Through the fog

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.


An older man I had addressed looked startled. “Would you give me directions?” I repeated. My question halted the man as if a roadblock had been lowered before him. His gaze lingered on my red shoes, traveled up my jeans to the folds of my chapan (a loose coat) topped with an oversized white scarf draped around my neck. My face didn’t match up with the rest of the clothing. He looked at me bewildered.

“I am lost. Would you tell me where this street leads?” I waved along the street we were standing on to illustrate the point. The man was disoriented. I imagined him frantically attempting to locate me on his social map.

My androgynous wardrobe has been a cause of confusion before. Sometimes it was practical to be a male, especially when I used to live in Kabul, to hop on a motorcycle to visit friends, or simply to see Kabul from a different perspective. In those days I still had a pixie cut. I looked like a dandelion that matured into the white flower. People would inevitably stare at me when I took off my helmet. I would hear their muted conversations: “A boy or a girl? … A boy!”

I was not alone. A friend of mine riding a motorbike was once stopped at a checkpoint. The policemen usually check documents and hope to find a reason to ask for “sweets” or to have a conversation to break their boredom. When she stopped and took off her helmet, they saw a foreigner – an unusual sight even in 2008–2010. And then it registered that the foreigner was a woman; moreover it was a woman dressed like a man, behaving like a man. At first they were lost for words. She greeted them in Dari. It took a few long seconds for the policemen to find their footing. Still in disbelief, they stated that women cannot ride bikes.

“Is there a law against it?” she asked them. “No, women are incapable of driving bikes,” they explained. She raised her eyebrows looked at the bike, then at them, then at the bike and then stared at them. They attempted with a few other arguments and gave up in a fit of nervous giggles. One of them said that she had to have a special permission to wear traditional Afghan male clothing. He wanted to see that permission, the others concurred. A few minutes into the argument, really annoyed, my friend simply pulled off the loose embroidered tunic and threw it at the policemen. Like a hot potato, they kept passing the tunic among themselves until one of the policemen threw the tunic onto the bike and demanded my friend to be on her way.

I, too, was often reprimanded at security checkpoints for wearing men’s clothing. This particular chapan is made out of fine camel wool. This simple loose coat is usually draped as a cloak around one’s shoulders with its long sleeves hanging behind. It is worn in the northern Afghanistan and formerly in Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan.

“This chapan is for men!” I would hear. “I like it,” I would reply. “But it is for men!” Would typically be a reply as if I didn’t hear them the first time. “Are you saying I am not a men?” I would ask playing on the dual use of the word. Some, horrified by my question, in a state close to panic, would mutter: “What are you?”

The man staring at me did not ask me that question out loud, but he might have as well have. His face betrayed utter confusion. My beardless face and my voice suggested female. Yet a distinct lack of makeup, my short unpainted nails, my flat shoes, and the men’s coat suggested man. He seemed to not register that he understood me. He looked at me as one does at a someone speaking an alien tongue. I repeated my question. The man appeared to be just as lost as I was.

It was my first few days in Kurgan Tube, a town in the south of Tajikistan just an hour drive north from the Afghan border. On that particular day, I walked around the bazaar for too long, had one to many random conversations, and one too many turns around the tight streets of the town to know where I was. The old man took another evaluating look at me and asked where is it I would like to go to.

“The central square,” I said. “It isn’t on this street,” he uttered, annoyed as if I had interrupted an important inner conference. A phantom roadblock lifted and he walked away shaking his head, as if a conversation with me brought utter dissonance to his world. “Foreigner!” I heard him say as he passed me.

I spotted a bakery on a corner. This wasn’t your normal bakery. This place made only tandoori samosas. “There is so much pumpkin on the bazaar I saw today, you must use some of that,” I started a conversation. “We have beef, lamb, or chicken.” The baker arranged freshly baked samosas on the tray before him without looking at me. “How about pumpkin samosa?” I insisted.

“We do pumpkin samosas only at home. Why don’t you get some lamb?” the baker responded, starting to place new samosas into the tandoor. “I would love to, but I do not eat meat.” “Have some chicken then,” he offered. I smiled, “Thank you, but any luck with pumpkin samosa?” “Come back tomorrow, I will make one just for you.” He smiled at an offer that was half-joking and half-real. “I am lost.” I said, “How do I find you tomorrow?”

Now, the trader was looking at me. The calculus of social placing was taking place in his head, too. “Where are you from?” His eyes sparked with mischief: “The past or the future?”

It was my turn to be startled. The nomad that makes a home everywhere and anywhere suddenly felt a tug of homesickness. The fog of memories thickened around me. For a brief moment I had tears in my eyes. I had an urge to tell him that I was lost, both metaphorically and physically. I wanted to tell him that I long to go home, but that home is nowhere to be found anymore. I wanted to tell him that I am in search of the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. But I did not have words to convey my story. I only smiled weakly at him.

