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.

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.


Blogger ScouseJon said...

It's a breath of fresh air to read about Afghanistan at such a personal level. A lot of news has been in British papers recently - needless to say, it gives a pesimistic view. It's sometimes easy - and a trajedy - to forget that people continue to live thier lives there as best as they can. Keep up the good work Jacob, glad to see you are experiencing the culture and building bridges.

11:57 AM

Blogger linnj said...

Thank you for sharing your experience Jacob, I think it is important for us to hear what your Afgani friends have to say. Looking forward to next installment.

11:17 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home