Breakfast in the basement of our Mazar i Sharif guesthouse felt like a celebratory reunion. I hugged Robyn and Matt, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year, and Nicole, who I’d never met in person but felt like I’d known for a long time. We sat down to a table spread with fresh bread, honey, cheese and jam. There were seven of us, although Robyn would be going her own way in a couple of days.
“How do you all know each other?” Eric asked. Eric, a traveler from Bermuda, was saving me from being the only person over 40 in the group. This was his first trip with Inertia.
“I met Robyn and Matt on a Yemen trip in 2019,” I explained, “and then we had an aborted trip in 2020 when Covid lockdown stranded us on the way to Central African Republic.”
“And we’ve just talked a lot,” Nicole added. I became a fan of Nicole’s blog after my first Inertia trip and had reached out to her often for travel advice.
Omid said, “This is my third time meeting Matt. The first time was on an Inertia trip to North Korea, and the second time we were in China at the same time and had mutual friends.”
Brett from New York was the final member of our group and also new to Inertia; you could see he was beginning to get the picture. Inertia was more like a club than a travel company, and once you were in, you were in.
The conversation turned to serious matters. Matt and Robyn had been in Kabul when a girl’s school had been bombed a couple days ago, and they had written an article for Vice.
“It’s not the story we were there to do,” Matt said.
“You were interviewing some Afghan rappers, right?” I asked.
Matt nodded and held up his phone. We watched a brief video of a young rapper talking to Matt. In the middle of one of his responses, a blast could be heard in the background. The man paused, looked off camera, then grimaced. We saw the whole story in his understated reaction; the instant recognition that the noise was a bomb, and not fireworks or a car backfiring; and the sad but stoic resignation, the acknowledgement that this is the way things are in Afghanistan. I glanced briefly at Omid to see how he was taking it. Omid had had some serious safety concerns about the trip, and although we hadn’t met yet we had talked on the phone twice before leaving the States.
“Is it how I told you it would be?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean did you have the jitters during the trip out here, and then the feeling that it was no big deal and there was nothing to worry about when you finally got here?”
Omid laughed. “Actually, I didn’t have either of those things. No pre-flight jitters so no feeling of relief either. I guess you have to have one to have the other.”
Noor, our local guide and fixer, went through a few rules with us. He told us to always stay together and stay with him. That it was OK to talk to curious people who approached us, but we shouldn’t answer questions like where we were staying or where we planned to go next. He delivered the bad news, which I had already heard from Matt; there were no flights to Bamiyan, the next part of our trip. Flying was generally considered the safe way to get around Afghanistan.
“There are two ways to drive to Bamiyan,” Matt said, “and one is called the road of death.”
“We will not take the road of death,” Noor joked, “we’ll choose the road of life. And we’ll have a scout car driving ahead of us.”
Omid drew Noor aside to give him the money he had raised through his GoFundMe campaign in the U.S. Noor was pursuing a lifelong dream to start a boarding school for Afghan street kids, children who were sent out to beg or sell in the streets to support their poor families. Noor was grateful.
“This means so much,” he said, holding his hand over his heart. “I will take you all to see the school this week while we’re here in Mazar.”
Noor told us to get ready to go out and I lingered in front of a mirror just long enough to adjust my headscarf and make sure all my blond hair was completely hidden. We loaded into a van with Noor and a man who was our driver and security guard. I hadn’t noticed on the way from the airport but now I saw that he carried a gun holster under his jacket. His name was Sakhi and he had a gentle and kind face. Later I learned that after his brother was killed by the Taliban he had become a sniper and claimed credit for over 100 Taliban kills.
We drove to the outskirts of Mazar, toward the mountains. We came to a stone arch over the road and parked the van.
“This is Charkint,” Noor said. “We can walk up the road for a bit, and if you like, we can hike to get a good view of a local hillside village.”
As we walked, Noor told the story of this place. “In 1998, during the Taliban invasion of Mazar, many locals fled and hid here in the mountains. I was 12 at the time and I came here with my family.”
“Was this after your house was burned?” Omid asked. He and I had both seen the same Youtube video from Yes Theory, in which a traveler asked Noor to tell the story of his traumatic childhood.
“No, that was later, after we came back to Mazar,” Noor answered. “People hid here in the mountains for some weeks but there was a cholera outbreak, and many got sick and died. The Taliban fought for control of Charkint and eventually we made a deal. We would come back to Mazar and they would let us live but would have control of the city. After our house burned we lived in tents in our uncle’s yard.”
“Did you have anyone giving donations to help you, or any NGOs?” Omid asked.
Noor shook his head. “There was nothing,” he said. “But we had a cow, and that was more than most people had. At least we had milk every day.”
We detoured from the rough dirt road and climbed the hillside above, across a ravine from where we could see a small village of primitive mudbrick dwellings. Herds of goats roamed and children played in the dirt courtyards between the houses. A donkey brayed repeatedly, watching us from the hillside below.
“That’s the security donkey,” Matt joked.
“Can you tell us anything about the village?” Omid asked Noor. Omid was the most inquisitive of our group. I knew from our pre-trip conversations that he done a lot of research and had talked with every member of the group before we traveled. He had also made more effort to connect with locals since we arrived. Brought up in Germany but of Iranian descent, he looked for opportunities to use his Dari.
“The village has been here many hundreds of years,” Noor said. “There are probably 500 people living there.” We were surprised. “Don’t forget,” Noor said, “most Afghan marriages produce ten children.”
We went back down and piled in the van to go back to our guest house for lunch. No restaurants were open, it being the last day of Ramadan. In the afternoon, after too much bread, rice and salad, we visited the Blue Mosque. We took our shoes off and gave them to a shoekeeper, and I understood why we hadn’t wanted to visit earlier, during the hot afternoon hours. We walked barefoot around the tiled courtyard, and Noor explained that the Blue Mosque was built in the 14th century, and the king had brought the most talented tile designers from around the region. It included a shrine, also known as the Shrine of Ali, and an actual mosque on the other side of a fence. As foreigners we weren’t allowed to go inside, except for Omid, because he was Muslim.
“What was it like?” I asked him when he came out.
“Very peaceful,” he said. “I was surprised to see that men and women are not segregated inside.”
Dinner that evening was a feast of mutton and chicken pies, lamb chunks, biryani rice, salad and bread. I asked Matt what the plan for tomorrow was. I’d had only the bare bones of our itinerary prior to the trip; it was never posted on the Inertia website, for security reasons.
“Tomorrow is Eid al Fitr, the celebration of the end of Ramadan, and the traditional way to celebrate is to visit families,” Matt said. “I think Noor is taking us to meet his family, and maybe some others. You should be prepared to get fed everywhere we go.”
