Daniel Jack Chasan
This year, as my wife and I drink a little champagne near the wood stove in our Vashon living room, we'll recall the night forty years ago when, bundled in overcoats, we welcomed in the New Year on our hotel balcony, drinking Iranian vodka mixed with the juice of Pakistani oranges, looking out at the bright lights of Kabul.
The city hadn't yet been pounded to rubble, but even then, it had the air of a Potemkin capital. Most major streets had been paved by the U.S.S.R., but most minor ones were still just mud. A few sidewalks had been paved, too, but others consisted of big, rectangular paving stones set unmortared in the dirt, and some weren't paved at all; in wet weather or during thaws, the paving stone sidewalks and the unpaved walks, as well as the streets, dissolved into slippery mud. Along the sides ran filthy open sewer trenches called jubes.
Five times a day, before praying to Mecca, men would wash themselves in the jubes. Apart from some little Russian-made taxis and some brightly painted, wood-sided long-haul trucks, there was virtually no motorized traffic, but big, black Chevrolet and Mercedes Benz embassy vehicles with diplomatic flags on their front fenders cruised through the empty streets on unknown errands.
Most women who ventured out were dressed in head-to-ankles tents of solid-colored cloth with little mesh face windows to see through. The law requiring women to wear veils in public had been repealed in 1959, but most women wore them anyway. There were already hints of the grim conservatism that would shock much of the world when the Taliban rebels required women to go veiled again in 1996. After the earlier law requiring veils was repealed, mullahs had walked the streets of Kandahar, looking for women who dared to uncover their faces in public. If the mullahs found one, they threw acid in her face
There weren't many beggars, although little shabby boys sold cigarettes and matches, and plenty of people were obviously poor. Most men wore flat white turbans. Below the turbans some wore Western-style business suits and overcoat; others wore white robes or long, quilted coats; and still others wore garments made of sewn-together rags. Some simply wrapped themselves in blankets or tablecloths against the bitter cold. A show of poverty was hardly surprising. Afghanistan had no major industry except rug-weaving, no developed mineral resources, no railroads, no seacoast, no modern legal system and a literacy rate that not even optimists estimated as higher than ten percent. One night at a party we ran into an American commercial attache who offered a very concise solution to Afghanistan's many economic problems. "What this country needs," he said, "is Junior Achievement."
We were basically prisoners. We couldn't legally leave the country. The trouble had started with our arrival: We had flown to Afghanistan on the Iranian national airline, IranAir, taking off at 5:45 in the morning and watching the sun rise over the northern mountains. We had bought tickets to Kabul. As the plane descended over the desert, the pilot announced that no one had landed at Kabul for the past three days, so we were heading for Kandahar. None of the non-Afghans on board had the faintest idea where Kandahar was.
As it happens, Kandahar lies some 500 kilometers southwest of Kabul. The airline drove us there in an old American school bus. It was December in the mountains of central Asia. The bus wasn't heated. Some of the passengers had expected to step off the plane in Karachi and had brought no warm clothes. One passenger had just had an appendectomy, so bumping along on an old school bus for nine and one half hours was very painful. Another passenger was traveling with three little boys, one of them diabetic. Night fell. The bus grew colder. Passengers lent each other coats and hats. Rain or snow fell from time to time, and visibility was often very bad. The hours dragged on. Suddenly, something loomed up in the road ahead, and the driver--who had been fasting all day for Ramadan--swerved off the pavement to avoid it. The shoulder was covered with snow. the bus skidded to the right, back to the left, then to the right again, tipping on two wheels and almost turning over before the driver wrestled it back onto four wheels, then back onto the pavement. Before long, we rolled down the final grade toward Kabul.
A few days later, a woman we had met on the bus ride from Kandahar invited us to dinner at her hotel. The hotel manager invited us all upstairs to a private room, where local musicians were giving a recital on traditional instruments. The music was extraordinary. Afterward, we went back downstairs to get tour coats. My wife had left tour passports and half our travelers' checks in a coat pocket. The passports and the checks were all gone.
We needed new passports and, in order to leave the country, we needed exit visas. First, the U.S. embassy was closed for Christmas. Then, Afghan government offices were closed for Eid, the holiday at the end of Ramadan. Then, because the astronomers at Mecca had evidently miscalculated the date of the new moon, Eid lasted an extra day. The new passports proved easy enough to get. We wouldn't be able to get new travelers' checks until we reached New Delhi or Colombo, but we had enough money to get by. Getting the exit visas turned into a nightmare. The Afghan government was paranoid about people driving into Afghanistan and selling their cars without paying the government's exorbitant tax on auto sales. We would have to prove we had arrived by plane. Normally, that would have presented no problem. The Kabul airport would have a record of our arrival. But, of course, we hadn't landed at Kabul. At Kandahar, where no international flights were ever scheduled to land, the government didn't keep track of anything.
