I'm running out of money but I want to go to Kabul -- just to see it and the mountains in between. I ask Najibullah how much it will cost.
"By private car it will take $200, maybe $400."
"That's like a year's wages. There's got to be a cheaper way or no one would ever go."
"Because journalists can only go by private car, and sometimes they take a guard with the Kalashnikov."
"But that's not necessary now. Is it? Isn't it safe to Kabul now?"
"Yes, it's safe, but we will not get permission to go by local car."
"Then we won't ask for permission, we'll just go."
"But this will be very bad for me." He says this in the most forlorn way, as a sad sigh, as if I am asking him to cut off one of his fingers.
"Then I'll go alone, and that way you won't get in any trouble."
"But I must go with you, I promised you that I would not leave your side, and so I can only go where you go. If you want we can ask to go by local car. Maybe they will say yes."
"But it's late now and the ministry is closed and I'd like to leave tomorrow morning."
"We can ask the man here in the hotel."
"The man in the office."
"I thought he was the manager of the hotel."
"He works for the ministry of foreign affairs."
"But he's always here."
"Yes, because all foreigners are staying here."
"Then why do you always go across the street to the office to ask permission any time we go somewhere?"
"Because there is another man, a bigger man."
The smaller minister of foreign affairs is in the office sitting next to the wood stove. Najibullah tells him our plans and he asks us to sit down.
"We are asking that all journalists travel to Kabul in private cars with armed guards because we can't be certain of your safety. It is a long way, and out of our district."
I think this is bullshit, just a way to squeeze more money out me. But I don't say this. "It's very important for my story," I say, "that I travel in a local car."
"Aren't you afraid?"
"No, I'm not. Everyone I've met here has been very friendly and helpful. I haven't had any trouble with anyone, and this is what I would like to write for my magazine, which is read by millions of Americans. I would like to tell them that Afghanistan is a good place and that they should come here on vacation, but how can I say this if I travel with an armed guard? I need to take a local car and travel with other Afghans."
"But we can't be sure of your safety."
"No, but then who can? My fate is in God's hands, is it not?"
"Yes, certainly. Inshallah." I had him there.
"Inshallah then, so it's okay?"
"Yes, we will try it this once, but please if you would send word back with the driver, saying that you have made it safely so we do not worry."
We leave the hotel just before dawn and take a taxi to the place where the local cars meet. Najibullah tells me to stay in the car while he goes in to buy two tickets. If they see me, he says, they will charge much more for my ticket. He comes back and says, "Okay, let's go, follow me." I get out and all the men who are standing around start yelling at once -- "Horiji!" "Horiji!" -- like they'd never seen a white man.
"Quickly." Najibullah says, "Please, get inside the car."
"What are they saying?" I'm sort of fascinated that my presence can cause such excitement.
"Never mind, just get in the car."
"Tell me what they are saying so I can respond."
He looks at me with a blank stare for a second and then turns and yells at the crowd and they back off and quiet down.
I get in and he tells me that the men were saying that I am a rich man and it's not fair that I buy a regular ticket, and they wanted to take something from me. So he told them that I am a very famous writer and that if they didn't stop bothering me I would tell all Americans that Afghanistan is full of bad men and that nobody should ever come here. It worked. We even have a man with a machine gun standing by the front of the car, on guard, although he's letting a little kid press his face up against my window and stare, only inches away.
The car is a Toyota Corolla sedan. They fill it with three other passengers and the driver, making six -- Najibullah sitting in the middle up front and shifting gears between his legs. We drive east out of the city across the flat desert, skirting the foothills of the Himalayas. I crack my window because it's steaming up. I look for the mountains but it's a gray and foggy morning and I can't see a thing except sand dunes.
