About nine years ago now, shortly after the 9/11 attacks and just as On Point began as a show, host Tom Ashbrook published a piece in the Washington Post reflecting on his travels in Afghanistan. Since then, On Point has done some 200 shows that have touched on the fate of that country. As we look today again at Afghanistan in our first hour, the staff thought the article was still very relevant. Here it is:
The Washington Post
November 22, 2001
Kindness in a Hard Place
By Tom Ashbrook
It’s been a long time since I was in Afghanistan. It was before Osama bin Laden’s rise to fame and infamy, before the Taliban, before the Soviet invasion, and I was very young.
In those days, though it seems incredible now, you could take an overland bus from India to Europe. It wasn’t Greyhound. In the hippy “love train” spirit of that time, we called it the Magic Bus — and today it would have to be magic to travel that impassable route — across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and the Balkans.
We took it for granted, of course, in the way that circumstances of the moment are so often taken for granted. I’d been in India for a year, studying Gandhi and ancient scripture. My fellow passengers were spiritual seekers and happy global drifters: young Italians smoking opium in the back of the bus; American and Canadian hippies in outlandish outfits from the bazaars of Goa and Katmandu; an incongruous family of Mormon missionaries. The bus driver was a high-strung Cockney with a scarlet headband and hair like a storybook Jesus.
We climbed from Islamabad through the tough-as-nails market town of Peshawar, through ever cooler, higher, harder terrain — into Afghanistan. With each mile, the landscape grew more craggy and forbidding. So did the people. Women gradually disappeared under head-to-toe burqas. Many men carried old rifles, their shoulders draped with bandoliers of ammunition.
The Afghan border post was a cluster of tents, between peaks in the Khyber Pass, that looked straight out of the 10th century. There were goats, open cook fires, moneychangers cross-legged on ancient carpets. We sipped tea, enjoyed the wood smoke in the mountain air, enjoyed the idea that we were in Afghanistan.
Up the road, in Kabul, there was a thin veneer of modern life. Five- and six-story buildings at the center of town. Young women in pleated skirts, heads uncovered, walking with schoolbooks alongside tradition-draped elders. And, for a hungry American coming up from largely vegetarian India, there was everywhere the intoxicating aroma of barbecued beef, sizzling kebabs on the smoky grills of hundreds of roadside peddlers.
A new Canadian friend and I celebrated with a feast in the streets. A few hours later I was nearly dead of meat poisoning, losing everything, losing blood.
My Canadian friend got me to the U.S. Embassy (now destroyed by Taliban mobs) and then to the public hospital, a mud-walled warren of stark, dirt-floor rooms that looked unchanged since the British Raj. I had lost my senses and was soon thrashing and howling on a narrow bed. Suddenly there was a doctor, a syringe of morphine and the improbable vision of two smiling young women, Afghan candy-stripers, student nurses in crisp, pink-striped uniforms, hovering over me in my delirium, helping to pump my stomach, wiping my brow and, very gently over the next two days, nursing me, an American stranger with nothing but a backpack and human vulnerability, back to health.
They were clear-eyed young women, no older than I, smart and cheerful and carefully saving my life. They were surely pushing the bounds of their traditional culture, while other women on the rough wooden benches in the waiting room peered at the world through the dense crochet of hooded robes. For two days, these two women, girls really, kept me covered and warm, tended my intravenous feed, washed my clothes and fed me, then got me on my feet and waved goodbye.
The magic bus had waited. That night, near Kandahar, a flash flood from the Hindu Kush covered the smooth U.S.-built highway, drowned our engine and left us stranded in the desert. Could be many days waiting for parts, the driver said. A fierce sandstorm swept in.
The next morning I woke early. Every sleeping body in the bus was covered with a layer of fine, white Afghan desert. I rubbed my eyes clean, shook my Canadian friend awake to say goodbye, grabbed my pack, climbed off the bus and hitchhiked away, restless to go on, to see more. I wandered free through Herat and Tehran and Istanbul and finally home, to America.
Now, all these years later, it’s lower Manhattan that’s been covered in a fine, white dust. We have grieved and learned to fear for our freedoms. U.S. soldiers fight in Afghanistan. No buses travel from India to Europe. And on Thanksgiving Day, I find myself thinking of those Afghan girls, my age then and now, if they still live, somewhere.
History has dealt Afghanistan a wretched hand. Have those two survived it? Did the Taliban knock them down? Or are they Islamic radicals? Are they starving? Are they refugees, fleeing oppression or American bombs? Do they remember an American boy whose life they saved when the world was young?
They are part of a hard people, with a hard history. But I have glimpsed a soft heart inside. Today I give thanks for their long-ago kindness. For graciously saving a life. And I pray that one day the smoke will clear and we will find that soft heart again, and share with it our own.