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For the past couple years, I’ve been working in Afghanistan as a contractor. I’m a little bit from everywhere — which also makes me from nowhere. Averaged out, I’ve never lived more than a year in one place over my quarter-century existence. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this traveling, it’s that it’s just as important to keep your ears and heart open as it is your eyes.
Here are three unforgettable characters I’ve run across traveling in Afghanistan.
“Beast” is a ‘roided-up, rock-and-rolling, former Special Forces now turned mercenary who holds on to love with open hands. You don’t quite know what he’s up to in this world, and it sounds like he’s still busy trying to figure it out himself. He loves good lit — TS Eliot, Sartre, Wilde, and Kerouac are just a few on his bookshelf. He thinks he loves his wife too, but it’s doomed, he claims. They cheat on each other too often. He wants to go back to school and study philosophy, but how could that support his (soon-to-be ex-) wife and two baby girls in the States? Kicking down doors and taking people out isn’t a highly marketable skill back home.
He has a sort of down-to-earth charisma, and you can’t help but like him. Every day he rolls the dice and wagers his life. He gives life, and he takes it away. I’ve witnessed him patch up a gaping-eyed stranger leaking liquid life through ten holes riven by Taliban bullets — all while hot metal continued to tear through the air around him. But if you mess with him or his boys he’ll just as adroitly empty a clip into you.
Once, in another conflict-riddled corner of the world, an opponent managed to put a bullet in him. It so boiled the blood of a comrade thudding through the sky above that she rained down fury on the enemy, leveling a whole city block. On the chopper, racing to medical attention, his teammates patched him through to his wife via sat-phone. He recounts her composure affectionately: “She made sure I was OK and then told me, ‘Rock on, baby.’” He recounts this with a dreamy grin. This is the woman his open hands have been holding on to. “She’s the toughest and most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” he says. But is it really her that he’s holding on to? Or is it a romanticized, bleeding-heart notion of ‘holding on’ that he’s holding on to?
I pray Beast hangs up his battle-rattle, goes back to school to study philosophy, and lives out his life to an old age. But something tells me he’s destined to go down, guns blazing, hunting terrorists in some remote corner of the world.
North Korean / Uzbek lit lover
Fearing exodus, Uzbekistan denies its average citizens visas to most decent places. So to escape a forced marriage at the hand of her strict Muslim father, beautiful, young, diamond-eyed Laila fled to Afghanistan where she found a job serving drinks at a private compound in Afghanistan.
Laila has an interesting background. Years ago, her North Korean maternal grandparents saw the mene tekel on the wall and fled to Russia. They wound up prisoners in a Siberian work camp for several years before they were relocated first to Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan. Laila’s father, a Muslim Azerbaijani, came over to Uzbekistan with the Soviet military back when these penumbral regions fell under the USSR’s awnings.
I once offhandedly quip a Mark Twain line to Laila. Her eyes sparkle, her head tilts, and she responds, “Samuel Clemens?” I fall in love. She’s well versed in English and Russian literature and is trying to teach herself to read Spanish for some reason. She vividly recalls Bible stories surreptitiously read as a child before her father learnt her secret and destroyed the forbidden book.
Laila’s mother and baby brother are back in Uzbekistan. Since her father left them, they rely on her meager income for survival. She makes $300 per month as a barmaid and, it’s whispered, a “little on the side.” In a place like this, her lithe form and angel face make that a sad but not unlikely rumor.
One day Laila disappears. Extended inquiry reveals she’s been fired and sent back to Uzbekistan.
It’s been half a year now. Rumor has it she finally submitted to that forced marriage. I wonder if her eyes still sparkle.
Dreaming Afghan driver
“Abdullah,” I say to the Afghan driver as he speeds through Abdul-Haq circle, “what’s your best memory?” I clutch my M4 as I scan the rivulets of bikes, beards, and burkas trickling through the sea of Kabul’s ubiquitous Toyota Corollas. I’ve been playing this question-and-answer game with him for years now. It gives me a feel for Afghan life and builds our friendship. After a moment of silence he replies.
“This is Afghanistan,” he answers slowly. “We don’t have best memories here.”
I’m not going to argue with him. The last story he shared was of a childhood memory of the Taliban interrupting a sporting event at the city soccer stadium. They dragged out and publicly decapitated two men found guilty of something — probably of owning a television or something.
After a while he speaks up again and asks, “If I ever go to America, will they let me work, if they know I am Afghan? You think maybe they let me be a dishwasher?”
Years ago, Abdullah signed up to work with the Coalition Forces under the impression he and his family would eventually get US visas in return. Though he risks his life daily by collaborating with the ‘infidels,’ the visa has failed to materialize. He dons a full-face scarf as he drives us through the city, in hopes he won’t be recognized, but the risk to him and his family is still almost palpable. It’s not fair, but most likely Abdullah will never see the US.
Abdullah pulls past our compound gate, where some time back a coordinated Taliban attack claimed the lives of, among others, about 18 Afghan children on the way to the girls’ school nearby.
“Tashakor, braadar. Khoda Hafez,” I tell Abdullah as I hop out of the vehicle. Inshallah, he will find a best memory.