Sunday, August 30, 2009
It was late in Germany, about 2a.m., when the last of our buses rocked up the curb into a dimly lit parking lot on post. Were it not for the glistening beads of water on their brass instruments I might not have noticed the six-soldier military band shivering in the light winter rain. The band had been ordered to greet our returning battalion with a short military tune, which they sloppily belted out before hopping in their cars and driving away.
It was all the Army could muster that night, and it would be our only welcome home. The date was Dec. 10, 2003. I’d just spent the previous year as a platoon leader in Iraq.
As our bus rumbled away, I shook hands with fellow officers and NCOs whom I’d gotten to know on the deployment. Many of them had become my close friends. As they all went home to wives and children or just cozy flats in the town’s medieval center, I hauled my ruck sack and duffle bag about 200 meters from the parking lot to my assigned room.
Almost a year earlier, in January of the same year, I’d arrived there in the Bavarian town of Bamberg, home station for the 54th Engineer Battalion. I hadn’t had time to find an apartment before the unit was shipped off to the Middle East, so I’d been ordered to drop my bags in a dingy suite of the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters on post.
It took several tries before I found the right key. Then with a click and a kick, the door swung wide. I fumbled in the dark for the light switch. Once I found it, the room flickered for a moment, and a low electric hum joined a fluorescent glow.
The stillness was frightening. The bed’s ruffled sheets indicated the haste with which I had vacated the room on my way to war. Scattered from wall to wall were empty cardboard boxes and other military gear. The tilted refrigerator held a solitary can of Mountain Dew. Everything was exactly as I’d left it, as if I had never even been gone.
I was mesmerized by the silence. It reminded me of how lonely I had felt on arriving in Germany that bitter cold January. During my ensuing year of combat, I would go on to make the best friends of my life. But standing here again in the doorway of this transient room, I was overwhelmed by a crushing sense of isolation.
I didn’t sleep that first night. Indeed, to be back in Europe – in civilization – the idea of combat seemed unreal: the sandstorms and explosions, the stench of rotting flesh and human waste, sleepless nights in the backs of Humvees along the mosquito-plagued Euphrates. Had all of it really happened?
Several weeks passed before I became reaccustomed to the details of “normal life.” Words can’t describe the disorientation felt after a year at war. It’s impossible to explain how every little luxury is amplified a thousand times: the taste of a cold dark beer, the sight of a beautiful woman or the light crunch of virgin snow beneath one’s boot. After Iraq, every one of these otherwise mundane experiences made my heart glow. I felt born again, and my appreciation for tiny wonders never wore off. On some level, I don’t think it ever will.
Returning to Iraq for my second tour in late 2005, I again encountered this bizarre detachment from my life, this time in reverse. There was still the familiar revulsion to the sights and smells of Iraq, which bridged the two-year interim I’d spent living and traveling in Europe. As my tour in Ramadi marched into the summer of 2006, the authenticity of the world outside began to feel distorted, illusory. With rockets and bombings and ghastly violence a fact of life for my unit, my time in Germany seemed nothing more than an oasis of privilege in life’s cruel expanse.
Looking back now, it felt as if I were two separate men living two separate lives. These men shared a common past but lost touch at age 23, when one went off to war, and the other preferred not to think about it. Over the years these men would briefly cross paths. But they began to recognize each other less and less. Before long, as far as they both were concerned, the other’s life was mere fantasy.
I have now been in Afghanistan for the better part of three months. By the time I get home next spring, I will have spent three years – 10 percent of my life – at war. When I was recalled to the Army in February, I made a promise to myself that this time, no matter what, I would not allow my new life – my work as a journalist in New York, the freedom I’d come to enjoy as a civilian, my growing love for Molly – to slip away. And it hasn’t – in part because of Molly, who has kept me anchored to a life I long to continue.
During quiet hours at night here in Afghanistan I often sit outside, alone under the stars. The Milky Way, which streaks across a broad swath of the sky here, is visible even on nights when the moon is bright. And each evening, without fail, a shooting star arcs silently through the blackness, flung as if from another world. It reminds me that there is a life waiting for me outside this place.