“A very nice chapan,” he said, “You wear it better than we do. We wait to become old enough to not care about being modern.” “Oh, this chapan is from Mazar.” I leaned onto the landing by the tandoor and we spoke of my work, his work, my travel, his home and more. And suddenly it no longer mattered that I was lost.

Ready to eat

Polaris through the fog

I was transfixed. I watched the Big Bear night after night traveling through the sky. One day I traced a line from Dubhe and Merak to Polaris. It always amazed me that the most important star in the Northern Hemisphere is not the brightest of them all. That night Polaris was particularly dim, almost invisible; the sky was translucent in the strength of the full moon. I watched the Northern Star until my eyes started to water, and then as if in attempt to reach Polaris I found myself on the road again.

The road took me from Osh to Istanbul, London, around the coast of Ireland and then unexpectedly looped into a merry-go-round of Central Asia, Istanbul, London, New York and around and back over and over and over again. This merry-go-round had an almost psychedelic pattern of seemingly predictable yet bizarrely random detours to Ibiza, Vermont, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Washington DC, Bilbao, Rome, Budapest, Warsaw and a myriad of tiny villages, forests, and mountains whose names were lost in the fog of my memories.

This laundry list of places might seem not particularly unsual given the years I spent on the road. Yet this time the road was shrouded in the fog of memories. They clouded my mind with years passed; they muffled my senses with a thick cotton wool of grief. It is quite possible that at that point I became insane. Now looking back I only remember pulsing Polaris guiding me all through night and day, and in and out of weeks and over a year. I hoped against all hope that the Northern Star will lead me back to my very own room with carved wood where I will find my supper waiting for me still hot.

The fog of memories was so thick I did not hear boisterous water under the Golden Horn Bridge nor did I see the gold glistering in the water around the Debod Temple. I did not hear the music floating in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields nor did I see the rolling hills of Ireland shrouded in misty rain. I did not feel the snow melting on my skin in the forest of Vermont nor did I see the lights staring with unblinking eyes into the Hudson River. I did not see the sun-beaten hills of Batken nor did I smell the air filled with sage and yarrow in Khujand. I did not see giddy patterns of market stalls in Kurgan Tube nor did I smell the food cooked on fire in huge iron woks in Bukhara. I found some respite in the serene walls of monasteries scattered along the road. I welcomed the hardness of cots the monks sleep and meditate on. I relished the quiet of those spaces, interrupted only by singing bowls that instructed me to wake up, to eat or to work …

With every call of singing bowls the fog of memories started to thin down. With each step I took the cotton wool wore down. I started to see things, at first darkly. I saw clocks that seem to always show thirteen minutes to two, even though I could not hear them tick towards the hour. I saw cups of coffee before me, even though I did not smell their aroma. Then I started to feel things, at first barely. I felt rain on my face even though I still did not hear it tap its happy song. I felt sun leaving its burning kisses on my skin, even though I still did not smell the scents of the park. Then I started to hear things, at first faintly. I started to hear tango songs and felt the touch of my partners as we moved across the floor. I heard a cellist playing on a busy street and the world exploded with senses of fresh morning that filled my lungs to the point of intoxication, with the wind in my ears that whispered me its seductive stories, with the beauty of sheer being that left me breathless and tearful in awe.

And then one day in a definitive gesture to finish our jam, my friend put bandoneon on a chair. I followed the suit and leaned my ukulele on it. I laid on the floor allowing my back to soften into the smoothness of the hard-wood floor. I watched the music dissipating in the room. I extended my arms and uncurled my fingers to stretch them from the hours of play. My friend caught my palms, and traced the lines on them and then started to examine a ring on my left hand. The ring has molded into me with years; the sharp corners rounded up; the matte finish wore off into a shiny rounded band; the engraving in Persian started to smudge.

I grew aware of the warmth of my friend’s fingers. I felt the tingling of my skin under the touch. I took the ring off to allow for the closer inspection. The inner inscription in Hebrew remained as sharp as it once was. Just like the outside, it said this too shall pass. “Is once not enough?” my friend asked. I shrugged my shoulders: “Some of us are very slow on the uptake.” My friend kept twirling the ring over and over studying the engravings and then asked: “So, did it pass?”

Somehow startled by the question I sat up and looked at my friend. A ray of light was playing with stray strands of hair that escaped the captivity of a messy bun. The smooth olive skin was touched by a hint of pink on cheekbones. Another black strand was resting on the right shoulder. The black eyes were as deep as the night sky. This face that I had known for years suddenly looked so new, so majestic, so royal. I saw why persons of stunning beauty are told to have a star shining in the forehead and a young crescent hiding in the braids. And those full lips, how delightfully sweet were those lips.