Letters from Kabul (Airport): 19 October 2013

Thoughts from the lounge

Safi. Silkway. Ariana, Spice Jet. The names on the brightly coloured planes are a clue to the Central Asian essence of this place, a clue reinforced by the dun-coloured rocky hills that line the far side of the runway, the dusty haze which blurs the sky, the veiled and black clad women in the waiting room. The names on the planes are also a clue as to why I’m sitting here, eating a box of Bakeri classic cookies made in Karachi, Pakistan, and washed down with a bottle of Cristal quality mineral water produced in Kabul. It’s a case of the dog that didn’t bark, really. Absent among those brightly coloured planes is the red and white livery of Turkish Airlines, which is apparently running two hours late. Hence the water and cookies.

We were supposed to board at 1045 but nothing happened. At 1100 two airline representatives wheeled a trolley in to the waiting room, shouted out “Istanbul”, and when we turned up requested to see our boarding cards. Assured we really were their passengers, and not just like stranded passengers everywhere trying to scrounge a packet of biscuits, they scrawled a line across the card – so no second helpings, I guess – and handed out the goodies. To each they repeated the mantra – the plane is two hours late, it will be here by 1130 and we will leave after one hour. A choice of pop or water, a cake-like roll or biscuits. We queued, and chose, and returned to our seats. Now here we quietly sit; fed, watered, informed.

Air Canada, are you listening?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the parrots in our garden. That story raised some memories in readers’ minds. A friend wrote to tell me that the name of the lung disease Psittacosis comes from same Latin root as the parrot family name – Psittacoidea. Hence the saying, “sick as a parrot”. He says not many people know this and he’s right – I’m sure they don’t. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced of the veracity of his logic, or that he’s not just winding me up! Anyone who feels they can confirm (or not) that particular theory is invited to let me know!

Another wrote to tell me of an old friend who apparently used to smuggle parrots. I’m not sure how one would go about doing that. In ones’ underwear, perhaps, like the Australians are reputed to do – but budgies are a much smaller bird. I suppose you could drug them in to a stupor, and then ask a lady friend to pin them gently to her hair, and hope that particular flight didn’t have a two hour delay.

It seems a lot of effort to build secret compartments in a car, and trust to randomness that you’re not pulled over for a proper search. Although there is a trick to combat this – apparently you bring three senior citizens with you, and when pulled over ask for time while you unload the walkers from the boot (trunk) of the car, check that the pacemakers are working, disconnect the saline drips, and so forth. That works, the agent shaking her or his head and waving you through before going for an easier target – or so one of my sisters-in-law tells me.

Mind you, I very much doubt that smuggling parrots out of Kabul airport would be possible. It took me an hour from the first gate at the entrance to putting on my shoes again after the last security check. My bags were scanned twice, I was frisked three times, and once my passport had been stamped I had to take off my shoes, belt, jacket and hat to walk through one of those scanner things, while my hand luggage was X-rayed a third time. I know they’re really looking for guns and other weapons, but one would imagine that a parrot might stand out. It would relieve the tedium, that’s for sure.

I’m not allowed to take photographs in here so you’ll have to rely on my verbal descriptions. The lounge is a large rectangular room, with four rows of chairs back to back, so eight rows in all, facing each other across a four foot gap. The chairs are all linked together, made from chrome, and covered in black plastic. Opposite me three soldiers in civilian clothes are given away by their camouflage pattern backpacks stencilled with US – one has just reached to get something and had to temporarily remove his beret from the bag. Next to me is an Afghan male, his black and white checkered scarf bright across his shoulders. Children are chattering, people checking Facebook on their lap tops – there is free WiFi here, no password required, just click and go.

Canadian airports and hotel chains, are you listening?

Most of the women wear headscarves, some are more fully veiled. Most are in black, some with scarves of gold. A couple are in brighter colours, green, orange. There is no one here in a blue burka, covered head to toe and with a small lace mask across her face.

I saw a lady dressed like this outside the supermarket the other day. She was standing, waiting patiently, a small boy holding her hand, hoping that some (relatively) rich person would give her a few Afs. I do not know her story, but there are many stories in Kabul, they are in the dust we breathe and we hear them in so many different ways – of widows left bereft, of women abandoned, of death and disharmony in the family. I suppose in her view, anyone who can afford to shop at a supermarket, with guards on the door and imported foods inside, must be rich. Not for us the raw rounds of cheese found on market barrows, the wedges of butter hung outside shops, the mounds of fruits and vegetables in pyramids along the side of the street.

I stopped and gave her a small gift, and she bowed her head in a quick nod of thanks, the child gripping her hand as he looked up wide eyed at this foreigner, this strange man. Was he wondering at my story, at why I was on that corner, as I wondered at his? I climbed in to the car and we pulled away. Through the window I saw her still standing there at the bottom of the supermarket steps, immobile, the young boy holding her hand. I was reminded of a line from Freya Stark:

The veiled caryatid, which the East through so many ages has secluded, can still remind a Westerner as he passes that the Unknown is at his side.

Kabul airport, 19 October 2013

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