THE CROSSING

Ruins and Reunions

Ruins and Reunions

Mahbuhbullah: then and now.

AI KHANOUM, DASHT-E-QALEH — Above the dung-colored rapids of the Panj River, in the shadow of some stern sedimentary cliffs, sprawls the carefully measured grid of the city Alexander the Great built for his Afghan trophy wife, Roxanne, in 328 B.C.

Little remains of Alexandria Oxiana. Nomad invaders sacked the temples and the main palace in the second century B.C. Front lines washed over the gymnasium and the living quarters during the Soviet invasion. Taliban howitzers pummeled the bathhouse and the citadel. Northern Alliance marksmen used the limestone curlicues of Corinthian columns for target practice.

But you can guess the outlines of a perfectly round theater where wild garlic now sprouts through bits of pottery in a circular field. You can clasp your fingers around a warm shard of red, glazed clay and imagine the pitcher it once completed, full of wine. You can picture, amid the patterned brickwork French archaeologists excavated in the 1960s and then abandoned, girls running down to the river — the Oxus of antiquity — to fetch water in ewers they balance on their heads, and shepherds heading to the jade hills at sunup with their flocks. You can see men and women living and dying anonymously in the city the Afghans poetically call Ai Khanoum: Lady Moon.

It is easy to envision all this because on the other side of some abandoned tank berms and trenches lies the silt-rich farmland of Dasht-e-Qaleh, where people still live this way, nameless and abandoned by everyone — even by time itself.

I haven’t been to Dasht-e-Qaleh in eight years. It could have been 800. It could have been eight days.

The road to the village is still made of mud. Jackknifed farmers still hoe the quilts of their wheat and pea fields with wooden, hand-held tools. Boys no older than 10 still holler neighborhood sheep into flocks to take to pasture at dawn. Mahbuhbullah, my friend in whose house of mud and straw I roomed in 2001 and 2002, still spends his days squatting between the furrows of his pumpkin patch.

With the help of some local boys and my half-erased memory I locate his house at the very end of a long, crooked alley barely wide enough for our sedan. I find Mahbuhbullah where I left him eight years ago: in his field, talking with a neighbor. He rises slowly from the ground on the far edge of the field. He has gained weight. The dimple in his forehead is more pronounced. He walks slowly, squinting at me against the sun: His eyesight, like mine, has gotten worse with age.

Then his face crumbles into that wonderful smile that graced many of my days in northern Afghanistan at the beginning of this war, his pace quickens, and I am scooped up into a bear hug and rushed into the house, where his wife Nargiz is kissing me on the cheek, three, six, nine, 12, 18 times. Photos come out. Children, all grown up, come in. Nargiz is laughing; her voice sounds like a river. She has not aged a bit.

Najiba, Mahbuhbullah’s first wife, lives in a separate house now, in a different part of the village, with her five children. This seems to please Nargiz, who shares Mahbuhbullah’s bed. She has borne him five more children since I saw her last. Her youngest son yawns and smiles in my arms. He has his father’s smile.

Mahbuhbullah is not smiling. He worries that war will return here. In recent months, the Taliban has begun to encroach on his village. The Islamist militia has taken over three villages to the northeast — the nearest less than an hour away on a dirt road. (So time does exist here, after all — it is needed to determine the proximity of conflict.) Much of Kunduz province, which begins a dozen miles to the west, is under Taliban control. If the Taliban comes to Dasht-e-Qaleh, Mahbuhbullah worries, NATO and Afghan troops will follow. There will be fighting. The D30 field gun that now rusts in a highland pasture overlooking the village may once again pummel his fields with 122-millimeter shells. There may be house-to-house searches that will frighten his 13 children and upset his beautiful wife, Nargiz. Maybe even air raids, which in Afghanistan have a history of discriminating poorly between civilians and combatants.

 

Who will protect the good people of Dasht-e-Qaleh, who trade their vegetables, flour, and rice in the broad market street and bake their own bread each morning; the people who wrap thorn branches around aspen saplings growing near public wells, to keep goats away?

Not the government. The government has done nothing here, Mahbuhbullah spits. Did it bring electricity to the village? No. Paved roads? No. Clean water?

Garbage disposal?

Garbage disposal? Ha!

Mahbuhbullah laughs; the dimple in his fleshy forehead becomes a well.

His bathroom is still a clay cabin in the corner of the yard, with an oblong, putrid hole in the earthen floor over which to squat. He dumps his trash, biodegradable and non-, into a hole a few paces away. He buys electricity for about $15 a month from a local entrepreneur named Gul Agha, who realized that waiting for the government was pointless and put in a generator to serve the village of about 6,000 people. The generator goes on for a few hours at night, on most nights. (When dusk falls, Mahbuhbullah strips two live wires hanging from the ceiling of his living room with a kitchen knife he first wraps in a soiled washcloth, and hard-wires a light bulb.)

This could be any of the dozen other villages I have visited in different parts of northern Afghanistan in the last week and a half: blighted, forsaken, timeless.

We noon on rice with black-eyed peas and the enormous disks of nan Nargiz baked in the morning: a poor man’s lunch. Mahbuhbullah used to augment his earnings as a farmer by looting small artifacts from Ai Khanoum and fencing them to smugglers, but business has been slow in recent years because the Afghan government has clamped down on the illegal trade of artifacts. (This is the one way, perhaps, in which Kabul has interfered with the course of life in Dasht-e-Qaleh.) My friend pulls out of his cupboard a few bits of ancient pottery to show Ramesh and Qaqa Satar, the interpreter and driver who came here with me.

He places one vessel, the size and shape of a human heart, in my palm. Its umber glaze is still intact. Twenty-three hundred years ago, it probably held perfumed oil. Some woman dabbed her neck and wrists with myrrh from this bottle.

“This is a hand grenade,” Mahbuhbullah explains to me. “An ancient hand grenade.” The explosives went inside and the fuse, he says, came through this tiny opening, here, at the top. I do not argue. Here, everything seems to be measured in familiar terms of war.

We head to Ai Khanoum after lunch: Mahbuhbullah, Ramesh, Qaqa Satar, and Mahbuhbullah’s neighbor, Asad. It begins to rain. Sparrows alight from the ruins: fragments of columns whiting among overgrown rectangles of the abandoned French excavations, bits of clay pottery glistening amid sheep droppings. Gusty wind carries the dirge of a shepherd’s flute. The camel-wool blankets in which the men have wrapped themselves flap like wings.

Suddenly, one of the men spots a snake amid the ruins. It is a rat snake, Ptyas mucosus, a harmless constrictor that feeds on small rodents. The men take turns hunting it down, grabbing it by the tail, twirling it around over their heads, then slamming it against the ground, headfirst. The snake’s mouth opens; it tries to writhe out of her captors’ grips. The men are grinning at first, but a minute later they no longer smile. They grab the snake, twirl it, smash, repeat, with purpose. There is something primordial about this, a basic kind of hatred.

On a lime-green hilltop, three boys watch some cattle and a dozen recently shorn sheep. They are holding long sticks. The oldest looks 8. I think they have been sitting here for more than 2,000 years.