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Tea With The Taliban

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    Tea With The Taliban Naeem Randhawa | Vol. 3, Issue 1 http://www.illumemagazine.org/magazine/publish/cover_story/tea_with_t he_taliban.php I am not here to
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      Tea With The Taliban
      Naeem Randhawa | Vol. 3, Issue 1

      I am not here to save the world. But I make sure I always have a
      roll of small denominations with me at all times. I stop the car to
      hand them out, not because I am some kind of savior but because I am

      Kam Air Touchdown At Kabul Airport

      The Kam Air flight left Dubai and is touching ground in Kabul in
      less than three hours. The Boeing 737 dips under the mountain range
      and the pilot circles the plane to position for landing at
      Afghanistan's Kabul Airport. Outside I see the blue sky blending
      into the gray shale clay mountain ranges surrounding the city. The
      mountains descend into a pale brown dirt that covers most of the

      For the last hour I have been glancing through the window and can't
      figure out how anyone can possibly tame this rugged and desolate
      land, and yet, here is a bustling city.

      We're taxiing to the small terminal and on our way we pass a dozen
      or so American and Russian military helicopters and fighter jets. I
      wonder if I made the right decision to come and work here. The crew,
      I think they're Russian, open the door as we come to a stop. I am
      surrounded by families who are returning to their land and by other
      foreigners and expatriots as their known here, like me. We stand out
      from the crowd. It is in our clothing and in our faces. Even though
      we are trying to act casual, I know we are all somewhat nervous.

      I make my way into the building. My name is on a piece of cardboard
      carried by a young Afghan boy. My fixer. He greets me and grabs my
      carry-on. I tell him I will carry it myself but he insists so I let
      him have it.

      A second man is waiting for my on-board luggage. He tells me the
      beltway is broken again so the airline guys are carrying in the
      suitcases from the plane. We gather my stuff and a third man meets
      us as we exit the secure area, a company man. He extends his hand. I
      shake it and he hands me a charged cell phone and proceeds to give
      me a debriefing on company policies and security. I grab the phone
      and start dialing Sonia and grab a seat into the back of an armor
      protected vehicle. As I look away from the hand guns and machine
      guns in the vehicle around me - I tell Sonia that I am fine and all
      is well. I have arrived.

      Arrival In The Heart Of Kabul

      I am not fearful. I have talked with people on the ground. I know it
      is relatively safe but I am more curious than anything else.

      What does a country look like that has been at war for almost 30
      years? What are the people like? How have they survived? I am
      wondering all of these things as we weave, bob and race on roads
      that are dirt and full of potholes and obstacles.
      I arrive at my assigned company house, which is rented at an
      exorbitant rate, because demand and inflation have gone through the
      roof. The security guards are local and most of them are smaller
      than me but I know that they are probably as tough as hell. They
      greet me, "Hello." I respond, "Assalamu Alaykum." I get a slight
      smile back - they know I've got a past here somewhere.

      My room, along with a half dozen others, is pretty luxurious in
      comparison with local standards. There is a big bed, a desk and
      chair, an A/C unit, a fridge, and a private bathroom. I open my
      window blinds, and look up at the blue sky I realize it is the same
      sky I would stare at in Dallas except for the barbed wire on my
      horizon and the Afghan guards 30 feet from me standing in the
      afternoon sun.

      Stuck In Traffic

      He cannot be more than 14 or 15-years-old. I wince every morning as
      the company car takes the turn onto the intersection he waits at.
      He's not waiting for me, I do not think he would remember me. I am
      just another company man, driving in the back of a company SUV, like
      the many ahead and behind me. He knows that the company cars carry
      men with money and he waits for any of the company cars that slow
      down, or get stuck in traffic.

      When my car first got stuck in traffic, he ran up to my window, his
      short arms were flailing on his sides. I asked the driver to wait
      while he stood at my window looking at me.

