Life Lessons from Kabul. Part Two. Issue 24

Image: 'Balloon Vendor' Paula Lerner. Kabul 2005

This is Part 2 of 'Life Lessons in Kabul' (see Issue 23 for Part 1)

My first day in Kabul has gone off the rails.

"You must go to city prison." repeats my translator.

Lost in translation, I uncover that our car is headed to Kabul's city prison AND central police station to report a crime. The reporting of which is apparently essential to replacing my stolen visa.

Why must bureaucracy sound so menacing?

We pull in front of a sizable, dusty, stone fortress, its tall walls pockmarked with old civil wall shell fragments, the entrance loosely guarded by two men with guns and clipboards. We pass through and into a massive courtyard.

I am suddenly frozen. And standing in a sea of Afghan men. Hundreds. Hostile male eyes fixed upon me, their breath exhaling white fire in the cold. How many Taliban sympathizers among them? I am a female American freak in their midst and want to disappear into thin air.

Why did I decide to wear a bright RED headscarf this morning of all mornings?

Feeling exposed, I pull the now pulsating, glowing headscarf tighter, pushing aside the heavy dirty blanket covering a doorway, and step into a dim corridor. My translator and I head toward a stairway and descend downward. We slide past empty jail cells, the stained walls hinting at grim stories I don't want to know.

Finally I walk into the light of a small basement level room. It contains three stern-faced men, seated behind broken metal desks, a filthy sofa where I am directed to sit, and a small pellet stove churning out spectacular amounts of heat. I am told these men are Kabul city policeman. And I must wait for their captain.

I am in a Kabul basement, unable to speak the language. My 'phone-a friend' is a questionably trustworthy translator. And it is so incredibly hot.

Why did I decide to wear a bright red CASHMERE headscarf this morning of all mornings?

We wait. My free will to leave is unclear. Hours trickle past as do the beads of sweat running down my face and back. The silence is broken only by the periodic, inexplicable replenishment of the roaring stove, and an offer to 'question' my driver until he confesses. "Thanks, but no beatings today. I just need a paper." 

And then it happens.

"The lieutenant wants to know if he can ask you a personal question".

Boredom overtakes my trepidation. "Of course".

Shy smiles slip across the men's faces. "Are you married?" The policeman's first question (as it turns out, always the first question Afghans ask) leads to twenty more and then forty as I return the questioning, and the shape of our lives begins to be shared.

I learn that Mohammad has two daughters, not only in school, but first and second in the classes. The eldest wishes to be a doctor, the youngest an engineer. Given the tragic record on women's educational rights, I am surprised at his pride. But he hopes his wife is the last generation of illiterate Afghan women. He is curious about what brings me to Afghanistan and urges our organization to get out into the provinces. Mohammad was tortured by the Taliban in this very prison. He knows they remain part of the provincial fabric. "Kabul is not Afghanistan". He makes me promise to travel.

For hours, we talk, and talk, and talk...of childhoods, family, livelihoods, hopes and dreams. The other men join in. Until my translator is spent and we all have given up hope that the captain will return. We will need to come back. Mohammad asks for a final word, a message to my husband. "Thank him for allowing you to come help the women of my country." I register that I don't bristle at his word "allow". Because I know his meaning. No longer a stranger, I know he is in a long marriage too.

On that day almost twenty years ago, a small, sweltering room of humans shared life stories and found our humanity. Birth, school, marriage, work, parenthood, and death bound us no matter the differences in our geography or circumstances. And I learned that while the fullness of one's life is more than its milestones, it is the common human milestones which connect us to the whole of mankind. 

Stories from the Snap Shack Issue 24 (February 21, 2023).
This blog is produced from my Piermont studio, known by my inner circle as Kate's 'Snap Shack'. Enjoy and share with others in your inner circle.

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