As I type this I’m sitting in a quiet, almost entirely beige room in a guesthouse in Kabul. The muezzin just began the afternoon call to prayer. The sounds is soothing and familiar.
Everything about Kabul feels more familiar than I had feared. People had told me the city had changed so much in the four years since I was last here that I wouldn’t recognise it. And I believed them.
But it wasn’t quite true.
The airport building was certainly new, as was the experience of walking off a plane in Kabul onto a air bridge rather than directly onto the tarmac. And when I finally found my way to the public carpark where my cab was waiting – having passed by the VIP park where the UN vehicles I once rode in were parked – it was indeed unrecognisable. An entirely new departing passenger terminal had been constructed where there was once just an empty car park.
But once we got out onto Kabul Airport road, everything started to look more like a place I once called home. And by the time we pulled up outside the supermarket where I was apparently going to find an ATM that dispensed US and Afghani currency, I felt as though I had been away four months, not four years.
The supermarket was new, but the faces of the young men selling mobile phone top-up cards in the street outside were very familiar. As was the kindness. When I came out of the supermarket I realised I hadn’t paid much attention to what kind of car I had been in. I must have looked bewildered, because the security guard, the policeman and several of the other men hanging about all jumped in to show me where the driver was waiting for me.
Kindness also, from the Afghan solder who stopped hosing off his guard box, as we drove past, to wash down the bicycle of a small boy who stood grinning. And from the men at the cab agency where I went to settle my bill for the pick-up and to arrange for transport for the next few days. Realising that I was traveling on an expensive roaming international phone, they insisted on lending me an extra local phone they had in the office.
For a city so known for violence and war, Kabul was certainly showing her kindest face to me today. Or perhaps that’s what I was most willing to notice.
Because it is true that there are many, many more soldiers and police in the street than the last time I was here. And that some buildings have become even more fortified. Soldiers in Kabul may still stop to wash down kid’s bicycles, but they were also put to the test just two weeks ago by a bold Taleban attack in the heart of the city.
And if I thought that all I was feeling was familiarity and happiness at being back here, my own nervous system was about to reveal something else.
Having settled my bill and set up my account with the cab company, the driver took me over to the house where I had arranged to stay. A lovely family-style house with a garden in a street very near where I used to live. As we drove right past the entrance to my old street the feeling of familiarity and of happiness at being back grew even stronger.
And then we arrived at the house, and the guard opened the gate and behind him was an enormous dog. I was immediately scared of him, but I summoned up all my courage, asked the guard to hold the dog, took hold of my suitcase and stepped through the gate. The dog stood up and growled at me. He pushed towards me and barked. The guard appeared to be straining to hold him but assuring me he was fine.
I turned around and walked out again.
If you’ve never seen a full-sized Kuchi dog, then you may wonder how it is possible that someone could be brave enough to travel independently to Afghanistan, yet not brave enough to enter a house with a large and growly guard dog.
If you have seen a Kuchi dog, or know a little of their character you may be more sympathetic. Wonderfully intelligent, brave and loyal they are also favoured by Afghan’s for dog-fighting. Intensely territorial they – according to Wikipedia – ” are prone to aggression towards most other dogs, and often humans, who encroach on their territory, even friends and family they have not been acquainted with before”.
On a good day, I might have been able to trust the guard to hold back the huge dog that was growling and jumping at me. But on a day when I had survived a frighteningly bumpy landing on my flight from Pakistan (where an air crash killed 127 people the day before I arrived there), and arrived in a city where the Taleban had been in full spring offensive mode less two weeks ago, my nervous system threw up the white flag.
So I got back in the car and asked my driver to call his office and ask if they had any other ideas of places I could stay. And they did. Which is how I came to be sitting in this beige room.
At first I felt supremely silly. How is it possible to be courageous enough to make this trip, with everything that it entails, and not be able to face a dog. Even if that dog is the size of a small lion? And then I decided to forget about it.
Because I’m here. Back in Kabul. In January I decided I wanted to come back, and I wanted to come back here to uncover, record and then share new stories. And that’s exactly what I am doing. Which is not bad. Not bad at all.
I’m about to head out for dinner with some old colleagues, some of whom I haven’t seen in more than four years. And tomorrow I’m scheduled to teach two ‘Yoga for Stress’ workshops, assuming that pastor in Florida doesn’t go ahead with his plans to burn another Quran (in which case I don’t imagine I’ll be leaving this room).
On balance, I think I can live with the fact that a Kuchi dog got the better of me today. Not least because as we were driving away, as I was berating myself for being such a silly scaredly cat, the driver caught my eye in the mirror and said, kindly, ‘That was a very big dog! A very big dog.’
Once again, Afghan kindness wins the day.