Love and Opium

PREFACE

Washington, USA  –  July 2014 

“Take a look at this article,” my husband Michael calls from across the kitchen. He’s peering at his phone, with a mug of coffee in the other hand.

I’m searching the refrigerator for orange juice. It’s a Saturday morning and the sun is shining on the red petunias and pine trees outside our kitchen window. Our two toddler sons are yelling for more juice and the baby girl is kicking in her bouncer seat.

Michael continues, chuckling. “Can you believe this? Afghanistan’s biggest oil tycoon is a one-eyed, one-armed guy who spent ten years in a New York prison for smuggling heroin.”

“What’s that?” I shout back. I’m thinking: orange juice, heroin, one arm. Wait a minute, one arm?

I twist around, still kneeling. “What’s his name? Is it Popal, or Popalzai? Something like that?”

“Yes, Rateeb Popal. Apparently he’s a cousin of President Karzai.”

“Oh! I met him once. We played volleyball at his family ranch outside Kabul.”

Silence. I look up to see Michael gazing at me, bemused.

“You played volleyball with a one-armed heroin smuggler?”

I laugh. “He ran a security firm. I used to play Scrabble with the operations manager. He invited me to spend a day with his boss.”

I don’t remember for sure whether Rateeb actually joined in the volleyball game. I do remember golden sunshine on the grass, and orchards filled with fruit trees. I remember that we ate dripping, meltingly sweet melon. We didn’t talk about politics, or the rumors that the Popals’ security firm was paying off Taliban commanders for safe passage through hostile territory.

My two sons are still shouting, but I’m momentarily a world away from our messy kitchen.

As often happens when some reminder of Afghanistan crashes into my daily life, my mind fills with a kaleidoscope of images and memories and flashes of conversation, of beauty and suffering.

The feeling of horror and helplessness as I watched Afghan police officers hosing blood off the trees after a suicide attack. The heartbreak of seeing children stuck in an Afghan prison, children who’d been born inside and knew no other home. The desperate, fearful nights I spent in a freezing cold mud-brick house, sure I would be arrested at any moment. The shock of being identified as a Taliban “target” in a British intelligence report, and the sorrow of learning that a young Afghan man to whom I had trusted my life had been shot dead.

Then there are the happy memories. Luminous mornings jogging in the flower gardens with Afghanistan’s First Vice President and his Chief of Staff, whom I counted as a true friend. Camping in the storied Panjshir Valley with my brother, hearing wild stories of “djinn” spirits over the river’s roar. The warm, rushing wind through the open door of a Huey helicopter as we flew over a vast desert, and the optimism that in a small way, we’d helped in the struggle against opium poppy. Gestures of extraordinary kindness from friends and strangers.

And at the end of it all, there was the surprise and joy at finding love in godforsaken Helmand.

I exchanged the danger of Afghanistan for a simpler, wonderful life back in America, but I can’t forget the struggles left behind.

For our Afghan friends in Helmand and Kabul, life is still full of violence and tragedy. Almost every day innocent people are dying. Children are growing up with little education and even fewer opportunities. To them, the calm world that our sons and daughter inhabit would seem like an impossible dream.

I hope that we never take such blessings for granted, and I hope that someday Afghanistan will find peace.

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