If your country had seen 5000 years of fighting, democracy would fail there, too.
The divisions in my own life cannot compare to the divisions in this country. A political solution within reach, but so fragile that the winds that build the dunes could destroy it. To alleviate the tension between candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ahsraf Ghani, international observers and mediators rushed in. US Secretary of State John Kerry spent a weekend playing power broker while the city went on lockdown. By the time he left, the candidates declared “National Unity” and agreed to a full vote audit. However, as soon as the international big brother departed, the candidates could no longer agree on the definition and Afghan politics resumed national disunity. The promise of the vote audit keeps the political crisis at bay, for the moment. But we all know that a winner must be declared. The specter of democracy will be exorcised or revived.
Politics pervades conversation of the educated and underprivileged alike. I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon in the home of an Afghan family who, even in the midst of Ramadan, graciously offered fruit and chai to cool the heated conversation of politics. If your country had seen 5000 years of fighting, democracy would fail there, too. The man who sat across the tapestried room from me is absolutely right, I do not come from a multi-millennial history of war and invasion, a nation forged by the stronger-willed and momentarily powerful.Some, like my host, feel that the importation of liberal institutions is an exercise in futility. Others welcome democracy but have been jaded by its repeated failures thus far in the Afghan context. Regardless of where one stands on the role of democracy, Afghans agree that the country is aching for peace after decades of conflict. The inability of the candidates to agree on any political remedy challenges the hopeful, but does not deter them entirely. Peace is a possibility still to be nurtured; the country marches on.
Meanwhile the vote audit trudges along, and I learned that it is moving much slower than is allowable in part because there are an insufficient number of international observers to participate. The disputed process spells violence here, and we need to move past electoral limbo. While sitting in the shade at the US Embassy, a diplomat casually dropped this fact then asked if my colleagues and I would be willing to lend a hand, to become part of the legion of observers hoping the truth will reveal itself. I happily agreed. In addition to manpower shortages, the audit has been hindered by a lack of agreement between the Abdullah and Ghani camps as to the standard auditing procedures. Without a mutually accepted procedure, the audit is a legitimate as the fraudulent votes it is meant to eliminate.
And while this is all so real and I am to become a small part of this drama, I find myself written in a play of pleasures by a man more interested in my vices than virtues. Together he and I create art, as much for the process as the product. A crack in the mud brick Kabuli wall where we broke all rules of propriety. The call the prayer wailing from some nearby mosque then the reading of the Quran, all the while our bodies become paint brushes, our breath setting the masterpiece. No impasse here. He makes it easy to ignore the rockets, to forget the hole.
The lark and the nightingale.
Anchor yourself into the rock, or risk the emptiness carrying you away.
As much as I wanted to just stay on the tile, just melt into the house, disappear from my world as much as I had disappeared from his, I simply could not. Eventually, I managed to at least make it to my bedroom, to lie in my proper coffin. In a moment of crisis, I had rashly mentioned to a confidant that all I had to do was walk out the door of the compound, remove my headscarf, and go for a walk. That’s it. It would be over.
Too many have been lost in places like this to a broken heart, strong men brought to their knees in desolate corners like these. Unwilling to fight any more because they realized that they fought for the face of some angel thousands of miles away, and not against the demon at their doorstep. When you fall out of favor with an angel the fear creeps in to your bones, weakens you from the inside out. Heartbreak is the most lethal weapon. A soldier told me of the combat veterans he has known who committed suicide after blows like the one that waylaid me. He told me I could be angry, I could be hateful, I could be motivated, but that I was not permitted to be sad. Not an option.
For what it is worth, I can thank my fallen angel for making it easy to break the ties between his heart and mine. At this moment my heart still does not belong to me. I have given it to my students to mend, experts in smiles and love. Too novice in the divisive games that adults play. And they make the most excellent doctors. I cannot blame him for all of the pain. I was too blinded by his grand plans for a future befitting of a parallel universe to realize I was incapable of bending space-time to meet him there. I am too weak to follow him beyond the end of the Earth as would be necessary. So foolish to believe that his high tower had room for me.
But now with a few Taliban attacks and devastating heartbreak under my belt, I am not afraid. Breaking those ties allows me a certain freedom. Again, I find myself unrooted as I have been many times before. But with each upheaval from the Earth, I have learned that I am capable of reforming my roots, allowing the sun to bring me back to life in a new place and time.
I was invited to a social event with a few of my expat friends and decided that while I was still weak in body and soul, I again need to lift that first toe— step one in the next thousand-mile journey. I could start in the company of friends. I arrived in Taimani after an extremely confusing cab ride; I had yet to regain my sense of direction or mental capacity and had gotten completely lost. Flustered, I knocked on the compound gate, still irritated I passed the guards while trying to adjust my wrinkled clothing and make myself presentable. Once I had finally looked up I was able to look past my sour disposition to see a kind of paradise. A beautiful home adorned in lights, fire, fruit, and the ever-present roses.