After fifty miles the fog has lifted and I can see the base of the mountain wall, impenetrable except for a narrow slit, almost like a vagina. We turn and head straight for it -- a narrow canyon only fifty feet wide at bottom, room enough for only a river and a road between vertical cliffs of volcanic rock. This place has a very old name, for sure, but I don't ask what it is because I want to make up my own. I'm thinking about it when the driver points out the rusted carcass of a Russian helicopter crashed into the cliffs 300 feet above the road. Then he points out the bomb craters in the road -- twelve feet wide and six feet deep -- and the burned out shells of Toyota pickups off to the side. The Taliban came through here when they fled Mazar and the U.S. planes picked a few of them off, maybe ten trucks and thirty bombs. The driver weaves between the craters and complains that this was a good road before the Americans bombed it, and he wants to know if somebody is going to come and fill in these holes.
"Yes, for sure," I say. "We have special machines for doing this, they're called bulldozers, very big and strong, and we have so many that we don't know what to do with them." And I make a note in my notebook, a reminder to call the road department upon my return home.
The narrow canyon opens onto a wide, flat valley. It's circular, thirty to forty miles in diameter, surrounded by mountains, and in the center of the circle is a volcanic plug -- the valley is a caldera. The surrounding mountains are smooth and barren, sun-baked dirt, like the skin of an elephant. They're either heavily over-grazed or they've never, ever, had anything growing on them, it's hard to tell.
"Is it okay if I smoke?" I ask. I'm hungry and because it's Ramadan there's little chance that we'll be stopping to eat.
"Yes, go ahead," the driver says.
"But is smoking against the rules of Ramadan?"
"Yes, everything is against the rules of Ramadan," he says. "It is forbidden even to smell a flower, or to look at a beautiful young girl. We can have no pleasures during the day, but at night anything is possible."
"But it's okay if I break the rules?"
"For you it is not breaking the rules. You are a Christian and have your own book, and so for you it is not forbidden, am I right?"
"You're right. In fact Jesus smoked hashish."
"No, I think this is not true."
"Well, maybe not, but Mohammed smoked hashish, didn't he?"
"No, sir, I am telling you that this is not true. Where did you hear this?"
"From a Russian." I'm making all this up and realize that I'm bordering on rudeness but I want to see how he'll react. I grew up with religious fanatics, among the Mormons, and I can't help myself.
"The Russians do not believe in God. You must not listen to what they tell you," he says, and everybody in the car seems to agree on this.
"Well," I say, "what about the deal with women. I haven't seen one woman since I've been here who hasn't been under a burka. Don't you wish you could look at women, you know, just look at them?" And the driver is stunned by this. A horiji speaking of wanting to see Afghan women is too much of an affront. So Najibullah takes over, trying to smooth things out by telling me that perhaps with the Taliban gone the women will someday take off their burkas, perhaps at the university, but that it's not such a good thing because these women might be beaten by their husbands or fathers.
"That's how it used to be,' I say, "but don't you think it will change?"
"No," he says, "it will not change because it's what we believe. The Taliban believed this, but we also believe it, the Pashtun people."
"So have you ever gone on a date?"
"What's a date?"
"Like when you go somewhere with a girl and maybe hold her hand or kiss her."
"No, I've never done this. I've never even spoken with a girl other than my sisters. If I speak with a girl in this way then our fathers would beat us with a stick."
"What if you actually had sex with a girl?"
"Then we would both be beaten many more times and forced to marry each other."
"What if when you are married, or not you, but someone else is married and his wife has sex with another man?"
"Then she will be killed with the Kalashnikov."
"Who would kill her?"
"Her father or her brother."
"I don't believe that."
"It's true, believe me."
"You would do this? To your own sister?"
"Yes, I would have to, for my family."
"No," I say, putting my hand on his shoulder, "Naji, I know you and you wouldn't kill your own sister. I'm sorry, I wasn't really serious before, but this is a serious thing. You wouldn't really kill your own sister."
"Yes, I would. First it is my father's responsibility. If he doesn't do it, then my biggest brother must do it. If not he, then my next smaller brother, and then my next brother, to me, and I'm telling you serious I would do it." To drive home the point he tells the other men what he's saying and they all nod their heads, Yes, she must be killed.
"With a Kalashnikov?" I ask.
"Or by putting the stones on top of her," the driver adds.
