The Last Days

New Delhi – 18/04/2013

Back in the hot stink of Delhi. It feels like coming home in some ways. It’s 38 degrees here, which is 20 more than Kabul. The rickshaw driver says: “I can tell you have been in India a long time, by your face and personality.”
Yes, I say. And I am coming from Afghanistan.
“Arrey! Afghanistan? Many crazy people there.”
No, actually they are really nice.

A friend in high places had organised a pickup for us in the morning, which turned out to be a Land Cruiser complete with army driver – our friend who took us to Panjshir. This meant that we were waved through many of the security checks to the airport and arrived in plenty of time. On three separate occasions people asked if I was Turkish, which is a new one for me. And these were airport security staff, who see a lot of foreigners. It wasn’t just the presence of Kayo in her trenchcoat and headscarf either – I got asked when I was alone. I’m not unhappy with this sense of mistaken identity – I quite enjoy it. Always liked the Turks.

The last days in Kabul became increasingly surreal. The tension grew, though whether it was a general atmosphere or a self-projected one with just a short time left there I can’t really say. I had wondered if I was becoming paranoid, stuck in a traffic jam waiting for a car to explode, or in a crowded market street with someone wearing a suicide vest. But then I spoke to a shopkeeper who said exactly that: “We never know. It happens. Will this car in front be blown up, will the man next to you explode himself. It creates a permanent stress, the not knowing.” He was a really nice guy, whose shop we visited several times, and he said: “We don’t know why this happened to us. We did not go out and attack anyone – they came to us.” He’s right. It was the Russians who invaded them (and the British before that). It was the power vacuum after they pulled out that led to the place becoming a base for assorted Islamic militants – it would be wrong to label them all Al Qaeda, as there were Uzbeks, Philippinos, Chechens, all sorts, all fighting their own unrelated wars. And it’s that power vacuum, a lack of central stability, which has now caused exactly the same scenario in Mali, where the Tuareg had their rebellion hijacked by international jihadis.

Perhaps the fears are exaggerated. Perhaps the apologists for the Taliban who sit in safety in their Western democracies as they call for sharia law are not deluded revisionists. Perhaps they would like to come and experience it for themselves. Most guerilla-style movements either run out of steam once they discover that winning a city is a great deal easier than governing it, or they turn on themselves in a frenzy of paranoia and purge themselves until there are none left. Perhaps the Taliban will moderate and become part of the political process. At the moment the choice is pretty stark for the average Afghan: does the Taliban offer a better choice than the Karzai government? It may seem a no-brainer, but with a corrupt judiciary and police force, an army that is being retrained from the sort of dim-witted shit-kicking drug-taking conscripts to a semblance of a professional one (still with some way to go), and a small but increasingly influential group of people positioning themselves to siphon off the flow of aid dollars before it dries up completely, the present ‘democratically approved’ setup does not look particularly inspiring. Karzai is not so much a puppet as a cardboard cut-out – the kind of blank figure you get in children’s books which you then stick different sets of clothes on. With his Tajik qaraqol hat, his Uzbek robe and his Pashtun DNA, he is the perfect shop dummy on which to stick an ethnic patchwork that has a semblance of unity. He probably wears a Turkman bracelet or something. The only thing absent is anything Hazara, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to them, since they get the rawest deal of all in a pretty raw place.

The first thing that strikes you about Delhi – other than the heat – is the trees. We hardly saw any in Kabul. And the walls – they are low, open. There are gardens beyond them, not an endless line of blank walls topped with razor wire turning their back on passers-by. Women in Delhi walk around with hair scandalously uncovered, and wear bright colours, jeans, tight tops. They possess an easy, languid grace, not a guarded and self-protective hunch. I sat opposite a teenage girl on the plane – maybe 14 years old. She scowled furiously. Her nails were bitten to the quick. She wore, despite the Indian heat, a black trenchcoat and black headscarf. The only hint of colour were a pair of purple stripey socks. And I thought: it’s rough enough being a teenage girl, hating yourself, without having to fend off the endless attention of men. What bizarre kind of cultural contortion reckons that this degree of self-repression is OK? It’s like the celebration of the plain, the removal of any degree of self-expression in anything other than the most limited form. The men walk with a swagger and openness. The women are shadows who pass by as unobtrusively as possible. There has to be a happy medium. In a sense there is progress, in that under the Taliban women could hardly venture outdoors at all, but the segregation, for example at weddings, is a recent phenomenon.

There was a banner across the road to the airport: Happy New Year. Best wishes for the year 1392. It’s a little ironic. In Europe in 1392 the Hundred Years War was about halfway through. The continent was slowly emerging from the dark ages. The clergy were all-powerful; people were tortured to death for heresy, for daring to question the status quo. Life was nasty, brutish and short. There are certain parallels. Imagine pasting onto that backdrop a modern consumerist society, democratic values, a hi-tech military occupation and the assorted luminaries of the development sector. Then you get some idea of the difficulty in reconciling the extremes, and incorporating the kind of fundamentalist values espoused by the Taliban into a modern society where you can access the internet, or jump on a plane and be in Delhi in two hours, London in eight. And indeed many Afghan national are as at home in those cities as they are in their own. So you have a cultural fusion at the individual level, and the incorporation of what might be termed modern values, clashing with an increasingly artificial-looking national boundary. You can build high walls and guard your borders, but you can’t stop the transfer of ideas or the soft power influence that totalitarian states fear because they can’t control them. Citoyen du monde, modern renaissance man, wonders why one rule applies at home and another everywhere else.

