of the country. It is unclear which way the situation will turn from here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In Pursuit of Truth, Kebabs and Illicit Russian Vodka

Atif is a barrel of a man with crystal blue eyes and arms like tree trunks. He is an ex-soldier now working in the one Afghan industry that appears to be booming: security. He manages and trains over a hundred guards that are rented out by different NGOs, embassies and private individuals. Guards are a standard commodity for any foreign program or party in Kabul. Plates, drinks, AK-47s, the checklist goes...

On May 29, Atif heard about the standoff between an angry crowd and a crashed American convoy in North Kabul. He went to the scene. The crowd's anger rose and soon they were picking up stones and throwing them at the American soldiers. The victims of the crash, at least seven Afghan civilians, lay dead in 12 smashed vehicles. The soldiers were sweating under a glaring Afghan sun. Then the tension hit breaking point.

The US military insists that the soldiers of the convoy fired warning shots over the angry crowd's heads. Atif knows otherwise. And he has a five inch gash in his right hip from the bullet of a 50-calibre Humvee machine gun to prove it. He said the troops panicked and fired directly into the crowd. The people standing to his right and left were shot and killed. Atif hobbled to a hospital where he found dozens of the injured. Already spilling blood from a wound he could put three of his fingers in, he donated more to those worse off than him.

After meeting Atif, I hitched a ride home with three venture capitalists. Venturing far, indeed. They cranked the stereo to Kanye West's "Diamonds are Forever" as we raced through the deserted streets of a Kabul night. We turned it down respectfully for each police checkpoint.

The next day I joined my friends Qais and Anna for kebabs down the road. As we sat and ate, under a ceiling made entirely of UNDP food aid bags, Qais told us about the time he spent in Taliban jails. His crime? A passion for Bollywood films. He would rent the films - at least two a night and three on Fridays - from a man disguised as a vagabond, carrying a large rubbish bag full of the illicit entertainment smuggled in from Pakistan. He was caught three times, and each time spent three weeks in jail, living off of bread and water and moving large stones from one room to another and back again.

Today the kebab shop is festooned with posters of the hottest Indian stars and a television in the corner plays the voluptuous videos of the latest soundtracks. However, at any hint of cleavage, a black square appears on the screen to filter out any possibility of imported immorality.

Two days later I was in the back of a car on the Jalalabad road, navigating through the rocket-pocked buildings of eastern Kabul. This part of the city was the most destroyed and is still struggling to rebuild. But our destination was another planet altogether. The driver pulled up at an unmarked, tall iron gate, and a guard ran a mirror under the car to check for bombs. He waved us through with the butt of his rifle, and we rolled into the parking lot of Blue Store, a small Wal-Mart of imported goods for soldiers and ex-pats. Next to the cars was a field of shipping containers piled three-high.

I walked into the store on a mission to pick up some Russian vodka for some Afghan friends. Imported alcohol makes up a large part of Blue's merchandise, and until the government banned it, Afghans once made up its biggest patronage. You can still pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the shadows of the black market bazaars, but it's easier and cheaper to send a foreigner into the Blue's cool, linoleum-tiled bizarreness. I walked past an American soldier grunting his way into a new pair of boots, found the liquor section and picked up some vodka and a bottle of French wine. The radio was playing sappy love songs from the early '90s when I checked out and walked back into Afghanistan.

That night two Afghan friends and I cloistered ourselves away in an office with a radio, three glasses and a book of Hafez. As we listened to Sufi khawali music we talked about Afghanistan.

"For 25 years we've been without a government," one of them told me. "Can you imagine that? That means no education, no police, no healthcare. The only thing that kept us together was being Afghan. Go ask a Tajik here if he wants to join Tajikistan! He'll tell you you're dreaming."

I asked them if there was genuine support for Hamid Karzai amongst the Afghans. One answered me with an old proverb.

"It is better to be a brave man than a wise man in Afghanistan. I like Karzai, but I don't respect him."

"The only thing I like about Karzai is his dress," the other told me. "He wears the chapan robe from the North, and the karakul hat of the South. Take off his dress and he is nothing." The emperor's clothes indeed.

They told me about who they considered to be the true Afghan leaders. People like Daud Khan, who met his death with an AK-47 in his hands, holed up with 17 members of his family in his home, firing into the division of Soviet soldiers trying to arrest him. The entire family was killed.

"For years education in Afghanistan has been simple," one told me. "One Kalashnikov plus two Kalashnikovs equals three Kalashnikovs."

But in the Sufi tradition, after a while our conversation mellowed into themes of love and beauty. I was told about the fahl, or blessing, of Hafez. Legend has it that when you hold a book of Hafez in your hands and think long and hard about a matter of great importance to you in that moment, then open to a random page, the words will read as if they were written for you.

