This is a rambling story I began nearly seven years ago on one of the most singularly interesting days of travel I’ve ever experienced. I just now stumbled upon it and felt like putting it up.
Kabul/Dubai/Sharjah-At exactly 9am I arrive at Lt. General Hadi Khalid’s gated, sunlit home on one of central Kabul’s ubiquitous dust and rock backstreets. I’d been put in touch with Lt. Gen. Abdul Khalid by an Afghan friend I’d met during the initial post-9/11 war in the fall of 2001. That friend, Idrees, who now lives in Santa Monica where he works quietly on his PhD, was back in his homeland to visit family and gather material for his thesis. Idrees was a kind of stateless, post-modern intellectual who easily navigated between the corridors of American power and the strictures of his central Asian Islamic culture by which he was bound. He had arranged for me to interview the General for a Washington think tank that I was freelancing for as one of a string of clients I was trying to please under duress during a recent month-long stay in the Afghan capital.
Hadi Khalid had a falling out with President Hamid Karzai the previous summer and was now at loose ends, eager to talk and concerned about his personal security. A sinewy, refined Pashtun from Farah Province, Khalid welcomed me into his home with the best efforts of Afghanistan’s generous social code. We got on like two old friends as we tore into the minutiae of Afghanistan’s political and security relationships concerning the six nation-states that the country borders. Wanting to tackle the most difficult issue first in terms of obscurity, I launched into a line of questioning about the particulars of the Afghan-China border in the extreme northeast and we wound our way counter clockwise around the heart of Asia until we reached nearby Pakistan a short three hours later.
Near the end our time together, we were talking about a pilot programme of anti-insurgent local militias that was being tested in Maidan Wardak Province just west of Kabul. I’d heard from a visiting Indian reporter at my hotel that Obama’s top man in Kabul, the no nonsense General Stanley McChrystal had visited the area to have a look at this attempt at the Afghanization of “Obama’s Viet Nam.” I politely asked my very warm host if he could recall the name of the militia for my notes.
The name in English slipped his mind and he picked up a small, worn Nokia phone and quickly rung a friend of his that was still in government. I watching his face sink as the pace of his Dari accelerated and I picked out a few words here and there. The colleague he phoned to ask about something that was now utterly unimportant was telling him that two mutual friends of theirs had just been killed in an act of suicide terrorism in Laghman Province. It was not news yet, it was breaking reality. Khalid’s eyes winced and he shifted in his plush chair as a white hot sunbeam moved across the floor.
“At first we used to cry when our friends died. After thirty years of war, I cannot cry anymore. I have lost hundreds…thousands of friends.”
“I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” I did not know what else to say. This genteel, intelligent man invited me into his home to talk politics. Politics in the abstract. Politics in Afghanistan were often, most often, conducted at the point of a gun.
“These men were very good friends of mine.”
I felt at once awkward and sad. Afghanistan was tragic culture of neglect and stalled progress that I had developed an emotional attachment to over the years. Abused at whim by its neighbors and used as a hardware parking lot for the power projection of military technology innovators since the Great Game, Afghanistan seemed hopeless in the long term and dangerous in the short. But I grew to love the place nonetheless. It was time to leave.
As a foreign reporter in a war zone, there are psychological Berlin Walls that one builds between self and subject to remain above the fray and justify his presence in a place where in actuality he has no verifiable business and whose justifications are slim on the best of days. Khalid insisted his driver drop me back at the hotel for me to make it in time for checkout at noon. I had a flight to Dubai in six hours and still had errands to run. I told myself that what had just happened to the General’s friends out in Laghman must somehow be normal in context of a decades long, unrelenting jihad with constantly morphing internal and external stressors and that I should not question such things in order to make it out of the country by day’s end.
I had a ticket for the last flight of the day on a small Afghan airline called Pamir Airways (defunct since 2011). The Pakistani travel agent who sold me the document said, when asked, that the airline was essentially a glorified money laundering operation owned by Kabul Bank.
“Sure. Kabul Bank has one of the only working ATMs in the city, I use it all the time.”