A huge thunderstorm over Kabul. The sky flickers with lightning and wind whips along the streets, causing small tornadoes of beige dust. People pull their scarves over their mouth and nose and narrow their eyes. The first fat drops begin to fall, and soon a curtain of rain. People duck for cover into small shops and under awnings. The soldiers stand miserably with rain dripping off their helmets – they wear knee pads and body armour that make them look like rollerbladers. A yellow and white Kabuli taxi pulls into the verge and we dash for it. It is a venerable Lada with column-operated gear lever and bench seats like sofas. The driver is an old man in white shalwar kameez, Nehru waistcoat and pakol. He’s a little cranky because the local driving has suddenly taken a turn for the worse because of the rain, but he thaws a little when I say: “Lada – very good. Strong cars.” He elaborates at great length in Farsi, in which I make out the word Moskvitch. “Also Volga,” I say. Then we get Zaporozhets, Kamaz and Chaika. “Ah, Chaika,” he sighs – the enormous limousines used by the senior party members in the old Soviet Union. It’s a little surreal to be discussing Russian cars in a torrential downpour while crawling over the muddy, potholed streets of Kabul with an old guy who has seen empires rise and fall and lived through heaven only knows what turmoil. But he’s a nice guy and can appreciate a robust motor car. He drops us at Rumi restaurant, which is deserted apart from three Americans who speak in low voices with heads conspiratorially close together, and I overhear a sort of burbling “rurr rurr rurr Taliban rurr rurr capacity building rurr rurr rurr Karzai…” The menu is familiar – kebab, bolani, mantou. It strikes me that this is largely a nomadic cuisine with Persian influences – a sort of fusion between the herders who slaughter a sheep and serve up large chunks of it with flatbread, and the Persian taste of adding fruit and nuts to rice. I drink sher chai, milk tea, which as a friend later points out: “In India they add milk to tea. In Afghanistan we add tea to milk.” He’s right.

The last day. We head to Wakhan for brunch. I’ve been varying the routine, not doing the same thing every day. Some days I walk up to the bakery and we have naan and Pegah cheese at home; some days we call Zuhag Taxis to take us to Flower Street or Wakhan. Today the traffic is heavy – we crawl. It stays like this the whole day, the cars grinding along. The police man their checkpoints, marked by boulders and rumble strips in the road. We sit nose to tail, in a jam caused by a bus that tried to do a U-turn and a dimwit who decided to follow it, failing to account for the fact that he had moved into the space the bus needed to reverse into. Traffic police blow whistles and make contradictory hand signals: go forward. Stop. Reverse. It is chaos. I don’t think about car bombs. I definitely don’t think about them at all. My latest briefing informed me that there are three vehicles that have entered Kabul packed with explosives, driven by insurgents; they even know the registration plates. Why haven’t they stopped them? Is it all a fiction? What about the ones they don’t know about? My shoulders are up around my ears with tension; in fact they have pretty much remained there the whole time, although now safely in Delhi again they are slowly descending in increments, a centimetre at a time. The sight of an army truck here puts them back up again – my first instinct is that it’s a convoy, and convoys attract suicide bombers. But I am in a cafe in Delhi, western backpackers are walking past outside, Indian girls go past as colourful as a flock of birds, people smile openly, everyone is relaxed. Ignorance is bliss.

Periodically I find myself going into a kind of trance, my eyes glazing over as I stare out into the sunlight, and I forget where I am. I’m very tired. Travel experiences that are out of the ordinary, that shake up your preconceptions, act like a kind of reset button. You look at things with new eyes, including yourself. In my mind I see grey-uniformed police in kepi-style hats with machine guns, dusty streets and high walls with razor wire, sandbags and steel doors, the hideous functionality of the architecture of modern warfare. I see the strain on my friends’ faces behind the smiles and laughter, the way they are bowed down by the weight of uncertainty in a city that has suffered too much and only wants to be like everywhere else, to have actual normality instead of an illusion of it in fleeting glimpses. I see the politeness of a soldier who apologises for having to search us and the rudeness of one who insists on keeping my friend’s rucksack as he uses an ATM, simply because the soldier has got a gun and it makes him feel powerful. I see the smile on an old man’s face when I greet him and say I am from London and he says “most welcome” and places his hand over his heart. I see a small figure trudging away down a darkened street, knowing that there are people who want to kill him because he questions their hysterical intolerance, their hypocrisy and their hatred, and dares to expose things that are a moral outrage common to all humanity, and yet which are denied for the sake of political expediency. Into the glare of the headlights throwing up twin shafts of dust, on a dark street somewhere in Kabul with the dim yellow lights of the houses climbing the mountainsides – Kabuli skyscrapers, they call them – I see him hunched against the night’s chill with the weight of the city’s hopes and fears on his shoulders as he slowly walks away, and I turn and stare out of the back window of the car as he gets smaller and smaller until he is lost to view, swallowed up in the darkness. And days later in the glare and noise of Delhi I sit in a cafe and remember until the words blur over in front of me.