Afghanistan Vignettes

Taverna du Liban, or simply Taverna, was synonymous with expat life in Kabul, along with R&R (rest and relaxation) breaks, red-eye flights, and house help. I was introduced to Taverna on my first weekend in Kabul. As we settled in for our dinner, I was forewarned that I should not be ordering much because Kamal – the owner – would be sending us much more food than we could eat. Someone made a comment that Kamal is a generous host and friend, not a restaurateur.

Taverna was a litmus test for the ebbs and flows of Kabul’s expat scene. I knew when a new cohort of expats and diplomats came in when Taverna had people I didn’t recognize. Or I would know that the UN and other agencies were on lock down when there would be barely anyone there for dinner.

Taverna became my resting place. I often went there to get away from my office. Unlike the Flower Street Café or later the Design Café, during the day this place was never anyone’s café-office. Taverna witnessed many of my celebrations, business meetings and quality time with the loved ones. Here I made friendships and met people who would later become dear friends. Here I mourned with others the loss of colleagues and friends. Like a good grandma, Kamal made sure that we had space to do it all.

Kamal and I became friends; we connected over backgammon. Kamal was an excellent player; he often won. The games became an excuse to trade stories. Every so often, in the evenings I came to take food out – I knew that if I sat down to eat it would be free. But if I took it out I could slip by while Kamal was tending to other guests and actually pay. I kept telling Kamal that such a charity is unacceptable. He stopped giving me food out right, but proposed that the best of three would settle whether I was going to pay.

Miraculously I started to win. I challenged him once “No, Kamal, you lost on purpose. There is no way how I could have beaten you yet again.” So he said, “Okay, let’s throw the dice. If you win, you take food, if I win I take the money.” He threw a six, and I threw a six, he threw a two and I threw a two, he threw a five and I threw a five. Kamal started giggling accusing me of sorcery. “One last time”, he announced and threw a five and I threw a six. There he broke into celebratory cheer: “You won, you take the food!” Since, we agreed that I contribute whatever I want and he won’t be checking.

I never imagined that Taverna would be targeted. There are places much more accessible and much more evocative of “sinful Western life”. On January 17, 2014, Kamal’s sanctuary was invaded. I learned about it on January 18 when I opened the news after yet another long-haul flight. I read every article I could find on Kamal’s demise over and over and over again, as if by obsessive reading I might change what has just happen, that I would still be able to wander into Taverna next time in Kabul and laugh over this hoax.

The news refused to sink in. I lost enough people in Afghanistan to recognize this pattern. We all had near misses of being stuck somewhere or running early and miraculously escaping a skirmish. We all talk, write about and report on war, but in a strange way this war happens elsewhere, not in our back yard. War, for us expats, is a carefully calculated risk.

I remember sending my staff to bed when there was yet another long complex attack in another neighborhood dragging into the night. “Go to sleep, it is too far for stray bullets and shrapnel,” I would say, “I need you functional tomorrow.” When I knew that a friend was caught up in an attack, I sat quietly in my kitchen drinking green tea, listening to the attack, knowing that this friend was either already dead or was bundled somewhere in a closet hoping to last through. Yet, even with these close calls, every time war comes to my doorsteps I am unprepared.

I stopped by to say goodbye just before I left Afghanistan for good. Kamal gave me a big bear hug and said that he did not believe that I could be gone for too long. “He said. “Afghanistan is like malaria, you would always be sick with it, and you will be back.” I told him that I hoped so and that I would like to play many more games with him. Before leaving, I asked Kamal if I could take a picture of him. Strangely, in the many years of our friendship I never took a single picture of Kamal. “No,” he said, “My picture is my collateral; you come back, we play, you take a picture.” We shook hands on that.

A year on I still find myself plotting taking a picture of Kamal somewhere sometime. A year on I still refuse to believe the news.

The baker from years ago, still the same.

The baker from years ago, still the same.

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.

Then this guy puts them on wooden trays to rise.

