A story of the fall of Kabul.
By SHANNON GORMLEY
March 7, 2022
It’s not clear to me when it was that I first saw Asghar, that time I visited Afghanistan in the fall of 2018, but I remember the bicycles circling the dusty square as I rode in the back of an armoured SUV from what we then called Hamid Karzai International Airport through Kabul’s city centre, the bikes flitting like swallows among the honking cars, the snapping flags, and the shouting men, and I recall wondering days later as I knelt in the rocky dirt with a black hood over my head whether Asghar’s bike had been among them.
An ex-marine — tight T-shirt, big smile — escorted me from the airport. “We’ve got a guy with us who started a bike club, amazing guy, has kids playing sports instead of shooting guns,” the ex-marine said. He knew we’d all get along because we had to. “This place makes people like family.”
That week I would hear him tell Asghar he was his brother. Probably he meant it. We meant a lot of things we said over there. A few years later I say the same to Asghar’s family — that I’m their sister — meaning, I guess, that they could count on me. I say I’ll get them out. I mean this, too. But in Afghanistan whatever we meant turned to sand; what we did is the only trace we left behind. In time our actions, also, will be subsumed by the actions of others, like the wind moves tracks across a desert plain.
Someone once told me that people show you who they are on their way out. Maybe the story of how we ended our longest war is the story of who we are. For some Afghans, who they are is how they had to leave.
Other parts of the story lie underground. The reporter’s conceit is that we can take from the dead the facts of their lives and in this way overpower the forces to which they were lost, but like the living, the dead decide which truths to impart and which to bury. Clay smashed to rubble, silver left behind, walls of crowds collapsing in themselves, helicopter blades slicing through air, whips slashing through air, a soldier stringing a baby up by its arm into the air, up above an airport horde, a body lying on the road, cold — of these things I tell the little I’ve heard and the even less that I’ve seen, and leave many of the middle places to their darkness, alone.
Made blind, shoved down in uncertain intervals from each other in the Afghan sun, our wrists tied and ordered not to speak, Asghar and I coughed and cleared our throats, throwing location signals up in the desert air. Only bones could hear us: a few hundred meters away, the wind beat at human skeletons. I felt the barrel of a gun push between my shoulder blades. When you’re near an unfriendly weapon you’re supposed to think of the big things: the meaning of life; a love of your life. That didn’t happen for me. I was no wiser than before and his name never entered my mind. I made calculations. I coughed again. Three feet apart, maybe four. Eventually my hood was removed and my eyes adjusted to the light. When I saw Asghar I thought of many things, but what bothered me then and what I think about now is my misjudgment of the space that lay between us — the possibility that if my ears could not be believed, neither could my eyes. He appeared so much farther away than I had imagined.
Where did I come from? For what reason did I come? Where am I going at the end? You won’t appear, my homeland — Rumi
The first class of my undergraduate degree was scheduled for the same September day that a man in an Afghan desert aimed four passenger jets as missiles at the United States; to the indignation of his students who had paid their parents’ good money to learn, my Globalization 101 professor, a Middle Eastern man, did not appear. One newspaper columnist named this day the death of irony, but every course of mine thereafter was midwifed by the events that came before the class that did not occur.
We were making student introductions in one such course, a security class, taught by a professor who specialized in the political theory of the airport, when I heard Andrew say his name. In a moment I’d turn to see a newspaper, a trench coat, an unexceptional but arresting face. It was his name, though — it came from behind me in his assured, gunshot voice, a wry voice, as though he knew something too obvious to state, and when he spoke it took over the lecture hall, and it took me over, too.
That day Andrew would have said a few words about his interest in intelligence policy; me, something about democracy. For the next couple of years, to whatever he said in class I raised my hand to disagree: on the Lockean justification for individual property rights (flimsy), on the exigencies of radical feminism (misunderstood), on the United States (late capitalist neo-imperial hegemon, more like). In rebuttal, he’d smile. I disliked everything about him, except only for the way he’d lean over his desk and swing one leg over the other and tilt his head in so close to mine as he whispered about the lecturer’s unfortunate choice of tie that I could feel his breath on my neck. But as every Canadian is born knowing by way of the country south of ours, a love-hate relationship and unrequited love are the same: each keeps you a close but safe distance from whatever it is you’re too afraid to be. By the time I brought him tea in white paper cups for various bets that I always lost to him — on the correct pronunciation of unpronounceable Germanic names, on which famous international architect had designed which famous international building — I wanted to lose. My losses confirmed that a man existed in the world who could be counted on to win.
That’s as far as it went in the university years; my feelings, I knew, were too outsized for a relationship to hold. In the email years, my attention turned to other conflicts. I hoped to move to Kabul for work with a non-profit redeveloping Afghan education curricula, which I then understood to have been based on long-division exercises involving Kalashnikovs for use in holy war. Around when I abandoned the job search, somewhere across the world Andrew got engaged. His fiancé moved to Kabul without him; he flew into Afghanistan for a visit; “Where’s your ring?” he asked her upon landing at the airport. He moved to Kabul later for work, alone.
“A dodgy little ‘strategic communications’ company,” he called his American employer. His job description: “generally trying to not insult Afghans’ intelligence whilst disseminating messages that could somehow be understood to be ‘positive’.” While he wrote of children pointing guns at him — toy guns, he hoped, but could not be sure — my correspondence consisted of carefully considered quantities of exclamation marks and news of North America. Urban hipsters raise chickens in Canada now, I informed him once.
“People raise chickens in Kabul, too,” Andrew replied. “They do it to live.”
It was not all email. Once, between our separate departures gates — it doesn’t matter which airport, we could fly out of them all — as planes took off before us into a clear sky, his hands looped a silver necklace from Afghanistan around my neck, the pendant inscribed with characters I didn’t understand and loved the more for it.
Asghar’s earliest memory was of a chicken fight, their wings slashing like whips, their beaks thrusting like knives. Born in the year after the Taliban first took over Afghanistan, Asghar did not like fighting. Asghar’s father had not liked fighting either: not as a conscript, when he serially escaped the Soviet-backed army so he wouldn’t have to shoot men on the other side like his brother-in-law, or hide from their bullets while crouched behind the wheel of the munitions truck he drove; not in the civil war, when a mujahideen militia enslaved, executed, and dismembered thousands of his neighbours over two days in his ethnic Hazara neighbourhood of Afshar as his family fled the house that mortars cratered behind them, bringing only what they could carry on their bicycles; not during Taliban rule, when a gunman shot his younger brother dead at his own wedding reception.
When they weren’t fighting, Asghar liked the chickens. The women of the house mixed the chickens’ eggs with water to feed the dozens of extended family members from the household’s single pot before everyone retired for the night to sleep under the household’s single roof. Asghar missed the chickens when they moved back to Afshar, the neighbourhood that the civil war had shattered into thousands of pieces of broken wall as if it were a living hedge maze petrified into cracked clay. After Afghanistan’s American-backed president set to work rebuilding the country with the paid assistance of his preferred warlords, Asghar’s father and uncles rebuilt a house around the few craggy lines of stone the warlords had left standing.
Asghar also liked building things, but the things he built moved. Kites he made for his brother by tying pieces of string to garbage bags reinforced with the frames of other children’s fallen kites; cars he fixed at the mechanic’s shop he worked at from age nine. Eventually, after watching videos online of people shooting, diving and spinning their bicycles through the air like joyful birds, he built something for himself: a freestyle BMX bike; then, as he grew into a young man, a club that taught kids to freestyle — more than a hundred of them over the years — and Asghar would lead the group, his army of bikers, around Kabul.
One day a pretty girl named Zahra showed up with a skater hat and no bicycle. It didn’t take long for a guy to offer her a spare road bike. Zahra barely looked at it.
“You want me to ride that? I’ve been riding a sports bike since I was eight,” she said.
The guy handed over his own bike. Watching Zahra fly over the hills surrounding the city, Asghar made sure that from then on the only person lending her a bike was him.
Zahra was the club’s first girl member; she was always doing things first. Zahra’s father bought a bike for her brother: Zahra learned how to ride it before him. Zahra’s father expected religious observance from his children: Zahra was the first to refuse to bow in a pantomime of prayer. Religious fanatics had burned down her father’s own school, so he did not protest when Zahra put on her brother’s clothes and rode, unaccosted by men who would otherwise call her a whore, to the all-male school from which she would graduate first in her class, and decided she would always be free. She never thought of marriage except to think that chains weren’t for her. As a child, though, she would mix water with sand to make clay, and with that clay build a miniature home in the mud for the family of dolls she didn’t have.
Asghar and Zahra learned those and other facts about each other while soaring their bikes over the bumpy roads and laneways of Kabul. By then, the small, quiet son of a garbage-bag seller had caught the attention of local television stations. Leading their BMX team past the Kabul University grounds, Asghar was feeling confident one morning.
“You know,” Asghar said, “I think I’ve stolen your heart.” He grinned.
Zahra didn’t. “You can’t steal that. I’d have to give it to you.”
