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Published: October 13th 2007
Getting off a bus after sunset in the middle of Herat with absolutely *no* information, neither map nor directions nor knowledge of prices, unable to speak the language, and with my enormous backpack and /khareji/ clothes *clearly* a very stupid westerner in a country with an emerging appetite for kidnapping foreigners... no, probably not the most intelligent move I've made. It's not like I was too arrogant to be scared either. Maybe stupid is the right word.
The place was like a wave descending on me, the sudden onslaught of all the stereotypes of Afghanistan come to life: the ancient "phoenix" bicycles and their bearded turbaned shalwar kameez (and vest) wearing riders, the fruit stalls selling the most enormous grapes ever and pakistani bananas, red rickshaws with email addresses written across them, the waft of bollywood movie music somewhere in the air, and a faint stench from the roadside sewage channels... almost too much for the senses and made me want to pause the film for a few minutes, otherwise I'd be unable to breathe.
Two dudes from the bus suggested we take a room together (which I was not-so-secretly hoping for) and we went to some truly 3rd world courtyard around which was a naan tandoor and small workshops and a room or two to let. Within the first few minutes a bearded dude came in and sat down and proceeded to pray and then collect money. My Arabic-speaking friend was out but the hitherto-silent dude turned out to speak some english and said the dude with the beard was "very bastard" and was probably working for the "Talib", come to scout out what's going on. I guess I wasn't the only freaked out person. When the other dude came back he took us to another place which was far nicer, with all those subtle hallmarks of a "nicer" hotel in a 3rd world country. The room cost 250 Afghanis (for some reason always referred to as "rupees"), the equivalent of $5 for the 3 of us, which was far better than I'd come to expect based on my reading on the TT. And anyhow, I had no choice and was glad for the company.
Downstairs at the hotel restaurant, sitting on the floor (preferring it to the tables), eating our rice and meat (very similar to /biryani/), with side saucers with okra potato or pickles, being asked if we'd prefer black or green tea, while the TV showed footage of the latest attack on the US base at Kabul Airport, and words like "Kandahar" and "Gazni" were casually used in advertisements and without the fear and awe I've come to associate with them, and while a bollywood soap opera dubbed into Dari absorbed the attention of all, I was doing my best to play the part of a (very silent) Afghan. I mean, who would be hanging out with Afghan dudes at a joint like this if he wasn't Afghan? I'm not sure how many people I fooled but my buddies were also extremely careful to not speak to me at all in public, so as to not draw attention to the fact that I don't speak Dari and am a friggin /khareji/. I guess I've been in tame middle eastern countries for too long, because I don't remember feeling so shocked and out of my element except maybe on my first day in Sudan and also in Hargeisa.
Later on upstairs the conversation tended to drift towards the "Talib" and I was exhorted to not go places alone and to be very careful. In the middle of this there appeared the silhouettes of 4-5 men in front of the door and a knock. "Here they've come for me already" I thought, and I believe I said "God protect us!" out loud. Turned out to be the police (I guess I didn't fool everyone), who seemed simply curious and wanted to know where I'd go after Herat (Iran, inshallah), and told me to register with some department first thing the next day. Then after they left whenever the conversation lagged one of the two would point out how much better this hotel was, and how at the other place no-one would even know if I was kidnapped at night. This joint was at least official, but they didn't fail to mention that someone with only a pistol could come kidnap me with impunity. I must admit all this talk about kidnapping wasn't very reassuring (seeing how I was freaked out as it was), although I did feel somewhat relieved by the jokes about them selling me to the "Talib" for $50,000. We then went to sleep with our clothes on (such is life in a Muslim country).
The next morning we all had work to do: the Arabic-speaking dude (Abdullah) was returning from work in Saudi Arabia and needed to book a flight for the same day to Kabul (the roads were too dangerous even for him); the english-speaking one (Ziya) who turned out to be 2 months younger than me (though I swear he looked much older) needed to go to the Iranian embassy to collect a visa (long story); I had to visit that department to register with the police (they shrugged and told me I had come to the wrong place, so we gave up); and we all had to exchange money.
