Ileft India without telling my bosses. They knew I was going to Afghanistan—they just didn’t know when. Not only that—I flew into Kabul, and then almost immediately took another flight an hour west to Herat. Why? Yes, I had found a story that I knew my bosses would want, but I also flew there because a man had invited me. I had become interested in Jeremy earlier that month, just as my long-term relationship was falling apart. This potential fling, spurred on by a flurry of e-mails, would never last. We were both on the bounce. I had met Jeremy a few times during the past year at various parties. Over the summer, he and his long-term girlfriend had split. Jeremy was only twenty-nine, and he bore a strong resemblance to every man I had ever dated—he was artsy, handsome, and angsty; he played the bass guitar; he wore corduroy; and he liked the band Postal Service. I told him very little about my breakup. He invited me to Herat for a long weekend. Coincidentally, a weekend that included my thirty-fifth birthday.
On that Thursday, a translator I found through Farouq picked me up at the airport. We started reporting a story on the largest parliamentary vote-winner in the province, which was near Iran and much more developed than most of Afghanistan. The top winner was a woman who won primarily because Afghan men thought the mother of six was hot. After interviewing a few men who had tacked up her election poster like some cheesecake pinup, I went to my hotel to wait for Jeremy to call. He was working on a U.S.-funded agriculture project, delivering wheat seeds to farmers in an attempt to discourage poppy cultivation. The opium trade had sprung back to life after an earlier Taliban crackdown, like a dried-out sponge dropped in water. Jeremy’s project was a well-intentioned idea but similar to fighting a hundred-year flood with a sandbag, if the sandbag were given out as a loan and had to be repaid at some point in the future. Jeremy was due back that afternoon from a meeting with farmers in Farah Province. I sat in my room, which was dubbed a “deluxe,” apparently because it had four single beds all crammed together, and waited. After an hour, Jeremy called.
“I’m really sorry, there’s no way I can get there today,” he said. “My talk to the farmers ran long. It’s too dangerous to leave this late. My security says we can’t go by road.”
“Oh. OK, I understand,” I said. I did, but I was disappointed. There I sat in Herat, after being invited to town by a guy who wasn’t even there. Lame.
“I’ll get there tomorrow,” he assured me.
Tomorrow was my birthday, but Jeremy didn’t know that. I wasn’t going to tell him. After all, I had already lied about my age for the first time in my life, without even thinking about it, inexplicably telling him that I was thirty-two. “You don’t look it,” he had told me.
So it seemed to put far too much weight on this visit to tell Jeremy that I happened to be celebrating my birthday with him. Jeremy did show up that Friday, coming over to my hotel lobby about noon. I skipped down the stairs, wearing a new blue long-sleeved butt-covering loose shirt with baggy black pants and a black headscarf.
“I like your shirt,” Jeremy said.
“Thanks,” I replied. “It shows off my figure.”
We smiled awkwardly at each other and shook hands. This was like seventh grade. We went to see the famed Herat minarets, pockmarked by various artillery. We looked at the rubble surrounding them, including chipped pieces of blue tile that once decorated the minarets. We could not hold hands. We could not hug. I could not spend the night at his place nor stay too long in his room—too embarrassing for him and his staff, since he lived in his office. Everything in Afghanistan was about appearances, even for foreigners. Especially for the women—we were already considered loose and easy, just by our very existence.
Jeremy and I ate dinner at a kebab joint that was shaped like a giant swan. I had been here before, on a trip with Karzai’s crew, when we sat on daybeds out back and were entertained by live music and a dancing boy. But now it was too cold for such fun. We ate dinner quietly because everyone was staring at us. We had no booze to help ease the jitters of an actual date.
After dinner, at Jeremy’s office, I sat at his co-worker’s desk and checked my e-mail. My bank wanted me to call—they were concerned about fraud. So I called. My bank asked for my mother’s maiden name. I gave it. Then my bank asked for my date of birth.
“Why do you need that?” I asked, glancing at Jeremy, who was sitting at the next desk.
“For verification,” the bank woman said.
“But I’m verified. I told you who I am. I gave you my mother’s maiden name. That’s enough, right?”
“We need your date of birth. That’s the procedure.”
“Um, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Jeremy looked at me, hearing only my side of the conversation, which in all likelihood sounded strange.
