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  • Lay of the Land
  • J. Malcolm Garcia (bio)

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Figure 1.

Photograph supplied by author

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Figure 2.

Photograph supplied by Maria Kaloudi

[End Page 18]

Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2001

From my bed I hear Bro and our other translators laughing downstairs.

Eight A.M.

I slip on my clothes without bathing. We have little power, and the water never warms. I have decided to hold out against the frigid shower for days if necessary, until I can no longer stand my funky self. I run downstairs and warm water for coffee on the kitchen hotplate.

"What do you have going today, cowboy?" asks Peter, a photographer.

"Not sure." [End Page 19]

I arrived in Kabul yesterday afternoon from Washington, D.C., two months after the September 11 attacks, one of four reporters with Knight Ridder Newspapers. Three years earlier, I was divorced and brokenhearted. I left my California home and a thirteen-year social work career for newspaper jobs on the East Coast. Little did I know then that my despair-injected, impetuous move would one day lead to a second career in journalism and an assignment in Afghanistan.

On my first day here I met my translator and driver, Bro, by chance, at the offices of an aid agency where I reported on mine removal efforts. He needed a job; I needed his help. I call him "Bro" because I have trouble pronouncing his name, Khalid. He can't pronounce my name either. He keeps a notepad for English words he doesn't know or has difficulty pronouncing. My name leads his list.

Peter and I pour cups of instant coffee and wander into the living room to see what all the laughing is about. Bro sits gaping at a porn station on the satellite TV. Television was banned under the Taliban, and the landlord had hidden the TV and the dish in the fireplace. He brought them out and hooked up the satellite on the roof when Knight Ridder rented the house.

On the TV, some guy's pale white ass jiggles with each thrust of his hips as he bangs a chick from behind. She coos in French. My ex was a welfare law attorney who represented poor and abused women and often railed against pornography. If she were here, the TV would be through the window.

A European phone number flashes on the screen, offering a subscription. Bro is beside himself, bug-eyed, kneading his crotch. The writhing tits and ass before him must offer one hell of a cultural release after living for years under the Taliban, with its requirement that women must wear burqas whenever they appeared in public. After the Taliban fell, burqas were not required, but local warlords still enforce them. In the current unsettled conditions, women who might not otherwise wear the burqa must do so as a matter of personal safety.

"Jesus," Peter says. "I need more coffee."

"Good morning, kharagee," Bro says, using the Afghan word for "outsider." He stands bent over to adjust his blue jeans. In less than twenty-four hours, he has discarded his traditional Afghan garb of smock and sandals and gone Western on me. However, this may be a chameleon change, with little conviction. After all, when the Taliban took over, men stopped trimming their beards to conform to the new rule of law and avoid further persecution, while their women were humbled.

Now, five years after the Taliban seized power following the abysmal retreat of Soviet Union troops years earlier, Westerners are flooding Kabul, and change [End Page 20] again sweeps through the city, beginning with the sudden emergence of blue jeans and television and porn.

But who is who? Are they Taliban without beards accommodating the new order? Are they celebrants of free thinking indulging all their senses before the next totalitarian axe falls? Who believes what, and why?

I'm in a land of chameleons.

"We need to make a rule," Peter says, peering over my shoulder. "No porn in the morning."

"What is porn?" Bro asks.

"This," Peter says.

Bro asks for my pen and takes out...


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