Music filled my head as reservations left my body. I made new friends, bumped into a few “old” ones and started to check my bitterness. Then, alone in the middle of the crowd, he found me. Saccharine face and honeyed tongue. A diplomat, professional charmer, made such kind gestures to welcome his guest, and I made no protest. Dangerous. I have written one international love affair, little harm in writing another. But this is not love, just an imitation induced by the silk of his voice and poison in his kiss. Not a bad substitute.
There is nothing in this world like a first kiss underneath barbed wire, explosions rumbling somewhere not far. Your mortality and flesh inextricably bound, you choose flesh. Perhaps even more alive than I have ever felt, the product of my raw soul and his electric touch. I had to leave. He begged me to stay. Silver-tongued, this son of Priam said he would get me behind the walls and never let me go. Let’s start a war, Helen. At once I became the legionnaire ready for battle and the queen for whom they fight. Unwillingly, I left.
Devil, you can keep the nightingale’s song. I prefer the lark anyways.
There may have been an intended target, but do not forget that Fire is an egalitarian adversary.
The entire staff was sitting in a circle in the lowest floor of the school, closest to hell, when the roar of the explosives flooded my eardrums and shook each of us to the foundations. The pillars of my being cracked in an instant. To the Safe Room. G, the newest SOLA employee instinctively ran, rounding up the students as she made a beeline to the other building in the compound. We have become accustomed to the boom of rockets in the near-distance and the pop of neighboring gunfire but this was different. Enemy at the gate. The adults are supposed to remain calm in such emergency situations and I’d like to think I am disciplined enough to obstruct the contagion of fear radiating from my soul, discharged from my shaking fingertips and exuding from my dilated pupils. I admit that I trembled while trying to collect students and soften their practiced sense of dread.
Just days before I was scheduled to return to the United States for my R&R, a NATO convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle within five blocks of our compound. The scene was too grim to have been anything other than the backdrop of Hamlet and one of our students found herself (gratefully) a minor player in this scene. She had been walking back home along the road when the portal to hell opened itself on Darulaman Road. She burst into the compound, a child possessed by the demons that emerged from that portico of evil. Tears streaming down her lovely face, there was no way to quiet her screams. More so than the blast itself, the image of her grief-stricken countenance and the accompanying sense of helplessness will haunt me. As the tidal wave of distress began to crest and break into a white fury, enter the lunar pull that sent my discipline into a tailspin:
You are not safe. Leave.
The Son of Priam would finally have his chance to get me behind the barbicans of his Troy, four blast walls thick to be exact, and insisted I join him in his embassy that night. He, unlike my fallen angel, heard my SOS before I had a chance to send the electronic pigeon and called for me. Let me protect you. I had not gazed into his strikingly clear eyes, had not melted over his deliciously venomous words for nearly a month. I wanted to see him, but not like this. Caught between Scylla and the Sirens, I was paralyzed. How could I leave knowing there exists intel that says my compound is in danger? What entitles me to rescue and not my students? As is customary in the throws of such waves, the current pulling me in countless directions I reached out to my confidant. Leave. If he says leave, then do it. Tell me when you are safe. Love.
I really need to stop listening to the men in my life, but in this instance I am perpetually grateful for their guidance and (occasional) demands. Fear had taken the reigns and I was so focused on pushing away the face of some new angel that I could not see the demons at my doorstep. I climbed into that car in the profundity of my guilt, but I went. Behind the blast walls, he did as he said he would and shielded me from the war without and began to calm the war within. I gave way to the carnal terror and lust that simultaneously piloted my body as an expression of both my fatalistic impulses and sincere gratitude. Grateful to this man who could be the antidote to the blinding pain my fallen angel had afflicted. Thankful for the concern he had showed could be reserved in my name. Cassandra. For this prince, I am no longer the accursed princess but have been elevated. My Queen.
Say it again.
At the apex of this story, the deus ex machina arrived reminding me of my departure back to the US only to return to Kabul after some anticipated catharsis. I sailed for 23 hours of flight time, 46 total hours in transit and only to return to a palace invaded. This is not the Ithaca I treasured with bittersweet melancholy when I departed for battle what seems like decades before. Boston became the avatar of deceit, embodiment of forfeiture during my absence. I don’t want to be here. I was never written for the meanderings of Odysseus and cannot count my absence in years, only months. I am amazed at how noxious the humidity feels against my bare skin. How lethal is his memory. These are no longer our memories, I have nothing left to share or give to that Devil. I know I am exhausted and quite literally shell-shocked but I do not have the strength to exorcise Ithaca of the false suitor that spoiled what could have been my home.