It was true about the food. We went first to Noor’s cousin’s house, a palatial home behind an iron gate. The cousin worked much of the year in the UK as a taxi driver and the wages he sent home allowed his extended family to live a luxurious life by Afghan standards. We climbed stairs to a large room that looked like a ballroom laid with oriental carpets and pillows. The walls were decorated with paintings and shelves full of ornaments. A long, rectangular tablecloth on the floor was spread with stemmed silver dishes of pistachios, pumpkin seeds, candy and other unidentifiable food. We drank fruit soda and the cousin told Eric about his life as a taxi driver.
“There are so many of us Afghans there,” he said. “Sometimes my customers say, you look just like my last driver!”
After a stop at one of Noor’s friend’s homes, we went to Noor’s own. We met his wife Massuma, 5-year-old son Daniel, and infant daughter. I couldn’t eat anymore. We drank tea and talked about how Noor and his wife met.
“I was teaching English at the school and she was my student,” Noor said with a grin.
“I have so many questions…where should I start?” Omid said. Everyone laughed. Noor continued the story, explaining that although most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged, he did not want to go directly to Massuma’s parents; he wanted to make sure she liked him first. He wanted a love marriage. He called her several times and she rebuffed him at first. On his third or fourth call he told her he had feelings for her, and he figured he would have his answer from whether she picked up the phone or not next time. She did, so he went to her mother and asked permission to marry her.
Noor took us to his school, where we met Sharon and Elias. Elias was an Afghan who had grown up in a similar school, one for orphans, so he knew something about setting up a boarding school. Sharon was a foreigner, an Australian, and I was immediately fascinated with her. She looked about my age. She wore a flowered abaya and pink headscarf and seemed perfectly comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor in the heat as I fidgeted and sweated and tried not to complain. Noor asked Sharon to tell us her story. She explained that she had always roamed the world, working as a volunteer and existing on little to no money. She’d most recently been in France taking a language course at the Sorbonne, and she booked a trip with Noor and fell in love with Afghanistan. She began to help him translate and edit his memoirs about living through the Taliban conflict, and eventually she decided to come and volunteer at the school. She lived in one of the rooms and her primary function was fundraising, although she was helping with everything from construction oversight to recruiting the children.
“It’s a little weird,” she said. “In the western world we teach children never to get into cars with strangers, and here we are asking kids to get into the car with us.” She explained that many were the children of single mothers whose husbands had been killed in war or had abandoned them. So far, the challenge was not going to be recruiting the children but narrowing down which ones would be offered this opportunity.
“Will it only be boys?” I asked her, thinking about the girl’s school bombing in Kabul.
“No, we hope to recruit girls also,” Sharon said. “But there are much fewer of them on the street. I’ve learned it’s mainly because they’re worth money.” She explained that girls are often sold into marriage, or into the sex trade. There was even a market for children’s body parts.
Sharon toured us around the building, showing us the upstairs rooms that would be dormitories for the children and the basement rooms that would be classrooms. Then we began to help make bolani, fried dumplings filled with green onions and potatoes. We made an assembly line from the kitchen, where Robyn and Matt helped Sharon and Elias make and roll the dough, to a hallway, where Noor spread plastic on the floor and showed Nicole and Brett how to fill and seal the dumplings. Then they went back to the kitchen to be fried. We ate them with green tea, and we asked Sharon how she felt about taking the risks that come with being a foreigner helping to build a school in Afghanistan.
“You just can’t think about it,” she said. “Once you decide to do something like this, you have to accept that it isn’t safe and you can’t dwell on it. We’ll have armed guards here once we’re open. But things can still happen.”
We had dinner out that night and talked about what we had seen that day — glimpses into family homes and everyday lives. There was a sense of normalcy about it that made thoughts of dangerous roads and Taliban checkpoints seem almost like fiction. But it was not fiction, and at breakfast the next morning we talked about the trip to Bamiyan for tomorrow. “We will leave at 6:00 am,” Noor said. He looked pointedly at Omid. “You are OK with this plan?” he asked. We all knew Omid was concerned. “The Taliban typically set up their checkpoints at night, to stop the truckers, so it is unlikely that we will see any. Worst case scenario,” Noor continued, “is that we have to come back. Our scout car will be 15 or 20 minutes ahead of us, and if they hit a Taliban checkpoint they will call and tell us.”
I asked Noor if it would be OK for me to wear my veil from Yemen instead of buying a chadri. He nodded. “I think that will be OK.”
Brett, his long, unruly hair not yet tied back, spread his arms wide and proclaimed, “I am your Christian savior, come to purge the heathens from this land!”
We roared with laughter. Robyn said, “Brett, you should do stand-up!” Brett had been quiet at first but now his quirky personality was emerging.
We set out for the two-hour drive to the Buddhist caves in Samangam, where there were cliff faces in two tiers, holes of various sizes, people walking in and out. Noor explained that the caves dated back to the 4th century. We drove up a hill to the upper tier. Omid stayed on top to talk to locals while we roamed, eventually descending into a narrow, circular slot. Noor showed us partially buried bullet shells in the dirt. Children followed us, asking questions, and we went back to the top.
“We will drive down the hill to get away from them,” Noor said, looking slightly annoyed. Omid rejoined us and we asked him what he talked to the locals about.
“They gave me advice,” he said. “They told me to not get captured by the mujahidin.” We laughed. “I said it was the Taliban I wanted to avoid, and they said, don’t worry about the Taliban. Just look them in the eye, don’t show any fear, and talk regular to them.” We laughed harder.
The second set of caves was a series of linked, small caverns with openings in the stone like windows. A group of children played in one long, hall-like cavern, throwing coins into a hole in the dirt floor. A group of men stood in a separate group, some of them crouching on a ledge. One man in a bright blue shalwar kameez gave Eric a stern look when he said hello. A moment later I saw Noor in animated discussion with him. It went on for a while and other men crowded around, listening. The rest of us strolled the cavern, taking photos. Omid joined in the coin game with the children. I looked at the man in blue every few minutes and his face was still stern. Someone asked Noor what they were talking about.
“I will explain later,” he said, “but we need to get out of here.”
It didn’t seem like an emergency, but we left the cave quickly and climbed into the van. An elderly man with a long beard followed Noor, writing something on a tablet. Then he handed Noor a little blue flip phone and Noor spoke in Dari for a few minutes. Money changed hands. Finally, we pulled away.
We wanted to know what the man in blue had said.
“He asked me if you were Muslims,” Noor said. “I told him you were, and he said you didn’t look like Muslims. I said, what does a Muslim look like? In the U.S. there are white Muslims with red hair and blue eyes. He wasn’t buying it, so finally I said, fine, so they are Christians then. What are you going to do about it? He said he wanted you all to take his photo out of your cameras, so I said you would.” He shook his head and frowned.
“What about the blue phone?” I asked.
“That was the minister of tourism. He asked how things were going, and I’m afraid I didn’t answer very positively. I told him, you charge money and what do you provide for it? Nothing. No one is taking care of this place. There is only one man, and all he does is take the money. No one cleans up. Children follow us asking stupid questions about religion.” He shook his head again. This was clearly a long-standing issue.
