Kame and I were lucky enough to get a share taxi from Garam Chasma to Ishkashim for the Saturday Afghan bizarre. We passed through a checkpoint or two, make sure you have all the right stamps for your GBAO permit when entering this region. We got dropped of at the market on a freezing Saturday morning. This bizarre is the most fascinating place I’ve ever been to. It’s in a far flung region in a forgotten land. This little theater takes place on a tiny island in the Pyanj river at the Afghan border crossing. It puts on a show every Saturday morning (bar any terrorist attacks such as arson which did happen the previous week in Khorog). You have to hand in your passport to the officials and in you go, past the point of no return.
Never in a million years did I think I’d reach as far south as Afghanistan. Stepping into Ishkashim was a milestone for me both physically and emotionally. I stared at her all along the Pyanj from the Tajik side on my way through to Ishkashim. En route, I saw the land mine clearance signs of caution, I saw the old abandoned Russian tanks, I saw the women in thier pale blue burkas, I saw the donkey caravans, the drug traffickers the heroin users and abusers- it’s simply exhilarating.
Ishkashim is as exotic and as desolate it sounds. This little bizarre served up some surprises and eye opening scenes. Afghans wear their pakols,women flirt and flut about about in their colorful scarves and solemn Pakistanis are adorned in their shalwar kameez. I couldn’t stop staring at the beautiful faces and colour surrounding me against a backdrop of the Hindu Kush.
I was shocked to see young children pulling in heavy wooden wagons from the Afghan
side as if they were mules. They rolled in,unpacked and scampered off to bring in the next wagon load. These young boys couldn’t be older than 10 and were dressed in rags. They bartered and bantered harshly as if they were 50 and had faces of 80 year old men. There was no childhood glee or innocence about them. They moved as if in agony and hustled with frantic gestures and expressions of men more than thrice their age. I was shocked to see such worn, wrinkled and haggard faces on such young bedraggled bodies. I’ve seen poor, I’ve always said: “there’s poor and there’s Africa poor-no one does poverty like Africa.” But seeing these little Afghan kids dressed in such rags, plastered in a layers of filth and desperate was honestly in one word “soul shattering”.
There’s nothing pretty about this market, even the Hindu Kush seems bitter. Something lingers in the cold air like the dust that settles after a stampede. Must be war as war is written all over the faces of the men I met. Due to the biting cold, people closed up shop pretty early. However, we managed to make a morning of it and met some interesting people. A beautiful lady came up to us and introduced herself as a school teacher of English. She had blonde hair and blue eyes and must be one of the most stunning women I’ve ever met. She volunteered to do the books for the vendors at the market and told us stories about the Afghan side. She’d been there a couple of times but now insisted it was too dangerous. She invited us over to her shop in town to have a look later that day. She owns a lovely stationary shop, full of nicknacks to help equip the local school children. She sat us down over chai and remarked upon her latest endeavor of running a bizniz. She lamented about how little school teachers are paid (their salaries are disgusting and often they aren’t paid for months) and that this enterprise was a means to an end. It’s impossible to survive on such low salaries (around 40 USD per month) so most teachers try run a second business or like most adult Tajiks, leave for greener pastures in Mosow and work as migrant laborers. She didn’t want to leave the Pamirs, who can blame her and she is passionate about teaching. One has to be either passionate or crazy to be a school teacher in this country. She wasn’t married and was proud of being independent. At her age, being unmarried is unheard of as most women are obliged and expected to give up their education, marry young, have children and wait on their husbands. I encouraged her and applauded her efforts in fighting such stereotypes. She’s done more than anyone else in that little town. We chatted about being strong women, not having to rely on men for happiness or money. It was so refreshing to speak to an educated and wonderful women from the back of beyond.
We also met some Afghan journalists. These men were interesting to talk to. They spoke English well and we exchanged contact details. In fact, I got an email from them a while back. They asked for a photo of us for an article they wanted to write…Sounds suspicious right? Haha well Kame and I could have been in an Afghan newspaper for all we know.
What shocked me most about this bizarre was seeing the huge display of US army uniforms and boots for sale. It leaves little to the imagination as to how these items were obtained. It sent chills racing down my spine to see empty boots of dead soldiers. The vedor didn’t want me taking pictures of his booty. I started feeling all Albert Camus and pied noir– in other words depressed. The futility Wildfred Owen murmurs about suddenly came alive to me.
The boots were tried on by passers by who needed winter boots and tossed and handled like they were flimsy toys. Men showed about in their US army uniforms, some wore jackets others camo pants. There were piles of second hand clothing for sale and some names were still written in them. A desperate salesman jumped at me and tried to force on a jumper that was too small for me. I couldn’t imagine wearing such garments.
What was more harrowing than this, was to see the heroin. Both Afghan bizaares I went to (in Khorog and Ishkashim) had opium and heroin on display like it was going out of fashion quicker than ladies’ head scarves. This was both hard hitting and terrifying to see. I’m pretty well informed about the horror show of the opium fields and mass production of raw opium and heroin in Afghanistan and the greedy opium trade. To see such drugs entangled alongside the army uniforms was devastating to witness. Every form and grade of heroin was on display from black tar and brown sugar to raw opium. The Tajik officers seemed fully aware of what was being traded and did nothing about it. In fact I saw them handle what must have been 3-4 kilos of black tar with admiration for the seller. I tried to take a picture but was shouted at by the soldiers. This is the best I could do! There was a dispute at one stage and eventually the little dealer packed up all his shit in a matter of seconds.
The dealer sold every spice, plant, nut, seed and drug under the sun. He looked like an addict to me, with a red-eyed zombie like state about him. In fact there were plenty of addicts in Khorog and border towns, the more you look the more you see. This was a crushing moment for me personally, to see this first hand and to realize how powerless I was to stop the horrific drug war and help save people. Idealist Kerry turned to stone cold realist Kerry. It is what it is just as you are what you are. It didn’t help to see and meet landmine victims who hopped about on wooden and blood stained crutches.
In the Khorog bizarre things seemed more desperate. It was burnt down the previous week after all! Again it was a transborder bizaare with the number of Afghan desperados outnumbering the Tajik. A lady who was widowed begged me to buy her beaded necklace which I did. It’s beautiful, but bares a sad story just like her eyes. I bought some lapis lazuli stone which is exquisite. I was ushered aside at one time and asked for 100 USD for some antique. I didn’t comply, enough desperation is enough.
One thing that did bother me were the way the men pushed me as they walked past. I was pushed, pinched, shoved, glared at and elbowed purposefully in the crowds. I suppose being a foreign women with an uncovered face had something to do with it. Even though I did wear a headscarf and was accompanied, I ended up covering most of my face to avoid the constant staring from hungry eyes. One thing about Afghan eyes is that they burying right through you and touch your soul. These eyes have seen hardship and strife and love and war and terror and life. They do not fear death. There’re no false pretenses, just intense truth that such eyes beckon you with. It was wildly fascinating to give into eyes agape and succumb to the humble truth of the world.