Again, on the street and in public I was doing my very best to pretend to be "local" but if my face expressed any of the anxiety I was feeling, I must have been doing a pretty poor job. I think the fact that I was there at all, and especially with two Afghan dudes led people to assume I couldn't possibly be a foreigner, despite the clothes (admittedly more Iranian than western) and the blue eyes. As we were exchanging money (sitting on the floor in some moneychanger's shop in some building with a "no weapons" sign out front) things were going pretty well until someone turned to me and asked if I had already changed my money; I replied in Arabic (in my confusion) and suddenly everyone started shouting "He's not Afghan! He's a /khareji/! /Khareji/!" Luckily we were on our way out, but the episode wasn't reassuring and I started to seriously wonder what would happen if anyone knew I was a foreigner.
That day and the next I only emerged in short bursts, as the whole thing was too overwhelming to be sustainable. Trying to frown, to make the exactly correct amount of eye contact, to be conscious of the position of the sun so as to not be walking in the shade (it's better if everyone is squinting), trying to walk at exactly the right speed and without my usual swaying... in short, trying to not draw attention was tiring. We spent most of the long evenings talking with Ziya (who knows a surprising amount of words but speaks very broken English which still doesn't get in the way of him expressing himself... and he could always fall back on Farsi and 8/10 the word would be the same in Turkish), he telling me his life story in bits and pieces, and filling in the details over time as he began to trust me more (and I him). In fact, by the 3rd day I trusted him completely: I gave him my ipod to listen to while waiting in line at the consulate, all my stuff was always around (including a wad of Iranian Riyals) and everything was very natural. I usually don't trust travelers half as much as that. By the time we parted ways I felt I had found a true friend (though I may never see him again).
His story goes something like this: his family were supporters of the communist regime of Dr Najibullah; his father owned a store and his mother was a lawyer, so they were pretty well-off, although his entire family was later killed during the violence, apart from his step sister who had emigrated to Canada earlier "with a suitcase full of dollar bills". He went to Pakistan when he was 13, without speaking any Urdu, having any money or friends there. He slept at the train station at nights while working as a manual laborer during the day for 6 months in Peshawar until the winter came and he moved south to Karachi. At one point he was running guns between Peshawar and Islamabad and was arrested and spent 2 years in jail (a lighter sentence because he withstood the beatings and denied that the 2 pistols and 50 bullets were found on his person... Pakistani justice.). He worked and lived in Karachi, then squandered his savings in Iran, now is married, has a daughter and lays tiles for a living at $20/day (which isn't bad). This was his first legal border crossing ever, and a year ago while in the bazaar shopping for groceries he was nabbed by the police and deported to Afghanistan as he was for having no papers. His wife only got the news 3 days later when he was already on the other side of the border. He spent a month in Kabul getting Afghan identity papers, then snuck back across the border in an amazing story of being crammed 14 people to a peugeot car (2 in the trunk, 8 in the back seat and 3 in the passenger seat), spending 3 days without food or water hiding out under bridges and then desperate dashes across mountains at night, dodging the search lights, then bribing bus companies to sell him tickets at extortionate prices, and eventually making it home to his (Iranian) wife and daughter. He eventually was able to register as a refugee, got an Afghan passport, and was now getting his iranian visa for a legal return, and hopefully eventually a work permit. The queue at the consulate is hundreds of people long, and the morning when he queued up at 4am (the place opens at 9) he was already 3rd in line. All in all an amazing life story that puts everyone else's to shame, and I couldn't help admiring him for fitting more into 29 years than I am likely to experience in this lifetime, and also for being so genuinely happy and good-natured after all he'd been through.
Herat itself is awesome: "The Real Thing", I'd call it. By comparison Iran is pretty ordinary and boring. Especially the bazaar was possibly the most lively and amazing I've seen. The added fear-induced adrenaline doesn't hurt either.