The drive to Bamiyan the next day was to be long; 12 hours, Noor said. I came down wearing my black abaya, headscarf and veil from Yemen. Nicole had a chadri from previous Afghanistan trips. Noor reviewed our dress plans with each of us, making sure he was satisfied.
“We will pass through two Taliban-controlled areas on the way,” he said. “While we are not in these areas it’s OK to be dressed how you like, but when I say the word, you must take off your sunglasses and cover up. The men should have their headscarves on and ladies should have their faces completely covered. And ladies should be sitting next to only one man.”
No one argued. We piled into a different van, a much older looking one than the van we’d been using all week. It was important to look as local as possible. Noor directed Omid to sit in the front, since he could pass as a local.
“That’s the ultimate test of your Dari,” Matt joked. “Can it pass at a Taliban checkpoint?”
Omid did not appear to find that funny.
The drive was indeed long, and the backseat was uncomfortable, but the scenery was stunning. After we passed through the first Taliban area without incident, we began the long, winding climb up Salang Pass. The highest peaks surrounding us were snow-covered, and the road ran along a clear, rushing mountain stream with very green trees and shrubbery on its banks, a beautiful contrast to the beige of the bare mountains above. We saw locals picnicking along the river. The road was rough, and near the top of the pass it traveled through tunnel after tunnel. Traffic was chaotic and reminded me of India; cars and trucks passed each other, honking, on whatever side they pleased. There were no rules, no traffic patterns. Several times whole fleets of colorfully decorated tractors passed us going the other way. I asked Noor about them.
“They are nomadic wheat farmers,” he said. “They were harvesting wheat in the east, and now they will go to the north where the wheat is ready and contract themselves out with their tractors.”
We stopped at a roadside stand for potato chips and biscuits, and a few times we pulled over to pee behind rocks and bushes on the side of the road. We came down the other side of the pass, and another driver met us to take Robyn to Kandahar. We said goodbye; we wouldn’t be seeing her again. Then Noor told us to cover up for the second Taliban area.
I had been falling asleep intermittently, so I was fortunate to miss the sight of what Omid and Matt later told me was two bearded men pulling an enormous automatic weapon out of the back of the car. It looked like they might be setting up a checkpoint. We passed through the small village, and then I woke to the sound of squeaking and rattling. The van pulled over.
“Oh fuck,” Matt said. We had a flat tire. There was none of the usual joking about the Taliban this time. We sat in silence while our driver changed the tire. Omid got out to help him, and our scout car came back to help too.
“This is the worst place this could happen,” Matt muttered under his breath. No one answered him.
The tire was changed and everyone got back in the van. We drove another two hours, climbing again, the air getting cooler. We stopped at a military checkpoint as we came into Bamiyan Province and some friendly soldiers asked us to get out of the van. They checked our passports and welcomed us. The wind was cold and refreshing.
“This is where most of the Hazaras live,” Matt explained. “It’s the best place in Afghanistan. The people are educated, the mountains are beautiful, they have many natural resources. If only they weren’t in the middle of the country, surrounded by more conservative areas, they would do very well.”
We arrived in Bamiyan City and pulled into our gated guesthouse, the Noorland Qalla Hotel. It was rustic but charming, reminding me of one of the larger Nepalese trekking lodges. We said goodbye to Noor, who could not be out of communication with his business for four days and was going to Kabul to wait for us there. Hotel staff showed us to rooms surrounding a courtyard and then we came down to the dining room. Now it was time for joking about the events of the day.
Omid said, “I heard Matt say, ‘oh fuck,’ and I thought, ‘oh fuck, Matt never says oh fuck.”
“Honestly, that was the worst place we could have gotten a flat tire,” Matt said. “Unless we’d gotten it a few minutes earlier where we saw the two men with the giant gun. I asked our driver and he said they were not Taliban. But I don’t know, they sure looked like Taliban to me.”
Eric seemed confused. “What was going on?” he asked. “What giant gun? What Taliban?” He’d been oblivious to the whole thing. We laughed hysterically through mouthfuls of lamb and beans and bread, and Omid said, “It’s all fine for you to be so casual about it now. You’re not the middle-eastern-looking dude who had to get out of the car and help with the fucking tire.”
The was the last straw and no one could speak for nearly a minute.
We met our new guide the next morning, Sajjad, and he took us to see legendary Buddhist statue ruins first. Between the 5th and 7th centuries and earlier, the area had been inhabited primarily by Buddhists, and they had carved two statues of the Buddha into the cliff face: Sasal, at 38 meters, and Shahmama, at 55 meters. The statues were surrounded by hundreds of caves, at all levels, some of them interconnected. Sajjad explained that the caves were used by monks to pray and study near the Buddhas in their early days. In modern history, the site had been a pilgrimage for hippies on the Silk Road, who spread blankets on the floors of the caves and smoked hashish and played music.
Tragically, in 2001, the Taliban blew up the two statues. One had proved particularly resilient and they had called in the Pakistani Taliban to use explosives. Boulders and rocks of all sizes, pieces of the ruined statues, were stored in sheds or under pieces of staging throughout the site. A Japanese NGO was now restoring and protecting the site, although it was unlikely they would be able to rebuild the statues. Some pieces had been stolen and taken elsewhere for sale on the black market.
We walked along the bottom of the cliff face, taking photos of the caves. At the far end, where the second, smaller Buddha had been, there were some caves that allowed entry, guarded by two soldiers. We climbed stone staircases on one side of the empty hollow that had once held the statue, ascending about three stories. There were balconies along the way where we could stop and look out at the view of Bamiyan City and the surrounding mountains. Some had side caves with ancient paintings on the walls and ceilings.
We crossed a narrow ledge to the other side of the statue hollow and descended. Two men from Kabul were behind us with a trumpet and a makeshift drum, playing a concert as they went. Once back at the bottom they gestured for us to sit and listen while they played again, and we did. They were good.
“I can imagine hanging out here in the 70s, just chilling,” Matt said.
“I met some ladies in their 80s who told me about hanging out here,” Nicole said. “They had taken off from their jobs to travel overland from London to Kathmandu on a bus.”
We went back to town for lunch at a kebab restaurant, then to another archaeological site, this one named the Shahr-e Gholghola, or City of Screams. We ascended a hillside through a series of tiered mudbrick ruins that had once been a fortress. Sajjad told us the Siege of Bamiyan had taken place here in 1221 after Ghengis Khan’s favorite grandson was killed in battle. It was called the City of Screams because Ghengis Khan massacred the entire population of the city for revenge.
In two vehicles, we drove for an hour into a valley surrounded by bare green hills. The houses, built mainly of stone and cement, became sparse and rustic as we went up the valley. We drove until the road ended, narrowing to a trail passable only by bikes or on foot. Children came to greet us as we unloaded backpacks, food and water from the cars.
