Staying with Farshid begat my meeting with Mr. W which begat my meeting with Will Everett. Mr. W prefers to stay anonymous. When I engage Afghans publicly, as I’m here to harvest interesting stories, Mr. W says to me, “Not a good idea.” I trust Mr. W as he has been here a dozen years.
I am weirdly out of shape. I walk a lot. And as alcohol is largely verboten here, lots of calories unconsumed. The occasional surprise showing of mead, homemade rose wine, rum, Johnnie Walker Double Black. I am looking forward to Southeast Asia beaches and yoga.
Will works for Roots for Peace, one more extraordinary Non-Governmental Organization here, quietly doing transformative work. http://rootsofpeace.org/programs-page/afghanistan Demine-replant-rebuild. They clear landmines, provide farming resources such as seedlings, fertilizer and tools, and offer training to increase crop yields. Mines to Vines.
I share that with you because Will, a former NPR reporter, says he doesn’t give a shit about anonymity. Will arrives at the Kabul Serena Hotel lobby, where he recognizes me, a westerner pecking away on a MacBook Air. The other people in the lobby are either behind the reception counter or carrying automatic weapons.
Mr. W arrives and we dine at the Asian fusion restaurant Wild Rice. The food is great. Nasi Goreng, Teriyaki Chicken and Sweet sand Sour Fish. The Thai soup is excellent as well, but doubles the cost of the entree, so, a strategic error. Will suggests a possible trip to Mazar-i-Sharif, where US and Northern Alliance forces began their drubbing of the Taliban in 2001. I suggest my interest in Panjshir Valley. He promises to keep me posted on his plans. And he mentions his neighborhood swimming pool, which sounds splendid. I need a place to work out. Near the City Center, there is a huge banner advertising a kickass gym on the second floor. When I climbed the stairs, there was rubble, and a fellow with a gun telling me to get lost.
Mr. W buzzes my phone as he rolls up to the house. I say goodbye to the guard, and get in. He has a Skype call with clients and asks if I’m willing to be late. We call Will, who informs that he has to be off to dinner by 8, so I get out for a taxi, and agree to meet W later. The taxi driver claims to know where we are going but stops to check with passersby every twenty yards to get new directions. I finally have Will’s building guard walk him though it. Great. He hangs up and asks someone for directions on each block anyway. My dad, Sol, was a New York taxi driver for two decades. I prefer to think he knew where the fuck he was going most of the time.
! have tea with Will and his colleague Hamid, and we truck off to the pool. I’m excited, less so after Will suggests that the pool is heated, kinda, but after a minute of temperature shock, the water is just fine.
The place is jammed. Do I need to mention that Afghan pools are not co-ed? I was going to take my swimsuit. Will said it’s not needed as one is provided, which did not sound appetizing. “Bring your own unless it’s eurotrash bikini in which case leave it home.” I assure him, “I aspire to euro trash, but till then, my swimsuit is, sadly, rather conventional.”
The rundown on getting in: Register at the front desk and get a blue swimsuit and locker key. Trade your shoes for slippers. I ask if there are any Afghan customs regarding changing and he answers, helpfully, “Just don’t show your junk.” There is an odd changing station in the midst of each locker area, a three-sided, waist-high wooden structure allowing for modest changing. There is lots of noise and humidity. Mr. W shows up to join us.
I am the only one in the house wearing goggles and, to minimize the torment, i jump right in the pool. It’s not that bad! The bigger problem is that laps are problematic. The pool is full of mostly young guys—did I mention there are no women?—and Kabulis can’t swim. It is a landlocked country and swimming pools are a hot new thing, or so I’m told.
I am not a good swimmer. I love swimming but am not good at it. Kind of like dancing. LiAnne Mattheney, who trained for the Olympics back in the day, gave me a few tips last summer. Maybe because she noticed that I am not a good swimmer. Nevertheless, by putting one arm before the other, kicking once a while, and, most importantly, by wearing goggles, I am an immediate celebrity. I hope this doesn’t sound racist, but everybody looks the same to me through my fogged goggles. Central Asian complexions, wet black hair, blue swimsuits and flailing arms. A Russian-looking fellow, stout and thirty-ish, let’s call him The Tajik, sheepishly floats my way and asks for a lesson. I laugh, loudly. Listening to cues for English comprehension from the way he phrases his question, I insist, “I’m a terrible swimmer. I have nothing to teach you. You must be thinking I’m someone else.” Disappointed, he makes small talk and I swim away.
A skinny younger guy, with a wide toothy grin, maybe early twenties (he had wet hair, a Central Asian complexion and a blue swimsuit) excitedly swims up and declares, “You are very good swimmer. Teach me.”
