The plan was flawless. Flawless. Saraj was set to be at our place at 4:30AM with the car. Alison, Carrie and I would ride from our neighborhood, Karte Char, across Kabul to Qallah Fatoullah, where we would get Shukria. We would take the new road, we would avoid traffic, we would fly under the radar. We would reach Jalalabad around 9:30AM, take care of business and head back to Kabul around 1:00PM. Saraj arrived on time. The rest, not so flawless.
You know how people say that humans often start to look like their pets? Well, the same may be true for Alison and I and the women we work with. Alison works for a tiny girls education NGO, a few blocks from our house, surrounded by very conservative women. Accordingly, she has taken to covering every ounce of her flesh and wearing a large chadori-style headscarf that can often be seen revealing only her eyes. I work for a bigger, more radical women’s rights organization with women whose headscarves are more often around their shoulders than over their heads. In turn, I have, perhaps, become somewhat lax about covering all of the blonde bits of my hair. It doesn’t really matter that Carrie is somewhere between Alison and I on the headscarf front since she wears these shiny black Jackie-O sunglasses that nearly cause car accidents.
Saraj had a little trouble finding Shukria’s house despite the fact that she lives on one of the only numbered, or named, streets in all of Kabul. This meant that by the time we got to her she was waiting in the street in front of her house accompanied by every male member of her family. After convincing her father, brother, brother-in-law and some looming figure I believe was a cousin, that we did indeed know that leaving a woman waiting in the streets of Kabul before sunrise is wrong, Shukria, the picture of modern Afghanistan, climbed into the car. Keeping the above information in mind, when we sped out of Kabul in our larger than life SUV, I was in the front seat with Saraj (headscarf up but not really meaning it), Shukria and Alison (basically in burka) flanked Carrie (sunglasses gleaming) in the back. Despite our best intentions, one could say we were already on the radar.
The road leaving Kabul looks like one of those roads that could be anywhere war-torn and poor. Roadside stalls laden with fruit and vegetables give way to flat land marked by intermittent mud brick buildings and tent dwellings. Burned out tanks and buses lay overturned like statues in distant fields. Shell-pocked remnants of structures crumble around the children who use them as playgrounds. Men and women in groups of two or three walk along the road balancing things on their heads sidestepping beggars trying to flag down oncoming vehicles. Somewhere between the fruits stalls and the tents are deep side streets housing various industrial facilities and military compounds.
Jalalabad Road is the only paved road in eastern Kabul and arguably one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in the country. It winds through three sets of mountains taking on terrain as diverse as sand and rock. It races past stretches of open land as well as navigates its way through tiny villages carved into mountainsides. It stops for herds of goats while providing passage for brightly painted sixteen wheel trucks. As you head away from Kabul the pavement is disturbed first by tank treads embedded in the ground as speed bumps and then, as you reach the mountains, by centuries of sliding rock and sand. Cars and trucks bounce around the narrow mountain lanes in a well-practiced rhythm. A combination of inside passing, a seemingly random pattern of yielding and a healthy dose of bravado make for good driving here. The four hours of mountain travel required me to bind my chest with a spare headscarf, pray for our safe arrival and remember that irrespective of how I feel in my Kabul bubble, I am living and working in a nation that is marked by deep conflict, extremism, abject poverty and, for blonde haired women like myself, resentment and danger.
Afghanistan is a breathtaking country. I didn’t picture it as a place of intriguing beauty. Before I arrived, the few images I had in my mind were generic. Beige really. A combination of other places I have been and movies I have seen where sand and pollution are the driving forces of weather. This is a place that has been at war with itself, with Russia, with the world, for decades. This is a place that has endured the isolation and seclusion of extremism. There is no Lonely Planet Afghanistan. The Taliban banned photography and destroyed images, icons and landmarks. The visual history of Afghanistan has been marred and in turn the only pictures I carried with me were those of war and destruction. A dirt-covered girl on the cover of National Geographic, a woman being hooded and executed by the Taliban, a man standing over the graves of his wife and children. I had no idea that freshwater lakes embedded between snow-capped mountains adorn the Bamiyan Province. I had no idea that lush terraced pastures broken up by crystal blue rapids line the roads heading east to Pakistan. I had no idea that the low, dry scenery of the west would produce stunning desert-scapes equipped with palm trees. There are some things that war cannot diminish; the beauty of nature is one of them.