From the plain of the caldera the road rises over a low pass and then into a broad canyon, more like a long valley, with pastures and irrigated fields, small villages and the town of Pol-e-Khomri, where there's a cement factory and an army base built by the Soviets. Beyond the town is the Hindu Kush -- snow-covered sawteeth over 15,000 feet high, a natural fortress made from the crashing of India into Asia. Somehow the highway goes up and over these mountains, from the Oxus to the Indus, but it looks impossible.
As it turns out, the ascent is gradual, with switchbacks and avalanche sheds built by the Soviets and marked every mile or so by one of their tanks, parked and abandoned circa 1989, left to rust as monuments. At eight thousand feet there's snow and ice on the road and our driver gets out and ties on some chains with rope. At nine thousand feet it's snowing. And then the road ends. We're at the Salang Tunnel.
At road's end, men and boys -- porters -- stand in the snow with bare ankles and plastic slippers. All the cargo on this, one of the oldest and most important roads in the world, has to be carried by hand and on the back through the tunnel. They want to carry my pack and I tell them no. They get upset and grab at it -- acting like it's a union deal and I don't have a choice in the matter -- but I push their arms away and tell them to back off.
"Come quickly," Najibullah says, "and you must walk exactly where I step. There are still land mines here." But it seems that he's exaggerating the risk and maybe freaking out a bit from the alpine conditions.
The north entrance of the tunnel is clear, but inside is a jumble of re-bar and slabs of concrete and sections of ventilation ducts, and we have to turn on our head lamps and move carefully so as to not get jabbed or tripped. And then it gets worse, so that we're climbing over and ducking under fallen supports, big slabs of concrete hanging down from the ceiling. There are many other people in here -- women with little kids crying, porters with huge boxes on their backs, workers or slaves salvaging scraps of metal and huddling around small fires to stay warm -- and the air is so full of dust and smoke that every flashlight makes a distinct cone that fades into darkness. It's creepy, apocalyptic, and bad for your lungs. It takes an hour to get through, moving as fast as we can go without running.
The south portal has been blown apart so that we have to climb over a tall and icy mound of debris, then we're out. It's still snowing, although there's no wind on this side. Just beyond the portal are more taxis and trucks, along with another crowd of men. I walk up and they all start yelling, making noise like a swarm of angry bees. They try to surround me, they try to block me, but I keep walking. I'm not worried -- I'm much larger than they are, and they're wearing those plastic slippers -- but I am amazed by the barrage of shouting, they're so excitable. Najibullah finds a car going to Kabul and tells me to get in.
"What were they saying?" I ask.
"When you came out of the tunnel they were saying that you were a foreigner and that you were alone and that they should take your money and kill you."
"But they didn't have any guns."
"Yes, they have guns. And knives, like this," he said, pulling out a four-inch stiletto. "They hide them."
"Naji," I say, "put that away. No one's going to mess with us."
"Okay, but please stay in the car."
Again there are six of us in a Toyota Corolla and the driver speeds down the mountain, hurrying to get to Kabul before dark. Three times we cross the river in the bottom of the canyon and at each crossing there's a concrete bridge that was blown up by Masoud's troops. In place of the larger concrete bridges they've made smaller bridges down close to the water by piling up big mounds of dirt, sometimes using Russian tanks for buttresses, and spanning the distance with metal planks that look like dismembered pieces of tank frames. Nothing larger than a small truck can pass over these bridges, and none faster than a breathless crawl.
We arrive at the edge of Kabul at dusk. It feels like being in a crater where the bomb exploded a long time ago but the dust has still not settled. The road into the city is lined by shipping containers, side to side, continuous, filled with scraps of metal and fire wood and dark dusty stuff like car wheels and motorcycle frames and doors. In front of the containers men stand around and work, pounding metal or cutting wood or fixing horse carts or cutting up empty cans. Our driver is swimming through traffic -- honking, stopping, going. I ask Najibullah a question just as the guy on the other side of the back seat says something to him. I say, "Hey, do these people live in those containers?" but Naji chooses to translate for the other guy. "This man thinks you have a very beautiful face and he would like to give his love to you." No one laughs. No one thinks this is funny except for me, and I let the comment fade with the light.