One guy tears dough into balls, then another puts them on wooden trays to rise.

They take care of dough - storing it to rise and then hand it over to others. The trays are full of rising dough.

They take care of dough – storing it to rise and then hand it over to others. The trays are full of rising dough.

Calling for more bread for a customer, while others flatten the dough, make grooves in it, put it into the tandoor and fetch it baked.

Calling for more bread for a customer, while others flatten the dough, make grooves in it, put it into the tandoor and fetch it baked.

The flattening cycle.

The flattening cycle.

There is always a time for a joke, a question, or a smile.

There is always a time for a joke, a question…

There are always moments of rest.

… a short break…

And there are always moments to ponder.

… and there are always moments to smile…

And one does pray, wherever one finds space - on a landing...

… and to pray, wherever one finds space – on a landing…

Or just by the window.

… or just by the window.

Finally sending bread off.

Finally sending bread off.

On the road, waiting for a lift. Early morning outside Mazar-e-Sharif

Waiting for a lift on an early morning outside Mazar-e-Sharif

BOMZh is a homeless person in Russian. Technically, it is someone who moves every three or four months and does not have a propiska (registration) in their passport. The term was born in the Soviet bureaucracy. One would use it in official documents on the line the “permanent address” if they did not have such an address. The term literally means a person without a permanent place of residence.

It used to be a kind of curse my parents would use when I was a child. It was one of the most offensive words. When I would wander out onto the street with my hair un-combed, or when I managed to cover yet another pretty dress in mud, or when my bed was not made, I would hear, “You are just like BOMZh.” And I would get all flustered, because I didn’t want to be that – not that I understood what it meant.

One time, when I was renewing my visa for Afghanistan, my Afghan colleague who was helping me with it came back with a form I had filled in earlier. In it, I used my address in Kabul. He looked somewhat puzzled as he said, “Here you need to write an address where you live.” I was equally puzzled. “I did just that, here is my address in Kabul,” “No,” he said, “where do you really live?” “When I am not in Kabul I am in London, Istanbul or New York,” I replied, growing both impatient and curious. He was even more confused by that statement. “Yes, those are the places you visit, or stay in, but where do you actually live.” I was not going to go back around in circles. “What do you mean, where I actually live? You know where I live. What would you write in?” “In Kyrgyzstan,” he said, “where do you live in Kyrgyzstan?” I laughed out loud. “I don’t live in Kyrgyzstan, I haven’t for over a decade.” We did go around in circles for a bit until I gave up and wrote my last known address in Kyrgyzstan.

It was a comedy of errors, but it shone light on one of the strangest puzzles I knew about Afghanistan. A person who is a born-and-bred Kabulian would always qualify that they are from such and such a province, but that they live in Kabul. I couldn’t quite understand their sentiment. Only later I realized that person’s official place of residence had very little to do with the place where they go to sleep every night, where they have their things, where they call home. In official documents, their home, their residence is in the place where their parents are registered, and where their parents’ parents were registered. In fact, most people in Afghanistan actually have to travel to their “provinces of origin” to get their identity documents. So it is no wonder that my colleague was so bewildered when I said that I “live” in Kabul.

The other day, I brought with me two thin spatulas for a friend’s kitchen in Kabul. I dug them out from my things, which I stored at another friend’s place in London. I figured they would be better off being used ithan gathering dust and mold. “But won’t you need them?” my friend asked me. “I have not used them in the last five years.” That prompted a pause and then a question that I used to dread, “Where is home?” “I don’t have one, I’m afraid.” “Same here.” We looked at each other with an understanding of people who no longer know what is home, yet having stuff stored all over the globe, having bits and pieces of memories here and there, and living on what became a kind of uniform.

