Military history

CHAPTER 11

MY NEW HOUSE

The night was not one of those blind-drunk ones at L’Atmosphère, not one when couples kissed sloppily in the bushes or the bathroom, or when people kept drinking until the sameness seemed fun, or when someone fell asleep leaning against a tree, or when a security guy tried to convince women, some successfully, that he was researching Real World Kabul for MTV. About midnight, with the crowd winding down, we called a taxi from the leading taxi company that catered to foreigners in Kabul and charged only $5 per stop. These taxis were safe, and they knew every place that foreigners went. Kabul had no addresses, just bad roads and neighborhoods and directions like “the first house on the road with a bunch of sunflowers out front,” so every house had a nickname. We piled into the cab.

“Fun House,” my housemate said.

I’m not sure who named the house, maybe a driver from the taxi company. A cast of about ten people shifted in and out of the five bedrooms of the Fun House, a low-slung poorly laid out building where one bedroom spilled into another, severely limiting privacy. Lawyers, journalists, UN workers, a human-rights worker, a vague consultant, almost everyone had been in and out of Afghanistan for a long time, since the rockets on the rooftop of the Mustafa, Jack Idema, the toga party. And everyone else knew the Fun House. I rented a room and charged it to my company, which was much cheaper than staying at the Gandamack and, obviously, much more fun. The friendships we forged here, through adversity, curfews, and lack of power, were the quickest and most intense I had ever made. All of us were on the same acid trip, regardless of whether we grew up in London or Johannesburg or Billings, Montana. We were instant family—just add war.

How fun was the Fun House? So fun that the housemates bet on who would be the first to have sex outside on the daybed, so fun that grown men had been known to wear wigs and perform drunken somersaults in the living room, so fun that my housemate Tom and I procrastinated one afternoon by holding target practice on a melon with a battery-powered BB gun bought at the World of Child toy store down the road.

“I know you can shoot because you’re from Montana,” said Tom, the British freelance journalist I had traveled with to Kandahar.

I aimed at the melon. I shot Tom in the shin.

In other words, the fun at the Fun House was the kind that interrupted the monotony of life in Afghanistan like a sharp kick to the kneecap. (Tom was fine.) Even as the Taliban gathered strength in the south and the Afghans increasingly seethed against the foreigners, the foreigners in the capital pushed back. Restaurants like L’Atmosphère were in full swing. Thursday-night theme parties and Friday-afternoon barbecues were regular. There was a salsa night, a trivia night, and a fledgling poker night on which contractors would soon shrug off losses of thousands of dollars. It was junior year at Kabul High—a time when we knew all the different players and were no longer gawky freshmen in the wrong clothes but weren’t as jaded as we’d eventually become. It was party time, and this was the party summer, the summer of 2006, the Summer of the Fun House. Kabul was an oasis.

Adding to the fun, Sean had also just returned to Kabul from one of his earliest forays to meet Tango, a crapshoot that involved actual Taliban insurgents pointing guns at him and Sami, his fixer. While in Helmand, Sean had called me every few days. At one point, he complained that Sami had abandoned him in his hotel after announcing he just couldn’t work with Sean anymore. But Sami returned to Sean like the bad habit he was. Sometimes Sean wouldn’t answer his phone when I called, and once, he disappeared for a week. He spoke in whispers. He wouldn’t talk about what he was doing, convinced his calls were being monitored, so our conversations were perfunctory and laced with Tango.

“People are listening,” he said.

“Oh, like you’re so important.”

Out for his first Thursday night since coming back, Sean told us his story of meeting Tango. Even though I had heard the story a dozen times, it continued to be entertaining. He knew how to massage a tale. He’d tell it once, watch his audience’s reaction, and modify the story the next time, always perfecting his delivery.

None of us wanted the night to end, so we piled out of various taxis, walked into the Fun House garden, and collapsed on cushions on the daybed, a freestanding wooden deck covered in stained brown-and-cream Afghan carpets the texture of burlap. The power was out, as usual, but we lit gas lanterns, poured drinks, and put on music, a mix that featured the song “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. Tom and I occasionally shot his BB gun at various targets. At one point, I walked through the darkness of the house, using my phone screen as a flashlight, hunting for the bathroom. The door was open—I walked inside. But Sean was already there, washing his hands.

