The Ghosts of Kabul

A young journalist is introduced to the strange quality of life in Afghanistan: "I saw my share of suicide bombings. I got arrested getting a haircut. And I wrote about everything."


Afghans have strange ways of memorializing their wars. They weave rugs with crudely rendered illustrations of tanks and the twin towers and other hieroglyphs depicting invasions and withdrawals; they put Soviet fighter jets high up on stilts like big tin gargoyles to ornament their airports. They fill a museum in Herat with tanks and helicopters and armored vehicles rendered impotent by mujahideen ambushes, proudly (if prematurely) displayed as trophies of war and homage to independence.

Kabul's museum has claymores and antitank mines, fragmentation grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and rounds as big as your forearm, all in open display cases so you can reach in and pick the things up. I see ordnance from Russia, England, China, Egypt, Italy, Pakistan, and America, buried relics that were littered across the country by a ceaseless procession of invaders backed by a long roster of international meddlers. But the museum's specialty is antipersonnel explosives: land mines.

My first month in Afghanistan, I drove out of the city, north on Shamali Road to an empty expanse of earth leading up to the mountains that once provided perches for rival warlords. After the Taliban fled, this for a time was a place of peace, where people lived, played, prayed, and brought their goats to graze. But then a woman hauling water stepped on a pressure-activated antipersonnel mine, and they knew the earth was charged.

In came the mine clearers to excavate the earth, first tracing paths with their metal detectors and lining them with stones painted white—the nationally recognized symbol for neutralized land. Red rocks mean live mines. They focused on a barren creek bed that provided natural cover for fighters advancing on Bagra-m airbase. The Soviets and then the Northern Alliance planted mines there, creating an explosive moat that extends twenty minutes in each direction (the mine clearers measure distance in time, which is the critical metric if one of them needs to be driven to a hospital).

The day I'm there, they unearth an Iranian mine that hasn't seen daylight since it was buried seventeen years ago and that can't be removed because it's planted against the wall of the creek bed, which has been baked by summer heat and is now brittle and crumbling. And anyway, they suspect it's been jury-rigged to other explosives in a "daisy chain" designed to take the legs off an entire regiment. So they blow it themselves and watch black smoke and pulverized rock shoot fifty feet into the sky.

In the capital city, amputees are everywhere, sitting on street sides, pushing out stumps where limbs once were to power their appeals for spare change. Kabul, so goes the joke, is the only city in the world where one shoe is as valuable as a pair. 

Just over a year ago, I sat in Duke Chapel wearing a cap and gown, ushered off by President Richard Brodhead's baccalaureate address, in which he disclosed in front of thousands that one of the graduating students was going to Afghanistan as a freelance journalist. At the time, it was still just an idea, one of questionable prudence and incomplete preparation, and I'd tried to be discreet with my plans in case, for one reason or another, they fell through. Even so, somehow, everyone seemed to know Brodhead was talking about me.

Highs and lows: Iin Kabul many areas still lack running water and reliable electricity.

Highs and lows: Iin Kabul many areas still lack running water and reliable electricity. Jeffrey E. Stern '07

Getting there was still an issue when Brodhead made his speech. I had relied—naïvely, as it turns out—on Duke ponying up some cash in the form of grants or a fellowship, since the idea had been so well received among the few faculty members and administrators with whom I had quietly shared my plans. Brodhead had said something earlier while I was in his office preparing for an alumni event I'd been asked to take part in. "Sometimes the most important things we do in life, we do without an institution supporting us." Here a cynical mind reads shrewd jujitsu—a seasoned tactician appeasing an impressionable mind. I had little choice but to embrace it.

And so, late last August, I went to my bank and withdrew all the money I'd made writing throughout college. I was literally going for broke, and, grasping for humor to assuage the anxiety, I asked the teller to give me my money in a metal suitcase with a combo lock. She smiled feebly, and instead offered a manila envelope and a bundle of bills that fit easily into one fist.

