This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
Friday in Afghanistan: a day of leisure, war and poverty permitting. The more pious families dress up for a trip to the mosque. The less pious pack lunches and drive out of the smoggy tumult of the city for roadside picnics.
I sleep in, until 5:30. Half the house is up, mostly the women, who take turns insisting that I eat: bread, tea, the delightful lamb dish the family’s matriarch is already stewing outside in a giant aluminum vat over a fire in a cut-up oil drum. I nibble on the meat and take leave. A young man named Hamidullah, a good friend of Ramesh, my translator, has invited me to go hiking in Sholgara.
The last time I was in Sholgara, eight years ago, the city was a front line in the massive turf war between the private armies of two powerful Afghan warlords, Ustad Atta Mohammed (now the Tajik governor of Balkh province) and Abdul Rashid Dostum (the Uzbek general whom human rights organizations accuse of mass murders of war prisoners, and who keeps falling in and out of favor with the Karzai government). Combat has ebbed but never ended, and small, locally based detachments of the two militias still clash here from time to time. A few months ago, the local police chief tells me, there were some kidnappings; a Western relief agency’s car was ambushed and burned; a group of road workers were shot at.
Hamidullah pouts when I bring this up.
“You are my guest,” he says. “Where I am taking you, it is secure.”
Mazar-e-Sharif to Sholgara
Afghanistan’s blood-drenched history, ancient and recent, rolls past the car windows.
Here is the turnoff to the city of Balkh, where Alexander the Great took his first wife, Roxanne, whom the record-keepers at the time described as the second-most beautiful woman in the world, after Stateira, the wife of the Persian king Daruis III.
Here are the crenelated bulwarks of Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th-century castle where Dostum, in 2001, stabled his horses and kept his prisoners. Here, in November 2001, a CIA operative was killed during an uprising of Taliban inmates; the U.S. air raid called in to quash the uprising killed almost 400 prisoners. The air raid also killed Dostum’s horses; their cadavers were left to decompose long after the human bodies had been removed. The memory of that smell hits me as we drive by.
Twenty minutes west of Mazar-e-Sharif the paved road ends. Our car kicks up pale dust as we drive alongside the turbid, mocha-colored Balkh River, pregnant with the snowmelt and clay it picks up as it meanders from the Hesar mountain range 100 miles to the south. The river gurgles like the names of the landmarks it scythes through: the Alborz range, the Chishmish Afa springs. Hamidullah tells me the springs become warm in the winter.
Past the Alborz range, the temperature drops 10 degrees and the air clears. In the far distance I see snow where the Hindu Kush tapers into the Turkestan Mountains, with peaks propping up the pale sky at 10,000 and 13,000 feet. The mountains are white, then blue, then gray, then green as they swell toward us.
“I love you, Afghanistan!” Hamidullah exclaims. He is 21.
We pull up to a pedestrian rope bridge sagging over the murky Balkh River, leave the car, and cross the bridge on foot. In a month, after the snowmelt that feeds it is gone, the current will slow down, disgorge the mud into the fields and pastures up north and run clear blue, and men and boys will swim in it on hot summer nights, if there is no fighting.
At a farmhouse on the other side of the river, Hamidullah’s cousin and an 8-year-old nephew join us. We will return to this house for a lunch of creamed spinach, rice, fresh vegetables, lamb, and wheaty nan served on a dastarkhan spread over the carpeted floor, and my driver, Qaqa Satar, as he always does when we eat together, will make little lifting motions with his hands, ordering me to eat, eat, take more, because I am too thin, because I eat too little — but, really, because I am his guest and because he wants to show me a good time. So what if his homeland is a war zone?
For now, we begin our hike.
Up a road strewn with chert, then across a few acres of flat farmland. Sparrows skim cotton fields drowned in stagnant water, to soak the hard soil. Most of the fields are empty: The farmers are taking a day off. A snake slips into a ditch in the shadow of some rowan trees drooping with saccharine blossoms.
We hike up a goat path that bisects a hill into a sloping wheat field and an almost vertical field of cerulean wildflowers I don’t recognize. Tortoises — there are scores of them here — shy away into their brown panzers at my footsteps. Below, a dazzling crimson and turquoise cloud moves along the unpaved road: a band of Kuchi nomads. The tiny mirrors sewn into the men’s skullcaps and the women’s enormous, homespun silk scarves sparkle in the sun.
We pass a few houses, where farmers sitting in the sun squint at us without moving their heads and raise their hands only halfway to their faces in the frugal greeting of men who work hard and are rewarded poorly for it: fingers together, the palm facing sideways. Not waving. Waving means more work.
The mountains are white, then blue, then gray, then green as they swell toward us.”I love you, Afghanistan!” Hamidullah exclaims. He is 21.
Another hilltop reveals a panorama of Sholgara. To our west, rectangles of jade and glaucous and pea-green roll over knolls and buttes into a valley. I spot a square patch of red: a poppy field. Qaqa Satar wants to have his photo taken with me and insists that I wear his paqul hat for the occasion. Then he points to a clearing between two hills:
“Do you know this place? This is where, after the Soviets left, there was fighting between Jamiat” — the Tajik militia of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Ustad Atta Mohammed — and “Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party,Hezb-e Islami.”
“Hekmatyar,” he elaborates, pointing to a low hill to the northwest.
“Rabbani,” he points to another hill, to the southwest.
And this one, the one we are standing on now, the one cascading toward a zigzagging, pale ocher road in neat furrows of green wheat?
This one, smiles Qaqa Satar, was anyone’s for the taking.
Look at this land from far away.
You will see a country blighted by wars that have swept over these hills like the smooth waves of wind that now roll the unripe wheat ears.
Now look closely.
You will see a turtle peering out from its nest between the stalks of blue wildflowers.
You will see an ant dragging a husk of last year’s grain, several times its size, to a crevice between lumps of the dry clay soil.
You will see an old one-humped she-camel at pasture. (Two-humped Bactrian camels came from here, but they are very rare.) It is Friday for her, too: She is at leisure. Her lips tremble slightly and she pulls a chamomile flower from the ground and chews. She chews slowly, tucking the plant into her mouth with unhurried motions of her tongue, flower by tiny white-and-yellow flower, until the last blossom disappears inside her cleft lips.
Her hide is shedding. She is unsaddled but still weighed down by years of road dust, of carrying who knows what, from who knows where to who knows where. Her cushioned feet shift little: Like the farmers who barely acknowledge our presence — not out of unfriendliness but out of economy — she has learned through a lifetime of labor to move parsimoniously.
Her eyelashes are sparse and hard, like the brush hairs of a wheat ear. The veined bridge of her long nose is velvet-soft and surprisingly hot to the touch, and, if you whisper to her for a few minutes in any language, she will allow you to put your nose to hers, and her slanted nostrils will breathe back at you a grassy history of the land she has traveled.
This land — ravaged by never ending wars; enervated by interminable, grueling labor; but, at this very moment, on this Friday afternoon in April, unwinding — will reflect in her dark, moist, globular eyes.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.