Leaving, on a Jet Plane

As we left Kabul we had to contend with the normal security checks and balances. I recognize that these are necessary, especially in a place like Afghanistan where weapons of all types and calibres are still widely available. However, sometimes there is a slippage, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Our car approached the first checkpoint and the armed soldiers waved us down. We produced our passports, and then were asked to leave the vehicle. We were ushered into a small covered walkway, where another guard stood and shivered. He wore a scarf wrapped around his face, and those thick fingerless gloves that are supposed to help you work in the cold.

“Good morning, sorry,” he said, and proceeded to frisk us. We stood, one by one, with arms outstretched as he patted us down. I had to take my hat off. Then we continued through the 10 metres of cast iron walls and roof to the other side, where our car had pulled up.

At the second check point we produced our passports again, but this time only our driver had to get out of the car. He was frisked, and someone walked around the vehicle with a large mirror on a stick. The underside of the vehicle was thoroughly examined, especially the wheel wells.

When we got to the third checkpoint the driver was allowed to stay with the car. We, however, had to carry our bags inside a small shed. Here we placed them on the conveyor belt of a large x-ray machine. I walked through a non-functioning personal scanner, one of those door-frame shaped structures that usually beeps to show you’d forgotten to remove a coin from your pocket, and waited for my bag. Two uniformed police officers sat huddled around a small TV screen. My bags appeared, and I was waved on. I carried them back to the car, loaded them in the back, and got in. Jim followed a moment later.

At the fourth checkpoint our driver showed the special pass which gave us access to Car Park B, the diplomatic area. This was a great benefit, as it meant we did not have to go through the luggage scanner and personal search that awaits those who enter the airport through Car Park C. We still had the 200m walk across an empty Car Park A, however – that one is reserved only for special dignitaries, I guess.

As we got to the edge of car park A we were stopped by two more police, who asked to see our tickets. The torn and much-battered piece of A4 paper on which my flight itinerary was printed was much scrutinized. I turned it the correct way up for the guard, and pointed out the words KABUL and ISTANBUL. He nodded us through.

At the terminal itself I pushed open the door and was immediately met by a uniformed agent, who pushed me back outside.

“Wait, wait,” was the message, “we are cleaning.”

Jim and I stood outside the door and through the window watched a small Zamboni-type machine drive in ever-decreasing circles around the terminal area. Water was sprayed from the front, and large brushes scrubbed the dirt up off the floor. The flop flop of the rear polishing brushes could be heard through the glass.

A queue formed behind us, people setting their suitcases down and making a line. One man approached the doors from my left, ignored the queue, and went inside. Immediately the man in uniform shouted something at him, and he stopped just inside the door. He didn’t come back outside though, or join the back of the queue. The Internationals in the line looked at each other and raised quizzical eyebrows. The Afghans ignored him.

Eventually the cleaner man drove his little machine away, and the post and ribbon pens to herd passengers were reconstructed. The official came over, waved the inside man forward, and opened the door. We entered and selected one of the three routes open to us.

I passed down the channel between the ribbons and came to another guard. He politely asked me to place my suitcases and backpack on another conveyor belt, which was then scanned through another x-ray machine. I walked around – no personal scanner here – and waited.

Once I had my bags I walked over to the Turkish Airlines counter. The agent was singularly unimpressed by my Aeroplan Elite card, but he did agree to seat Jim and I next to each other. We looked at our boarding passes, and saw seat A and seat C. We fervently hoped that nobody would be punished with seat B.

Once our bags were tagged for London and had disappeared down the ramp into the back rooms of Kabul airport, we went up the steps and found ourselves in another herding area. There was only a single channel, which wound back on itself a number of times. We lined up behind a large Afghan family – two older men, who might have been brothers, white bearded and turbaned. An older woman in the full black chador, only her eyes showing. Two younger women, demure with headscarves also wrapped around their nose and mouth. Two young men, holding babies. And three older children, a girl and two boys, all looking to be under the age of 12.

A queue formed behind us, snaking its way back towards the top of the steps. We waited patiently, the door at the end of the channel guarded by a young Border Policeman. A couple came up the stairs and entered the channel to my right. They walked right past everybody, including Jim and I, but could not get past the large family in front of us. The Internationals in the line looked at each other and raised quizzical eyebrows. The Afghans ignored them.

At last we made our way to the door, and were allowed access. A guard checked our passports again, and looked at our boarding passes. We were directed to one of five channels in front of an enclosed desk. I was the first in line at desk three, but then the man came out of the booth and said his line was now closed. I moved over to line 4, behind the large family.

The young men were first, and after passing the family passports through the small window they each stood in front of a web cam and had their photograph taken. The lady in the chador was next. She stood calmly, lifted her veil, and her photograph taken as well. The process was repeated, even the small children being held up in front of the camera, and the family moved through.

When it was my turn I handed my passport to the two men behind the window. One pointed at the camera and I duly smiled. The other scanned my passport, and then passed it to the camera guy, who stamped my exit visa.

I wondered about some of the media reports I remember from Canada, about Muslim women being unwilling to unveil in front of strange men. There was not a problem at Kabul airport, so I’m not sure why there should be one at Toronto or Calgary. Husbands and sons were there as the ladies lifted their veils for the camera, and not a comment was made.

I collected my passport and walked through into another ribboned off channel. The guard there made me empty all my pockets of everything, including my handkerchief, and remove my hat. He then pulled on blue gloves and proceeded to give what I have heard referred to as a “close outside the clothes pat-down.” Indeed. That finished, he checked my wallet and shook out my handkerchief, then waved me on. I picked everything up, put on my hat, and walked forward 5 metres.

Here a female security guard stopped me.

“Computer?” she asked, looking at my backpack.

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“In the box. Also everything – belt, coat, shoes, scarf, money, phone.”

“Hat?” I wondered.

She looked at me. “Yes, hat.”

I complied, then put my backpack on the conveyor belt first, followed by the tray with my outer layer of clothing. I walked through another personal scanner, this one working, although it did not beep for me.

Once on the other side I got dressed again, and then walked through to the departure lounge, a large and noisy cavern of metal chairs in rows, the droning pitch of helicopters wafting in through the windows. I sat down, exhausted, and as I waited for Jim to finish running the gauntlet I tied my shoelaces in a neat double bow.

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