It’s freezing. I can’t believe I didn’t bring a coat. I thought it was going to be hot, especially lugging 60 pounds of camera gear. I buy a black patu or shawl. It works wonders. I am having my first night out in Kabul.
A friend put me in touch with someone from the US who works for a company in Kabul. For these purposes I will call him Doug. He has invited me to come to dinner at his company compound, P___. They have a staff who cooks all the employee meals so no one has to go out. Most organizations that have international employees have the same setup. There is not much of an Afghan cafe or club life. Most Afghans stay home with their families.
There is a thriving night life for the international set. The Gandamack has one of the few bars in town and is usually packed with international contractors, military, government and NGO employees. At 6:30 p.m. I stand in the Gandamack courtyard behind two 20-foot blast walls. I wait in the courtyard thinking that one of the guards will tell me that a car is waiting on the street.
At 7:00 p.m. Doug calls me.
“Are you in the car?” he asks.
“No, it’s not here yet,” I say. He tells me the car has been on street infront of the Gandamack since 6:30 p.m. I apologize, not knowing where to wait. He tells me to stay on the line until I get in the van. I run past the first guard. I get to the second blast wall and peer out the speak easy-like eye slat that are in most blast walls. I see a white van. I gesture to the guard that the van is for me. He opens the gate, I run to the van, open the door, I mention P____ the name of the company, the driver nods, I climb in the front seat and tell Doug, “I am in.”
I hang up, a bit relieved, safe. We drive for about two minutes and my phone rings. A man with a heavy Afghan accent says, “Mr. Jay, we have your car. It’s on it’s way from P____.”
I laugh, thinking it’s a joke. “Oh, no, your the car.”
The man’s voice says, “No, your car is not there yet.” Suddenly my heart races.
I try to speak but as I gasp for air, all that comes out is a whispered, “I-I-I-..I’m in the car.”
I suddenly think, fuck, no, Daniel Pearl, David Rohde, I have been fucking kidnapped. I look at the driver. He doesn’t speak a word of english. He’s a chubby-faced kid, with a mixture of Afghan and Asian features and a scraggly beard and mustache no older than 25. Suddenly he looks sinister. He is working for someone and dropping me to an intermediary who will then hand me over to the “boss” who will try to hold me for ransom for millions of dollars. There is no way they are going to get $100 for me. No one I know has any money, especially ACKU, the organization I am working for.
I yell at the driver, “P____”, “P____” confirming the name of the company. He just looks at me stonily and keeps driving. I look at his cell phone. There is a picture of what looks like a mujhadeen holding a machine gun. Fuck, I think. Taliban, Haqqani. He signals his car and another car follows close behind. I am convinced the car behind us is the hand-off. I grab his arm and try to grab the steering wheel and yell “P____.” He stops the van. People honk and drive around us. He yells back, not understanding what I am saying. Suddenly he pulls out a sign that has P____ written on it.
My heart still pounds, but I begin to breathe normal. I am not kidnapped. I am embarrassed, scared and confused. Honest mistake, I tell myself. I am shaken. I realize how easy it could all go horribly wrong, so quickly.
We drive about a mile and turn down a dark crowded street. My driver starts yelling at another driver in a smaller car. Apparently our van hit the front fender of the small car. The drivers began to scream at one another. The other driver gets out of his car and comes to my driver’s window. My heart starts to pound again. Maybe this is a kidnapping. An elaborate ruse. My driver pulls away from the irate driver. The other car tails us, speeds past us and slows down, making us pull over on the side of a dark dusty road.
Since I can’t understand a word of Dari I have no idea what is going on. In my U.S. paranoia, I have been told by many to be wary of everyone and expect to be kidnapped, shot at, or blown apart. I am convinced the kidnap is back on. We are at the side of a rotary. Cars swerve around us. Across the rotary is a checkpoint with three guards carrying machine guns. Scarves cover their face either for dust or security or both. My driver gets out of the car and yells at the driver who has gotten out of his car. They are both screaming inches away from each other’s face, their arms gesticulating wildly in the air, they point to the right car fender. Our car headlights spotlight their every gesture.
I sit in the car and think, “All this for a dinner?” I am never leaving my lodge at night, ever again. I try to lock the door, but can’t find the lock. Everything is too dark except for the passing car headlights that illuminate the dusty and dark road ahead. At this point, I give up. If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen. A locked door is not going to help. I call Doug with an update. He’s bullshit.
“They (drivers) should never stop alongside the road, and should never get out of the car.”
After five minutes my driver gets back in the car and drives away. I am convinced this is not a kidnapping, but a young kid with a bad temper. I am still nervous, but less so. On a scale of one to 10, 10 being the highest, I am now about a seven, relieved not to be at 10. We drive on the pitch black highway. It’s the outskirts of Kabul, the traffic thins, there are a few roadside restaurants and stores with lights, which for some strange reason offer a bit of comfort. Civilization. It reminds me of rural New Mexico, a bit poor, flat arrid land with the outline of mountains in the distance. Knowing it is futile, I try to start a conversation.
