THE CROSSING

Earthquakes and Other Disturbances

Beginning the second week of her journey, our diarist encounters some shaky territory on the way to Kunduz.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Afghanistan's tectonics are active and violent; the country's bellicose history echoes the tremors of its crust. At 1 in the morning, my bed wobbles as though some enormous beast underneath is shifting in its sleep.

Earthquake. How fitting, I think: This is the night before I hit the road that leads southeast to Baghlan province and then north to Kunduz -- the road that has recently seen clashes between NATO and the Taliban, as well as kidnappings, extortions, and robberies by the Taliban, by the anti-government militia of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and by ordinary -- but just as potentially deadly -- roadside thugs. Last week, five U.N. workers were kidnapped on this road; four German soldiers died in a firefight with the Taliban, along with three Afghan policemen. NATO airstrikes killed 29 insurgents and wounded 52, according to Afghan police officials.

At 5 in the morning, I bid farewell to my hostess, a portly matriarch with a gold stud in her right nostril. She nods back, and as I step off her tiled porch she throws some water in my direction from a red plastic pitcher, for good luck. The fierce-looking Pashtun driver everyone calls Qaqa Satar (qaqa means "uncle" in Dari) is wiping the rearview mirror of a hired sedan with the sleeve of his salwar kameez; Ramesh, my interpreter, and I pile into the car. We drive off into the giant, tangerine sun quivering on the eastern edge of the pink mountain ridge.

I spent several days doing research about the road. A security officer for a Western relief agency in Kabul told me flat-out not to take it. An Afghan colleague in Kunduz told me the road is safe from 8 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon (why 2:30, and not, say, 3, or 2:15?) and that Taliban fighters kidnap at least one person from the road each night. I spoke with a driver who travels from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz every other day -- he dismissed stories of kidnappings, but told me that armed gangs pretending to be Taliban do set up checkpoints and rob travelers at gunpoint after dark.

His friend elbowed him out of the way to promise me that the road is absolutely safe, no trouble whatsoever. He drummed loudly on the hood of my hired car and yelled that he could guarantee my safe arrival in Kunduz "100 percent," for $100.

In the end, I have no idea what to expect. The sun rises and it is hot. We ride past copper mountains touched with a downy patina of tender spring grass, mostly in silence. The northern mesas of the Hindu Kush are lavender in the morning light.

  

Mazar-e-Sharif to Samangan

The Afghan countryside has barely changed since my first visit here in 2001. The same tired donkeys with their noses in the blood-red wild poppies. The same shepherds squatting beside outcroppings of ancient rock. The only visible change to the rural landscape are cell-phone towers and the repaved two-lane tarmac, which in 2001 and 2002 was so scooped out by decades of aerial bombardment it was barely navigable. The smooth road delights Qaqa Satar, who goes 80 miles per hour, swerving in and out of traffic to pass a slow-moving convoy of heavy Afghan army trucks. Oncoming Mercedes 18-wheelers painted turquoise and fuchsia blink their lights, then honk. If we die on this road, I think, it will be in a head-on collision.

I once drove on this road during a locust invasion. It was in 2002. The pavement was slick with crushed grasshoppers, and their delicate shells shattered against the windshield with a crunch, like potato chips.

Samangan to Pul-e-Khumri

At a roadside market in Samangan we buy two loaves of nan for a dollar.

The bread is warm, crusty in the middle where the baker pressed it into a flower pattern and sprinkled it with thyme and salt. Fog licks at the velvet hills and the gutted hulls of old Soviet tanks. Were they abandoned by the retreating Soviet Army in 1989? Were they the tanks of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahideen leader, the Taliban had blown up in 1997? Were they Taliban tanks, destroyed in 2001 by U.S. warplanes? Their rusting metal is silent, their tracks are gone, and grass peeks through their turrets.

 

Pul-e-Khumri to Baghlani Jadid

Somewhere around here, the U.N. workers were kidnapped, the German soldiers and Afghan policemen perished, and NATO planes killed and wounded scores of militants.

But Pul-e-Khumri is used to war. In December 2001, one warlord tricked U.S. forces into believing al Qaeda fighters were hiding in the city so that America launched airstrikes against fighters of a rival militia. Nearly 50 people were killed. Last month, Taliban forces battled with Hekmatyar's men here; 60 people died in the fighting. Pul-e-Khumri betrays no emotion, not grief or elation, as we drive through streets drowning in muck churned up by a recent rain.