I sit there, and I remember the chilly day that Molly and I spent riding our bikes through the ritzy neighborhoods of the Hamptons, imagining what it would be like if we were filthy rich. I remember the weekend before I deployed when she and I defiled the Cajun two-step on a dance floor in Acadiana. My favorite memory, though, is when I brought Molly to Bamberg last summer, when she came to visit as I was working as an intern reporter at BusinessWeek’s Paris bureau.
For months, I’d wanted to show Molly the place I had called home for almost five years. I knew it wasn’t her notion of fun, but this trip was for me. I’d been out of the Army just over a year, and the ties to my old life were still strong. I was confused about who I was becoming, where life was taking me. I needed Molly to see for herself the backdrop against which I underwent the most intense changes in my psychological development. I thought if she could see where I’d come from, she might understand better who I really was.
Molly went begrudgingly, preferring the idea of late dinners in Montmartres to beer and bratwurst at rowdy German breweries. I think she also was nervous about how her perception of me might change when she was finally confronted with my military past. But after a week of morning runs near millennium-old castles and window shopping along the cobblestone alleys of one of Bavaria’s quaintest cities, she was happy. I was, too. I’d taken a risk in bringing her there, since our relationship was still fragile and my volatile years in this city still evoked unpredictable emotions.
But with that visit I introduced one profound period of my life to another. It was difficult, but helped me to realize that living is not simply a collection of disparate events. None of them can be canceled out when memories are unpleasant, especially not my years of war. Rather, it is in the juxtaposition of the good with the bad that I am able to find greater meaning in it all.
On our final night in Bamberg, as the sun’s last rays blinked out beyond the city’s main cathedral, Molly and I drank kellerbier outside at a hilltop brewery overlooking the town. I considered the scene: good cold German beer, a beautiful woman. Only the snow was missing.
I told Molly that I could live in a place like this with her for the rest of my life. I knew that my sentiments were intensified by lingering memories of war's deprivations. Yet in that instant, I thought about how lucky I was that I would never have to go back.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
On Wednesday evening I talked to Matt on Skype. The presidential elections were to take place the next day, and he was mentally preparing for some action. It was close to 1 a.m. in Afghanistan, and I could see that the lights in his empty office were dim. The night so far had been quiet, he said. But it was expected that the base would be attacked before morning. Matt was surprised it hadn’t happened yet.
“If we’re attacked I’m going to have to suit up immediately and go to the bunker,” he warned. I could see his rifle balanced on the table behind him. “Just so you know,” he told me. “Just so you’re prepared.”
“OK,” I said.
His evening was still calm when we hung up. But I spent the rest of the day on edge.
I get my news of Afghanistan in real time these days. I read the newspaper every morning, but that feels increasingly like an afterthought. Matt and I are lucky to speak often, and I know basically what is going on. Usually I appreciate this. I like to be in the know. It makes me feel more in control.
Other times, I don’t like it at all.
I hate getting emails from Matt like the one I got on an afternoon while in France. The subject line read: “I am OK.” He told me about an attack that had just happened near his base; he told me about the close call, the deaths that could have been his own. Twenty-four hours later, I calmly read about it in the paper.
I immediately bristled at the e-mail from Matt that I read on my phone one morning a few weeks ago. I was on my way to a meeting in Manhattan, walking quickly past Union Square. The note read: “we just got mortared and rocketed. two of three hit the camp. no one was hurt, though, thank god.” I paused on the sidewalk as the significance of the words sank in, my vision blurred for a moment. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. But I was late for my appointment, so I kept moving, and hastily typed back: “oh man, scary. i don't know if i love or hate knowing everything that goes on there in real time. makes me feel quite shaky.”
I did want to know. I wanted that small wisp of control. But at the same time, it’s the knowing that slams my utter lack of control against my face at regular intervals throughout the day. There is absolutely nothing I can do. I’m unable to influence a thing. The worry nips at my heels constantly and there’s nothing I can do but keep moving.
I often think about what war was like for those left behind before the rise of technology. Before the Internet. How would I have dealt with Matt’s deployment without the ability to talk to him everyday on Skype? Without regular e-mails? Without this blog? I wonder what it would be like if the newspaper was all I had.