“It is,” the woman said.
I knew if I said my date of birth, my house of fraudulent age-faking cards would come crashing down. Plus Jeremy would know it was my birthday. He was not stupid. This was an I Love Lucy episode. I thought quickly.
“Today,” I told her. I waited briefly, as if she were saying something on the other end of the line. “Yes. But a while ago. A long while ago.”
“Oh, so it is,” the woman said. “I didn’t notice that before. Happy birthday. And what was the year?”
“You need that?”
“We need that.”
“That’s a very good question,” I said. “In fact, I think the correct number you’re looking for is one, nine, seven, zero.”
Smooth. It worked. Jeremy had no idea.
The next day I continued to report my story. At the hot parliament member’s aerobics class, various Afghan women dressed in the same everyday long-sleeved shirts and baggy pants they wore underneath their burqas or black abayas. There was no such thing yet as workout gear for women in Afghanistan, although one standout young woman had somehow managed to get her hands on a sweatshirt. The power went out. The exercise routine made the Sit and Be Fit workout program for seniors in the United States look extreme.
When I met Jeremy at the end of the day, I heard the news that three bombs had gone off in Delhi, at markets where I had shopped, killing more than sixty people. I was seriously out of position. I called my bosses and told them I was already in Afghanistan. I felt guilty for putting my personal life ahead of work, even slightly. It affected our night—I was distracted by bomb blasts a country away.
I left for Kabul the next day, saying an awkward goodbye.
“Thanks for coming to visit,” he said.
“Well, my bosses wanted a story, so it worked out,” I replied. Even then, it was difficult to be honest.
We saw each other a week later, as he passed through Kabul on his way out of the country for vacation, for lunch at the Flower Street Café, a sandwich shop that was relatively private. We held hands beneath the table and kissed goodbye quickly in the path leading toward the front gate, pulling away when an Afghan waiter walked past. Neither one of us necessarily wanted anyone else to know that we were attempting to date. Kind of. We spoke in staccato sentences with abrupt punctuation, not wanting to reveal too much, or ask for too much.
“It’s been really nice getting to know you,” I said.
“Well. You know. I don’t want anything serious. I mean—I’m not—you don’t think—”
“Of course!” I interrupted. “You know. I just. Well, I don’t want anything serious. Obviously. But it’s nice, you know.”
“Well—yeah. I like hanging out. We’ll see what happens.”
“Totally. Have a great vacation.”
Seventh grade. Kabul was a fishbowl and not conducive to actual dating, even though the foreign women were vastly outnumbered by the foreign men. Our attractiveness rate skyrocketed accordingly. A ten in Kabul became a five as soon as she walked off the plane in Dubai. We were Kabul Cute, we were Mission Pretty. But still, the men here rarely asked the women out on actual dates—in that, Jeremy was an anomaly. Most of the attempts at mating involved bad tongue action and groping near or inside the bathrooms at L’Atmosphère.
We were a function of our environment. For many, life was a pressure cooker, going from home to office to restaurant, rarely being outside, and the only release was liquor, was parties, was dancing to the same soundtrack, week after week—“Hips Don’t Lie,” “Crazy in Love,” “Don’t Cha,” and “Let’s Get Retarded.” (In my nightmares, I can still hear that song list, over and over.) By this point, the social scene resembled a cross between a fraternity party and the Hotel California, where the same characters always seemed to stay too long and drink too much, where entertainment occasionally consisted of spelling words on legs with Nair hair-removal cream. The best pool table—or the only one—was at a brothel called Escalades. The disco Coco Cabana had opened a few months earlier but had rapidly turned into a seedy joint featuring alcohol-fueled grope-fests. The Elbow Room resembled a homey ski lodge, featuring a bar and a fireplace; Thai and Italian restaurants promised bad lighting and chilled red wine. A few thousand foreigners lived in Kabul, and even though many of them never went out at night, enough did to justify a dozen thriving businesses. The expatriate scene of Kabul even had its own magazine—Afghan Scene—that included articles and pictures of people at various parties, in various states of inebriation. (To be fair, money from magazine sales helped street kids.)
