Goodbye Kabul.

Farshid and Steve Jobs

Goodbye Farshid Ghyasi for hosting me via couchsurfing.com. My needs always met, from security to shared meals to nightlife and introductions. You have four inspirational posters in your office. Martin Luther King Jr., who taught social change through non-violence. Ghandi-ji, who taught social change through non-violence. Albert Einstein, a very, very smart American Jew. And Steve Jobs, half-Syrian, who grew up in the epicenter of technology, in the safe and comfortably middle class Palo Alto. As CEO of Netlinks in Kabul, you are redefining the way Afghans use technology. As courageous entrepreneurs go, Steve Jobs got nothing on you.

Goodbye Javid Hamdard. Your office karaoke performance of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was, um, an experience I will never forget. In your spare time, you won the national award for IT innovation. And proceeded to donate the funds to charity. Islam’s call to zakat, in the flesh.

Goodbye Salsal Guest House, my first home in Kabul. Two days before arriving in Afghanistan, I could not find lodging. Places were either too dangerous or expensive (Serena), no longer in business (sorry, Gandamack), or didn’t answer their phones or emails. The price was right ($12 per night) and the hospitality generous. Fresh naan bread, sweet cream cheese and a pot of chai delivered to my door every morning. When I could not find an ATM that worked, the gap-toothed manager told me not to worry about payment, handed me 1,000 Afghani for spending money and had schwarma and tea sent up to me.

Me and Afghanistan’s national football coach at the Herat-Mazar match at Ghazi, which proves I’m, you know, a sportsman. Herat, Assef’s team, loses 1-0. Boo.

Goodbye Ghazi Stadium. A fellow rooting for Helmand in the first match shared the political importance of people freely and openly playing sports, something barred by the Taliban. Who used this very stadium to publicly execute and shame sinners. There was so much blood spilled, he said, that the new groundskeepers had to install artificial turf as new grass wouldn’t take hold.

Goodbye to my Afterparty Analog Content Aggregation team. Two girls chased me down on the street each day selling old, tattered copies of Afghan Scene, lifted from local restaurants. Medina wouldn’t let me take her picture, but the other girl did. “One dollah, mistuh.” Well worth it, even when it was the third copy of the same issue.

Goodbye to the fathers of Afghanistan, soldiers and teachers and merchants who fiercely demand equal education for their daughters so that they can grow up to be anything they damn well please.

IMG_1171Goodbye to the brave men and women risking their lives every day for a free and prosperous Afghanistan. A Netlinks employee who followed my exploits online told me that I have a brave heart. But my courage is Junior Varsity courage. I’m outta here when my 30 day visa expires. The real heroes are men like Mr. W, a dozen years working to rebuild the country, women like Mina, who returned from her cozy Canadian home for a decade of service to her native country, the Afghan army colonel, the Aussie diplomat, the Fulbright-awarded hospital CEO who could easily have stayed in the States but came home to oppose the medieval Taliban (“cockroaches”), the merchants and lawmakers who condemn misogynist tyranny. Like Courtney Body, the former CNN reporter who took over Kabul Pressistan when her friend was murdered in the Serena Hotel attack, to keep the free flow of ideas alive.

Goodbye to the countless moments of kindness from strangers. Why? Why did they do it? Was it a commercial come-on? Did they appreciate the sacrifices of Americans? Was I a novelty? I’ll never know. But usually, when offered tea and company, free street food, dinners, freshly made juice concoctions, it was with a warm glimmer and a humble request to, please, accept this and, please accept Kabul as your home.

Goodbye to the dark streets, the broken pavements, the psychotic driving, the Bukhari stove-induced haze, the cold nights, the unpredictable wi-fi. the blue burka-wearing women grabbing my arm insisting on baksheesh, the endless packs of stale gum bought from street kids.

Goodbye Kabul.

