A Personal History of Afghanistan in Seven Acts

Photo by Helmand PRT, Lashkar Gah via Flickr.

First Tango in Kabul

Sunday nights are for tango at the Canadians’. Embassy staffers come wearing wing-tip shoes—improbably clean, despite the mud-sodden streets of Kabul. Humanitarian aid workers, the toughest of tribes, are here too. An air of fatigue clings to them. One evening, an American woman who used to tango in New York shows up, and we note that her embrace is far tighter than anything we are accustomed to. An Afghan who runs a logistics company is a regular. So is a German doctor who runs a children’s hospital. Female officers with the EU police mission come bearing delicate-sounding names like Elise and Marianna. When the dance class adjourns, these women put on their flak jackets to walk the twelve paces from the compound gate to their armored SUVs. Someone tells me it’s an insurance policy mandate. Members of the Australian close protection team (bodyguards for diplomats), whom I’ve heard referred to as “eye candy,” are also present. They are never short of willing women.

My favorite tango partner is a ruddy-faced Spanish colonel who speaks approximately twenty words of English. Between that and my que pasa Spanish, we have animated conversations about either tango technique or the state of the insurgency. Here is how we met: On one of our first milongas, my boyfriend and I were dancing. We were doing our best, but in the colonel’s eyes, we appeared to be two lumpy ballerinas, lolloping around the dance floor. Suddenly I saw the rimpled colonel marching toward us. He broke us apart before announcing: “Dees iz nat tango! I don’t know what dees iz, but eet eeez nat tango!”

A few milongas ago, I found myself dancing with the colonel again. We were doing OK, I thought, but just as I let my mind wander, he abruptly seized me by my elbows, gave me a sharp shake, and declared, “You don’t lead! I lead!” I had unwittingly tried to break the gender norms of this highly hetero-normative dance, the highest transgression in tango. It occurs to me that tango may be an appropriate pastime in a country where beating your wife is not (yet) a crime.

Reading Philip Larkin in Jalalabad

This past spring, I found myself in Jalalabad, a balmy frontier town that marks the beginning of Taliban territory. Or, at least, that’s the state of the insurgency today, but the situation could worsen as the international troops withdraw. The drumbeat of this war sounds more and more, every day, like a swan song for Western ambitions in this country. When an opportunity arose for me to dip down to Jalalabad, I couldn’t refuse. This could be my last chance to see the wind-swept city—affectionately called forever spring by those who live there—for myself.

On our way back to Kabul, we found ourselves in the middle of a protest against the local governor. Thousands of angry men were congregating in the main square. The rumbling mass blocked the mouth of the main highway that would have taken us back to the relative safety of the capital. They were calling for the resignation of the governor, whom they accused of being a corrupt, land-grabbing, public-fund-misappropriating, good-for-nothing (their words, not mine). The protest continued through the morning and well into the afternoon, when it culminated in the burning of an effigy. Watching the faint plume of smoke rising, it occurred to me that we might be here for a while.

And so, trapped in the dense fug of the car, underneath a heat-encasing chador, with an effigy burning ahead, I whiled away the hours reading poems about secularism, poems about sex, poems about Larkin’s languid masturbatory afternoons.

The air in the car was close and damp. The sweet smell of shir pera—a kind of Afghan nougat made with sweetened milk, cardamom, and pistachios—was mixing with the body odors of my male travel companions, to create a pleasant-unpleasant olfactory sensation. Larkin was my refuge.

I was rereading An Arundel Tomb for the third time—“helpless in the hollow of / An unarmorial age, a trough / Of smoke in slow suspended skeins”—when finally we were able to convince a protester, a kid, to smuggle us out. His status as the nephew of a local powerbroker guaranteed us safe passage through the checkpoints. To avoid awkward questions about the foreign woman in the backseat, I pretended to be sick and asleep for this part of the journey. We were back in Kabul by nightfall.

List of Firsts in Afghanistan

Downloading ebooks

Adopting a stray tabby cat

Going on live TV

Learning Dari, a common language of the capital, using a curriculum developed by missionaries in the 70s

Censorship in the Islamic Republic

Because of the linguistic entropy that occurs when you live in a non-English speaking environment, my boyfriend and I have begun communicating in Google search terms. Ex. “Cat carpet lick why?” (Trans.: “Why is our cat obsessively licking that raggedy felt carpet?”) Or: “Fix heater how?” (Trans.: “Our water heater seems to be malfunctioning. Could Google tell us how to fix it?”)

When I finally did Google “cat carpet lick why” and clicked on a link that promised to explain “why pussies lick carpets,” the Afghan authorities promptly informed me that I was “trying to access a website the content of which is in violation of and in contradiction with the laws and regulations of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan set by the Ministry of Information and Culture.”

