Letters from Afghanistan: installment #6

Having visions with Mohammed

by Connor O’Steen

We met with the village elder of Yatimak, the nominal leader of a small cluster of houses on the far side of Jawzareen valley. We stood on a dusty path and were greeted by an old man who, for reasons I didn’t entirely grasp, we weren’t allowed to shake hands with. After describing our proposal of helping to create and fund a school for children in their village, we were led to the elder’s son. Idris is a middle aged man, immaculately friendly and with a heavily tanned and lined face. He speaks reasonably good English because, 20 years earlier, he had been a guard at Bamyan University and he took a free night class offered by an American teacher. Come to think of it, considering that he had probably not spoken English since that time, his language skills are tremendous. We sat on his roof in the morning sun, drinking green tea and going over life in the village. “My villagers are a very poor people,” he told us, “but with a little help we could be very prosperous.”

We discussed the school and he seemed very interested but told us he had to discuss things with the other villagers first. This was actually a tremendously positive sign: if Idris likes the program but the villagers reject it, it’s bound to fail. Seeking a democratic consensus is often a rare occurrence in villages.  It was good to see that step. After that, we discussed the possibility of setting up hydro power in the river (because of hot springs, Yatimak’s river is unfrozen year round) and a mobile clinic for the winter months when travel to Bamyan isn’t always an option.

Around 11 o’clock, we left Yatimak and set our sights on the longer part of the day: hiking up the river to observe the summer pastures. Within half an hour my comrades had given up on the climb, not quite ready to drag themselves up the truly daunting hills that composed the trail, and suffering almost immediately from the altitude. Going now at my own pace, and munching on a dry piece of naan (which turned out to be breakfast and lunch), I made my way up the draw created by the fast flowing river and eventually found the first summer pasture. On the surrounding hills, women and children herded large flocks across sparse green grass and stones. I was looking for a lake that I had been told existed, and went up to a man, saying in brilliant Dari, “Big, large, water—where is it?” To which he responded, “What?” To which I said, pantomiming as if my life depended on it: “Large, round, big water. Do you understand?” To which he said, “No.” To which I said, “I’m sorry, thank you, goodbye.”

I realize this doesn’t paint my communication skills in the best light, but in my defense, there is no word for “lake” in Dari. I continued along the river, deciding that this was the best course of action, and soon the trail deteriorated into a field of rocks and boulders.

Around this time I began to notice changes in my state. Calling it hallucinations or delirium would be an exaggeration, but I slowly realized that I was trapped in a persistent and never ending series of daydreams. As I trudged up the steep hillsides, picking my way through the rocks, I first imagined that I was a donkey plodding slowly along. Then I imagined I was hearing military marching cadences. This gave way to a series of randomly ordered memories (some just of meals I had eaten) and, slowly, this turned into a silent recitation of half remembered poetry and book quotations. When I stopped to catch my breath, my surroundings would sharpen again, but my mind felt dull and slow. I would look behind me to see the trail below, and then slowly turn to examine the view. When I reached for my camera or some more naan, my hands felt thick and clumsy. Anything involving fine motor skills took a long time. I knew in a detached way that this was the beginning of altitude sickness. I figured I would adjust.

Before long I lost track of the trail, and stumbled along a rock field beside the fast flowing river. I began to think that the village I had left behind was the last summer pasture; surely no one would guide sheep, goats, and donkeys along this track. I kept walking though, a victim of mental inertia and plain stubbornness. Just when I was about to turn back, I saw someone on the far ridge.  He popped briefly over the hill and then back down again like a gopher. Feeling my way slowly across the rough terrain, I found the final summer pasture, its tents set up in the shadow of an enormous summit that was the source of the river. I descended tentatively from the hills into the valley, partly because I was by this point very tired and feeling short of breath, and partly because it wold have been rude to come so close to the women of the camp without a male escort. Before long, I noticed a teenager, certainly no older than myself and perhaps younger, watching me move over the rocks. I introduced myself and said in broken Dari, “Sheep–over there?” and pointed to a far slope. He nodded agreeably. As is usually the case when I speak Dari, I figured he probably didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about. I thanked him and went on, silently cursing how using Urdu as a fallback had made me lazy in learning the actual language of Afghanistan.