      I hit the button to lower the window. I took out 40 Afghanis and
      handed them to him. He reached up with his short arms, I lowered my
      hands further, and he grabbed the bills. His face expressed

      Most days I try to brace myself for that street corner, and on the
      days that I do not see him, I hope I will the next day. He is a part
      of my daily drive to the office, just like the teenager selling
      Areeba calling cards on the side of the street, the store owners
      keeping shop, the school children walking to school, the street
      vendors pushing carts of vegetables, fruits and other items for
      sale, and all the other Afghans who make up my vista each day and
      night. I see them when I leave in the morning and I see them again,
      still waiting, still selling, still standing under the sun, when I
      am tired at the end of the day from sitting and attending meetings
      all day.

      Each child was pushing the other to get in front of me. The security
      guard in the front seat, rolled down his window, and started
      shouting at them in Dari. The driver, used the master control of the
      window and started rolling my window up but one of the child's hands
      was stuck at the top of the window. I lowered it and he pulled his
      hand back.

      Our car, stuck between vehicles in front and behind us. I never felt
      as if I were in danger, they were just kids but instead what I felt
      was helplessness. I could empty my wallet in five minutes, and there
      would still be more open hands and hungry faces. The driver honked
      and maneuvered sharply to find an open space and we started moving
      forward, as we drove, the kids ran beside the car, still begging,
      until they could not keep up with the pace of the vehicle.

      Twenty minutes later I was sitting in a meeting discussing capacity
      planning with a group of business men, trying to ignore the everyday
      dilemma of the streets. How do I do that? Some days are better than
      others. You have to go on, you have to ignore what you see, you do
      what you can, and you move on. What other choice do you have?!

      The Row

      There is a large square in downtown Kabul with a large bazaar filled
      with shops surrounding the square, congested with traffic and
      people. On one side, there is a row of invalids and beggars that
      line the street. They sit on hot asphalt and beg for their lives.
      They are harder to ignore.

      In the sea of beggars there is one that disturbs me more than the
      others and she has stayed with me from the first day I saw her.

      A blue burqa, like so many blue burqas in Kabul. But this burqa is
      worn by a woman sitting on the street and half of it is raised over
      her lap, and what I see on resting on her lap, is carved into my
      conscious, and is a memory that will leave with me from this place.
      It will stay with me long after I have forgotten many things about
      this country, a small bundle resting on her lap, breathing slowly in
      and out, chest rising up and down with each breath, a child, an
      infant, asleep in the unbearable heat of the day and around its head
      rolls of surgical gauze.

      I ask my driver to stop again, the security guy and I get out, and I
      hand over some bills to her, and the others nearby. Who the hell am
      I to have this money to give? Am I just adding a drop into this
      chasm? I do not know but I am doing what I can. I am trying to
      forget these things, trying to move on but they keep bubbling back

      Living In The Shell Of Dar-Ul Aman

      There is a place where some of the heaviest fighting during the
      Soviet and civil wars took place. The Dar-ul Aman palace was once a
      wondrous palace, splendor and grand regality built by King Amanullah
      Khan in the 1920's. Now I walk through the bombed out and mortar
      shelled area that are now buildings reduced to piles of debris and
      crumbling rocks. The palace is a shell of it's former self. It is
      enclosed within a fence, with guards posted at corners with
      Klashnikovs. I do not know what they are protecting. The building is
      in such ruin that they might as well level it and start again. All
      the buildings surrounding the palace are destroyed. I can see the
      holes from tank shells and machine gun's bullet holes in almost
      every wall of the buildings.

      The dust sweeps through the brick skeletons. I ask the driver to
      wander through some of the lost neighborhood streets. He weaves the
      SUV through what remains of a street and drives around building
      foundations. Walls crumble around us. I ask him to stop and we get

      I decide to walk around a little. The security guard asks the driver
      if he is sure that the mines have been cleared. The driver
      responds, "Yes." I walk through the debris. I cannot tell where the
      street ends and houses begin. Everything is flattened to the ground.
      The three of us walk further into the neighborhood when we come
      across a row of rooms against a long wall of what once a building.
      As I climb over a small hill, the stench of human feces causes me to
      hold my breath and walk over. We come across some kids, a girl maybe
      close to ten and a younger boy, maybe five. They could be brother
      and sister. I ask them their names. One of the men with me
      translates, "They're shy," and they start giggling.

