Backstory: An Afghan road less traveled

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Zalmay and the car he's driving seem to be having a disagreement while in the passing lane. As Zalmay presses the accelerator, heedless of the oncoming cars blinking their lights in a panicked Morse code, the engine of the Toyota Surf audibly shrugs. Finally, he admits defeat and slides back into his lane as relieved traffic whooshes by.

Zalmay, my brazen driver, likes to be in the passing lane. The Toyota Surf, however, is not at all convinced. Perhaps it is a prescient piece of metal, because the four-hour drive to Panjshir will involve a slalom course of potholes, hairpin curves clinging 1,000 feet above a valley floor, an ominously hissing front tire, and 50 minutes where we jostled like Jell-O on a dirt road leading to the roof of the Hindu Kush mountains. There, last winter's snows stretch their besooted fingers to the remote village of Khenj – our destination for a story about emerald mining.

So there's no need to get worked up only 10 minutes outside Kabul on a perfect piece of asphalt. Driving toward the Hindu Kush from Kabul is like that scene in "Star Wars" where the Millennium Falcon is being sucked toward the Death Star. Every passing minute brings you closer to an immensity that strains the neck and the imagination. Fortunately, the Hindu Kush – being rock – hasn't yet mastered the complexities of a tractor beam, meaning that, unlike Han Solo, we were allowed diversions along our way.

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***

An hour outside Kabul, Ahmed, our guide to Khenj, veers off the highway in his white Corolla onto a dirt road. We follow in the Surf. I look with befuddlement at Farouq, my Afghan interpreter and purveyor of slightly sinister jokes. He's clueless, too. Usually not a good sign.

Moments later, we arrive at the base of a treeless hillside, eroded to form a perfect natural amphitheater. It swarms with shivering Afghans. Below, at the foot of the hill, kiosks selling hot food steam in the winter sun. Boys no older than 12 hawk snacks and cigarettes. "Dogfighting," Farouq says knowingly.

He's right. Thankfully, this is not the "bloody" kind – to the death. But dog fighting (and betting) is big business in Afghanistan, and the crowd "ooohs" when the action begins.

For someone who grew up wanting to save the whales, it's rather uncomfortable. But this is Afghanistan. Outside Kabul, there are no think tanks or yoga studios, only the rusted carcasses of countless Soviet tanks, turrets half buried in the soil – a roadside rosary of Afghanistan's unyielding spirit. The Soviets didn't leave because the Afghans were soft, and Panjshir is no exception. Quite the opposite.

The valley is, in fact, part of national myth. It is Afghanistan's unassailable fortress, a cleft of rock that has lured conquerors to its doorstep for centuries and then defied them. Here, Ahmed Shah Masood led the last pockets of resistance against the Taliban before he was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives – two days before 9/11.

How strange, then, to stop at the mouth of the valley, where cliffs of granite squeeze the Panj- shir River, and to meet only a clutch of kids asking for pens and photos of themselves.

It's one of the many faces of Afghanistan. While the Taliban have seized entire towns in the south, they are virtually nonexistent in the north, meaning we can stop and click photos like any tube-sock-wearing tourist.

OK, I wear Afghan clothes. But there is hardly the scent of fear here, just the smell of wood-burning stoves struggling against the cold in a place still awaiting reliable electricity.

Along the way, stereotypes tangle with reality. Before I came to Afghanistan, I had thought that America freed women from the burqa. In Kabul, perhaps it has. But here, in a place free of the prying eyes and culture police of the Taliban, I don't see any women not in burqas. It turns out it's a way of life for a conservative tribal society.

We arrive in Khenj at lunchtime, one tire still leaking air – overwrought by basketball-size divots in the road. Like the rest of the villages in the valley, Khenj is part Stone-Age San Francisco, part Santa Fe. With little flat land on which to build, houses cling to precipitous slopes in a curious echo of Telegraph Hill – but built in an earthen style reminiscent of adobes.

In town, the muddy street squelches underfoot, and residents turn to stare at the puffy man in Afghan clothes (I was wearing approximately 83 layers to stay warm), and the blue-eyed foreigner (my fellow photographer).

Ahmed leads us to the one restaurant in town, up a narrow set of wooden steps and into a dark room with an unused (unfortunately) wood stove. We sit cross-legged on a shin-high platform, and the owner brings us bowls of rice and meat with Afghan flatbread, all of which we eat only with our right hands.

We start up a conversation through Farouq with three emerald miners. One looks like an extra from "Doctor Zhivago," with a furry hat and sweeping beard the color of black shoe polish.

Is this a hard life? Yes.

Can it help create a new economy? Maybe.

Could foreign investment help? No. No ambiguity here.

I glimpse, for the first time, that to be Afghan is to feel both abandoned and exploited by the world. From the time of Alexander the Great to Leonid Brezhnev, Afghanistan has been the plaything of greater powers interested in its strategic location as the crossroads of Asia. Now I see how that gnaws on a nation's mentality. The same applies to the US presence here. Most Afghans desperately want help. But they've been conditioned to assume they will be abandoned: Eventually, America will leave, allowing Afghanistan's neighbors to meddle again.

***

We have one last stop in Khenj, at the office of the district chief. All our previous interviews have been loud, even raucous, and often funny. But not here. Inside what looks like a general store, a half dozen men slink in silence. The chief sits on an elevated platform, his feet warmed by hot coals. He invites Farouq and me to sit.

I'm a bit unnerved. He does not fit the "Lawrence of Arabia" image of an exotic tribal chief – old, wizened, and regaled in acres of fine cloth. He appears more like any ordinary Afghan, but with an obvious air of authority. I ask a question, and Farouq gently interrupts, "First, don't you want to thank him for speaking with us?"

Suddenly, you realize how important a good translator is. Chastened, I move on with the interview without getting us drawn and quartered.

At last, the tire, which Zalmay had been attending to, is fixed. Zalmay sits in a shop, chatting with the store owner, who claims to have been a jihadi 20 years ago, fighting on the frontiers of Pakistan. He is, of course, jovial. Afghans exude something of a Viking spirit – an ability to war and be merry. He jokes that the economy in Khenj is so bad that all the items in his store are things owned by members of his family.

We are ready to leave, and he gives Zalmay and Farouq the kiss of an Afghan farewell. Then, to my surprise, he offers me the same – a scratchy brush of his beard on my cheek.

The manners, I hope to learn. The clothes, I can buy. But the beard? Perhaps I can never be a true Panjshiri.

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