At this point, prostitutes seemed more in danger of taking over Kabul than the Taliban. Brothels came and went—the Lighthouse, the Tree House, Escalades, the Disco Restaurant, Bobo’s, Ching Ching (a so-called Chinese “restaurant” that advertised something called “mosic”). These brothels, mostly staffed with women from China or one of the former Soviet republics, had blossomed in Kabul like poppy farms after the Taliban’s fall, even though they were theoretically illegal and catered mainly to the security and contractor communities. Enforcement was spotty. A quixotic Afghan lawyer in a cape would raid one brothel. The poor women would then be bundled up and shipped back to their native country, only to be replaced by another brothel in another two-story house with new Chinese women who barely spoke English and did not speak the local languages at all. In some ways, these women in thigh-high boots and fishnet stockings were much like the Taliban-led militants—a flexible cast of characters who would be somehow eliminated and then replaced by others. A ready supply of bodies always existed for war and sex.
Often, the reality of Afghanistan interrupted the fun. A security guy shot up a bar; an attention-seeking journalist tossed a stun grenade at a party, blowing out all the windows. A consultant company threw a dance and trampoline party with camels and actual Afghan nomads—a measure of authenticity, I guess, that had become legendary with Afghan nomads, who spread rumors across the region of a foreigner trampoline orgy. A rooftop party at the Mustafa Hotel the year before had been interrupted by three rockets overhead, but only slightly, as the revelers, one in a pink feather boa, waved their hands in the air and started to cheer. A toga party two months earlier was cut short by a power outage and generator failure. At that party, most people dressed in white sheets, looking regal and even arranging leaves in their hair. Mindful of how it would look to be killed at a toga party in Kabul, I had opted for compromise—I went, but wore jeans and a pink Puma T-shirt, the Afghan equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you’re run over by a bus. My friend, who worked for Human Rights Watch, had declined his invitation. “Human Rights Watch does not do toga parties in Kabul,” he said, and he had a point.
The brothels and over-the-top parties were only a symptom of the absurdity that this war had turned into by the fall of 2005. Foreign aid levels were at record lows compared to the money given per capita to the relatively advanced countries of Bosnia and East Timor, but still, billions of new dollars had poured in, which should have accomplished something significant. Yet no one seemed to be coordinating which money went where. There was duplication, repetition. The capital still had little electrical power, maybe a few hours a day, and many roads that were more pothole than pavement. The country still had relatively few international troops, and of those, some, like the Germans, weren’t allowed to patrol after dark. (During the day, they traveled around with an ambulance.) The Afghan government seemed about as effective as a student council, and no one in the international community seemed to pay much attention to what was happening across the border in Pakistan.
But newly single and tempted by the excitement, I jumped into the abyss, throwing myself into going out at night, eagerly enrolling in Kabul High. One night, as I sat with security guys at the Gandamack, a new friend called, insisting on dragging me out. The car was full—I hopped in the back, the only woman with four men who seemed like longtime pals because we spoke the same language and that alone bred a sense of familiarity in a country as foreign as Afghanistan. A media consultant, a former U.S. Marine, a carpet expert, a married guy I didn’t really know, and me. We drove around, looking for the telltale neon sign, which meant only one thing in Kabul: a brothel. Finally a tiny two-story house had one, a rainbow of neon lights spelling out THE DELICIOUS BARBECUE in cursive neon script. When we knocked on the door, I almost hoped that the women would not answer.
“Wake up, whores!” announced the former marine, who liked to live up to his reputation for being an obnoxious jerk, as he pounded on the screen door.
Eventually the lights inside The Delicious Barbecue flickered on. Three sleepy Chinese women opened the door, and we walked into the narrow two-story building. The furniture in the front room was minimal, a few plastic chairs, a small wooden bar, all bathed in fluorescent lights that flattered no one. Everything here was hard: the concrete floors and walls, the women, even us. I brushed away the hand of a woman who evidently thought I looked like a better deal for the night than my friends. I smiled through my rejection. She shrugged.
We were here to sing. The women started setting up the karaoke machine and handed us some Heinekens, the beer that had somehow cornered the black market in Afghanistan. And then my social life, as usual, was interrupted by a work call.
It was the Taliban. They always called at the worst times.
I tried to postpone the translation with Farouq, but it was no use. He kept talking over me like the steamroller he was, flattening my useless protests and insistence that I did not have a notebook. No matter, Farouq plowed on. I put down my Heineken and stepped outside into the cool evening.
