2 On The Road To Sherbigan

Yesterday Najibullah told me that "The Titanic" was such a hit in Mazar that now if you want to say that someone is "with the latest style" you say that he is titanic. I'd say Najibullah is titanic. He gets there. I loaned him my sunglasses and hat and he thinks he looks like a U.S. Special Forces soldier, or actually he says that other people think he looks like this, that they can't tell he's an Afghan, and this makes him very happy. He's driving the car -- the old chauffeur is relaxing in the passenger seat, willing to let the 19-year old go ninety miles an hour across the desert -- pounding the steering wheel to the beat of some Afghan disco music.


Mazur scenes, photos by Scott Carrier
drives too fast, and he slows down and speeds up too quickly. When passing big trucks on the left, the old chauffeur helps him out by saying whether it's clear -- the steering wheel is on the right side, as the car is from Pakistan. And always, when passing, he blows his horn for the entire distance. Everybody does. He swerves around the small potholes but crashes into the big ones. This happens again and again, even though I keep telling him to slow down.

As we leave Mazar, the road is bisected by 35-foot-high walls, three of them, spaced a few miles apart. At each three or four young men with Kalashnikovs and walkie talkies come up and look in the car. Naji speaks to them in English, trying out that Special Forces thing, and when they hear the words "journalist" and "American" they back off and wave us through.

The land here is farm land, but it looks like it's been lying fallow for years. The fields are bordered by trees, and every few miles there's a small village, the houses made from adobe, all cubes topped by a dome. They look Biblical and it feels strange to whip by them at 60 miles an hour. Soon we come to the 3,000-year-old town of Balkh, sometimes called "the Mother of All Cities," anciently called Bactria, perhaps the home of the double-humped Bactrian camel. Zoroaster is aid to have preached and died here. And then for a while it was Buddhist. The region was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 B.C. It was taken by the Arabs in the 8th century A.D. They built one of the largest libraries in the world here, but it, and the entire city, was destroyed by Gengis Kahn in 1220. The mystic poet Rumi was born near and his family fled to escape the mongol hoard.


People in Balkh
Balkh still has walls and fortresses, some nearly completely eroded back into the ground, others in good condition, with tanks parked on top. Beyond Balkh the farms and fortresses stop and the desert takes over; wiped smooth by wind and sand, barren in a way that makes the basin and range seem lush. In the distance are small caravans of camels and herds of goats, and running along next to the road is a natural gas pipeline: rust colored, thirty inches wide, resting on small dirt mounds spaced 100 yards apart.

"Is that a real pipeline?" I ask Naji.

"Yes, it's real. It's the only one in Afghanistan, built by the Russians. The gas comes from the ground near Sherbigan and goes to Mazar, 160 kilometers."

"And it actually works?"

"Yes, for electricity in Mazar. We have one five-megawatt station. My father, he helped in building this, as geology engineer."

Up ahead a teenage boy with a Kalashnikov waves us over. It's not a checkpoint, he just wants a ride, and we have to stop because he has a gun. It's a common form of transportation for the soldiers. But when he comes up to the car the old chauffeur starts yelling at him, "What are you doing? You shouldn't be out here stopping cars on the highway. This man is an American and you should be careful not to upset him or the bombs will find you in your house!" The kid falls back like he's been punched hard. He looks truly frightened.

"He really believed that," I say.

"Yes, they all believe it," Naji says. "And it's true."

"Yeah, but I can't make it happen."

"But he does not know this."

The old man looks at me and smiles.

Scenes near Balkh

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