Two dozen day laborers in orange vests stab at the mud on a side street with shovels, and about as many Afghan soldiers stand guard around them. The Taliban has threatened to kill anyone who works for the government. The workers are risking their lives for a stretch of paved road, and so are the soldiers.

Some German military trucks pass by, heading south. I cannot see the men inside, but I imagine that they are very young.

Baghlani Jadid to Kunduz

Near an auto body shop (RAFI'S BROTHER'S WORK SHOP, the hand-painted sign proclaims), two men in plainclothes with Kalashnikov rifles are standing in the shade of a poplar tree. Taliban? I ask Qaqa Satar. No, he responds: These are local vigilantes the government has hired to fight the Taliban, to help the overpowered police and army soldiers.

But they are worse than the Taliban, Qaqa Satar opines. During the day they work for the government; at night, they set up impromptu checkpoints and rob travelers. I make a mental note not to travel here at night.

My cell phone vibrates; it is a message from the security section of an international relief agency in Kabul.

"Ops Room security alert! There is an ANSF-AOG clash in Baghlan province, pul khumri district (150 meters south of Pul Khumri, Kunduz-Mazar junction) please avoid the area."

The German convoy, I think.

"Passed pul-e-khumri an hour ago," I type back. "In kunduz province.

Road clear so far. Saw no clash."

"Thanks a lot for informing us, have a safe trip and take care."

On a hillock, a square concrete building of an Afghan Army checkpoint. Four or five sentries stand on top of a sandbagged roof, facing every direction. This is a sign of an army surrounded, a fighting force trapped.

Kunduz

"In kunduz city," I text the security guys in Kabul. Ramesh and I high-five. Qaqa Satar smiles for the first time during the trip. We drive slowly through alleyways shaded with poplars and wild black cherries, the familiar busy market street, the kebab shops, and a palatial doctor's office promising WEMENS HELTH.

I am looking for someone: a former Northern Alliance fighter, Hanon, with whom I shared many front-line cigarettes and rivers of weak, murky tea in 2001 in Takhar province, where he was fighting the Taliban.

Hanon is from Kunduz, but I don't remember the address of his father's house, which I visited more than eight years ago. Nor do I know if he is still around, or alive. I scan the faces of Kunduz men: hard, careworn faces. I have a picture of Hanon, which I whip out at the checkpoint in front of the provincial governor's headquarters; at an unnamed local dive where we stopped for a $3-lunch of fresh lamb, vegetables, and tea; at the office of a local human rights organization. I show Hanon's photo to street vendors, to policemen, to soldiers. Some shake their heads. Others vaguely say they seem to recognize the face, but they are not sure from where or when. With his bushy black beard, his soiled salwar kameez, his brown paqul hat, he is more an ideogram than a real man. There are millions of Hanons in this country -- bearded, illiterate men in paqul hats, thrust into war by Afghanistan's ever-moving tectonics.


Read the next dispatch, "Ruins and Reunions."

Anna Badkhen

THE CROSSING

The Muezzin of the Blue Mosque

Finding some solace with an unlikely old friend.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — At sunup the other day, a white pigeon flew through the open window of my bathroom and settled, cooing, on the edge of the sink. A good omen, said my young translator, Ramesh. An invitation, I thought. I locked the door to my rental room and set out on foot down the somewhat paved sidewalk toward the Blue Mosque.

A local legend says that after Ali, Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, was struck down by a poison arrow during a Ramadan prayer south of Baghdad, his disciples tied his body to the back of a she-camel and sent it east to prevent his enemies from desecrating his remains. (Iraqi Muslims dispute this story, saying that Ali's body never left Iraq, where, they insist, it is buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.) After a 1,300-mile trek through modern-day Iraq and Iran, the camel -- the story continues -- finally collapsed of fatigue and thirst in what today is the blue heart of Mazar-e-Sharif, and Ali was interred here, giving the city its name: "Mazar-e-sharif" means "tomb of the saint" in Farsi. The double-domed mosque, tiled in kaleidoscopic patterns of cobalt, ocher, white, and turquoise, went up in the 15th century; 10,000 white pigeons are said to roost among its arches and columns.