Speaking in Tongues

For the first few weeks in Kabul, whenever I went grocery shopping, I would buy everything in denominations of fives because I had not yet learned the words for “four” or “six” in Dari.

Since then, I have learned that the literal translation of the phrase Häagen Dazs in Dari is “toilet” or “dustbin,” solving the interminable mystery of why its golden cartouched cartons can often be found bruised and neglected in Afghan supermarkets around town.

It also makes sense that there is one word, sat, to describe all things time-related—clock, watch, or time itself—in a country where the Western concept of time, with its strictly delineated boundaries, is considered foreign. Knowing this, I feel less slighted when, at my next government official meeting, I am made to wait two cups of tea’s length of time. At my next Dari lesson, I learn that there are some few hundred words to describe the varying cuts of meat.

Over a garden dinner of sautéed courgettes, bitter greens, and a carton of Pinvert Blanc, we discuss the lyricism of the Persian language. A friend offers the literal translation of the word for neighbourhood, amsaya, “the one with whom you share the shade.” We pause to signal appreciation for the loveliness of this new fact. We fish the cheese out of the salad bowl to feed the bunnies that live in the garden. The night grows still, and the wine gets better with each glass.

Learning any language is a giving up of dignity. You leave the world of nuance and irony and enter a world of simplified structure, declarative sentences, a flattening of intention. It is an infantilizing experience.

But it also brings me immediate emotional relief. There is unadulterated pleasure in being able to communicate your thoughts and feelings, no matter how ridiculous the syntax, and that is enough to keep me coming back for more lessons. It is a salve for the occasional harshness of living in Afghanistan.

The Yogi’s Tale 

As they do in Park Slope or Le Marais, here in Kabul, we, too, worship at the altar of yoga. On Tuesday afternoons, we head to the fortified compound of an international organization. The armed guards at the gate let us pass when we hold up our yoga mats, like wartime emissaries waving olive branches to indicate peaceful intent. We are ushered into an anteroom where we surrender our passports, and get assigned numbered tags. Our names are recorded in a ledger kept by the head security officer. After the customary walk through the metal detector, we push through a set of weighted doors that have been designed with truck bombs in mind. Only then do we descend a set of stairs, which leads us to the underground bunker where we will try, for the next ninety minutes, to focus on our breathing, our posture, and to relax.

The only way to describe the bunker is to call to mind a miniature replica of the opening scene from that celebrated dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. (I won’t expound my point too much, except to quote from the first page, which describes that gymnasium, with its faint smell “like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat” and that “expectation, of something without shape or name . . . something that was always about to happen.”) An informal survey reveals that many of us hold our poses while fantasizing about the rest of the city being under siege.

A friend, only half in jest, mentions that she thinks doing daily yoga will give her an advantage if (or did she say when?) she is kidnapped and tortured into assuming otherwise painful positions.

Twilight Burning

Before moving to Kabul, I whittled down my belongings so they would fit into two pieces of checked luggage and a carry-on. The self-imposed message was that my new life would not be one to accommodate the weight of printed books. The house we moved into had a stack of books in every corner, courtesy of all the tenants past. We quickly burned through the Twilight series (I mean this literally: We used it to light our wood stoves in the winter. I may have been tempted to read it, but the copy was in French.); I was left with a neat little collection of text on Islamic jurisprudence and a cataract of airport paperbacks. Sometime in late January, I cracked. I did what I vowed never to do: I began downloading ebooks. Back home, I had been a purist, insisting on buying my haul from poky bookstores and launching volleys of ad hominem attacks on those who opted for Amazon purchases.

I felt dirty watching the download bar turn blue, but once I began, I found I didn’t know how to stop. First came Alice Munro. The verisimilitude between Munro’s Southern Ontario and the Kabul expatriate community was striking. Both were a whorl of gossip. Both involved dinners parties made from canned provisions.  Both were rife with what Munro called the “great shock of pleasure” that life affords you sometimes. And both were populated by the “wrecked survivors of the female life,” girls who grew up to be dissatisfied women, who found ways of negotiating with the rough terrain of an inherently male landscape. The small humiliations, the minutiae of everyday existence, the intensity of the social gaze—farm towns of rural Canada have much in common with this war zone capital.

Next came Junot Díaz’s short stories, then Zadie Smith’s novel, then George Saunder’s latest. I rationed out these texts as if they were wartime succor. Not only does downloading take a long time, spending $10 to $15 per book seemed slightly insane in a country where that amounted to an average worker’s weekly pay.

Once I tried explaining the concept of ebooks—that they cost more than three watermelons and cannot be lent to someone—to an Afghan friend and was swiftly ridiculed for my vanity. He never said as much, of course. But he did give me a look that Afghans often give me: a look that seemed to say, “Youuu eeeeediot.”

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