“What happened? That guy seemed a bit crazy.” “No English,” he says. I don’t care. I just want to talk, but I don’t.
We drive for another 10-15 minutes on the road to nowhere. We haven’t passed a store, home, there is nothing. Suddenly we make a U-turn. We pull to the side of the road infront a steel non-descript blast wall. I would never have noticed it if the driver did not stop. In Afghanistan, everything is hidden behind walls. Even before the war. An Afghan friend told me that in the US people like to stand out, bring attention to themselves and their homes. Not here. Operating below the radar is the preferred method for survival in Afghanistan.
The driver honks. Two men appear with machine guns. They open the door to another steel 20-foot blast wall. The speakeasy slot opens, two brown eyes scan us. The door opens, more guys with guns. No one smiles, I am still at seven, trying not to climb to eight on the anxiety scale. Maybe this is a plot. One of the gunners points to a small door and gestures for me to get out of the car and walk through the door. I do, thinking, please let this be okay. Suddenly it begins to rain and someone runs to the driver and says something. The driver yells at me, “Get in!” I want to run through the door, but I don’t know what is behind the door. I don’t want to get back in the car. I don’t trust my driver. I get in.
We pull out of the driveway and drive to another blast wall. The same; honk, speakeasy eyes, gate opens. The only difference, the guy with the machine gun smiles and waves. My inner richter scale plunges to a two. I smile, wave, cheer. Safe, we made it. OK, Let’s meet Doug and go home.
This is too harrowing. A simple night out to meet someone for dinner can turn into a mind-altering descent into the Twilight Zone. It makes me realize how essential it is to a person’s well-being to have basic security and freedom of movement. Without it, you never feel free. As much as I would love to explore this City I just don’t know how many more nights like this I can stomach. I get waved through the second gate and enter a long corridor that looks like entering a small airport. Florescent lights and U.S. institutional drabness, baggage check and scanner. I pass through a scanner. Doug is on the other side. I have never met him but want to throw my arms around him and never leave his side. I catch myself and shake his hand, hinting that I am slightly deranged from the car ride, I use both hands. “So glad to meet you!”
We walk from the airport-looking waiting room into the company cafeteria. Another time warp. The compound looks like LA. Palm trees, abundant electricity, outside lamps, orderly nice buildings. The cafeteria was filled with long tables, people were laughing, there was plenty of food. Everyone spoke English.
Doug and I fill our plates and go back to his duplex. Scented candles, Lichenstein-like canvases, modern comfortable furniture, the stereo system played silky-smooth Sade. I feel I am in a weird David Lynch dream that I can’t wake up from.
Doug did most of the talking which was just fine. Originally from New York City, he has been living in Kabul for over four years. He is the head of operations for this firm and gets things done and takes no bullshit. He said he was going to fire the driver. Some of the internationals I met would never fire an Afghan because of fear of retaliation. I heard a few stories of people firing locals and relatives hired hit men to retaliate. One friend said his driver is useless but keeps him on the payroll because he can’t risk it.
Again, rumors, but Doug would have none of it. He said he never had anything bad happen to him. Although he did say a couple of years ago a bomb went off at a building near his Kabul office and some of the shards of broken glass from his office were embedded in his back, but besides that, he says he has no scars. To prevent burnout he gets two weeks off every 10 weeks. He usually goes to Dubai which he says is an “interesting scene.” He hates the Gandamack and told me he can get me into the Serena at a cheaper price. Although the Serena is a nicer hotel it has been attacked three times over the last three years. At least two foreigners were gunned down in the gym a couple of years ago. I like being off the radar. The Gandamack has electricity and running water, it’s fine.
At around 9:30 I tell Doug I have an early morning. He gets me a van. This time I have a shadow van with three guys with machine guns following me from behind. On the way to the van Doug tells me the road we are on is the road to Bagram, the U.S. base. He says it is the most dangerous road in Kabul. I thank him profusely for the dinner, the drivers.
I get in the van, this time sitting in the back seat. It takes about 15 minutes to get back instead of the hour it took to get there. We drive through the rainy, mostly empty dark streets, dodging the ever-present potholes, and check points with masked men and machine guns and 20-25 foot steel or concrete walls topped of by barbed wire. That is all you see.
When we get infront of the Gandamack blast wall I shake everyone’s hand, “Tashakor, Tashakor” thank you, thank you. I am so happy to be home. A local man was selling crafts and kilms in the lobby.
A lot of us don’t have time to go to Chicken Street, the street where many internationals shop, so the hotel has merchants come to the lobby. I buy a kilm for $80. People in the hotel say the vendors are expensive and jack up the prices, but I don’t care. It sounds reasonable, and the guy is old, keeps yawning, and probably has a lot of family members to support. Besides, I like the red and blue colors.