Kabul, Afghanistan | January, 2005
These days, there is so much stimuli piled brick upon brick, that a fortress wall can be constructed before my disoriented self gathers enough energy to write something down. But after what I just went through, I think it’s high time I make a little attempt at documentation. The great question here being, why do I remain to so blindly smitten with this mad life that I’ve created for myself? A couple of weeks ago, in the 3rd week of January, a People Magazine reporter was in Kabul to do a story on Tarsian & Blinkley. Very unlucky for her, she had managed to show up at the most unbelievably inauspicious time – somewhere between the Haj pilgrim congestion at the airport, a major week-long religious holiday known as Eid-e Ghorbon, and several punishing blizzards that buried Kabul in a blanket of total whiteness, making an already challenging place both more inconspicuous and even more challenging. It was SO wretchedly cold everywhere and especially in my office where the usually trusty gas heater couldn’t hold its own against the two walls of glass facing the blinding storms outside. And to make matters worse, it was down to crunch time, with me pressuring the tailoring room to finish new and thoroughly difficult silk satin and georgette samples (materials the tailors had never encountered in their careers). Electricity was non-existent, water pipes were frozen, pathways were caked in slick and deadly ice, and flights I was counting on to carry my cargo back were being cancelled right and left. With notepad in hand, the journalist watched as my assistants and I rubbed our numb extremities and carried on. She could not but ask, “Why do you put yourself through this?” In that moment, I drew a blank. Damn good question it was – the situation was so bad it was almost funny.
I first sat down to write this diary excerpt on January 4th, 2005, a day so unbelievable and miraculous that it inspired documentation. I started punching away on the computer keyboard because I could not believe that I was really sitting on an Afghan Ariana Airlines flight, returning to Kabul after three weeks in India on the exact date that I originally requested the flight. I had been up since 4:30 am wrestling absurd obstacles to find myself and my 150 kgs of emergency cargo a spot on a plane that I shared with an highly distressed assortment of folks, all of whom had been held stranded in Delhi, under the most chaotic and uncertain circumstances, for 10 days! It was that special time of year when the beloved Ariana (aka, Scariana) Airlines begins to withdraw planes committed to existing routes and hand them over to the Hajis for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. For the tens of thousands of Afghans, many poor, who have somehow scraped together the means, through a combination of debt and a lifetime of saving 20 cents per day, this is a duty akin to few others – it is the ultimate guarantee of their ascension to Heaven, and woe to the person, or the airline, that dares to get in the way of that. So Ariana timidly steps back between mid-December and mid-January, and extracts as much as it legitimately or illegitimately can from its small fleet of 25 year old planes. And we non-Hajis, not headed to Mecca, pay the price.
Common Afghans are quite used to hardship and generally quite nonchalant about disorder and callousness on the part of their comrades. However this day was even a bit much for them; the usually polite voices and noble demeanors of these God-fearing, it’s-God’s-will, let-bygones-be-bygones minded people was, “*#&! this SUCKS!” Interestingly enough, one rarely sees Afghans in outward displays of violence or profane language. But that morning, the Ariana ground staff had to make scarce to thwart a possible lynching. Despite the heated tempers of the would-be passengers (who had all been sent home from the airport several times in the past week), there was a strange bond of solidarity. As a loud mouth Farsi-speaker in camouflage pants, a few even imparted a sense of authority on me, thinking maybe this girl knows something we don’t. Since we had so many hours to kill and tensions needed diffusing, I had the brilliant idea of calling the famous radio personality in Kabul, the hero of right versus wrong, the expose leader of Afghan media, Daneshyar. The phone was passed around to the waiting and miserable passengers, imparting a healthy therapeutic effect on all. The most vocal ones took their turn, squealing for justice and demanding cameras to meet them at the Kabul airport upon arrival (this leads to a whole other discussion about the beauty of free press in Afghanistan, but we’ll save that for another day). One couple became the poster child for their angst – a simple provincial farmer with no knowledge of Dari (he spoke only Pashto) and certainly zero knowledge of English or Hindi, who had brought his sick wife to Delhi in dire pursuit of healthcare and had been forced to leave a small infant with inappropriate caretakers back in their village. Upon discovering that they could in no way afford the several thousand dollar kidney transplant surgery, they were set to return…except that there was no plane! They slept for days in God knows where, with their coffers run totally dry, and the wife ill and tormented over the now totally abandoned infant.
