Two men lean against the side of a pickup and consider the distant figure ahead of them. He stands in the middle of the road and appears to be wearing a turban and a salwaar kameez. More important than his clothes, the men wonder if what the man holds in his hands is a gun or a heavy stick. If he’s a shepherd, it may be a stick to prod sheep, but they see no farm animals. Neither of them has binoculars.
–It’s a stick, one of the men, an American aid worker, says. Too thin to be an AK.
The other man, the American’s Afghan driver, shrugs noncommittally. Annoyed, the American folds his arms across his chest. He expected affirmation. He likes to throw out names, abbreviations. AK, short for AK-47, also known as the Kalashnikov, a gas-operated assault rifle. Makes him feel knowledgeable and therefore superior. Like he’s been around and he expects others to view his expertise with deference. He squints, imagines this gives him an aged and even more experienced look, but the silence of the Afghan, who survived the Soviet invasion, the civil wars that followed, the Taliban and now the Americans, makes him feel small.
The Afghan and the American have stopped on this stretch of dirt, mountain road off Highway 1 between Kabul and Ghazni because their car overheated. Rock cliffs jut overhead and dust-covered scrub twists out from between boulders. Buzzards circle in the empty sky and somewhere far off dogs bark and then stop and start again. In a valley below them, mud huts stand scattered on bare ground. Another mile or two, the American thinks, and they would have been driving downhill and all would have been well but once the radiator began to overheat the Afghan, without seeking his permission, pulled over. After they’d rolled to a stop, the Afghan got out, opened the hood and unscrewed the radiator cap with a towel. Jerking back to avoid burning his face as water geysered above his head, the Afghan looked into the sky and closed his eyes against a warm, descending mist and then he leaned against the car still holding the radiator cap and noticed the man in the road watching them. The Afghan said nothing but pointed, drawing the American’s attention to the lone figure.
–You know the expression, farmer by day, Taliban by night, the American says. What do you think? It’s getting late.
The Afghan doesn’t respond. It had been the American’s idea to drive from Kabul to Ghazni to visit an NGO that specialized in irrigation projects. As the Afghan waited for him by the car, the American followed the NGO’s director to a field where rows of wheat withered under the sun, strangled in cracked earth dampened by stooped, barefoot men futilely tossing water from plastic buckets. The irrigation system for the field had broken down, the director explained. He wasn’t sure what happened. He’d put in a request for repairs to his home office and was waiting for a response.
–I return home to Seattle in a week, the director said.
–Not your problem.
–Not my problem.
The American wished him a safe flight home. In Kabul at his own NGO, an agricultural aid agency called We Are the World, he saw himself like a despotic ruler commanding a deteriorating empire propped by the fiscal department of the agency’s Des Moines headquarters. Someone he never met financed farming projects with the belief that the land at some point would be able to support villages in Kabul province to such an extent that eventually the agency would no longer be needed. The American, however, knows that the Afghans who come to him for food and water and a small, monthly allowance don’t look at him as a temporary provider. They’ve grown accustomed to living off his largesse while they wait week after week for mine sweepers to clear the desolate fields so they can use the hundreds of pounds of seed locked securely in a shed.
Wiping sweat from his forehead, the American recalls a trip he took to Kandahar to tour agricultural projects similar to his own. Before he returned to Kabul, he stopped at an American military base to apprise its commanders of his work. He had just been escorted through the gate when militants began shelling. A soldier wrapped his arms around him and hustled him to a concrete bunker crowded with other soldiers. The shells went wide and the soliders laughed at the militant’s inefficiency but for days later the American believed he had experienced a defining moment. At least he hoped so. He wanted to experience something, he didn’t know what exactly, that would result in distinguishing him from everyone he knew. That would turn him into someone hardened by a unique experience. Someone people would point to and say he is no longer one of us. He is changed, different. He wanted to be defined by something far removed from their own understanding.
For days after the mortar attack, the American wondered if he’d experience post-traumatic stress disorder. He waited for a sign. He lay awake at night waiting. In the morning, he examined his dreams for nightmares, for something haunting. After a few weeks, he acknowledged he felt nothing out of the ordinary, concluding that the experience had been little more than an interruption to a routine too well established to be disturbed by something surprising yet inconsequential. Back in Kabul, he resumed sitting behind his desk, no different from hundreds of other people who sit behind desks whether here or in Iowa. Sometimes he’d walk outside expecting to catch a bus to his Westwood home outside of Des Moines and for a moment his confusion left him dizzy and then he remembered he was in Kabul, still firmly ensconced in the established arrangement of his life.
–Look, the American says, pointing.
The Afghan turns his head and both men watch the man in the road raise a hand to the side of his head. Was he talking into a cell phone? Calling someone? Who?
–Is there another road? the American asks. Can we just take a different route and avoid him?
He steps away from the car and sits on a boulder in the shade at the base of an austere hill. He doesn’t know his driver well. He’s seen him in the compound hanging around with other nationals. Always unfailingly polite but a man who spoke little. On their way to Ghazni, the American asked about his family because it seemed to make a positive impression although he’d never met any families of the national staff and really didn’t care how they were. If they were doing poorly, what could he do? Projects were his responsibility, not people. He gave families food, water, a cash allowance. He paid his staff. Beyond that he had no further responsibility.
The American found the Afghan’s silence disturbing. He knew what people wanted from him in his office but outside of it he found them enigmatic. He wondered about the Afghan’s loyalties. He had lost his family in fighting between U.S forces and the Taliban but did not seem angry or bitter. He expressed his grief in a resigned fatalism: If they take my life, they can take nothing more.
As part of his orientation to Afghanistan, the American and other “newbys,” as they were dubbed by senior staff, listened to panel discussions about the 2012 Kabul riots. That year in August, American troops burned copies of the Koran used by Taliban prisoners at Bagram Airbase, about an hour’s drive outside Kabul. Afghans regarded the burn as a desecration of a holy text and the resulting outrage sparked days of violence. Afghan soldiers turned their weapons on their American counterparts. The We Are the World compound went on emergency lockdown. Many of the Afghan staff left to join the protesters and later, after things had settled down, returned changed men. They had seen fear in their American employers and while they continued to do what they were told, the newbys were warned, they did so with a diffident remoteness.
–The engine is still hot, the American says, touching the radiator with a light tap. We can’t sit here all day.
The Afghan stares at the ground.
–Do something, the American tells him.
–I will talk to this man, the Afghan says.
He turns away and starts walking up the road, his sandaled feet scuffing the loose stones in his path. Watching him, the American feels scared but also a kind of giddy liberation and he sees himself seated behind his desk filing papers, a distinct yet far off vision of everything he knows, and he feels an indescribable loneliness within his exultation.
He observes the Afghan approach the man. Both shimmer in enveloping heat waves as if they had entered another dimension. The American closes his eyes. He sits half swooning in the stifling air until he hears a sharp crack and lurches with surprise. The fear and thrill that jerks through him almost instantly becomes subsumed into the vacancy of his isolation. He sits without moving, without opening his eyes, waiting for what comes next.