Kabul Diary — Sighs of the Doomed

I’m renting an apartment in the building where a woman was murdered less than a year ago. Should I be nervous?

Her killer was a young religious student. I had seen him around; he was about 20, handsome, always immaculate in his pink shalwar kamiz. I tried to be friendly — he would only sneer. The woman was Afghan-American. There were rumors that she was trying to convert children to Christianity. Maybe they were more than rumors. He waited for her in the hall, shot her in the back, jumped into a taxi. While he was tucking his gun into his pink Afghan pants he shot himself in the nuts. He’s in prison awaiting sentence.

Ahmad, the owner of the building, hopes he never gets out. He did a lot for the kid and feels betrayed. “He was poor. I gave him a little stipend, not much. I set up a mosque on the roof where he gave the call to prayer. He taught the Qu’ran to kids in the building. I didn’t know he had the disease.”

Brainwashed, radicalized.

“That woman, she was a good lady. If she is teaching Christianity, so what? We are taught to respect Christians and Jews.”

This and the recent spate of suicide bombings have left him rattled. He wants to sell the building and move to Canada. His construction company profited well during the reconstruction. With shrinking international funding, perhaps he has nothing left to gain. Get out while you can.

He tells me not to walk the streets. Stay inside. It’s not like it was a year ago. A cloud hangs over this city. It’s not just the pollution. It’s like the grey sighs of the doomed, the damned, the forgotten.

He writes out a receipt and hands me a key. And somehow, without asking, I know it’s her apartment.

* * *

“Don’t walk the streets . . .”

But I can’t help it. I put on an old coat and wrap a concealing scarf around my face. R. says it won’t help: “they’ll know you’re a foreigner just from your walk.”

I have lunch with M. in the garden of a stately old house turned restaurant. Afghan girls sit at the next table laughing and checking their smartphones. Hookahs gurgle and release clouds of cherry smoke. The sun is shining, the air crisp and cool. We might be in Istanbul or Paris.

M. is seventeen and wants to study abroad. He says he will come back and help his people, but I don’t believe him. He means well, but A. told me the same thing when I interviewed him in Bamiyan nine years ago. Now he’s in America, has a car, a job, and not the slightest interest in returning. Why would you swim back to a sinking ship? I wish they would, all of them. I wish they’d never leave, these smart boys full of dreams and high ambition. But they’re leaving by the legions, in droves, desperate, anxious, afraid.

After lunch we visit a small art gallery. This wasn’t here when I lived in the neighborhood. Most of the work is by the proprietor, who greets us with an armload of unframed oils. Afghan art is usually of a kind — horses, horsemen, masculine reflections on braver times — but this guy does abstracts, the paint troweled on in thick clumps. That sort of unconventionality takes guts here. I buy a couple. M. wants to negotiate, but no, let this artist have his price.

Graffiti on the wall outside the district police headquarters says: We are alone! I walk out into the street to take a photo. Later, on a backstreet near my apartment, an inscription says Amesha Bohan — always together.

That seems uplifting. A statement of solidarity and national unity?

No, M. says, pointing to the scrawled writing above. Just the sentiments of a girl pining for the boy she loves.

Love will find a way. Even here. Amesha.

Will Everett is the author of We’ll Live Tomorrow (Galatea).