But let me start at the true beginning and work my way to the mis-en-scene at the delightful Delhi International Airport that morning. The trip to Kabul started in November and was semi-charmed from the beginning, with two pieces of good news for every bad one. I was enjoying witnessing how regularized everything had become at the workshop with the women laborers and their sense of quality control, how delightfully loyal and reliable my assistant, Palwasha, had proven to be, and how customers had been coming and going without any knowledge or concern with me. There was hope that this business might actually run on its own someday. Bad news was that my second assistant had gotten married and was not going to be coming into work any longer, or at least for a month, having something to do with the custom of not going out of the house for a month after losing one’s virginity or something. Hugely irritated and argued with her a few times on the phone, but to no avail – cultural demands remained thicker than the bratty demands of an American wannabe businesswoman.
Also upon arrival in town, the hostage crisis with the three UN workers was in full swing. They were being held in some unknown location and everybody in every organization in town was feeling very tense. The foreigners, especially those that worked in elections-related work, felt genuinely threatened, whereas others were swallowing at the thought of being evacuated out of the place if and when the hostages were killed. Every day, the idiotic kidnappers, the self-proclaimed “Army of Muslims”, extended their deadline for when the hostages would see retribution. Though the papers didn’t report it, everybody in town knew that these folks had nothing to do with the Taliban and that the hostages were being held either in town or north of the city, a stronghold of the former Northern Alliance. It was so obviously a group connected to a disaffected Northern Alliance drug-trafficking warlord, who had rather humorously tried to pin its identity to the Taliban in the hopes of accomplishing its mission while still sticking one to its permanent nemesis, the Taliban.
One day, I receive a call from Dominique Medley, long-time resident, journalist, and gossip maven extraordinaire of Kabul, announcing his imminent departure and insisting that I sell my frocks at his goodbye party/book signing for the Brandt MiniGuide to Kabul, which he co-authored. I hesitatingly oblige, not realizing that Dominique is about to alter the entire point of the evening to fulfill his fantasy of having a “fashion show” in Kabul. Without my consent or understanding, he sends out invites entitled, “An Evening with Sarah Takesh”. Hardly a mention of Tarsian & Blinkley…or of his book! With flustered embarrassment, I show up the night of the event, suitcase in tow, and spread the goods out on a table. What I do not realize as I sit in this pleasant and very English looking living room of the Gandamak Lodge, is that I am sitting in the nerve center of the hostage crisis, where all the people involved in the private rescue effort are situated. The owner of the hotel, a BBC journalist, isn’t around because at that very moment, he is submitting a ransom offer to some cronies of the “Army of Muslims” in Peshawar. The mood is strange, people are whispering things to each other and seem to have a familiarity amongst themselves with which I am unacquainted. And in through the door walks a tall, 50-something, rather charismatic man, with a deep, commanding voice that immediately causes me to turn around and say, “where are you from?”. He answers, in an accent I find difficult to identify, “Darling, if I stay here much longer, I will be Afghan”. He comes up the table and selects about 12 items to take back to the women in his family. “Who is this guy?” I ask Dominique. Dom leans over and whispers, “He’s a Swiss billionaire, in town because of the hostages”. Turns out that this gentleman is a Kosovar Albanian, claiming to be cousins with one of the hostages, and in Kabul for the past 3 weeks offering $1.2 million in ransom for her release.
Mr. X was a most unusual man, made of the stuff of movies. He grew up penniless in a village somewhere in rural Kosovo, but found the means to educate himself and build a private business empire now worth an unseemly amount of money. He spoke ten languages and had offices in half the countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. His website shows his tall, football-player figure in a djelaba, walking among the glittering lights of Mecca. It also shows him in a thousand different poses with pals like Boris Yeltsin and the President of Kazakhstan. One of his many businesses is construction, and he appears to have achieved great heights in that, having reconstructed the Kremlin, built the colossal presidential palace in Almaty, etc. etc. Needless to say, his charisma was irresistible, and we became friends, as he had become with every person her had met in the Kabul in those past few weeks. Every night, he would take a group of fifteen very motley individuals out to dinner, ordering for the whole bunch, paying for the whole bunch, and presiding over the most surreal conversations. His favorite restaurant was the new Croatian spot that had opened. I couldn’t get over this guy and how comfortable he seemed in his skin. We were all invited to his five-star hotel in Lake Lugarno for New Years, but I pleasantly declined the offer, having made other plans for New Years.