“I can’t teach you. I am a very poor swimmer.”
“Then, how can I learn?” he asks, perplexed, still smiling.
I offer a solution, “Hire a teacher,” then swim away.
I’m such a wimp that the aimless splashing and colliding in the deep end motivates me to swim in the middle of the pool, hugging the cable divider. I come up for air and three men surround me. The Tajik, Toothy Grin and a snarky teenage guy (let’s call him Kabul Wiseguy). They have come to petition me for a swimming lesson. I see Mr. W and wave, but Will is nowhere to be seen, nor Hamid. I offer another solution. “You know, there are hundreds of videos on YouTube,” I suggest. “I would suggest you watch and learn, one lesson at a time.”
Toothy Grin has a better idea. “No, I watch you. You are a master swimmer. I want you to teach me.”
All three wait patently, and then, i remember LiAnne’s three tips. Don’t take your head out of the water when you breath. Cup your hands. I forget the third, but do remember something I learned from a Tim Ferriss post about extending your body.
They are enthralled and go splashing away. The Tajik calls out at me, completely ignoring everything I showed him. “Look, look at me,” he shouts, excitedly as he plunges his way to the other side of the pool.
“You’re doing great,” I shout back, raising thumbs up in the locally accepted sign of American approval.
I am now the pool’s Great American Master Swimmer. An athletic, caramel-skinned good-looking teenager challenges me to a race. I haven’t raced since I knew I could beat my young daughters. But I agree and we race across the pool. I suddenly am very serious about this and swim my heart out. It’s a tie. He is very proud of himself. “Again?” We take a minute and race again. Half way through i feel a collision and when i arrive, The Tajik and his two friends are up in arms.
“He cheated,“ The Tajik yells at Caramel Handsome and a crowd gathers, laughing and jostling. There is a lot of physical roughhousing in the pool area. I rest from my olympian racing effort and chat with a small group of guys. “Afghans are good people, very friendly,” says The Tajik. And, then, because I can’t resist, I ask the three guys before me what they think of the US presence. There are the usual answers: We love Americans. Thank you for your sacrifices here. We want you to stay.
One fellow works for the Ministry of Finance. “Really?” I ask. “So what happened to that $900 million that went missing?”
He snorts, “What do you think happened? Someone took it.”
“Did Karzai have anything to do with it?”
“Of course he did.”
A few feet away from our small group of eight or nine is a tightly wound muscular fellow sitting cross-legged on the lip of the pool. He is saying something to me in Dari and snickering to his four or five friends. He isn’t happy.
The Tajik says, “I told you. Most Afghans are good, but some bad. Forget him.”
I ask Angry Buddha’s friend what he is saying. A thin, pale, earnest fellow in his late twenties tells me, “He says Americans are murderers. You kill many people in Afghanistan.”
I wade closer. Angry Buddha is brooding and does not speak English. “Ask him if he thinks all Americans should leave the country.”
Pale Earnest translates in Dari. “He said you are on Muslim land and soon we will have a caliphate.”
I’ve spent weeks developing a liberal-minded narrative as to how the whole caliphate idea is a paranoid construct of Fox News and AM Radio.
Pale Earnest is speaking to my right. He seems quite nice and studious and proceeds to tell me that everything’s all good, as there will be a worldwide Muslim caliphate under Sharia law, but that all religions will be respected as Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Angry Buddha wants to know where I’m from. I lean in, and say, “San Francisco. California.” Then, for no particular reason, “I’m an American Jew.”
Buddha stops speaking. He doesn’t know what to say. I’ve confused his neural circuitry. We have drawn a crowd. I suspect my swim is over. Mr. W walks by and gives me a look, though I am not sure what to make of it. I elaborate, helpfully:
“Tell him i have a question for him. If Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, what is its view on Judaism and what is his personal attitude toward Jews?”
Angry Buddha goes on a long rant, translated roughly as, we don’t want Americans here, Mohammed is God’s last prophet, other religions are tolerated but they have expired.
The next day, during my visit to the mosque, the mullah uses the same word. Expired. It was explained to me this way: when you are sick, the doctor gives you a series of prescriptions and then there is one final prescription. That final prescription is Islam. God has sent many prophets, but Mohammed is the last one and the Koran and its related scriptures are now all you need.
I pressed him. “You didn’t answer my question. What is your attitude toward Jews?”
No answer. Pussy.
I submerge for a few seconds and swim a few yards, then return. “Many American Jews and Israelis want justice for the Palestinian people. But, don’t you see? Jewish fundamentalists believe the same thing you do. That they’re the chosen people. That God gave their land to them. And that since God gave them the land, they can fuck you up if you try to take any of it back. There’s a song called ‘Exodus.’ You ever hear of it?”