“Welcome to the end of the road!” Sajjad said, and we followed a footpath to a house perched on a hillside. Above us we could see a flock of sheep and goats on their way down to the path. Sajjad showed us around the house, which belonged to friends of his. There were two large rooms connected by a stone deck, one that was occupied by the family and another for guests, and we dropped our backpacks in the guest room. Then we went out to watch the sheep coming home. They lived in a dirt floor room below the house, and we watched the women milk them. Matt found that if he baaa’d at them through the window they would answer him in a chorus, and Brett took a cell phone video. “Hark, my brethren!” Matt said before he called to the sheep.
We ate dinner that night seated on the cushions we would eventually sleep on, and our hosts brought bread, potatoes and plates of shir berenj, rice cooked in milk and butter. The father, Teymor, and his eldest son joined us. Sajjad explained the family history and how he knew them. There were four brothers and their families in several houses at this far end of the valley, and one of them had been an Olympic skiing recruit with Sajjad. They were recruited by the Bamiyan ski club, which was sponsored by the Swiss, when they were 19. The Swiss sent them to St. Moritz for three months at a time between 2014 and 2018 to train. At home, they trained on alpine touring gear in the surrounding mountains. But when the time came, they didn’t make the cut. They hadn’t started young enough.
“That’s so weird,” I had remarked to Matt earlier. “Why would anyone recruit Olympic skiers from a place like this, with no ski areas?”
“Lots of reasons,” Matt had answered. “It promotes global inclusiveness, and it also makes a hell of a story, one that people love. The branding is easy from there.”
“Think of the Jamaican bobsledders,” Brett had added. That made sense to me and I felt ashamed of asking. Of course, the realm of Olympic skiing shouldn’t be open only to those fortunate enough to be born in places like Colorado or western Europe.
Pummeled by questions from Omid, Sajjad told us about the lifestyle of the family hosting us.
“The men herd the sheep during the day, and the women milk them in the mornings and at night. They grow potatoes, alfalfa and wheat in their gardens. There is a school in the next valley over and the children walk two hours each way to attend.”
“Don’t they also slaughter the sheep for meat?” Omid asked. Sajjad shook his head. “Meat is very expensive here and they cannot afford it. They need to keep the sheep for their milk until they are old or sick. Even if they did slaughter them, they would sell the meat rather than eat it.”
Someone asked about the Taliban, who had invaded Bamiyan some years ago, just as they had invaded nearly every part of Afghanistan. Matt told us the Bamiyans had opted to try to make a deal with them and offered to surrender if there was no violence. The Taliban responded by killing people.
“What would people do now?” I asked. “If it happened again? Would they fight this time?”
“I know they would not trust the Taliban,” Sajjad said. “But they have no weapons; they were all turned in to the government. And if the government can’t stop them, how can we?” He shrugged.
We went to sleep early, just after tea, spreading our cushions and sleeping bags around the room. It was cold outside but the room warmed quickly from body heat, and I fell right asleep, hoping I wouldn’t need to get up in the middle of the night. The outhouse was a stone building a few feet away from the house with a hole in the floor.
I woke to the sounds of the sheep being milked under the floor we slept on. The dawn light on the mountains surrounding us was breathtaking. Teymor ducked his head in to let us know the sheep were heading out, and those of us awake scrambled out of sleeping bags to watch. A herd came by from lower in the village and stopped to pick up the sheep from our house. They congregated on the path for a few minutes, some butting heads and playing. Then the shepherd led them into the hills above us, where they would graze all day.
We left around 9:00, our food and water packed on one wobbly-legged, sad-eyed donkey. We had originally planned to have two donkeys and I worried about the load on just one. “This is planting season,” Sajjad explained. “The donkeys are busy.”
The climb into the surrounding green hills was slow and laborious; the altitude was about 3000 meters. When we stopped on a ridge for our first rest, we could see the next village down below us in the adjacent valley. Sajjad pointed out the school he had mentioned last night and we were awed by the trek children had to take each morning. Mountains that I judged to be about 12,000 feet towered above us, still snowy, and below us we could see many foot paths crossing the green foothills we traveled on. I asked Sajjad to describe our route, and he said we were at the top of the first of three climbs. We would go up and over a low pass and into the next valley three times before the end of the day. The distance was about 17k, and he said it had taken him four hours on his own, but he thought it would take us five to six.
It had begun to dawn on me that I hadn’t properly trained for this trip, and I was no longer young enough to take on a multi-day trek without any preparation. This was going to hurt.
And hurt it did, my feet and knees becoming increasingly painful throughout the day until by the end I was nearly hobbling. But the spectacular scenery was worth it. It felt very much like a Nepalese trek but without the commercialism. There were no trekking lodges, no restaurants, no shops. Just a few scattered villages full of friendly and curious people, surrounded by towering peaks. In our second village we stopped to talk to a young boy Sajjad called “his skiing friend.” He showed us a picture of the boy on a pair of crude handmade wooden skis launching off a ski jump. We were amazed and asked to see the skis. The boy ran to a house next door and came back with them. They had nails sticking through to the bottom and a little strap attached for a binding.
On our final pass we stopped to rest and Sajjad said our donkey was too tired to go on and a donkey from our new host’s home was coming up to meet us. Teymor and his donkey unloaded and turned around to head home. It was cold and windy and we huddled behind rocks to wait. A man named Ramazan came with a new donkey and we descended into a final valley with him. This one was the most awe-inspiring of all. Rock spires towered above the village. We followed neat little foot paths along clear, sparkling streams, sometimes with footbridges crossing them. There was no trash, as there had been in the cities. We passed many homes and finally arrived at our host’s, right on the village water canal. We were shown into a hallway with two small rooms. Ramazan joined us for dinner with his father, our host, and a friendly neighbor who spoke a few words of English, Ali. I was too tired and sore to follow much of the conversation, but some of it revolved around Ramazan, who was a special forces officer in the Afghan army in Kabul and was home on leave. He showed us photo of himself in camo carrying an automatic weapon. We asked him questions about how the army screens recruits to make sure they’re not Taliban, and he said it is a long, painstaking process of observing and evaluating.
Matt, Brett and Nicole began to spin travel stories and I struggled to stay awake. “We have two rooms tonight,” Matt said. “We can have Party City and Quiet Manor.” I retired gratefully to Quiet Manor.
The next day was to be a day hike because we were coming back to the same homestay, and that was fortunate for me because one knee was swollen and making clicking sounds when I hiked downhill. I told the group I would hike with them for a couple hours and then turn back on my own.
“It’s possibly we will all turn back early,” Sajjad said, “because there may still be too much snow up there.” The destination was a high alpine lake, and the roundtrip distance was 30k. Ramazan and Ali joined us. We hiked up through the village above ours and into a narrow valley that led toward two snowclad peaks. Water rushed through the floor of the valley, and for a while we followed an aqueduct built to funnel the water down to the village. Brett wasn’t feeling well and probably had a touch of altitude sickness, so he broke off to go his own pace. There were river crossings, which Ali helped me over, and then a very steep climb up an embankment to get back on a trail we had missed. The weather turned nearly every half hour, just as it had the day before; sun, clouds, rain, snow, hail. After about three hours I was worried about how much my knee would hurt to come back down, so I told everyone I would turn around. Matt said they would keep going but he wasn’t sure for how long.
