By Kristin Ohlson
New York Times Magazine,
July 20, 2008
Last summer, I was at the end of a really lousy month in Kabul. It was my third visit in three years. One of the freelance-writing assignments that took me to Afghanistan this time had fallen through. The person I knew best there had unexpectedly left the country, cancelling all our plans for trips outside the city. And though a vacationing couple had offered me use of their very nice home, with an attention-lavishing houseman, staying in an otherwise empty house was much less pleasant than I imagined.
Still, I’d made some new friends during my stay: in a place like Kabul, people of like mind and temperament form instant bonds. These friends included some remarkable Americans who grew up in Kabul during the 1960s and ’70s and had returned, after the Taliban left, to what felt like their homeland. This merry little band took me to places experienced by few foreigners. To a lake where thousands of Kabulis escaped the city’s heat and dust on weekends. To an Afghan restaurant where we danced with celebrating local college students.
While other foreigners remained cloistered in their compounds — some wistfully so, restricted by the rigid precautions of their employers — my new friends didn’t find Afghanistan intrinsically scary. They were dismayed by the increased wreckage, poverty and violence, but not afraid of the people. One night, when it seemed that every man in the city was on the dusty streets to shop the brightly lighted stalls, we had a flat tire. The tire blew out next to a stand selling watermelons, the hacked-open fruit red and glistening in the headlights. Crowds of curious men stopped to stare. I was certain we’d meet our death that night. My friends were just as certain that it was no big deal.
Later there were two terrible bombings, including one of a bus filled with young police recruits that killed at least 24 people. Some of the dead were civilians, but many were brave young men willing to defend the public order for the princely sum of about $70 per month. It was after that bombing that I decided to cut my visit short and made plans to go home.
On my last day in Kabul, my hosts’ houseman and his cousin drove me around town so that I could take care of some final details. I asked them to alert me when we approached the site of the bus bombing. I wanted to cover my eyes; I was afraid the trees in that area might bear strange fruit, body parts or pieces of clothing from the murdered policemen. I had offered to buy my houseman and his cousin a farewell lunch, but when we arrived at a kebab shop, I was in a grim mood.
As we entered the crowded restaurant, I tightened my head scarf and braced myself for the inevitable stare. The faces in the room were the kind that always accompany dismal news reports about Afghanistan — men with turbans, men with prayer caps, men with the biscuit-shaped hat known as a pakool famously worn by the anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. I was accustomed to all those faces turning my way whenever I appeared in places where women rarely ventured — especially places like this, in a neighbourhood far from the restaurants and coffee shops and guest houses that catered to foreigners.
But as we settled ourselves at a table, only a few men glanced over. From grizzled graybeards to gleeful schoolboys, everyone had an eye on the one other woman in the room. She filled up a TV screen against the wall. She wore lots of makeup and no head scarf. Her clothes were modest by the standards of my Cleveland neighbourhood but not by Kabul’s.
This woman on TV was crying. Her lover’s car had plunged to the bottom of a river, where he was shown dreamily reliving scenes from his past. Then she was laughing and dancing on a mountaintop and kissing him, because he was miraculously restored. Or something like that. The show wasn’t in English, the only language I understand. I wasn’t sure if it was a Bollywood movie or one of the Indian soap operas that are so popular in Afghanistan — and that are now under attack by conservatives who say they’re anti-Islamic. Actually, I didn’t pay that much attention at first. I was trying to be polite to my two companions, one of whom was telling me some story or other in the magnificently gestured language he’d developed for foreigners who didn’t speak Dari.
But after I ate my fill, while my companions continued to tear into the remaining mounds of rice, I began watching the woman on the television. I looked around to see all the men in the room watching her too — watching her and her sodden, silly, resuscitated beau. Watching, smiling, shaking their heads. We were all caught up together in this trifling story about romance and family squabbles, the drama of ordinary lives that rocks households but doesn’t blow buildings or buses apart.
Kristin Ohlson is the author of a memoir, “Stalking the Divine,” and author, with Deborah Rodriguez, of “Kabul Beauty School.”