Earlier that day, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the famously elusive one-eyed cleric who seemed about as likely to be photographed as cold fusion and was often described as “shy” with foreigners, had allegedly authorized an e-mail statement, urging his followers not to end their armed struggle. Farouq had finally reached the Taliban spokesman. I wanted to know whether the alleged Mullah Omar statement was legitimate and whether he was now surfing the Internet. Quickly, so I could go back inside. But Farouq never did anything quickly or halfheartedly.
“Give me the summary,” I said. “Please.”
Farouq, unforgivingly thorough and professional, was growing tired of me going out late at night and sleeping in late in the morning. He worried about my new adolescence. He most likely resented that he had to work, when he’d rather be with his family, and when I was out behaving like a teenager. By now, Farouq and his wife had a daughter, and his wife was pregnant with a second child. And by now, he had stopped talking about going to America to study medicine.
“No. Kim, it’s Eid tomorrow, and I don’t want you calling me and asking me for the translation because I will be with my family, so if it’s possible, can I just tell you what he said now?”
Eid al-Fitr was one of the most important Islamic holidays of the year, when Muslims gathered to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan. For the past month, Farouq had not smoked, eaten, or drank during daylight hours, which meant he was crabby. He was hardly alone. Work hours at Afghan offices were typically cut to about 8 AM to 1 PM during Ramadan. It was impossible to accomplish anything. Suddenly realizing I should be grateful that Farouq had actually managed this interview on the last day of the fast—and suddenly realizing how inappropriate it was to be at a brothel on such a holiday—I agreed to spend some more time in the cold.
I sat down on the concrete steps leading into the yard. I pulled a pen out of my purse and three crumpled pieces of paper and scribbled notes on the interview. The claim of the Taliban spokesman: The e-mail was real.
So what, I thought. The fact that Mullah Omar was even making such a statement on the eve of the three-day holiday meant that the armed struggle was in trouble. By this point, November 2005, the Taliban seemed to be irrelevant in much of the country, a largely contained force, maybe two to three thousand men at best, mostly along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sure, roadside bombs occasionally exploded, like the one that had hit Crowley. But they were rare. Any comeback threat was just Taliban propaganda, an attempt to grab some media airtime in a war room where Iraq had sucked up all the oxygen.
From inside The Delicious Barbecue, the singing began. The media consultant belted out “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which caused the yard outside to come to life. The scraggly mutt, chained to the tree, pulled at his collar, jangling the chain. And the two pink-faced rhesus monkeys in the tiny cage, which for some reason I only then noticed despite their peculiar monkey smell, started to mate. Loudly. One monkey kept repeating the letter “e”—strangely, in time to the music.
Keeping up my charade of going to sleep would be difficult.
“Farouq. Farouq.” He kept talking.
“I have to go.” He kept talking.
I told him there were monkeys having sex to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and I just couldn’t talk about the Taliban anymore.
That got him to stop translating. “Monkeys having sex?” he said, pausing before reconsidering his question. “Where are you?”
“In the garden.”
That satisfied him. After hanging up, I walked back inside.
“I signed you up for ‘Like a Virgin,’ ” the former marine said.
My only previous attempts at karaoke had involved songs by the Violent Femmes and Guns N’ Roses—songs, in other words, where being able to carry a melody did not matter. But what the hell, I figured. Here I was, newly single and newly thirty-five, dressed in baggy jeans, a gray Arkansas T-shirt, and an orange hooded sweatshirt. More important, here I was in Afghanistan, where nothing really mattered, where any sense of self-consciousness had been stripped away.
“Like a virgin,” I sang. “Touched for the very first time.”
For three hours, the Chinese women sat in the plastic chairs against the wall, a jury of blank faces and folded arms that watched us sing, torturing such classics as Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Boney M.’s “Daddy Cool.” A random Western man occasionally showed up, stepped inside, and went upstairs draped with the woman of his choice. She would return and slump back into her chair after thirty minutes or so. Bored. At one point, several Heinekens into the evening, we pulled the women out of their chairs and tried to make them dance with us. Finally, we got a reaction. They started laughing. After 1 AM, we left to pick up kebabs, the Afghan equivalent of IHOP, before I kissed one of my new friends good night and fell face-first into bed. I was no longer just observing the bad behavior of the foreign community. Within weeks of my breakup, I had fully signed on.