I once heard the parade of young journalists who marched into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation described as manifestations of Hemingway, fulfilling a gloriously distorted notion of what it meant to be a man. And that was me, twenty years later, coming to watch war and consume culture like a tourist. My senior year at Duke became a two-semester endeavor to justify the journey to myself and those around me, which was more than anything an exercise in the selective disregard of well-meaning advice.

Finally, I found my rationalization in a Vanity Fair story that mentioned the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London subway, which I ripped out and inked up with a circle around the following line: "…the 7/7 bombings, which killed 52 civilians (including a young Afghan, At[t]ique Sharifi, who had fled to London to escape the Taliban)…."

I learned that Sharifi had a younger sister, Farishta, he never saw again after leaving the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 2002, though it was her he sent all his spare money to; Farishta, really, the one for whom he'd made the journey in the first place.

So I'd go find the story of the boy in the parentheses, first landing in London (where I found enough to publish a feature for Esquire UK), and then I'd head to Afghanistan, freelance awhile, maybe find a development project to attach myself to, and when the time was right, go north to find Farishta. In the little litigations in my mind, this was how I argued away the risks, though I had no illusions about the fact that my postgraduate trajectory had been determined by a dead young man stuck in a sentence as an afterthought.

Members of my family resigned themselves to the fact that the white Jewish prodigal son was decamping for the land of the Taliban, and when it came time for me to leave, my father, who has always indulged in denial about the dangers faced by his children, went through the ritual of packing me a first-aid kit. He chose the clutch-sized kind with tiny Band-Aids, best suited for minor sewing accidents.

I arrived in Kabul amid what most reports deemed a deteriorating security situation. The surviving hostages from the bus full of Korean missionaries kidnapped six weeks before had just been freed by the Taliban, and the country had been allowed a brief media-orchestrated sigh of optimism. But the airport I flew into was bombed the day before I arrived. I would be staying initially in a fortified compound belonging to one of the countless NGOs operating in Afghanistan, and I was told as a matter of course which room was the sturdiest in case of a rocket attack. It was advice furnished with the same dubious air I imagined Cold War grade-school teachers assumed when instructing their students to hide under desks in case of a nuclear attack—as if a slab of wood could deflect an atomic blast wave and nuclear fallout. Likewise, I had little confidence the mud-brick walls around me would offer any resistance should it start raining mortar rounds.

I made Afghan friends, because I had no bureau and needed people to look after me. I saw my share of suicide bombings, watched how people reacted to them, went to morgues afterward and saw what bombs in confined spaces do to bodies. I went to the Iranian border. I got arrested getting a haircut. And I wrote about everything, for Esquire and Newsweek, a piece each for Durham's Independent Weekly and The Philadelphia Inquirer, my adopted and hometown papers, respectively.

Day in the life: funeral for members of parliament and bodyguards killed in November bombing

Day in the life: funeral for members of parliament and bodyguards killed in November bombing
Jeffrey E. Stern '07

Curiously, no one attacked the compound I stayed in upon arriving or any of the other hotels or guest houses I lived in. It could have been that the small infantries of security guards and their Russian assault rifles (both holdovers from earlier wars) dissuaded potential evildoers, or just that no one within shooting distance wished us ill will. The Taliban later stepped up its stabs in the capital, attacking a hotel frequented by Westerners and using the free media to announce its designs to further target establishments where Westerners congregate, but the threats of follow-up attacks never materialized.

Westerners are occasionally kidnapped in Kabul for ideological reasons, more often economic ones, because Afghanistan is poor and its people don't see enough of the aid money sent their way. Afghans characterize the foreign presence as a 7,000-mile game of fetch: The West throws development money at Afghanistan; Westerners scurry over to bring it back. Between inflated salaries and expensive security, the percentage of money that makes it through to redevelopment is offensively low. Meanwhile, United Nations SUVs with their giant phallic antennas waving about are the Afghan equivalent of the Toyota Prius; they're all over, and they confer on their driver an exaggerated sense of moral authority. And the disproportionate distribution of aid money is only one reason some Afghans believe the U.S. wants instability in Afghanistan—it needs an excuse to stay, I'm told, so its military is well positioned on the geopolitical chessboard.

