Four walks at night

Walk 1.

May 1, 2010. Yakawlang district, Bamiyan province. Excerpt from a never-finished travel series.

The minibus stops in front of a river. A low yellow moon hangs above. I can just make out buildings. A young man who introduces himself as Salim, another AHRDO theater trainer, helps me carry my bags. I follow Bisharat, Salim and several others over a footbridge and through woods. We reach a dirt trail leading up a mountain. Bisharat points to lights high above. “That’s the Yakawlang Shohada  guesthouse, let’s go,” he says.  We hike up a mountain in the moonlight. The air is so clear it stings my lungs, which have for months been choked by dust and diesel from the streets of Kabul.

In the guesthouse, I find several men sitting on the floor of a livingroom dimly lit by a single fluorescent lightbulb. Yakawlang has a few hours of weak electricity at night thanks to a small hyrdo power station the valley residents built when they realized no one was coming to help them.

I sit down and Salim pours me some tea.

Walk 2.

September 14, 2010, four days before Election Day, from a journal entry titled “The fear.”

It is after midnight and I am sitting alone in a bright hotel conference room, typing a report that speaks to the corrosive effects of leaving killers in power for reasons of political expediency.

My phone rings. I pick it up. The question of who could be calling so late briefly flickers across my consciousness. Garbled Dari mixed with English. I can’t understand the words, but I understand the tone. I hang up.

Ringing again. Same number. Finally it disconnects. I turn back to the screen, to deleting the last two letters in a name that, when Googled, returns accounts of captives being crushed beneath tank treads. I replace the name with my favorite Afghanistan euphemism: “local powerbroker.”

Ring. Ring. Ring. The same number again, ending in 28.

I leave the phone. There’s no connection between the calls and what I’m writing. To think otherwise would be silly.

Josh walks into the room. I tell him I’m getting harassing phone calls again. He arches his eyebrows and asks, “Again?“

Checking my email inbox, I tell him about the calls, and about the time I received a text message from someone threatening to kill me by knocking out all my teeth and letting me bleed to death.

Josh tells me we will take taxis to work while he is in Kabul. The office carpool is fine, I say. He asks me how I can trust the drivers.

For a moment I puzzle over the question.

I just do, I tell him, shrugging. I have trusted them for months. Josh tells me that’s a poor justification for trust and the conversation ends.

It is nearly 2 am when I walk the 1/4 block home, alone. The street is dark when I leave the hotel. The faint light of a guard hut illuminates a soldier’s shape.

The soldier begins walking in my direction. No one else is around. My heart pounds. I reach for the comforting handle of my knife, and then remember that I gave it to my housemate.

The soldier picks up his pace. I freeze in the alley that runs alongside my compound. From probably 60 feet away, the soldier calls out, “No danger! No danger!”

My key tuns in the lock and the heavy gate opens. Hands shaking, I throw the deadbolt and run to my front door.

Walk 3.

October 2, 2010, from a journal entry titled “24 years; blood and vodka.”

My red scarf clings tightly to my face, showing only my eyes and the tips of my bangs, as I hurry through the nighttime streets. Passing cars honk, and guards call to me in singsong voices and then laugh heartily amongst their compatriots.

The dark hours belong to men in this country. A woman’s presence on the streets after sunset is treated as both an infraction and an open invitation.

I try to ignore the leering and whispers. Then a van swerves and slows next to me. Young men open the door and call to me. I leap clumsily across the open sewer and slide into a pile of rubble. The van drives on.

Waiting outside the gate of the UN guesthouse, I feel tacky wetness under the toes on my left foot. I look down and see my shoe covered in dark blood.

Walk 4.

January 4, 2011, Adams Morgan, Washington, DC.

A and I linger in the diner after Solmaz leaves. We finish the last of the cider and get the check. The air outside is full of cold and electricity. We decide to stay out a while longer. The apartment I’m subletting is at least a mile away, but I don’t mind walking, and neither does A. I see it as such a luxury now, I tell him. He gets that.

We leave the bright lights behind and hope we’re headed in the right direction. I have the urge to skip along the sidewalk like I did as a child. I want to twirl in the crosswalk. I love these benevolent streets. My luck at being able to call them my own is incalculable.

2 thoughts on “Four walks at night

  1. If “a woman’s presence on the streets after sunset is treated as both an infraction and an open invitation”, why would you go walking like that? It seems you are flouting the local customs by doing so.

    I would have thought that someone who works in “development” would be more culturally competent than this.

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