Afghanistan. I arrive in the sun, which turns to rain, snow, sun, dust, sun, dust. I’m returning, another job. After the electricity cuts out and the fan blades stop twirling, only helicopters chop the air. Early mornings, I light a candle and fill the copper kettle with water, scoop coffee into the French press. Lately it’s been rainbow weather in Kabul. I can hear only the birds—cooing, pecking, chirping, singing. Happy.
In Kabul’s streets, loaves of fresh bread steam large bakery windows. Endless blast walls are reinforced with sandbags and curls of razor wire. Men wheel carts stacked with pyramids of pomegranates and pink plastic bags bulging with grapes. The grapes are sweet and full of juice. It’s a wonder they aren’t already raisins.
North of Kabul, Russian tanks dam rivers or lie submerged in dust. Tank entrails are repurposed as gutters and speed bumps. Shops housed in shipping containers marked PROPERTY OF UNITED STATES ARMY sell Pepsi and Coke. Sometimes we drive for hours through desert, mountains, desert, to a soundtrack of Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, “Anaconda,” “Booty.” “It’s so beautiful,” I say to the production team. The desert, I mean. Our videographer looks at me. “It’s not beautiful,” he says. “It’s a beautiful day,” I tell family and friends when they reach out, worried after an attack. “I’m sitting on a balcony in rainbow weather.”
The night of the attack on the American University of Afghanistan, I sit in a room with good people, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea from a mug that says “I love Afghanistan.” The generator hums. There is nothing at all to say, but finally I can’t say nothing. “I just wish there was anything I could do.” I blush. It’s the hollowest thing I’ve ever said.
Checking phones, checking in, Facebook. The only thing that will help is to keep working, but I can’t bring myself to open the proposal I’m writing, for an outreach campaign to deter Afghans from migrating.
“How many students are there?” “At this hour, more than 1,000.” Confirming. Reconfirming. “Casualties” reads like cardboard. “No one has reported this yet.” No one has reported this because it’s happening now.
Stress does bad things to people. Months of crisis, then there’s no adrenaline left. I write in my journal: “I’m still alive, by the way.” My fingers freeze when a friend texts: “I lost two of my best friends. They died just in front of my eyes.” And: “Now I really feel how a terrorist are. They are not just killing the body. They want to kill humanity and hope.”
I work in communication, I work in doing, but there’s nothing I can say and there’s nothing I can do.
Sixteen of us crowd around the lunch table and discuss taking care of one another over chicken, rice, and Coke. A helicopter pounds the airspace. Three of us sit on a couch making a list of comedies to watch during a staff movie night. Zootopia, Madagascar, Despicable Me, Mr. Bean. Simple movies to laugh and learn English. Movies with a happy ending.
In Afghanistan, kite string is run through crushed-glass powder before it is coiled. Kite strings bite. My instinct when I’m cut is to grab the string tighter. But I have to let go. I’d rather be up with the kites. Catching the wind with the helicopters, the mountains, the birds—warblers, crows, rosefinches, bluethroats, blackbirds, doves.
Kabul is a city of walls. I haven’t left this compound in more than a week. I’ve become obsessed with boxes, cages, walls, restraint. The guards have caged our two office herons, imported from Pakistan. I watch them peck forlornly.
Kite fighting is a sport. On good flying days, kites crowd the sky, pairing off in duels that end with one string cut. Children chase the drifting, defeated kites across ditches and muddy roads.
The air around us is still, but a mile up, kites dance. Let out the string and it hovers; pull it in and it soars. Flick—flutter—zing—pull and a sky full of kites. Bits of green-tea leaves swirl to the bottom of our glasses. The dog chomps at flies that aren’t there.
My friend tells me the rules, but then everyone seems to be cheating. “These skies have no referees,” I say as we watch a third kite enter a fight between two—an illegal move. A helicopter flies over. “Perhaps we should propose such a thing to ISAF,” the International Security Assistance Force, he says over the pounding blades.
