The drive to Herat was pleasant, especially after the Islam Qala checkpoint with Iran, where an Afghan Customs guard, with a straight face, tried to commandeer my car, by claiming it was stolen. I suppose one incident of bureaucratic corruption--even though it formed my first impression--should not color the whole barrel of Afghan raisins as rotten.
No, blanket condemnation would not be fair, but the incident did put me on my toes (my shoes were stolen later, but that was by a Sikh in the Punjab area of India). Not relevant
The thing about Afghanistan is the paucity of its, shall we say?--demographic de'cor. The land spreads sparsely in all directions--flat, jagged, and ragged--as if God had run out of even the most rudimentary forms of decorating delight. Grey sky over grey rug. It is a landscape that even Martha Stewart, with her contagious clutter of chutzpah, would likely fall victim to despair, and hang herself from the nearest acacia tree. The natives would later weave an enigmatic rug in her honor.
We came to the outskirts of a town--a cluster of trees, buildings, and minarets. I would not call it an urban oasis, but it was definitely a hub. Pulling into Herat was like jumping off a swing set, and landing in a patriarchal playground a thousand years old. Goodbye Middle East; hello Central Asia. Men wore gnarled white turbans and Osama-length beards; women full-length black burkas. Horses, donkeys, and carriages mingled with trucks and motor bikes; not to mention an occasional camel. An understated vitality permeated the people, as if some formaldehyde potion, magically preserved their iron-willed power.
Rooms were cheap, probably fifty cents back then (in the seventies), and bazaars laden with fruits and nuts flourished. One could stroll past booths where craftsmen created ornate knives, and most anything else, before your eyes, using files and foot petals. There were shops where men sipped chai--sugar and milk tea--heated on small kerosene stoves; elsewhere bearded gents puffed on hookah pipes of water-filtered tobacco. There were barrels filled with green snuff that you put under your lip, stronger than Copenhagen, and for the uninitiated, good for an intoxicating buzz rush. The smell of ember-baked bread floated everywhere.
At the moment, I was travelling in my car with an American sailor and two Brits from Liverpool. Strolling around, I passed an alcove and smelled hashish. Behind drapes, an ancient bearded and turbaned proprietor stood; my English friends sprawled nearby with hookah pipes, eyes so glazed and limbs so heavy, I could tell they had been slain by an ecstatic paralysis, and from their marbled smiles, transformed into Byzantine bookends. I nodded and continued on.
Later that night, from the cot in my small room, I could hear my adjoining neighbor. He was a young Afghan man, probably late twenties, wearing a rounded prayer cap and waist coat, like a business jacket. A merchant, no doubt, sophisticated-looking compared to most of the crowd, celebrating some export deal and trying to impress his two friends. Earlier, I had seen disheveled-looking Germans and Italians driving station wagons and pulling trailers full of Afghan knives, knick-knacks, and brass bowls to transport back to European second hand shops. Bargains abounded when you traded dollars for Afghanis. Pashtuns worked for a pittance, and still do. On the porch, outside my window, I could see them sharing a bourbon bottle. Later, I smelled the heavy odor of hashish.
About midnight, I was awakened by a terrifying cry. It was the merchant, freaked out by whatever he had imbibed. On and on it went, hour after hour, wave after wave of high-pitched screaming, a man reduced to infancy; his companions trying to calm him, from whatever hallucinatory demons that tormented him; the combo of whisky and hashish. I had toked a few times on the trip, and wondered what kind of indigenous reaction could cause such torture. This was shortly before the Russians invaded, years before the Americans, but long after the English, not to mention Mongols, Romans, or whoever else chose to test their collective manhood against a supposedly lesser foe. Perhaps having a western infidel face like mine behind the wall where he slept was enough to trigger some nightmare. Maybe he imagined I was a vampire. Mostly though, I think it was the weed. In the morning, he seemed calm, although fatigued and subdued.
We set off for Kandahar the next day. Waiting for my friends on a bench, I was approached by a turbaned Afghan boy, probably nine or so, who plopped down beside me, and drew up his ankle-length shirt. "Baksheesh?" he said imploringly, showing a terrible scar on his white thigh--purple with fresh blood running--some kind of obvious wound. He could have been anybody's kid. On closer look, I could see that the scar, although horrible, was healed. He had scratched the old wound to draw blood. It was a begging technique.
"Very bad," he said. For a kid in poverty, he spoke good English. It was not unusual to find multilingual street kids, fluent in three or four languages
I thrust out my hand. Luckily, or not-so-luckily, I had cut my right palm with a chain saw earlier that year in Alaska, and had an equally, horrendous-looking, purple scar. "Very bad," I replied, with disdain. His eyes widened. I had out-scarred him, and his demeanor changed. We sat for awhile like mutilated friends. He was an actor in the theatre of survival. I was merely passing on his stage. And make no mistake, Afghanistan is a stage--Enter, stage right; exit, stage left, all through history. We bid each other goodbye.
Leaving the colorful periphery, and cultural enclave of Herat, the land spreads onward, like an unexplored and cratered moon, baked by the sun, and devoid of creature comfort, unless you happen to be a death adder. It is a perfect existential setting, blending the aloneness of Albert Camu's The Stranger with the aloofness of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
A reductionism resonates in the land--the sparse language and paucity of humane endeavor--perhaps an inevitable result of the enormity, and size of Afghanistan's endless plain. Man is made miniscule by the overwhelming dominance of dirt, sand, and rock. Comparatively speaking, the stark reality of Afghan surroundings makes the austere constructs of Beckett's Godot, with its dialectic dead ends , seem like flowery works of Elizabethan finery.
Everywhere, Afghans are waiting for Godot--the man, god, or whoever, that will never come; if he exists at all. To the casual observer, Afghanistan is a stage with a single chair for a prop--humanity distilled to its basic--man, woman, or child--or boy on bench--nothing more--Maybe sand. Which makes quite the contrast when you drive a tank through it.