      From one of the rooms behind them a man comes out, holding a baby,
      and I see a few women peeking out from some of the other
      rooms. "Assalamu Alaykum," I say, he responds, coming in our
      direction. "Do you live here?" I ask him an obvious question. He
      does and he tells us, how his family and a dozen others have taken
      over these bombed out dilapidated rooms because they have nowhere
      else to live in the city. Now that there's been an introduction,
      some of the women start coming over and more kids. I ask them their
      names, and their ages, and how long they've been here. I take
      pictures of the kids, of the man and his baby. I ask permission to
      take pictures of the women and they allow me to take the shots. I
      shoot. I look at their faces. I see the kids and I shoot some more.

      I thank them for their time, and take out some money and give enough
      to go around. The driver translates and tells them they should share
      the money equally. They thank us. We walk back to our car. Their
      children follow us back to the car. I take a picture of an exploded
      tank shell on the floor near the house. We get in the car, wave at
      the children as they wave back and we drive out from the

      On the way back the driver tells me, that they thought I was with
      the government, there to ask them questions so I could provide aid
      to the families. I sit silent in the back of the car, as we drive
      past the debris, and the city suburb that's been shot to hell.

      I Am Aware

      I am an IT project manager, I am a Canadian, I am here to work, I am
      not here to save the world. But I make sure I always have a roll of
      small denominations with me at all times. I stop the car to hand
      them out, not because I am some kind of savior but because I am
      human. I am aware that an Afghan lady at my office had a toothache
      that hurt so bad, that one of us found her kneeling in pain in a

      She can't afford the day off. I am aware that whenever I pass that
      main square there's a small boy who lies on the hot sidewalk bare-
      chested. I'm not sure if he's lost his mind or if he just doesn't
      care about the burning heat. I am aware that the blue burqa lady's
      child was asleep both times I have seen them. I am aware of the boy
      in my path everyday that has disfigured arms. I am aware that the
      cleaning ladies that wash my clothes make a pittance of wages and so
      do the drivers, the cooks, the security guards and most Afghans. I
      am aware of all this.

      I am also aware that there are heroes here. Heroes who choose to
      fight against the worst that humanity throws at them. I am aware of
      men like Destagir who runs Islamic Relief Afghanistan, and gets help
      for children and women, who drives to the provinces to establish an
      opium addict recovery center. [To donate to Islamic Relief or to
      sponsor an Afghan child, visit irw.org - WVNS.] I am aware of women
      like Kerry Jane Wilson, who runs Zardozi, a shop that sells clothing
      made by Afghan widows and refugees. I am aware of men like Rory
      Stewart, the New York Times bestseller, who established Turquoise
      Mountain to preserve the old city, and help the people of Kabul. I
      am aware of men like Jonathan Hoffman, who runs Direct Aid
      International, and takes a month off teaching every year in Vermont
      to fly into this country, so he could set up schools in remote
      villages for Afghans. And I'm aware of men like Greg Mortenson, who
      risks his life to go where others won't, to educate young Afghan
      girls, and raise hope for forgotten villages. I am aware that there
      are people here to save the world.

      But a Dari proverb says, "Drop by drop it becomes a river."

      Entering Joiar Village

      After three hours of high speed driving, bumpy roads, and a few
      stops, Shah's Toyota descends a hill into a lush green valley. The
      village in Joibar is a structure of many mud houses and buildings
      huddled together in the bowl of surrounding mountains. Above the
      distant range, white clouds hang in a high clear blue sky. As the
      car comes to a stop, some kids from the village come running up in
      front of a few villagers, towards us. Shah is immediately recognized
      and greeted. I stay a few feet behind him and after Shah explains my
      presence, I am welcomed as a guest.

      One of the villagers grabs my backpack. I hesitantly let him,
      unfamiliar with customs. We walk down a small hill and through a
      farm field. Cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions are
      planted in alternate rows. Shah picks up a dried seed from the
      ground and tosses it to me, asking if I know what it is. I look at
      the walnut size polyp. It has ridges running around it. I tell him
      it is a poppy seed. He looks back at me and flashes a smile. I ask
      him if they grow that and he says, "Not right now, it's not the
      right season".