“Oh, sorry, didn’t know you were in here,” I said. He turned to me.

“Kim,” he said, looking directly at me.

“What?”

“Kim,” he repeated in a low voice, and then he started to walk toward me. “My little mathlete.” Sean knew that I was math student of the year in high school.

I could see what was happening.

“Oh my God. You’re not gonna kiss me, are you?”

“Oh. Yes. I. Am.”

As always, Sean knew how to punctuate a sentence. He kissed me.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, breaking the spell.

Afterward, I walked out to the daybed. Sean was nowhere to be seen. Then he poked his head out of the kitchen door. “Kim, can you help me?”

I walked into the kitchen. He kissed me there, near the sink and the cabinets. Hardly romantic. Tom walked inside.

“Oh. Sorry,” he said, turning abruptly. After kissing me one more time in the kitchen, Sean called the taxi company and went back to his room at the Gandamack, which was a good idea. I kind of liked Sean in that vague way that many women kind of liked Sean. But we all knew Sean still loved his ex-wife, and he loved conflict even more.

I was also trying not to date in Kabul, as Afghanistan resembled Alaska if you were a woman—the odds were good but the goods were odd. Although some foreigners here had found love, I had found dead ends. Most of us were running from something, or running toward adrenaline, adventure junkies who when paired up were as combustible and volcanic as baking soda and vinegar. I was realistic. Most female foreign correspondents I knew were single. Most male correspondents, married or entwined. To do this job right took all my energy. And I was plagued by what-ifs. I was now friends with my awkward fling Jeremy, but what if I dated somebody in this aquarium and it went wrong? What if I traveled too much to sustain any relationship? What if I was a frog in boiling water, as overheated as anyone else who chose this life?

A few days later, just before I left for my first trip to the States in more than two years, Sean and I met for lunch near the pool at L’Atmosphère, a real change of scenery, considering we usually sat in the garden. As a woman, I felt the need to clarify what had happened, talk about it, hash it out, examine our relationship under a microscope, turn it over and poke it until dead.

“So that thing?” I asked.

Sean made his usual English attempt at avoiding confrontation—he looked down, shrugged, mumbled, and stared at his fingernails. I deciphered his meaning.

“Fine,” I said. “Friends.”

The party was winding down, and the Fun House was starting to seem like a rerun. When I came back from Chicago almost two months later, still suffering the culture shock of sudden immersion in billboards, skyscrapers, and constant noise, Sean regaled me with new romances, but with danger, not women, with stories of going off to meet militants in eastern Afghanistan, allies of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who had ties to Al-Qaeda. He met with some Afghan militants, but their Arab friends said Sean couldn’t come to their camp, and Sami also thought it was a bad idea. Sean had also been pinned down by enemy fire while out with the Afghan army and a few British soldiers in Helmand. Clearly, he was gathering a lot of material for his documentary. He soon left again for Helmand, where he would almost get himself killed. Again. Sean could never get enough, would never get enough.

As if to underscore what was happening, the headlines on Afghanistan seemed as over the top as a teenage primetime drama in its third season. The country produced a record amount of opium and heroin in 2006, and now churned out more drugs than the world’s addicts could consume. The UN drugs chief called the drug levels “staggering” and warned that the south was displaying “the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse,” which sounded fairly serious. The UN warnings echoed those of the head of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, who in July had cautioned that Western military forces were “running out of time.” The Taliban were also steadily pushing into Ghazni Province, only two hours away. Efforts at cracking down on the Taliban there would have been laughable, if the situation weren’t so serious. The notoriously corrupt governor in Ghazni banned travel on motorcycles, the favorite Taliban mode of transport. The Taliban then banned travel by car. Many people in Ghazni just stopped leaving home.

But none of this merited much attention outside Afghanistan, not even when the commander of British forces warned that daily fighting in the south was more intense than in Iraq. NATO and the United States claimed to have killed one thousand Taliban fighters in ten weeks—still, the militants kept coming, an endless army.

And soon they arrived in Kabul. One Friday morning, a new housemate and I sat at our dining-room table, sipping coffee and eating muesli with almost-sour milk. We heard a thump, a low noise that sucked all the other ambient noise into it. My housemate, a UN worker, and I looked at each other.

