February 04, 2013

Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan

We walk up the street past men maneuvering to soak up the last rays of the fading winter sun. It is clear and cold. As the shadows grow long the guards become more hesitant to come out of their shacks. We duck under drop-arms and “Salaam” as we pass them. We knock on the gate and instead of the metal window sliding open, the personnel door cracks and an older Afghan man in a weary uniform, with a three-day shadow and three-decade-old Kalashnikov appears. He recognizes us and his face stretches into a wide grin. We exchange greetings; rapidly passing through a series of questions with neither of us waiting for the other to answer as we shake hands. 

“Dastetan beseyar garm ast!” (Your hands are very warm!) His broad smile stretches even wider and as I step through the door he points at the shack where two other guards sit huddled over an electric heater with steaming cups of tea in their hands. “Bokhari darem!” (We have a heater!)

“Kujo tota-e-tan ast?” (Where are your parrots?) 

He laughs heartily: “Tota raftee! Ama anha char baja pas amadan.” (The parrots have gone but they return at four o’clock.) 

He looks to the tall leafless trees standing in the compound, just to make sure they are not there, and we stand exchanging small talk for a few more minutes before moving on to conduct our meeting.

When we return it is dark and the guard tells me that I have missed the returning parrots; that they circled and squawked before roosting near the trunk of the tree on a high, strong branch. I have heard this convergence of images before. Later, I recall that it is Rumi who planted it in my ear, in his poem Say I Am You:

I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought and voice.

These birds are not trained but they are certainly part of Kabul’s voice.

Kabul is a city of birds. It is not obvious at first, but they are here. Along the side streets of Kabul, old men can be seen selling small parakeets in wooden cages. There is rumored to be a market in Old Town that encompasses an entire alley of shops selling nothing but birds. I have not seen it, but I believe it exists. Perhaps it is a place I cannot go, and if so that may be best.

For the most part, birds are absent from the scenery across town; so are trees. Nearly everything in this town that can be burned has been. Now that winter has come, there are flocks of tiny sparrows that swoop into the tall pine trees that stand protected in a nearby courtyard just before dusk. There is also a falcon that arrives at the same time every afternoon to watch. As the tiny birds search out a safe place to roost for the night, the falcon is searching for his dinner. 

In Kabul, everyone and everything is searching for something.

In the old city and the sprawling developments that climb the mountains on the edge of town, old men keep coops of pigeons. If your timing is good, you can see a large whip flashing across a rooftop as pigeons whirl in dense flocks overhead. When the whip stops moving, the pigeons turn and land on the rooftop to collect their reward before being sent skyward again with the tossing of the whip. 

I ask my Afghan friend “Why do they keep pigeons? Are they pets?” 

“No,” he says. “They keep pigeons because they bring them joy.”

If you are in Kabul and in search of joy, it can be found in birds. Downtown, along the river, there is a large white mosque with a blue top. Pigeons and people both congregate here. Some people come and search for something at the mosque, while others simply come to see and feed the birds. It’s not difficult to imagine that they are both searching for the same thing — a moment of peace.

At midday, in the parks, you can find large magpies with sharp eyes, curved beaks, white bodies and long black tails. I wonder what it is that they are searching for. 



I have heard a composition, "Afghanistan: Requiem for a generation" in which the 'In paradiso' is made up almost entirely of birds' names (in English, French, Pashto, and Latin). Perhaps this explains it!

Beautifully written. Thank you so much for posting this.I come here from time to time so that I may get a glimpse into your lives. Maybe that is a searching too.

Now I understand what the term "prose poem" means!

Yes, there is (or used to be) a bird bazaar, in the alleys on the east bank of the Kabul River, just SE of the Blue Mosque on the river, and just west of Jadi Maiwand. I used to hang out there in the 1969-71 period when I was a kid in Afghanistan, but went back in the spring of 2002 and it was still there.

The gun bazaar was not far away. Interesting area, but wear old shoes--the alleys used to get slick with black mud (made up of I know not what) in the winter and spring.


I can't find the bird section, but there is a TV report about "Afghanistan: Requiem For A Generation" here:

some excerpts from the Calgary Philharmonic premiere here:

and an interview with the composer here:

"This piece is going to be performed forever. This is going to be like 'In Flanders Fields' for Canada. And to be present at its birth is something really extraordinary."
-- Naheed K. Nenshi, mayor of Calgary

This is a really fascinating story. I felt like I was really hearing and seeing all of the different kinds of birds. It's great how people who live in and travel to Kabul can take joy in a part of nature that may seem boring or common to the rest of the world. Thanks for sharing!

I never got the oppurtunity to serve overseas but im glad to get a glimpse of your experience while there. Thank you for your service.

Thank you for sharing the story it was very interesting and well written I am so thankful for your service. Thanks for everything you have done!

This was a really interesting and it makes you take for granted what you have to be considered joy in life. If i would have to say something that would bring me joy i never would have thought of a person saying birds would.

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