Asghar slid one hand off his handlebar. Keeping pace alongside Zahra, he stretched it into the middle space between his bike and hers. Zahra looked straight ahead, shaking her head and laughing. Asghar kept his hand level, cutting through the air as they turned the corner off a back street and rode into early morning traffic. A wall towered several metres above their heads, fortifications around a mansion that belonged to one of the warlords whose armies had blasted Asghar’s family’s home into stumps of clay. Asghar felt Zahra’s pinky finger slide under his own. Fingers locked, they glided past the Butcher of Kabul’s palace, armed guards looking on, a dozen teenagers on BMX bikes smiling behind them.
Asghar’s ring would have been on the hand that held Zahra’s that day, or else on the other. Passed down from his uncle to his brother to him, it usually pressed between his hands and his handlebars as he spun his bike on its front wheel like a globe on its axis and hovered in the air over the seat. The ring’s silver shank, rutted and potholed by the decades, gripped an onyx stone loosely enough that the stone clinked in the ring head like a chain falling off its chainring, but the stone remained flanked on either side by straight narrow bicycle tracks of engraved lines. One drizzly November afternoon, as raindrops made Kabul smell fresh and new, something made Asghar lie the ring on the cold ground and take a photograph of it. Beside the picture he copied a few song lyrics in Dari that seem dislocated from the chronology of their composition, lines that as I record them here seem strangely to belong more to now than to then: Go when it is time; Go, I will not even leave you in the hands of God. And it might have been lucky that Asghar had the photograph of the ring, because on one occasion or another as he rode along, probably chatting with Zahra, he took the ring off his finger so it wouldn’t pinch his skin when he landed jumps. He never was able to remember where he put it.
I met Asghar in Kabul at a training course, it doesn’t matter which one — I took the course for the location, not the lessons, to learn where my life didn’t go. Asghar was so quiet in the seminars that the few times he spoke you had to lean in to hear his voice, but everyone did. He was intimidating in the way a good person always is: you want them to believe you’re a good person, too.
A few days before the kidnapping, I asked Asghar to show me his BMX bike. We walked outside the class, and in a garden surrounded by blast walls he showed me what he’d made. The little red frame was from a child’s bicycle. He’d soldered a larger set of handlebars on it, he told me, replaced its chain with a stronger one, and added some shock absorbers. Other guys had made fun of him for riding a little kid’s bike until they saw him win a national talent competition with it. Asghar spent the prize money on some ramps for his BMX team.
War and sports: together! My editors would be happy. I offered to write Asghar’s story, and figured he could be my source for one piece and my guide for another. I and a journalist friend were going to report on female Afghan cricket players (war and sports and women). The plan was for Asghar to lead our car to the cricket field; at the field, we would conduct interviews and take notes and make sympathetic head tilts; then, we would leave. But we wouldn’t go back. Our cover story established, we would go where the real story was: a large, seemingly abandoned lot. There, we would meet a high-level government whistleblower, and he would give us a blockbuster story on Afghan corruption, and we’d go home, and go to bed, and sleep the deep sleep of the innocents and those who claim to be innocent — the victors of war and of journalism.
Asghar and I discussed all this as we looked for a source on Chicken Street; six months before, a bomb had killed 100 people there. Some days later I returned and left one of the street’s little rug-hung shops carrying a large clay jar.
Nearly three years had passed between my trip to Afghanistan and the spring of 2021 when I excavated from my basement cupboard a dusty suitcase that clinked with broken pieces of pottery. The clay jar had made it from Kabul airport around the world safely, but exploded upon landing briefly in New York. I’d put the suitcase away, preferring to forget what I’d broken. I’d never written Asghar’s story as I’d said I would, and I’d buried the thought of contacting him, too, until foreign sections of newspapers began to describe the Taliban taking one village here, another there, and I thought of him riding through Kabul’s exploding streets on his MacGyvered child’s bike. I spilled out the contents of the suitcase and spread 34 jagged pieces of clay on the floor.
One afternoon in the early days, Zahra’s bicycle broke. She could have found her own way home but Asghar invited her to sit sideways on his bike. She balanced on the crossbar, and he put one arm on either side of her, gripped the handlebars, and pushed off. Together, they flew through the dusty streets of West Kabul as shopkeepers gasped and pointed, and the couple laughed in love and fright, wisps of Zahra’s dark hair escaping her scarf and fluttering against Asghar’s face.
They tired, though, of adventures in being watched — by drivers who cut the bikers off when they spotted girls riding; by police officers poking their heads in taxi windows demanding to know the nature of the relationship between the young man and woman in the backseat; they tired of keeping watch, of a never-ending lookout.
“It’s getting late. We should take everyone home,” Asghar said to Zahra as they rode through darkening streets lit with pools of orange light cast by a line of citrus carts. They took up the rear, with one bikemate straggling a metre or so behind. They passed a police car, then a shoe cobbler. Zahra was about to say that she wasn’t too scared to eat dinner at a cafe, and she glanced at Asghar. Asghar’s mouth opened and closed in the motion of speech but — strange — it wasn’t making sound. Nothing made sound. The movement of his lips slowed. All around them the streets decelerated. Asghar looked back over his shoulder. The police car — gone. Smoke. The shoe cobbler stretched out across the road. A piece of the cobbler’s skull nearby. His brain spilled onto the pavement.
Sound rushed back in. A tidal wave of screams.
Asghar yelling to pedal faster, Asghar shouting for the straggler, Zahra begging Asghar to come back, there might be a second bomb, Asghar telling the kid to come under his arm, telling him to give him his broken bike, bicycles clattering to the roundabout up ahead, Zahra directing riders to check for blood under their clothes, Zahra spitting blood from where the explosion slammed her teeth shut, Zahra counting her bikemates, one, two, sixteen, all there, all alive. Asghar there, Asghar alive.
The couple thought it would be nice to get away. They took a trip to Bamiyan, one of the rural provinces. Together they climbed up into the great empty chasms the Taliban’s dynamite had left of two giant Buddhas, the sandstone figures that for 1500 years had stood tall over the Hazara homeland. Some had known the Buddhas as star-crossed lovers killed, petrified, and separated by walls of rock. But here, as the couple drank tea in the shadow of the broken idols, Zahra felt safe from annihilation, and could love Asghar freely as a woman can love a man when she believes herself to be indestructible with or without him, nearly.
Andrew took a trip to one of the rural provinces. Piktika, it was called. He sent me a description of its dominant topography and cultural attractions. “It’s full of mud. And houses. Made of mud. And rivers. Surrounded by mud.”
I’d mostly heard of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s western chaosland where Canada presented combat troops to the United States as proof of our forces’ ability to hold a firearm. Andrew travelled farther for his American firm, to what he called The Field, which included places like Helmand, where the Taliban was industriously cornering the poppy market — and, Piktika, where Americans, Europeans and Brits (aid workers, anyway) didn’t often go. Too great a risk of kidnapping. By the time of Andrew’s trip, I now know, Pakistan Intelligence Services was allowing Taliban trainees to scurry into Piktika from across the border; a few months later NATO destroyed a Piktika Taliban training camp with airstrikes, which it said it learned of from disenfranchised insurgents. When Andrew told me of his visit to the province I didn’t ask what he was doing there. Wherever he went I only wanted to know he wouldn’t be there long.
On weekdays, a large white vehicle with tell-tale NGO orange license plates rattled through Kabul, collected Zahra, and delivered her to the entrance of an internally displaced persons camp where she taught the children of Helmand province; some had landed there after being scattered by Western airstrikes that levelled their homes. As Zahra picked her way through the muddy tangle of laneways, children darted around her, running in and out of naked doorways, chasing after kites they’d made by tying pieces of string to plastic bags as Asghar once had in his clay-hut neighbourhood. Poppy-harvesting season was, to Zahra, the camp’s best time of year. Though she now wore women’s clothing Zahra remained a secret agent among men, smuggling human rights lessons into the classroom under the guise of religiously appropriate teaching. Some men had reason to suspect that if their wives knew they had a say in anything they’d say they wanted a divorce.
“You can teach three of my four wives about rights,” a male voice called out from underneath the sill of her open classroom window. “Just leave me one!”
Zahra’s favourite student was a thoughtful and bright little girl, six years old with carefully brushed hair. One morning the child’s seat was empty.
“Where’s Naz?” Zahra asked the class.
“She got engaged,” the children answered.
Asghar and Zahra wanted their friends to breakdance at their wedding: Zahra would wear a short dress with biking shoes, and they’d circle Kabul on their BMX bikes with the team carrying her veil; their families decided otherwise. What Zahra and Asghar insisted on was living alone as a couple. Asghar wanted to make eggs for Zahra in the morning. They could only keep this promise to themselves until their son’s arrival in late April of 2021.
They named him Farhan — the first Farhan of either family, because, they reasoned, there was only one of him. Farhan would have been born in the largely Hazara maternity ward in their neighbourhood of Barchi, but for the fact that one year before his birth, three men waltzed past the rows of women in labour and shot three dozen mothers, nurses, and children, permanently shuttering the ward; still, the prospect of death attended at Farhan’s delivery. He arrived in Afghanistan through his mother’s sliced-open belly. “I can try to save him if you want,” said the doctor to Asghar. Asghar wanted this enough that for two days he surrendered his son’s lungs to a machine. Eventually the machine was turned off. Asghar stretched his hand into the hospital bassinet. A tiny fist closed tight around Asghar’s little finger.
