Every Saturday and Sunday an otherwise empty corner of our camp, which is enclosed by sand-filled blast barriers and coiled razor wire, comes to life. Beginning at 8 o’clock in the morning, about 20 local tradesmen and their sons, brothers and cousins filter into the quarantined quad to set up. Within an hour, canvas canopies hover atop four vertical poles to provide shade throughout the hot afternoon. Beneath them, white-clothed tables bow under the weight of a litany of wares. By noon, blue smoke billows from a nearby grill, where kabobs of mutton, rice and raisins sell like chilidogs at a county fair.
Such bazaars are common on other US installations here in eastern Afghanistan, but ours is considered among the best. Hand-made antique jewelry, oil lamps, Persian rugs, and tsarist-era Russian bank notes are displayed next to bootlegged DVDs and knock-off Rolexes. Wearing US government ID badges and speaking just enough English to turn a profit, the vendors who sell their merchandise are part of a program that, intended or not, does three things well: it introduces soldiers to Afghan culture, provides relief from the seven-day work week and injects American dollars into the local economy. Thousands of them each weekend.
I wandered into the market Sunday morning with no other purpose than to get away from the desk where I’d worked virtually 18 hours a day for the last six weeks. I needed to clear my head.
This isn’t the deployment I expected. The stress of that realization has been weighing heavily on me. It’s not that I have it bad; many others have it far worse. But I’ve been literally working myself sick. I’ve gradually cut out activities that ordinarily bring me joy, like reading books or going on long runs. Until Saturday night, I hadn’t spoken to my parents in three weeks. Worst of all, I’ve been neglectful of Molly, who just ended a trip to southern France where she spent two weeks reporting for her book. It sounds nice, but Molly dealt more with the stress of gathering information than enjoying blue-water beaches. She needed me, and I haven’t been there.
On Saturday night, it all came crashing down. I’d just finished an uninspired blog post, a big ideas piece on who pays attention to war, which I sent to Molly for editing. The moment I hit SEND, I knew I’d made a mistake.
“i don't know,” Molly replied in an e-mail not long afterward. “i am obviously biased, but it seems odd to me, balance wise, that i'm pouring my heart out on the blog and you aren't even mentioning my existence. which, i KNOW, you aren't doing purposefully.”
The point was made, and Molly was right. From the get-go, this blog was not meant to be about me. I wanted it to be about us. By chronicling our parallel experiences during this deployment, the blog was meant to examine what challenges couples who are separated by war endure.
Feeling guilty, I called my parents. They were on vacation at their small summer home in Johnson City, Tennessee. We made small talk at first. My father asked about the weather, as he always does. (“It’s hot, Dad. I’m in the desert.”). My mother told me that my recent piece in Columbia Journalism Review was enjoyed by the family and friends to whom they’d forwarded it.
Other things weighed on my mind, however. Once I’d worked up the courage, I told my mother that my West Point ring had been stolen a week earlier in the camp’s shower facility. The ring had been my most precious possession. I’d worn it uninterrupted for the last seven years, including both tours in Iraq. For a week I’d searched all over camp, posting fliers, asking after it, brooding about it for hours. But it was gone.
Almost as soon as I mentioned it, my mother burst into tears.
“No, Matt. Not your ring!” my mother said through sobs. “I can’t take it.”
The loss had been devastating enough. Now, I was crushed to hear my mother’s reaction. It revealed to me in an instant that the worry my parents were experiencing over my current deployment was more deep-rooted than they’d let on. Overwhelmed, my throat turned to wood.
“It’s OK, Mom. I can get another one,” I said, my voice quivering. Then, trying to reassure her as much as myself, I said blandly, “Don’t worry, the insurance should cover it.” But it wouldn’t. Nothing could. It was priceless.
I’ve only been in Afghanistan for six weeks. But between Molly’s sense of abandonment, the theft of my ring and my parents’ distress, Saturday night was a low point.
