In March of 2012, I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 10 years. That last time, ten years ago, America had recently taken control of the country and the new Karzai government was just getting seated. Now, in 2012, the American occupation is supposedly winding down and there is no telling what the near future holds. Here’s my impression of the country today.
From Kite Runner to Blade Runner
Ten years ago when I landed in Kabul, it felt entirely familiar, even though I had not set foot in the place for 38 years and even though, in those years, a third or more of the city had been reduced to rubble by 25 years of war.
The Taliban had just fallen then, and the country was said to be in chaos. Stepping out of the plane, however, I felt the dry heat, smelled the silt in the breeze coming off the mountains, and it was just as if I had never left. Apparently that aroma had been lodged in my subconscious as a sense memory without my even knowing, until the same scent hit my nostrils again.
I stepped out of the terminal and oh my God, even though the wreck of a helicopter was laying sideways over there, just off the runway, I recognized the scenery at once. The mountains were exactly familiar. And soon after that, driving through the city in a taxi cab, I saw the same downtown. I saw the pharmacy my father had founded 50 years earlier, still operating, and still called the Ansary Pharmacy, though my family had nothing to do with it anymore; and because of that pharmacy, the intersection was called Ansary Intersection.
The road that ran pasts the old Russian bakery known as Silo used to mark the western edge of the city; and it still did. My uncle’s house was located just off that road; and it was still there. I recognized the same old battered door I had seen just before I left. It all came back to me.
And in the days that followed, I learned that even though the society had been traumatized by the horrors visited upon it, first by the Soviets, then by the civil wars, and then by the Taliban, the same old Afghanistan went on breathing below the trauma. The honey-slow passage of time, the deep sociability, the absence of any such thing as a deadline—it was all still there.
But that was then.
Now, in 2012, when I landed in Kabul again, I recognized nothing. Nothing! Coming out of the terminal, what hit my nostrils was oil and automobile exhaust fumes, not desert pollen in the breeze coming off the mountains. As for those mountains, who could tell what they looked like? Military barricades, barbed wire, and banks of solar panels blocked them from my sight. The terminal was new even though it looked as clangorously old as the previous terminal. I had a long walk ahead to get to Parking Lot C, where the people who were meeting me had to wait: for security reasons they could come no closer.
Officially, I was in Afghanistan to help with the Bare Roots Project, an initiative managed by Asma Eschan, one of those thousands of Afghans of my generation who left the country as a child and grew up in exile in the United States. (Unofficially, I had other agendas, but that’s another story.) The Project buys bare-root saplings from a nursery just outside Kabul and gives them to villages on the outskirts of town or just beyond. The deal is, if the trees are growing when the Project comes back the following year, the village gets that many more trees again.
In 2002, Kabul had been a city of 350,000 with only two traffic lights. In 2012 it was a city of more than five million—but still seemed to have only two traffic lights. Driving in Kabul was a life-or-death cross between stock car racing and demolition derby.
The rubble of bombed-out buildings was gone. The rubble of new construction had taken its place. Half-finished buildings of concrete and rebar rose from streets of mud. Metal freight containers jerry-rigged into housing jammed every conceivable crack of space between gaudy new mansions that looked like extravagant wedding cakes, bristling with chrome colonnades, glass towers, gilt molding, and tiles of many colors. The mansions were surrounded by stout walls topped with barbed wire.
Kabul has numerous TV channels now, with many locally produced shows. One, for example, re-enacted sensational high-profile kidnappings of recent days. The episode I watched chronicled the abduction (and rescue) of a cabinet minister’s son. In ten short years, Kabul had gone from Kite Runner to Blade Runner. (Credit for this phrase goes to Susan Hoffman.)
In my day, the outskirts of Kabul lay two miles from the heart of Kabul. Now we drove for hours and the city never died away. Everyone we saw had cell phones and were busy conducting urgent business with God knows whom. Once I saw a guy talking on a cell phone put that caller on hold and pull another from his pocket to take a second call.
We took trees to places that looked like the villages of my youth: warrens of compounds made of sun-baked mud bricks scattered over bare hillsides, with occasional streams gushing down from snow-capped peaks. All very familiar to me, except that solar panels and satellite dishes glinted from those cobb rooftops.
Amidst all this, it amazed me to discover that the old Afghanistan, that feudal universe of peasant and pastoral nomads, was still in place. People are still riding donkeys, milking cows, and sowing seeds by hand. But onto this 12th century world has descended the expansionist 21st century world of tomorrow, all the gibber and scream of technology and money.
One midnight, during my visit, I got a text message on my cell phone: I should be ready. At 6 a.m. the next day. Someone was taking our group somewhere. The destination was not specified but it had been whispered to me secretly a few days earlier–secretly lest the wrong people hear that we would be on that road and waylay us. We were going to Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan, where the Taliban had destroyed those gigantic Buddhas eleven years ago.
Valley of the Buddhas
The 120 miles journey took eight hours, and we did not experience one drop of danger along the way. Evidently, the road was insecure only for travelers worth kidnapping. Everybody else was just living their life, and their life was all about cows, fields, and flocks–except that even in a craggy valley with no human habitation in sight, I saw power lines bringing electricity from Uzbekistan to Kabul. Even there, believe it or not, I had excellent cell phone service. I could have called my wife in San Francisco, which I can’t do from Virginia Street, two blocks from my house! We went past a guy on a donkey out there, and I saw a laptop peeking out of his saddlebag.
Bamiyan had the typical small-town Afghan bazaar, two rows of room-sized stalls flanking a street with cobble-stone sidewalks. We saw fresh meat hanging off hooks, whole haunches of lamb. We saw fruits and vegetables piled high in baskets woven by local women It looked just like the small town bazaars I remembered from my childhood, even down to the individual vendors dotting the sidewalk, guys on stools vending knicknacks and personal grooming services to pedestrians passing by. In my day, some of those would have been dalaks, barber-dentists.
But when I approached one of these guys, I saw that he wasn’t cutting hair. He had a briefcase-sized solar panel on a stand set next to his stool. The solar panel was attached to a 12-volt car battery. The battery was powering a laptop on his folding table. The laptop had a wireless connection to the Internet. For a small fee, this fellow was downloading songs from websites in Kabul and Peshawar and loading them into people’s cell phones.
This was not my father’s Afghanistan. Or even mine. We drove on to the guest house and one of the guests we found there wasn’t local. He spoke English. His name was Willie. He was from San Francisco — like me.
“What are you doing here,” I asked. He told me he had come to see the Buddhas, and when I told him the Buddhas were gone, he nodded and said he knew. He just wanted to see the place where the Buddhas used to be.
I knew exactly what he was talking about. I was there for much the same reason, it turned out — to see the place where Afghanistan used to be.