Life among the roses.
Cassandra could see the future. I am not her. Apollo, let me go.
The sun rises early here, unfiltered and bold. I awake by the light so powerful it is unobscured by the heavy curtains that swathe this place. Protect this place from view. It is a delicate balance we must learn; the scales of justice do not always tip in our favor. So much of Afghanistan is gone including the roses sent to Bulgaria that produce the sweetest rose oil for the finest perfumes. But new roses have sprung up in this revived place. It is a strange thing to realize that almost all of these girls, my Afghan roses, lived during Taliban rule and in hearing their stories I feel so honored to become a part of their future, as bright as the sun upon the Hindu Kush.
Our students are sohas, little stars in Dari, and understand deeply what education means to them and work to complete double the amount of schooling as their peers while at SOLA. They rise at a time when the dawn may be breaking in Afghanistan, their flame lit during in an era of rapid change. One student, Shougofa, drafted a speech as if she were a presidential candidate in the current race. She will be a fine candidate someday, with a kind, bold heart:
“Here is what I will do for Afghanistan:
I want people to get an education and with that education, they can serve not just their own country, but they can also serve the world. I will give all children the right to study. I will not let them work when they are teenagers, but instead they will go to school. I don’t want students to only memorize quotes. I want them to know what those quotes mean, what was the experience of each writer who wrote, and what the main point was behind those words.
I want to be a woman of value so that success will follow me and I will not follow success. I came to support you and help Afghanistan join together with stability and freedom and peace. I will not complain about President Karzai. I know we have many problems but President Karzai has made a lot of changes also.
I will continue to do more for you people. Now in Afghanistan, girls are going to school. Now in Afghanistan, girls are going to university and now the women are taking part in the government. Now women in my beautiful Afghanistan are taking part in parliamentary efforts. Now in Afghanistan, women and girls are taking part in sports.
I will work hard and stay honest up to the end of my presidential term. I will make and not destroy what you made and what president Karzai made for you people in these 12 years.”
This country may see its first peaceful transfer of power ever this summer, but there is much worry among the Afghan people who say they are ready to fight with a pen, and no longer with a gun. The candidates may be ready to battle each other, but the Kabulians demonstrate quite peacefully in the streets this week, ready to hold their government accountable and ready to end the violence that has destroyed so many lives. I feel akin here, the city and country also on a precipice. I feel my own worries ripple like the heat in the desert air. My own uncertain future reflected in the glass pane windows that snake up the mountainsides.
In anticipation of increased political activity and unrest, I have been encouraged to learn the city while I still can. I attended a concert at the French Cultural Institute featuring Afghan and American musicians honoring Afghan music with both experimental and traditional pieces. My colleagues and I braved a restaurant situated in a garden despite the bombing of the Lebanese, a popular restaurant where so many died this year. I have also been blessed by the opportunity to study calligraphy in the ancient Persian style. When my teacher met me, in this beautifully restored artisan haven in Murad Khani, she presented me my bamboo pen, paper, and a jar of red ink. My companions had been presented with black or blue ink- more traditional. I asked her why she had given me red when the scrolls of her other pupils resembled the sky- day or night- and mine would be inflamed like the hot earth under my feet?
It is not that you are American. It is because I believe there is love in your heart. Use this love in the script, and it will be beautiful.
Your eyes are beautiful.
When presented with a compliment Afghans respond with this phrase in turn, choosing to honor the windows to our souls. In the presence of such kindness, I learned I have a Lazarus heart, revived and reawakened. From my new vantage point, heavens and hells away from him, I realized that I do not regret having been one of the women in his life. Never a muse but perhaps a nymph. I hope I am chapter not forgotten or pages torn from the book, but savored. Reread again and again. In all honesty, I want to be a chapter rewritten or repeated. Perhaps he too will see a bold heart, sweetened by the perfume of the roses who blossom here among the rock, my 33 sisters.
Gunshots ringing through the air, but there is no fear. It is time to break the fast, indulge, and celebrate all that is right in this country. Eid is a very special time for billions around the globe, and a moment of peace in the political turmoil here. The IEC audit has halted but this time not out of discord and gives pause to the crisis. Makes the space for us all to smile.