      We walk pass rows of houses with children playing in alleyways and
      as soon as they see our party they turn to us. We have a trail of
      kids following behind us. We arrive at one of the village elder's
      home and I'm asked to go inside. I follow our group to a second
      floor. It is the hottest time of day and the room is cool. The room
      is lined with red carpets, pillows are laid against the wall on all
      sides of the room and opposite the door there is a black and gold
      cloth on the wall, with a picture of Mecca, and Arabic text of
      versus from the Qur'an.

      Lunch With Mohammad Omar

      I put my backpack down, and take a seat. A group of men enter the
      room, including a village elder, Mohammad Omar. He is an old man
      dressed in white shalwar kameez, a white turban and a long white
      beard. Everyone around the room gets up and bids him, "Assalamu
      Alaykum," and one at a time go to shake his hand. I follow the lead,
      and greet him. He has a gentle face and demeanor. We sit and Shah
      explains that I am a writer and a filmmaker and wish to meet with
      the Taliban. He seems understanding and we begin talking about
      things that strangers talk about: where we are from, names, family
      and the country. I ask him about his family. Shah translates that
      Mohammad Omar is 65-years-old, he has three sons, seven daughters
      and two wives. I ask him how many grandchildren he has, after a
      pause, they start laughing. After a little math and finger counting,
      Shah tells me somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 grandchildren.

      After lunch, Mohammad's son, Atif, asks me what I want to ask the
      Taliban. Shah explains to me that he is the liaison and that they do
      not let foreigners just walk in and ask the Taliban questions. The
      western media has never come this deep into this territory, the
      highway we got off, is the limit to where outsiders get to. Even Al-
      Jazeera and the local Afghan media is scared to come down into the
      village. I am the first one they have ever let into this particular
      district. It's explained to me that the road belongs to the
      government and everything off the road belongs to the Taliban.

      I explain to him, that I normally do not carry a list of questions
      and usually will come up with them during the interview. Atif
      insists that I deliver the questions before hand - so they can be
      cleared. They will not answer certain questions. I start giving him

      "What do you think about the current state of affairs of
      "Why do you fight the Americans?"
      "What do you think about Pakistan?"
      "What is your view of the role of women?"
      "What do you feel about President Karzai?"
      "Why do you fight other Afghans?"
      "Why did you blow up the Bamyan Buddha statues?"

      While I pepper him with questions, Atif writes down each question in
      a notebook. I try to gauge his reactions as I ask the questions but
      don't get much of a read from his expressions. After a long list he
      puts his pencil down, grabs a military walkie-talkie and starts
      talking Pashto into it, repeating all my questions. He waits for a
      while for a response and then the voice on the other side of the
      walkie-talkie starts speaking back to him. He tells me I can't ask
      anything about the Americans. I tell him that I agree to his terms,
      hoping they will change their mind, during the interview.

      The sound of Adhan is heard outside the room and a couple of men
      offer their prayer. Shah and I make ablution and offer our prayers
      as well. After a little while we get up and leave for the meeting.
      Everyone says their salams. I take a few pictures of Mohammad Omar
      and one of his grandchildren. At one point, they hand a Kalashnikov
      to the youngest of Mohammad's grandchildren in the room, Mujtaba,
      who is seven-years-old. He can barely hold up the heavy weapon. I
      feel awkward taking the picture of such a young boy holding up a
      semi-automatic weapon but I go ahead and take a few pictures. The
      country has been at war for almost 30 years and this is a society
      that has been drenched in violence. It is a different state of
      being, the effects of the war have seeped into the fabric of the
      people. I remember seeing two young kids in Kabul, fighting with
      each other, and while kids in America fight as well, I was shocked
      by the ferocity of their fight. Afghans are known for their
      hospitality but underneath the surface, wounds lie deep and the long
      habit of fighting for survival is still very strong.