“If we’re going to be wet, cold and miserable I’d rather cut it short,” he said. They’d been speculating as to how deep the snow would be, and we were getting close to it now.
Cold rain pummeled me on the way down. A herd of sheep were on the trail; some started and ran as I approached, others sat and stared at me with their queer, slanted yellow eyes. I looked for Brett as I descended but I didn’t see him for a long time. Finally, just as I was leaving the alpine weather of the high valley and getting near the villages, he popped out from a trail above me.
“Hey!” I yelled, startled but glad to see him. He said he was feeling much better but he’d been dizzy trying to follow us up the steep embankment.
We shared travel stories on the rest of the hike down. Bret had fascinating stories about traveling alone in southeast Asia in his early 20s with no money.
“One time in Indonesia I had come down to my last little bit of money and it wasn’t enough to get me through the days until my flight home,” he remembered. “I had heard there was an old, abandoned palace and I went to check it out. It was gated, but somehow I managed to get through. Inside, it seemed like maybe it wasn’t abandoned; there was a giant fish tank with a live fish in it. Then I came upon two elite-looking Indonesian policeman playing cards and smoking a joint, which is very illegal in Bali. They didn’t speak any English but we communicated through gestures. They made me show them how I got in, and then they asked me to show them how much money I had. I think they were deciding how much money to take from me. But when I showed them how little I had, they let me keep it. Then they fed me and pointed me to a shower and to a bed in the corner. In the morning they took me to their boss, and for about three days I worked for the police station. I typed up police reports on Excel spreadsheets.”
“That must have been fascinating!” I said, wondering what sorts of things you would learn from police reports in Bali.
“It was,” Brett said, “but after a few days I realized it just couldn’t go on like that. I finally left them and found a way to get to the airport.”
Back at our rooms, we had tea and told more travel stories while we waited for the rest of the group. They weren’t far behind us. At about 3:30 they came in and showed us pictures of the blizzard they had run into only a half hour after I left them. They had hidden from the sideways-blowing snow behind rocks and then decided to turn around.
We had chicken and rice for dinner that night. Matt and Omid asked questions about Ramazan’s experience as a solider, and Sajjad translated. He said his schedule was 40 days on, then 12 days off during which he could come visit his family. We were surprised at the generosity of 12 days off every 40 days, but Ramazan explained that each 40-day shift was a continuous stretch of combat. They would deploy to different provinces each time to fight the Taliban. Matt asked which provinces were most dangerous and Ramazan named the counties surrounding Kabul, mostly to the south.
“They want to take over Kabul,” someone remarked.
“No one talks about this,” Matt said. “The media doesn’t really cover the fact that this is racism resulting in genocide. The Pashtuns trying to wipe out the Hazaras.”
“Tribalism,” Omid added. “It’s one disadvantage of the close-knit communities. My tribe must be better than your tribe.”
“How many Hazaras do you think have been killed?” Matt asked.
“Maybe 10,000,” Sajjad said.
“10,000?” Matt exclaimed. “It has to be more than that.”
“No, 10,000 just in Bamiyan Province,” Sajjad said. “But no one really knows how many. There is one man going around from province to province trying to count right now.”
Matt had another question. “What percentage of rural Afghanis would you say have no access to news, education, cell phones, television or radio?”
Sajjad considered. “Maybe 30%.”
“So, there is the problem,” Matt said. “How do you fix that? You can’t, not until you educate that 30% so they can understand and accept the concept that diversity is OK, that they must put the good of the whole above the interests of the tribe.”
The conversation turned to the Rwandan genocide, and how the Rwandan government had pulled off an amazing feat by erasing tribalism and somehow getting citizens to identify as Rwandans rather than Tutsis or Hutus.
“I don’t know how they did that,” Matt said, “but that’s the other approach. Either educate people about diversity, or erase the concept of tribes.”
Ramazan joined us for breakfast the next morning and Sajjad told us he had just gotten an email saying he had to report back to Kabul. He would take his family’s donkey with our supplies to the next homestay and then go on to Kabul, and we wouldn’t see him again. We stood outside on the path in a circle while he made an eloquent goodbye speech to us, which Sajjad translated.
“My family and I are honored to have had you as our guests, and we thank you for coming to visit Afghanistan” he said. “We live a very simple and dull life in this little village, and it makes us happy to see the joy it brings you to visit and experience our way of life.”
We all shook his hand and touched our hearts and said goodbye.
Sajjad said today’s hike would be only 7k and four hours, although we all doubted it would really be that short. Sajjad, clearly very fit, operated on a completely different estimation of time and effort than we did. We walked in the direction of yesterday’s hike but soon took a right fork into an adjacent valley. Someone asked Sajjad how much money an Afghan combat troop made, and Sajjad said it was about 28,000 Afs, $363 a month in U.S. dollars.
“That’s a lot by Afghan standards,” Matt said.
“It’s very dangerous work,” Sajjad answered.
We were quiet for a while. We followed a stream into a bright green valley, ascending above the villages and vegetable plots. We stopped for a break, and then Sajjad said it was time to visit the ice cave. By ice cave he did not mean a cave in the ice, but a cave that might have some ice in it. We climbed a very steep scree and boulder field, scrambling on hands and knees at the top. The cave was dark and cold and not very deep. Most of the ice had melted but there was still a little on the walls and the floor, and it sparkled strangely in the light of our headlamps. At the end of the cave was a deep, dark hole plunging downward until we couldn’t see anything anymore.
We climbed carefully back down, sometimes sliding on our butts. We had lunch by the stream, and Sajjad said we would traverse up and over the next mountain. I thought our destination village would be on the other side, but when we got to the top he pointed to another mountain we needed to go up and over. We took a long, circuitous route. On the way we met two gregarious sheepherders who stopped to talk with us. Their dark, weather-beaten faces looked 70 but they told us they were 55, my age. They asked how many sheep we thought they had; it was over 100 between the two of them.
We passed a hole made by a bomb at the beginning of the Soviet invasion, and a shrine commemorating the lives lost during that bombing. We left the trail and came steeply down the mountainside into a farming village, then wove through potato and alfalfa fields. It was nearly 5:00 pm when we arrived at our new host’s home. A young man, the son of our host, showed us into a large room with the usual oriental carpets and cushions lining the walls. It had green curtains with decorative glass beads dangling from the fringe and a china cabinet in a corner. We spread out on the cushions and drank tea, looking through our photos from the day. I lay with my feet up on two cushions, trying to get the swelling down.
