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The Afghanistan I remember

February 11, 2002

by Renée Rogers Kotz ’85

 

With an interim government in place and democratic elections on the horizon, Afghans can finally turn the pages of their political history to “burgeoning democracy,” after surviving monarchy, Soviet occupation, regional warlordism, and Taliban rule. Once again, Afghan music can be heard in the marketplaces, women are daring to expose their faces, and young men are playing soccer in the stadiums. It is ironic that perhaps tomorrow’s Afghanistan will resemble the Afghanistan I remember from 25 years ago.

Most people in the international development crowd would consider Afghanistan to be a “punishment post.” After 25 years of plumb assignments in charming Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand), we figured it was time for my father, an economist, to pay his dues. Instead, we found Afghanistan to be the jewel in the crown of Foreign Service assignments.

I loved the ever-present snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush that surround Kabul, especially on those cloudless sunny winter days. I had never seen snow in real life, so I felt like my time had finally come.

Kabul itself was a drab array of earth tones. People lived in whitewashed one-story structures built into the sides of barren mountains. The packs of animals—sheep, donkeys, and camels—that were shepherded through the dusty streets competed with throngs of pedestrians, bicycles, and dilapidated vehicles. The men dressed in baggy pants and sports jackets with white turbans, embroidered caps, or warm furry hats. Women glided through the streets like ghosts in faded chadris that concealed them from the outside world. Only a small percentage of the younger generation chose to unveil their faces, and fewer still wore Western clothes.

The biggest adjustment for me wasn’t the altitude (equivalent to that of Denver), the lack of infrastructure, or even the traffic snarls with fat-tailed sheep: it was getting used to a male-dominated Muslim society.

For the most part, Afghans were living as they had centuries ago. What other society could make that claim? And with that blessing—or curse—came a simplicity of life that was totally unfamiliar to me. For instance, rather than relying on watches or clocks, the average villager relied on a cannon that was fired from a distant mountain to announce the arrival of midday. It was not long before I welcomed—and even anticipated—the daily blast of the “noon gun.” Their lifestyle—traveling on foot and engaging in arduous physical labor—kept Afghans fit. The concept of exercise was totally alien to them; one day, as my mother went for her morning jog, she heard a boy exclaim, “Look, the foreigner is late!”

 

 

Above: Gathered on the banks of the Kabul Gorge are students and faculty of the American International School of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1977. Renee Rogers Kotz (fourth from right), along with the rest of the group, rafted down the gorge on inverted wicker beds tied to four innertubes, using snow shovels for paddles.


The land was rugged and so were the people. One sensed freedom and resilience in their spirit. Even their national sport, buzcashi, had no boundaries and no rules. It was played on vast stretches of steppe with a headless goat (or calf) that was transferred back and forth among teams of men on horseback, clutching horsewhips in their mouths.

Most Afghans were friendly but not intrusive. They were loyal and valued family. Adults routinely greeted one another with rounds of kisses on each check and a litany of inquiries about the well-being of each other’s families, a salutation that would last several minutes.

Afghan children, on the other hand, were animated and overtly curious about us. They called us Mr. Kachalou, which translates to “Mr. Potato”—a nickname they had apparently given to a man with strange Western habits. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that title, but eventually, I grew fond of it.

Afghans celebrated life huddled around samovars of hot tea. In a glance, one knew what restaurants and shops had to offer. Entire bloody carcasses—some skinned, some not—hung from large hooks for display next to tall stacks of flat oval Afghan bread, or nan. We drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and snacked on golden raisins and nuts. And there was always Coca-Cola, even in desolate Afghanistan.

Bazaars existed for everything. Rows upon rows of used Western clothes—many of them from charitable agencies in the U.S.—hung in the used-clothes bazaar. You could also visit the silver bazaar, the dried-tomato bazaar, and even a used-food bazaar (i.e., leftover food from hotels). As a teenager, I loved browsing through the used-clothes bazaar and watching the myriad vendors sell lapis jewelry on the famous “Chicken Street.” Afghan carpet shops often lined the streets with their carpets so cars would run over them and make them look like antiques, thereby increasing their value to unsuspecting buyers. No packaging, no advertising, no price tags. Bargaining was a pleasurable way of life.

The enchanting Chicken Street also had a dark side. It was home to a colony of WTs—short for world travelers. WTs were hippies from the United States, Europe, and Australia. They were nomadic, migrating from one drug haven to another, adopting bits and pieces of the culture in which they lived. Who could have guessed that the vast fields of opium poppies that greeted us on our road trips would become the lifeline of the oppressive Taliban regime?

As a family that had encountered coups d’état all over the world, we were relieved to have been assigned a post in a sleepy, little-known country. The 1978 Marxist coup took place at the tail end of our tour. As it turns out, that coup marked the beginning of the end of Afghanistan as we knew it. The aftermath of the conflict stunned us. We saw huge craters in the center of the busiest roads and in our own school yard. We saw the shelled walls of targeted compounds throughout the city, including the Royal Palace.

We left Afghanistan shortly thereafter. I will never forget the day. As I boarded the plane from the runway, I gave the ground a little kick and said to myself, “I promise, I will be back.”

 

Renée Kotz, a resident of Cabin John, Maryland, grew up overseas and has spent the last 15 years working internationally in child survival and family planning, most recently with the American Red Cross. With the birth of her second daughter, she is now devoting time at home to raising Annelise, age 3, and Allaire, 7 months.

 

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