Who is in the eye who sees the outside from it? – Rumi
It is August 11th, 2021: For months I’ve considered writing to Asghar but haven’t known what to say. On my television screen, the Taliban seems to be taking Afghan territory significantly faster than Western bureaucracies have been stamping Afghans’ visas. I knock various pieces of the broken clay jar together in the hope that if I do this hard enough they will fit together. One of the pieces falls into a floor vent.
I fiddle with my computer. I tell Asghar I hope he’s safe while knowing he isn’t, say I’m sorry knowing this will not help, send the note knowing he has more important things to think about, and close my laptop thinking he’d send no reply and that it wouldn’t make a difference if he did, because among the many other things I didn’t know on this night is the fact that a single Afghan dust storm can raise or lower the temperature on the other side of the Earth by sweeping particles of sand into the sky.
Asghar replies the next day. “The situation,” he says, is “bad.” He calls the Taliban “like wild animals.” These are harsher words than any I’d heard him use in Kabul. “I and my family must leave Afghanistan immediately as they are against my beliefs and activities.”
I later learn that Asghar and Zahra had not easily settled on this point. During Farhan’s first weeks of life, Zahra would awaken to Asghar hovering inches above their son to monitor his breath; beyond their apartment walls, suicide bombers blew up children at their school desks. Zahra would wonder whether they had done the wrong thing by bringing another life into Kabul. It’s human nature, though, to love the city where you find your own love, so Asghar and Zahra stayed for a time while preparing to leave. He sold his motorbike, she sold her jewelry, they sold Farhan’s carseat and their bed. Zahra kept a ring given to her by Asghar’s mother; Asghar’s own family ring remained unsold, too — he still hadn’t found it.
One prospective buyer for Farhan’s stroller planned to push his child across the Turkish border. Asghar and Zahra believed flying would be safer than crossing overland, and discovered that one of Zahra’s relatives trafficked in visas acquired from entrepreneurial Turkish bureaucrats. He offered them a family discount, but he couldn’t put a visa in a passport that didn’t exist. Asghar’s had expired.
After Andrew moved to Kabul I bragged about living near a beach in Canada. He claimed to be jealous: “I mean, I suppose I shouldn’t complain. There is rather a lot of sand here. But it’s somehow different. Something about it being in every meal, on every shirt, and deeply penetrating, after ten days on the ground, my lungs. Did I mention there’s a high concentration of airborne fecal particles here?” (There wasn’t, but the myth had become accepted fact among other Kabul expats. Expats are often ready to believe the worst about a place as it makes them more interesting for living there.) Anyway little in Afghanistan was dirtier than the money: By Andrew’s arrival, Kabul Bank was funnelling cash to family members of Afghanistan’s American-backed president and warlord vice-president. Andrew loved Graham Greene; he’d have read The Quiet American; he’d have known where moral adventuring can lead abroad. “I’ll come to wherever you are,” he wrote to me once. But men who move so freely through the world rarely move back.
“I need to go to Canada,” Asghar tells me on August 14th. The NGO Zahra worked for as a teacher — it’s Canadian, I learn, and I also notice that it’s one I’d wanted to work for more than a decade ago. Canada had promised to take in Afghans who assisted it, and Zahra had applied for resettlement on August 4th. “We don’t know how much time it takes to get processed,” he says. “But as things are changing very much fast in Afghanistan, we have to move out as soon as we can.” I remember Asghar telling me in Kabul that he had never boarded a plane. He hadn’t wanted to leave.
On the day a few hundred ragged Taliban fighters parade their black turbans and white flags through Kabul, the Prime Minister of Canada calls an election.
Asghar had picked up his passport on a Wednesday; on Sunday, his city falls. Zahra scans and prints proof of employment and identification with three other women colleagues in their office, near the diplomatic area of Kabul. They hadn’t expected the long-bearded men to take the capital by casually walking into it so they’d gone to work wearing loose hair and hip-length shirts. As they shut the door one of Zahra’s coworkers wipes the lipstick off her mouth; Zahra rubs her eyes hard and asks if there’s any mascara left. They emerge from their office building to streets at war with themselves: traffic piled on the sidewalks, drivers escaping on foot, people shouting into their cell phones and pushing others over. In the sky, three helicopters fly low. A woman with a bright orange scarf and heavy make-up crosses the street and hurries over, says she’s scared, can she come with them. Zahra tells her to keep near.
Asghar is speeding east on his bike towards Zahra’s office. By car the commute could take two hours. Today the first leg is deadly quiet. Shops are shuttered, chairs abandoned. Then mayhem. Asghar sees police cars and military vehicles tearing out of Kabul and in a moment of wild hope he thinks they’re off to stop the Taliban. But the army is fleeing along with everyone else, the centre of Kabul a tornado of cars twisting in the opposite direction Asghar is trying to fly his bike into. He stops. He can’t get through.
In the storm of frenzied pedestrians Zahra has lost the woman in the orange scarf. She’s gone. Zahra does not see her again. It’s more than ten kilometres of terror between Zahra and home, terror and deranged celebration. A few days before the Taliban came to town, one of Zahra’s colleagues overheard a man on a bus say he’d already picked out the women he’d kidnap as wives. Zahra hears some men cheering as she walks, others laughing at her quickened steps. She had wanted to stay in Afghanistan and fight for it. Her Oxford shoes slippery with blood, it occurs to her that her country would be lost to tyranny as long as tyranny occupied not only the presidential palace but the streets. Zahra starts to run.
Asghar writes to me: “Some hours ago TALIBAN just entered Kabul and is now at the Presidential Palace. I hope we could make. We are not sure how to get out now, as Taliban is now in the city. Only Air port is safe, and I don’t know how to get us there.”
The men who ran our course in Kabul had said they had up-to-date intelligence on road networks. I ask Asghar if they can help. He asks them; they can’t.
“Where in Kabul are you?” I ask. “Do you have access to a car?”
“I’m at the West of Kabul. But the Air port is at the East,” he writes. “I have a bike only.”
I estimate the distance between his location and Karzai International, calculate how long it would take to traverse the fifteen or so kilometres by bike, and abandon the effort entirely after factoring in his wife and baby, the Taliban, and whatever is happening on whatever roads he’d have to take. I turn on the 24-hour news. I won’t turn it off until it is over. I had scanned the news about Afghanistan during Andrew’s time there as well, until that too was finished, but now as then, the news won’t tell me how the end will come.
“Will your wife’s NGO or the UN give any help with airport drop-offs?” I ask. “They should have armoured vehicles.”
“Not sure about armoured vehicles for us to use it.”
“I know you will see to it that this young woman’s ride to the airport is settled securely, won’t you,” the tall Englishman with shiny black shoes and a crisp white shemagh had said in the fall of 2018 to the businessman with a small fleet of armoured vehicles when my ride was very much unsettled. The Englishman had decided to come to my aid, and had to raise his voice only slightly. “I’m quite sure you will. Should you fail to do so I’ll no longer require your services.”
At a stand-around-and-talk garden party one clear evening in Kabul’s Green Zone, a UN director had told me he’d never met anyone like me; when I told him it was getting late, he asked about my friend. At the other end of the lawn, a soldier was telling my friend there was just something about her; when she said she’d better get going, he asked about me. Now with Kabul fallen I message both men and others asking how a young family with only a bike might find a ride to the airport. No reply.
I knew something of Kabul’s expat world from Andrew’s descriptions. His days didn’t sound much like the ones where he’d skip class to have tea with me (“It’s worth at least a few docked participation marks”) and we’d talk about common connections (“It’s not at all odd that we both love Star Trek. What’s odd is that there’s anyone who doesn’t”), and common disconnections (“I know something about estrangement from a family member. It’s painful. Almost as painful as being around them”), and other wars in other countries (In a Texan accent: “Ya’ll mean to tell me we’re not the good guys in this here war? Oh Gawd. My Gawd. My Gawd.”) His days in Kabul, Andrew wrote, were spent “convening meetings where everyone talks about how happy and not insecure they are”; his nights he didn’t mention. Other expats’ nights, I gathered from his descriptions, were spent proving to themselves that whatever happened outside the walls of their compounds, within them they were still somebody worth wanting; that whoever else died, they lived, still. Years later I would wonder if, like the United States, Andrew moved to the scene of a crime in part as an act of moral defiance. He’d lost a fiancé to this world; he wouldn’t lose himself. Even righteous vengeance, though, carries collateral damage, especially when its target isn’t clear.
“We are worried we are stuck here and after withdrawal of embassies staffs Taliban find us and kill us,” Asghar tells me.
I think of the tall Englishman; earlier that autumn afternoon I’d watched Asghar’s little red bike slip behind the compound’s double metal gates that opened up to streets outside the Green Zone that he would navigate like an obstacle park filled with shouting vendors, dented taxis and suicide bombers. I write to the Englishman now, wondering if he will help me with a vehicle for the second time.
I ask Asghar, “If we can’t find you a vehicle, are you willing to risk going to the airport on your bike?” I didn’t know what it meant to risk going to the airport, and neither did Asghar. Kabul was hiding behind its window curtains. To go to the airport now, Asghar would be flying blind.