Our host, Esmaty, came in to greet us and Sajjad translated while we asked him questions. He was a devout Muslim who had made pilgrimages to shrines in Iran, Dubai, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. He had been given the name Karbali, “one who goes to Karbala,” by the villagers because he was the only one with such a distinction. Eric asked him what he thought about the “Afghanistan situation” and he said he was concerned that we continue to put pressure on the Taliban, and that interested countries needed to come together to make a plan. A young girl gestured to him through the window and he got up abruptly and left us, saying he needed to get back to the house.
“They see other tourists here,” Sajjad explained, “so it is not so unusual for him to host you as it was in the other villages. This valley leads to the highest mountain in Bamiyan, so this is where the visiting skiers come through.”
Dinner was ghorme sabzi, a stew of greens, with beans and bread, and I tried to stay awake for a while afterwards. We talked about whether Matt and Nicole thought Yemen was more dangerous for travelers or Afghanistan. Matt thought Afghanistan was more dangerous but Yemen was more logistically difficult to visit. He said in Afghanistan you could be kidnapped or killed by the Taliban, but in Yemen the Houthis would just send you home, maybe lock you up for a few days first. Nicole disagreed, pointing out that Yemen had had many kidnappings over the years. She also talked about the difficulty of traveling in such a conservative country as a woman; on her last trip, two of the women in the group had gotten tangled in briars because they had to hike in the desert wearing abayas. Nicole and I had talked during the hike that day about the differences in women travelers’ experiences and challenges. We agreed it might be fun to do a women-only trip. One of the most difficult things to do in conservative Muslim countries was to get local women to talk with us or allow their photos to be taken, and the presence of a man made it even more difficult.
A car picked us up right at the door of our homestay the next day and we drove back through the valley to Bamiyan City, then north to Band e Amir National Park. Sajjad told us it was Afghanistan’s first national park, named in 2016, although it would not be the last; there were two others now. We stopped on a cliff overlooking the first of the park’s famous five blue lakes. I’d seen photos before, but the color was startling; it was the most brilliant blue I’d ever seen. We could see a mosque on the far shore, and a small village Sajjad told us had some restaurants, a small bazaar, platforms for picnicking and tents for camping. We descended a long staircase to the lakeshore and followed a stone path, passing under waterfalls spilling from the lake. On the far side of the lake we heard loud, Persian electronic dance music; on the hillside above us we saw the entrance to a cave, bordered by a string of brightly colored lights. A man stood at the entrance and the deck out front had several dining platforms.
Matt said, “Sajjad says if it wasn’t so early we could smoke shisha and have lunch there.”
“It’s a restaurant?” I exclaimed. “Can’t we walk around a while and come back?” Lunch in a disco cave sounded enticing.
“We can go up and see what they have,” Sajjad answered. We climbed a staircase up to the deck and Sajjad talked to the waiter at the door.
“They have chicken kabob and rice,” he told us. “We can have shisha while we wait.”
The cave was dark and cool and had more strings of multi-colored lights on the ceiling. The carpet and cushions were bright red. We sat along the wall and passed the hookah hose between us. Then one of the waiters put some hash into the hookah and we passed it again. The hash was mild, just enough to make us a little silly.
“Don’t come to Afghanistan, they said!” Omid laughed as he puffed on the hookah. “And definitely don’t do the hash, they said!”
After lunch we drove to the upper lakes. They were different shades of blue; turquoise, cobalt, azure. Some looked like tropical lagoons. There were more waterfalls, pools full of tadpoles, lush greenery. We sat on a bench above the lakes and took photos.
Our cars met us back on the road above the last of the five lakes and we drove back to Bamiyan. At our request, Sajjad had arranged for us to meet with a young Afghan woman who ran a special school program out of a cave nearby. The young woman met us outside and explained, in excellent English, that her program was for kids who were falling behind in school and needed extra help. About 30 children came for an hour or two after school and were tutored in English, Dari and math. In a rock face dotted with many caves, we came to one that had a door with many tiny pairs of shoes and sandals outside. We entered a cave decorated with colorful crayon drawings, posters and construction paper mobiles hanging from the walls and ceiling. Boys and girls sat cross-legged on the floor in three rows. They looked to be between 7 and 14. The teacher asked a few of them to stand up and read from a whiteboard covered in Arabic, and then a few more introduced themselves in English.
“My name is Aadel and my father is Mohammed Bukhari and I would like to be a doctor someday.”
The teacher, who asked that we not name her for security reasons, served us tea and snacks as we watched. Then she said we could ask each questions. Omid took the lead, introducing each of us to the kids and asking them what they wanted to do someday, what their favorite subjects were and whether they liked school.
Before we left the teacher told us she had been doing this for 7 years. She was only 22. Nicole and I exchanged surprised looks.
The good news about our trip to Kabul the next day was that it was Friday. That meant our passage through the sketchy Pashtun area was safer this time, although Sajjad still took precautions. He stopped the car about an hour before we reached the area.
“Let’s put the women in the middle seat, with veil and chadri on. No sunglasses, no cameras. Men in the backseat with scarves on, Eric in the middle. Do not make eye contact with anyone.”
We passed through without incident. A few hours later we were on the outskirts of north Kabul and everything became noisy, chaotic, colorful. I was glued to the window. We drove through a bazaar and passed a few giant, glitzy looking buildings with names like Uranus Palace and Star Palace. I wondered out loud what they could be for.
“Wedding venues probably,” Matt said.
As we came into Kabul airport there were many checkpoints. Sajjad said we might as well get out and walk while our driver continued with the bags. At each checkpoint there was an x-ray for the bags and a curtained room off to the side where women went to be patted down by other women. After two of these, we were reunited with our bags for another security checkpoint and then we came into an airport outbuilding with some small food stores and a restaurant. Noor met us here and we drank mango juice while we waited for our short flight to Kandahar on Kam Air.
In the parking lot at Ahmad Shah Baba airport in Kandahar, Noor greeted a man warmly and introduced us; this was Jaffer, his regular driver for Kandahar tourist visits. Jaffer was a jovial man whom everyone seemed to know. He was recovering from surgery after being shot, and there was tape over a bullet hole in the windshield of his taxi.
The road leading from the airport was bordered by grim stone walls topped with barbed wire. There was a crush of traffic leaving the airport and travel was slow. It seemed as if we were in a procession of some sort, and then we noticed the cars around us had banners on their front hoods. The people inside were all staring at us. Jaffer noticed we were in the middle of something and pulled us out of the caravan, and as we left it behind we saw a film crew in a big truck.
We went to Kirka Sharif, or the Shrine of the Cloak, for sunset. Noor explained that the shrine was believed to house the cloak of Prophet Muhammad, as worn during the Night Journey in the year 621. It being a Friday, it was packed with people. Only the men were allowed inside the mosque, and Nicole and I were left to smile at the hordes of children who followed us around the courtyard outside. The children were fun and engaging but there were a few dour men sitting on the walls outside the shrine staring at us. It made me uncomfortable and I mentioned it to Nicole.