Every evening at 5:30, Karim Ahmad Qasim, the chief muezzin of this mosque, lowers his face to the microphone wired to the minarets' speakers, and graces the city with the delicate arpeggios and tremolos of his singing.

Karim Ahmad Qasim is 79 years old; he has been a muezzin at the Blue Mosque forever. Abdul Ansari, an imam there, tells me the muezzin keeps strong by eating sheep fat ("We worry about cholesterol, but he just grows healthier every day") and walking three or four brisk laps around the perimeter of the mosque each day through the neatly trimmed garden perfumed by roses and wild black cherries. He hasn't seen a doctor in years. He has made the hajj twice since 2001. He spends his afternoons in a tiny L-shaped room with whitewashed walls at the base of a minaret, which he enters through a narrow sky-blue doorway that is less than four feet high, like a prop from Alice in Wonderland.

I met Muezzin Karim in November of 2001, when I came to Mazar-e-Sharif for the first time. I was staying at a hotel across the street from the mosque; each evening, the intricate syncopations and quartertones of his prayer coiled into my unheated, dark, filthy room, filling it with beauty. Think John Coltrane improvising the Koran. I asked to interview the muezzin; he agreed. We sat on damp mattresses beneath the vaulted ceiling of the mosque office and talked about music, and about blending traditional melodies and jazz with freedom unthinkable anywhere in Afghanistan but in Mazar-e-Sharif, the most cosmopolitan city in the nation.

"When I sing," the old man told me then, "I do whatever I want."

I asked whether his singing had ever gotten him in trouble with the puritan Taliban. The muezzin flashed a quick, mischievous smile, and winked at me.

"They couldn't tell me how to sing," he said. His small, birdlike body rested against the wall with such tranquility he seemed to glow. I could feel his contentment. "They didn't dare."

For days now I have been trying to leave Mazar-e-Sharif and head east, through Baghlan, to Kunduz and Takhar provinces, to write about the return to northern Afghanistan of the Taliban and the Islamic militia of the rebellious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and to visit old friends with whom I have lost touch over the years. But how to get there? German troops are dying almost weekly in clashes with armed gangs; last week, someone kidnapped five Afghan U.N. workers in Baghlan. Trying to get a sense of security on the road I hope to take, I have been sifting through accounts of drivers, travelers, journalists, and various security officials about the extent of unrest. Each story promises new dangers, each rumor contradicts the last; the confusion is torturous, exhausting, mind-numbing.

As I guide the protesting white pigeon from her porcelain roost and out the bathroom window, I recall the sensation I had the time I spoke to the old muezzin all those years ago. Serenity: a scarcity in war zones. I need it now.

At the outer walls of the shrine, I remove my shoes, hand them to a boy in exchange for a small ticket stub, and join hundreds of pilgrims who have come to see the mosque. Men in suits, men in long robes, men in shalwar kameez. Women in dresses and headscarves; women in loose-fitting suits. Women in burqas eat potato chips on the steps of the mosque; when they are finished, they lift their burqas like brides' veils to kiss each other goodbye on the cheek, three times. Children kick a pink rubber ball. Toddlers splash in the fountain for ablutions.

I pause to take a picture of a white pigeon. It takes me 10 minutes to get a shot I like. Pilgrims walk slowly around me. No one stares. No one asks why I'm here. We are all barefoot together in a place where pigeons are said to turn white in 40 days.

Then I circle the shrine, find the tiny blue door, and step inside.

The muezzin is reclining against a threadbare pillow beneath an unshaded fluorescent light bulb. The room smells like the cilantro he has brought to work in a plastic bag. An open book lies in front of him: a history of Sufi mystics. The skin on his face is so wrinkled it drapes over his eyelids; his beard is gray and white. I sit down on the mattress next to him and place my right hand, palm open, on my heart: the Afghan gesture of greeting, of thanks. I begin to introduce myself, but he waves me away with a small flick of his wrist. From beneath his droopy skin, he flashes me that boyish, bright smile.

He says:

"Why haven't you visited for nine whole years?"

And I smile back at him, and my mind finally unknots, and I understand that I am crying.


Read the next dispatch, "Earthquakes and Other Disturbances."

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images