The students were giggly while packing to go home to their families. Earlier in the week a lice outbreak at the school conjured endless tears, insults, and unwarranted shame between the students. We were all exhausted after boiling pot after pot of water over the stove in stifling heat in order to wash every last item of clothing and bedding in the school. M and I spent an entire day washing heads with the chemical soap, hands cracking after each application while the students silently cried, afraid that their hair would fall out. We all needed a break. From the constant state of crisis, the fear, and the daily grind that serves as a lethal combination here. The expat staff that lives full time at the school breathed a collective sigh of relief when the last student had been collected, knowing that as exhausted as we are that we will miss each and every one of their smiles. I am selfish to want all of their love for myself, but it’s easy to want more when they have so much love to give.
At first, all we could do was sleep. While in the moment, it is impossible to realize just how exhausting my new life is. I throw myself headlong into every day knowing that if I cannot pick up and run away then it is time to stand and face the life I chose. This type of work, a boarding school, saps even the experienced educator under ideal circumstance. When you include the secrecy, hiding, lying, and daily security threats there is no way to avoid crushing enervation.
After a few days, the six of us emerged sleepy-eyed but renewed, ready to rise under the bright sun during the week of peace. With renewed appreciation, Afghans gather with friends and family donning new, bright clothing to celebrate. Our Afghan families would not allow us to miss such an opportunity. Our first invitation brought is through a series of narrow allies in an unfamiliar neighborhood, the straw visible in the mud brick walls hugging the constricted streets. Deep in the labyrinth is a blue metal gate behind which I celebrated my first Eid. An array of sweet juices, exquisite dried fruits, delectable cakes, and earthy nuts unfolded on the scarlet rugs before us. But my favorite dish of all is still the honey conversation of my Afghan hosts. As the minutes slipped by, all manners of color framed the feast as we laughed and chatted in our most festive garb; the fatigue and fear that had seeped into our bones flitting away with each smile.
The following day, our founder and president, Shabana, decided we really needed an escape and arranged for us to visit the family home of one of our Kakas in neighboring Paghman district. We made our escape by car, an especially risky mode of transportation given the prevalence of roadside bombs along such highways. But we knew and accepted the risk, ready to break out of the tiny confines of the Sola compound. In order to make the trek, we were directed to cover everything—to the ankles, wrists, and to the eyes. Our village destination almost never welcomes foreigners and my colleagues and I did what we do best — veil.
The car snaked along the mountains, passing a pale blue lake where men and boys bathed in the cool waters. Kabul creeped out of sight and I felt my hot breath rising against the green scarf concealing my trepidation. Kaka told us to take pictures, enjoy the ride, and not worry so we began to let our guard down. He even pulled the car over along a breath-taking vista so we could try and capture the austere beauty of the precipitous peaks climbing towards divinity.
After some time, we turned off the highway into a village made entirely of mud, the street children chasing the car to catch a glimpse of their concealed visitors. Winding down the jagged narrow dirt road I realized just how metropolitan Kabul is compared to the rest of this country. Faced with abject poverty beyond anything I had ever experienced, I felt eternally grateful for our beat up Corolla, our broken shower, and the lovely rose garden behind my house. Once arrived, we were hurried behind the walls of Kaka’s family compound to avoid unnecessary attention, heads down and faces covered. Once safely inside we were greeted by a family we did not know we had. Most of Kaka’s extended family lives in this formidable compound that better resembles a fortress than a home. The matriarch of the family ushered us into a cushioned and brilliant room, clearly scrubbed clean to host the endless trail of guests that arrive with the Eid holiday. As is customary, the female guests were kept separate from the male guests with the exception of children who remain with mothers or aunts. In the company of our new extended relatives, protected by earthen ramparts, we lounged for hours as dishes of eggplant, yogurt, fruits, bread, and rice appeared on the serving mat at our feet.
After a most luxurious meal, it was suggested that our party take a slight detour on our way back to the city to Qargha, a reservoir situated on the fringe of Kabul. As we approached the lake, I saw people happily splashing, relief from the blistering sun acquired by the mineral properties of the water. Then I realized all of the revelers again were men, and that I would not be so lucky as to assuage the thirst of my skin.
Pulling off along a dirt road hugging the far bank of the river, our Afghan security detail fanned out and cleared a significant portion of the lake for our disposal. They decided on a section of the lake below a steep slope, preventing unwanted eyes from the road. We were free. Our cadre of women played like children, juggling apples, running, and letting our headscarves fall lazily towards the backs of our heads all while under watchful eyes. Our guard brought us raw almonds picked from the trees lining the lake, laughing at how strange we found the green flavor. In moments like these I feel only hope. Hope that one day we could walk the banks of this lake without having to chose between fear and armed guards. That our students will speak of explosions in the past tense. Never again the future or present.
