One Saturday in June, traffic was light on the road from Kabul to the town of Bamyan, nestled deep in a high valley lined with sandstone cliffs 240 kilometers to the northwest. But for all the paving efforts that have made it among the smoothest in the country, this route from the Afghan capital through the 10,000-foot-high Shibar pass is less than perfect. One week earlier, head of Bamiyan's provincial council Jawad Zahak had been targeted and dragged from his convoy by the Taliban. Four days ago, they told me in the car, he was beheaded. Hussein pointed: "Right… wait — there."
I had found a tour company online and guessed an email address from a mush of pixels. Success came in the confirmation of a car that would deliver me from outside the dead-bolted orange gates of my hotel in Kabul to their lodge in Bamiyan. At six a.m., I was late. The hubcap-less white sedan drew a stark contrast to the polished and armored SUVs that take westerners to get mango milkshakes. And there were four men inside. Open the mind's floodgates: this seems infinitely more kidnappy.
In the backseat were Hussein, alternatively smoking, chain chewing gum, and napping, and Qasim, texting and telling me truths about the country. The driver in black spoke no English. The man next to him never liked me. I wedged in between Qasim and Hussain, wearing shalwar kameez like everyone else, disguised and protected from the sun with a scarf that cost 90 afghanis. Outside of the massive tanks, this was the safest way to travel, and certainly the most discreet. For seven hours, I was ashamed for ever having feared them.
Danger, however invisible, was outside. I was numb to the tension in the car until, half an hour past Kabul, Qasim warned me of the anxieties building in the front seat: we had entered Taliban territory. The eyes and ears of the public, then, were also to be feared: "If they don't support, so how the Taliban stay?" Hussein explained. Lifting a camera or cell phone could be enough to arouse suspicion, or to have the car stopped, or worse. It would be more than four hours before Qasim told me it was safe to take pictures again.
On the roads south and west out of Kabul, there are Taliban checkpoints within fifteen minutes. Foreigners, if any, can be seized and killed, perhaps held for ransom if their governments are known to respond to that sort of thing. The northern route is considered much safer — no beard patrols, violence chiefly of the targeted sort, and the occasional convoy of heavy coalition trucks, armored to the gills. Still, because the lifeblood of the Taliban is social support, entering their territory meant traversing towns whose majorities were its champions.
Hussein woke up from another nap against the door as the road became dirt. "Eighty percent is related to Taliban." I wondered how anyone could distinguish. "His style, his face..." Hussein trailed off. "Just see and watch."
"Per house, one Taliban," said Qasim with detached unhappiness. These were the armed militants, the rest — almost everyone in the towns that hosted them — were spies and donors, suppliers of food, shelter, money and the dearest commodity: information. Informants report anything unusual by cell phone to men stationed further down the road; to be discovered a foreigner, despite the increased peacekeeping presence, is exceedingly dangerous. But we had to have breakfast somewhere.
The man who never liked me twisted around in the front seat. "So," he said. "Do you want to have tea?" I nodded. "I won't say anything."
I would wrap the small scarf tightly around my neck and wear the northerner's hat. I would imitate every act and gesture of my companions, removing my sandals next to theirs, wringing water from my hands just like Qasim had done. If asked anything, I would shove bread in my mouth and wait for deliverance.
We sat in the Afghan way, on carpets on the floor in a dark room with no chairs. I made no eye contact with the young man who brought kebabs on long, pointed metal skewers and laid them on the plastic mat that ran along the floor. I nodded for tea, and again for sugar. "They think you're Tajik," Qasim whispered.
To Bamiyan and back, every cell phone, every gaze that lingered or seemed to catch mine was suspicious. In the car I alternated playing a twisted game in my head — Taliban, Not Taliban — and chiding myself for profiling what might have been the caring, pacifist father of six. Squatting atop a tall pile of dirt, a beardless kid leaned on a Klashnikov, fiddling with a cellphone in his other hand.
Silence was my weapon, a flowing shalwar kameez my shining armor. My camera in its bulky bag was the mark of my treason, and I shoved it down between my legs, covering the strap that read "Canon" with the hat that made me look like I was from Tajikistan. Hussein grabbed two pomegranate drinks for the road while I picked kebab from my teeth. Qasim sent a few texts. I had no reason to be afraid. The dirt once again became pavement.