In my years of travel, I have perfected the art of minimalism. My entire travel pack is a suitcase and a shoulder bag. My suitcase contains a suit and a pair of dress pants, a pair of jeans, two shirts, two t-shirts, two tank tops, a dress, two shawls, and a pair of pajama bottoms with a set of underwear and socks, three pairs of shoes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a travel towel, nail clippers, deodorant and few tiny pieces of jewelry and cuff-links. In colder seasons, I would add a sweater. My shoulder bag contains notebooks, a computer, a Kindle, a camera, phones, and essential documents. I could live out of that suitcase for months.

Just a few weeks ago, I had to log all of my travels over the previous ten years. I was surprised to realize that in the last six, the longest I managed to stay put was two stints of three months. The rest I spent an average of three to four weeks in a single location. I have stayed in five-star hotels, in the best beds with the softest linen. I have slept on the floor in a mud house with a sleeping bag as bedding and no shower for days. I learned that it helps to have a warm and safe place to sleep in, but once you have that it does not really matter what you sleep on, be it a thinly stitched mattress on the floor or a custom-made king-size mattress on an intricate frame.

I have met the strangest people. I have spoken to all sorts of high-level officials and found that they have passions and desires. I have met women who had never seen a bra in their lives, who had delivered babies without painkillers and medical help, and who could not imagine the freedoms I have living on the road. I walked the fields with farmers whose hands were so thick with callouses that my hands were like flower petals next to theirs. I have spent time with border guards dreaming of distant lands, even though the majority of them had never crossed that thin line separating their country from the next. The more people I met, the more I started to see how similar we all are. We all walk under the same sun and each of us is burdened with our own curses and lifted by our own blessings. In the end, our happiness is not a function of our material possessions.

The more I reflected on my life in the last decade, the more I saw that I don’t have a place where I live, I don’t have a home. I am a person without a permanent place of residence. My home is where I decide is home for now. Realizing that, I smiled. I have nowhere to rush to when I wait for my cars, or planes, or trains, for I have arrived, I am home already. Here is my home. And maybe for others I am BOMZh; I have no place where I live, I have no roots to hold me in place, but in a strange way I am home, every day; it’s just that my home is the whole planet, not just a tiny space others can pinpoint on a map.

For the longest time, I thought that Bamyan – the name of a valley in the Central Afghanistan – was a strange derivative of the world “bam” (roof in Farsi). I felt that the name should come from the word roof. It was so high that walking up to the top of the gorges, through their tangled paths sometimes did feel like I was climbing up onto the roof of the world. It certainly was not Pamir, but 2,500 kilometers (8,000 feet) above sea level is not the pit of the world either. The air is clear and a little bit thin, and the night sky feels so close that you could raise your hand, brush the stars, and hear how they sing in myriad happy bells. It felt like the world was open below, like when you are on an observation desk watching the town. “The roof of the world,” kept ringing in my head when I thought about my days in Bamyan. To my surprise, when I finally looked it up, Bamyan has nothing to do with a roof; it comes from a Sanskrit word that means colorful or bright.

The first time I went to Bamyan, in June 2009, I was ready to be underwhelmed as too many people had praised its beauty. I drove there repeating like a mantra: “You grew up in Kyrgyzstan. We have mountains. Not hills. Mountains. Don’t get overexcited.” It was easy as I focused on not throwing up while sitting in the back of a car. The 120-kilometer (75-mile) drive takes an average of eight hours. The roads are so bad that you cannot drive it any faster, even in a four-wheel-drive, unless you have a very strong stomach and do not care about driving off the cliff on the next turn.

At first, the road ran through a typical brown Afghan vista. In early June, the merciless sun had already burned the grass into white and yellow shimmer. Then the hills started to show some green, yellow, and red here and there. Then the rocky mountains started to peek through the hills. Halfway through, I forgot about my mantra. I was too mesmerized by all the colors; the sheer cliffs were not just black or gray, they were colorful. The mud houses built into the hills were like brown punctuation marks in all that color.

We stopped just outside of Bamyan town as we drove up a small plateau overlooking the mountainside. The air was so clean it hurt my lungs. A river ran along the bottom of the mountain and the valley was filled with patches of green – dark green of some vegetables, light green new wheat, stripes of blue-green potato fields. Not to mention the snow-covered mountains all round the horizon. In the distance were the cliffs with carved caves and the two cavities where the Buddhas used to be.

