The Morning Death Count
I have a dual-alarm clock set to go off every morning at 5:30 (husband) and 6:00 (me). It's set to our local NPR station because music might not wake us up, the alarm itself is too shrill, and I like the NPR host voices-- they're among my favorite and most familiar voices anywhere. Sometimes I'm tempted to change the station when I wake to news of yet another suicide bomber in Iraq or more signs of global-warming --one wonders if it's worth getting out of bed. Still, the company of those calm, intelligent voices gives me some hope, even when the news doesn't.
This morning, my husband lay there listening when his alarm went off. Then he said, "They're talking about Afghanistan." So I had to lift my head and pay attention: a car bomb outside the US embassy in Kabul, killing (I think) eighteen Afghans and two American soldiers.
I know exactly where it happened. I was dropped off in front of the long blockaded street to the American Embassy there back in April, walked past the soldiers and their machine guns behind piles of sandbags, past the high battered walls that hid the embassy from the streets, past the soldiers from India and Africa who had been recruited to help guard the embassy, past the beefy security guys at the entrance to the building, into the old part of the compound which looks like a really really tidy trailer park. I have notes on all this somewhere, because it felt so thrilling to be there--me, old radical and vehement Bushaphobe, inside the heart of the American engagement. It was only a social call with Debbie Rodriguez, an American hairdresser who lives in Kabul and who was showing me around while I was there to help her write her book, Kabul Beauty School
. It was thrilling to be there because it made me feel as if I were in the middle of a different kind of drama than the one outside the compound. I kept wondering if the guy playing basketball or the woman reading in the sun were CIA, if they were involved in some kind of superpower subterfuge that was subtly shifting future events. I'm a hick from Cleveland, not used to consorting with the mighty.
Outside, on the streets of Kabul, there was no need for imagination. There was no time for imagination-- all was hustle, move quickly or get hit by that guy on the bicycle, don't step in the sewer or in that pile of camel dung, cover your head! People have asked me over and over again what it was like to be in Afghanistan, and over and over I am speechless. So many people and their beasts and vehicles and wares clogging the streets, amid buildings that are going up and buildings that are falling down. I was always speechless as Debbie and I drove around, too--so much to see and no time to reflect.
There's a reason that I chose the picture at the top of this post and not any of the 200 others I have from my trips to Kabul (aside from the fact that I don't know how to post more than one picture at a time). I love this picture because it shows how Afghans have hurled themselves back into business after three decades of war. That building in the background had been bombed at some point-- by the Russians? the mujahadeen? the Taliban? the US? Don't know, but the fact that it's unreconstructed didn't deter the Afghans. You can see that at the very top, there are only a few teetering piles of brick left. Someone draped a flag or maybe a makeshift business sign on the floor below it. The next floor has been conscripted for storage. Bottom floor: open for business, despite all those creeky ruins above! Crowded with people and products and conversation and argument and life.
This is what's so depressing about the latest news from Afghanistan. There is not only heightened fighting in the south, but also--violence is starting to become ordinary in Kabul. When I was there, I saw people working hard to get things started again-- little businesses opening everywhere, new buildings going up, fresh coats of paint. All sorts of people who didn't have to live through the misery of the wars are there, too--foreigners or Afghans who fled--coming to open businesses or start nonprofits. People in Kabul tell me by email that they think the violence is caused by militants from Pakistan who are sneaking in with the bombs and rockets. Afghans aren't doing it, they say-- Afghans just want to get a life again. When I listened to the report about the car bomb, I wondered if they'll get that chance.
I still want to go back to Kabul in November--there, I've said it. We only get the headlines here in the states about the bombs and the rockets and the riots, but there are other stories of ordinary people carrying on in their own remarkable ways there. I already wrote one article about them for Entrepreneur Magazine, another for Gourmet. There are plenty of other stories, and I want to write at least some of them.