About five minutes later, as I was struggling up the next hill he came up behind me breathing normally and walked beside me the rest of the way. When I stopped to gasp in air (which was frequently) I turned to him and said, “From the village, big time–big travel…I am very tired,” at which point he laughed politely and nodded. We reached the final sheep and goats in the valley and I took a few anemic pictures, by this time almost too tired to care that I had reached my goal. I looked up then and saw, maybe 50 yards away, the highest ridge of the valley right below the stone peaks of the mountain. I stared and said, “Sheep–over there?” “No. Nothing over there.”

I looked on for a little while, “what is your name?” I asked.

“Mohammed,” he said, “what is your name?”

“Connor,” I said, “let’s go.” He grinned and we went on again.

It took me an hour and a half to climb and descend that last 50 yards. As I climbed, my already oxygen-addled brain completely uncottered. I thought to myself that reaching the summit would vindicate my existence. I doubled over every five or six steps. The pressure behind my eyes was strong and my head throbbed with every heart beat. Waves of liquid pain flowed through my legs and lungs. For the last 50 or so feet, Mohammed carried my backpack for me, looking unfazed, and I could’ve hugged him. When we finally crested that last hill, I was overcome with a mixed feeling of joy and nausea. I felt justified, I felt accomplished, I felt I had reached a new standard in life by which other events could be judged, ordered, and quantified. I was drooling but I didn’t care. I saw my problems laid out in the valley below and I saw their solutions. I saw things that I had said, and I saw things that I would say. As easy then as putting a left foot in front of a right. The grander my egomania became, the more earnestly I approached it, as if the climb were a panacea for all troubles and the revelation of all truths. I thought of a passage from Blood Meridian, the only part of which I remembered was, “he would live to look upon the western sea for he was complete at every hour.” I looked it up later that night for the rest of the quote:

“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its fatal endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”

My sentiments exactly at the time, although in retrospect I’m embarrassed by their grandiosity. All the while Mohammed sat beside me, saying nothing and staring calmly at the flock below, the tents beyond that, and the river winding around the steep hillsides. I wondered then and wonder now what he was thinking.

I had planned on stopping to eat lunch here (an MRE, Menu Item # 5: Chicken Breast) but I was feeling so sick that I wasn’t sure I could keep anything in my stomach much less food. I drank up the last of my water, and Mohammed led me to the river and waited patiently as I filled my bottle, drank, and filled it again. As we made our way down I lost every semblance of focus and stumbled carelessly down the steep, rocky incline. Every time I tripped, Mohammed and I would laugh.

I thought Mohammed would leave me back at the camp, but through a combination of pantomime and simple words I gathered that he lived in Yatimak and he made this walk every day. This made me feel more ashamed of my delusions on the mountain: I boasted to myself of a feat that was part of a routine for a man my age.

The walk back wasn’t nearly as difficult, although it was hard on my legs. As we descended, the extra oxygen quickly kicked in and soon my heart was beating normally. We walked mostly in silence punctuated by laughter at donkeys and sheepish, furtive exchanges in Dari. I felt an odd mixture of admiration and protectiveness towards Mohammed. Even though I couldn’t speak to him beyond the simplest phrases, I saw in his actions a number of qualities that I desire myself: he was respectful, unselfish, uncomplaining, and radiated a great calm. Now, back in Kabul, I still think of him frequently at various times of the day. I wonder what he is doing, and how he is feeling.

After rejecting an invitation to eat with him (I believe he was offering me meat, quite an honor) and a separate one to have some chai (by now it was 5:15, and I had said that I would be back by 6 at the latest) I made my way to the car and the open arms of Habeeb, who greeted me like a brother, and we chatted about the trip in Urdu. That night we ate delicious chicken kurai and I went to bed early, vaguely noticing the sound of the generator and feeling a dehydration headache that would last through the next morning.

[Ed. note:  You can read more about Connor O’Steen’s experiences in Afghanistan in his prior installments, linked below.  Also, check out Russ Wellen’s take on educating engineers instead of terrorists.]

Installment 1: Dogs, generals and orphans

Installment 2: The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Installment 3: Nasim’s story: making and unmaking terrorists

Installment 4:  Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

Installment 5:  Replying to questions and local democracy in Jawzareen

What to do — blow myself up or study engineering at Caltech?

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