Afghanistan in 2002
In the summer of 2002, I set foot in Afghanistan for the first time in thirty-eight years. I flew in from Delhi on the once-a-week Ariana flight just after the airlink opened The plane looked like it might have been the same one I took coming out of Afghanistan in ’64. As we took off, I studied the names carved into the seat ahead of me, half-expecting to see my own. Two hours later, we descended into Kabul, a straight drop into a ring of mountains. As those craggy shapes rose around me, I realized I recognized them the way I recognize the inside of my own eyelids when I close my eyes. A lump rose in my throat.
Then we landed amid glittering sunshine on a barren airstrip. In the distance, the twisted skeletons of tanks littered the tarmac. Stepping out of the aircraft, I learned something else about memory: smell can be stored there—for I remembered this aroma, : this thin, dry summer heat and silty dust in the nostrils. Suddenly, everything felt normal.
During that two-week visit, I went everywhere within reach. I saw the Kabul Museum, where the displays consisted mostly of rubble boxed up neatly, the remains of sculptures smashed by the Taliban.
I visited the Kabul Zoo which is mostly empty now, except for a monkey, many rabbits, and a cage full of vultures.
I went to the grave of Ahmad Shah Massoud, known to people in Kabul simply as “The Boss.”
I went to our family village. No real road runs to Deh Yahya even now, just vague tire tracks grooved into the face of a stony desert. “The road is wherever someone has gone before,” my driver said.
Some distance beyond the village stands the mausoleum of my ancestor, the Sufi poet Sa’duddin Ansary, known by his pen name Shor-i-Eshq (Turmoil of Love). He died two hundred years ago but his devotees were there, singing his lyrics around his remarkably fresh-looking grave.
I went to Paghman, where a bunch of farmers shook mulberries out of the trees and brought them over to us in heaping basketfuls. We sat nibbling and listening to their tales of war and of life under the Taliban. “When those Arabs and Punjabis ran away from Kabul, they came through here,” one old farmer told me. “I captured 80 of them myself.”
I expected Afghanistan to feel damaged and dangerous, and it was damaged. Throughout the countryside, you see ghost villages and fields charred black. In Kabul, you can drive through the ruined neighborhoods for hours on end without seeing one single intact building or the same ruin twice. The carnage is so physically engraved in the landscape that you feel you can almost hear the last echoes of artillery fading away. These neighborhoods were destroyed only ten years ago, yet already they feel ancient. They reminded me so much of Lashkari-Bazaar, the 10th century city on the Helmand River, where I lived when I was a boy—but that city was sacked 900 years ago. In the ruins of modern Kabul, wherever you find a few walls still standing and any remnant of a roof above a floor, you are sure to find a family of poor folks, dug in. Their goats will usually be grazing on the weeds growing through the rubble.
Near Kabul University, I found the remains of my own house, the one in which I grew up. It was just heaps of shredded brick now, mostly, but I recognized the mantelpiece of black alabaster we used to have. Jagged pieces of black stone still stuck out from a fragment of wall, and the rest of it lay in shards just below, mingled with spent artillery shells as big as babies’ feet.
Yet the city felt no more dangerous to me than San Francisco. The only thing that scared me was the traffic. The streets were choked with cars, and the only rule seemed to be: no rules. In two weeks, I saw four accidents, two involving fatalities.
Yet amidst the chaos and alongside the ruins, and around them, and throughout the city of Kabul, and around Kabul in suburbs like Paghman, and in towns like Charikar, and across the Shomali plain, and deep into the Panjsher valley, four hours north of Kabul, I encountered vibrant, vivid, energetic folks, busy building things, cooking up business schemes, singing songs, painting pictures, worshipping God, cracking jokes, spouting poetry, talking politics, buying, selling, partying, working. In a country that had seen such horrors, a country still bearing the scars of its holocaust in children missing various limbs and chadri-clad war widows begging in hordes, how could such optimism perfume the air?
I think it was because, at that moment in history, Afghans believed the war was finally over. When 23 years of nightmare lifts, there is bound to be some elation. I hear that some of that optimism has faded away now: because the reconstruction has gone slowly, because the foreign aid has not materialized much, because American resources have drained away to Iraq; no one talks of a “Marshall Plan for Afghanistan” anymore.
But the hope was burning brightly in that summer of 2002.