Luckily, within three days time, the hostages were released and mysterious Kosovar was finally free to leave. His private jet became the first aircraft of its kind to land in Kabul in 25 years. He boarded, zipped over to Almaty for a quick slap on the back to his buddy, President Nazarbayev, and back to Switzerland in no time at all. Last I heard, Dominique and Jouvenal were passing New Years at his beautiful hotel in Switzerland. As for the hostages, story goes that the hostage-takers apologized to them, put them in a vehicle, and let them drive to their own freedom. Mr. X was never actually cousins with the Kosovar and his interest in the entire affair appeared to be more complicated than what was immediately evident.
The day after the hostages were released, the fabulously hip French kids who run Altai Consulting, a private consulting and marketing firm in Kabul that feels more like a throwback to a French hippie commune from the 70’s, threw one hell of a party. A 300 person “white party”, with dress-code and guest list enforced. In the West, people think the Kabul expatriates are hiding under their beds dodging missiles. But the reality on that early December night was that many of the residents of Kabul were hankering for an invite and fearing that their outfits wouldn’t pass the screening at the door. I picked up white muslin samples from the tailoring room floor, brushed them off, and wore them in glorious Central Asian layers with heavy pieces of bronze jewelry. Danced all night and made plenty of new friends under the grape vines and chilled sickle moon sky, sipping sangria and not for a moment questioning why I could have so much fun in a wretched, corrupt, narco state replete with poverty, drought, and domestic terrorism.
One week later, I boarded a plane for Delhi, ready to tackle another season’s worth of patternmaking and fabric sourcing. Slinky dresses and silk georgettes were the primary theme, with some very pretty jackets and bolero styles sprinkled throughout. But the process had gotten easy enough to afford me a fair amount of socializing and personal primping. The socializing I am not sure is necessary, but the primping is very helpful to my weathered person, who is permanently traveling and at least in Kabul, also permanently experiencing the sensation of camping. The work at the factory wrapped up in record time, thanks to the bit of foresight now afforded me by a trifle of experience. So there was the week of Christmas and New Year staring me in the face, giving me total license to take a few days off and have fun, even though it was not in my nature, and not a part of my Tarsian & Blinkley lifestyle to ever take casual days off. But this time, the calling was an irresistible one -- the royal family of Jodhpur was throwing their annual polo fete and New Years celebration and I was invited as part of the youth contingent. The Prince and Princess and their colorful flock of young friends from all over the world normally decamped to Sardar Samand palace 55 km outside of Jodhpur, in a broad expanse of scraggly desert overlooking a lovely lake. Sardar Samand was built by the current Maharaja’s father as an impressive fusion of Indian and Art Deco and was meant to house his wealth of hunting trophies. The hoofs of elephants, the skins of tigers, and the tusks of dozens of unidentified animals criss-crossed the strange and lovely, finely preserved 1930’s living room in this enchanted and most definitely haunted place…..
After a night by a bonfire surrounded by Rajasthani dancers, I realized that I wanted to share this with somebody. My girlfriend from New York, the talented tabla player Suphala, was luckily able to join me from Bombay. There were some German prince and princesses there, some very pretty French girls that the Yuvraj had met on his last polo jaunt in France, a contingent of gay Italians, and miscellaneous polo players from South America and elsewhere. But the whole funny thing was that everyone was wonderfully cool. Sweet, friendly, and generous, which made for an intoxicatingly fun few days. Even when the evenings were spent in Jodhpur proper, we would all pile into Jeeps and race through the desert back to Sardar Samand, in a long and dusty caravan of cars. And back at the desert palace, we literally danced till the sun rose….something I hadn’t remembered doing since I was 22.
What memories, and what a shame that they were interrupted by a phone call from Delhi announcing that Ariana Afghan Airlines was refusing my shipment because they had no cargo space! I suddenly found myself at the Jodhpur airport, talking a mile a minute into the telephone and trying to figure out what I was going to with 150 kgs of cargo that had been rejected due to the demands of the Hajis. So in circular fashion, we have arrived at the beginning of this tale. Stay tuned for Suphala’s concert in Kabul….