I'm surrounded by street children.
I guess I should have expected the attention. Plus, not only am I super white and quite overtly American, but I have lots of expensive crap — cameras, microphones, tripods — hung, tucked and wedged all over me.
It's the prospect of dollar bill handouts and sheer curiosity that acts as a black hole, sucking in all the eyes of the busiest place I've ever seen. This curiosity is not always benign either, but I'll get to that.
Bush Bazaar: The busiest bazaar in the center of Kabul is truly fascinating. Two stories, sometimes three, all around, and walking room only, unless you're the cops or the UN. I'd been to another bazaar already on my trip, but this one is much denser and much more populated. If not the busiest on earth, it must be the busiest bazaar in town.
Eventually, I gather so much attention that my fixer, Mubine advises we go into a shop and interview a businessman.
We sip tea and chat. He tells me how the American presence sells more wedding dresses (secure women are more apt to accept marriage proposals). Then we pay the man and leave.
We shoot more video in the bazaar, until Mubine spots a good interview: this little kid, a street hustler, no older than 7 or 8. The fixer knows my story well, so he can mark a good interview.
We walk through a maze of side streets to get "somewhere safe," as Mubine puts it.
Another funny detail: In Afghanistan you can just interview random kids if you want. I mean, we literally walk about a quarter mile through almost Slumdog type, narrow side streets with this kid in tow and nobody thinks twice about it.
Do that in the US, and you'll either get sued or tossed in jail. It's an epic interview — when I ask him if he knows what a "terrorist" is, he says, "I don't know, an American make of car?" Afterward I reach into my pocket to tip the kid.
At NYU, they taught us never to pay for interviews. In the third world: that's just how it's done (most of the time).
A lot of these people live hand-to-mouth, so taking 15 minutes from them during the day is like taking money out of their pockets. The businessman, not so much, and I didn't have to pay him for anything but tea. But farmers, phone card hocking street urchins, yes, you have to pay them for interviews.
So I reach into my pocket … and discover my wad of Afghanis is missing. I am Jack's raging bile duct.
How could I be so stupid?
The money turns out to be about 150 USD. But in Afghanis, it's 7K, which is a big ol' knot.
The state department warns against pickpockets. And I followed the rules, except for this time. My other money is in a clip, in a plastic bag, in my front thigh pocket.
But this was so much and I had to take it out so often that I got lazy and left it in my coat pocket. Dumb. Stupid. Various other synonyms to describe my dullness of aptitude.
But you know what? Thank god I was with a Muslim.
Muslim's have this phrase, one I used to hate, and still sometimes hate, but that's so Eastern in it's spirit that I can't help but apply it from time to time: "ensh'allah."
It means: If God wills it. Yeah, kind of like the Muslim version of spilt milk under the bridge.
Mubine is genuinely concerned about my morale. He can tell I'm beside myself. He keeps telling me things that basically boil down to ensh'allah.
"Hey, consider it an investment in your business, and in the business of God."
"You can't let it stop you, it happens."
"Don't let the thief rob you of your movie success too."
That one really got me.
Also: "God decided they needed it more than you."
Regardless, I still feel awful. But he's right, I can't let it stop me, and certainly his enthusiasm and genuine intentions really dig into my soul, lifting my morale whether I wanted it lifted or not.
That's another thing: Afghans (Middle Easterners altogether) are truly polite and respectful people.
Walk around New York for a day, and the chances are pretty high someone will either A insult you or B walk right over you. Walk around Kabul for a day and you will receive more invites for tea and conversation than you can possibly accept.
Of course, there's very little, if any, chance of getting decapitated in New York, there's still a chance of that here, so I guess it balances out.
Eventually I get over it and continue shooting and interviewing. I shoot well into the night.
Nighttime is another thing the State Dept. and the CIA issue warnings about here. They tell you to stay alert at all times, of course, but they pretty much imply that if you value your health it's best to stay indoors at night.
I'm shooting what I consider to be footage Scorsese would be jealous of, down an alleyway lit by little multicolor globes hanging from storefront windows. It looks very interesting, and I'm very interested. But my card runs out and I want a new lens.
Mubine and I open up my pelican case and … WHAM!
A sizable piece of cinder block rocks me in the back, right between my left shoulder blade and my neck. It hits so hard that I can tell the trajectory, distance and strength just from the feeling of it crushing into my bone structure.
Initially, this is all I do: I say, "Ow, f---!"
Because I'm stooped over, the cinder-rock careens off my back and lands a few feet in front of me.
When I recover, I quickly tell Mubine that I've been hit with a rock.
"Yeah, oh man … "
"Did you hear me? I said someone pegged me with a huge-ass rock."
"It was probably just a crazy guy, a bad guy or something."
He doesn't understand. I look around and everyone is playing see no evil.
My finely honed Marine mind starts clicking through options and I think, "You know, this company boasts of having lots of experience with journalists, and Mubine says he has ten years experience through the company. The CEO himself is a former journalist. But for all their exposure to combat journalism I don't think they've learned a got-damn thing."
From where I'm standing with a throbbing shoulder and a case full of expensive gear, there are two options:
- Swift, highly aggressive action
- Even swifter egress
I know from being in the Marines that if something like this happens, everyone Afghan civilian in sight is down, face in the ground, bound and quite uncomfortable.
But I'm not in the Marines anymore. I don't have a rifle. I don't have a squad. I have a fixer, and apparently he thinks this shit is all just A-OK.
I tell him, "Close up the case, we're out."
"But … "
"Now, dude, we're out."
"But it was just some bad guy."
No, you don't understand. Marines know to put everyone down, because one rock turns into two, turns into RPGs and flames if you don't put everyone, the hell, down.
Or be out.
That rock was aimed at either my head, or my camera, and I can't afford to lose either.
I snatch up the tripod and scram.
Mubine is trailing after me, slow as all hell.
"Be careful, Geoff! Geoff, be careful," says Mubine as I make my way through thick street side mud.
The driver pulls up, and I keep one eye on the crowd as we put the stuff away. Everyone's still playing see no evil.
We jump in the car and dip.
Kabul chewed me up that day. I squeezed her for all she was worth, and she kicked back some good stuff, but in the end I was worn out from tussling with her, and I had to take refuge.
I went to sleep that night feeling more than just exhausted. I felt beat up.
Strange, but as bad it feels, it still feels good.
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