The little man in the hole in the wall in front of the Pakistan embassy in Kabul was as good as his word – the visas were ready by 2 o'clock. He even gave them to us 20 minutes early since we had a plane to catch.
Water trucks hosed down the main street in Kabul to the airport. There was going to be a funeral procession for a murdered cabinet minister – the aviation minister. He was the second aviation minister to be killed in the Kabul government's brief history. The first was murdered by pilgrims to the Hajj when they could not get on a flight. They tore him apart by hand. This one was killed by the army when he tried to avenge a murder attempt on his father, the warlord/governor of Herat. There were a few Xeroxed photos of the dead man around, with a double chin – but no sense of fervor – not like when they killed Massoud, (the late leader of the Northern Alliance) when every window, even the front windshields of cars were covered with his photo and you wondered how people could drive. Now, there was a giant Massoud billboard at the airport and smaller ones with his head merged into the cosmos, in which he looks like Bob Marley.
Security was beefed up because of the procession. An American, whom judging by his beard and T-shirt was a Special Forces officer, ordered Afghan soldiers around the Pakistan embassy. He was not satisfied with one guy whose job it was to raise or lower a chain to let cars in or out.
"Tell him," the American said to his Afghan translator, "if he lowers that chain again, I'm gonna break his arm."
The Afghan soldiers around the chain stood up. I looked at the American who had on cargo pants and two hands on the rifle across his chest.
"If someone goes in there, I'm gonna shoot them," he said, walking out into the street.
Women in blue burkas approached. I knew they would beg. For someone you are not supposed to see, they get right in your face and murmur something beneath the cloth, then hiss when you say no and step away. Chinese guys waiting for visas stepped away too, not looking at them. It's hard to connect to a beggar you can't even see.
"Burkas are awful," I said to the fixer Ahmed, who now on day two was calling me "my brother."
"My wife wears a burka," he said, smiling at me. "When we go into the town," he said.
We took detours to get to the airport. With four porters and 17 cases of equipment we tried to get to the front of the line, but an Afghan guard told us to wait our turn. I walked through the metal detector with two bags and set it off, but no one stopped me or searched the bags.
Inside the waiting room, all the seats were taken. Cameraman Mal James is working with me. He squatted down and continued to read “The DaVinci Code.” Next to him a young Afghan man stared, watching him read. I looked around the room. There were about two hundred men in the chairs waiting for a flight. They had probably been waiting an hour and would likely wait an hour more. Not one of them was reading anything. Nothing. Not one book or newspaper. Nothing. They were looking, staring, sitting - smoking. 200 people in a waiting room, and not one of them was reading.
Only one guy was staring at Mal, mouthing words, and watching him read. People in Kabul did not stare as bad as they used to. A couple of years ago outside Spin Boldak, we had thirteen guards for the two of us – my cameraman and me. I went out on the lawn to brush my teeth, then stopped, feeling eyes on me. I turned around to see six separate Afghan men stopped cold, staring at me brushing my teeth.
I knew the bathrooms were in the corner of the waiting room, and ducked under a rope to get there. I wondered if the ancient bathroom attendant was still there. Sure enough, there in a dark corner seat of a dim waiting room, right next to two toilets. The old man still sat there and I smiled at him. He smiled gladly, but did not get up from his seat. He may be too old to stand much. I used the bathroom and came over to his seat and gave him a dollar for doing nothing. He raised his left arm up stiffly, like a slot-machine arm coming back to place after being pulled, and said something softly – like a blessing. I went back to my spot and thought for a minute. I had a 500 Afghan note in my wallet that I would probably never use. It was ten dollars. This old man has been sitting next to two toilets for how many years, and he was still here. I walked over and gave him the Afghan note. Both arms now came straight up, then down, then back up again. Jackpot – with a lot of quiet blessings. I looked away.
The line was orderly until it was time to board, then there was a crush. I had not been in a crush in a while and breathed in. Most of the carry-on bags were full of food. The man to my right had a clear plastic bag containing greens. He was bringing a salad to Dubai. Two years ago it was all aid workers and journalists. No Afghans were flying. Now though they might be carrying vegetables, these Afghans had passports, and they were traveling to other countries.
After an overnight in Dubai, we got back on Pakistan Airlines. The cockpit door was open for much of the flight. A passenger in white robes entered the cockpit to drink tea with the pilots. When he came out of the bathroom, part of his robe that wrapped around his head got caught in the bathroom door. As he stepped towards the cockpit, I watched it slowly come off.
A Pakistani businessmen to my left smoked Dunhills throughout the flight. The right and center aisles had 'no smoking' signs, but you could smoke in the left aisle. Before landing, he asked me for a pen to fill out his arrival card. After he was through, he extended the pen point outward, without looking at me. I waited until he looked at me, and then accepted the pen without looking at him.
After a week of moving, I was where I wanted to be. “Honky Tonk Woman” was in my ears. My left foot moved up and down, and my head moved back and forth. Even after the song ended, my head and my foot were still moving.
• 25 March 2004
• 23 March 2004