We’re flying one of Noor Agha’s kites—the best in Kabul, my friend tells me. Assembled in a dusty shack, a scorpion stenciled on each tissue-paper-and-flimsy-wood frame. For a while, our kite is queen of the sky. “Noor Agha is unbeatable,” he says. And then we lose. We’re cut, our kite drifting down against the sunset. I begin to reel our slacked string. Children on the street catch the other end. It snags on the barbed wire curled around the house perimeter, then snaps. The children giggle.
The evening air is full of sound and also still. A soccer game, a yell, a heavy door slams. The chickens cluck and shift. Freedom, control: I don’t think they’re four walls and a ceiling at all. Our tea has cooled, filming over with dust from the spring air.
He plays the wooden harmonium with one hand and holds a cigarette with the other, occasionally raising a hand to take a long drag. Tabla, rabab, and flute play alongside him. A handwritten book of lyrics contains the poems of Rumi, Hafez, Khayyam. He turns the pages with every song but barely glances at them. He plays for hours. Sharp tabla beats, smoke trails. Men sit on brightly striped toshaks, laughing in a way that sometimes sounds like sobbing. It’s been a while since they’ve laughed like this. Everyone remembers life under the Taliban, when music was banned and Afghans were jailed for possessing cassette tapes. They host music nights, they say, when their souls become too heavy. Usually every month or two. On music nights, one man says, “everyone drowns.” It is a release. “If this option is not there, what would I be able to find to heal myself?” Without saying, “I am broken,” they drink, sing, scream, smoke, cry. “Music and arts are used as tools to take Sufis to a state where they are detached from the stimuli of the environment and achieve love of the Supreme,” says one attendee. Alcohol, illegal in Afghanistan, flows freely. “Alcohol helps in terms of eliminating all inhibitions and deepening the state of trance that everyone goes into,” says the host. “One of the poems translates, ‘God, I am not committing any sin by drinking because you wrote in my destiny that I will drink in life. If I had refused I would have gone against the destiny you set for me—something that is a great sin.’” I take a sip of spicy Coke and light a cigarette—but just to watch, ash burning down and flaking. Spiked dilated pupils and we’re each in our own world, but we’re in them together. Occasionally, eye contact, a smile, hands raised toward one another in connection. Always, the harmonium’s tone, and sometimes it changes key.
I watch my last Kabul sunset and then follow it west. I fly out of Afghanistan with a heart full of respect and no understanding. Flight attendants in bright pink lipstick and eyes feathered heavily with mascara distribute lemon-scented face towels. My last glimpse of Kabul is blocks of boxy compounds, the Afghan flag billowing on one of the city’s mountains. Five-foot-thick blast walls are irrelevant from up here. Above it all, the mountains; above it all, the dust.
Thirty-five hours later, Manhattan’s avenues stretch long rows of red, now green, now yellow traffic lights. I look up and see only buildings. The vehicles stay neatly within their lanes. I drive to my hometown, where the night pulses with silence and the sky is stars. The day is younger here than Afghanistan. Gained time.
One of my favorite truths of Afghanistan is that, more than other places I’ve lived, I have to live it with my whole heart. There’s no middle ground.
Winter comes and then the days begin to stretch. So does the time between messages with my Afghan friends. I stop crying when they send videos. They say hello; they show me the pet rabbits I left behind.
I move to Virginia and join a yoga studio, where I pay $19 an hour for inner peace. Every day isn’t a struggle, so I make one up: I train for a marathon. Afghanistan becomes for me less of an emotion and more of a concept. A distant one. Sometimes I think of the dolphin statue at the Kabul airport, welcoming travelers to a landlocked country. Driving to the post office, the sun hits construction dust and the yellow haze is Kabul; a whiff of smoke is suddenly the Afghan morning air. Or I hear only birds—cooing, pecking, chirping, singing. It’s a beautiful day and I sit on a balcony in rainbow weather, my heart beating fast for a place I have lived in and loved but am not of. Afghanistan.