The windows of the car are open, but no smells assault my senses. Instead, I am buffeted by hot winds as the feel of long-baked earth pervades the air. This is a dry land, but a land that somehow supports a substantial population. Ahead, a man crosses the road, sheep trailing behind him. I slow the car and let him cross, without frightening his livestock. He waves, smiling in polite appreciation. I wave back and continue down the highway. I pass a gas station.
The highway I am on has been cut through the side of a collection of mountains. On the right of the road, reinforcements hold back the masses of dirt and stone. The mountains loom over the landscape, foreboding and locked away from normal human life. Below me, to the left, the mountains drops away. There are occasional wadis, flashes of green where streams emerge from the mountains. People live in them, growing crops and drinking the mountain runoff. Beyond them, the streams flow into nothing. Below them, there is a massive sea-like expansion of sand, heat and death.
I’ve been driving for perhaps an hour when the landscape changes. The mountains and the desert valley remain, but seem to peel away from the road, leaving me on a magnificent high plateau. There is a small river here. Its arrival is presaged by a wave of verdant green and the rich smell of life. Irrigation.
Here there are fields. Once tiny homestead plots, they have now been merged. An historically small irrigated area, at best five miles deep on either side of the river, has been trebled. It is a result of modern water management technology. While the old homestead plots are gone, their replacements are by no means large. This region’s farmland is not competitive on any efficiency measure. Instead, the local economy relies on the superior taste and natural purity of their crops. Stressed by the thin high-plateau air, whipsawed by massive rises and falls in temperature, and complemented by the land’s inexperience with fertilizers, the produce and grains from this region are celebrated for their deep and complex flavors.
I follow a road that parallels the river. I am in a world of life which is itself surrounded by struggle and death. I find myself clinging to the green and casting the waterless expanses out of my mind. If I were a nomad, I could come to worship an oasis.
I am close to my destination now. And then, suddenly, I am there – in the midst of a town which hugs the river. The town itself, really a small city, is unremarkable. In the center of the city is a small block of government buildings. They are low-slung and ugly. But they are well maintained. Houses, many seemingly cast from single blocks of cement, flow along side roads which radiate from the city center in a dozen haphazard directions. The city is not rich or distinguished, aside from a a short burst of history. But the houses are not dilapidated. Some show the wear that implies poverty, of funds or of effort, but most are kept up beautifully.
I drive slowly, not only because of the busy streets, but also because I want to take in the sights, smells and sounds of this city. The people are varied. Men and women roam the streets. Some are garbed in traditional dress, others in more global fashions. They mingle with familiarity and tolerance, but not total respect. Cars, trucks and camels likewise jostle with one another. Not unlike American farm towns, cars are rarely new and trucks either look like they work or look like totems to prestige. Unlike an American town, the air is filled with the din of honking and shouting. It isn’t anger – just life.
About a half mile from the center of town a small collection of large buildings loom. A silo, a mill and a collection of packaging plants stand there, a nexus of the physical trade that dominates life here.
There are two markets here. One is seasonal, with spot sales of regional crops. It is geared towards exports. Farmers and buyers come together six times from spring to fall in a rhythm linked to the growing seasons of various crops. It is a face-to-face business – the quality of these crops can not be appraised from afar.
The other market is for locals themselves. Here too, old and new compete. A supermarket and a collection of modern but small stores surround a massive parking lot. The lot itself is sprinkled with randomly placed stalls seemingly moved from a medieval bazaar. Some are grouped together, like cliquish friends at a party. Others stand apart and alone. I park my car. There seems to be no order here. Whatever parking lines may have once existed have long since disappeared. It isn’t a sign of neglect. If they were ever there at all, the lines simply served no purpose. They were left to the fate of time.
When I open the door to the car, the sun assaults me. The stalls offer protection, and so, seeking relief, I jump to the nearest one. The stall owner greets me, in English. “Welcome.” He opens his gnarled hands over his merchandise. He is a wind-worn man. His darkened face carries years of sun and years of work. But his eyes are open and friendly. His smile seems entirely genuine. He is selling local produce, relatively pricey foodstuffs. Among many items, he has a flask of olive oil. Nothing, not even wine, captures the flavor of a high-altitude region like its olive oil. To learn, I must buy. And so we haggle over a price. He pushes hard, showing me pictures of his large family and explaining that he must pay for his youngest daughter’s college. His English is stilted, but understandable. I buy the flask for more than it is worth.
The transaction complete, he asks me, “Why visit?”
“I’m a journalist,” I reply.
“American journalist,” he says, wistfully, “I not see one for many years.”
“Since when?” I ask.
“Since I am five or six.” Like many of the older folk here, I doubt he knows his actual age. But I can guess it. He was a young boy during the burst of history.
“What happened then?” I ask.
“Many many years,” he says, “But I remember. Very clear.”
“What do you remember?”
“Fear. Fear and hunger. Then hope and doubt. My parents are scared. They tell us stay in the house… And then the battle. After the battle they say there is peace. We do not know. Still fear. But things better. Slowly better.”
“When did you know there was peace?” I ask.
He smiles warmly, the memories filling his face. “They clear mines from field,” he says, pointing in the direction of the city’s small soccer stadium, “I remember very very big trucks with chains. Next day, soldiers come and build goals and give us balls.We play, in that field – safe. Then we know there is peace.”
His eyes tear with nostalgia.
“Many years,” he says. He waves towards the picture of his children and grandchildren, “Now, life is beautiful.”
We keep talking, and then I explore the rest of the market and the rest of the town.
It has been 60 years since that burst of history, the Battle of Marjeh, Afghanistan. I’ve never met one of those soldiers. I’ve never met with the families of those who died. The journalists who were there are long-since dead. But I do not need to meet them. This vibrant market town can attest to the results of their work and the impact of their sacrifice.
As I return to Kandahar, I hear the voice of Marjeh repeating in my head.
“Then, there was fear and hunger. Now, life is beautiful.”