We stay with Najibullah's uncle and his family. They live in a blighted proletarian housing complex, the exterior walls pocked by bullet holes, the stairways feted with decaying waste, electrical wires rupturing out of circuit boxes like burnt snakes. No running water. But in Kabul this is a good place, a middle-class place. I wait in the stairway while Najibullah goes in to say hello and make sure his aunt is in another room before I come in. His uncle is a very gracious man, 35 years old, who tells me, in English, that he's honored to have an American guest in his home. He takes us into the guest room and we sit down on mattresses resting on Afghan carpets.
"Would you like some tea and bread?" he asks, carefully separating each word and rolling the r in bread.
"Yes, thank you."
"In Afghanistan we give our guests everything. While you are in my house whatever you need you have." He's beaming at me like I am a rare jewel, and three of his little children are climbing over each other holding themselves back from petting me like a new puppy.
I've been told that Afghans consider themselves to be the ultimate hosts, that once you are in their home they will die trying to protect you from your enemies. This may be true, but at the same time they won't let you meet or even look at their women.
"What was it like when the U.S. was bombing the city?" I ask. "Did bombs fall close to here?"
"Yes, every night, some only five or six blocks from here. Big bombs, very big bombs. I could not sleep, my children were very afraid."
"Did the bombs kill civilians or did they hit military targets/"
"They hit the military targets, but some civilians were died."
"I think 100 or 150."
"And is that a lot or not that many?"
"I think it is not that many. We are very happy that the Taliban are finished. I am engineer, but I have no work for four years. I work only some days as chauffeur. I want very much to work for my family."
"What do you think America should do to help?"
"America should give peacekeeping force here to take guns. There are many, many guns, and there are many fighting for Afghan people. If America or United Nations peacekeeping force do not come here then it will be very bad, worse than before the Taliban. But they will come, it is true?"
"I don't know," I say. "Maybe not." I don't want to lie to him.
The next morning another uncle of Najibullah's drives us around the city in his taxi cab. We go by the lamp post where the Taliban hung the body of President Najibullah. We drive by the soccer stadium where the Taliban conducted public executions. Then we go to the zoo, which has been bombarded by mortar shells. There are a lot of empty cages with big holes in the walls, but there are still some animals alive -- monkeys, hawks and eagles and vultures, and a lion that looks senile or dazed and is missing an eye. Near some of the cages is a shipping container riddled with bullet holes and blown up from the inside out -- it's square metal doors shredded and its walls were puffed out, sort of spherical. It's empty, sitting by itself, like a piece of sculpture.
Beyond the container is the Kabul river, which after three years of drought is not much more than a series of festering pools. Still, there are people using the water -- bathing in it, drinking it, and filling buckets to wash taxi cabs. We exit the zoo into an entire neighborhood that has been demolished by bombardments -- acres and acres of adobe ruins.
"What happened here?" I asked Naji.
"It was the Hazara people who were living here and Masoud's army shelled them from that hill."
"Because they are Hazara people and Masoud's people are Tajik."
"This was before the Taliban took over?"
"Yes, when the Taliban came they stopped this fighting."
"What a fucking mess," I say. "I'm sorry."
"How long would it take in America to rebuild this place?" Naji asks.
"Oh, shit, in America it might take three years."
"And then it would be as good as Tashkent?"
"Well," I say, "anyplace in America is a lot better than Tashkent. But it's not going to happen like that, I don't think. Maybe America will give Afghanistan some money for rebuilding, but the work will probably have to be done by the Afghan people."
"And how long will that take?"
"I don't know, maybe fifty years."
"But I will be an old man by then."
"Yeah, you would be. My advice to you is to try to find a way to get out of here."
"Where will I go?"
"Anywhere. The world is a big place and there are a lot of things to see. A lot of opportunities."
"But I think this is not possible for me."
I don't know what to tell him. If his family had any money they would have left years ago, along with the rest of the middle class. The only people left in Afghanistan are poor and have no modern skills. It will take a long time, maybe forever, to make this place look even as good as Tashkent, and then it will still suck.
Naji just looks at the ground and kicks a brick and says, "Shit."
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