MOUNTAINS, MASSOUD AND ROSES |
November 20, 2012
Stationed in: Afghanistan
The snow on the mountains in the distance was a warning of what is to come. All the same, the day was warm and sunny as we stepped across the dusty street in Kabul. We walked through the checkpoints greeting the guards in Dari, warm smiles our return. I ducked under the candy-cane-striped drop-arm barrier and when I stood up I was eye to eye with Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The Lion of the Panjshir stared out at me from a poster nailed roughly to the side of a guard shack. Penetrating eyes, thin lips and a gaunt face; his pakol hat sat back on his head and with a wry smile he looked down at me. His image adorns all kinds of things in Kabul; guard shacks, cabs, billboards and it’s also found in nearly every building I’ve gone into. Often times he stares out at me from behind the desk of an Afghan. Sometimes there’s also a picture of President Karzai, but not always.
We knocked on the gate and like an old speak-easy the slot slid open and eyes appeared and then were gone. With a screech the gate opened and we entered the courtyard. A half dozen men with Kalashnikovs stood idly by. I thought one of rifles was stainless steel, but after closer inspection I realized that it had simply been carried so long that all of the bluing had worn off. The barrel shined and the wood furniture was deeply scarred and stained a dark red. We shook hands with all of them and exchanged the same series of greetings.
The pathway was lined with roses. Other than that, the inside of the compound looked just like the outside. Dry. Dusty. Tired. A garden hose gurgled into the rose bed, precious water flooding the roses and spilling into the cracked earth. The interpreter stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and leaned in to smell a rose.
“It has no smell,” he said.
I was still processing that he took the time to literally stop and smell the roses. He kept moving; undeterred. He smelled another, and another, methodically moving down the path until finally he said “this one smells lovely.” I stopped and watched him for a moment. He looked back at me and then pulled the tall rose stem over. I bent and closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, the smell of the rose washing over the dust and smoke and dry air in my throat. For a moment I could have been anywhere.
We walked the rest of the path smelling roses. We had time. It seemed a bit odd but I kept telling myself “In another few weeks the roses will be gone and then the snow will come.”
We sat in the waiting area for a few minutes and then the man we’d come to see was ready for us. We entered his office and stood on a large carpet. He sat drinking a cup of green tea. Introductions were made, we all shook hands and the repetitious greetings were exchanged again. We all took our seats. There was no small talk; it was straight to business.
From behind the desk Ahmad Shah Massoud looked back over his shoulder at us. The rest of the picture was full of men in green jackets and pakols moving towards a Soviet made Mi-8 helicopter. In the background of the photo mountains rose high in the distance. I can’t remember if there was snow on them but in my mind’s eye it seems there was. On the table next to me sat a vase of roses picked from the garden along the path. They were red, white, pale pink and lavender. I could not smell them.