Around three hours into the trip, just as we all began to be lulled into passivity by the rocking of the car, the heat and the beautiful scenery, we approached a village named Surubi. Even before any signs of village life appeared, the road narrowed and the menagerie of vehicles sharing the road settled into two lanes of gently crawling traffic. With windows open we rolled through the main thoroughfare of Surubi. Tiny cave-like shops carved into the mountain line the road at the same level as the cars. Terraced houses loom over the road from mountain ridges high above. From the moment our vehicle entered the village the feeling of tension was palpable. Between the heat and mounting agitation caused by the traffic, everyone was on edge. As we got closer to the heart of town a sizable group of men and boys followed our car with their eyes. Some got close enough to the windows to peer inside. What began as curiosity quickly became tense. You can never pinpoint the moment a mood shifts until the results are painfully obvious. Having perfected our we-don’t-see-you-stares, we all sat very still and looked out of the front window.
As we reached the end of the road, the silence that had descended upon the car was interrupted by an explosion. I have no specific memory of what it sounded like or when I realized it was happening. I turned around in time to see the back window burst and the side window be struck and shatter. Shukria immediately covered her head and hit the baseboard of the car. Carrie immediately slumped down in her seat, looking around for signs of what was happening. Darling Alison threw herself against the back seat, arching towards the window that was exploding. Reaching across Carrie I grabbed for Alison, struggling to reach her sleeve, yelling for her to put face against the back of the seat in front of her. I remember holding the back of Alison’s head. I remember my eyes locking onto Carrie’s. I remember Shukria reaching to squeeze my shoulder, letting me know she was okay. I could only hear the sound of breaking glass, my own heartbeat and the chaos of movement. Saraj asked me if anyone was hit. I shook my head no. He pushed the headrest behind my head down, created a path for our car in a space clearly too small to accommodate us. Within minutes he was plowing through the narrow opening looking for someplace to pull over and assess the situation.
We found no evidence of a rock or a bottle in the trunk. Saraj believed the car had been shot at. An assumption that would be confirmed when we returned to Kabul and had the vehicle examined. One thing is very clear, no one was trying to hurt us. If they were, one or more of us would have been hit or killed. As we drove the rest of the way to Jalalabad – in what became eerie silence – I couldn’t help but wonder what that bullet was trying say to us.
The tensions and perceptions between, within and around every group, culture and politic of this country are ripe and askew. The international news and radio only talk about Taliban extremists and Coalition forces. Suicide bombers and ISAF troops. The resurgence of Taliban forces in the south is real and incredibly frightening. The recently introduced proposal to re-create the infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is a terrifying symbol of the Karzai administration’s need to pander to the religious right. I still don’t have the words, or the heart, to share the details of the cases of child marriage, sexual abuse, self-immolation and honor killing I deal with every single day. There is no question that Afghanistan is being held together by strings so tenuous that a light breeze is a tangible threat.
You have no idea how badly I want to blame the Taliban for the criminal lack of social justice that exists in this country. You have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for the behavior boys and men display towards me as I walk three steps to my car. You have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for the level of distrust Afghan women show foreigners. You have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for girls’ schools burning in provinces as close to Kabul as Jersey City is to Manhattan. More than anything you have no idea how much I want to blame the Taliban for our car window getting shot at as we passed through a small village. You have no idea how simple that would be.
We want to know where the danger is coming from. We want to know who the enemies are. This isn’t Hollywood. They don’t all look alike, dress alike, think alike and live alike. This is a nation that has been let down by the government, by the warlords, by the world. The gun pointed at our car could have been held by anyone, sitting anywhere, thinking anything.
Posted By Erica Isaac (Afghanistan)
Posted Oct 1st, 2006