I have a confession to make. I have been seduced by a country (and a little red puppy). And I have not been able to shake it since.
It began, while flying overhead, when white mountains quickly unveiled themselves, like rippling silk. I could barely speak, so dramatic were their peaks. I turned to see if other passengers were just as captivated. Behind me, a cameraman, and his 20 inch lens, was pressed hungrily against the glass. I heard the click, click, click as he greedily snapped away. After a few minutes, he looked up, red-faced, and laughed. “This is better than sex!” he exclaimed.
I smiled. Afghanistan, it seemed, was easy to love.
Next to me, two nuns were immersed in prayer. I could guess why. The reports that had come in that week (in late March), had not been good.
For the first time since the Coalition had arrived, there were roadside bombings in Kabul. The re-emerging Taliban was mimicking the insurgency in Baghdad. What did this mean for Afghanistan? (Six months later, I now know. With daily suicide bombers in Kabul, and a Southwest that is “virtually lost,” we could lose Afghanistan. I was there just before the tipping point.) I turned away from the nuns, and looked down again; a thousand Mount Everests danced beneath me.
On the ground, I strained my eyes through pungent smoke — animal dung—to find those white Hindu Kush mountains. Instead, I saw Kabul: kids pulling camels piled high with hay; men pushing carts filled with hundreds of oranges; small red dogs running through the streets; cars, jetting fumes and exhaust, weaving in and out of people; and hills with mud thatched homes outlining the activity below.
I put my camera down. The driver had taken a wrong turn, and we were sitting in traffic, pressed up against a hill. Cars were on top of each other. An hour went by. Then another. A thousand green eyes peered at us. On the hill, I saw kids, running up and down, with guns. I thought of the nuns and lowered my head. My companion spoke when I could not.
She demanded that we get out of there. I hardly dared to make a sound.
Outside of Kabul, I saw Afghanistan: clean air, green fields, space. And there they were again— my beloved mountains that danced. Near the University, kids played with a soccer ball, while little red dogs chased and followed. And there were big white marble homes. I went inside one and discovered an apprentice shop.
There, street kids learned how to carve tables and chairs in traditional Nooristani style. They worked with smiles on their faces and looked up for my approval. My heart melted.
Within hours, I wanted to live there.
The next morning, soup made of water, sugar, nuts, and dried fruit greeted me. I ate the entire bowl. And outside, freshly baked nan bread, ready to be slathered with jam, hung from nails. Dozens of Afghans waited in line. Just like Starbucks.
Throughout the day, the drone of prayers would seep into my soul, and I would forget the bitter smoke. Like fog horns on the Northeast coast, the humming and chanting of the prayers in Kabul became my inner peace.
One day, the sweet smell of flowers overpowered the pungent smell.
The reason: the animals ate flowers that morning.
For seven days, I drank green tea and made new friends. I listened and learned, shared and talked. And I drank more green tea. I could see why Afghans drank it all day. It soothed your soul, and cleared your mind, almost like therapy on crack. At night, it would get cold, so I would sleep in my fleece jacket. I never wanted to leave.
Back home, in New York, I felt empty. To my friends, who only had access to the political reports, and could not understand the appeal, I had ‘survived’ Afghanistan. And they all wanted to hear about the ‘Afghan adventure’. What was it like to be in a ‘war zone’: the bombings, the violence, the drugs, the guns? Did I wear a ‘flack jacket’? They wanted to hear over and over again the story that every place we had been since we left had been attacked, bombed, or destroyed. Vexing for an audience to feed my fix, it was easy to fall into that trap.
Afghanistan had gotten under my skin. And I was in pain. Dreaming of mountains, cold air, and conversation; I indulged myself with author’s adventures. I quickly devoured ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’, ‘The Places in Between’, ‘Kite Runner’, ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’… and then I read stories of the warriors: Akbar, Khushhal Khan, Babur, and Durrani. One summer night, after reading about more roadside bombings in Kabul, I wrote an article, “We Could Fight Drugs Together.”
I thought about adoption. I covered my walls with framed photos of Afghans. My theme: Pashtun Chic. I highlighted my floors with Afghan camel rugs. My Nooristani table handcrafted by street kids became my main table. I framed my Afghan Survival Map in Glass: Operation Enduring Freedom now faced Central Park. My apartment was ready. Was I?
Unsure, I applied online for a little red puppy: a reminder of Afghanistan.
One morning, my glass vases from Herat, a city near the Iranian border— that I had hand-carried home, and put on my shelf — came crashing down. I was away. My brother, Nick, discovered the mess and called me.
The neighbor must have been hammering on the other side of the wall. The vases had shattered into a thousand pieces.
Before I could react, my little red puppy arrived. His original owner had given him back to the breeder. She said that the puppy was not right for her family and had the vet write up a report stating stunted growth plates, malnourishment, slow heart beat, chronic cystitis. He was only 11 weeks old. No one wanted him, but me. He was my Afghanistan.
My orphan puppy came by plane. I waited for hours at the airport. The airlines lost him. They blamed it on the terrorism scare from London. Dogs are not the priority, they said. I waited in tears. By the time they found him, at another terminal, he was shaking and scared, hungry and dehydrated. He weighed 5 pounds. He did not make a sound; instead, he looked at me with weak, green eyes. I held him in my arms vowing never to let him go.
His name was Rocky. Winston Churchill once said (of Afghanistan) that, “every rock, every hill has its story.” But I re-named him Rudder, to guide me in the right direction. I read books by the Monks of New Skete:
‘The Art of Raising a Puppy’ and ‘How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend.’ And even though the Monks said that dogs could only learn 40 words, Rudder was switching from Pashto to English. He was my little Pashtun.
In reality, he was a mini-red F1B labradoodle. A rare breed, Rudder was the best of both words: the brains of the poodle and the temperament of the labrador retriever. He was loyal, smart and obedient. And small and curly. Backcrossed to poodle again, my little Rudder had a shiny red coat that did not shed. He looked like a living teddy bear.
Rudder came with me to the office, hidden in a camouflage bag. My boss laughed and said that he had never wanted a dog, until he saw Rudder.
Rudder eagerly took up his new position on my boss’s lap. At home, he ate puppy food off my camel rug and slept on my chest. He played with a soccer ball in the hallway. He ran in Central Park. My friends came over, and Rudder greeted them at the doorway with a “salaam alaikum” (peace be with you). My heart melted. I was captivated.
And then my building took him away from me. A letter, delivered to my door, said that the five pound runt was a health hazard, and they would not allow him to stay. Even though there were over 100 dogs in my building (and Rudder had received all his vaccinations, including Rabies), they had changed the rules. No new dogs. I had five days to remove him or face immediate legal action.
I was devastated and shocked. Five days? My friends offered their apartments at intervalling weeks. They did not want to lose him either.
But I could not do that to Rudder. He was no longer an orphan. He needed a permanent home.
I flew to my parents in California. My five pound runt licked my tears the whole way. How could I give up my little Pashtun? Like Khushhal Khan, the original Afghan warrior poet, I vowed to fight for him. On the plane, I wrote over a dozen letters to my building. They rejected every one.
Easy to love, my parents greeted Rudder with open arms. Within minutes, they too, were seduced by the little red puppy, vowing never to let him go. And here I was again, in New York, without Rudder — Afghanistan under my skin, not wanting to shake anything.