Behind the Veil: Afghanistan

Posted April 23, 2013 by Stephen Lioy in Under the Radar


Seeing past the headlines in one of world’s most troubled regions.

Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013

 

“G

ood luck!” offers the Tajik customs officer.

As if I’m not already nervous about entering Afghanistan on a tourist visa, this farewell is enough to raise further doubts as I cross the ‘Friendship Bridge’ from Tajikistan into the hostile land.

Afghanistan is, after all, a country often associated with war, terrorism, and human rights violation. Dubbed the ‘graveyard of empires’, it has been entrenched in decades of war with some of the strongest countries in the world. A quick Google search of the word ‘Afghanistan’ yields image after image of bombings, Taliban militants, and dramatic headlines that scream death and destruction. Even within the country, there have been years of cultural conflict between major ethnic groups.

The U.S. Department of State warns citizens against travel to Afghanistan, as does the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; but my curiosity was piqued when my friends and I learned that a few northern cities in Afghanistan are considered ‘safe’ and visas are obtainable. With the imminent withdrawal of the NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, now seemed like a good chance to visit before things changed.

Before the trip, my companions and I scoured the Internet, talked to expats on the ground, and rang up local tour guides for the latest on security in the region. All sorts of questions filled our minds: Is it indeed safe? How accepting will they be of foreigners, especially Americans? Is this a mistake?

”Despite its violent history of banditry, Badakshan has recently become one of the calmest parts of Afghanistan, relatively free of strife for the last ten years.” 

With these questions stirring in our minds, we can’t seem to move past the possible danger that lurking in Afghanistan. Yet on a hilltop above the town of Khorog, looking across the border from Tajikistan, Afghanistan seems calm and even inviting. We see a smattering of concrete houses stacked above plowed fields, and donkey trails that wind in and out of the hills as they slope down to the river, marking the boundary between the two countries. Sick with nerves but overwhelmed by the desire to see it all firsthand, we set off to discover a culture that we’ve heard so much about yet surprisingly knew so little of.

First Encounters 

Before we are even technically inside Afghanistan, we meet Zeki. The Kabuli and his friends are playfully posing for cell phone pictures on the bridge, like tourists on vacation. They are here on a work trip, to install the groundwork for internet infrastructure in this mountainous border region. Fortunately they’ve finished work for the day and graciously offer to explore the area with us.

Aboard their dusty jeep, we bounce up a rutted track to the village of Redoge. Climbing towards the hilltop community, I hesitate nervously before asking Zeki the question that’s plagued me all day, “Is it okay to admit to being American?”

In the corner, a goat’s carcass hangs from the ceiling and a butcher is busy pulling a string of intestines out of the lifeless cadaver. We watch him with probing eyes, before realizing that a crowd has gathered around us, observing us with even more curiosity.

He convinces me not to worry, and his assurance is soon put to the test. As we crawl out of the overloaded jeep in Redoge, we immediately face not only the stares commonly directed towards tourists in Central Asia – but also questions, handshakes, and countless greetings, “As salaam alaykum!”.

With the kindness and warmth we’ve received, my friends and I ease up instantly, but not for long. An old man approaches unnoticed and begins a tirade whose tone doesn’t require translation. As he gestures crazily, yells, and slaps an Afghan boy in the head, we wonder exactly what perturbs him. Afterwards, we confront Zeki.

“He says that he is glad to welcome you to our country. Perhaps it is better, though, if you all return tonight to the border post to sleep instead of staying in the village.” We wonder uneasily what has been left out of his explanation.

Afghan Hospitality

Parting ways with Zeki, I’m once again full of doubt, silently questioning whether I’d made a mistake coming to Afghanistan. But we soon meet Durmohammed, who’s quick to dispel our concerns with calm composure. His polished appearance and fluent English are a welcome relief. Having recently returned from studying in Kabul, his familiarity with the world beyond bridges our gap with this new and unwelcoming place.

He invites us to a local café for overflowing plates of biriz, biryani rice generously cooked with turmeric and raisins, and topped with giant chunks of grilled mutton. As we eat and chat, a traveling imam sits with us and spends nearly an hour attempting to convert us to Islam.