“I will risk,” he says.
Not, though, without confirmation that their names are officially slated for evacuation. “They won’t let inside without the list,” he says.
I make my own list: one by one, assigning a number to each, I write the names of government contacts and journalists who have Afghanistan experience. My own name, however, is not enough to summon a response from the upper echelons of power — after I try to contact an acquaintance of the prime minister, I am later told by Andrew (who’s acquainted with the acquaintance) that my email went to Spam.
It is by now another Andrew. Andrew and I have very different occupations. I’m a journalist. Andrew is a famous journalist. “Canadian D-list celebrity,” he clarified the first time I heard the Blue Jays snack vendor thank him for his work, Mr. Andrew, sir. It might have been the same baseball game where he told me he knew he’d been, he put it, born on third base.
“I may need some messages to be sent in your name,” I say to him across our bedroom.
Within an hour we hear from the person I’ve designated Journalist #2: “So they gave me a good name,” the journalist says. On this journalist’s advice, Andrew makes contact with staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office; in the meantime, the Prime Minister affixes campaign flyers to various door-handles.
Soon, an email: A staffer will, they say, get Asghar’s and Zahra’s names to “the proper officials.” We read this in triumph: a bureaucrat will pass on urgent information to another bureaucrat! Warnings come in from other journalist colleagues.
Journalist #1: “The opportunity to get to the airport may end. So better to make that trip as soon as they can.”
Journalist #4: “Advice is go to the airport now. Grab any military officer, ideally American. Explain the situation. Context: The Taliban is all round the airport. They haven’t closed in because the Americans have told them to give them space. That ends when America leaves … Everyone else is out of luck.”
“So what should we do now?” Asghar asks. His father, who used to drive an army supply truck through enemy fire, has been too scared to drive to the airport, but he’s now agreed to do it for his son. At one minute after midnight in Toronto on August 16th I tell Asghar, “I think you should get your ride.”
I received other warnings. I didn’t give them to Asghar. Journalist #5 said, “I don’t have the heart to tell anyone it’s hopeless, but I fear it is.” Canada, he predicted, would mostly take in Afghans who were already out. “Everything,” he said, “is broken.” Canadian diplomats had already fled; as had Afghanistan’s President, followed by its Central Bank Governor wearing one shoe. Journalist #4 had given Asghar’s family twelve hours to get out and for that many hours plus ten I explain to Asghar that he should go to the airport while Asghar explains to me that it is challenging to enter an airport if you’re dead.
“Please make sure our names is on the list at the main gate, so other wise if we crowded there they will shoot us,” Asghar writes. “It is very hard to risk our lives to go to airport and didn’t get in to it. Taliban are around the airport watching people.”
Even if he could enter, he’s seen the pictures: people grabbing at the wings of airplanes, falling to the tarmac below. A Canadian official promises that Asghar will receive a call today. There’s nothing by nightfall.
“We need to give him something,” I say to Andrew.
Andrew takes a picture of his publication’s logo off the Internet, pastes it on top of a digital document, and decrees that the reader of this missive on fake letterhead grant its holder safe passage to Toronto by order of a random Canadian newspaper columnist. We email the document to Asghar. Go to the airport, we tell him. Find an American or Canadian, we tell him. Show them whatever papers you have, we tell him. We tell him all this because although we don’t think it will be easy, we don’t yet believe it could be impossible.
In the minutes before 4:21 AM on August 17th, Andrew and I have both accidentally drifted off. We sleep through the delivery of two messages. One is from an old friend of mine with intelligence connections, replying to the armoured vehicle-question. Evacuations are deadly, he says — unless the family has official confirmation that their name is on a flight manifest they should stay home.
The other message is from Asghar. “I am on my way to go to the airport,” he says, as Andrew and I sleep.
The day of the kidnapping, Asghar had told us to watch for anyone who could be tailing us. We never saw anything, but we didn’t know what to look for. We filled our notebooks with notes, our recorders with recordings. We drove up a winding, pot-holed road. We neared a decrepit wall. I was there that I thought I saw a man with a rifle in his hands and a scarf wrapped around his face.
We’d made it back, though: “Turn around,” someone — maybe me — had told the driver. We’d peeled off, torn through Kabul, pulled in through the gates of the compound where our classroom was located, jumped out of the car, raced down a dark flight of stairs to the windowless safe room, slammed and barred the reinforced steel doors, threw on bulletproof vests. I think I might have told Asghar to grab a rifle.
But Asghar hadn’t wanted to sit in the dark with a gun. He’d wanted to go back: our source was demanding why we hadn’t shown up and I couldn’t be sure of what I’d seen. Asghar wasn’t reckless — he didn’t like to leave work unfinished.
What is the soul that I am its clothing? – Rumi
It’s a difficult thing, Asghar observes as he looks out the car window at an airport gate, to approach a gunman, slip him a few thousand dollars while his gunmen friends look on, and ask for passage into an airport. What if he’s the type of gunman who’d be offended that you’d think he’d take a bribe? What if he’s the type of gunman who’d be offended you’d think he’d take such a small bribe? The men with rifles he sees aren’t Taliban — they’re American-trained Afghan “Zero One” Forces — but still: a gun’s a gun. Asghar asks his father to keep going.
They’ve seen few Taliban as they drive through the city — they’ve seen few of anything, now that the city has been driven underground by the Taliban. At the next gates they pass, sitting in the backseat with their baby, Taliban are all they see. Beating people with sticks, with rifles, with fists. Zahra’s hands clench into blocks of cold stone.
“There are all Taliban. No international troops,” Asghar messages me. “No one can enter the airport without support of international troops.”
“Are you in the vehicle?”
“Is there any way at all to get near the gate so that when a troop comes out to grab someone you can speak to them quickly?”
“No. We can’t see any troops from here. They are very inside.”
“We are trying to contact people in Canadian government but everyone is asleep.”
“We will go home for now.”
Within an hour of Asghar leaving the airport, his sister-in-law, married to one of his brothers living in the United States, has been invited to board a US-bound flight. If Asghar can talk himself, his wife, and baby aboard, too, Andrew and I might be able to get them to Canada from the States. They’re going to try for the airport again. “If Taliban let us,” he writes.
The Taliban now control the runway into and out of Afghanistan that has been variously laid and blocked by the rest of the world. In 1962 the Soviets built the airport’s first terminal; in 2008, American allies built the second; in between, in 2001, the United States bombed the airport, which then functioned with more or less electricity depending on the current state of corruption. It’s an airport that isn’t always run by the people in charge: after the United States took it over, a warlord — then Afghanistan’s defence minister, later its vice president — had the minister of civil aviation murdered on the tarmac. Today, the Americans nominally remain in command, but only because they are outsourcing security to a group they have for twenty years called the enemy.
Asghar and Zahra arrive at a gate with their baby at 7 PM and exit the vehicle. They soon wish they hadn’t. Taliban fighters patrol the crowds. When someone makes trouble — failing to sit; looking at them funny — they hit him with a gun. Zahra and Asghar do not attract attention. They sit and watch the direction of the gate, their view obstructed by the people trying to get through it. Gunshots explode, at first every five minutes; by midnight, every two minutes. Farhan screams at each one. Someone cracks him over the head with a water bottle. His own bottle is empty. In five hours they’ve moved less than five metres. Some people have been there for two days.
Asghar writes to me. “We are at the gate. Airport. Waiting. Can you send someone to come grab us?” He gives me a map with his location near the gate where troops occasionally pull out those slated for rescue. “Please do it asap.”
Much of life passes in the in-between moments. The hours spent in traffic, in line-ups, at airports. They must, we believe, connect to start and end points, for what else is the middle for? Asghar’s flight from Kabul, we believe, starts or ends now. If Western governments can’t usher Afghans through the capital of the country they promised to save, surely they can get them through the gates of the airport they control. Andrew writes to the Prime Minister’s Office, to the head of Global Affairs, to contacts of the Prime Minister. He uses words like “immediately” and “now” and “urgent need action.” These words are, in democracies, more commonly used by bill collectors and online marketers than by those trying to prevent the capture of young activists by gunmen, so he writes each word in capital letters. Probably the capital letters will clinch it, we believe. We wait. Ten minutes; twenty; thirty-eight. My silver necklace falls off the nightstand. The dog drops his toy food dispenser in the middle of the pot’s broken shards, sending a large triangular piece spinning like a downed helicopter across the floor. An electronic message is delivered. A bureaucrat has given his answer. It is here. Here it is.
“We asked officials to look into this.”
Asghar turns to Zahra at the airport: “Nothing happens when you wait.” A Taliban fighter paces back and forth, complaining that he is also stuck. “Go home, my brother,” the Taliban fighter says to Asghar in Dari, Asghar’s language. He cups Asghar’s chin in his hand. “There is no way out.” With his family, Asghar goes home for a second time.