Afghans don't for the most part blame every Westerner, and they're reluctant to express dissatisfaction to visitors because they're obsessive about their hospitality. But it must take a commendable fortitude to hold back: As most of Kabul still lacks running water and electricity for most of the day, foreigners enjoy a vibrant nightlife. Expats go to bars that throw salsa nights and happy hours that Afghans are prohibited from patronizing because alcohol is served. So the hosts are entirely absent from the social scene unless they're holding guns at the doors or looking ridiculous in tuxedo vests behind the bar.

While surprised, I was not unprepared to receive the following e-mail message a few days after my arrival: "2 of Kabul's fiercest party animals are about to leave us so we're throwing a massive end o' summer leaving bash to give them a sweet and proper send off. Music's guaranteed to be the crispiest tunes heard this side of the Hindu Kush, drinks will flow and it should be a wicked night to celebrate!!" Below, after his name and contact information, the sender's automatic e-mail signature read, "DFID, the Department for International Development: leading the British government's fight against world poverty."

But newcomers soon learn what it means to live amid war, surrounded by people who know nothing else. Though you're thrown at first by the parties peopled by overpaid expats—all the embarrassing contrast with what's going on around them—emotional survival in Kabul requires the gradual decay of peripheral vision. If you see everything, you're paralyzed, so you learn to look ahead and practice forgetting. And within weeks, you're scolding Bashir the bartender because he can't remember how you like your drink.

Day in the life: A child clings to her mother at neighborhood bazaar.

Day in the life: A child clings to her mother at neighborhood bazaar. Jeffrey E. Stern '07

On nights with wind, the dust kicks up and rolls like ghosts through the streets of Kabul; lamplight escapes from cracks in compound walls so you can see the spirits at your feet. Muslims call their ghosts "jinns," and when the dust swirls through houses hollowed by rockets and over roads carved up in recent wars by fallen artillery, the mind wanders: If ever there was a city for specters, Kabul is it.

One Sunday, I watch the Kabul night from my friend Aimal's roof. Aimal has invited a Canadian journalist to dine with us, too—a neophyte uninitiated to reporting in Afghanistan. He spends the evening pushing food around his plate and squirming uncomfortably, and when he talks, he betrays embarrassment for having chosen to live in a compound that Afghans are forbidden to enter, and for coming to Kabul for only a week or so to exploit the suffering he sees and be on his way. He's not yet come to terms with the fact that this is what we do here, all of us, no matter how long we stay.

Then his bowels get the best of him. "I have to leave," he says, "before I have an emergency." And I think how for expats in Afghanistan, life often revolves around the gastrointestinal. That afternoon, an Afghan friend who'd made a mistake causing me minor frustration wrote an e-mail message to apologize. "I'm sorry," he wrote, "for the incontinence."

Aimal's mother is beautiful in her own way, a weathered woman who's managed to maintain her grace through war. Over the course of several meals here, I've slowly drawn her out of the kitchen. The first time, she only showed her hands while pushing plates through the curtained doorway; the second time she came out to greet us, but only sheepishly, and was gone after a moment. Today she sits with us before we eat, and when I leave, I'm taken aback when she offers her hand to shake.

On the roof, one of Aimal's brothers points to where Jamiat-e-Islami fighters rolled their tanks up against the walls of his house, and from there shelled soldiers on the other side of the city. He gestures across the street to the house that collapsed under the rain of rockets, and next to that a small bakery. "Lots of people died there," he says. I ask why he never left, and he says he did, for a time, but that "our lives were here." So Aimal's family stayed. They watched houses collapse around them and neighbors turned inside out by falling artillery, all so that they could continue with their lives, as long as their lives continued.