I then asked specifically who owned Kabul Bank. The affable travel agent chirped that a man named Sherkhan [Farnood] whom he described as “Only the biggest drugs dealer in Central Asia.” (Farnood would be jailed in 2014.)
“Oh OK” I replied. Again, normal and justifiable in the context of Afghanistan. Who was I to object to flying on a drugs trafficker’s for-profit airline? I mean, hey, we all need it to get to Dubai. Everyone in Afghanistan is complicit in everything in one way or another. Just by being in the country, you are often supporting businesses run by criminal networks.
After a normal hour’s delay on the tarmac and a short 2 ½ hour flight across the Persian Gulf, I landed back in what passed for civilization. Walking into the immigration queue in the infamous Terminal 2, I spotted several families from Somalia. I had looked at the wikipedia entry for Terminal 2 and remembered that an airline operated flights to the horn of Africa’s perennial basket case. I approach an unusually friendly Emirati immigration officer in his ironed, white dishdasha.
I handed him my passport.
“How long will you be in the UAE?”
“Oh just one day, inshallah. Wow, so you do have flights to Somalia from here. I’d read that you did. I see a lot of Somalis in line.”
He smiles back; “I think those people are from Nigeria. I don’t know anything about flights to Somalia.” Pound, he stamps a page in my passport with little room left.
“Uh no, they are definitely Somali. Don’t you see the women’s distinctive hijab?”
I walk away from the desk and look up at a flat panel monitor. Basra, Baghdad International, Hargeisa, Kish island, Djbouti, Kabul, Berbera, Khartoum, Peshawar and on. Terminal 2, the gate to hell. Jubba Airlines, Jupiter airways, Air Blue.
As I walk over to the baggage carousel, a panoply of people from failing states, outright failed states and nervous economic migrants wait for their twined and taped luggage. Sri Lankan Tamils, Swati Pashtuns, Uzbek elders in embroidered Turkic prayer caps and Terai Nepalis all stand around anxiously. The only other Westerners in the hall look to be mercenaries, often called “Security Contractors” or “PMC’s” (“Private Military Companies”) in the new perverse lexicon of militarized journalism. I see two young men who appear to be Somali with angular cheekbones and gaunt posture. Waiting for my bag, I sit next to them on a bench and interrupt.
“I beg your pardon. Are you guys from either Somalia [proper] or Somaliland?”
“Somaliland” the one with wire rim glasses says with a London accent.
“I see there are flights to your country up on the departures board. May I ask, how does one actually go there? I mean Somaliland is not an internationally recognized state but I see you have an airline. Where do you buy tickets?”
“You can go to any airline office here in Dubai that specializes in tickets to East Africa. A round trip costs maybe $270 US.”
My imagination is set alight. “When I show up at the airport what takes place? Is there a visa for a place doesn’t exist in the eyes of the world?”
“I think you have to pay $20 for a visa when you arrive and then you must change another $50 into shillings.”
“Are they ‘Somaliland’ Shillings as opposed to Somali Shillings they use down in Mogadishu? Do you have a separate currency for a separatist state?”
The two affable young men laugh. “You seem to know a lot about our country” the one in the brand new Asics hi tops says to me.
“Oh well, you know where I’m from, San Diego, is a major refugee resettlement area in America and we have quite a number of your people living there since Black Hawk Down. Plus I like to read a lot.”
Before I could ask their names, they jumped up upon seeing their luggage. “It was nice speaking with you sir but we must be going, you know, with how things are here.” And with that they disappeared into the anxious crowd.
I jumped into the taxi of an angry, exhausted Malayali man in the sweltering blast of stagnant heat that hits you as you exit air condition world. It seemed the majority of the UAE’s taxi men were Malayalis, that is Malayalam-speakers from coastal Kerala state on India’s far southwestern coast. The Malayalis were required to drive in 12 hour shifts, 6 or 7 days a week without a break. Many of them told me they could be fined simply for the infraction of stopping to relieve themselves. These men are disconnected from the young families they leave behind in their villages and live in constant fear of their Arab overlords, who were often migrant traffic police with the power to issue steep fines from Egypt and Jordan but as native Arabic speakers, they thus remained at a higher echelon in the UAE’s rigid ethnic migratory hierarchy.
