Zerky in Kabul

A Roadside Bazaar near Kabul

A Roadside Bazaar near Kabul

December 11, 1967
Kabul, Afghanistan

Dear Zerky, we have been in Kabul for about two weeks now and are having a good time. We have been staying at the Khyber Hotel, the only hotel in Kabul suitable for Westerners. It is a “luxury hotel,” luxury meaning that it supposedly has heat. Except for the foreign embassies and the aid missions, the Khyber Hotel is the only building here in Kabul that is heated, as far as we know. By Western standards, most Americans would consider it a dump but to us it is our nice, warm luxury dump.

It is snowing as I write. It would have been impossible to keep warm in our bus. Besides, we need a john, that other luxury item we westerners consider to be a necessity. The Hotel Khyber is the first hotel we have stayed in for more than eight months. You approve of this luxury lifestyle most wholeheartedly, Zerk, you love running back and forth in our room and especially back and forth in the hallway. Running around seems to be your greatest pleasure these days. To us, living in luxury in the world’s poorest country does seem rather inappropriate, but I am afraid we just don’t care; for us the lifestyle of the typical Afghan would be unbearable.

We find Kabul to be a stark ancient city of rambling single story mud buildings thrown together with no planning for streets or for sidewalks. You can wander around here for days, picking your way through random passageways and alleyways. At the nearby market, you can buy pomegranates, eggplants, bananas, and other fruits that we do not recognize. These outdoor markets sell virtually everything, including random bits of shiny metal for the purpose of being worn as jewelry, and also lambskin sirs, those grey creased lambskin hats that seem to be replacing the turban on the well-groomed Afghan male. Throughout all the commotion run barefoot children and donkeys with bulging saddlebags and newly purchased livestock on tether. And then, Zerky, there is also an endless crowd of Afghan shoppers who are even more interesting to us than are the things they buy. Nomads in beads and spangles, men in turbans, women ensconced head to foot in the burkha or chador, those pleated sheets they throw over Afghan women before they are allowed to venture out into public view. You see, Zerky, Islam is no easy taskmaster.

Last week was the beginning of Ramadan, a month-long reverse holiday somewhat akin to Lent. I call Ramadan a “reverse-holiday” because Moslems seem to have their holidays backward. Instead of having a good time, their holidays seem to have been designed to make people feel miserable. This particular goal is accomplished by a number of austerity measures, the most basic of which is the prohibition against eating between sunrise and sunset. But if that doesn’t make you miserable enough, then you can still beat yourself with a whip and maybe even set yourself afire. Kabul does not cater to tourists in search of a Mardi Gras experience. And, lest anyone get any bright ideas as to any other ways to while away the time before sunset, there is also a prohibition against sex.
What I find most interesting about this weird state of affairs is the way in which it stands our own idea of celebrating holidays on its head. However one good thing about this backward approach to life is that the ban on alcohol must make Moslem Monday mornings a whole lot less painful.

We are surprised to see all the hippies here in Kabul which is the major stop on the “Road to Katmandu.” Both cities are considered to be “pot paradise” by the tons of hippies arriving here from day to day. Drugs of all kinds are openly available. The other day, our friend Mike was acting like a kid turned loose in a candy store. Already he had tried two or three kinds of marijuana in addition to hashish, opium, morphine, cocaine, and synthetic heroin. “The only thing you can’t get here,” he says, “is LSD.” Mike is now taking care of that by having some LSD mailed to him directly from the United States. It must be hard to smuggle drugs into Afghanistan since they are already legal. Mike tells us that he and Fiona are just trying them out but are not interested in becoming addicts. Then he went on to tell us about their experience in Kandahar. After having managed to find a hotel there, they were invited to light up by a couple across the hall. Those other two Americans have been living in Kandahar off and on for a couple of years now and, according to Mike, each of them weighs less than a hundred pounds. Their faces are ravaged by sores and disease, one of them has dysentery and both have lice. One of them, Mike told us, was covered with scabs. After the four of them lit up together, their talk became incoherent, he said, going on to tell us that this other couple wants to return to the United States but cannot because they would not be able to support their multiple drug habits in America. Their life in Afghanistan now centers around making periodic trips back and forth between Kandahar and Quetta in West Pakistan, in order to replenish their dope supply. So long as they don’t go home, they can exist here on pennies a day because Opium is cheap and if they have enough of it they don’t need much in the way of food. Mike doesn’t give either of them much longer to live.

Lars and Ula, “The Swedes,” are here in Kabul too and have managed to get permission to travel up north into the Hindu Kush, a southern range of the Pamir Mountains. Lars and Ula are big on wildlife and had gone looking for snow leopards and Bactrian Camels, that two humped variety that originated in the ancient Greek Kingdom of Bactria, which somehow or other got to be part of northern Afghanistan. The Swedes didn’t find any snow leopards but did nearly make it to Faizabad in Badakshan, north of Nuristan on the edge of the Pamir Mountains near the Wakhan Corridor where Afghanistan, Russia and China’s Sinkiang Province all meet. But they finally had to turn back because of the cold and the snow, and because of the utter primitiveness of the towns. It seems to us that going there in the wintertime is a very gutsy thing to do, so we’ve got to hand it to them for having tried. While we were talking to the Swedes, we were glad to learn that we are not the only ones in Kabul to find Afghanistan intimidating.

December 7, 1967. From JoAnne’s diary: Went to the bazaar: Pomegranates, Bananas, Eggplants on strings. Soviet soap sold by vendors trying to keep warm with burning braziers. Long striped quilted coats with overly long sleeves. Children in bright colors with coins sewn into their headdresses. Women in drab-colored burkhas with latticework eyes and pleats around the backs of their heads. Burros with saddlebags full of fruits and vegetables. Carpet sellers on the riverbank, rope sellers behind the mosque. Chickens having their necks wrung next to booksellers and jewelry sellers. Turds along the wall next to the sidewalk.

December 8, 1967. Had a talk with _________ last night. After visiting with him for a while, he told me that he was going to take LSD and synthetic heroin. Says it’s like a ten-minute “orgasmic flash.” Says we, too, can buy cocaine here legally. He can hardly wait. Opium too. He says anyone who didn’t know him might think he is a pothead.

Stayed home and read. Looked out the window. Fantastic view of the ancient walls of the city climbing up the mountains. A blue and white mosque with two minarets. Single-story mud buildings, mostly. People using the courtyard below as a public john. Children play in it.

Kabul (from Google Images)


—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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