While I know otherwise, I often find myself wondering if the name “Afghanistan” comes from an old word meaning “tragedy”.
Afghanistan is making the headlines once again – quickly and almost without resistance, it has been taken over by Taliban leaders, who envision a medieval-style caliphate. For someone of my generation, this weekend’s events feel like deja vu from watching that turbulent corner of the world. First, in a decade of war spanning nearly the 1980s, Afghanistan crippled the Soviet Union. And now — after spending two decades, nearly a trillion dollars, and thousands of American lives — the United States is learning the same lesson: This quarrelsome land is reluctant to be ruled.
It’s easy to point the finger: should George W. Bush invade the country in 2001? Should Donald Trump have made a deal with the Taliban in early 2020? Should Joe Biden withdraw US forces so quickly? But in the end, nobody has the answers… which is exactly why we are in the same place.
One thing is clear: the repeated failures of powerful states to impose our will on the Afghan people is a reflection of our ethnocentrism…our inability to understand what motivates them. And using Afghanistan to score political points with American voters ignores the horrific human cost of the instability that has destroyed Afghan lives daily for generations.
In my case, that tragedy is hard to notice because I have been so touched by the communication between the people I enjoyed in Afghanistan. As I watch the news unfold, I find myself swimming in memories of my trip there in 1978, when I was 23, on the “hippy road” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. It was the trip of a lifetime – one that can’t be taken now. Every border crossing was a drama, and every rest stop was a lifelong memory.
On the Iran-Afghanistan border – surrounded by abandoned Volkswagen trucks picked up by guards looking for drugs, staring at dusty glass screens telling stories of European, Australian and American backpackers caught taking drugs and spending time in Afghan prisons – we kept our packages in our arms ( So no one can plant anything illegal in them) and we waited for the doctor to check the vaccinations. My travel partner, Jane, needed an injection, and I can still remember the faint bending of the needle as he struggled to break his skin.
Once on the road in Afghanistan, heading to Herat in our crowded minibus, the driver stopped, pulled out a knife caught in the scorching sun, and said, “Your tickets are getting more expensive.” An Indian traveler quieted the righteous commotion of us Americans, and we all paid our welcome allowance in Afghanistan.
In Herat, the urban and cultural center of western Afghanistan, we stood on the roof of our hotel watching torch-lit carriages charging through the night. Every day was an epic ride – not a sightseeing as such, but simply wandering through the markets, parks, and slums. This was shortly after the Soviet-backed communist coup. There was a Soviet tank parked in the main square, restaurants had literally discounted menus, and a note: “Thanks to Soviet liberation.”
Our bus trip through Afghanistan followed what should have been the only paved road across the country (foreign aid project). The terrain looked like a wasteland. I remember the monotony of the roadside broken by tombs, and the dusty thickets of the noisy tombstones in the desert. Even with 50 passengers, toilet breaks lasted only a few minutes: the bus would stop in the middle of nowhere, men were turning to the left side of the road, and women congregated on the right side of the road. They were camped out in their big black robe, and they were seated en masse.
Truck stops seem designed to give the bus driver a chance to smoke cannabis. In one, I remember a group of men sitting on their asses and going around whatever they were smoking while they all watched goats being skinned.
Kabul was the only real city in the country. It just seemed to exist because a county would have to have one urban center to be governed by – a kind of urban necessity in a land that didn’t really know what to do with the city. I saw people in uniform that looked like, even today, they only wore a robe before me.
As I sat eating in the backpacker’s cafeteria, a man appeared at my table. He said: May I join you? I said, “You already have.” He asked, “Are you American?” I said yes.”
Then he spoke of a playboy: “I am a professor here in Afghanistan. And I want you to know that in this world, a third of people eat with spoon and fork like you. A third of people eat with chopsticks. And a third of people eat with their fingers. And we are all fully civilized.”
This encounter turned out to be one of the most moving encounters of my life – like the rest of my entire visit to Afghanistan, it spoiled my ethnic culture and rearranged my cultural furniture.
A highlight of any overland trip to India was leaving Afghanistan by crossing the legendary Khyber Pass. We were frightened young Westerns, sitting on the bus, baggage in our arms, realizing we were about to go to India–which, oddly enough, seemed like coming home. Our bus ticket came with a “security supplement” to ensure safe passage. This fee was paid to the autonomous tribes who “ruled” the area between the capital and its border with Pakistan. Rolling under their stone fortresses, with wind-swept flags (nothing to do with Afghanistan) and bearded guards carrying antique rifles, I was more than happy to have paid those little extra fees.
Coming out of the harsh and arid mountains of Afghanistan, a damp plain opened wide. The stalemate of Iran and Afghanistan was behind us. Forward a billion people stretched in Pakistan and India.
With this post, I begin a seven-day series featuring images from my trip and excerpts from my 1978 diary through Afghanistan. (I wrote this article from vague memories; upcoming posts have been diligently written each night, recounting the adventures of that day in this wonderful land.) Stay tuned, and let us keep the Afghan people in our thoughts and prayers.