      Tea With The Taliban

      Outside the room Atif pulls a veil over his face with the
      handkerchief around his neck, a friend with him does the same. Only
      their eyes show now. Both men are carrying Kalashnikovs, slung on
      their shoulders. Atif, starts talking into his walkie-talkie and we
      start walking down narrow alley-ways. Shah and I trail behind them.
      I snap a few pictures from the camera hanging around my shoulders.
      We make our way through winding paths, over channels, and through
      archways. A distance later we emerge out into some farm fields. We
      continue walking through crop fields until we come to another
      village. At this point, after all the turns we've taken, I realize
      that I could not retrace my steps back to the main road. As we
      approach the first house in the second village, I see more men
      standing with their faces obscured with scarves, only eyes showing.
      They exchange salam with Atif, his friend, then Shah. I approach
      him, and wait for him to greet me. Uncertain then he greets me as
      well and I respond in kind.

      A couple of yards away, another veiled figure, same routine. While
      I'm following men with guns and greeting others who also have guns,
      there are children around us. I find it ironic that they are
      prepared for me with guns and yet their children are standing around
      us. We walk past a couple of more houses towards a clearing at what
      appears to be a central courtyard of the village. We are about 30 or
      40 feet away from the courtyard and for the first time in my entire
      trip, I sense a moment of panic. This is real. Those guns are real.
      This moment comes to me when I see the courtyard filled with a crowd
      of about two dozen men and boys and besides the veiled faces, and
      Kalashnikovs, I now see rocket launchers and full automatic Soviet
      machine guns pointed in my general directions. Not pointing at me,
      but close enough to make the point. I'm now in a heightened state of
      alert, aware of everything around me.

      We walk into the courtyard where there is a carpet laid out in the
      middle, under a large tree. Atif, his friend, greet each of the men
      in procession, with handshakes, hugs and the usual salams. Shah and
      I follow and shake hands down the line and say our salams. We are
      led to the cloth and take a seat in the middle of the crowd. I begin
      to get my gear out of my backpack: pen, notebook, camera, video,
      tripod. As I'm taking out each item, I'm keenly aware of being
      watched by everyone around me. Two of the men, who appear to be
      leaders, take a seat in front of Shah and me. They greet us and say
      that this is happening because they trust Atif. Shah translates, I
      tell them I am here on my own accord and wish to get their side of
      the story, which we often don't hear of in the west.

      I tell them how I will conduct the interview. I will ask them
      questions, and if there is something that they do not feel
      comfortable answering, they simply do not have to answer. They
      agree. I also tell them I am videotaping the interview and we can
      stop anytime they want. They agree. I also tell them that I do not
      need to know their names, as that will not benefit the story, the
      pictures and videos will be fact enough. They agree. I finish
      explaining this and tell them, I will need five minutes to set up my
      equipment and will not record until then. The two leaders lower
      their veils so I can see their whole faces. A few others around us
      do the same. I imagine it can't be too comfortable breathing through
      that in this heat. I look at them, as they talk casually with our
      group, and realize these guys could be Arabs, Caucasian or European.
      They have green and blue eyes, their skin is white, and they don't
      carry the face of the devil, as imagined.

      I realize the ice is beginning to melt, and we're all beginning to
      get comfortable with each other. They probably had the same
      apprehensions about meeting a foreigner as I had about meeting them.
      I tell them I'm ready to start, one of the leaders looks at me,
      smiles at me, and says, "OK," and pulls on his veil over his face.
      Others around him do the same. I start asking the questions,
      choosing each word, and Shah translates. Some of the responses are
      expected and some less so.

      "We're fighting Americans, not because they are Americans, but
      because they are an invading force. Wouldn't they do the same if
      someone invaded their country?"

      "We have no problems with the people of Pakistan, or Americans, or
      anyone, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews, it's the
      government of some of these countries that are killing our people -
      we have a fight with them."

      "We think women can work, we think they can be doctors, or lawyers
      or whatever, but there's a right way to do it. They should be
      separate from the men, they should not mix freely with the opposite

      "Karzai is a puppet of the U.S., everyone knows this."

      "We grow lots of things, not just opium, and when foreigners bring
      alcohol to this country, and poison our people - why does no one say
      anything about that?"