I was solemnly handed the book.

When I found my page, the poem was read aloud, in smooth, rhythmic, classical Persian. It was about courageous love. After it was finished, we let the words hang in the air, sat back in our chairs, took a sip of vodka and stared silently into the night.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Herat: from Sharia to Shakespeare

"These beautiful buildings may be destroyed by rain or by sun,
but I have built a palace of poetry which will never be damaged."
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh

If you stand in one of the towers of Herat's thousand-year-old citadel you have a commanding view over the city that once, in terms of culture and the arts, knew no equal. The mud and straw houses still stretch to the city's limits; small lines of light and shadow etched into the sand. The bazaar below still teems with people buying spices, vegetables and carpets, and occasionally slipping from the blazing summer sun to drink chai under the shade of a pine tree.

The scene can't be much different than if Tamerlane were standing beside you, looking out over his glorious capital, 700 years ago.

The citadel has seen the rise and fall of a thousand years' worth of Central Asian empires. Yet, even a building as old as this still has its firsts. Last Saturday, 250 people gathered within its walls to watch something that until very recently would have been unthinkable - a performance of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost," translated into Dari.

Amidst the jaw-dropping set of the citadel's towering ramparts, a troupe of talented Afghans put on the show, suitably filled with witty Dari couplets, humour and heartache. And for a city still emerging from the Taliban's war on the arts, the result was a production as political as it was cultural.

In the five years the Taliban ruled Herat, they whitewashed paintings, banned music and dancing and outlawed the celebration of the Persian new year, Nawroz. Herat could only stand and watch as its vibrant artistic legacy was veiled and locked away. The citadel's massive walls were used instead to launch mortars on the city.

Beginning with the Soviet invasion and ending with the fall of the Taliban, in the past 25 years, Herat has been rocked by war that has destroyed more of the city than even Genghis Khan and his hordes were capable. As a result, the citadel - itself an old caravan serai once on the Silk Road - has gone largely unexcavated. Modern warfare has added its own artifacts. Today, broken pieces of glazed pottery from the city's glory days catch the midday sun alongside bullet shells of all sizes.

From the citadel tower you can also see the Masjid Jomeh, or Friday Mosque, which holds within its towering azure-tiled walls some of the only squre meters of this country that haven't been bombed to pieces in the past 25 years of fighting. The place resonates with peace. There men of all ages read scriptures from the Koran, while pacing the cool marbled floor underneath lofty arches. It doesn't take more than a breath in this place to be knocked flat by its depth of history.

And yet, as the sun cast the citadel's walls in gold and the actors and actresses belted their lines from a stage of carpets, all was not well in our fair scene. The surprise of a bold performance by women and liberal view as to what is accepted in Islam divided the opinions of the crowd. Upon seeing the actresses remove their veils and the actors dance a scene without shirts, the Minister of Education stood up and left. An NGO worker named Mohammed said that the minister was a close friend of the former Herat governor Ismael Khan, a conservative warlord who still wields great power in the city.

Mohammed is worried about the survival of the arts in Afghanistan.

"It is not enough to have magnificent buildings, or a great previous leader," he said. "We have to do new things. Education is the key, you have to educate people to be ready for these things."

Due to careful advertising in girls' schools and newly-formed women's unions, of the 250 in the audience, approximately 40 percent were women. One, dressed in a sky-blue burqa, told the organizer of the performance that she was overjoyed by the theatre.

"This is the first time a woman has been on stage in Herat," she said in fluent English. "Now more will follow, because it won't be taboo anymore."

If education is needed, Afghans have been robbed of it by ceaseless war and draconian leadership. Now in this precarious peace may be the chance to rebuild the traditions of arts and literature. A major development goal in Afghanistan is to improve the country's appalling literacy rates. As the figures stand now, 80 percent of women and 50 percent of men cannot read or write.

But sitting with the actors in a city park at midnight, drinking chai and smoking a hookah, I realized that statistics don't account for everything. As we sat, the actors told jokes and stories, laughing at life, the hardships they had lived through and the current situation of their country. Then two of them brushed off their hands for a bout of shaer jangi, or 'poetry war.' One would recite a perfectly metered couplet, leaving the other to return one starting with the letter that the previous ended on. It was sheer magic. We shared the cool night air with Hafez, Rumi and Ferdowsi. There was no end to the number of verses in these actor's heads. With an oral history such as this, what does literacy mean, anyway? Many people their age in the West are reading college textbooks, and aren't half as literate. I was left wondering what this country would be like if only an export of poetry could account for a GDP.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Dust of Kabul on my Feet

A French soldier walks past an Afghan woman in burqa on the streets of Kabul. (Marai Shah, AFP)

It is not widely encouraged for a foreigner to walk through Kabul alone. Make it a daytime habit and you risk becoming a target of the insurgency. Go at night, and you take your life in your hands.

