Afghanistan Is One Lonely Planet

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Image by Funbobseye, licensed under Creative Commons

In 2004, riding the wave of optimism about Afghanistan, Lonely Planet commissioned its first-ever guide to the country. By late 2007, when the book was finished, things had gotten so bad that Western countries were advising their citizens against non­essential travel. Lonely Planet ended up printing a guidebook to a place no normal tourist would ever visit.

In theory, the book could still be useful to the 7,000 abnormal tourists–aid workers, anthropologists, diplomats, and consultants–who already live here, but most of these people aren’t allowed very far from their compounds. In Afghanistan, one’s freedom of movement is tied to the kidnap insurance paid by one’s employer: The more you’re worth, the less you wander.

As a freelance journalist, I have no insurance whatsoever and can therefore go anywhere I want. So, on a sunny Saturday morning, I find myself standing outside my friend’s armed guesthouse, having made a deal. M–we’ll call her that, so she can keep her U.N. job–will let me borrow her copy of the Afghanistan Travel Guide, so long as I help her break her employer’s security guidelines. “Rule number one,” she whispers as we stroll out, stepping carefully around the sidewalk’s rock piles and open sewers. “No walking.”

A tattooed former punk rocker, M is now draped and shapeless, her curls tightly clamped under a black head scarf. Worse, she’s dating some British narcotics agent.

“Well, he’s got a car,” she explains. (Afghanistan is like high school: Mobility is a big problem, so a guy with a car is automatically hot.)

“Plus, he’s got a beard,” she adds.

“I have a beard,” I say.

“That’s true,” she says.

We spend the next hour browsing the jewelry and textile shops on the famous, and Lonely Planet recommended, Chicken Street. “U.N. rule number two,” she says, modeling a rough-hewn silver ring from Turkmenistan. “No Chicken Street.”

By noon, M and I are sweaty, asthmatic, and lost. Everywhere we go, we are objects of curiosity and also scrupulously ignored. The dust of the city sticks in our throats. M sighs as we double back again past the same row of tea shops, next to a river flowing with garbage.

Seeking help, we follow the Lonely Planet map to the Afghanistan Tourism Office, which turns out to be a corrugated tin shack perched on the roof of a government building. Inside, we find five men arranged among dented metal office furniture. The men smile at us, slightly alarmed. “Salaam alaikum,” I say, shaking each of their hands. “Do you have any pamphlets?” The smell of cooking rice wafts in through the window.

Pamphlet-less, we head down the block to the National Gallery, where all the paintings I read about in the Lonely Planet guide have been taken down, though no one can tell us why. Then the Sultani Museum next door charges us a princely four dollars each to walk through a few rooms of old Qurans and other antiques, inventively labeled. A coin with a loose-limbed lion stamped on it is described as “Golden coin that absurdist is stand on its surface and appears in a confidential condition. Related to 2-3 Christian.”

We hail a cab to the Kabul Museum. (“Rules number three and four! No riding in non-U.N. cars. No public taxis.”) Our driver is a mournful-looking guy with stubble on his chin and a brown cardigan a size too small. He’s eating grapes and offers us both a handful. On impulse I offer him a little extra to wait for us while we visit the museum.

After being frisked at the entrance, we enter what the guide says was once one of the greatest collections in the world. “That a museum still stands is little short of a marvel,” it says, so we weren’t exactly optimistic about the collection itself.

But the quality of the museum is at first a moot point, as my aesthetic experience is interrupted by a momentary–but familiar–panic: I suddenly recall a story from the security training course I took before coming here, a scenario that involved a driver using his cell phone to call in his friends to kidnap you. I’ve left our taxi driver alone with his grapes and his cell phone and an hour of time to kill. Kill! I reluctantly go outside, mumble an excuse, and give the guy 40 cents to leave. He nods sadly and drives off.

Returning to the collection, I find M upstairs in a gallery of deities and ancestor sculptures. They were carved, I learn, by a fiercely independent tribe called the Nuristanis who live on the country’s eastern border. Not that I’ll be able to visit them. “The failures of post-conflict reconstruction,” observes the guide, “have allowed an Islamist insurgency to smolder along the peaks and valleys that dominate this part of the country.” Put away the hiking boots, because the “beautiful woods and slopes of Nuristan . . . remain as distant a goal as ever.”

Like much of the book, the passage attempts to be cheerful about Afghanistan without being cheerful about its future. But I’m starting to find the guide’s self-absorbed tourist aesthetic refreshing. After reading so much Afghanistan analysis that’s scary, depressing, or just plain dumb, I guess I can appreciate a book with a more modest agenda.

It is after four o’clock when we finally make the long taxi ride out to our last destination: Babur’s Gardens, recently restored by donors, are just on the edge of the city. “Rule number five,” says M, her voice sleepy with late afternoon. “Out of zone.” Her head scarf slips a bit, and our driver adjusts his rearview mirror.

The gardens are encased in a peach-colored fortress with a door shaped like a keyhole. Inside feels like another world. There are trees here–walnut, quince, and apricot–and the garden is carefully landscaped, with a series of quartered rising terraces split by a central watercourse. Among the picnickers I even spot two women. They stroll along in matching dresses, stiletto heels sinking into the grass.

“What’s that smell?” M sniffs.

“I think it’s fresh air,” I say.

Around us on three sides rise the mountains of Kabul, sprinkled with illegal squatter dwellings that cling to the steep slope. Looking closer, one can find a tableau of Kabul life: a woman in a purple burqa carrying a pot on her head; two girls in bright orange blocking a narrow lane like miniature traffic cops; a man arriving home in a Japanese 4×4.

The sun slips behind the mountain and there is a chill. I notice people packing up their blankets. The park is closing soon.

“Maybe we should go,” I say.

“Just another minute,” M says, as she relaxes her shoulders.

I follow her gaze out to the city where we just spent our day. The low sun makes gold of mud roofs. Dust hovers like fog. I feel grateful for the book that brought us here. The bit of bravery required to be a tourist may not be noble, but it feels useful in some way. We’re not quite voyageurs, but at least we’re not hiding. I think of the thousands of other expats behind barbed wire fences and I want to tell them: Friends, come out. Our distance from the Afghans is growing; our security rules spread fear and distrust. I wonder if next year we will be able to come here.

I turn to say some of this to M, but her eyes are closed. And just then the quiet is pierced by an amplified voice. It is the guard and he is screaming into his megaphone leave leave leave the park leave the park leave the park the night is coming is coming night is coming.

Excerpted from Paper Monument(Fall 2008), a new twice-yearly journal of contemporary art;

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