While this respite has begun to heal my tired body, time and distance have begun to heal my soul. I no longer feel sick to my stomach when I see the necklace he gave me that day beneath the pines, the jade the same pale hue of Qargha; I just want to throw it in a fire instead. I finally took it off, his talisman. Meant to serve as a code: so long as I wore it he would know his place near and in my heart. I never took it off, not to sleep or run or anything in between. It was strange to release the clasp and let the jade fall away. I used to reach for the smooth stones instinctively when I was nervous, or when he would flash me that smile that used to take my breath away; the weight of the stone and our history bringing me back to Earth. For days after I removed my amulet I kept grasping for the chain, my heart panging each time I realized it was gone. Just like him. Now those beads are where they belong, in a small satin bag in the bottom drawer.
You never needed him.
Like Icarus I flew too close to the sun, but he is not my undoing. Burned from the flame, I discovered myself in the Phoenix. I learned I could not rise from the ashes where he left me—that Harbor; I needed the dust and hot wind of Kabul to lift me. But now the Eid holiday is over and I have to return to the Harbor, that damned place where two of my past lives ended. But I am not ready to say goodbye to this beautifully broken place, I see myself completely in love here. I agreed to call this trip my R&R. Temporary. But Boston is no longer the safe haven where this legionnaire will find rest, that place that was once our city is no more. I dread returning but will do so knowing that I have left my heart to this eccentric city where I now feel at home.
Zephyr, it is time to go. Take me. But know I will return a storm back these to stone peaks. Very soon.
Kabul is a solitary place at night. Sitting in the back of a white Toyota, the city lights do not pierce the sky here like in other cities. The stars able to guide our way. The ancient city wall built centuries ago divides in half; a fractured world from the start. Mudbrick wall after wall separates the homes, the compounds, the lives of the people here. Privacy treasured, secret dramas within each confine. I am one of the few women who sees the night here. It is not appropriate in Afghan culture for a woman to be out after sunset but I watch from behind the glimmer of cab windows. Unpermitted to see the men who sell fruit under the Technicolor lights on the streets. I have perhaps too much freedom here but that is the virtue of my position.
My head is a solitary place at night, discarded by a man I believed loved me. Wiped from his digital existence. I am unrooted and rotten fruit, spoiled from a decade of solitude. My confidant tells me I am brave for my decision to come to Kabul and to refuse my fallen angel’s unrealistic demands, but I’m not sure that is accurate. But I would rather my confidant think I am fearless rather than lonely, a euphemism I am ready to accept. But for as much as I love my confidant and as much as he knows about me, he is wrong. I am not fearless. I simply have no call to return, no normal life waiting for me and the fallen angel’s conditional love reminds me of this truth. And while “home” continues to elude me, I can say that Kabul makes me feel strong. I have no intention of haunting him for the wounds he caused this legionnaire in combat, but he should know better than to believe that leaving me on the other side of the world will make me fade away. Moving through Kabul at night, I am very real. I am hyper-aware of my mortality, my existence.
Returning home from the UN compound on Jalalabad road at night is an exercise in resilience of mind, calm of heart. Kabul demands that you be strong. It is not safe and everyone knows this. This fact does not stop others and myself from returning with the promise of an escape. A chance to forget that this is war and that each day it gets worse. We had played Frisbee in 110 degree heat, undeterred by the desert blaze. Later we danced, the rare cocktail taking the edge off of propriety. All of us seeking refuge from the violence and strain coursing through the country as the election audit slips into disarray. But the escape never lasts. Driving across the city, the oily darkness setting in, I saw men fighting in the streets. It is impossible to identify which war this battle belongs to: the private wars between kin or public wars against kin.
The slick night broke with a bang, Jalalabad road was attacked only hours after I had passed through and I awoke in lockdown. I am surprised at how easily it is to adjust to life at war, normalizing blasts and turning doors into prison gates. Attacks happen early in the morning here, dawns are the scariest moments. Two foreign women were targeted this week, their deaths meant as a message. In Herat, the local authorities decided to disallow girls from attending school, shutting the doors to opportunity as the war escalates. I should probably be more afraid of the magnetic bombs that grow ever-present as targeted killings increase, but I cannot spend all of my energy being afraid. In an effort to disguise my foreign status, I am permitted only to wear black outside of the walls. But any devil can find me, I am ready. I know in my heart that my work here is good. That my students are worth it. That the 40,000 girls in Herat left without an education need us to be brave. Maybe my confidant is right after all, we are fearless.
The villagers of Kapisa rise against the Taliban forces who haunt their valley this week. Unwilling to succumb to that hell.
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
We too, will rise.
The announcement of the preliminary vote count was not well received by all. Accusing the IEC, Ghani, and Karzai of a complex conspiracy, Abdullah and his followers met at the loya jirga the day following the announcement, threatening to form a parallel government. Despite the preliminary nature of the vote count, both candidates have declared themselves victors as the country approaches a political crisis, threatening to hurtle the nation into civil war and destroy 13 years of hard-won progress.