To prove we had flown into Afghanistan, we would need a passenger list from IranAir. IranAir's passenger list was in Tehran. We had to get a copy. This could not be done quickly. Even after we had the list, we had to make our way through a maze of torpid central Asian bureaucracy. We kept making the rounds of offices in which men sat huddled in blankets or old tablecloths, and finally wound up in the office of a hip young officer in dark glasses who was reading a French movie magazine. He was not encouraging. We knew the American ambassador-we had met him at an embassy cocktail party in Tehran--and I had met at least one member of the Afghan parliament, so I tried to pull a couple of strings. We were sent to a totally new office. The people in that office sent us to a different address. The building looked familiar, and sure enough, when we found the right office, there was the officer in dark glasses. There was no quick way out.
Eventually we got the visas, and soon after New Years, we were ready to go. I bought two tickets for the eastbound bus at the Pakistani embassy, and the next morning we went to the embassy and boarded an old English Bedford bus with a silver metal body, dark wooden window frames and no heat. There was room on top for baggage and a closed compartment in front for the driver. Both the driver and an attendant wore pale blue uniforms. Before the bus left Kabul, a short, wizened porter, bulky with ragged clothing, moved up the aisle collecting baksheesh for loading people's luggage.
The bus left at eight, driving from the city through flat, snow-covered fields. Occasionally, the white of the snow was washed out by glare from sunlight hitting a patch of ice. Behind the fields on both sides rose high, snow-covered mountains. Ahead rose more snow-covered mountains. At the base of the mountains, directly in the bus's path, lay a layer of gray fog. When we entered the fog, the fields and mountains disappeared, and the small, bare trees and bushes beside the road were covered with ice, gleaming white, their branches delicate and surreally beautiful.
The bus plunged from the fog bank into the mountains, following the gray-green Kabul River through a narrow gorge. The slopes on both sides were steep; dark rock showed through the snow. At first, the road stayed at the bottom of the gorge, beside the river, but then, suddenly, the river ran far beneath us; the shell of an overturned truck lay on the slope below. In 1842, at the end of Britain's First Afghan War, when a British army of 690 British troops, 3,810 Indian troops and 12,000 civilian followers retreated eastward from Kabul, Afghan tribesmen ambushed them in these gorges, and only one man got through.
The bus descended again, skirting steep drop-offs, to the green water of the river, which boiled over rocks and ledges, and followed it through the gorge, past occasional mud-walled houses and herds of black goats. The gorge opened out into two lakes, one blue and one green, then opened a third time into the plain of Jalalabad, green with fields and palm trees. We passed two-wheeled horse carts crammed with people, then a string of seven camels led by a man in a turban and bright red socks, and then we were in Jalalabad itself.
Villas with walled gardens and orange trees lined the road on both sides. Men walked by stooped under big bundles of cut sugar cane. The air was warmer than it had been in Kabul, the people were more shabbily dressed, and there were more beggars.
Twenty minutes later, the bus left Jalalabad. Soon, we reached the Pakistani border at Torqam. Signs warned people to drive on the left after they crossed the border. Trucks were parked all along the road. Their drivers were in a string of outdoor teahouses, sitting on low couches made of braided twine cords cris-crossed over thick, tree-limb frames.
The bus stopped, and we went into a high, bare, crowded, dimly-lit room to have our passports checked. While we were waiting, a tough-looking, erect, turbaned tribesman with a rifle slung on his shoulder entered, followed single-file by five men who were dressed as he was but who carried no rifles and didn't look as tough. The five followers looked as if they were holding hands as they snaked through the crowd. Then I saw that the first two pairs of them were shackled together. A Pakistani man beside me explained that the five were Pashtun tribesmen from Afghanistan who had crossed the border illegally and were being sent back. The mountains in which they lived became cold and snowy in the winter, he said, and these men hadn't had enough shelter for themselves or food for their animals, so they had gone to their ancestral winter pasture lands on the plains of Pakistan. The Pakistani said that tribesmen often crossed the border illegally and were sent back like this.
The image has stayed with me. Whenever I read about the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, that largely meaningless line through mountains that shelter rebels of all kinds, that procession of captive tribesmen is what I see. And whenever I think of New Years past, I remember sitting on that balcony in Kabul.