Day 3: Openly Speaking Russian

Noon 25 March 2004 Kabul

You have to be able to sleep anytime, anywhere on this job. One additional odd feature of Afghanistan is that it is a half hour time difference with everywhere else. That means to appear on "Fox Report with Shepard Smith" at 7 p.m. Eastern, you have to stay up until 4:30 a.m. in Kabul. So you have to be able to sleep in the day. If you get tired enough it is not hard. Afghanistan, maybe because of the thin air, is a great sleeping country.

Today we pick up visas to go to Pakistan. Several thousand Pakistani soldiers are battling militants and possible Al Qaeda members near the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is not clear how long the battle will last or how close we can get. The first obstacle in covering any war is usually the government involved - they don't want you anywhere near their troubles. The situation in Pakistan was made worse by some French journalists caught in the tribal areas without visas.

More and more I am struck by how quickly things change. There are Russian businessmen in the Intercon Hotel openly speaking Russian, and the waiters joke with them with a few words of Russian. When I first came to Afghanistan ten years, ago I was warned: "Don't speak a word of Russian or somebody will stab you."

Of course it is encouraging to see how old hatreds fade, but there is something a little sad that I'm not sure I understand. What seemed a life or death fight at one time can be a moot point – a memory – something even laughed about in the next generation. It would have been hard to imagine young Afghan men joking in Russian twenty years ago.

There is no sense of fear or dread in downtown Kabul like there is in Baghdad. Traffic also moves much better, thanks to diligent, bearded traffic police with metal wands, and an ingenious system of stones, laid out like highway dividers, that effectively prevent aggressive drivers from moving into oncoming traffic. It is low-tech and it works. Baghdad could learn a lot from Kabul.

More journalists keep arriving at the hotel. There are two elaborately uniformed doormen at the Intercon with large military hats, one all in red, the other in blue. They are neither fierce nor intimidating - but gentle and deferent - smiling. You walk through a metal detector and they search your bags, but if you go around the metal detector and keep your bag on your shoulder, they won't stop you. That is what I do, because I'm not sure of the effect of metal detectors, and I don't like to wait. So in the hotel at least, there is more of a show of security, a show of order that could easily be pierced by a determined enemy. Out in front of the hotel doors there is a picture of a Kalashnikov automatic rifle with a red X painted through it. Of course, the red X is not going to stop anybody.

I don't think there will be time to visit Hadji Khan the Carpet Man, at 123 Chicken Street. Carpet shopping is a great pleasure even for someone who hates shopping. You leave the chaos of the streets of Kabul, where beggars surround you. Women in burkas even hold small children to the window of your car and the children are trained to rap their tiny fists on the car window as the invisible woman – somewhere behind a blue beekeepers mesh – extends a hand with a plea for baksheesh. You leave the bright chaos for a dim, quiet, padded world, padded with stacks and stacks of carpets. Hadji Khan is glad to see you, and there is no rush. Surrounded by carpets, you lower your head and make your way around a tiny staircase up to a tiny carpet-surrounded room where you sit on a carpet-covered bench. The only source of light is a tiny window above your head. Hadji Khan sends his son for green tea, and his smile is bursting. It's about to start.

Carpets are flipped onto the floor, one after the other, like giant soft cards, making a beautiful "thuth," one after the other, as you sit in silence and watch. It is like being in a museum and giant soft paintings are flipped out in front of you and all you have to do is point.

Hadji Khan can sense if you like to talk or not. Should he praise the carpets, or just smile radiantly and watch your reaction? He knows I like it quiet. As his son flips, I point to what I like and the son flips them into a separate pile. Then this pile is flipped through. Then you get down from the bench and touch and feel and look from all angles, and you figure how much you can spend and how much you can carry.

You negotiate for a while, but in the end Hadji Khan wins. A small prayer rug goes for about $150; the bigger one that he saved in his home from the Taliban goes for $700. It took four people six months to make a top quality carpet. They were to be used, stepped on, eaten on – it was ok.

The best moment came after the purchase – when you were away from the dizzying maze of designs – and you unfolded your carpets back at the place you were staying, on the grass, as the sun went down, and just looked at them in all their beauty.

Harrigan's Blog Archive