Blank stares all around. I sing the opening verse. “This land is mine, God gave this land to me. This brave and ancient land to me…”
Pale Earnest interrupts and tries to explain, no, that was the religion of the old prophets, the one that EXPIRED, but with Islam, we have the final revelation and…
“I heard this before.” I realize I’m getting upset and in brief moments of lucidity realize that the way we do debate where I grew up is different from the way things are communicated in public here. “The Jewish fundamentalists say they own the truth. And you don’t. In my country, Christian fundamentalists say they are saved and if you don’t believe what they believe that God will torment you forever. That means every Muslim, every one of you in this pool, God will roast you for all eternity because of what you believe. Don’t you see? You people have been fucking killing each other for three decades without end. Yes, the Americans killed civilians and…”
“Do you think America is an occupier?” challenges Angry Buddha, seeking rhetorical supremacy in front of his semi-literate friends.
Trick question. “Of course I do. We are occupying your country. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that, we invaded Iraq based on lies, mostly motivated by its oil, and caused the violent unnecessary deaths of over one hundred thousand civilians. Here at least we have been invited to stay.”
“We don’t want you to stay,” says Angry Buddha’s friend, standing in the pool next to me. “Karzai said he wanted you to go.”
“Bullshit,” I say. “That’s bullshit. That’s for domestic politics. If Karzai or Ghani and Abdullah and most Afghans say we want you out now, we would leave. Your government, imperfect and corrupt as it may be, wants us for our security presence.”
“We want you for your money,” says Finance Ministry guy.
“OK, then for our money. I have no doubt that my country has military interests here, regional political interests here, economic interests here. But you’re missing the point, you’re not listening to me.”
The crowd is now two or three layers thick. I don’t see Mr. W or Will anywhere.
“The Uzbeks kill the Tajiks who unite with the Turkomen to kill the Pashtun who claim Sunni is the one true faith while they kill the Hazara Shia. When do you have enough? Forget the caliphate. Believe what you want, and respect and love your brother. This tribal bullshit, claiming God is blessing your misery and slaughter is killing the world.”
Angry Buddha’s three friends pull him up and away and two others throw Pale Earnest into the pool. Innocent homoerotic fun.
I think, time to leave and lift myself out of the pool. Will had said he was going to the salt bath. I walk in the direction he had pointed and find a door and a young man with a shovel. There’s no one inside. I walk in, and it’s a small room, like a cave, with two rows of lights, three small orange bulbs to a set. Two young men in swim trunks enter.
“What do I do?” I ask.
“There’s a charge, says the younger one.
“Yeah, whatever, what do I do?”
The shovel guy digs a rectangular foxhole for me. “Looks like a grave,” jokes the older, twentysomething guy.
I’m buried up to my head in salt, and they both leave. I’m not sure what a salt bath does, but it better do something good because it starts to sting after a while, on my shins and under my thighs. After an indeterminate stretch of time, what feels like twenty minutes but is likely ten, I decide that being buried in salt in an isolated room is not necessarily good for my health, so I lift myself out and walk to the shower outside the room. The hot water feels delicious as the salt melts into and off my skin.
In the shower room, carefully honoring Will’s admonition not to show my junk, I walk under the shower in my ancient swimsuit next to, of all people, Angry Buddha. He glowers but says nothing and ignores me. Pale Earnest takes up the shower space to my right and goes on about the caliphate again. Because, you know, this time he’s gonna convince me what a swell idea it is. “The world will one day realize the truth and become Muslim.”
I turn to him, and see the sincerity in his face. “No, it won’t. Everyone thinks they have the truth and the world is exhausted from people trying to lord it over each other, trying to impose their will and their ideology by violence. And, I gotta tell you, pal, my country has been doing it for years because we think that WE are the instruments of divine providence, and we got much bigger weapons than you do and lots more of them.”
We banter back and forth and continue the conversation at my locker. Several of my pool pals swap Facebook, email, mobile and web site information with me.
Later, Mr. W admonishes me. “Not a good idea.” He gives me some specific instructions. “If you meet any of them, meet in a public place, like City Center, where there is plenty of security. Don’t tell them where you are staying or when you are leaving. And don’t use my name or Will’s in any conversations.”
I protest that I did not intend to incite trouble.
“You’re probably fine because you’re leaving. The rest of us have to live here.”
At that moment, for the first time, I think, maybe it’s time to go. But finding what grievances and truths lie in the fierce Afghan heart seems worth the effort.