I spent a while today on the web, looking up letters that soldiers had written home during the first and second world wars. I drank tea and ate a peach and read letters from soldiers to wives or girlfriends, parents and siblings and friends. I found many sweet ones that declared an earnest, everlasting love. Some expressed an intense desire to know what was happening with family and friends in their absence. Others tried to explain what was on their minds—the fear, the danger, the unknown. And a few tried to detail what they were going through, with varying degrees of success. Many had been censored of much detail and immediacy.
These letters were all received by mothers and fathers and girlfriends in the past tense. They were all composed about events after the fact. They were sealed in envelopes and in transit for weeks and months before finally arriving at their destination. The dialogue between a couple in love, for example, could take seasons to move. Relationships, it seems, were suspended in time.
In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a beautiful novel about love and loss, memory and forgiveness, a couple is separated by World War II. The woman writes a letter to her lover. It ends: “I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back.” Then, there was nothing else she could do.
Part of me is jealous. It would be so much easier to get through the day without knowing, without frequently checking my e-mail or my iPhone news applications to see what could go wrong. But, I remind myself, my relationship with Matt continues to evolve on a daily basis now. It has expanded with the shared burden of separation.
On that Wednesday night before the elections, I had an interview to do in Manhattan. It was a hot and sticky evening and I got home late, around 11. As I walked to my apartment from the subway, it began to rain. Wild bursts of thunder startled me. Lightning filled the sky. It was violent weather. Over 50o trees fell in Central Park. But I was tired and worried and went right to bed. I slept deeply, dreamless. I woke up to an e-mail from Matt.
“Things are surprisingly OK,” he said about the progress of the elections. “But it’s not over yet.”
Saturday, August 15, 2009
"Afghanistan's elections present an opportunity for the country's citizens to create a future of prosperity and peace for their children.” – LTG Karl W. Eikenberry, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
"There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state to another.” – Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Tuesday, August 11, began like many others. I woke at 6:30a.m. and banged around in the still-dark barracks, a narrow-beamed headlamp my only guide. I clumsily kicked my legs into a clean set of uniform pants, then fished around for the fire-retardant gloves and ballistic sunglasses that would be required for the day’s mission. Once I’d suited up – helmet, armor and all – I stepped out into the bright morning sun and headed to the assembly area.
Earlier the previous day I’d caught wind of a planned foot patrol through an Afghan village that hugged our base’s southwest wall. It was to be the first of several planned patrols through the village, and I volunteered to record the event for posterity. After all, I don’t have the chance to get out much. This seemed like a good way to become acquainted with our less fortunate neighbors. Or maybe I just miss being a reporter on assignment. Either way, it was a welcome break.
Called “Kuchi Village” by the soldiers here on base, the collection of mud and straw structures next door is more a squatter settlement than an organized municipal entity. (Despite some of their claims to the contrary, the residents of Kuchi Village are not affiliated with actual Kuchis, who are nomadic herdsmen that annually traverse the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in search of seasonal grazing land.) As recently as five years ago nothing existed in the space that the settlement now occupies. But as the joint American-Afghan army base here has grown, so too has Kuchi Village, like barnacles on wet wood.
The village’s residents were and continue to be lured to the base by the prospect of steady work. For a few dollars a day they clean latrines and construct barracks needed for the ever-increasing influx of soldiers here. As a result, Kuchi Village’s population has ballooned to an alarming 2,500 by latest estimates, a stunning number given the slum’s abhorrent living conditions. Our patrol that day was an attempt to survey the infrastructure – there is none – and to project some sense of security to the people who live, work and sleep right outside our gate.
So after test-firing our rifles at the local shooting range, we Americans awaited a rendezvous with our Afghan army counterparts who would join us on the patrol. As we loitered on a hillside adjacent to the base I spent a few minutes by myself taking pleasure in the opportunity to finally be outside away from my desk. Dry, barbed grass, crunched beneath my boots. Lizards scurried away as I paced about in the dirt. I miss simple pleasures like this: the freedom to roam along a dusty mountain road, unhindered by barbed wire and guard towers. When you live in a world of electrical generators and gravel, just the sight of prickly desert vegetation has a way of lifting the spirit.