All the while, the attacks continued through the city and the fighting in Kandahar reaches a fever pitch. My contacts warn that the Taliban forces are using advanced weaponry and complex tactics and suspect significant ISI, Pakistani Special Forces, support in the offensive. I lifted my coffee mug to my lips while reading this unsettling, yet unsurprising news only to have the steaming liquid fall from the cup as a magnetic bomb rumbled the city. Magnetic bombs are a preferred method of the Iranians, a weapon found more and more frequently in Kabul. We hear rumor about a group of Talibs in Ghor trained and supplied by the Iranian Qods force, and alarming thought given that rumor has it Abdullah threatened to fly to Tehran and return to Kabul with an army just over a week ago. The proxy war is still very much alive here and I have been cautioned to prepare my escape and evade plan in the event the spark becomes a flame.
The tide of war threatens to wash away all we have built here, and in response five of our older students met to begin a weekly discussion about issues they decided were most pressing, willing the progress to continue. I have met very few groups of 16-year-olds who opt to spend their afternoons discussing the sources of law but these sohas continue to challenge and inspire me. Underneath the favor of the Sun here, it can be infuriating to believe this fragile shadow of peace hangs on the egos of men. Among the strength of these girls who can calmly discuss their own often-tortured pasts, I have faith that Afghans must and will expect more of the men who claim themselves the victors. We men are wretched things.
Bur little did I know that I, too, was wretched.
The following morning was shattered with a shot strait to the heart far more destructive than the bullets that pepper the walls. Liar. The evidence, right there for me and the entire world to see. I felt my breath escape me. Liar. My body frozen in the heat. Liar. Unable to trick my eyes and deny my head, my battered and exhausted heart finally stopped. Undead and unable to revive, suspended in this Netherworld, I shut off. The Apollonian walls crumbled, breached from the inside. Incapable of coping with all that I was compelled to feel, I shuffled down the stairs to work. I spoke to no one.
The Moirai decided heartbreak wasn’t enough. Crush all of her. Compounding the melancholy set on drowning me in this desert, my body failed as well. Some inexplicable bout of illness hit me faster than the magnetic bombs that rocked the city the day before, and even water felt like poison.
Hours passed. Lying, shaking, on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, I was too weak to sit up anymore. In an instant, my body and soul both broke and I started to cry for the first time since I arrived. I didn’t have the strength to sob, so instead I let the tears slide down my ghostly face in floods that puddled beneath me forming mirrors of my grief. I saw myself weak and vanquished, for all that I am and am not. The scars that lace my body a hex, because Devils like him find me.
It is time to move on and follow Eurus; the torture of not knowing whether to wait or forget reconciled. I know what I must do.
Devil, I know there is nowhere on this Earth I could go where you cannot find me.
So take heed, take heed of the western wind.
Take heed of the stormy weather.
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me…
The Gods must be restless.
The champagne in his veins replaced by the blood of us mortals, he is a man and nothing more.
The city waits with bated breath to see if 13 years and countless lives were lost in vain. The IEC had planned to announce the preliminary vote count on July 2nd but delayed the announcement as presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah continues to hurl fraud allegations and the security apparatus bolsters itself against the anticipated backlash.
The day came and went with no results, only violence. A suicide bomber attacked Kabul University killing and wounding students. An IED explosion took the lives of ANF soldiers being transported to their post. And bombs targeting the Ministry of Interior rocked the windows of our classrooms only a few blocks away. The attacks did not end. The following day, rockets destroyed helicopters and planes at the Kabul airport, prompting airlines to reduce service to the city- bad news to those of us who may be forced to leave as the crisis escalates.
The attacks are close. I am scared.
I sent my SOS to the man who could not get to me, irrationally believing that I still mattered in his world. And that I could be saved. I regret my momentary weakness but for what it is worth, I was afraid. And I did want him to know this fact. I was simply foolish enough to believe that I couldn’t save myself. Just breathe.
With the intense stress, I was aching for some way to release the tension locking my shoulder blades. I had been invited to the UN compound to play Ultimate Frisbee and BBQ on our Friday off, an invitation I accepted with gusto. I jumped into the cab that sped along the largely empty streets after the previous days’ attack. The UN compound could not be farther from my home in Karte-seh in both location and reality. Located on Jalalabad road, or as we call it: J-bad, the UN compound is a behemoth. I cleared the barbed wire, armed guard, and pat downs to be greeted by Fred, a tall and handsome Frenchman posted with UNAMA who organizes these games. Soon the other non-UN guests filtered in and we collectively made our way passed the armored UN cars, uniform housing units, and containers to an AstroTurf pitch situated below the watchtower brandishing large block print “UN”.