He tells me what year it was according to the Persian calendar when the worst of the war was happening in Kabul, and I do some quick math in my head. It would be fifteen years ago, and that would put me in third grade, right around the time I was mourning the Philadelphia Phillies' loss in the '93 World Series.

When it came time to go find Farishta, I hired as a driver a security officer from an NGO, a former mujahideen from the days when everyone was, and brought along my friend Melissa, tall, blond, and feminist, and unapologetically all three in a country where laborers and drivers joke that they know no word for "woman," just "girl and "wife."

The drive from Kabul is long, up through the Hindu Kush mountains—"Indian killer," it means, because those from the subcontinent who tried to traverse them never could. But the range was tamed by Soviet industrial ambition, Russian tunnels built in the '80s with typical aesthetic disregard, looking like freight trains fused to rock face. Attique Sharifi made this drive several times with his family, back and forth from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul, while they tried to outrun the metastasizing violence.

The road is at times smooth, at times washed or bombed out, at times treacherous only for being sliced so thinly into the mountains with such a long way to fall. We pass rusting Soviet tanks adopted as inevitable elements of the country's terrain—the leftovers of Soviet imperialism combined with the singular resourcefulness of the Afghan people yields an exploitative kind of survival. Abandoned tanks are stripped of their wheel assemblies, their treads unraveled across the roads to serve as speed bumps, their hulls cut for scrap metal to become roofs and walls.

The car engine overheats on the climb, and we spend an unplanned night locked in a hotel room in Baghlan, where six parliamentarians and dozens of civilians will die in a bombing a month later.

Avian exchange: In the old part of Kabul, birds are bought and sold for fighting or food.

Avian exchange: In the old part of Kabul, birds are bought and sold for fighting or food. Jeffrey E. Stern '07

The next day, we leave for the final leg, moving through hamlets gouged into mountainsides. Dawn lights the rock faces we pass by so that they glow crimson; we're far from the pollution of Kabul now, and it seems that once the mountains have the full cooperation of the afternoon sun, they just might become incandescent. The awnings on the makeshift shops clustered intermittently throughout the valley are all a weathered red that matches the mountains—it's as though God chose his color scheme for this scar in the earth and then demanded uniformity.

It took going to find Farishta for me to finally see Afghanistan's natural beauty, the stuff that fills the journals of the hippies who came a million years ago to smoke opium and marvel at the mountains.

Farishta Sharifi sits silent, visibly uncomfortable in the presence of an unrelated male. Fahim sits in the room as well; he is their half-brother—hers and Attique's. I suspect he's the product of a second marriage, though I don't know how to broach the subject. The distance I've traveled has left me wordless; when the need for profundity is most pressing, it's often the least accessible. I show Farishta pictures of my family, of my dog, and of the woman in London who adopted her brother before he died. I give her a watch my sister picked out for her months before, and Farishta gives me a handmade purse to take home in return. I get the sense it's the nicest thing she owns.

Still, despite the pleasantries, every time my eyes meet hers I feel I've trespassed, repeated violations forgiven only because I'm a guest and therefore something sacred myself. I try not to look at her, defer to the fact that Fahim is gatekeeper. Months before, during my first night in Afghanistan, I'd climbed the wall of my compound and looked down at the family in the mud-brick house below, snapping pictures of the young girls dancing across rubble and rooftops with dark faces and brightly colored clothes. They noticed me, smiled and performed, and then their kneeling father turned and gave me a look like I'd taken something precious from him and smashed it at my feet. Not anger, but resignation, because there was nothing to be done now, and pain because he'd been powerless to prevent it. An early education in the destructive power of looking.

Ancient rituals, modern times: taxis use all available space.