The desert hills reminded me of my impromptu trip to Argentina with Molly a few months ago. Soon after I’d gotten the call to return to duty we’d thrown together a plan for a short vacation – destination: Anywhere.
“Let’s go somewhere neither of us have ever been,” I said, as we spun the world around like a top on Google Earth.
“Let’s go somewhere where it’s summer,” Molly added. Excellent idea, I thought.
In Argentina we spent several days exploring the villages and vineyards of the country’s arid northwest. On one particularly hot day we’d ridden rented bicycles up a punishing mountain road, far above the provincial wine town of Cafayate where we were staying. When we could go no further we dropped our bikes next to a stone wall in a vineyard overlooking the one-time Spanish garrison. We collapsed on a covered stone well in the shade of a solitary tree and had a picnic of salami, goat cheese and fresh bread. For dessert we ate sweet Malbec grapes that I’d broken off a vine nearby.
“You can’t do that,” Molly had told me as I gnawed at the stiff stem.
“What are they going to do to me?” I replied, looking up at her. “Send me to Afghanistan?” Molly just shook her head and laughed.
That was in March. But it felt like another lifetime.
Now, I sat down on a large rock, my M4 rifle resting across my knees. A gentle breeze carried away the sounds of distant gunfire. Then my eyes turned to the west, and I strained to get a view of the mud hovels that made up Kuchi Village below. From my vantage point it looked tiny and deserted.
“I don’t see how twenty-five hundred people can even live in there,” I said out loud to one in particular.
“But they do,” chimed the battalion sergeant major, as he thumbed a wad of tobacco into his lower lip and spit.
I brought my arms across my knees and rested my chin. How miserable, I thought.
I was eager to see the settlement up close. Many years have passed since I was a young lieutenant leading similar patrols in communities along the Euphrates River in Iraq. In the weeks since I’d arrived in Gardez I had formed an image of Kuchi Village that mirrored the poor but functioning villages of rural Iraq. Until Tuesday morning, the only interaction I’d had with the “Kuchis” involved rocks hurled over the wall at me by children, a typical response to refused demands for candy and chocolate.
As we began our patrol down a long dirt path toward the village, 10 or so children were alerted to our presence by a herd of goats that swarmed our formation. As the children careened toward us down the hill, I noticed they were smothered from head to toe in dirt, just as they probably were most of the time. We ignored them, however, and continued to a row of low-slung mud huts that formed the settlement’s southern boundary. Then we paused for a moment for one last personnel check before continuing on.
What I encountered in Kuchi Village shocked me to the core. Hundreds of filthy children played in trash-filled courtyards that were concealed from the road by torn, dirty linens that swayed in the wind. Women reflexively darted into the nearest entryways to avoid the scrutiny of soldiers’ wandering eyes. As we walked I was taken aback by the pervasive stench of animal and human excrement, a dried mix of which littered the village’s dirt roads. A dead chicken that looked as if it had been crushed by a passing car lay rotting in the sun, its blood-soaked feathers and bulging eyes providing a temporary feast for dozens of flies. Plastic wrappers and soda cans floated in gray, fetid water that filled huge potholes in the alleyways. Beyond one wall I caught a glimpse of a mother washing an infant boy in a metal bucket with water of the same color.
I have witnessed extreme poverty many times in various parts of the world – in the Indian villages of northern Argentina, in the gypsy encampments of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains and in the isolated desert towns of Iraq. But this was a level of squalor I had never seen. It made Iraq look like Western Europe, I thought. There was something almost Biblical about it. I imagined that invading armies from the Greeks to the Mongols to the British must have been greeted with images not unlike this one. Only now, people had cell phones.
After about half an hour we at last came to the end of the narrow road. Here the village opened up into a dirt-filled space enclosed by a couple of small stores selling bare necessities. To the left sat a squat brown mosque. With broken windows and pile of cinder blocks out front, it was distinguishable as a place of worship only by two loudspeakers elevated by a pole cut from raw poplar wood.