Between emails, the first Andrew and I met in the middle places of the globe. “Honey, I’m home!” he would call out, and he’d swing open the hotel suite door, letting in the scent of his cologne, and white pepper would waft around white walls, white curtains, white sheets, and I’d appear in a sparkly white dress at the end of the corridor that ran between our bedrooms, laughing. He was home everywhere. Foreign cityscapes flickered through the windows encasing the back seats of our taxis and ferries and funiculars where we sat close, his fingertips pressed against my sheer stockings, and we’d race each other to name the skyscrapers we streamed past like strobe lights. But what I remember most clearly of our travels is the reflection of his face in the glass superimposed upon the whirring city outside, distorting the image of each, creating something that was not quite person but not quite place. Something half-scene, half-man. I would have gone anywhere in the world to have forever brought tea and a newspaper to a simulacrum of Andrew.
Asghar and Zahra need permission from Canada — papers, Asghar stresses — to enter the airport. “Otherwise we will get wasted at the door. As there are thousands of people pushing each other forward.”
Andrew and I receive a phone call from a woman in the immigration ministry. “So I’ve been getting all these messages, from the PMO, from Global Affairs, about this one family,” she laughs.
“Yes,” I laugh along.
“And you know, I can’t find their names anywhere!” I stop laughing. “I don’t have an application on file.” Lost, maybe, or maybe buried under thousands of others. Or maybe rejected.
“I remember,” I say to Asghar of our time in Kabul three years ago, “in Afghanistan you always had better judgment than any of us.” This is true. He was a man of better understanding. Three years ago, a day or two before the kidnapping, we were to meet a sensitive source in Kabul; afraid of being tailed, I’d worn a burka to the appointed cafe as Asghar kept watch from a distance. He’d warned me my attire would attract the attention I was trying to avoid. I went in anyway. Every head turned; the cafe fell silent; I ran back out, sandals tripping over the blue hem. My pink toenail polish was showing.
But why do I mention his judgment tonight? Do I believe that I can somehow escape responsibility should he try and fail to escape Kabul? Do I imagine that my absolution can be found in his free will if my advice leads him to his death, to his wife’s death, if my advice kills his child? Do I suppose that he can be blamed for a fatality incurred by my interference — that they can be blamed for ours?
The President of the United States is on television angrily denouncing the surrender by the Afghan forces it trained and deserted. After sundown in Kabul a Canadian Global Affairs spokesperson writes. “Thank you for reaching out. We have contacted the appropriate officers on our side.”
Asghar, having received, filled out, and returned new application forms to Canadian immigration officials, has a new problem. He’s heard that Taliban fighters are harassing anyone on the road to the airport who look like him and Zahra. “Here Taliban let all ethnicities to the airport but not Hazaras,” he tells me.
We ask Canadian officials for advice, and Andrew receives a message from a top Global Affairs bureaucrat. The situation is “quickly evolving” she explains. The ground is “very fluid,” she explains. Andrew should stop sending messages to her and other bureaucrats, she explains. Andrew, having passed this information along through the appropriate channels on our side, copies a Wikipedia entry about Taliban massacres of Hazaras and pastes it in a message; he sends the message to her and other bureaucrats.
Having left the airport with them after their last unsuccessful attempt to reach the gate, Asghar’s sister-in-law was shouting into her phone at his brother. “You can find yourself a new wife!” she said. “I’m never going back to that airport.”
“Are you safe at your home for now?” I ask him.
“No,” Asghar writes. “We are not safe.”
There were many potential informants who could have tipped off the Taliban about the white mini bus brandishing orange NGO license plates that waited outside an apartment building on a quiet street in the Hazara suburb of Barchi on weekday mornings. It might have been a shopkeeper. Maybe it was one of the boys who kicked a football back and forth around the road. All that’s certain is that the day of their second trip to the airport, while Zahra’s mother was at their apartment, the Taliban knocked on the gate of the building’s yard and inquired about its residents.
It takes most refugees time to accept that if they are to save their own lives, they will not be permitted to retain most of the physical markers of who they once were. When Asghar and Zahra had first packed their bags in preparation for a flight on special-order Turkish visas, they filled their suitcases with onesies, bottles and diapers for Farhan, a couple of changes of clothes for themselves, and two BMX bikes with tires and handlebars removed. Today they only slip their documents into a pouch sewn over Zahra’s belly, and stuff Farhan’s things — one diaper hiding a hard-drive with their BMX photos — into a biking backpack. There, buried deep in a pocket of the bag he used to wear while navigating the roads on his bike, Asghar’s fingertips hit upon something hard. It’s his family’s ring.
Asghar puts the ring on his finger and for one last time they depart for the airport in Kabul.
Let me taste the wine of reunion so that I break the gate of the prison of eternity with an intoxicated cry – Rumi
At the airport, on the edge of the crowd, Asghar and Zahra face each other. Asghar cradles Farhan nestled in the nursing pillow that Zahra’s mother had once used to nurse her. Zahra pushes her hands against Asghar’s shoulders. Her arms lock straight. They have made their bodies into four walls separating their baby from the crowd, suspending him in perhaps the only pocket of air between the two blast walls that form a corridor leading to the gate that separates the crowd from the airport. Then, toward the direction of the gate, they lean, hard. The crowd gives an inch. They shuffle into the inch. Lean again, shuffle again. Lean, shuffle. They are a small fortress sliding across the ground so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible as the plates of the earth heave underneath and all around them.
Shifting forward, they choke on the heat radiating of the summer sun and the hundreds of bodies smothering one another. For hours they do this. Lean, shuffle; lean, shuffle. Two people nearby, they hear, have been suffocated, broken, killed. Asghar and Zahra do not see them. They hear gunshots. They look ahead and see each other. They look down. They see their baby. He is still, quiet.
They tap his cheeks.
They shake his body.
They shout his name.
Farhan’s eyelids flutter. They shift forward again, toward the gates. Some parents skip the gates and pass their children over a barbed wire spiral crowning the tall blast walls that surround the airport complex; from a distance, Zahra sees a little girl of three or four cut her calf under her dress on the wire. As blood runs down the toddler’s leg, Zahra decides she will sooner face the Taliban than lift her baby over that wall.
The fighters are firing their guns into the air and slash their whips toward the crowd, moving up and down the channel between the walls, a churning moat of rifles and sticks. Everywhere there are elbows and screams and gunshots. Among them, though, opportunities. Wherever a Taliban goes — to hit someone, to grab someone — the crowd parts. This, too, is how Zahra and Asghar move. They see a Taliban slide through the crowd. They shuffle into the gap in the crowd. They hide from the Taliban behind the crowd. Shuffle, hide; shuffle, hide.
A Taliban comes toward them. There is no gap in which to shuffle or hide.
Zahra thinks. From what she’s observed at the airport, the Taliban is sensitive to charges of sexism: as proof of their propriety, while they go about the business of beating civilians, some Taliban make an effort not to hit the women. With the documents pocketed over her belly, Zahra is dressed not only as a woman, but a pregnant woman. Zahra pivots away from Asghar. She presses her back against his front, raises her hands, and faces the Taliban. Shielding her husband and baby from the blows, she shepherds them away from the fighters. A Taliban rears his rifle back. Maybe he’s aiming for Asghar; maybe someone else. Pain sears through Asghar’s left shoulder as the rifle butt connects; another blow hits him across the back. They keep moving, they can’t stop moving, there is nowhere but forward even if they cannot move forward.
Zahra turns again toward Asghar. Lean, shuffle; lean, shuffle. They reach a wall. Zahra steps away. Asghar, still cradling Farhan in his pillow, braces himself against the wall with a hand; with a foot; back to a hand. Zahra protects their baby’s head from jerking shoulders as they creep along the wall. Suddenly they reach a hill of discarded luggage. Some bags have been abandoned in retreat, others in rushes to the gate. The hilltop rises above the crush. There’s air up there. Balancing their baby, Asghar and Zahra ascend to the summit of suitcases. They scan their surroundings. Here on the luggage pile they can observe the gate. They guess that for fifty-nine minutes of every hour it’s closed; for the remaining minute, a few American soldiers inside the complex pull one gate door open slightly while more soldiers push it against the crowd that tries to break it wide open; the soldiers pull a handful of people through the opening, then slam it shut. The thousand or so others are left to wait. From the top of the hill, Zahra asks men nearby to chant “Sit down” to give people room to breathe. Some sit. Asghar says, “Now isn’t the time to organize another social justice campaign, Zahra.” He tells her they have to choose: wage war atop the hill, or approach the gate.
They descend the hill. The crowd is shouting. They lean and shuffle toward the gate. They’ll enter this gate with their baby — they have to. They get near enough to it, a few metres distance, to see that the opening is too narrow to fit all three of them together, that without a soldier escort they will be crushed, caught between the door being pushed closed by the mass of troops inside and the door pushed open by the mass of people outside. It’s a stationary front. They shuffle back to the wall.
Two young guys are asking for water. An old woman is leaning against the wall — her daughter says she’s sick. Other women are advising each other to cry to gain the sympathy of a soldier and, thus, admission. Zahra can’t do it. She won’t beg. Farhan is bawling, and will only sleep if he is swung back and forth, and he hasn’t slept for hours, so Asghar crouches and swings him from one knee to the other. He swings Farhan above the heads of the seated mass of people. They attract attention.
