When Handan and I agreed to work in Afghanistan, we did so with the explicit understanding that we would stay for one year and not a day more. Handan began looking for a new job in a new country about 8 months into our 12 month term. We had some tenuous prospects with the same company in Tajikistan and Tanzania, but nothing materialized. Handan had her CV sprinkled out among the digital recruitment landscape and recruiters emailed her on a daily basis with opportunities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Iraq, Afghanistan(!), Egypt, Oman…all highly paid positions, but we wanted out of the Middle East/Central Asia region and had no desire to jump into North Africa.
Then, Providence. Deliverance. Salvation.
Handan received a call from the projects director of a company overseeing the development of a multi-billion-dollar amusement park. The park was to be modeled after Disney World. They had just started construction, and they wanted Handan to be the Senior Project Controls Manager. The job was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Handan turned to me, covered the phone, and asked, “Would you be okay with moving to Vietnam?”
“Are you kidding me?” I fairly leaped out of my chair. “Of course I would! I would love to move there!”
Handan’s face relaxed for the first time in months. She uncovered the phone. “Yes! Yes, I would indeed be interested!”
Two months later we said our goodbyes to our Shindand coworkers. We had a farewell cookout and invited some soldiers. Here’s Handan with Mehmet, the tea boy.
In addition to his Hot Date shirt, I’d seen him wearing some serious bling during our stay in Shindand. Check out this belt buckle.
But wait! There’s more!
After the cookouts and goodbyes, Handan and I hit the road for Herat. We would spend the night there before flying to Kabul and connecting out-of-country.
That was our last time on the Herat-Shindand highway. What was terrifying six months prior was now almost routine. Almost. As we approached a hill, our driver, Abdullah, explained that while driving down to Shindand the day before, a car traveling in front of him hit a roadside bomb. My brain flipped through the probabilities. Seconds and meters. Life and Death. It was a common theme in Afghanistan. The interplay of time and distance dictated that the driver just meters ahead would die, and Abdullah would live. That time. But what about the next time?
We slowed as we approached the blast site. The road ahead was ruptured, and travel was restricted to one lane. I asked Abdullah to pull over so I could get a closer look. Handan and I got out of the car and walked to the crater in the road.
This was desolate country – nothing around for miles. The sun hammered down as we bore witness to man’s savagery. This place was sick and had been for decades. We weren’t part of the cure. We were the disease. The wind kicked up, blowing sand and dust into our eyes. We felt uneasy here. The hills were too close. The hills were death. We got back in the car, and Abdullah drove towards Herat. The riven asphalt receded from our view. Soon, a road crew would come and pave it over, and it would be lost to time and fade from memory, just one of countless scars on a once-beautiful land.
We arrived in Herat in the early afternoon and headed to our company’s gated villa. As we drove through the city, I took a few pics of some of the local taxis.
Some families got around on motorbikes.
Mother, daughter, baby son and father. The boy looks like he’s enjoying the ride, no?
We passed that afternoon relaxing in the villa and decompressing from our year working on a military base. Naci (our company’s procurement specialist who lived in the villa) informed us that one of the Afghan National Army generals lived nearby. He was a friend of Naci’s, and when he learned that Handan and I would be in town, he asked to meet us. I think he was intrigued by the idea of an American/Turkish married couple voluntarily working in his country and traveling about without a military escort. Naci invited him for dinner that night.
The General arrived that evening with his second-in-command. Naci caused a bottled of Captain Morgan rum to appear, and we all poured ourselves a glass. Dinner was a feast of grilled lamb kebabs, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, just-baked bread and Afghan pilaf (someone please remind me to post a recipe for it…it is essential). For dessert, we were served local pears and pomegranate, both the best I have ever tasted. I’ll never forget Afghanistan’s pomegranate.
After dinner, we all settled in the living room and opened another bottle of Captain Morgan. We stitched together a conversation with our various languages. The General spoke Dari and a little Turkish. Naci spoke Turkish and a little English. The General’s man spoke Dari and a little English. Handan spoke fluent Turkish and English. And I, the dumb American, spoke only English. What I couldn’t express with words, I made up for with music. The general saw my guitar case on the floor and asked me to play for him. My rusty fingers, oiled by rum, played better than I would have thought possible.
Before the night ended, I gathered everyone for a picture. Long before, my mom had given me a copy of our town’s local newspaper, The Glastonbury Citizen. Townfolk who travel around the world, or just the country, snap photos of themselves holding the paper. The paper then publishes these photos in a “Where in the World…” section. When I told the General about it and asked if he would mind posing for the photo, he seemed very keen on being in an American newspaper. He requested a copy once it was published.
Unfortunately, he never got his copy, as I had no information on how to send him mail.
The General’s man is holding a plate of cucumbers in the photo. Boy, did he love those cucumbers! He munched on them all night. The guy on the far right is an Afghan named Nadir. He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and he was a good friend for those times we were in Herat. I wish I could see him again.
We closed out the night with the General, his man and Nadir teaching me the Afghan National Dance. I don’t remember a damn thing about it, though I probably I dishonored the dance with my clumsy interpretation. I’m sure Handan had a great laugh watching us drunken fools leaping around the living room like a bunch of bumbling Baryshnikovs.
We said our goodnights, and the General arranged to meet us at the airport the next morning to see us off.
Naci drove us to Herat Airport the next day and parked the car in front of a side building that housed a small detachment of Afghan Soldiers. He went inside, and we waited. Minutes passed, and still we waited. At last, he returned to the car. He and Handan spoke briefly in Turkish.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing. The General is delayed. We will wait a little longer for him.” She said.
And so we waited. And waited. And waited. The General never showed.