I think the commonest way of dealing with extreme emotions or situations is to shutdown, escaping from reality by switching off. I've observed the behavior before, and it was pretty obvious in the case of me adjusting to Herat: in the interests of self-preservation one starts to notice less details and withdraw into one's inner world, increasingly becoming indifferent to (and hence more comfortable with) one's surroundings. And so, by my 3rd night I had begun to regard as commonplace what was so startling to begin with. Then in a surge of self-confidence I mentally mapped out the city, bought me a replacement "pashtun" hat (they're apparently Tajik and not Pashtun, and called "pakol"s), made in Pakistan purchased in Herat, changed money and hung out at the Jameh Mosque, joining the bearded turbaned throng and wondering if things could have been much different 100 or even 200 years ago. I didn't get to see the inside of the Arg (closed for Eid) and I was too chicken to leave the city center, but by the time I was leaving I felt like I could be a "local" if I worked at it (especially if I even slightly modified my garb). Too bad I didn't have enough time this time around, and had to leave before Eid began to avoid being stranded in a shutdown city for 3 days.
Lately I've been feeling a surge of happiness; I find myself waking up in the mornings full of gratitude for being alive and exactly where I am and doing exactly what I'm doing. I wonder if that means I'm finally on the way to becoming a Real Traveler? The night before leaving Mashhad I resolved to spend the evening as if it were my last on the planet. Quite a novel feeling to think "would I be doing this if these were my last few hours alive?" Most trivial (but bothersome) worries, such as whether you really were ripped off 5cents on that litre of /dugh/, should your budget be $10/day or more, and will that qalyan experience really be worth the 1000 toman it will cost, should you hold off a couple more days (perhaps until Tehran) to shower and so avoid having to pay for it, do you really look and act local or are you just fooling yourself, and what would be different if you were clearly and unmistakably a /khareji/... they all disappear. All you think of is existing in the moment, and how precious that is. As Sinem Binicioglu-Cetiner said: to live is a mercy.
So I guess, in summary: I was no longer afraid after a couple of days in Herat, although if I were to advise others I wouldn't go there as a blatant westerner (leave that camera at home), and especially not as an American or Briton. Sorry, guys. Maybe when you elect better leaders. Ziya was freaked out until the last minute before we crossed the border (we returned together), and the people at the hotel referred to him as my "interpreter", which I thought was insulting (as if I couldn't possibly be his friend!), and he thought was cool (his english is good enough to interpret). He told me the people were likely to rise up against the Americans and British in the next couple of years, based on the conversations he kept overhearing discussing the atrocities committed, particularly by the Americans. He seemed depressed that the Taliban would return to power and Afghanistan would return to "level zero", but then, what viable alternative is there to the Taliban? He said the governments and world leaders are all in league with each other, and the propaganda is all to "make donkeys out of people", and that bin Laden is most likely being protected by the US to provide an ongoing pretext for their presence in the country, and that they didn't want peace, otherwise they'd be forced to leave. In parting he exhorted me to make this my final trip and to settle down and start a family; I had to laugh and agree with him that does indeed seem to be the most logical next step. Except I don't know many people who wake up each morning grateful to be alive, and I don't think I should pass up a good thing.
Crossing the border back into the comfort and safety of Iran, seeing the US soldiers with enormous guns on the Afghan side, much flattered that people asked me if I'm a Turk of Afghan origin, spitting /noswar/ into the dust while waiting for those less fortunate passengers to clear customs, and mumbling "men musaferem" to those who inquired about the state of my "roza", laughing at the visible relief on Ziya's face at having made it to Iran without any major mischief and to finally be legal in Iran, talking to the soldiers at the many luggage searches and checkpoints, accepting their compliments on my Farsi, returning to Mashhad amused by the taxi drivers and touts trying to drag me all in different directions, buying a train ticket to Tehran, joining the throng at the Shrine of Emam Reza, eating my last (Kandahari) pomegranate and then chilling with Iranian and Iraqi dudes on the train before going to sleep... I'm not sure things get much better than this!
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