“That’s what I meant when I said Kandahar is intense compared to Bamiyan or Mazar,” she said. “You’ll see that sometimes, a man just staring, and you wonder. Is he just curious, or is he hostile?”
This was Pashtun territory, but Noor said this didn’t mean everyone was unfriendly.
“All Taliban are Pashtuns but not all Pashtuns are Taliban. The majority of Pashtuns are against the Taliban,” he told us. “But when the Taliban show up and tell you to do something, what are you going to do? You do what you are told, you have to.”
We went to our guest house, the Afghan Dubai BBQ Hotel. Noor had stayed here many times and the staff greeted him warmly and showed us to an upstairs hallway where we had several rooms. Nicole and I shared a room with two old, worn beds with springs showing through the mattress. It had air conditioning and was blissfully cool. We went back downstairs for dinner in the BBQ restaurant. We were the only guests. The menu had hundreds of items from many different national cuisines – Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, American. We ordered dishes to share from every section. Omid groaned when Brett suggested the fish masala; “We’re nowhere near the ocean!” he protested. “It’ll be terrible!” But when the food arrived we were surprised to find it was the best dish we had ordered.
We talked about what we had seen leaving the airport. The film crew had apparently been waiting for someone on the plane with us, although I hadn’t noticed them as we disembarked.
“We were in the middle of a caravan supporting the head of a new political party,” Noor explained. “Most likely a jihadi warlord; that is who starts most new political parties.”
“I’m imagining what these bewildered-yet-amused supporters must have been thinking,” Omid said. “’Wow, our new leader is so popular, even foreigners came to support him!’”
The owner came and sat on the arm of Noor’s chair and chatted with us. He spoke excellent English. He told us his family had started the restaurant in Dubai and then moved it to Kandahar and opened the hotel. He said most fish in Kandahar came from a Brazilian importer but his was flown in from Dubai.
After breakfast in our rooms the next morning we took off for a whirlwind, one-day tour of Kandahar. We stopped to pick up Nasar, a new guide working with Noor, and went to a shrine called Baba Wali. Noor had told us the night before that we wouldn’t be able to visit this shrine because it was too close to the front lines of Taliban fighting, but apparently he’d gotten new information that it was secure. We passed a former US military base, now fully occupied by the Afghan military, and Nasar told us we were only two kilometers from the front line. The shrine was attended by a man called a Malang whose life’s calling was to take care of the shrine. He passed a basket for donations. There was no one else there so we were able to stroll leisurely through the shrine. It had an ornate tiled ceiling and many chandeliers. From a large deck we could see the bridge over to Taliban territory in the distance.
We went to another shrine with gorgeous hand-painted tiles on the walls, floors and ceilings, and then we went to visit the Forty Steps. Noor was not sure we would be let in at first; he said last time he’d had a letter from the Ministry of Tourism giving us permission, but this time we didn’t. The site was guarded by Afghan police because it was on high ground near the front lines. Noor and one of the drivers went up to ask permission and it was granted. The steps were huge and steep and we had to take them one at a time. At the top we posed for photos next to two stone lions with a 20-year-old soldier who was guarding the site. He told us he had been fighting on the front lines the night before. When we came back down I saw Jaffer talking to another soldier and I joined them in the shade of a tree. They were standing next to an armored vehicle with an automatic weapon mounted on the back. The soldier smiled and me and said hello, but suddenly his mood turned.
“Why you come here?” he asked. “What do you think is here? What is the point of this?”
I thought he was teasing and I tried to say that it was all very interesting, but then Noor stepped in and I realized he was not joking.
“It’s just a misunderstanding,” Noor said to me in his usual calm, understated way. He talked with the soldier and we left.
“What was he saying?” I asked Noor.
“He doesn’t understand why tourists are allowed to come here,” Noor said. “He doesn’t think they should be. But it is OK.”
As we walked back to the cars, the armored vehicle suddenly rushed by us, lights flashing, with the young soldier in the back manning the gun and the hostile soldier driving. I asked what was happening and someone said they had been called back to the front line. I understood, in that moment, how the hostile soldier must have felt. How was there room for the frivolity of tourism in this brutal place?
After a quick lunch we went to the Red Mosque, where Osama Bin Laden and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar were known to have worshipped regularly. The mosque was closed but we stood outside on a mosaic in front of the dais where the mullah normally stood, and Noor told me I was standing in the exact spot that Bin Laden would have stood. Matt sat in the middle of the mosaic where Omar would have been. We made jokes.
“Don’t go to Afghanistan, they said,” Omid crowed. “And definitely don’t visit the mosques!”
At Matt’s request we went to a madrassa, a Quranic studies school for children. Several small stone and cement rooms in a row held groups of boys or girls, never mixed, each in their own rooms. A teacher welcomed us and Nicole sat on a chair in front of one of the girl’s rooms. She and the girls giggled at each other and Nicole took photos.
“Do you want to go in?” Nasar asked me. “Only if someone can help me talk to them,” I said. Nicole was much more comfortable with non-verbal communication than I was. Nasar went in with me and I asked questions while he translated, but I had not understood correctly what a madrassa was.
“What is your favorite subject?” I asked.
“The Quran!” they said in unison. Of course. That was all they were here to study.
It was almost time to go to the airport for our flight back to Kabul, but Matt wanted to stop and see a Kuchi camp on the way. Kuchis were Afghan nomads, gypsies who lived by herding and moved from place to place, and they had a large camp on the way to the airport. We pulled over on the side of the highway and Noor and Nasar went to make a deal with them; we would give money if they would let us talk to them.
The camp was hot and dusty. Crude, makeshift tents dotted a flat expanse of barren ground, and small herds of goats roamed between tents. I heard a dog barking inside one tent. A group of Kuchi men crowded around Matt, Eric, Brett and Omid, and I listened for a moment. Then I realized Nicole had branched off to talk to some of the women and I should do the same. A woman who looked about 40 spoke to us with the driver of the other car as a translator. Her front teeth were missing and she had the look of hard living. She invited us to sit on a tarp on the floor of her tent. A baby goat ran through and she shooed it away. We asked her how many children she had, how they lived, how they ate. She had a son who worked in town doing construction and brought home 300 Afs per week.
“Do you like my tent?” she asked.
“Sure, it’s good,” Nicole said, and I nodded in agreement.
“It’s terrible,” the woman rebuffed us. “We live a terrible life. We need money.”
I asked our driver if it would be appropriate to give money when we left and he nodded. I gave money to the woman who talked to us, then two more. Suddenly there were many women with their hands out. One of them glared at me and tugged my sleeve and pointed at an infant child in her arms. “Let’s go,” the driver said.
Back in the cars Matt told me Noor had said not to give money.
“I missed that message,” I said ruefully.
“Noor said there are too many families, there must be 50. He’s going to try to do something for them as a group. Normally they would move from place to place, but because of the war, they’ve been stuck here for five years. They have to walk five kilometers to get water and they don’t want their own well because they don’t know who owns the land. Noor is going to try and make a deal with the landowner and help them fundraise.”
