Shopping in Fortress America
by Ray Nayler
[ places - september 07 ]
I: The US Embassy Gift Shop, Kabul
The new United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, is ready for a siege. From far-off you can make out bunker-like buildings, the lighter yellow dormitories, where the embassy staff will live behind reinforced concrete and blast film. You can see the darker, rust-orange embassy itself, its long vertical slit windows squinting out at Kabul from behind layer after layer of razor-wire topped walls, sandbagged machine gun emplacements, M-16 firing points, anti-truck barricades, Afghan government checkpoints, Gurkha checkpoints, metal detectors, and finally bullet-proof glass booths where your passport is taken from you and you are given a badge, worn around the neck on a white plastic strap.
This side of the embassy compound is all sterile white shipping containers converted into living quarters and offices. This is the original embassy, the temporary embassy, or maybe you could call it the emergency embassy, soon to be abandoned for the new, permanent one across the way. Signs on the doors of each identical container tell what its function is: 'Two Man Sleeper' or 'Cultural Affairs Section'.
We are here, Dan, Tom and I, to buy souvenirs. In one of these containers is the official Foreign Service Association store, easily identified by the crowd around it waiting to go in: a small knot of military and Foreign Service people, aging Marine officers blinking under a cold blue sky, everyone looking as if they need another cup of coffee. It is Friday here in Afghanistan, a day off, and many people here have slept in, gotten a little bit of extra rest. They will mill around a bit and take the day slow, but the fact is that many of them, defeated by the lack of anything else to do, will get in a few hours of work later in the afternoon. Separated from the city itself, there is little here to do but work and wait for the next, better posting, shoveling the danger pay into a bank account, buying carpets, checking email for a year, two years. Listening for the sound of IEDs detonated near the gates, reading and rereading evacuation plans, then moving on to Madrid or South American and safer, better assignments.
But in the meantime, there is shopping to do. And what better souvenir for the folks back home than something that says 'American Embassy, Kabul, Afghanistan' on it, and invites the friend or loved one back home to live vicariously for a moment, to taste the danger of being here, the mud of a Kabul street? Inside the little store, wire shelves are stacked high with the Foreign Service Association logo emblazoned on fleece jackets, vests, shot glasses, golf towels, Zippo lighters, money clips, key chains, polo shirts, compasses, bottle openers, coffee cups, baseball caps, coffee mugs and so on ad nauseam. The logo, after all, is what is really for sale here, the brand name. All of it just a little overpriced, but really it is the story you are paying for: the gift of a story, the ability of a friend back home to say: "Yep. He bought it right there in Kabul. Hell of a dangerous place." Outside, the hum of heating fans, small plots of green grass between the containers, a sense of mandatory American cleanliness and order in this temporary world.
I have managed to buy nothing but a small pin, a crossed Afghan and American flag which cost me $3. No logo, but then I am not sure I want to encourage the idea of living vicariously. I am not sure I want to subject anyone to the actual feeling of living behind these walls: a sense of monotony, of danger and isolation, of warehousing oneself in a homesick box and waiting for the next, better thing.
II: Walls and Alleys
Nowhere in Kabul feels less safe than here, near the US embassy, the ISAF base, and Fort Eggars. On every side, the frozen streets are edged with concertina wire, gravel-filled anti-truck boxes, cement barricades, guard towers and towering concrete walls. In-between all of this, every passing car feels like the end of you, every Afghan the enemy. The three of us keep up a sort of gallows humor, laughing about death as we take the long walk from one checkpoint to another. We trail a small wake of street children who demand dollars from us - a little girl with dirt-smudged cheeks and galoshes who won't take ne, tashekoor for an answer, boys with boxes of cheap gum in their grubby hands. Two Humvees pass us. Stenciled on the back of their 50-cal turrets: "Bustin' Nuts"
Tom says: "This is the only place in Kabul where I feel unsafe - this walk between the US Embassy and Fort Eggers."
Dan: "You want to take a taxi?"
One feels the explosion ripping through the flesh, but knows that the ordnance is directed not at you but at an abstraction, represented by these lines of separation. It occurs to me, as it has a hundred times, that if I had to carry a gun to be here, if I had to stay huddled behind walls here, I would not want to be here. Safety does not exist here, outside or inside the walls. One moment you are alive, and feeling safe, and the next minute you are dead. And where was the danger? Things change here in an instant: just ask the shrapnel-shredded trees outside the Embassy gate, where two US servicemen, fully armed and armored, lost their lives along with 14 equally unprepared civilians.
III: The Fort Eggers Bazaar
After showing your passport to the guard at the first post, you proceed down 25 meters or so of firing lane under the watchful eye of a soldier behind sandbags, with a tripod-mounted M-16 pointed in your direction. This is just in case you are a walking bomb or a crazed gunman. Oddly enough, I adjusted after a few days in Kabul to having guns pointed in my direction. At first, there was a small clutching feeling in the stomach at even the sight of a gun: now, there is nothing.
Beyond the guards you enter a closed courtyard, longer than it is wide, topped with the usual loops of concertina wire. The courtyard is lined on all sides with stalls selling scarves, fabrics, carpets and much more - a typical Central Asian Bazaar scene, except that here the shoppers are nearly all armed, military-issue rifles slung over their shoulders or side-arms at their hips. A weak-chinned private in desert camouflage pores over pirated DVD movies, and a woman in civilian clothes but with a pistol at her belt gives high marks to the movie Babel, which she bought at the bazaar last week. In a nod to peaceful conduct and civility, ammunition clips have been removed from all weapons here and stowed in bulging pockets.
Among the fake Rolexes, bootleg multi-disk copies of television shows and British rifles left over from the Anglo-Afghan wars are modern flak jackets and holsters for your sidearm in green, black, and stylish camo grey. We purchase the new Borat film, a copy of Babel, and what turns out to be a horrendous pirated version of Casino Royale, the soundtrack so tinny and mauled that it is unwatchable.
Each of the vendors has a number written on his hand in permanent marker. I imagine the marine grabbing their hand, probably a bit too roughly, and the humiliation of being written on by this armored, armed, well-fed American. This single small thing affects me more than anything else I have seen today - more than the walls, the Gurkhas, the blast shields, the sandbags: this single piece of inhumanity. Number 36 smiles at us as we pass. "Excellent carpets. Handmade. Top quality. You come and take a look." His face is thin and gaunt, his eyes look past us. Behind him an older relative, number 57 in Sharpie marker on the wrinkled back of his hand, is sitting on a wooden chair and staring only at the feet of passers-by. And in that moment the thought comes to me clearly, and certain as anything I have ever known: America will lose this war.