“Bomb?” he asked.

“Hope not,” I said.

But it was. Farouq picked me up, and we sped toward the Massoud traffic circle. The statue honoring Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous anti-Taliban commander who once led the Northern Alliance but was killed by Al-Qaeda two days before the September 11 attacks, was the centerpiece of one of the ugliest traffic circles in Kabul, although not as bad as the traffic circle featuring a tiny Eiffel Tower near the Sham-e-Paris wedding hall. The Massoud circle surrounded a large monument of two hands reaching up and cradling the earth like a bowling ball, which had nothing to do with the message of Massoud. The suicide bomber had hit a U.S. military convoy near the monument, just outside the U.S. embassy. The target and the timing were probably no coincidence. The next day, the country would honor the fifth anniversary of Massoud’s death.

We hopped out of the car and walked quickly toward the bomb site, which had already been roped off. I saw a reporter from the BBC.

“How is it?” I asked.

“Gooey,” he replied.

Doctors, journalists, police, soldiers—we all relied on black humor. Still, I was unused to major suicide attacks, and his joke made me cringe. The scene hit me even harder. We watched where we stepped. We interviewed people. Fourteen Afghans and two U.S. soldiers were killed, one a woman. Sergeant First Class Merideth Howard of California was fifty-two, a gunner, and the oldest American woman ever known to be killed in combat.

There had been suicide attacks in Kabul before, but they were relatively new, and they were rare. Despite decades of war, suicide bombs had only come to Afghanistan in 2003—before, most Afghans wouldn’t have seen the point in blowing themselves up. Sure, they would fight to the death for a cause. But blowing themselves up on purpose? That took all the sport out of war, and more important, most Afghans thought suicide was cowardly.

This attack gave me nightmares. Merideth Howard was a prime example of the stress that two wars had put on the all-volunteer American military. Because of the need to maintain force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers who thought they were finished serving their country were “stop-lossed,” their deployments extended; members of the National Guard, meant to be protecting the country during floods and fires, fought on the front lines; and reservists like Howard were sent to Afghanistan. Howard had joined the U.S. Army Reserve on a whim in 1988. After her medical unit was disbanded in 1996, she was assigned to the Individual Ready Reserve, the home of soldiers with no unit. She had gone to monthly drills but mainly spent her duty hours on military paperwork, aiming to put in twenty years before earning retirement benefits.

But for the first time ever, the military had become so strapped that it started staffing provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan with a mixture of navy, air force, National Guard, and Army Reserve soldiers. Many in the reserves were like Howard—members of the Individual Ready Reserve, home also to retired officers and soldiers who had recently left the army. Howard and other older soldiers in her unit, which had arrived in Afghanistan almost five months earlier, called themselves the Gray Brigade. She was supposed to handle paperwork, but quickly found that tedious and volunteered to be a gunner. At five foot four, Howard needed to stand on a wooden box to work the Humvee gun.

I couldn’t let her go, maybe because the attack was the first major one I had seen, maybe because Howard, with her gray hair and kind smile, reminded me a bit of my mother, and maybe because the idea of Afghan girls seeing an older woman poking out of a Humvee struck me as too incongruous to easily forget. So I tried to track down the family of the suicide bomber, visiting store after store in one section of Kabul where the bomber had allegedly lived. I failed—Mohammad is an amazingly common first name. Then I tried to know Howard. Farouq drove me out to her base in eastern Laghman Province—security was so lax that we managed to drive onto the middle of the base before anyone stopped us, and even then, no one seemed very concerned. I stayed at the base for three days, finding meaning in Howard’s hammer, in an unfinished wooden picture frame she was building, in a video showing her as she failed to squeeze the trigger of an automatic grenade launcher while training. Howard laughed when she realized she forgot to remove the safety.

“That could be the problem,” she joked.

Another clip, filmed for a U.S. military video highlighting reconstruction work, showed her serious, standing in an Afghan village, her face pink from the hot sun, just after handing out backpacks to kids. “We have a good relationship with the people here in the village,” she said.

My search was pointless. Sometimes there was no answer to “why.” I had no choice—I had to take Merideth Howard and the attack and shove it all in a box in the back of my mind. Because there was nothing I could do, and I had to work. This became a coping tactic I would master.

