While I know otherwise, I often find myself wondering if the name “Afghanistan” comes from some ancient word for “tragedy.”
Afghanistan is in the headlines yet again — swiftly, and with almost no resistance, taken over by Taliban overlords, who envision a medieval-style caliphate. To someone of my generation, this weekend’s events feel like déjà vu from a lifetime of watching that troubled corner of the world. First, in a decade of warfare that spanned nearly the entire 1980s, Afghanistan hobbled the USSR. And now — after spending two decades, nearly a trillion dollars, and thousands of American lives — the USA is learning the same lesson: This feisty land is reluctant to be ruled.
It’s easy to point fingers: Should George W. Bush have invaded the country in 2001? Should Donald Trump have made a deal with the Taliban in early 2020? Should Joe Biden have withdrawn American troops so quickly? But ultimately, nobody has the answers…which is exactly why we keep finding ourselves in this same place.
One thing is clear: The repeated failures of mighty nations to force our will on the Afghan people is a reflection of our ethnocentrism…our inability to understand what motivates them. And using Afghanistan to score political points with the American electorate ignores the horrifying human cost of the instability that has wracked the lives of everyday Afghans for generations.
In my case, that tragedy is even harder to observe because I’ve been so moved by people-to-people contacts I’ve enjoyed in Afghanistan. Watching the news unfold, I find myself swimming through memories of my trip there in 1978, as a 23-year-old, on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. It was the trip of a lifetime — one that simply couldn’t be done now. Each border crossing was a drama, and every rest stop was a lifelong memory.
At the Iran-Afghanistan border — surrounded by abandoned VW vans that had been picked apart by guards looking for drugs, and gazing at dusty glass displays telling stories of European, Aussie, and American backpackers that were caught with drugs and doing time in Afghan jails — we kept our packs on our laps (so no one could plant anything illegal in them) and awaited the doctor to check our vaccinations. My travel partner, Gene, needed a shot, and I still remember the dull needle bending as it struggled to break his skin.
Once on the road in Afghanistan, heading for Herat in our packed minibus, the driver stopped, pulled out a knife that sparkled in the hot sun, and said, “Your tickets just became more expensive.” An Indian traveler calmed the righteous uproar from us Americans, and we all paid the welcome-to-Afghanistan supplement.
In Herat, the urban and cultural center of western Afghanistan, we stood on our hotel’s rooftop watching torchlit chariots charging through the night. Every day was an odyssey — not of sightseeing attractions as such, but simply wandering through markets and gardens and random neighborhoods. This was shortly after a communist coup backed by the USSR. A Soviet tank was parked on the main square, and restaurants had menus with prices literally marked down, and a note: “Thanks to Soviet liberation.”
Our bus ride across Afghanistan followed what must have been the only paved road across the country (a foreign aid project). The terrain looked like an arid wasteland. I remember the monotony of a roadside broken by cemeteries, dusty forests of higgledy-piggledy tombstones in the desert. Even with 50 passengers, toilet breaks lasted just a few minutes: The bus would stop in the middle of nowhere, the men would go to the left side of the road, and the women would gather on the right side of the road. Tenting out their big black robes, they would squat en masse.
Truck stops seemed designed to give the bus driver a chance to smoke hashish. At one, I remember a circle of men sitting on their haunches and passing around whatever they were smoking as they all watched a goat being skinned.
Kabul was the only real city in the country. It seemed like it existed only because a county must have one urban center to be ruled from — a sort of urban necessity in a land that didn’t really know what to do with a city. I eyed people in uniform who looked like, until today, they’d only ever worn a tribal robe.
As I sat eating at a backpackers’ cafeteria, a man appeared at my table. He said, “May I join you?” I said, “You already have.” He asked, “Are you an American?” I said, “Yes.”
And then he went into a well-worn spiel: “I’m a professor here in Afghanistan. And I want you to know that in this world, a third of the people eat with a spoon and fork like you. A third of the people eat with chopsticks. And a third of the people eat with their fingers. And we are all civilized just the same.”
This encounter turned out to be one of the most impactful in my life — like the entire rest of my visit to Afghanistan, it walloped my ethnocentricity and rearranged my cultural furniture.
A highlight of any overland trip to India was leaving Afghanistan by crossing the fabled Khyber Pass. We were scared little Westerners, sitting on the bus, luggage dutifully on our laps, understanding that we were nearly to India — which would seem, strangely, like coming home. Our bus ticket came with a “security supplement” to guarantee safe passage. This fee was paid to the autonomous tribes who “ruled” the region between the capital city and its border with Pakistan. Rolling under their stony fortresses, with wind-tattered flags (that had nothing to do with Afghanistan) and bearded sentries toting vintage rifles, I was more than happy to have paid that little extra fee.
Coming out of the harsh and arid mountains of Afghanistan, a wide-open and humid plain opened up. The stoniness of Iran and Afghanistan was behind us. And ahead stretched a billion people in Pakistan and India.
With this post, I’m kicking off a seven-day series featuring photos from my trip and excerpts from my 1978 journal through Afghanistan. (I wrote this essay from fuzzy memories; upcoming entries were diligently written each night, recounting that day’s adventures in this fascinating land.) Stay tuned, and let’s keep the Afghan people in our thoughts and prayers.