Like many of my favorite memories from Afghanistan, it all began with an innocent phone call on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
“Hey man, what are you doing?” It was Ahmed.*
“Oh, nothing really. Just surfing the web at my guest house. I wish we’d gone somewhere this weekend. I’m pretty bored.”
“Do you want to go to Omar’s sister’s engagement party?”
Within half an hour I was in the front seat of Fazal’s car, windows down, music blaring. I had never really liked gangsta rap before, but somehow in the post-apocalyptic streets of Kabul, with the knowledge that in Afghanistan-like Mexico, as I had heard my aunt in Oaxaca repeat countless times before-“Life is cheap: here they kill for free,” I viscerally understood its appeal. I felt invincible.
Ahmed threw me a small drink carton from the back.
“What’s this?” I asked even as I read the label, realizing that I had just been handed horribly cheap boxed wine.
“Drink it,” he replied.
Before arriving in Afghanistan, I had vowed not to drink any alcohol as a sign of respect for the local culture. But by the time I found myself imbibing the finest imported Italian white in a speeding Corolla, I had discovered that there are rules and then there are rules, but in Afghanistan there is no need for such specious syllogisms because there simply are no rules.
As we pulled into Omar’s microrayon, I marveled at the barren field across from the apartment complex where children were flying kites seemingly made from Saran wrap. Microrayons are decrepit housing projects constructed by the Soviets decades ago that are considered luxury apartments today; many Afghans will tell anyone who will listen that at least the Soviets left behind apartments after they retreated, but when the Americans pull out, there will be nothing to show for all their years of occupation.
We stepped out of the car. Fazal lived in the same building as Omar and said he needed to go up to his house for some reason, leaving Ahmed and me to sit under a tree until Omar showed up. But soon thereafter Ahmed answered a call from one of his friends and I found myself sitting around doing nothing, feeling somewhat nauseous and light-headed from the glycolic alcohol.
Off in the distance, I heard the unmistakable bell of an approaching ice cream street vendor. “Hey, do you want some ice cream?” I asked, “My treat.”
We walked over to the vendor, and while Ahmed was still on the phone, he asked how much the ice cream snacks cost. They were pretty cheap, mostly ranging from 20 to 30 Afs each ($0.40 – $0.60). Some of the kids who had been playing across the street wandered over to the ice cream cart, eyeing it hungrily.
“Tell him that I will pay for whatever these kids want.”
“Are you sure, Sikandar?”
“Yeah, why not?”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than children began streaming in from across the street and mobbing the ice cream cart, clamoring for free goodies like MBA’s at a recruiting event. Fearing that I had written a naked short contract without sufficient capital reserves, I checked my wallet to ascertain my financial solvency and closed my open position.
Most of the kids took their ice cream and ran back across the street, perhaps scared that I would change my mind, but a gaggle of them followed me to my spot in the shade. “They want to say thank you,” Ahmed informed me.
“You’re very welcome!” he translated on my behalf.
“Now they want to know if you want to play.”
“OK.” I said, but the children and I stared at each other, not knowing what to do next. So I did the only logical thing, which was to yell and start chasing them around. I couldn’t speak more than a few words of Dari, but we played tag and Simon Says, formed a conga line, wrestled, danced, climbed, and laughed until we cried.
Omar finally showed up with the engagement party caravan, traditional Afghan music spilling out of the cars along with dozens of his friends and relatives. I was having the most fun since I was six years old, but I had to say goodbye. I wrapped the children up in my arms one last time and stared after them as they bounced back to the barren field, a better playground than anything in my country where the toys are far too real.
I joined the engagement party and tried not to think about what would happen to those beautiful children’s lives. My happiness in Afghanistan was a fragile artifice of denial. I had worked hard to convince myself I was invulnerable, that I would live in the moment, and that when I left, it would all be nothing more than a memory.
*All names have been changed for the individuals’ protection.