Panic Attack in Afghanistan
One sunny afternoon, early December in central Kabul, I find myself being escorted to the back door of a beaten-up four-wheel drive by a man with an assault rifle. It’s the first time since arriving in Afghanistan that I’m going somewhere without a trusted chaperon, something everyone forced me to promise I wouldn’t do. The man bearing arms speaks in Farsi and prompts the exchange of sharp laughter with my driver, indiscreetly nodding to me before closing the door. With the noises from the street now sealed off, I’m becoming uncomfortably aware of the guy behind the wheel who smells of stale body odour, cologne and tobacco. Thinking back to the stories of taxi drivers kidnapping and selling foreigners to the Taliban, I’m suddenly consumed with a dizziness of guns, bombs, war and cautions against complacency. Every single travel warning strikes me at once and as the car starts moving I accelerate into panic.
“Stop the car!” I explode.
The driver doesn’t speak a word of English but I guess scared shitless is universal. He pulls over and looks at me completely baffled, an expression I barely catch because I‘ve already started bolting back to the refuge of my accommodation.
Followed by the eyes of men on the street, I think about the woman beaten to death in Kabul after being accused of burning the Quran. I wonder what the hell I’m doing in a country where the Taliban makes “major gains”; a country that is liable to ignite at any time.
Bursting through the door I almost choke with relief. The four walls have retained the smell of the hot breakfast my host made for me a few hours earlier and the room, adorned with large hand-woven floor cushions I love, has never looked so becoming. As I’m standing still, I can hear the soft whistle of the boiling kettle in the kitchen, and suddenly, I fall back down to earth. I feel my tail unwedge from between my legs, and the reality of what I’ve just done is now an issue I have to deal with.
I need to call the guy, Asadullah, who sent the car to collect me and tell him I thought his driver was going to kidnap me for the local extremists. I have to explain that my actions weren’t caused by a real threat, but by the manifestation of fear that has been planted in my mind by international ignorance. And I owe an apology for letting the Western media taint my perception of Afghanistan and the integrity of its people.
This realisation comes as a personal blow because this is the exact social flaw I’d set out to challenge by visiting the country in the first place. My mission was to treat local grocers selling naan with the same nonchalance I would a barman selling sangria in Spain. I wanted to meet the eyes of the curious with a gracious smile, not let the stares cripple me into a state of fear and irrationality.
It’s hard to pin an exact point in time when my subconscious became prejudiced. Maybe when the British government continued to warn against “all but essential travel”, or when I was told to keep a low profile and try not to stand out as a foreigner. I was told to always change directions to avoid being followed or kidnapped, to steer clear of embassies, government offices, police checkpoints, hotels and popular restaurants for expats and other usual targets.
My phone starts flashing with Asadullah’s name and I have no choice but to answer it, sheepishly.
“Jessica, everything okay? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” I lie
“Are you still coming over?” He is clearly confused. “Should I tell my driver to wait?”
With the knowledge that his driver is still waiting, and wondering why I had vanished, I put on my brave face and get escorted back into the car by the rifle.
As we drive through the streets, I observe a city that operates under the constant threat of terrorism. A man sells colourful balloons to children just a few metres away from a truck tray full of armed Afghan security forces, and small stalls offer bright trinkets on roads outside heavily guarded embassies. I never knew what to expect in a city trying to recover from decades of war, so it’s hard to know how I feel. But seeing the place alive with restaurants, shops, bakeries, juice bars – people just doing life – I feel I really could be anywhere in the world.
I’m dropped at Asadullah’s traditional Afghan home, which is glorious and large, with lots of unused rooms because he resides in Dubai most of the time. I walk into the living area and find a group of six Afghan men, maybe in their forties, sitting around drinking tea, and staring at me – the blonde foreigner clad in a loose-fitting headscarf – with warm smiles.
“Jessica, come, sit down. You missed lunch but I’ll get my housekeeper to fix something up.”
I learn that these guys are all cousins and three of them are named Asadullah. Two grew up in Germany, three run their own businesses, and one has renounced the Islam faith. As we pass around a joint and have our tea cups regularly topped up by the housekeeper, the tides of our conversation roll into my opinion of their country.
“It’s a shame that Afghanistan isn’t a place for tourism at the moment. You really should have come 50 years ago,” they joke. “Tell us, what do you think so far?”
Feeling pretty relaxed by this point, curled up by the fire place with a stomach full of chicken and rice, I decide to tell them what I really think. I tell them about my first day when homeless children pointed and called out “foreigner” and I feared they were drawing unwanted attention from Taliban spies. And I tell them about the remark someone made to my guide about keeping me safe, which convinced me I’d just received a hidden warning that a bomb had been attached to our car.
Basically I tell them about my inability to control my anxieties, which has been unnecessarily impacting on my experiences.
“You know,” responds one Asadullah, ‘we are just as much at risk of the Taliban as you are. We’re lucky they haven’t targeted us yet. I know a lot of people who can’t return to their villages because they’ll be prosecuted for supporting the West.”
I already knew that it wasn’t uncommon for Afghans working for foreign governments to receive written death threats, but I didn’t realise everyday people were being persecuted for things like owning a mobile phone, wearing Western clothes, and even supporting Western pop culture.
It’s here that I realise my insecurities have been limiting what I’m able to absorb about the reality of life in Afghanistan. And the reality is that there are loads of people who see the country through the same lens as me – deep down, they are scared too. The only difference is that they just get on with it and try not to let fear create unfair assumptions about their fellow countrymen.
Cover by Kjetil Palmquist; inset by Jessica O’Reilly