By Steve Mumford
War artist Steve Mumford shares a dispatch from Afghanistan.
Timuni Street, Kabul
Kaleh Fatulah Road
Around 11 pm someone I’ve never met sitting at the next table pulls out a joint and offers me a hit. I’m working on my third glass of white wine and the proposal has an organic logic.
I’m a little tired, having been awakened at dawn by the forlorn calls from Masuda’s peacock, Groundhog, from directly under my window. His mate had simply flown off one day and Masuda vows not to replace her.
I locate Naser and his buddies, and find myself newly loquacious.
The band is striving good-naturedly over Blondie and the Violent Femmes. A woman sitting between Naser and me announces that she’s called Drana, “like drama!” She heads for the dance floor; one of Naser’s friends claps me on the shoulder.
“I want to see her and whiteboy dance!” Somehow I’ve acquired a nickname, perhaps in relation to this Afghan-American crowd.
I’m not that ambitious, however. The boisterous talk goes on. Another Saturday night in Kabul.
At the crowded La Cantina, the spirits are high, amid a raucous mix of Americans, Afghan-Americans, and Westerners from a smorgasbord of countries. They’re business people, PhDs doing research, contractors, UN or NGO staffers or freelancers (some of whom are violating their curfews to be here, imposed due to fears of kidnapping). They’re happy to find themselves among friends, where they can forget about worrying about the small and large instabilities of this place.
Outside past the restaurant’s security detail (a small dim room with a couple of Afghans toting AK47s), the revelers’ drivers idle their SUVs. Walking about in daylight is acceptable, but to do so at night is tempting fate.
Four days before, arriving for an embedment with the Marines, I’d found that Indian Airways had lost my luggage between Delhi and Kabul. Strangely, they’d shown me the bag before boarding and I’d watched it be spirited off towards the luggage hold by a petite Indian woman in a sari. Had I been expected to proffer a baksheesh? I didn’t know if I’d been given the chance.
Now faced with a grim interlude at Camp Kaia, the NATO military side of the airport, waiting for my bag to arrive in two days on the next flight, or perhaps the one after that, I had a bolt of inspiration. I phoned my friend Ann Marlow, someone I could honestly call an old Afghan hand. It was late in the States, but seemingly within minutes she secured me an offer of a place to stay in town.
Masuda lives with her brother-in-law, Naser, in a nice neighborhood by Afghan standards. It’s a narrow but busy thoroughfare with small shops and leafy ailanthus trees. The larger streets are dusty and crowded with cars, bicycles and pedestrians. They’re fairly clean (lacking Baghdad’s enormous piles of trash strewn along every boulevard and intersection), although some are unpaved and filled with potholes. Two-foot-wide wastewater channels edge the streets like moats, crossed by occasional thick flagstones. Bicyclists ride a dangerous razor’s edge between the cars whizzing by with centimeters to spare and the deep sewer channel; nonetheless, boys bike recklessly, sometimes two to a bike, shouting at the cars, which honk mercilessly back at them.
The house they live in has two stories, with a central curved glass atrium extending dramatically up to the second floor, giving it a 1970s Las Vegas-modern look, popular in the Middle East as well.