I am a target for beggars. My style was at first apologetic, patient, empathetic, but today I largely ignore them. A brief gesture, a wave of the hand, a “No”. On the way to the juice bar, I draw a crowd. A boy selling blessings for a dollar, via smoke from an incense burner,. A woman in a tattered blue burka, another in a silky black one. A boy selling gum. And a fifth holding a large stack of paperback books, selling me one title at a time. Persian phrases? “I have no interest in learning Persian phrases.” The colorful history of Afghanistan? “I have a stack of books on the subject, no, thank you.”
I have a nickname. I”ve been in the Shar-e-Naw area long enough for street vendors to wave hello on my daily walks. Shopkeepers ask where I”ve been, and a posse of little kids swarm me to practice English. I walk by the corner juice bar (a big thing here), and the juice guy yells out, “MR. HOLLYWOOD.” I think I”m incognito with my Arab kaffiya, Afghan pakol hat and sunglasses, but I”m pretty obviously a gringo. I surmise that it’s safest to stay in an Afghan neighborhood. I see few westerners during my strolls. The juice guy’s name is “Pure”. I say, pure heart, pure mind, and he likes that. His friends surround me on the corner. They are all wise asses and their grasp of English is poor but there is always someone for real-time translation, with a lot of gestures. And laughing. At me, probably. The old guy in the group says he is from Panjshir and is wearing a cocked pakol, Massoud-style. They offer to drive me to the Panjshir Valley. I am determined to stay in Kabul but if I did a day trip, it would be there. I want to see Massoud’s tomb.
The juice guy prepares my daily mix—carrot, pomegranate, apple. I tell him I’ll be back for it in five minutes while I drop off my cleaning. The laundry shopkeeper, who sports an elegant head wrap, is not there. But his kid is, a pre-teen boy who has a handle on some English. It’s my third visit, so we greet other with smiles. I am, once again, a novelty.
He catalogues my delivery, doing his best with English, while writing in Dari in his receipt book. A T-shirt. Two shirts. One pair of pants. A sweater. It’s 1pm, so he tries to tell me, not today, not today. Tomorrow, I say. Five o’clock. His father shooed me away yesterday when I came at 4:20.
There are a variety of food barkers on the park pavement, making soups and kebabs. One of them shouts at me in broken English. He points at the slowly roasting kebabs. He names an Afghan dish that I don’t recognize. He is persuasive. “I’ll have one.” His friend asks “1K, 2K how much?” “1K,” I answer as he ushers me inside. I’m now careful with food ordering as Afghans bring heaping piles of food when I am not specific. An over-the-top feast still comes in at under ten dollars; a street side meal at a buck.
The restaurant is part butcher shop, part temple, part hangout for young men chatting on their ubiquitous mobiles. There are Islamic decorations and quotes on the lime green walls. I start taking off my shoes to sit on one of the platforms, when an old fellow beckons. He is in his seventies, his friend the same. They are sitting on light blue plastic chairs at a folding table with a dark red, floral table cover. “Sit,” he says, and offers me barbecued chicken and naan. Every meal here is served with a foot-long oval or circle of naan. Kabul is pre- gluten-free.
I ask his name as his friend tosses a piece of chicken on my plate. “Naim. I’m Canadian.”
Naim left Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, first to India, then Canada. After ten years in Toronto, he was asked to leave, presumably a visa problem.
“I’ve been here a year.” He reminds me a little of my father, not in appearance but in mannerisms. The philosophical shrugs, the grudging acceptance of life’s weird turns. “I left during the Soviets. Left my house, everything. Now I come back to Shar-e-Naw and I can’t get my nbso online casino house back.”
“Is there a legal process for reclaiming it?” I ask, calculating his chances of navigating the system. “I’m sure the current occupants are not eager to leave.” This was a serious problem in Iraq when Kurds returned to reclaim their homes, taken from them by Saddam during his Arabization drive.
He takes a pull on his bright red can of Coke and struggles to come up with the right language. “I went to the judge. I paid a lot of money.” His face is deeply lined. He passes judgment on modern Kabul. “I don’t know. There’s no future here.”
He lightens up when I tell him where I’m from. He is a big fan of San Francisco, and rattles off cities he visited while living in Toronto. “Chicago, New York, California. My brother lives in San Diego.”
I asked why he doesn’t go live with him. “You could even go through Mexico. I hear it’s easy,” I joke. “You even look a little Mexican.” Naim laughs and puts out a stream of Dari and English that I can’t quite get.
The fellows on the far platform have started afternoon prayers. They are bowing and rising on the mat just a few yards away. I am fascinated by my daily encounters with public prayer. Shopping at the City Center mall? Oops, better wait, because the aisle is blocked by 20 men in business attire observing the call to prayer. Muezzin calling from small, local mosques and grand temples five times a day. I like it. It imbues the streets with ancient verse, a constant reminder to stop, give thanks, reflect, to approach the divine. In one of my mosque visits, I was told that the marked rows of faithful are intentionally close. Rich, poor, everyone equal before God. This was another reason given for separating men and women. “Wouldn’t it be distracting?” And, yes, when I am in the back of a yoga class full of lithe female bodies, I’ve been distracted. No mention, though of five thousand years of patriarchy, or the treatment of women as property in certain cultures. Though in every encounter I’ve had in the Muslim world, there is fierce insistence of the equality of women.
I point to an imposing looking photo of a military man on the wall. “Who is that?” I ask, accustomed to seeing Massoud, murdered by al-Qaeda two days before two planes hit the World Trade Center towers.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“And don’t care?” I ask. He nods. He has seen too many mujahedin commander photos on too many walls. He asks the waiter. The picture is the father of the restauranteur.
A heavyset fellow sits cross-legged on a large chair in the shop window. He wears a pakol, my adopted headgear. He speaks to me in English from time to time. His colleague smiles sheepishly at me. Speaking of sheep, there are animal corpses hanging from vicious-looking hooks, ten feet away. There are alternatively 1, 2, 3 guys talking and not doing much work as far as I can see. Maybe it’s an HR meeting! There are big hunks of meat and bones in pots. And huge knives.
I offer Naim and his pal some of my lamb chops and salad. They decline, and get up to leave.There are so many great pictures that I pass up. I’m told some Afghans object to picture-taking from strangers. I thought of buying a Narrative Clip. It’s a square tile that you attach to your clothes, taking pictures every minute, memorializing your day. It was suggested to me that a white man claiming to be an “independent” writer taking unwelcome pictures of Kabulis might not be a good idea. I shoot some photos, but discretely. I ask the stout fellow with the long knives if I can take a photo or two. He’s on the phone but grunts something that I interpret as yes.
I was going to look for a cafe with wifi to spend the afternoon writing. One of the waiters is looking over my shoulder, fascinated by my MacBook Air. I think I’ll settle in here a while.