IMG_1477People stared at me like a circus freak, as I walked each day through Shar-e-Naw, as it became my neighborhood. No one ever gave me trouble or uttered an unkind word. There was potential danger, but I had the protection of Afghans and expats who schooled me in avoiding trouble. I didn’t always listen (“Not a good idea, Brian”), sometimes let bravado or the pursuit of a story belie my promises to keep squeaky-clean safe, but in the end my worse injury was stepping into one of the moats surrounding each block, into a mixture of wet, muddy horror whose smell stayed with me for days.

Goodbye Kabul Museum, looted and defiled by the Taliban philistines, and goodbye Kabul Zoo, many of whose animals were killed and eaten by holy warriors during the civil war. Goodbye to the walks in the park, to unforgettable sites, to the daily images of Kabulis struggling to carve out decent lives for their families.

Goodbye Zahra, with your silky black, gold-gilded hijab. You friended me on Facebook and gave me a lengthy education in the secret life of an Afghan woman. You swore to give your two daughters the life you couldn’t have after the Taliban cut off your schooling as a young girl. Despite our failed encounter at City Center, if you are who you say you are, I am blessed that you opened your heart to me. If, as some of the guys joked, you’re really a dude with nothing better to do than impersonate women, please get married or laid, soon. If you were tracking me to do me harm…too late!

IMG_1125Goodbye Fawad, introduced by Shaira, the Poetess, who opened so many doors for me. We shared fresh juice on Chicken Street, you fifteen years old, a ten year veteran of the street, selling maps, blessings, retail wares, anything that earned a buck. I found out halfway through our talk that you starred in the Oscar-nominated film, Buzhkazi Boys, even attended the Oscars in Los Angeles. Then, through your school chum, you got me in to meet with Afghanistan’s most revered Islamic scholar and imam, where we debated religion, politics, war and peace, sitting cross-legged drinking tea. I’ve rarely been in the presence of a more charismatic, warm and spiritual man. Six hours at the sacred Wazir Akhbar Khan mosque, an American Jew, welcomed and embraced as a brother and fellow seeker.

 

Each day, I hang on the corner with my young delinquent posse, swapping insults and hand gestures. Viva Afghanistan is our new greeting. They love the word Viva.

Each day, I hang on the corner with my young delinquent posse, swapping insults and hand gestures. Viva Afghanistan is our new greeting. They love the word Viva.

Goodbye to my delinquent Shar-e-Naw posse. The first time I walked down Chicken Street, every shopkeeper hawked their wares to me in English. The next day, I wore my pakol hat with an Afghan scarf, and five of seven said Salaam or Salaam Aleikum as I passed and nodded. A small victory, but who was I kidding? I was the only gringo in the neighborhood most days and people could track my movements easily. One day, the juice man on the corner of Herat Restaurant, yelled out at me, part ridicule, part warm hello, part tease, “Hey, Mister Hollywood.” The name stuck. I was warned that the kids on the corner were Panjshiris, an untrustworthy, criminal lot. Each day the group grew larger and we developed a routine. I taught them how to raise a fist in the air and scream Viva Afghanistan, Viva Panjshir, Viva Massoud (the adored Northern Alliance leader murdered by al Qaeda two days before 9/11). Yes, I was attracting unwanted attention, but they looked out for me, gave me street advice, offered to walk me home.

The juice man’s name is “Pure,” a young, tough, quiet, even sullen guy. He prepared a daily mix of fresh carrots, pomegranate, apples and the occasional banana or orange. He refused payment unless I literally stuffed it in his pocket. This is a man making 14,000 Afghani a month, the equivalent of $240. His family is in Sweden and he can’t afford classes, so I showed him how to download free Swedish language apps.

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On my last night on the corner, I took in the sights. The sides of mutton in shop windows. The restaurants, the street vendors, the traffic, the once-banned music vendors. And the whole experience just hit me. So much warmth and acceptance, so many great interviews and insights, a chance to breath knowing that my fears were unfounded. I started to cry, just a bit.

Suddenly, Pure walked from his juice stand and stood directly in front of me. He said:

“I want to be the tear.  That falls from your eyes. To move on your cheek. To die on your lips.

“Mountains can fly. Rivers run dry. You can forget me. But never can I you.”

Goodbye Kabul.

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