Luckily my attention was soon distracted. Another ominous force landed in Kabul, determined to shake up the country—Al Jazeera English, a sister station to the Arabic version of CNN. I had heard that they were setting up a bureau in Kabul, and that they had a lot of money. But I didn’t know they were hunting for an Afghan correspondent. Farouq found out. He had never been in front of a TV camera before, so he sat at home and practiced talking like a TV correspondent to a video camera on a chair. His wife heard him from behind the door, finally asking if Farouq was crazy, talking to himself.

Farouq was nervous about the audition. So he called Sean, back in town from Helmand, sporting a giant cast on his left index finger from a bullet that had ricocheted off a British .50-caliber machine gun while his convoy was under fire from the Taliban.

“Farouq, I know you’re nervous, but when you stand in front of the camera, think of the cameraman and the anchor as the most stupid people you can imagine,” Sean told him. “Or that the cameraman is standing in front of you naked.”

Farouq told Sean not to tell me about the audition, so Sean immediately called. I could hardly blame Farouq for applying. The job didn’t pan out—an Afghan correspondent wasn’t hired—but Farouq was soon offered a producer position that paid more than twice what I did. Ever since Nasir disappeared for Tajikistan months earlier, drawn by the promise of easy money in the used-car business, Farouq had charged me only $75 a day to drive and translate when I was in the country, less than any other fixer was making.

“I don’t want to leave the Chicago Tribune, and I’ve told Al Jazeera I want to keep working with you, whenever you’re in town,” Farouq said. “You are my friend, and I won’t leave you. But they just pay so much money. I have to think of my family.”

Afghanistan without Farouq would be like English without vowels—it wouldn’t make sense. So I said I would try to increase his pay, to $125 a day, and said Farouq could work with Al Jazeera when I wasn’t in Afghanistan. Then I sold this to my bosses, tough considering the money crunch the newspaper was facing. It would not be the last time that money was an issue, for any of us.

The Fun House soon threw a Halloween party, which also marked my thirty-sixth birthday. Farouq and I made another trip to the World of Child toy store, where I bought a semiautomatic BB rifle and a BB pistol. Wearing shorts, a tank top, and Doc Martens, I was the comic-book character Tank Girl. Farouq made plans to come to the party—for years we had celebrated each other’s birthdays, even though birthdays were typically not observed in Afghanistan and many Afghans didn’t know their actual age. For his costume, Farouq took the easy route. He dressed as a member of the Taliban, although his turban and matching long shirt and pants could just as easily have qualified him as a Pashtun tribal member in the south. That was the thing about the Taliban—they blended.

More than a hundred people crammed into the house and the yard outside. We had Marilyn Monroe, a pirate, Death, the Quaker Oats guy, Cat Woman, a convincing Kim Jong Il, and a belly dancer, along with various sexy witches. Tom bought all the bandages from various pharmacies in Kabul and wrapped himself like a mummy. We danced in a large group, until Tom started to sweat through his bandages, which produced a stench similar to either an antibiotic ointment gone bad or dead people. A shady Afghan American with an Elvis hairdo showed up at about 2 AM—the month before, he had crashed a barbecue at the Fun House and peddled toothpaste tubes full of cocaine for $150 each, snapped up by many foreigners, who judged it bad cocaine but minty fresh. His was a novel business plan—in a country flooded with marijuana and opiates, this man was importing cocaine. (Eventually he figured out the profitable angle—exporting heroin—and was jailed.)

For Halloween, the Afghan Elvis arrived not with drugs but with an entourage including DJ Besho—whose name meant “DJ Diamond” in Dari—an Afghan rapper who set up an impromptu show in the living room. He cleared the dance floor with his rap, which included shout-outs to Wardak and other Afghan provinces. That effectively ended the party. On their way out the door, a member of the rap entourage pocketed my housemate’s cell phone.

Later it seemed as if this Halloween blowout was the last gasp of the kind of freewheeling fraternity-party craziness that had become normal in Kabul. The Fun House would soon break up. The foreigner parties would start to have guest lists for security’s sake—and often, Afghans like Farouq weren’t included on those lists. As the crisis in the country deepened, the Westerners would segregate themselves and retreat into their compounds, building a separate world in Kabul, free of the hassles of Afghanistan, free of Afghans.

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