Snapshots of Kabul
Kabul was nervous today. The car bomb went off at rush hour, rattling the windows of our guesthouse, the smoke rising about a mile to the west. People came out on their roofs and stood quietly, watching the cloud of smoke ascend. I saw one woman staring, her hand to her mouth as if she could see the newly dead rising in the explosion’s cloud and vanishing with it in the morning air.
Within a few minutes the staff of this activist guesthouse and NGO, “Afghans4Tomorrow,” clustered around the TV to watch the familiar images of carnage. We could hear the same sirens from the TV and from the window. Eighteen dead and dozens wounded.
Rabia and I spent the day traveling from one end of Kabul to the other with our fixer and translator, Najibullah, and our driver, Habibi, meeting Afghan women’s rights activists. Najibullah was a war surgeon for a decade until he got too depressed with the work and became a fixer instead – fixing appointments for visiting delegations of foreigners. Habibi has his degree in political science but the cronyism of politics here kept him from finding a position in the foreign ministry, so he drives people like us around the city.
The traffic today was different from other days, jittery, glancing sidelong at itself when it backed up behind checkpoints. Hundreds of soldiers peered into back seats and trunks. No one smiled.
Kabul itself is chaotic, broken, contradictory, at the same time pushing up through the cracks of its ruins. Children walking to school in their neat uniforms, tinsmiths bending gutter pipe, thin horses pulling carts of flour, Ford pickups carrying security guards to work, mounds of trash piled up against blast walls, new fourteen-story apartment buildings under construction, a vibrancy in the air as well as the stink of open sewers, the brown water of Kabul River awash with thousands of plastic bottles floating in it like confetti.
The day before yesterday a ferocious sandstorm hit the city, knocking over stalls, blinding everything in a blur of dust and debris. It was as if gods in the craggy mountains ringing this city had lost patience and sent down their brute anger on everyone, on the Mercedes and the battered Toyotas, on the blue-burqaed women, on the policemen and diplomats and the tent camps of the IDP – the internally displaced people. The sandstorm continued for about half an hour, and then the rain came. The dirt roads turned to mud. Little children in the camps huddled under plastic.
A day passed. This morning we went to the Afghan Parliament to meet with a woman MP. Her tribe is wealthy and influential, and she wields considerable power advocating for women’s rights. We entered the Parliament compound through several checkpoints, waiting at each one while they frisked us or called ahead to see if we were expected. The Parliament building itself was from the late king’s time, paint flecked, cavernous and gloomy. We waited in a conference room with high-backed chairs surrounding a long table, curtains drawn to keep out the spring daylight.
After introductions the MP told us her story. Articulate in English, her words pushed into each other in a rush as if she wanted us to know more than each sentence could hold, how the best years of her life were wasted as a refugee in Pakistan, how war widows were forced into “sexual contracts” with Pakistanis in order to feed their children, how women were excluded from negotiations between warring parties but were sent as emissaries or given as chattel in negotiations, how the present government could not be trusted to uphold women’s rights in negotiations with the Taliban, how even the newly appointed women MP’s undermined each other through competition and jealousy.
She told us about a warlord MP who tried to kill a rival, but not being able to catch him killed 50 members of his family instead, and how his son raped a 13-year old girl and went unpunished until she herself forced a legal case which finally resulted in the son’s imprisonment and death threats against her. I asked her how it was for her to sit in Parliament next to this warlord MP. She shrugged. “There are many,” she said.
Parliament was in session and after our meeting we went up into the press gallery to watch the proceedings. It was somehow heartening to see all the MP’s from different provinces and tribes sitting behind their microphones in the large amphitheater – bearded Pashtuns, turbaned Tajiks, clean-faced Hazaris, women MP’s in their colorful hijabs. They spoke in turn and seemed to listen to each other. I couldn’t tell which ones were warlords.
Later I went with Najibullah to meet two ex-Taliban who had put down their arms in order to work politically. One had been the former Taliban government’s ambassador to Pakistan, the other a warrior who had commanded the Taliban’s radar installations. The ambassador wore a turban and grey beard, the warrior a flat Pashtun hat and looked sullen, although when he spoke he became very animated and loud.
I asked them a lot of questions. I asked them what they felt were the greatest challenges to peace, and what they felt was the essence of peace – how they would describe it, and what they would say to the many Afghan women we’ve met who fear that allowing Taliban in the government will compromise women’s rights, and why they burned down girl’s schools, and what they, personally, would like to do if peace came. Their responses to these and other questions always veered off from the point of the question – they wouldn’t answer directly but used the question as a springboard to rant about something.
I didn’t like them. And I didn’t like that I didn’t like them, but there it was. The contrast between these two Taliban men and the other Afghans we have met – the school teachers in overcrowded classrooms patiently explaining multiplication tables to rows of beautiful kids, the women who have given their lives to support other women and girls, the humble men working to develop aid projects – was a contrast in warmth and straight-forwardness, most evident in the clarity of their eyes and the tone of their voices. Perhaps the two Taliban had just seen too much war and it had calloused their hearts.
As the Taliban spoke I realized my discomfort with them began to callous my heart too. Then I noticed the light from the window behind them and how it framed their dark features. While I tried to focus on their faces I simultaneously began to experience this featureless afternoon light appearing out of the infinity of space. Then my heart relaxed.
Stay with me here if you can. This, for me, is the healing moment – when this union of the specific and the infinite happens.
A Transmission from Oddiyana
Fourteen hundred years ago, before Islam arrived, this mountainous region was called the kingdom of Oddiyana, the land of the dakinis. It was here that the mystical discipline known as Dzogchen first appeared. At that time the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen sent a talented monk, Vairotsana, on an arduous journey over the Himalayas to Oddiyana to bring back to Tibet the essence of the Dzogchen teachings. After many ordeals, Vairotsana received the Dzogchen transmission and returned to Tibet. In the first five scripts that he translated we find these lines:
…in every perception finite light is concentrated
and boundless space is established.
These lines are elaborated in later texts in this way: our sense organs naturally concentrate the light of experience while consciousness extends and illuminates it, filling boundless space in all directions. Through this simultaneous process of concentration and emanation, all phenomena are experienced as Buddha mind, universal enlightenment.
Sitting with the Taliban, feeling simultaneously the whole concentrated story of their tension, the tension of the endless wars, my own tension – with this simple afternoon light behind them extending everywhere – put everything at ease. Not that the smallness inherent in their minds and my own became irrelevant, but it was simply OK. Nothing was broken. The trash in the streets, the suicide bombs, the little kids huddled under plastic sheets in the rain, as well as all the positive work and human commitment so evident here, all are instantaneous and momentary appearances in the light extending everywhere, all inseparable and without opposition, even the Taliban in the land of Oddiyana.
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