Nagoya Writes

December 4, 2007

Disconnected at a Party by Linda Donan

Filed under: Donan,Issue: May 2006,Prose — usbengoshi @ 6:14 pm

The year was 1974, not the best of years to be an American in Afghanistan. Just one year before, the U.S. Consul General had been assassinated, and now all the restaurants in Kabul that sold edible pizza, (there was one) or ice cream in somewhat sanitary bowls, (there were two) had marines as customers for those occasions when they ventured forth from the sanctuary of the American compound. It was in the compound where the only good potable water in the whole country was available for drinking, for swimming in, and for running through the buildings’ many air conditioning systems. I, being a product of the peacenik sixties and a newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer, had nothing to do with marines. However, I did drink the clean water.

The recent coup had Uncle Daoud converting the Shah’s “deported” nephew’s lapis lazuli toilet seats into cash for such republican efforts as education and highways. The highways were to be built not by one superpower (who would then pull Massoud’s strings) but rather by three countries; Russia, Germany and the USA. In this way, that wily man Massoud would be able to pull everybody else’s strings. The only Russians I met were fat ladies in the bazaar with babushka headscarves who never ceased to amaze me with their haggling skills. I, being part of the education effort, a high school teacher with a $75 US a month salary, felt too rich in that low-income country to do much haggling. Well, that, and the fact that I also felt sorry for the dust covered hungry peddlers. Or was it really just my bashfulness and poor grasp of the language that held me back?

The Germans seemed to be mostly in the west, the Russians in the north, and the Americans in the south. I hadn’t met many Germans. Once, in front of a famous western hotel, I was stopped dead at the sight of a strikingly lovely lady with long silky legs (something no one saw in this Muslim country where even foreign women wore long dress-like blouses over longer trousers). The mini-skirted lady wearing break-your-ankle high heels was tottering elegantly along, pulled by two razor thin Afghan hounds, one on each hand. She spoke to the dogs in German.

I murmured to my friend; “She must be a really rich German tourist!”

My friend, a long-term A.I.D. official whispered; “No, not a tourist. She’s the ‘play-thing’ of “X” (a wealthy German diplomat). Oh, and by the way, she’s not a woman.”

I, a naïve Missouri farm girl of twenty-four, didn’t quite know what he meant, but I turned my head and watched ‘her’ saunter away, as did every head of every gender on the street.

The Americans were not all as green as me. I was on my way to a party with many of them who studied Farsi and Pashtu in the Peace Corps training center. I was in tow of the A.I.D. guy whose name I hardly knew but whose aid I certainly did need in order to find my way to the party. It was a complex route and I’m a simple person.

On the main street I saw the American Peace Corps doctor drunkenly show his disdain for the whining beggars by tossing a handful of coins into a shit and urine filled sewer. The beggars leapt after the coins without hesitation, so great their need. Crossing through the crowded “spice” bazaar, a salesman approached us, his ‘wares’ encased in hypodermic syringes brandished in each hand.

“Heroin, opium?” he repeated again and again. I cowered and was led by the hand down a side street by my aid, whose name I was still trying to recall.

In the shadows I saw an Afghan woman in full chador veil, a rare sight on a public street. She was clearly in the later stages of pregnancy, and before my amazed young eyes, the man she was arguing with raised his foot and gave her large belly a violent kick. I stopped in shock and horror at her scream, but my aid dragged me in the other direction, urging; “Don’t look back. Hurry.” I hurried.

We soon made our way into the wealthier area of new Kabul. All around us were tall, stone walls, and on every street corner a young soldier brandished a machine gun. I was beginning to feel serious and disabling culture shock. The aid was pulling me doggedly. A little boy picked up a stone from the street and hurled it clumsily in my direction.

“Why?” I gasped.

“You are a woman not under chador, not behind walls,” was the nameless aid’s reply as we turned once more and pounded on a gate of the surrounding wall of a fine old home. No servant guard came, so we tried the latch, and in true American style the door opened at our push. It was evening and quite dark inside the walls, so I watched my feet on the path. That is when I saw him. The man lying on the ground in front of me was in a fetal heap and moaning softly, an almost animal growl.

“Look, someone’s hurt here.” I called to my aid, and he came back to where I was bending down over the elderly man.

“An American?” I asked.

The aid replied, moving past the human form on the ground; “No, an Afghan I think. Leave him. It’s none of our business. The party is in there.”

He tugged me towards the lit open door.

“But we can’t just leave him here in the dark garden. He’s sick.” I hesitated on the path.

“He’s poor, hungry, come to beg. Just leave him alone and he’ll go away. Come on.” I hesitated some more and he tugged me by the arm.

My few moments over the prone man, whose form had been barely visible in the dim evening light, didn’t offer me enough of a connection to refuse the tug of the aid, but as soon as we were greeted at the party, I reported to the host;

“There’s an old Afghan man inside your garden. He seems to be ill. He seems really sick. We should call an ambulance or something…”

The host laughed; “Oh, the new Peace Corps volunteer, still full of the do-gooder enthusiasm. Come on, forget the poor tonight, it’s a party.”

I had to insist; “No, really. I think he’s seriously ill.”

The host wasn’t going to let me dampen his party; “Hey, don’t worry, be happy. Get some of that pipe going around and relax.”

He settled me into a heap of floor pillows and motioned for the hookah to be passed in my direction as he left. It took its circuitous time around the perimeter of the large floor table where so many volunteers drowsily took a hit as it passed.

A volunteer from my own Farsi class sunk to the pillows beside me with a glassy eyed greeting and I began to explain to him about the old man in the garden. He leaned back against the wall and fell asleep with his mouth open before I had finished my concerned comments. The guy beyond him nodded a greeting over his body and explained my colleague’s unconsciousness with the two words;

“Hash oil.”

The stranger was cute and I leaned towards him introducing myself and was starting to tell him about the old man in the garden when the pipe reached him. He became so interested in loading it with a chunk of hash that I knew the conversation would soon be one-way. I gave up any hope of flirtation much less any offer of help with my problem in the garden.

This was so typical of parties here. No dancing, no games, no conversation, no flirtation; just smoking until you fell unconscious, sleeping it off then rising to smoke again. Why were all the old volunteers so different from me? Why was I the only one bored at hash parties? My frustration increased and as the pipe made its way towards me. I had two conflicting thoughts: If I smoke this, I will do nothing at all about the man moaning in the garden. If I don’t smoke it, I will be alienating my self from everyone. I couldn’t lose my connection with these people, they were my only community. I needed their help. The old man also needed their help. If no one helped me, would I have enough Farsi ability and enough courage to get help for the man by myself?

Face it, I thought, if you went for help, you’d never be able to find your way back alone. You weren’t paying sufficient attention when you were literally pulled here by the guy you just met in the A.I.D. library. Until someone kindly leads you back to the dorm you are here or lost in a city where men kick women and kids throw stones. I took the pipe. In the morning as we headed out, the old man was still there. He was dead.

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