We drove to our hotel through the center of town. It was full of the reminders of the conflict – the central square has five tanks rusting in the weeds. The road further up the hill towards the airport has a tank and a stripped-to-the-carcass truck, all eaten by rust. All around, the mountains were dotted with white marks – a sign of demining. Most of the places are not safe to walk – you never know when you will wander on a mine. Ironically, this is one of the few places in the whole country where I was able to walk freely without covering my face and without a chaperone. I was warned to make sure keep to the paths –rain still brings up many unexploded ordinances into the fields.

Our hotel, Roof of Bamyan, is located on one of the cliffs opposite the Buddhas, with a green valley with patched of green below. In the evenings, I walked back and forth on the edge of the cliff, taking in the scenery. Every sunset brought a new definition to the scenery. I started to discern individual trees down in the valley. I watched caves arranging themselves into a polka-dot pattern around the Buddhas. I noticed a smaller hole that could have been a cavity for another much smaller Buddha. I enjoyed watching how the evening mist enveloped the village below. I smiled at how the scattered evening lights glowed in the thickening evening.

On the third night, the hotel owner brought green tea to me on the edge of the cliff. We talked about the valley, the quality of its light, the people who rely almost exclusively on their potato harvest to last through the winter, war, and beauty. When the tea ran out, the owner said, “It will be good for you to go to sleep early today. I want to share with you a secret. But that has to be done at 5 a.m.” What was so important that I had to get up so early? He just said, “Let’s have breakfast together.” I was intrigued, and although I could easily have said no, it just didn’t feel right.

The next morning was as cold as all other mornings. I didn’t want to get out of my warm bed and I knew that the guard had not yet lit my wood burning stove in the bathroom, so I had no hot water. Outside was already gray, but not light yet. I cursed under my breath when I was putting on my cold clothing and wrapping myself into my patoo – a thick wool shawl. I wished I had gloves. In June in Kabul I was baking alive, here I needed gloves. I crossed the yard to get into the dining hall. Everything around seemed to be wrapped into a thin mist – not quite a fog, but not a clear morning either. The sky started to break at the horizon just to my right.

The dawn started to claim the morning. Even the cold and desire for a hot cup to wrap my palms around could not contain my curiosity. As I walked over to the edge of the cliff I smelled the wood smoke coming from the village. I knew that the valley was starting to wake up. I imagined families making their breakfasts: there would be hot green tea and fresh bread, and the lucky ones would have honey and double-cream to spread on the bread, and perhaps some walnuts and raisins to have with tea. The morning mist started to lift. The smoke was rising from some of the houses. The mountains and the clouds looked like the outline of a sketch, as the sun was only just starting to peek out from behind one of the mountains.

In what felt like an instant, the whole valley turned bright. The outlines of the fields developed into patches of various luminous greens, the trees gained their individual identities, the sky went from light gray to brilliant blue. The sun kissed the cliff with the Buddhas. These were no longer cavities left by former beauty. Even though the statues were no longer there, I still could almost see them; their presence was palpable. They towered over the valley as the personification of beauty, the fleetingness and fragility of life. I forgot to breathe, and was startled when I heard: “Here is some tea.”

I had forgotten that I had a date with the hotel owner. “Isn’t this magical?” he continued as if this was exactly what he wanted to show me. He also passed me an omelet sandwich made from freshly baked bread. I still could smell the wood coals on it and feel its warmth as I took it. “Not many expats have seen this; you know that, right?” I took a sip of a strong tea and bit into my sandwich. I barely moved and didn’t speak. I simply watched the valley. By now the sun had claimed every corner of it with colors and brightness. I was standing on the roof of the world.

Just before dawn

Just before dawn

Lifting the colors

Lifting the colors

Morning splendor

Morning splendor