[A photo-audio-essay; with sounds and images of the streets, songs and prayers of the Afghan people. Adapted from Carrier's Harper's- April 2002 magazine article. WARNING: Contains photos of the dead.]
Just in town, I decide to go for a walk. I leave the hotel, cross the street to the mosque, and gaze up at the blue tiled dome. The instant I stop walking four or five young men also stop walking, as if they'd just been pretending to be going somewhere. They stand right in front me. Then quickly there are ten, then thirty, fifty -- all boys and men, crowding close together, a hundred eyes looking at me in disbelief.
"Where are you from?" a teenage boy asks.
"America," I say, wondering if this is wise, because we'd just bombed their city and their country. But it's the word they want to hear, they want to say it. America.... America...America....
"California." I say, wanting to hear it echo. "Mississippi."
Three or four try to speak English. "Hello, how are you?" "Thank you very much." "Okay, good luck, good-bye."
"What do you think about America bombing your country?" I ask the first boy. "Was it a good thing or a bad thing?"
"It was a good thing. When the Taliban here there was no working, nothing working. Now America comes here. Is it correct? America comes here?"
"You mean will American soldiers come here? I don't know, maybe." He translates this for the crowd and they start shouting questions, too many to translate. Sort of frustrated he says, "We want money to make work. We want now the schools."
"I think there might be some money, but I don't know, we might start bombing some other country and forget about Afghanistan."
This makes the yelling get louder. They're not yelling at me, just yelling for the sake of yelling, filling the space with their voices. I look down at a guy in a small cart. One of his legs is missing and the other is very short, like a baby's. He says he needs a new cart, a real wheelchair with bicycle tires like they make in America, and some artificial limbs like they make in America, and he wants to know if I can get him some.
"I don't know how to do that," I say, "but it's possible. I think that's one of the things there will be money for." They just keep pressing in, getting closer and closer, and it's time to get going. So I say, "Okay. Good luck. Good-bye," and wave and quickly back into the hotel.
I climb six more floors to the roof for a view of the whole city. There are a couple of taller buildings in town but they're blocks away from the center, the mosque. An elaborate piece of turquoise jewelry with two domes and two towers, surrounded by trees and walkways, the mosque holds the tomb of Ali -- cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and the fourth Caliph of Islam -- and is said to be Afghanistan's most magnificent mosque. Mazar-i-Sharif, which means "tomb of the saint," is a city of adobe tenements that look ancient, all somewhere in the process of crumbling and collapsing. In the street men pull carts with wooden wheels, others are pulled by horses and donkeys, carrying wood and bricks. There are shops with skinned goats hanging upside down out front, shops where chairs and tables are made, shops with material for clothing and drapes. Subtract the cars and the shop where the guy is making satellite dishes from pieces of scrap metal, and ignored the occasional Russian-made proletarian concrete building, then the city would look 13th century, or even older.
Mazar sits on a long flat barren desert that flanks the northwestern slope of the Himalayas. This is where two very old and very important roads cross -- the road from India to Russia and the road from Iran to China. Sixty miles to the north is the Amu Daryu, once called the Oxus -- a big river with cold, muddy, and fast-moving water. Twenty miles to the south are the foothills of the Himalayas, jagged snow-covered peaks in the distance. The snow that these mountains pull from the clouds becomes the run-off water that makes living in this desert possible, but a three-year drought has brought thousands of refugees to Mazar, people who were displaced not because of fighting but because their land dried up. I saw some of them as I came into the city -- they live in empty lots under pup tents made from blankets and sheets of plastic...or, actually, I just saw the field of little tents. There were no people there. It may have been only the idea of a refugee camp.
Again I go out for a walk, and again I stop, and again four or five men around me immediately also stop, and again a crowd quickly forms. This time I pull out my camera and start taking pictures. They become quiet and still -- not afraid or shy of the camera, but also not quite sure of its power. I hold it at arm's length down low and they stare straight at the lens and I take their pictures. While I'm doing this I hear a voice, a soft, calm voice next to my ear say, "Excuse me, are you a journalist?" I turn and see a young man with a shaved head -- kind of startling -- and say, "Sort of." He's wearing a Planet Hollywood tee-shirt over a brown turtleneck, checked polyester pants two or three sizes too big and cinched by a belt -- kind of a punk look, opposite of the others. And I have this feeling that he might actually be a woman. He has beautiful eyes with long lashes, and that soft voice. I look, twice, to see if he has breasts.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"Just taking pictures," I say. "How old are you?"
"Nineteen. Do you need a translator? I have been studying English in school, but there is no school now -- the Taliban sent our teachers back to Turkey. I would very much like to work for you. I will help you in any way that I can, and I will not leave your side -- as long as you are here I will be with you."
"What's your name?"
"Najibullah. Why did you shave your head?"
"When the Taliban leave two weeks ago many men shave their beard, but I do not have beard, so I shave my hair," he says, smiling.
"Good one," I say, "but I'm sorry, I don't have very much money and I just can't afford to pay a translator every day."
"For me money is not important. If you have money you can pay me. If you don't have money you don't pay me. When you are finished you can decide."
I know that this is a deal that could go sour very quickly, but I do need a translator and, to a certain degree, I believe him. He's trying to learn to look and act like a westerner, and probably the best way for him to do it would be to hang out with me. I wonder if his shaved head might frighten the locals, but then he is a local and it's his business so I let it go.
"Come," he says, "let's go to the hotel and we can talk there." We've attracted a large crowd, some of them spilling into the street, making traffic go around them. "This place is not so good for you."
We walk through the crowd and they go on about their ways, all except for three very dirty little boys who try to stand in front of me and brush my hand begging for money, but all I have are 20-dollar bills. Naji saves me by scolding them away.