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Night falls over Afghanistan’s capital in waves. The tallest snow-streaked vertebrae of the Hindu Kush are the first to retire into the dusk, growing opaque and flat and then disappearing. Then kitchen lights go on beneath the myriad flat rooftops, erasing the city’s subtle, montane geometries and dividing Kabul into small coruscations of light and blotches of darkness. From kitchen balconies the scents of cooking emerge — okra in tomato sauce, spinach with garlic puréed in ghee, lamb and potatoes stewed in pressure cookers — and commingle in the streets. They mix with the muezzins’ calls to evening prayer and waft in and out of living room windows, telling Kabulis what their neighbors are having for dinner.
For four nights I have been staying in one such living room in the house of a shoe salesman in Khair Khana, a middle-class neighborhood in northwestern Kabul. The unfaltering rhythm of life there — the teenage spinach vendor who pushed his wooden cart up my unpaved street at 6 a.m.; the tinsmiths who began their rumba at 6:30; the roofers who started laying beams across the street by 7 — could almost make it seem as though there were no war.
But then a B-52 bomber would lift off heavily from Bagram airport to the east, scythe the smoggy sky over Kabul, and straighten out on a southward route, toward Kandahar and Helmand, where U.S. troops are fighting for control of the Taliban heartland.
Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif
The ancient Boeing 747, operated by a small Afghan airline called Pamir Airways, makes a full circle above Kabul as it gains altitude. Khair Khana is a miniature dun bas-relief sculpted into the valley floor. We cross the glaucous orchards and vineyards of Shomali Valley, the birthplace of the grape, and head north over the saw-tooth spine of the Hindu Kush.
For tens of millions of years the Eurasian plate and the Gondwanaland super-continent kept smashing against each other, thrusting and kneading rock like dough to make these mountains. The story of Afghanistan imitates the violent history of its geology: tribes and empires conquering and being vanquished, seizing territory and losing it — year after year, century after century.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, Afghanistan seems to have developed a kind of a multiple personality disorder. Sandaled men with fruit knives lounge around cucumber stands in Kabul while 60 miles to the north, in Baghlan province, sandaled men with Kalashnikov assault rifles clash over who gets to levy taxes on farmers and set up illegal checkpoints to rob travelers — and 60 miles to the south, in Khost, sandaled men are planting roadside bombs that kill U.S. and Afghan troops. An Afghan relief worker in Mazar-e-Sharif warns me of Islamic fundamentalist militias in the region — and then insists that I wear a niqab, a headdress that would cover most of my face: not for my safety, but to honor, she says, “the local custom.” (Mazar-e-Sharif is Afghanistan’s most cosmopolitan city; although women here cover their hair, many wear tight-fitting tops and skirts.) On the way to dine at an upscale restaurant in Kabul, a colleague and I pass women shopping for candy with their toddlers — and then we pass three cordons of armed guards (at least one guard is carrying an M-16 rifle) patrolling the entrance to the eatery. Some restaurant patrons arrive in flak jackets.
From the airplane window I see hairlines where the snowmelt gathers in the mountain creases into rivulets, streams, then gains momentum and flows north, draining into the Amu Darya, the river that marks Afghanistan’s northern frontier. When I first came to Afghanistan, in 2001, I went to the north. I made friends then with whom I have not spoken for years. At the time, there was no electricity here, no Internet, no cell phones, no way to keep in touch. I am carrying their photos in an envelope: Mahbuhbullah the Tomb Raider; his beautiful wife, Nargiz; Ghulam Sahib, the intrepid driver who drove me around minefields (or through; all I know is that we survived them). I hope to see them again. I hope they are doing well, even if the Taliban is ruling swaths of their provinces again, levying taxes, kidnapping travelers for ransom, and running courts that dole out swift and severe sharia justice.
The plane descends over alluvial fans dusted with soft spring grass, over round pockmarks of bomb craters that deface the yarn of dirt roads, and lands smoothly on the airstrip of Mazar-e-Sharif.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.