At Kabul airport, a man I mistook for a foreigner.
A security guard, red-haired with blue eyes and pale skin, patting me down. I couldn’t help but look him directly in the face. And he returned the compliment before joking with his colleagues in Dari. He looked just like a guy who sells fashion-wear on Lamb’s Conduit. When – I wondered – when in the archeologies of all the civilisations that have passed through these mountains and deserts was he deposited here? I thought he was Irish.
Waiting at the gate with sun whiting out the hazy mountainous horizon and a beautiful greenhouse of a morning. Two helicopters fly across the silhouetted, flattened scene. Always in twos. Humming like insects – of course – across the sky. Then two more. And another pair…and another. Five pairs in all. They pass from left to right in the two-dimensional morning, from east to west was it? I am not sure. Perhaps north to south.
And then they return, arcing back in a line like a scorpion’s tail, descending one after the other to land like a stairway or a ski-lift. Afterwards three aircraft, flashing in like birds, swooping to land almost together, without a second thought.
We wind up above Kabul in a corkscrew.
In Herat we land hard and fast after a steep turn and a roll from side to side, wing to wing. A drone under concave shelter. Like a toy, in pale grey, or grey white. As we pass out it departs, trailing electronically through the sky.
The hum of activity.
A long, straight road, lined with tall pines. For some reason surprised that the Russians (or the British) didn’t raze them.
The office like a summerhouse, rose bushes and red carpets, and warm, sky-blue air. An elaborate (but probably cheap) golden mirror above a sink on the first-floor central landing, a touch of grand decay.
The security situation – like everywhere – is deteriorating in the province. For civilians and aid workers, for police and security. Threats abound. The Taliban and others are rich with poppy harvests, busy gaining influence from a government seen as corrupt and ineffective.
A Herati woman asks if I have been to Bamiyan, in the centre of Afghanistan. It is beautiful, she tells me, they have idols there. Did they have lots of idols in Thailand? What is it like? It’s different, I say.
But: we can walk on the wonderful streets here, if somewhat furtively. We look in burqa shops, although the chador, with the Iranian influence, is more common here. And we take a moment at the Great Mosque, the Masjid Jama, bright blue and sand-coloured, polished clean and shiny, shimmering in the sun across these Persian, Mongol, Afghan plains.
I watch the sun set over the town from the roof of the hotel, punctured and punctuated by the minarets – the fallen and the standing.
____ takes me to the informal settlement near the minarets where people displaced by fighting or disaster have settled. The settlement elder takes us to see two families who arrived a few months ago – one affected by disaster, another by conflict, although in truth the varieties of cause often run together. They come from neighbouring provinces.
What to say? I ask some questions. The people I talk to are stoic and open. Their abodes are mud-walled and small, generally shared. Streams of dirty water run through the paths between. There are worse places, I think pathetically, optimistically. Where do you start?
From washing and cooking for rich Herati families her hands are chapped, chafed, roughed-up and raw. The ceiling is repaired with paper. A baby and two small children lie inside, in the shade, stiff as mice. Opposite the shelter the rubbish festers behind the latrines and flies gather.
Nobody comes. The government, the mayor, they do not collect the rubbish here.
The people I talk to give the same message. Their expectations are of the government, their desires are for rights and services and opportunities.
On the way out I take in the minarets together, the remains of Gawar Shad’s Musallah complex, raved about by Byron as ‘the most beautiful example of colour in architecture ever devised by man’, destroyed by the British in the nineteenth century to improve the sight lines over any possible invading Russian army. ‘There used to be 14…’ my companion says. ‘Yes I think we, the British, destroyed…’, ‘The Russians and the war…’, ‘Yes but I think, I mean, before that, the British…’, ‘The Russians, the war’, and so on. So I decided to stay quiet, feeling I’d got away with it, and at the expense of someone else.
In the market of cast-off clothes from around the world, our driver had found 450 Hong Kong dollars – about sixty American, if he can find someone to take them off him.
As we return the side-road leading to the office is blocked by a red saloon. The gate to the corner compound is open. Orchestrating is a slim, well-groomed man in a silver suit, a Kalashnikov tossed over his shoulder and a manner that suggests he does not use it for vulgar moments. Guns are common, but this one seems to suggest a power broader than a bullet. A smartly dressed man with a gun is more disturbing than the many who are not.
Nevertheless, our driver holds his ground and forces them to reverse their car. I would have been happy to drive around the block.
In the early evening we climb to Takhti Safar in Herat’s northern hills, popular for watching the city’s golden sunsets – Russian tanks litter the route, an eerie fairground rises from the trees and a swimming pool echoes in the park halfway up. Stalls sell nuts and seeds and soft drinks and men smoke shishas. We take a stunning view across the plains and as the light floods the city in the sun’s descent, those minarets stand high, seeming to mark an eternity, an immortality, marking this in their own destruction, and their own decay.
At night into the gated compound, the party at ____’s with everyone there, and food for a thousand in the sugar-icing décor of pink and pale blue, and hilarity as they urge more food upon us.
Ah the sadness! I mean the pathos of this warmth and hospitality against the backdrop of its crushing defeat time and time again, but of course never actually defeated even as: it slips into cliché.
At the airport, with three hours of delay and nothing much happening, ____ tells me his story, of his work with a European provincial reconstruction team (controversial military-led development troupes), the two-day kidnapping of his father (a public official – ‘you speak Persian so you are not Muslim’, they had said) and his plans – rather, his hopes – to leave Afghanistan
‘This is Afghanistan!’ he says, on the lateness of the flights (both his and ours). ‘This is Afghanistan!’ he says, on the dangers they faced. ‘This is Afghanistan!’ he says, on the difficulties of getting somewhere.
He showed me his documents and certificates, hoping an application in Pakistan to the United Nations refugee agency could start the process of escape.
He seemed wild and desperate in a way. His father, talking nearby with another man, seemed soft and assured.
After the young woman refused to return to the ladies’ waiting room a second time, the policeman ensured me and another man moved from the main throughway between the seats, where we and others had been milling for an hour at least, with plenty of room through which to move. ‘This is Afghanistan!’ I think, lazily. But no policeman likes his authority ignored.
As we leave the plane in Kabul a tall man who had been sitting near us says – grimacing and smiling – ‘we are lucky we arrived alive – the plane is too old.’ When the war ends it will be nice to make it a drive.