This is not Kabul. We all stripped off the layers to reveal spandex shorts and thighs as someone turned on a Beyoncé mix on the speakers. We played in the sun for hours, the desert winds ruffling my uncovered hair and the sun warming my bare shoulders. The little pleasures. After countless games, we made our way to the Social Center, an air-conditioned bar and restaurant with pool tables and a patio. I guiltily ordered a glass of chilled white wine and parked myself in the shade. Bookended by two security guys from UNAMA, one American and one Romanian, I had almost forgotten where I was. But this place has a way of bringing you back to the dusty Earth. Just an hour or so after I left the UN compound, a car bomb tore up J-bad Road only meters away from the outer walls of the compound. Luckily, everyone was ok.
The next morning I awoke to a bright dawn, except it was 2am.
I peered out of my curtains to see scarlet streak the sky, orange light up the slopes. Completely confused, I grabbed my phone and kept checking the hour. Still 2am. Flying out the door of the house into the garden, I was at a loss for words. I was definitely not in Kabul anymore; I had found myself in the pages of Dante’s Inferno. When the solar dawn had finally arrived after a sleepless night, the world, like my mind was blanketed with a haze: ash mixed with the city dust.
The conflagration had knocked out the power to most of the city and we were cut off from the truth behind the midnight dawn. After nearly 24 hours of confusion, we learned that a NATO supply convoy had been attacked by Taliban forces just on the edge of the city. More than 400 fuel tankers burned to the ground, struck by rockets.
The release from my day at the UN compound was gone. The strain in my neck inducing the headaches and stealing my sleep. I have been finding refuge in my own head in these days, although my thoughts are not the safe haven I need. When the security alerts sound, I see him smiling back at me over a glass of scotch on the night he first told me he loved me. When the windows and doors rattle from rockets, I find myself hearing his voice:
Tonight was absolutely beyond perfect, you’re incredible, I’m head over heels.
Completely in love.
You’re so perfect…. Me derrito contigo preciosa.
I want him to hold me. Then I remember that hole. That hole that he burned through me like the rockets I am learning to ignore. That hole that leveled me while I began this journey in New York. That hole that the wind and clouds passed through as I struggled towards summits back in Colorado. That hole that had begun to close when I saw him one last time in the concrete canyons, only to be ripped open once more. That hole that drives me on, pushes me harder, unable to keep still for fear that I will be torn at the seams. I hear his voice:
You mean to me way more than you know. I’m sorry I caused you so much pain.
I hear the siren of the duck and cover order. Protect your heart. But this alarm is not meant for my heart, rather for the city in which I stand. Not the harbor from which I ran. The announcement of the vote count is coming, the city bracing for impact. Finally, the announcement came hours later, the anticipation deafening. As expected, Ghani in the lead, although by a slimmer margin than I had anticipated. After reading the announcement, I stepped out to catch a glimpse of a shooting star in the night no longer obscured by ash. A fallen star like myself.
I needed to feel it all. The fear, pain, and blind hope. Standing on the rooftop of the school under the stars, the city lights flickering up the sides of the mountains that divide Kabul, I felt the night breeze filter through my hijab and cool the sweat on my neck. Passing through the hole. I closed my eyes, it was almost peaceful. Then the peace was shattered by the pop of gunfire and the sound of the sirens that come only in moments when the city is at its worst.
So it begins.
The hot wind on my face, dust billowing from the streets I walked quickly with my head lowered. It is better if you do not speak. Heed the warnings and lean into the fiery breath of the city. Pull your scarf tighter around your face. The man who was following us towards the mosque moved resolutely, chattering in Dari and making smacking noises with his lips.
It was a day off, they are very few when you live at a boarding school that must remain unseen, and I had been invited to dine in the traditional Afghan style for lunch. S, the Dean of Student Life at SOLA, had actually been invited but she had extended the invitation as it is always safer to move through the city in groups. Our cab brought us to a part of the city through which I had yet to pass, a neighborhood tucked just where the mountains begin their struggle to reach heaven. Jumping the sewer, we headed back through an ally of mud brick and plaster walls to the home of Faranaz, a SOLA graduate who had returned to Kabul for the summer from her studies in the US.
