I arrived to Kabul on a hot spring day in May 2007. The air was dry and dusty; it was so coarse that it cut my nose as I breathed. Kabul on the outside looked brown. The town felt strangely familiar and yet entirely foreign. The road from the airport was full of potholes. The people looked weary and poor. I barely saw any women on the streets. I was able to read only some of the signs. I was told that Kabul was unsafe, ugly, and that under no circumstances should I walk alone. I felt like an invader.
On my first morning in Kabul, I woke up early, way too early for the four-and-a-half-hour jet lag. I put on my long loose tunic, awkwardly wrapped a headscarf around my head, and braved the streets in search of a bakery, alone. For the last four years, I had craved a piece of tandoori naan for breakfast. I vaguely remembered directions from the day before and I was guided mainly by the smell of baking bread. A man in a dark outfit sat in the window of the bakery and I asked him for bread. He sized me up, and then almost reluctantly gave me a piece of long bread with lengthwise creases. This bread looked strange to me; it was nothing like the round plump naan of Osh. I gave the baker a 50 Afghani note. He returned change in four 10-Afghani notes and a five-Afghani coin. I was puzzled by the coin. I rushed back, afraid to be on the street.
I later discovered a green grocer around the corner. It was a tiny shop. One wall was covered with tomatoes, cucumbers, assorted greens and vegetables. The other wall was stocked with the seasonal fruits. To the back of the shop were weights and fresh spices. The guy had a weary look, but was generally helpful. Every so often, on my way back to the house, I did there my shopping. Some Fridays (my day off) I would venture out to the grocer to get some fruits. Yet just like my first day at the bakery, I felt the need to hide behind the high walls of my compound. Somehow being outside felt uncomfortable, as if I were not just breaking my security briefing, but violating some unwritten rule simply by being in the public space.
For my last few weeks in Kabul, I was living back in the same neighborhood. In my six years in Kabul I changed a few neighborhoods, it took me a few days to I realize that I was back to square one. The same man, in what could have been the same dark outfit, was sitting in the bakery window. This time I asked for some paraki naan – thin tortilla-style bread. Now the bread is 10 Afghanis, a price that has remained steady since food prices jumped two-fold in the winter of 2008. As I waited for the bread to bake, I asked the baker about his family and business. I watched as others bought their bread. For some, the baker didn’t take money but instead etched a few lines on a stick. He had a row of sticks. Some were almost full of etches, while others were brand-new. Other times a guy would come and carry away 40 to 60 naans in gigantic plastic bags. Yet other times, another guy would pile bread wrapped up in a cloth on his bicycle. It was a busy shop, something I have not realized before, it takes a lot of clients to sell an average of 30,000 pieces of bread daily.
One day, while I waited, I asked if I could take pictures of the bakery. I ended up coming back several times to take pictures. I learned that it takes about ten people to run this operation. The guys at the bakery poured me overly sweet green tea and made me sesame-covered bread. I discovered that some of the guys had worked at the shop for over 10 years, while others had started only two months ago. They each had a family, worked 18-hour days, and commuted for about an hour to get to the bakery, except for the two who slept at the bakery. They talked giddily with me, at times turning shy and awkward like teenagers, but mainly they were curious and hungry for a conversation. They told me about current affairs and life in general, they told jokes and showered me with questions about myself.
I shopped with the same green grocer. I discovered that he had run that shop for over 20 years. He told me stories of when the Soviet soldiers came to his shop and how he learned Russian. Yet we mainly kept our conversation to discussions of the freshness of produce, seasonal availability of some fruits, and my stubborn insistence to not use plastic bags. He kept saying, “Are you sure you want to use that bag, it will get wet, this spinach is wet.” Or, “These potatoes will leave dirt in your bag, are you really sure you want to wash it after?” I tried to explain to him that I would rather wash my bag several times a week than add more bags to the landfill. He shook his head, and I almost could hear him saying “Ah, these strange foreigners.”
On these occasions, after getting my groceries or waiting for the bread, I didn’t feel the need to flee to the safety of the green garden behind high walls. Now the streets belonged to me. I walked along, saying “hi” to the young boys at the flower shops who kept giggling as I passed by; telling off some of them when they made an inappropriate comment. I nodded to women who rushed by me with kids in tow and heavy bags full of groceries, smiled at a group of young girls in white hijabs coming back from school, or chatted with a shopkeeper with a gentle face as I got my staples.
Once, at my staples shop, just as I was heading to the counter, a tiny seven-year-old girl rushed into the store, opened a fridge door almost into my face, pulled out a carton of pineapple juice, slammed the door and darted to the counter. Her head just reached to the top of the counter, so she lifted herself into tiptoes to place the juice before the shopkeeper. The girl and the shopkeeper exchanged long looks. “Are you going to pay for this?” he asked. “No,” the girl answered. “What do you want me to do then?” “Write it down,” she said defiantly. “Then you should say so, not just put it on the counter.” “Okay,” she said, and in a swift motion grabbed the juice and darted out of the shop. The shopkeeper smiled into his neat beard, pulled out an oversized book from under the counter, flipped through pages, found a particular page and added “pineapple juice, 70 Afs” to the list. He looked at me with a playfully stern look, “Will you pay or do you want me to write it down too?” I smiled. I wondered if six years ago I had been just like that girl, anxious to get my shopping done as fast as possible with as little interaction as possible. “Write it down,” I mocked the girl’s tone with a serious face giving him cash. He smiled with an open happy grin.
I left Kabul on another hot day in July 2013. The air was dry and dusty, but it no longer cut my nose. Kabul remains largely brown, except for mushroomed T-walls and concrete buildings and some struggling greening efforts. The road to the airport was paved and maintained. The people still looked weary and poor. There were many women on the streets. Some in blue burqas, others in black niqabs, and yet others in jeans and longish tunics with tiny scarves. I was able to read most of the signs, including the one just outside of the airport that said, “Welcome to the beautiful city of Kabul.” I both smirked and smiled when I saw that sign. Kabul is dirty, run-down, and beautiful. No, don’t look for the visual beauty in this place. Look elsewhere. The bakers, the greengrocers, the little girls in school uniform, the flower sellers on the street, the dusty antique joints, the crammed bookshop with a door on the second floor opening into a construction pit, and the street markets – these are the beauty of Kabul. If you just slow down and take the time to be, to observe, to chat. Alone. Without an armed escort. Then you will see that Kabul is beautiful. And you belong.