A soldier emerged from the building and walked up to Naci’s window. He spoke to Naci in Turkish. Handan joined the conversation. They all spoke for a time, while I, the useless monoglot, sat in silent ignorance.
The soldier left, and Naci opened his door.
Handan opened her door to get out. “Let’s go.” She said.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s the General?”
“He can’t meet us. He had to be somewhere else. He sends his apologies.”
I shrugged. Oh well. I was looking forward to saying goodbye to his second-in-command. He was a good guy.
We gathered our bags and walked towards the terminal.
That little open door on the far right of the picture is the entrance and security area. We placed our bags on the table, where they were searched by soldiers of the ANA (Afghan National Army). Handan went through a separate line for woman and was searched in a private room. I was searched next to our bags by another soldier. We were cleared and passed into the terminal.
Herat Airport has a single terminal and a single gate – just one medium-sized room. That day, the room was packed full of Afghan men and women. There was a large group of ANA soldiers waiting as well. They were headed to the military base in Kabul. As usual, I stood out like a parsnip at a carrot convention. I played it cool.
I turned to the crowd and yelled, “Yo, wassup Afghanistan! America in the house! Word to your mother! Peace out, ya’ll!”
I’m kidding. I most certainly said no such thing.
I clutched my boarding pass and waited for the plane to arrive. The boarding passes at Herat Airport are, ummm, flexible?
I guess you can have your pick of flights: the one to Kabul, or….the one to Kabul!
I spied a small window with a vendor inside. In America, this space would have been occupied by a Dunkin Donuts or its equivalent. In Herat, this vendor was selling 100% pure Afghan gold: saffron. The price was unbelievable, since we were at the source of this culinary treasure. I paid $60 and received an amount of saffron that would have set me back about $600 in America. I still have some, but by now it has lost its aromatic punch.
The plane arrived and disgorged the passengers arriving from Kabul. We waited for them to pass, and then we walked across the apron, climbed the stairs and entered the cabin.
One more flight and we would be out of Afghanistan forever! Handan and I waited our turn in the passport control line at Kabul International Airport. There was a local woman with a baby in front of us. Her baby was crying, but she couldn’t seem to soothe it. When it was her turn to approach the passport control officer, she was having a difficult time trying to juggle the baby and the passport. The officer was not amused. He was a dour man by the looks of him. Handan sensed that the woman needed help and approached her. She asked if she could hold the baby while the woman dealt with the officer.
“Oh, yes, thank you!” The woman spoke excellent English.
Handan soothed the baby while the woman conducted her business with the passport officer. By the time she was done, the baby had stopped crying. Handan returned the child to its mother. The woman was grateful for the help. She walked through gate, and then it was our turn.
Handan went first. The officer looked over her passport, checked her visa and gave it an exit stamp. I stepped up, smiled and said hello to the dour man. He said nothing, his expression unchanged. I handed him my passport. He flipped through, looking at my other visas. He looked at my two Afghanistan visas. He flipped back and forth between the two. He called over another officer. They studied my current visa. He looked up at me.
“This visa is expired.” He said.
The smiled collapsed from my face and my heart tried to leap out of my throat. Then I thought about it. What the hell was this jerk talking about? My visa wasn’t expired!
“No, it’s not!” I protested. “I got that visa back in April! It’s good for a year!”
“This visa is expired. You are in the country illegally. I cannot let you leave.” At this point, Handan had come back to over to see what was wrong. I explained to her, rather loudly, that this boob was telling me that I couldn’t leave because my visa was expired. This was 2011, and I was still a bit young and a bit hot-headed when it came to stupid snags like this. I was also way too American. I thought I was untouchable. Handan knew better. There was real fear in her eyes. She whispered for me to calm down and shut up. She asked to see the visa.
And there is was. My Valid Until date read 11/4/11 (April 11, 2011 – remember that the rest of the world writes their dates differently than the US), the same date as the Date of Issue. It should have read 11/4/12. My visa expired the day it was issued. It was a clerical error – a rather obvious one, since the Duration of Stay lists a date a month in the future, and my wife just walked through with the correct date. But I was American, and this guy didn’t seem too keen on Americans. Handan tried to reason with him. She was polite and respectful, and he was having none of it. Handan was getting worried, and so was I. Thoughts of Afghan prison danced across my mind. Still we tried to argue our case – that it was their mistake, not ours. It didn’t matter what we said. Oh, they knew it was their mistake, but they just didn’t like me, and they wanted to use every ounce of their power.
Our argument caught the attention of the woman with the baby who had just gone through. She returned and asked us what the problem was. Handan explained. The woman turned to the officer and spoke to him in Dari. They went back and forth for a minute or two. Abruptly, the officer stamped my visa and thrust my passport back to me. He indicated with his arm that we should leave.
We couldn’t thank this stranger enough. She saved us from missing our flight and perhaps from me being detained by the Afghan authorities. She was an Afghan-American, living in the States, who was returning home after visiting relatives in her home village. Handan and I were so relieved. We practically danced onto the plane. The plane took off, and we said our goodbyes to Afghanistan.
After about an hour, when we had cleared Afghan airspace and were cruising over Iran, Handan turned to me and said, “About what happened at Herat Airport…”
“Yeah…” I said, confused.
“The General couldn’t meet us because he was busy interrogating a man they had just caught with a bomb vest trying to get into the airport. He was going to blow up our plane because there were a lot of soldiers on that flight.”
My eyes went wide. “Holy Shit!”
“I didn’t tell you because I knew it would worry you. And I didn’t want to tell you until we were totally out of Afghanistan.”
I took her hand in mine and squeezed it tight. She had lived with that knowledge for the last four or five hours, but kept it to herself. She was a strong woman, this one. I turned my head and looked out the window. The arid lands of Iran slipped slowly by underneath, as we made our way towards Istanbul.
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