I followed S into a room drenched in crimson, intricate rugs adorning every inch of the floor that stacked upon the pillows and cushions lazily lining the walls. We were asked to sit and make ourselves at home as Faranaz excused herself to the kitchen to fetch the tea and prepare lunch. As we sipped the tea, sweetened by the characteristic cardamom that pervades Afghan cooking, Faranaz’s sister, Farima entered to greet her guests. It is true that Afghan hospitality is unrivaled and I have been embraced despite my dissimilarities since arriving. Farima sat and I learned all about her studies at a well-respected college not far from my own university in the US. Listening to her stories I found myself impressed by her accomplishments but more importantly moved by her passion. The future of Afghanistan. Together, the four of us enjoyed one of the best meals I have ever savored, appreciating the uniqueness of the three nationalities represented and the feminine conviction that marries us together.
The city was calm, asleep in the heat of the afternoon. Faranaz suggested walking to the nearby mosque as it is a beautiful homage to the art of her home and spirituality of her people; she has great pride for her nation. We struck out along the road that separates the graveyard on the left from the mountainside slum to the right. The street appeared deserted as we had expected and we chatted happily while we walked off the afternoon sloth.
He came out from behind a broken down car, staring intently. It is better if you do not speak. At first, we quickened our place only slightly and dropped the conversation where it stood. He was soon joined by others and they moved towards us. The three of us closed the gap between our shoulders and I felt myself tugging my scarf tighter around my head, and brought the excess fabric up to my eyes. We broke into a run, our long tunics flicking at our heels as we the battled the incline to outpace our pursuers.
Hands shaking, pulse reaching a fever pitch, I was liberated by the sanctuary of the mosque. Coming over the crest of the hill, we hurriedly removed our shoes and entered the women’s section, where men could not follow and once again I found myself protected by the heavy drapes meant to preserve our honor, defend our worth.
At home I am adamantly opposed to separation like this. But I admit that here I understand why women may be more comfortable in their isolation. I can see why some choose, or their fathers or husbands have chosen for them, to wear the blue burqa. Cerulean ghosts. I have been told that in the city, about half of the women still wear the burqa even though it is no longer mandatory. I have seen many on the street, always while I sat in the car. Today, the phantoms did not shimmer behind the glass of the car windows that separate me from their underworld. I had crossed Styx and entered their domain, their cloaked heads turning to size me up as I found a place to sit in the dark among the pious. I rationally know they are women just like myself, but the burqa still conjures fear in me. My Afghan colleagues and students vocalize their hatred for the burqa, but in this moment I wanted hide and melt away whatever features had drawn so much attention.
I was ready to return to my own dark curtains behind the walls in Karte-Seh that are my refuge. We called Kaka to pick us up directly from the mosque, unwilling to relinquish its guard. Once safely back, I went right to work, feeling I needed to take back the fearless woman who I had left on that street. Needing to do what tiny piece I could for these girls whom I love so much. I skyped with my US-based counterpart, C, to discuss the mentoring program for which we share responsibility and are in the process of reconstructing.
Perfect. Let’s fix this. This I can handle.
One of the mentors had expressed concern about one of our students who had graduated public high school and is about to age out of SOLA. An exceptionally bright and committed student, she is always prepared to help others and truly serves as the big sister to all of the students here. Her dream is to become a doctor after as a child witnessing the death of a woman in childbirth because no one was available to attend to her. She passed the Konkor exam, the national Afghan exit exam, but was not offered a place in the medical programs but rather a place in engineering. She has refused to accept this placement and the school cannot afford to provide the necessary scholarship for her to study medicine at a private school. This student is rightly upset for many reasons, not excluding that one of her peers, who had not passed the exam, had bribed her way into medical school. The mentor wanted to know how to support this student, how in Kabul the skênê is set, and when the deus ex machina will enter.
Confronted with my convictions and simultaneously the harsh reality of women in this country, I found myself at a crossroads. How could I tell her to accept the opportunity to study engineering? Could I tell her to settle and to accept what the world has offered her? Do I have another option? We cannot send her back to Kandahar, her home province. Her immediate family has been forced to lie to Talib relatives about her whereabouts while she pursued her education. We cannot lose what we have won but I do not have the heart to tell her to accept second best.
I am not a woman who has simply accepted what the world handed me. The universe afforded me the support and opportunities that allowed my struggle to not be in vain and I had the sense that my contributions at SOLA in some way could pay that forward. But the context has changed; the sands under my feet have shifted.
In these moments of fear and doubt, I only want to feel his hand on my neck leading me to where I should go. It was one of my favorite gestures, at once showing his affection and affording protection in the moments when he thought I was not safe. I can live with the blistering heat, the film of dust that cases every surface, and the weight of my headscarf on my shoulders. But right now I cannot live without that feeling of his thumb at the base of my neck, the pressure of his forefinger behind my collarbone. There is nowhere to run. Regretfully, that ship has sailed and this Carthaginian cannot abide.
Do not forget your Dido already. But know the match is already lit.