      "Abraham demolished the idols, we don't want people in the future to
      worship idols, so we blew up the Bamyan Buddhas."

      "Yes, we are worried about our kids exposed to guns and violence,
      but we don't carry guns because we like to, but because we have been
      at war for almost 30 years. One day our kids will not have to."

      "We feel the pain of all Muslims anywhere Palestine, Iraq, or even
      in America, our issue is not with the people, but with the
      oppression of Muslims everywhere."

      Shah, who is videotaping the interview, tells me the tape is full. I
      tell them we will take a five minute break, they remove their
      scarves from their faces. I work on getting a new tape out. A boy
      comes to the yard and brings water and fresh apricots and places it
      in front of us. The leaders grab a few and offers them to Shah and
      myself. I grab some, and eat the fresh fruit. We're less nervous
      now, the scarves are off the faces, we're eating fruit and there is
      light banter about. As I relax a little, I think to myself - a
      Pakistani born Canadian, living in Bush country, sitting in the
      middle of a courtyard of a village in the middle of nowhere, eating
      apricots and sipping tea with the Taliban. This was not on the
      tourist map.

      We are worlds apart, the Taliban ascribe to an Islam that I do not
      know. To the Taliban, I am a product of the west, and am probably
      not a representation of true Islam. I am not oblivious of the
      atrocities committed by them, the Northern Alliance, Americans and
      others. The men in front of me may be simple farmers but simple
      farmers don't carry Russian machine guns and rocket launchers. In
      this moment though, they are family men, I see their children
      sitting around them and they share their food with me. We are each
      looking into the other to see a reflection of ourselves and a way to
      understand one another.

      Supertramp On The Phone

      I change the tape, we eat some more fruit and they start pulling on
      the veils. Just as I start asking my next question, Shah tells me
      there a weird red light on the camera. I stop, and look at the
      camera, I turn it off and back on, hand it back to Shah. He starts
      rolling again, and I repeat my first question. Shah interrupts
      again, the red lights still on. I've been around cameras a long time
      and I know they are finicky machines - but the three minutes of the
      Taliban, all masked up and staring at me trying to fix my camera -
      are probably the most unnerving I will ever feel. As I'm calmly
      trying to re-start the camera, I'm thinking to myself, "Damn you!
      Start now! Gimme another half hour - Then you can die!"

      The camera finally rolls without a problem and I hand it back to
      Shah. The first leader asks if he should start answering the
      question, I tell him sure - thinking to myself, "Am I actually
      directing the Taliban?" A couple of minutes later, I hear
      Supertramp's The Logical Song, from Shah's cell phone, at this point
      I nearly burst out into laughter - the irony is overwhelming. Middle
      of a village, hardly any modern facilities, and Supertramp on the
      phone! After a brief moment of silence, I continue, and we finish
      the interview.

      I thank them for the interview and we all shake hands down the line
      and say our salam as we did when we met. They tell me their glad to
      tell their side of the story. I tell them, I am glad they gave me
      the opportunity for the interview. Atif and his friend lead us back
      out of the courtyard and into the farm fields. On the way back, Shah
      admits to me, he was a little startled when he first saw them. I
      tell him I felt the same way. We walk back through the path we took
      to get to his village. At the village, we say our goodbye's to
      everyone. A group of village kids follow us back to the road. We get
      in Shah's Toyota, and start heading back to Kabul, three hours away.

      On the ride back, Shah asks me, how I trusted him with my life. I
      tell him that the day I landed in this country I felt I was here for
      some purpose and I would let destiny or providence guide me. I ask
      him, how does he trust that I will write faithfully about him and
      his people. He tells me he just knows I will. As the sun begins its
      descent in the west over the mountains a turquoise blanket falls
      over the ridges and gold light filters through the valleys. I roll
      my window down, Shah turns on his headlight, and asks where we
      should stop to pray Maghrib. I look at the sun setting over the
      mountains, and answer "Anywhere on this road."