They don’t know who sees them first. Someone. “They have a baby!” A call from the crowd. The crowd has trampled some of its members into the dirt, shoved others into ditches, but the presence of a newborn can awaken people from the fever dream of death. More shouts, in English so the soldiers will understand. “Take the baby! Baby! Baby!”
Then the nursing pillow is empty. It falls to the ground. Their baby is gone. The crowd has chosen this baby for rescue, and the crowd knows his parents are not strong enough to push him through the gate alone, but the crowd is strong, and the crowd can push in every direction, and the crowd has taken him from his father, and someone beyond the gate has taken him from the crowd, and his parents are left behind, and their baby is gone.
“Don’t let go of me,” Asghar says to Zahra, locking her arm in his. He pulls her toward the gate, hoping their baby will be found the other side of it. They stand in front of the gate. It is open a crack. An American soldier stands on the other side, brandishing a wooden rod six feet long and six inches thick that he is employing, to varying effect, as a battering ram against the incoming crowd. Asghar stands in front of him.
The soldier pulls back, lunges forward, thrusts the rod into Asghar’s chest. There is nothing but bone to absorb the blow. He pushes Asghar back toward the crowd, into a wall of people, as the crowd pushes Asghar forward toward the gate, into the weapon. Asghar holds onto Zahra, but the two older women from the wall hold onto Zahra too, hoping to be pulled inside the airport with her. The scar from her 17-week-old C-section burns, but she doesn’t shove them off.
“Push back!” the soldier yells at Asghar. “Push back, push back!”
Asghar manages to shout.
“My baby is inside!”
Louder. “My baby!”
Maybe, finally the soldier understands; at any rate he tires of stabbing Asghar with the rod. The message does not instantly reach the soldiers who control the gates: while the rod-wielding soldier and another one grab Asghar’s arm to pull him inside, other soldiers shut the gate. The metal doors start closing in on each other. Asghar is between them, split in two parts, his wife on one side of the wall and his child on the other.
I am thinking of Asghar’s last message. “Has someone sent our names,” he wants to know. No. No one has sent us their names. No one has informed us they are on an evacuation list. “I am confident there is a list,” Journalist #1 has told us, equally confident that even if they are on the list, the list will not help them. His guess: “The list may not make it to the field. Or, if it does, it is not being used. Or if it is being used, it’s not posted at the entrance.” No one is going to bring them inside the airport.
“Where’s my baby, where’s my baby,” Zahra screams. She is between Farhan and the crowd, but everything is spinning, she doesn’t know where she is, the gates somewhere, the Americans somewhere else, the Taliban somewhere else still. A minute passes. Another minute. Another. It is unclear how many such minutes Zahra screams through. What is known is that someone tells her Farhan is with a soldier, he will be brought to her, he is here, he is with her, here he is. Zahra begins to cry; then, she loses the last of the breath that has not yet been squeezed out of her by the crowds and the gates. She falters, finally. She falls.
I am watching Zahra being interviewed on an old online news story about Asghar’s club. “When I ride my bike,” Zahra says, “I feel that I am flying.”
“Have you gone to the airport yet?” I message Asghar. The Taliban could find the video as easily as I had. I know the family’s chances at the gate are next to zero and it seems to me that those are better odds than them surviving Taliban rule.
Twenty minutes later, the reply. “We are inside the airport,” says Asghar. Zahra has been pulled through the gate with him. She has been taken to a corner of shade cast by the wall. She has caught her breath and regained her balance. She has changed Farhan’s diaper. She has been patted down by soldiers for weapons, the secret pocket beneath her tan tunic searched, her long sleeves cuffed with elastics relieved of the phones she had the presence of mind to hide up them. They’re in.
“Now what we have to do?” Asghar asks me. I have no idea.
I watch another video, this one showing a baby being carried, aloft, into the airport. The child featured is about the same age, its entry to the airport made on about the same day.
It’s not so much the method of the baby’s entry that horrifies but the manner. A soldier in camouflage stands on a blast wall. A tall, bearded man lifts the baby up to the soldier; the soldier grabs the baby’s tiny arm and lifts him up and over the wall. He lifts him casually, neutrally, as if he’s lifting a suitcase off a luggage carousel, as if he’s less interested in the contents of the suitcase than with the mechanics of the carousel. I watch it repeatedly in horror and in relief that the horror belongs to someone else–to the baby’s parents, whoever they are. Not Asghar and Zahra, I know: The man who passes his baby up doesn’t have Asghar’s slight build or Asghar’s smooth face. Weeks after the Pentagon reports that the baby is in medical care at the airport, news outlets reveal that the father and the baby, a sixteen day old girl, have been found resettled in Arizona, and this will be cause for celebration for at least these three people. Because after all, what’s the point of getting into an airport if not to get out?
They’ve made a cage out of my body, what a joyful day in which I will fly – Rumi
Outdoors within the walled-off airport complex, an American soldier is yelling a few lines of Pashto. All the words were likely learned that morning and none are intelligible, not only because the crowd is noisy and his voice hoarse, and not only because he is speaking the language badly, but because for many crowd members, he is speaking the wrong language badly. It is clear enough, however, that he wants people to sit down and shut up. The troops are young, says Zahra to Asghar, young enough not to know that when they leave they’ll leave a piece of themselves with the war and carry a piece of the war with themselves. It does not occur to her that she and the soldiers are about the same age.
The family sits on a curb. Children pass by blistering with burns. Four soldiers rush down the road holding one corner each of a Kaffieyeh scarf as a makeshift stretcher; it is soaked through with blood, a teenage boy’s head hanging out one end. The two young guys who had asked for water at the wall walk near, their heads wrapped in bandages. “You made it,” Zahra says. They laugh. The older woman and her mother who clutched onto Zahra through the gate — they pass by, too.
In the early hours of the Kabul afternoon, Asghar hears from me that Canada is sending two planes: they should look for maple leaves on tail-fins and soldiers’ arm patches. Asghar has told me they entered by pushing through the crowd, but even if someone gets into the airport they can’t get to the airfield without the permission of troops, and it could all end with a suicide attack. It could all end with a Taliban attack. It could all end because the United States says so. He and Zahra see the occasional white bus park near them and fill with people, and hear a rumour that the buses are taking people out of the airport and dumping them on the other side of the walls.
“Please see if you can find a contact to someone at airport to take us to terminal. Here only people with a troop officer can go easily,” he tells me. “Others are waiting for days only to get to the terminal.”
He shares his location and a picture of Zahra, himself and their baby on the airport road. By midnight in Kabul he’s seen no Canadian soldiers, and American soldiers are looking for Americans, not for Afghans looking for Canadians. I’ve advised him to implement Canada’s longstanding national defence strategy: ask an American for help. But by this point it is clear that Canada’s bilateral agreement with the United States, wherein we exchange moral standing for their brute strength, has broken, and it is clear which side broke more. It is a source of great national pride that our prime minister, having diligently rehearsed a firm handshake on a flight to Washington, remained on his feet as the then-president yanked his arm. But we are the country that practices for the handshake.
Today United States helicopters have airlifted 169 people into the airport complex. Few if any passengers were ours; certainly none were Afghan. In his light green tunic rather than his usual blue jeans, Asghar wonders if to Westerners he looks like an off-duty Taliban fighter — if, by making himself inconspicuous to the Taliban Asghar has disguised himself as the enemy. Asghar and Zahra lie on the cold road in the dark, and for the rest of the night they curl on top of their baby to give him warmth.
“I was a good person,” the first Andrew had said to me across a hotel bedroom, “before I went to Afghanistan.” I didn’t know what he meant; possibly he found temporary comfort in this. Possibly he liked the way I looked at him because he liked what I saw, as it is in so many alliances: the weaker party is protected by their own devotion and the stronger’s goodness affirmed by it. It wasn’t clear to me what Andrew did in Afghanistan. I asked if he was CIA, of course — he requested that I circulate the theory among any and all attractive single friends. Whatever he was, he was not The Quiet American’s Pyle, the murderously virtuous agent of America’s not-so-secret service. Andrew had too sharp a sense of irony to believe that a just war would secure much justice.
On that trip I gave him a porcelain teacup, a final bet lost to him, although I didn’t know it was final at the time. I thought I heard the future echo in his words, the ones he spoke in the penthouse that his danger pay secured, where we’d whispered through the night behind a gauzy white curtain that fluttered around us, obscuring us from the world below; and the ones he spoke at the airport where he had slipped a silver necklace around my neck, and where, as planes took off before us behind great walls of gleaming glass, he had finally — finally — drawn me near: “Fuck the world, all I care about is you.”
The teacup flew on to Afghanistan. Maybe in the air, maybe on landing, it broke. He’d have his Kabul staff piece it back together, Andrew said.
The government appears not to have the military’s phone number. Journalist colleagues look for a direct line into whatever Canadian troops are stationed in the airport, contacting the Canadian Special Operations Forces, Canadian Joint Operations Command, Joint Task Force 2, contacts of the Defense Minister. Finally Journalist #6 sends a message from DND Source #1. I read the message aloud.
“There will be no ‘tracking them down.’ There is zero capacity to do that. There are hundreds in the airport in the same circumstances. There are thousands in Kabul in the same circumstances. Many will not get out. Some but not all of them will be killed.”