Sitting in the dim dining area of what I thought was a completely empty hostel, a sullen looking man in a white dishdasha shuffles in with a small laptop and seats himself at the next table. I asked him if he wanted me to turn down the Simpsons DVD on my MacBook Pro so that he could watch an Arabic telenovela.
“No, no, I am fine” he said as he cranked up the volume on the TV overpowering my small speakers.
I gave up and shut my DVD application down and began a conversation. His name was Majid Hizam Rabie Alshamari and he was an Iraqi national who escaped Basra in 1997 to look for a better life anywhere but Clinton sanctioned Iraq. Educated as a chemical engineer during Iraq’s drawn out secular Ba’athist nightmare of the late Cold War epoch, Majid got a working in the United Arab Emirates Environmental Agency. He travels the length of the UAE’s desert border with Saudi Arabia checking in bound vehicles for hazardous and prohibited chemicals. It’s a dull position but Majid performs his task dutifully. But Majid was not fulfilled in any way. He begins tell me that in 2006, his family received a night letter from one of the Iranian-backed roving Shia street militias controlling most of majority Shi’ite Basra. The letter, issued at the height of the salafist -induced intra Islamic civil war in Iraq, stated in no uncertain terms, that as Sunnis, they were no longer welcome in Basra and they were gifted with the choice of flight or death.
The Alshamari’s were able to make it to Yemen and gain political asylum in Sana’a. Majid’s wife had divorced him some time ago and they had no children. The only thing keeping Majid in the UAE was his steady income and dynastic political stability. He wanted his family, he needed them but he told me he could not get a visa to be reunited with them in Yemen. He stayed in the few youth hostels that dotted the Emirates when his job required him to travel along the seven emirates’s customs posts.
When I half-heartedly suggested perhaps Basra was stable enough to make a grand return, Majid scoffed at the idea.
“There is nothing there for me or my family to go back to. No house, nothing. I want to go to Yemen and I want to then go to another country. I want to go to Canada.”
“Can I play something for you on my iTunes” I asked.
I swiveled around an opened up my laptop and scrolled down for some recordings I’d made over six years before that I dreamed of having translated. In May of 2003, I was running low on money in instantly exorbitant Baghdad. I saw a sign in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel that if I could make it to Najaf there was free accommodation for foreign journalists who wish to cover the Imad ul-Nabi (celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed) undoubtedly underwritten by an Iranian-backed Shia party. I’d made crude recordings that I’d later digitized but had never had interpreted. I played them for Majid thinking, naively, that he would be surprised to hear something from his country on a random Westerner’s computer. He had a pained look about him. The thumps and slaps of a million plus Shia men pulsating through Najaf’s tiny lanes reverberated through the Sharjah Youth Hostel’s common area.
I understand a modicum of Arabic but was curious about one track I’d recorded in particular. I turned up the volume.
“They are saying “Haider, Haider, Haider” Majid piped up.
Haider was another holy nom of Imam Ali around whose shrine the men were marching toward. Imam Ali was the spiritual fountainhead of Shi’ism. Shia derives from Shiat’Ali or partisans of (Imam) Ali, the fourth caliph in orthodox Sunni Islam and the first Caliph in Shia Islam. The veneration of Ali ibn abu Talib and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein was the birth of Islam’s great schism over the succession of the caliphate in Islam’s volatile formative years.
The next afternoon before I headed out on a frivolous post-war zone party trip to the Greek Islands via a $100 flight from Sharjah to Athens, I waited in the hostel for Majid to come back from work. He gave me a sizable set of documents from his vast family in Sana’a. There were thirteen people in all. There faces gazed from a set of long expired asylum letters from the UNHCR’s head office in Yemen. In the middle was a photocopy of his recently deceased father’s passport. Majid looked on helplessly as he recounted how his father in another part of the world from the Alshamari’s ancestral home and that he could not even be there in Sana’a for his burial. The next document was what I guessed to be his Yemeni death certificate.
Over the course of 24 hours I’d engaged men from the globe’s then three most talked about war zones. This was a post-bipolar world incarnate.