At the airport, Nicole and Omid talked about the inherent conflict in visiting groups like the Kuchis.
“You want to help, and it’s interesting to see how they live, but at some point you have to ask how you’re making them feel,” Nicole said.
Omid nodded. “Ghetto tourism, you mean.”
“Yeah, like I wouldn’t want people visiting me in Alaska to ‘see how I lived,’ that would feel weird.”
Security at the Kandahar airport was impressive. We went through two checkpoints in the car, then drove through a cement block maze. We got out for a bag and body check while bomb sniffing dogs inspected the cars. All of this was before we reached the terminal to check in for our flight; afterwards there were more body checks and luggage x-rays. At the gate we met Kiana, a New York Times photojournalist Omid had met online while researching our trip. She was Canadian-Iranian and had been living in Kabul for seven years, covering conflict and politics. She was traveling with a British journalist, with whom she’d been doing a story in Kandahar. She sat in the row just in front of Omid, Brett and me on the plane and before we took off she handed her camera to Matt across the aisle.
“The American military base,” she instructed him. “Get it just after we take off.”
It was dark when arrived back in Kabul; the night life of Kabul was fascinating. The Star Palace, which we had passed the day before, was now lit up with thousands of lights. If you didn’t look at the surroundings we could have been in Vegas.
“This is why Kabul has blackouts,” someone joked.
Cars sped by us on all sides, honking, maneuvering. We edged our way into traffic on a main road and eventually to a quieter side road, where we turned in at a solid metal gate with barbed wire and no signage. The driver honked, and a man at a booth asked Noor a few questions and then let us in.
“This is where we always stay,” Matt said. “It’s very secure. And it has everything; a restaurant, a garden, a hash lounge.” Omid had made a date to go out to dinner with Kiana and the rest of us ate from the hotel buffet in a basement room.
At breakfast the next morning I was disappointed to learn that Omid and Kiana had come back after dinner and stayed up late talking to the rest of the group. My inability to stay awake past 9:00 always cost me something, and this time it had cost me a conversation with a NYT journalist covering conflict in Afghanistan.
“What did you talk about?” I asked. “Did you learn what she’s working on right now?”
Omid shook his head. “No, but she talked about how living here was starting to wear on her, and you could see the stress in her face. She’s obviously a very strong woman but after a while this lifestyle has to get to you.”
It was our last day in Afghanistan and we met our new guide, Ramin, whom Matt had been looking forward to seeing. Ramin was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and said things like, “Get real, dude.” We started with a visit to the famous bird market, where birds of all types are sold.
“Do people eat them?” I asked. “Keep them as pets?”
“Not really either of those things,” Ramin said. “They just have them. They stay outside and people enjoy their song. It’s an Afghan tradition.”
“We would call that a pet,” I said. Ramin shrugged. There was an edge to him compared to our other guides, a Western assertiveness that sometimes sounded like annoyance with what I imagined were a steady stream of entitled tourists.
We went to Chicken Street, a famous shopping area, and Eric and I bought small Afghan carpets in one store. Omid and I bought silk scarves in another. Matt found Lapis Lazuli earrings for Robyn, a deep and startling blue. We went to lunch at an upscale restaurant called Sufi, and it was a glimpse into another Afghanistan, one we hadn’t seen yet. After a pat-down by armed guards, we walked into a flower garden with outdoor dining platforms, then an indoor dining area filled with artwork. We were meeting Zakarya here, an Afghan journalist Matt had met two years ago when he wrote a profile on Robyn. We ordered kebab dishes, vegetable dishes, other things I couldn’t identify. We shared everything around the table and talked with Zakarya, who covered war and politics for local publications. He had been on a Taliban hit list since 2015.
“I left Afghanistan twice,” he told me, “but each time I had to come back because my family is here.”
“What do you think about the American troop withdrawal?” I asked him.
“I think it is the death of our last hope,” Zakarya said. “We have about six more months before things start to get really bad. The Taliban are not going to give up, so either we keep fighting or we give in, and either way it is bad. I am not sure what I will do.”
“What about Canada?” Matt said. “It should be easy to get asylum if you can produce documentation proving you’re on the Taliban hit list.”
“I can do that,” Zakarya said.
“Start putting it together,” Matt told him, “and then get in touch. Robyn and I can help you with the application.”
We lingered at lunch for hours, ordering desert and more tea. It was nearly 4:00 pm when we left. We took photos with Zakarya and said goodbye, and then we drove a park at the top of a hill overlooking all of Kabul. An enormous Afghan flag flew in the wind far above our heads. We walked through the park, then sat on a stone bench with a nearly 360 view of the city.
“This is my favorite spot,” Ramin told us. “I come here and sit for hours sometimes.” It was a peaceful spot, and I imagined it was a respite from the noise and chaos of the city and the constant tension of Afghan life.
We went to meet the Afghan rappers for dinner at a restaurant called Taj Begum. Laila, the owner, was a local activist and this was the rappers’ hangout. When we walked into the room I was surprised to find 12 people crowded around a table waiting for us; it was not only the rappers but also the breakers, as they called themselves. There were several b-boys and one b-girl. They were young; some were teenagers. We shook hands around the room and I recognized Jawad, the one Matt had been interviewing on camera when the Kabul school bomb went off two weeks ago.
We smoked shisha while the breakers showed video of their performances. Then someone brought out a four-foot speaker and the rappers began to perform, one a time, around the table. Most rapped in Dari.
“Can you tell us some of the lyrics?” I asked them afterwards. Omid translated. “They mostly sing about social and political issues here in Afghanistan,” he said. “About the rights of women, injustice, religious intolerance. Their message is that Islam and human rights can co-exist, they are not mutually exclusive.”
“We can have the American dream and still be good Muslims,” one of them clarified.
It seemed like a strange way to describe their hopes, and I said, “In America, I think the American dream has come to mean something materialistic; having everything you want in life, like a nice house and a fancy car.”
“For us it’s about freedom,” they answered.
“That’s what it should be about,” I said. “I think it used to be, and I don’t know what happened. Now we’re cynical about it, we say things like ‘I’m living the dream, man’ and it’s almost a sarcastic comment. We no longer appreciate what we have, what democracy and personal freedom are all about.”
Dinner came and we shared plates around the table, continuing to talk about the rappers’ hopes for change in Afghanistan. Matt showed me a professionally produced Youtube video of the group doing a song called I Am. They were good. I looked around the table at the young, eager faces, the faces of Afghanistan’s future, and my eyes came to rest on Jawad. Would that hope one day turn full-time into the world-weariness I had seen pass over his face when the school bomb went off two weeks ago? Would the world let these talented youngsters make a difference, or would Afghanistan beat them down as it had beaten down so many others over 30 years of war? There was no way to know, and perhaps no point in thinking about it.
But I would think about it anyway, all the way home. We are the voices of Afghanistan’s dream, those hopeful faces said. Hear what we have to say. Let us be free.