Afghanistan Part I: Scariana

A bit delayed, I’ve decided to publish bits of my recent trip to Afghanistan. 

August 6th, 2013

Flight Istanbul-Kabul
Goodbye friends, hello war zone. It’s my first time intentionally flying into a place like this, but I don’t feel unsafe. Experience has taught me again and again that the majority of people are well-intentioned. That, or the majority don’t care enough about strangers to try and do them harm.

Plus I’ve had a number of friends working an living in this area for years. I’m going to be connected to someone who knows the lay of the land from touchdown to wheels up on my way out… I think. 

The Air Ariana flight has so far been uneventful. Only a few of my Istanbul-based journalist friends are poor enough to have to take Afghanistan’s national carrier, affectionately known as ‘Scariana’, over the more convenient Turkish Air or Emirates flights. But the plane is generic, in as good condition as many flights I’ve taken in the US. 

As far as I can tell, I’m one of only two Westerners on the plane. The other is a woman just shy of middle age wearing cargo pants and a long-sleeve T shirt. I wasn’t sure what was appropriate and so am dressed in linen trousers and a blue and white linen kaftan that hits just above my knees. I have a scarf for when I land, but for now there doesn’t seem to be any reason to wear it. Many of the women on the plane don’t have their heads covered, though they are conservatively dressed. There are only two female passengers wearing head-to-toe black abayas.

The passengers are probably 90% men. The flight attendants are mostly men in dapper pilot’s uniforms, but there are also three women flight attendants: one wearing an abaya, and two wearing slacks, collared shirts, vests, and an elegant scarf/hat combo that half covers their heads but certainly couldn’t be considered mosque appropriate. 

The two men in my row, Najeeb and Mohammed, are Afghani, from a northern province near Mazar-i-Sharif. They’re studying civil engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. Najeeb hopes to continue his studies with a master’s somewhere in Europe, but has no question that he’ll return to Afghanistan when he can – ‘it’s too beautiful to stay away.’ Their studies are in Turkish, but their English is decent – they said they have some French and German friends and so it’s easiest to communicate in English with them. They pointed out the Hazar Deniz (sea), which marks the border between Turkey and Iran, and we all remarked how gorgeously turquoise it was.

Much of the land we’re flying over is raw mountains. Occasionally, a road snakes around the side of one, or a green smear marks a river between the ranges. Very little of it is inhabited. About halfway into the flight, clouds have blocked sight of the ground except for occasional points where the mountains break over them, like islands in a bleached sea. These mountains must be gigantic.

Afghanistan sits at the nexus of so many civilizations, and it’s easy to notice this on the plane. Some of my fellow passengers are undoubtedly Turks. In a tribute to their relative Westernization, they’re the only ones on the plane with any fat. The rest are harder to identify. Both Najeeb and Mohammed are from the Hazari ethnic group, who are known (depending on who you talk to) for being relatively peaceful compared to the majority Pashto. (The Taliban are mostly Pashto). But they don’t look similar at all. Najeeb has the smooth, high cheekbones and fine features of an Iranian. Mohammed is stockier, with tough-looking skin and a dark complexion – he looks Mexican more than anything else. One woman has the pale skin and heart-shaped type of face I associate most closely with Georgia. Others look Mongolian or Chinese, with jet black hair and and dark eyes that narrow towards the tips.

Many years ago, perhaps even before September 11th, I came across a story about Afghanistan in National Geographic that featured a picture of a young girl with light eyes and hair. She had a slightly testy look, like a child who’s just been told she can’t have a McFlurry. I thought it was so strange that this western-looking girl actually lived in a country somewhere in the middle of Asia. 

I tore out the picture and put it on my wall, where she watched over my struggles with high school chemistry homework. My decade-plus fascination with this country began. And it’s time to return our seatbacks and tray tables to their upright and locked position.

later that evening
Arrival went smoothly. The woman who had been wearing cargo pants changed at some point mid-flight into a shalwar khameez. My headscarf is on. A bus ferries people from the terminal building to the parking lot, through a number of concrete barriers and switchbacks. Anyone trying to attack this airport would have a lot of battles to wage with blocks of concrete. 

Apparently I was supposed to get an ‘arrival card’ from some office at the airport. My friend instructs me that if customs gives me trouble on the way out I should just tell them that they had run out of cards for the day on the day I arrived. Oh, how I love senseless bureaucracy. 
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