Although I know otherwise, I often find myself wondering if the name “Afghanistan” comes from an ancient word for “tragedy.”
Afghanistan is in the headlines again – quickly, and almost without resistance, occupied by Taliban leaders who envision a medieval-style caliphate. To some of my generation, this weekend’s events seem like a daunting task to look at that turbulent corner of a lifetime. First, during the decade-long war that raged around in the 1980s, Afghanistan held the USSR hostage. And now – after two decades, nearly a trillion dollars, and thousands of American lives – the United States is learning the same lesson: reluctant to rule this despicable land.
Easy to point fingers: Should George W. Bush have invaded the country in 2001? Should Donald Trump have reached an agreement with the Taliban in early 2020? Should Joe Biden have withdrawn American troops so soon? But in the end, no one has the answer … that’s why we find ourselves in this same place.
One thing is clear: the repeated failure of powerful countries to impose our will on the Afghan people is a reflection of our nationalism … our inability to understand what motivates them. And using Afghanistan to score political points with American voters ignores the horrific human cost of instability that has ruined the lives of everyday Afghans for generations.
In my case, that tragedy is even more difficult to observe because I have enjoyed people-to-people contacts in Afghanistan. As the news unfolded, I was swimming through the memories of my journey from Istanbul to Kathmandu in 1978 at the age of 23 on the “Hippie Trail”. It was a trip of a lifetime – which is not possible now. Every border crossing was a drama, and every rest stop was a lifelong memory.
On the Iran-Afghanistan border – surrounded by abandoned VW vans separated by drug-seeking guards and telling the story of European, Aussie, and American backpackers staring at dusty glass displays who were caught with drugs and spending time in Afghan prisons – we We kept (so that no one could put anything illegal in them) and we were waiting for the doctor to test our vaccine. My travel companion, Jean, needed a shot, and I still remember turning the dull needle as it struggled to break his skin.
Once on the streets of Afghanistan, on our way to Herat in our packed minibus, the driver stopped, pulled out a knife in the blazing sun, and said, “Your ticket price has gone up further.” An Indian traveler calmed the religious uproar from our Americans, and we are all welcome in Afghanistan.
In Herat, a city and cultural center in western Afghanistan, we spent the night watching flashlight chariots on the roof of our hotel. There was an Odyssey every day – not just sightseeing, but just wandering around the market and gardens and random surroundings. This was in the aftermath of a communist coup backed by the USSR. A Soviet tank was parked in the main courtyard, and the restaurant had a menu whose price was literally marked and a note: “Thanks for the Soviet liberation.”
Following our bus journey across Afghanistan which was of course the only paved road in the whole country (a foreign aid project). The terrain looked like a dry desert. I remember the monotony of a broken cemetery by the side of the road, the dusty forest of Hegledy-Pigldy tomb in the desert. Even with 50 passengers, the toilet break lasted only a few minutes: the bus would not stop anywhere in the middle, the men would go to the left side of the road, and the women would gather on the right side of the road. With their big black dress tents, they will be sitting together.
Truck stops seem to be designed to allow bus drivers to smoke hashish. At one point, I remember a circle of people sitting on their haunches and walking around with something they were smoking when they all saw a goat skin cut.
Kabul was the only real city in the country. It seemed to exist only because a county had to have an urban center to be governed – a kind of urban necessity on a land that didn’t really know what to do with a city. I have seen people wearing uniforms who, to this day, wear only tribal clothing.
As I sat down to eat in the backpackers’ cafeteria, a man appeared at my table. He said, “May I join you?” I said, “You already have it.” He asked, “Are you American?” I said, “Yes.”
And then he went on a well-worn spiral: “I’m a professor here in Afghanistan. And I want you to know that in this world, one third of people eat with spoons and forks like you. One third eat with chopsticks. And one third of people eat with their fingers. And we are all equally civilized. “
This meeting became the most influential in my life – like all my other visits to Afghanistan, it walled off my nationalism and rearranged my cultural furniture.
One of the highlights of any overland trip in India was crossing the fabulous Khyber Pass to leave Afghanistan. We were scared of Westerners, sitting on the bus, responsibly carrying our luggage in our laps, we realized that we had almost arrived in India – which would feel strange to come home. Our bus ticket comes with a “safety supplement” to ensure a safe passage. The fees were paid to the autonomous tribes who “ruled” the area between the capital city and the border with Pakistan. I was more than happy to pay this little extra for their vintage rifles, rolling under their rocky castles, flags flying in the air (which had nothing to do with Afghanistan) and bearded sentries.
Coming out of the rugged and arid mountains of Afghanistan, a wide-open and moist plain opened up. The stones of Iran and Afghanistan were behind us. And expanded to one billion people in Pakistan and India.
With this post, I’m starting a seven-day series featuring photos from my travels and excerpts from my 1978 journal through Afghanistan. (I wrote this article from vague memories; upcoming entries were written with perseverance every night, describing the adventures of that day in this fascinating country.) Stay tuned, and let’s keep the Afghan people in our thoughts and prayers.