As a result, most foreigners zip through the capital in hired cars, with Afghan drivers. Some even consider the local taxis suspect. At night, a car speeding through the city with foreigners in it need only stop for a second at the roundabout checkpoints, where armed policemen nervously keep guard. The driver rolls down his window long enough to say "khareji," the Dari word for 'foreigner,' and then speeds off again. The image of the policemen gripping their guns in the deserted streets is, strangely, one of acute loneliness.

But come sunrise, the roads of Kabul are alive and well, bursting with mango and watermelon carts, gear-grinding buses, UN Land Rovers, and tan, tinted-window Afghan National Army pickups. The air is thick with the smells of diesel, grilling kebabs, and raw sewage. Skinny cats scamper through the alleyways. One lies dead and decomposing in a corner. Hole in the wall bakeries churn out hot, meter-long naan (flatbreads) that are carried away by the dozen. Children, now - after the Taliban - girls as well as boys, march to school in smart uniforms in the mornings. Metal shops bang away, turning scrap metal into wheelbarrows and chairs.

In a way, it is just like any other South Asian city; with a distinctive rhythm of vibrant chaos. But walking in Kabul as a foreigner feels different. There is something unsettling in the air. Your eyes will meet as many blank stares as the Afghan greeting of touching your hand to your heart.

There are whispers of it in the rubbish heap in the corner, where two brothers of about four and five dig through the waste to salvage what is left. One finds a discarded can of Pepsi, and raises it to his lips to drain the last remains. Another finds an unopened pack of gum and tries to sell it to me for a dollar. I took their picture instead. It's more than money that this place needs.

A policeman getting a shave at a street-side barber calls me over to chat. I ask him how his work is, and he says it is good. I ask him about last week's riots in Kabul. After a U.S. military vehicle's brakes failed and it crashed into a traffic jam killing several, a building tension in the residents of Kabul hit boiling point. Over a thousand took to the streets, burning, looting and shooting, shouting "Death to America," and "Death to Karzai." The policeman told me that the violence happened because people are angry that they have no jobs. The situation is improving, but when people are without work it is difficult to see the silver lining.

A young law professor from Herat that I had talked to earlier explained how joblessness added fuel to the Taliban insurgence in the south. Without opportunities for education and employment, many align with the Taliban who promise to protect their opium fields from the government's eradication program.

"The Taliban's religion is poverty," he told me.

Ironically, Kabul is awash with money. The only rub is the color of the fingers that handle it.

Tucked away in a little corner of the Shahr e Nau district of the capital is a thriving gathering place for ex-pats. The French-owned L'Atmosphere has no sign announcing its existence, only a dozen odd SUVs parked out front, and two Kalashnikov-wielding guards at the gate. On a Thursday night, the start of the Islamic weekend, a couple hundred foreigners gather here amongst the candle-lit garden tables to swim in the pool, smoke, and knock back imported booze. Meals go for around US$10 a plate - roughly half a month's earnings for the average Afghan, according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

It is an unlikely mix of people. Aid workers, businessmen, soldiers and journalists mingle and drink to unwind from the stress of living in a war zone. Each one has a story of why they are here. For some it is simply the money. Private sector consultation is a huge industry in Afghanistan at the moment, and there seems to be no shortage of salary benefits. For others, it is a love affair with the country that they find difficult to describe, and an urge to see it emerge into a successful, safe nation. There is the expected mix of cynicism and idealism, often sadly proportional to the time spent here.

Among them, quietly getting drunk on French wine, sits a man of Afghan origin, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) translator and consultant. He tells me that Afghanistan needs the West, but also needs to know that the West is here for the good of the Afghans, and that they are committed to the long term.

"The way to get Afghans on your side is to be true to them," he said. "It's so easy. But Afghanistan has always been left. Used and then left."

I asked him what would happen if the Afghans began to feel that the U.S. intervention was another attempt to use Afghanistan. His answer envisioned catastrophe.

"You can bring all the B52s you want," he said. "It doesn't matter. You will not crush these men and women. No one ever has."

I remembered walking through Chicken Street in downtown Kabul that afternoon, and seeing Soviet army belts for sale in the antique shops. Is it equally possible that the shops of a future Afghanistan could be selling U.S. military paraphernalia?

Eleven years ago on the streets of this city, I remember seeing bullet shells in the dust at my feet. Like any boy would, I started a collection until my bag couldn't hold them all. Now there are none to be found in the dust of Kabul. But look up to the mud and straw walls of the city and you will see that the bullet holes are less easily cleared away.