“Laa ilaha ill Allah, Muhammadun rasool Allah”, he says with passion.

There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.

With twisted tongues and unconvinced hearts, we leave the question of religion unresolved and wander through the dirt roads of the bazaar once again, this time with much more ease under the wings of Durmohammed. Shabby grocery stalls are packed close to one another, with their goods spilling onto the grimy walkways. Sacks of colorful Iranian sweets and sundry are laid along the storefront, sending wafts of aroma into the air. If not for the butcher, the market would have smelt like a tantalizing Moroccan souk.

In the corner, a goat’s carcass hangs from the ceiling and a butcher is busy pulling a string of intestines out of the lifeless cadaver. We watch him with probing eyes, before realizing that a crowd has gathered around us, observing us with even more curiosity.

When we emerge from the bazaar, a policeman suddenly appears and demands that we follow him. We’re faced with renewed fear: Are we going to get arrested? Or are we in serious trouble? Fortunately, the commander only asks for our photos and passport copies to register us as tourists and ensure our safety.

Passing through these small settlements, we’re invited into homes for a short break of fresh bread and something to drink. Communication is often difficult, but the hospitality warmer than the endless stream of hot tea offered our way.

Perhaps sensing our anxiety, Durmohammed invites us into his home for the short time we spend in Redoge. Though more biriz cooks in the next room, I’m only dimly aware of the smell of spices as all my attention is focused on our host who’s sharing stories of life in the Badakhshan province during the time of warlords and mountain raiders. With his eyes seemingly lost in his memories, Durmohammed haltingly recalls how bandits would ride down from the mountain passes to raid nearby villages. They demanded valuables and food, and were quick to respond with violence whenever there was any sort of resistance. Pausing momentarily to find the words, he described how these robbers acted with casual disrespect for others’ lives, “even if tea was served late or food not brought quickly, they would kill the innocent.”

His stories seem like a stark contrast to what we’ve experienced here. Despite its violent history of banditry, Badakhshan has recently become one of the calmest parts of Afghanistan, relatively free of strife for the last ten years. We’re told that even at the height of the Taliban’s control in the country, the cultural norms in this region were never affected by the Talib mindset to the same degree as in the south. Given the reception we’ve received, and the kindnesses of people like Durmohammed and Zeki, I have no doubt this must be true.

When the conversation switches to politics, though, our host is not cheerful about the future of his country. While Afghanistan is populated largely by the Pashto ethnic group, the northern reaches of the republic in Badakhshan and the Wakhan Corridor are culturally more similar to the Farsi-speaking Iranians, and even their cross-border Tajik cousins, than to fellow Afghans to the south. Durmohammed (himself ethnically Tajik) cites Pashto’s greed and hostility towards foreigners as two of the major causes of friction within Afghan society. According to locals, it’s hard to believe things will change.

One World

Early the next morning we bid Durmohammed’s family goodbye as he escorts us to the edge of town. Walking from one village to the next, we follow a dirt-and-gravel track that traces the course of the Pyanj River beneath. Much of the Pyanj’s valley here is desert, but green clusters mark inhabited areas where people live and work to grow crops that feed the region.

Passing through these small settlements, we’re invited into homes for a short break of fresh bread and something to drink. Communication is often difficult, but the hospitality warmer than the endless stream of hot tea offered our way.

En route back to the border, we fall into conversation with three teenage girls on their way home from school. Our exchange is less about politics and war but more about school, music, and boys. Just like Zeki, Durmohammed and many other people we met in Afghanistan, they are no different from us.

I’ve come to realize that, despite the raging war in the south and other ethnic issues, this is still a country in many ways like any other.

Perhaps someday Afghanistan will become a country that’s no longer feared, and until then, I relish the smiles, greetings, handshakes and kindness of the Afghans in my memories.

 

This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013


About the Author

Stephen Lioy

Central Asia-based writer and photographer Stephen Lioy is obsessed with the Silk Road. He blogs at MonkBoughtLunch, with stories and photos from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan.

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