Ancient rituals, modern times: taxis use all available space. Jeffrey E. Stern '07

We are in the family's receiving room, where guests come to sit on carpets and drink tea. It is only by special request and sustained pressure that Farishta is let into the room, which she has likely not been in since she was young enough to be comfortably androgynous—though it is a room in her own house, which is small and overrun by her half-siblings and their expanding families. And when other guests do arrive, Farishta vanishes behind the curtain doorway after only fifteen minutes of stilted conversation, though I have come many miles to see her.

I hadn't been prepared for the meeting. I'd expected it to be difficult—I was there because of her brother's death. Instead, I found myself chafing under the willful imprisonment I'd walked into, feeling like whatever the walls were made of, they were fragile, and I was straining them just by being there. Looking back to wave after Fahim walked me out, I saw Farishta again, an insubstantial silhouette in the shadows behind the door.

Back in Kabul: From my window one morning, I watch three Afghan men and a boy on the roof of a compound across the way laboring to unroll concertina wire. They pull up their sleeves and reach through the razors with needle-nose pliers, as if picking berries from a thorny bush. They try to avoid opening their skin on the blades while they install discouragement for their brothers.

It's ultimately a futile exercise, probably even counterproductive. Afghans tell me they walk by houses a hundred times without looking twice; only when the walls get topped with something sharp do they know foreigners live inside. Likewise, the concrete blocks set in the streets in front of houses forcing vehicles to approach in a slow slalom advertise the presence of high-value targets. These are the places where those so inclined know that a grenade lobbed over the walls will likely find something worth hitting.

Prosperity ahead: Boys watch wool merchant calculate revenue in town of Ghazni, important supplier to the country's carpet-making industry.

Prosperity ahead: Boys watch wool merchant calculate revenue in town of Ghazni, important supplier to the country's carpet-making industry. Jeffrey E. Stern '07

But such are the controls commissioned by foreigners who rarely understand the environment they're operating in. A friend who's been in and out of Afghanistan since serving as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago likes to say it takes a year to convince yourself you know the country and two to realize you never will. What then can we know about the wars fought here and those who fight them?

We watch cable news, click website headlines that shock us; maybe we read the newspaper, and we place our unrestrained faith in those of us who are there, sending wars home in minutes-long video packages and a few inches of newsprint. We concede that this is not enough to understand how it is over there, or we allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking it is. When people spoke of Attique Sharifi in the weeks after his death in the London subway bombings, in brief biographies in the British media, everyone parroted a recurrent theme, one of the deliciously confounding little Shakespearean ironies that made up all the component parts of his life: that he had come to London fleeing Islamic extremism.

The truth is maybe less compelling, but I'd venture to say more important: Sharifi left Afghanistan because his family needed money. Because even before the Taliban took his city, his country was forgotten. Dan Rather reporting in robes from the Khyber Pass, inspiring a larger-than-life Texas Congressman to adopt the fight as his own—this was a distant memory. When the Afghan resistance triumphed in 1989, the images of Soviet tanks snaking their way out of the country gave the era the kind of neat fade to black it needed to be forgotten, and so Afghanistan had long since slipped from the consciousness of just about everybody outside the country. And as the tide of media attention turned, the money dried up, post-conflict reconstruction never really materialized, and there was no legitimate effort to help a crippled economy manned by crippled people and diminished families.

Author Stern on one of his first days in the country, standing outside Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author Stern on one of his first days in the country, standing outside Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Jeffrey E. Stern '07

In 2002, just as the Western press was waking from its self-imposed Afghanistan blackout, Attique's mother sold the small plot of land the family had, gave most of the money to a smuggler and sewed the rest in the waist of Attique's pants, and sent him away to support the family from a place where he might find work, if he survived the trip.

And here was one of the untruths endemic in incomplete reportage, incomplete not just in the journalistic sense but also in the existential one. Sometimes, we fight wars with and against people we allow ourselves to misunderstand, against societies we impugn for veiling their women, though we have willingly submitted to veiling ourselves, just about all of us.                          

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