The first time you come to Afghanistan, it is all new. No lines have yet been drawn across your heart. The smell of diesel and dust is raw, but not yet evocative. The bloody carcasses hanging at the butcher shops, the blaze and slap of the tandoor ovens, where flat bread is furnaced, the unforgiving land; all of it is new and enticing, and it draws you in like a lover.
And like a lover, Afghanistan disappoints, and hurts, and burns, and abandons, and whispers to you and gently asks you back. And so, it becomes so layered, like a marriage, like a life. No longer can I walk down any street here, without a cascade of memories sifting back over me. Here was where we emerged from a friend’s home one night, in the dead of a Taliban winter, the sky dark like pitch in the absence of electricity, to walk home, and be attacked by a crazed dog. Here is where we lived, and where I killed the chickens for our first Christmas here. Here is where I stumbled across the bits of a man, killed in a suicide bomb. Here is where I walked with my friend in the bazaar, shopping, and where I was beaten for not going to pray at the mosque. Here, at the Hotel Intercontinental I walked, in the chill despair of December, 2001, to search for interpreters, amidst the gaggle of reporters screaming into their satellite phones their latest dispatch on America’s campaign. This road, here, I travelled in 1996, 99, 2001, 2002. In this place, there were mines; Tim and I had to walk carefully around them on our way to Mazar-i-Sharif. Here, on this road, my wife was struck by angry Talibs one day. Here, at this guesthouse, I played squash with my friend Dave (I miss him so much), the court lit by a hole in the roof, torn open by a RPG, shadows slanting across the walls. Here, at this place, as we left Afghanistan for the last time in 2005, at dawn, a man lay dead, curled under his motorcycle, blood pooling on the black road. Here, here, here.
Each time I come here, another layer is added, a layer of love and pain. This time, as I arrived and walked through the new airport customs area (finally renovated after for years being a bombed ruin), I knelt down and touched my head to the dusty ground. An acknowledgement, a kiss. Soldiers and aid workers, veterans of maybe five months here, looked at me puzzled. That excitement, that passion that crackles in the new days of a relationship will never happen here again. Not for me. Some part of me was lost here, for ever it seems: my innocence perhaps. In those terrible days in the evacuation and chaos of 9/11. Some part of me died then.
I wonder if it could have been different.