Friday, January 14, 2011

Birthdays Then and Now

Tomorrow it will be exactly 49 years since I spent my sixteenth birthday in Kabul, Afghanistan.  If 16 is the beginning of adulthood, then I have spent my entire time as an adult remembering the place where I became the person I am today.

The first thing you notice as you step off the plane is the smell, a pungent, eye-watering mix of smoke, dust, sweat, and animal urine, including the human kind.  It hits you like a wall.  You will never stop noticing it, but you will eventually get used to it.  You'd better, as there is no escaping it.

Memory, at least for me, is like a string of beads, with each bead a snapshot or a vignette that I wear as a souvenir of my life.  Here are a few I have kept from Afghanistan.

Week One: We, my parents and I, move into a one-storey house, constructed of some indefinable material that resembles cement and smells like wet clay.  It stands inside a compound, protected by high stone walls that enclose a garden filled with spindly trees and a profusion of hollyhocks.  This seems like an oasis in comparison to the monochromatic,  dusty street outside.  The first night, as I lie in my narrow bed, I hear rats scurrying around in the ceiling above me.

Week Two: We have been embraced by the other Americans living here as though we were long-lost relatives.  Eve, the wife of the director of the agency my dad works for, convinces my mother to bring me along on a VW bus trip to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan in northern Afghanistan, not far from the Russian border.  With my dad's encouragement, we board one of two buses, settle in behind our Afghan driver, and leave Kabul behind.  We are a motley group that includes the ever-enthusiastic Eve, an older couple who seem to be seasoned travelers, and a young woman traveling alone.  She is almost as quiet as I am and keeps pretty much to herself.  I learn later that she has a brain tumor.

Afghanistan, with its barren mountains, welcome streams lined with more of those spindly trees, and occasional mud-walled villages, is Biblical.  We pass camel trains headed for Kabul with their loads of firewood, grapes, or melons.  Quite frequently our road is blocked by herds of fat-tailed sheep.  Their wool is used to make the ubiquitous carakul hats worn by the men (Hamid Karzai wears one today), their meat provides a major source of the Afghan diet's protein, and the fat rendered from their basketball-shaped tails is burned along with their dung in the table-sized stoves that provide both cooking surfaces and heat for Afghan homes.  During the winter months, whole families sleep on rugs atop these stoves or sit around it with their feet next to the burning embers.

Our little caravan includes both men and women.  I point this out because we quickly discover that Afghanistan has no public restrooms.  Maybe it has no restrooms at all.  One of the things I have already learned is to keep my eyes above waist level so as not to look directly at men squatting in a ditch beside the street while they shit, pee, and blow snot with their fingers.  When we stop to relieve ourselves, the men go to one side of the road, the women to the other.  I search fruitlessly for a hill, be it ever so small, to hide behind, but I never find one that offers much privacy.  Thank goodness the men and women keep their backs turned to each other.

I am grateful for many things in my life, and one of the most memorable has to be seeing the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.  I don't know the entire history, but many centuries ago there must have been Buddhists in this now Muslim land, enough to devote the time and labor it would have taken to carve these huge figures out of Bamiyan's rock cliffs.  They are not free-standing but are held fast by great slabs of red rock, lined up like palace guards, gazing out across the fields, the river, and the brown vastness with unseeing eyes.  Were these monuments in Scotland, say, or Germany, or even other parts of Asia, they would undoubtedly be popular tourist attractions, like Stonehenge or Angkor Wat.  As it is, they stand like Ozymandias, nearly forgotten relics of a lost time.  They will only become more widely known when the radical Islamists of the Taliban destroy them in a frenzy of cultural cleansing.

Everyone these days is aware of "culture shock."  With so many world travelers, students studying abroad, and immigrants, the onslaught of loneliness, homesickness, and alienation has become familiar, to be expected like jet lag.  I did not know that culture shock could literally make you sick. 
It started for us when my mother threw up.  It may sound strange, but I had never seen her incommoded in this way before.  I was as shocked by her vomit as if I'd seen her naked.  My mother was a woman of grace and dignity, qualities impossible to maintain in the midst of retching.  I'm afraid I was more embarrassed than solicitous.

We spent a memorable night in some sort of inn, or maybe it was someone's house.  The details have become fuzzy.  What I do remember, however, is the terror I felt when the police entered our bedroom and asked for our passports.  We had been strongly cautioned NEVER to turn over our passports to anyone.  Eager Eve whispered to us to pretend to be asleep.  I lay unmoving beneath a scratchy quilt while she waved her arms and shouted at a young officer who was clearly out of his depth.  He may have been intimidated by Eve, but I knew he had the power to arrest us, lock us up, make our lives miserable.  When he finally left, I felt as exhausted as if I had been hauling bricks.  The exhaustion didn't lift as we began the return trip to Kabul.  I was beyond tired, in a state of semi-consciousness that made the rest of the world seem as if it were at the far end of a long tunnel.  I stopped talking and sank into myself; I tried not to move, and when we stopped for the night I fell into bed as if tumbling into a pit.  I have never again experienced anything remotely like those days of radical disconnection.  I wasn't aware that I was suffering; I only knew that I wanted to be left alone inside my own head.  I have always imagined that those ravaged, shocked people whose photos we see in reports about starving Sudanese or refugees in crowded, filthy camps must feel something akin to what I felt.  I had stopped caring, stopped trying, stopped thinking.  There was no fear, no pain, only the desire to be left absolutely alone.  I have since wondered if this is the way you feel just before you die.

To be continued.

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