      Remote Lands

      The sweeping landscape of this region has been described well in
      many books but witnessing the train of mountains rising and falling
      along the land, with the remoteness of the villages, and dusty
      valleys, is not justified by words. The landscape emanates history.
      You feel the past reeling by. Below the high sky is where travelers
      walked and rode for centuries. This is where armies rose and
      conquered lands. This is where the Silk Road and the spice roads
      intersected. This is where empires fell.

      From an eagle's vantage, our Toyota appears as a yellow speck racing
      onwards, leaving a dusty trail behind us, every once in a while,
      braking and swerving violently off the dusty path. In the three
      hours, we've come across several small villages. We drive at the
      same speed through the villages until we hit occasional traffic. If
      Shah doesn't see around a turn he is about to take, he prevents an
      accident by blaring the car horn while taking the turn. At one
      point, we nearly hit a little girl, and of course, I'm the only one
      who's alarmed. Shah, and the girl, somehow are oblivious to it all.

      We make a few stops along the route. Once at the top of a hill, with
      a majestic view of the valleys below us, and a river running
      alongside the mountain. We walk thirty or forty yards towards the
      edge of the hill, overlooking the river snaking through the valley.
      We come across a square cement embankment two feet high on four
      sides that is off to the side of the main path. The west side of the
      cement enclosure has a small minaret on it. A mosque for the
      traveler in the middle of God's country.

      We walk towards the edge of the cliff. Shah leans down, picks up an
      empty Kalashnikov bullet shell and hands it to me. I toss it around
      in my hand, trying to figure out what a bullet could be doing here
      in this barren patch of earth, suspecting the answer. Shah confirms
      it. Russians fought the country throughout these hills and valleys.
      I put the shell in my pocket, we get back in the car and drive on.

      Along the drive, at various places in the desert, I notice small
      areas where piles of stones are painted white and green. I ask Shah
      what they represent, wondering if they have some cultural or
      religious significance. He explains that the white stones are where
      mines are still lying in the ground and the green stones are where
      they have been cleared. There are more white stones than green.

      Graveyards In The Desert

      Throughout our drive, I've notice areas near the foot of hills where
      small flat rocks jut out of the ground in small grouped areas. It is
      the work of humans, and at first, I don't make the connection, and
      then it dawns on me. They are graves. I ask Shah to stop again at
      what appears to be a larger graveyard in the middle of a field. The
      flat rocks are burial markers for the martyrs and the dead. Some
      have flags attached to them, usually with very colorful cloths
      placed repeatedly at the gravesite.

      We get out of the car and I wander through the rows of graves. It is
      midday and the sun is high above us. There is a breeze blowing from
      the mountains. I walk a distance away from Shah around a square
      embankment that holds a few more graves in it. These must have been
      either rich families or heroes to be given this prominence. Around
      the corner, I nearly stumble into an old man, who was hidden from
      view from our direction. "Assalamu Alaykum," he says, extending his
      hand. I reply, "Walaykum Assalam," and greet him. I don't understand
      his words in Dari but Shah comes over and translates, "He says his
      name is Nasir Khawray." I tell him, "Nice to meet you." We stay
      together for a few minutes and I look into his face and he
      represents Afghanistan to me in that instant, old, rugged, weathered
      and yet still filled with warmth and hospitality.

      We get back into the car. Shah explains the word Khawray means mud
      in Dari. I ask him if he thinks the old man was a farmer, and earned
      his name from his pre-occupation. He replies, "No, he calls himself
      mud, because he thinks he is as insignificant as mud before the
      Almighty." I realize this is one of those moments that will mark my

      A month from now I'll be back driving with Sonia and baby Zakaria in
      our Lexus in north Dallas, smoothie in hand, and PDA in the other
      but here I am now in the desert with a stranger who I am entrusting
      my life with and an old man who probably hasn't traveled more than a
      day's walk from the white and green stones.

      We return to the car, and drive onwards, passing more hills, graves
      and villages.

      Naeem Rhandawa is an award-winning filmmaker, travel writer and IT
      project manager, living in Dallas with his wife and baby boy. He
      made his film directorial debut in 2007, with a documentary called
      American Ramadan.



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