I pass my phone to Andrew. He scans the rest. “The window for evacuation is closing. American flights are not full. When American flights end so too will all flights.”
Andrew takes a call on his mobile from DND Source #3. He hangs up. “I think they can take them.”
Asghar also takes a call from the military. At 8:00 AM in Kabul he messages, “I think they can’t come and takes us. The flights are already happening.” The Canadian soldiers had offered to escort the family from the terminal to the airfield, but the Americans won’t let people go to a terminal without an escort, and they won’t escort anyone who isn’t American.
“Please insist,” Asghar tells me. “If not we may remain here until everyone leaves. And miss all flights.” Zahra’s mother is watching the news outside the airport and sending frantic messages. They can’t justify keeping her grandson here.
Soon after Asghar tells us that the Canadians won’t come for him, he sees the Canadians approaching in the distance, shimmering in the heat like a mirage. Asghar calls out. He waves. He produces papers: his families’ passports, their birth certificates, Zahra’s letter from a Canadian NGO, their letter from a random Canadian columnist. The soldiers bring out their list and check it over. Sorry, they tell him. Your names aren’t here.
“The limiting factor in this is not paperwork.” The television is broadcasting a clip of the Canadian Prime Minister’s speech at a campaign event. The limiting factor, the Prime Minister says, is the Taliban. It is difficult for some viewers not to notice that the Taliban had not limited the efficient retreat of Canadian embassy staff.
Andrew calls DND Source #4; recommended by Journalist #7, DND Source #4 is the sort of man who picks up the phone at midnight in Ottawa. Andrew pleads with him to plead with whoever can take the family off the airport roadside and bring them to the Canadian station. I hear the man’s voice on the other end saying he only just graduated from university and he’s in over his head. “I’m miles above my pay grade here.”
I say to Andrew, “Tell him he can do this.” I hear myself, and think I have become a second-rate actor in a third-rate film adaption of a spy novel.
“You’ve got this,” Andrew says to the muffled voice.
The muffled voice: “It’s crazy right now, trying to coordinate with all these other departments.”
“Tell him he might save a family,” I tell Andrew, although there’s no little need to repeat my words as I’m shouting.
“We can save three lives tonight my friend,” Andrew tells him.
Then we fall half-asleep. I think — dream — of the schools we left empty, our embassy left empty, our planes taking off half empty, our bureaucrats checking application forms and our politicians knocking on doors and the Taliban knocking on doors and our ally opening its border to Taliban fighters and sealing it off from families, families we called members of our own family, me telling Asghar to get his family to the airport at any cost, perhaps at all costs, none to myself; a helicopter thundering, tumbling, through the sky; someone else’s baby hoisted above, dangling over, and finally, slowly, dropping into a crowd. I awaken, my silver necklace tight around my neck, and for the rest of the night all of Andrew’s reassurances are rebutted by the one thing I could claim to know about Afghanistan: “They’re going to die and we will have killed them.”
Soldiers approach. Another mirage. Asghar hears one call out. A soldier with a maple leaf on his arm seems to be shouting a name. It sounds like Asghar’s last name.
“Yes!” He says. Once, then louder. “Yes! I think it’s me!” The soldier is coming. They’re finally coming. The soldier stands in front of Asghar and Zahra, looks the family over and checks his notes.
“Where are all the children?” The soldier asks.
“Could you please repeat the name?”
The soldier repeats the name. Wrong one. The soldier moves on. Asghar watches a nearby family stop him and they talk and nod.
Asghar turns away. It’s been 16 hours since he squeezed through the airport gate and was nearly crushed by it: his wife had fainted, his baby had slept on a road, he’s been crying. They have to leave the airport the wrong way out. He looks up. A line of soldiers is coming his way — maybe they can help him reverse their steps and head back into Kabul. The line of soldiers parts. Maybe they’ll have a bus that can take them out, or at least directions through the crowd. A woman appears from behind the row of large men in camouflage. He could hide with his family in the city until they came for him; he could make Zahra eggs before everything ran out. The woman soldier sees Asghar. He doesn’t know how much time they’d have, but no one ever does. She turns to speak to another soldier, so near that Asghar can hear her through the din: “They’re with me.” Someone has sent their names.
A soldier escorts the family to an old armoured SUV stripped of its ignition. To start the engine he fastens a couple of wires together where the key normally goes. The windshield wipers jump into action. After a few tries, the car starts. “It’s not perfect, but it runs,” the soldier says, and they tear off through the complex toward the camp where a small contingent of Canadians is stationed, and the path to it is so clear they could not be blamed for imagining the runway will be the same.
A short time later, from Asghar: “It’s not clear that we are approved by Canada or not. Please work on it to be approved, Canada is our only hope.”
I used to ask the first Andrew if he was like those Americans in photographs who would pose happily and not insecurely for the camera in front of helicopters in Afghanistan. “I do, if you’ll believe it, have a photo of me walking, shamefully, away from a helicopter that I was at the time not allowed on,” he wrote. “Something about the military not being good with lists.” I laughed at this until the day I heard about one of the rides that the military did give him permission to board.
His friend told me about it — the same friend with intelligence connections who would, as Afghanistan fell, warn me not to send the family to Kabul airport. The helicopter ride got rocky, the friend said. As he spoke, memories closed in. Not of Andrew; memories of other men; memories belonging to family members. A short list but long enough. My father’s brother, an amateur pilot, performing a solo night flight, flying through the air, crashing to the Earth, into a field, dead. My mother’s first love, a rescue pilot, searching for a friend, flying through the air, crashing to the Earth, into the side of a mountain, dead. And I’m not sure if in that moment I was more concerned for Andrew’s life or my own. In the way that the border of one country limits and thereby defines its neighbour’s shape, the boundaries of Andrew’s identity had somehow delineated my own; if he didn’t exist then how, I wondered, could I.
I didn’t ask the friend for more information about the helicopter ride. By then there was nothing I could do with it.
Journalist #4 tells us that only people on Western passports can board flights from Kabul; a former military officer informs us that only those who had their biometric scans completed prior to August 7th can fly; Journalist #1 says,“I’m sorry. I’m out of options, too. PM is AWOL. Cabinet has checked out. Snr officials have turned off phones.” Andrew writes letters. To the PMO: “They are standing right by the planes, and the planes are ready. And they still can’t get on the flight.” To a senior military official: “They have been told that they can get on a plane, as long as they are approved. That is the only remaining obstacle to their safety, after all that they have been through. In the absence of a decision by what appears to be a moribund civilian bureaucracy, without remaining staff and in the grip of a federal election, I ask that you or someone in the Canadian military grant that approval… I beg you to do so.”
It’s not clear to me who is responsible for what happened to the family. There were vague phone calls, anonymous encrypted messages. But priority is the best disguise for the truth: we can’t see what we don’t care to look for.
I haven’t come here by myself to go by myself – Rumi
The images accelerated out the window, blurred: the decrepit wall again; the man with the covered face again; more gunmen screaming at us to get out of the car; Asghar pulled from the backseat, the driver pulled from the front; me struggling to close and lock the doors; my friend jumping behind the wheel, reversing, the gunmen stopping the car, forcing us out of the car, me screaming at her to run, her running, her running away, Asghar and me being marched through uneven terrain, hoods on our heads, guns at our backs, shoved down in the rocky dirt, wondering when it would end, wondering if I’d seen Asghar on his bike as I came in from Kabul airport.
A few more minutes; a few more coughs. The hood came off my head. “Nice work, guys,” lied the ex-marine. It hadn’t been in the lesson plan for us to flee the fake hostage-takers as we fake-reported a fake story on the last day of the hostile environment training course. Some Afghans — translators, activists, NGO workers — enrolled in the course that taught us to assess risk, disguise as locals, and seem human to captors, but foreigners took the security course, too; in Kabul, especially as the war grew worse, we hid behind blast walls much of the time, protecting ourselves to be sure to live to tell how brave we were. Some ventured much farther than others though, and some got hurt: one talented Canadian journalist was kidnapped on a visit to the refugee camp where Zahra taught every week. But the biggest risk was always to Asghar as he pedalled his bicycle from his classroom to his home.
Eventually Asghar retook the security course, and found himself once more at the place where we’d learned how to botch a kidnapping simulation. He walked around the dusty site a bit. He glanced over the edge of a hill. There — beyond the ledge. Human skeletons. Shrivelled castaways adrift in a sea of sand: half a dozen of them rising up through waves of soil; more bodies below them, maybe, still trying to pull themselves up from beneath the currents of the Earth into the sun.
Asghar couldn’t make out any grave markings. “No one cares about the living here,” he thought, surveying the scattered skulls before turning to leave. “Why would they care about the dead?”
“The greatest danger I face on a day-to-day basis is from traffic accidents,” the first Andrew replied to one inquiry, phrased as casually as I could manage, about a headline announcing murdered foreigners in Afghanistan. For two years of mornings I scanned my email for his name; when it wasn’t there I scanned the newspaper. I don’t recall looking for dead Afghan civilians, but the list of 46,000 names was too long to print, and Andrew survived the traffic and the helicopters (“May try for my pilot’s license!”), and he eventually flew out of Kabul for good, as nearly every well-off foreigner does, and in the last middle place we met, as he looked into which bars made a proper orange aperol spritz, I stood in front of a hotel window, looking out. Beyond the Juliette balcony, a big white wedding cake of a city that we didn’t live in. Not Paris; the dead one, Vienna.