We chatted for 15 minutes or so with some adults in the village who had greeted us with caution. Their chief complaint was the lack of clean water available to them for cooking and bathing. The mosque, too, was inadequate, they said. As we talked children swarmed the gathering. They competed for our attention, yelling and shoving one another. At one point during the commotion a disheveled, black-haired man stumbled by the assembled group showing no apparent interest in our visit. With a wild, bushy beard and popping eyes, I thought he bore a terrifying resemblance to a mug shot of Charles Manson.
“How do you like that?” one soldier said to me smiling. “They have their very own Grizzly Adams.”
I thought the man must be the village idiot, judging by the laughter of several children who were amused at our reaction. “He is crazy man,” a boy said in English as his friends curiously inspected my gear. I remembered to button my back pocket, where my wallet might be easy pickings for a quick-handed thief. But I felt sorry for the man and for these children to whom such disturbing scenes were a normal part of life.
Soon, our mission complete, I and the other soldiers headed back to base where a hardy lunch and a hot shower awaited us. Just before we crossed through the steel gate I turned back for one last look at Kuchi Village. The women had emerged from hiding and were again moving briskly down the crumbling streets. They balanced red plastic jugs, presumably filled with water, atop their covered heads. The jugs were similar to the kind I once used to fill the family lawn mower with gasoline each summer as a boy.
Then oddly, I was seized by other childhood recollections. Of muggy New Orleans summers when I would ride my bike barefoot along the banks of the Mississippi. Of eating pina colada snowballs on the curb of a quiet, oak tree-lined street. And of barbecues and fireworks on the Fourth of July. I felt privileged to have such memories of my youth, of a classic American upbringing.
As I marched quietly back to my room on base I thought about the children of Kuchi Village. Disease, hunger and fear will surely plague them for much of their young lives. The Afghan national elections next week are being promoted as an opportunity to bring democracy, and with it prosperity, to this sorrowful land. But what chance do they really have? When they become my age - if they make it that far - what memories will they cling to?
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I walked up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday morning around 11. It was hot and humid. The sky hinted of rain. I was there with my brother, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Manhattan, and my mom and her boyfriend, Charley, who had come to the city for a weekend visit. We had just finished breakfast across the street at Café Sabarsky: soft boiled eggs and brioche toast, cappuccinos and orange juice.
As we approached the museum I noticed a large sign hanging down its front: AFGHANISTAN, it read.
It announced an exhibition that I had heard nothing about. Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. I was surprised, and pleased. I had planned an hour or two of wandering among the Monets and Rodins, maybe the Egyptian mummies or the collection of arms and full sets of armor. But this seemed fitting.
We entered the dark chain of rooms constituting the show and were immediately greeted with a large map of the country. “There it is,” said Charley, pointing toward the middle of the map. Gardez.
We walked slowly through the displays beyond, which held the collection of art that had been found in boxes in the presidential bank vault in Kabul in 2003. The works had been bravely rescued and hidden by National Museum workers fourteen years before, as civil war raged around them. “A country can stay alive when its culture and history stay alive,” said one man in the accompanying documentary.
The show had little to do with the Afghanistan of today. There were no images of American soldiers, no camouflage or newspaper headlines. There were small pieces of ancient buildings, softly lit, delicate carved rock. There was a statue of a man, standing proud despite the years of wear and war that have left cavernous marks across his face. Pictures of the Afghan landscape filled the walls: Rolling dunes and craggy mountains, men with camels and turbans, lots of sand.
In the final room of the exhibition there were cases of gold jewelry that had been found buried with women from the 1st-century nomadic population of Tillya Tepe. There were thick gold ankle bracelets and delicate baubles meant to dangle from the hair. Earrings and necklaces, sparkling and symmetrical.
The beauty of the work there surprised me. Despite hearing Matt’s tales of the gems he’s found at the bazaar, I have had a hard time imagining anything pretty in that war torn country. I have a hard time imagining a history there that is anything but violent and lonely.
But there was a crown perched behind a plate of glass right before the exit. It was made of thin gold leaves, delicate and layered, a shimmering honey-hued tower. It was so beautiful I couldn’t help but reach out my fingers towards its case. I wanted to feel it. I wanted to make sure it was real.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
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