When I woke up Sunday, I needed an escape, if only for a morning. And what better place to do that than a genuine Afghan bazaar, a curious anachronism on an otherwise dull Army outpost.
I was immediately accosted at the market gate by three men who tugged at my uniform and beckoned me to their stations. “Captain Mabe, please sir, won’t you come see my movies?” “Captain Mabe, sir, you need sunglasses, sir.” “Captain Mabe, you need rug? I have beautiful Afghan rug.”
“No, thank you,” I said assertively, parrying one of their hands off my sleeve, “just looking.”
I was in no mood to be yanked around.
“But, sir, you must…"
“No!…Thank you! I’m not interested,” I shouted. My reaction surprised even me, and I felt worse.
Once free, I came immediately upon a middle-aged Afghan man lying prostrate on a tattered rug and swatting away flies. He kept bored watch over his table, which was covered in gold jewelry and loose gems common in this part of the world. Still frustrated and upset from the night before, I couldn’t help but imagine this sweaty man with rotting teeth stooped over an open flame, smelting a fat gold West Point ring down to its natural elements. In my vision he smiled, delighted at his fortune. “You got my ring didn’t you, you sly son of a bitch?” I wanted to say. It was easier than accepting my own neglectfulness.
What is wrong with me? I asked myself. This is not how I am. I took a moment to regain my composure. I was ashamed at my callousness, and I scolded myself. Forget the goddamn ring, Matt. Get over it. No matter what it meant, there are worse things. Just try and enjoy yourself.
I took a deep breath and continued through the bazaar. I was amused by the eclectic mix of artifacts and kitsch that were displayed like so much junk at a Louisiana yard sale. It must have taken a lifetime to collect all this stuff, I thought. Armed U.S. soldiers chatted or haggled with merchants dressed in the traditional garb that their ancestors have worn for generations. One soldier handed over two sweat-soaked twenties for a tarnished silver amulet. The object was encrusted with a bright blue chunk of lapis lazuli, a native Afghan rock that has been mined here for some 6,000 years.
I ran my fingers along wooden muskets and brass-handled sabers decorated with the elaborate, swirling calligraphy of Arabia. I fondled pieces of money imprinted with the likeness of Alexander, or at least cheap tin replicas of them. Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to a bejeweled chain-link belt and matching headdress. Each was studded with sparkling red and blue gems and sagged under the weight of tasseled medallions.
I held it up to the light, and it jangled in the soft summer breeze. My thoughts wandered to Molly, as they often do throughout each day. I wondered how she might look adorned with this intricate treasure, the coins dangling across her forehead. I laughed under my breath.
“Seventy dollars for the set!” said a merchant selling them as he approached.
“No,” I replied reflexively, without looking him in the eye. “I don’t have any need for this.”
“No,” I said, sternly. But as he turned away, I hesitated. “Well…what are they?”
He must have anticipated this, because he spun back around. “They worn by Kuchi woman. Very beautiful,” the man said smiling.
“Yes.” They were.
I’d read about the Kuchis recently and was intrigued. Nomadic Pashtun herdsmen, the Kuchis have for centuries made an annual migration across what is now the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. An insular, superstitious people not unlike the gypsies of Europe, they observe a mystical form of Islam and are generally despised and ignored by their Afghan neighbors.
I imagined what it would be like to live such an existence. Constantly on the move, they are a nation without a homeland, with only one another to rely on. What did the idea of home even mean to such people?
Where was home for me? I asked myself. Who do I rely on?
I had struggled with these questions many times over the last few years, but they now seemed so simple. The answer to both of course was Molly. Having moved myself five times in two years across three continents, Molly has been the only constant in my life. She has kept me grounded, connected somehow to a comforting if ethereal notion of home. Molly has been a rock.
And she is what matters most right now. Not the work, which will mean little in seven months. Not the ring, which can be replaced. What’s important is that I do better at letting Molly know how much she means to me, how I couldn’t do this without her, how everything reminds me of her. Even the most exotic oriental headwear from a far-off desert land.
Photos by Master Sergeant Ronald J. Raflik