I repeated some of his old words aloud. “I said that?” he replied. “Good line.” He caught himself (“I’m sure whatever I said I meant at the time”) before making his final offer. “If you want to fuck we can fuck.” When I left the continent our messages ended; soon after, I started writing for media instead. It would be a long time before I’d meet the men at garden parties for whom women were something to be slept with or saved, but that night I knew that the man I’d flown in to see was farther away than I’d understood; that some deaths a newspaper doesn’t report; that somewhere in the middle of it all, I’d lost him to our war in Afghanistan.
One decade has passed since that night, to the day. Asghar and Zahra sit by the airfield, waiting. I wonder where we’ll allow them to wait tomorrow. For a moment, I wonder too where a few shards of white porcelain ended up in Kabul.
Andrew is the columnist who’d predicted the death of irony on September 11th, but September 11th may have only been irony’s disfigured rebirth. We had lots of information and little understanding. Our countries didn’t know if we were fighting terrorism or defending women’s rights or getting even. Our troops didn’t know if they were hunting Al Qaeda or the Taliban or which was which. Our governments didn’t know that by letting Al Qaeda fighters in and Taliban fighters out, Pakistan was more our enemy than our friend; that by flooding Afghanistan with money we funded the corruption we fought; that by funding corruption we not only funded ghost schools, ghost soldiers, ghost infrastructure projects, but a shadow Taliban justice system; that by bribing farmers to destroy their poppy fields — the money was taken, the fields left alone — we made opium twice profitable and often for the Taliban; that by bribing warlords to name people as Taliban — any people, innocent people — we paid them to pick off their rivals for them; that by allowing black hoods to be thrown over peoples’ heads, some innocent, at various airfields around the country — by whipping them with cables, by beating them with rifle butts and sticks — by naming victims as perpetrators, we blinded ourselves but no one else to what we became. Or our governments did know some of this, all of this, more, and didn’t mean it when they said we would win whatever war it was we were fighting in Afghanistan. Or, they meant it for a moment. “Your truth is always so temporary,” says a woman in The Quiet American, one left behind.
Today it doesn’t matter what we knew then: for however long Asghar and Zahra have, they’ll know what happened as they tried to get through the airport wall.
“How could you take such a risk?” Zahra’s mother asks her as Zahra waits by the runway. They hadn’t taken any risk! Zahra assures her — then, to Asghar: “How does she know?”
And suddenly everything is spinning again, and in her mind Zahra is back at the airport gate, back outside the wall — the crushing mass somewhere, the Taliban somewhere else, the American soldier somewhere else still, her son in his father’s arms until he isn’t — and maybe she will never really leave the place on the other side of safety where in the hands of the crowd she had had to leave her baby…
“Take the baby!” the crowd is shouting. The crowd isn’t looking toward the gate. It looks skyward. And Asghar and Zahra know: the crowd wants them to hand their baby to the soldiers standing on the wall, hovering over the razor wire above them. They won’t do it. Asghar isn’t tall enough to lift Farhan that high, and Zahra doesn’t know what will happen to him on the other side. They lean and shuffle toward the gate. They will go through the gate with their baby. They get near enough to the gate, a few metres distance, to see that the opening is too narrow to fit all three of them together, that without a military escort they will get caught between the doors being pushed closed by the mass of troops inside and pushed open by the mass of people outside. A stationary front. They shuffle back to the wall.
Asghar doesn’t scream for the soldiers to take his baby. They couldn’t hear him if he did. He waves an empty water bottle and points at the infant. A soldier standing on the wall pulls on the tube attached to the canister on his back, but it won’t stretch to Zahra and Asghar. The crowd passes Asghar’s bottle up to the soldier, he fills it with his personal store, the crowd passes it back. Zahra puts some drops of water into Farhan’s mouth. She shares the bottle with the two guys near them who have been begging for water, too.
The soldier tells Asghar and Zahra to give him the baby. A bearded man in a bright green tunic stands beside Asghar, a head taller. “Let me pass him,” he says, and Asghar and Zahra make the decision together but without deliberation, and they know that with the Taliban behind them there is no way back and with the wall ahead no way through and with the crowd all around them no staying, and they have no time to kiss him or tell him they love him or say goodbye, and the bearded stranger takes the baby from his father, and as he raises him high in the air the baby’s mother taps the stranger’s back, saying, “Please, be careful of the wire,” and the American soldier grabs the crying child by his tiny arm, his grandmother’s pillow fallen to the ground, his diaper ripped in the jostling of the crowd, his diaper flapping in the air like a plastic-bag kite in the wind, and the soldier lifts him up, over and down the wall, and he is gone.
At least now he’ll have a chance, thinks Asghar. That might be the last time I see him, thinks Zahra.
Millions of people witness the video that would become the defining image of America abandoning its longest war; only one viewer though — Farhan’s grandmother — knew the identity of its subject, a baby lifted like luggage over a blast wall. By then I’d received the picture of Asghar wearing the same checked light green tunic cladding the arms that stretched up behind the tall bearded man, of Zahra wearing the same tan tunic with elastic cuffs that reached toward the tall bearded man’s back. Even then I didn’t know who the baby was — it will be weeks until I learn the truth. The Pentagon did not know, or would not say, that the baby wasn’t placed in the care of medics — that the baby was left on the side of an airport road in the night. Big shows like the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, big papers like the New York Post, still report that the baby in the video was the sixteen-day-old daughter of an interpreter for the United States military. Big-name TV anchors conduct sit-down interviews with the parents of the little girl. They don’t know that the real baby’s name is Farhan and there’s only one of him.
A senior Canadian military official replies to Andrew and me: “I commit to you, that as long as they are in our custody, they will be protected and we will not let this go,” he says. “We will get them out.” We’d showed him a picture of the family. He clearly means it. Asghar had meant what he said, too, three years ago when he showed me his bike, and I’d asked if he’d ever leave Afghanistan. On the recording I made of our interview, his voice sounds soft but clear: “Afghanistan is my home.” And I’d been sincere when I said I’d write his story three years ago, but I was glad to get out of Afghanistan, I thought as I boarded my departing flight, and on returning to Canada I put my notebook away, knowing I could never write the ending Asghar wanted.
At approximately 19:00 hours on August 19th, at a makeshift Canadian military operations camp in what is still called Hamid Karzai International Airport, a soldier takes a phone call. He listens briefly and hangs up. He turns to Asghar. He says congratulations. He gives him a high-five. Zahra nearly hugs him. Someone writes their passenger numbers on the backs of their hands with a felt pen — Asghar 19, Farhan 20, Zahra 21.
“We have a good news”: Andrew reads Asghar’s message aloud as he sinks to one knee, then the other. Hours later Asghar, Zahra and their baby board a slate-grey airplane with a maple leaf silhouetted against a black sky. The jet lifts into the air, its engines blasting apart the night, leaving the airport and Afghanistan and the crowds behind.
Who brought me here will return me to my home – Rumi
A few days after the family escapes our longest war, Andrew receives another message, a reply from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) by someone who calls herself Deborah # 3421: “Rest assured that IRCC is aware of the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and is actively exploring ways to facilitate applications.” Two days later, outside an airport gate, a suicide bomber blows up 183 people. A few days after that, American flights end and the airport is renamed. Several days more: Andrew and I sit in another airport, it doesn’t matter which, we can get out of them all, and he asks me why I’m acting strange — who it is I’m staring at — and I tell him I can’t be sure. I think, though, I see someone I once exchanged messages with, someone who worked in Afghanistan long ago. Whoever it is walks on quickly, a man of action, off to make his mark on the world.
On one visit at Asghar and Zahra’s first Canadian residence, a sand-stuccoed government-mandated Toronto airport hotel over which planes fly every few minutes, Asghar reaches out his hand. Inside is his family ring. He gives it to me. I don’t know what to say, so I ask him and Zahra if they recognize my necklace’s inscription. They tell me it’s in Dari — a poem by the Persian poet Rumi, characters flying loops in and out of each other, meaning something like, I am a bird of the garden of heaven, I am not from the realm of dust; perhaps something else, they’re not sure. I give them the necklace. Tracks may disappear in a desert, but each grain of sand has to land somewhere, I guess. They thank me, expressing gratitude for a piece of their home returned to them after they gave me the only piece of home they carried, and the words echo around the empty airport hotel lounge.
In those early days in Toronto, Andrew and I rent an SUV, a big white one ill-fitting the road, to show the family around, thundering clumsily past bikers flying off the concrete cliffs of a skate park, and I think of the bikes I saw out of the SUV window that first day I rode into Kabul. On other occasions we sip tea in the hotel cafe.
Sometimes, though, Asghar and Zahra come to my home for tea, and they sit with me on the floor around the 34 shards of shattered clay, and they slowly piece the sandy fragments together, and I’m grateful to have them here, for they see the whole more clearly than me, and I cannot myself repair a vessel from the place we said we cared about right up until we broke and left it.