INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for danger

Cool off the Press: Breakfast with the Taliban

For the original, from the Daily Outlook Afghanistan in Kabul: click here.

One Saturday in June, traffic was light on the road from Kabul to the town of Bamyan, nestled deep in a high valley lined with sandstone cliffs 240 kilometers to the northwest. But for all the paving efforts that have made it among the smoothest in the country, this route from the Afghan capital through the 10,000-foot-high Shibar pass is less than perfect. One week earlier, head of Bamiyan’s provincial council Jawad Zahak had been targeted and dragged from his convoy by the Taliban. Four days ago, they told me in the car, he was beheaded. Hussein pointed: “Right… wait — there.”

I had found a tour company online and guessed an email address from a mush of pixels. Success came in the confirmation of a car that would deliver me from outside the dead-bolted orange gates of my hotel in Kabul to their lodge in Bamiyan. At six a.m., I was late. The hubcap-less white sedan drew a stark contrast to the polished and armored SUVs that take westerners to get mango milkshakes. And there were four men inside. Open the mind’s floodgates: this seems infinitely more kidnappy.
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Breakfast with the Taliban — تناول الفطور مع الطالبان


Downtown Kabul, past the largely expat Wazir Akbar Khan and distinctly expensive Shar-e Now neighborhoods, is a friendly place to stroll. Nestled deep in a high valley and lined with sandstone cliffs two-hundred and forty kilometers northwest, Bamiyan is even calmer. But for all the paving efforts that have made it among the smoothest in the country, and despite the stunning backdrop of jagged, dusty hills rising up through cooler and cooler air, the road in between is not so nice.

Seven days before we took our chances on this route from Kabul through the Shibar pass, head of Bamiyan’s provincial council Jawad Zahak had been pulled out of his bus by the Taliban. Three days later, he was beheaded. A fellow passenger pointed: “Right there.”

Half an hour outside of Kabul, we entered an ethnically Pashtun area. The land now controlled by the Taliban across Pakistan and Afghanistan is almost entirely Pashtun, and this stretch, as had been made tragically manifest days earlier, was within their territory. My foreignness was a danger not only to myself but to the four other Afghans in the beat up white Nissan. They should have kept me hidden inside the car. But we all wanted kebabs.

The video below is taken from my phone in a particularly dangerous stretch. In retrospect — not sure it was worth all the fuss.

[Dear readers: I am submitting this story to something, and cannot ethically publish the rest of this post however loosely I interpret the word “publish”. This doesn’t mean it’s any better than other posts. But if you’re still looking to read this nail-biter about the kebabs the Taliban eat, send an email with the words “breakfast”, “Taliban”, and “Dominique Strauss-Kahn” used in one sentence to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM.]


All the pictures from Afghanistan here.

مطب — Bump

A cross-country trip in the United Arab Emirates is never very difficult. From Abu Dhabi to the Saudi Arabian border, no longer than four hours; it is no longer distance from the city’s warm insulated nook in the Gulf to the other side of the Emirati promontory where waters are cleared and cooled by the Arabian sea. Roads are wide, fast, straight — I could make no more than four turns and be through the low mountains to Fujairah, supine by the sea with a snorkel and a bottle of rum. It would be so easy.

It was sometimes a struggle navigating the HMS Matsuflex through the stream of white Land Cruisers racing past. A favorite local driving technique is to charge drivers ahead flashing high beams (day or night) to make them move: Give me passage or give me death. I shant change lanes. It must seem so convenient to drivers in their hulking SUVs to have a stick to the left of the steering wheel that simply makes traffic move. If you don’t take notice quick enough, if it isn’t nighttime and you haven’t been blinded by lasers in your rearview mirror, you’re finished.

Although a ’92 Benz won’t be the fastest in any Emirati fleet, it was easy to go the 120 kph speed limit (75 mph) without trouble (conspicuous radar detectors issue instant $200 fines at 140), but that wasn’t good enough. In the right lane, trucks inched along out of everyone’s way, in the center traffic still moved too slowly, and in the left lane, we were prey to assholes. On the high seas of the Sheikh Zayed Highway, we were in constant struggle.

After only an hour, the car seemed to be wheezing. She would reach a top speed and then jerk suddenly slower, as if struggling to change gears. The radio would turn off. The ship had become a horse — in short bursts with my coaxing she stayed speedy, but only for moments. We pulled into a highway gas station and turned off the engine. The battery died.

One jumpstart later, we were soon on the Dubai-Hatta road, following signs for “Eastern Regions,” and heading deadly straight toward the Fujairah coast. The wheezing seemed to have abated, and golden sand dunes sprung up along the roadside, red-orange from beneath my sunglasses. My god, the desert is actually pretty.

And that’s when I smashed into the back of another car.

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Pop a Cap — الاطلاق


The Levant: Part Six

The closest I came to gunfire was just after we crossed the border into Syria. They told me it was dangerous, but I thought it would come from the cities, from the police, from around the crowds, and not on the road that cut up from Beirut through the mountains and back down again toward Damascus, Ash-Sham.

Leaving Lebanon at Masn‘aa, we would first reach Haloua, the town whose name means “sweet”. I had passed through each country’s checkpoint without an issue, accepted into Syria without knowing my destination, with nothing but my visa and tempered American smiles.

I sat in the back of the taxi. Just me, and the driver’s fat friend in the passenger seat. They had gained interest in me with the altitude, but lost it quickly when I told them that I wasn’t at all ethnically Lebanese. We entered into Syria and the fat friend lent me his phone, or rather rented it, fidgeting angrily when I had spent too long trying to make out my friend’s directions to a meeting point. Tension mounted as he demanded eight thousand lira, almost six dollars, for a five minute call. The scruffy driver took his friend’s side. Pressure.

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The Spice of Strife — نكهة النزاع

The Levant: Part Four

They told me not to go to Baalbek, so I obviously wanted to go. I hadn’t heard of the town before, except for seeing it on a part of the map I hadn’t addressed, and it was off-putting how they spoke of this city in the east (the eighth largest in Lebanon) as a place of endless danger and lawlessness. But I was comforted by one thing, a glimmer of the logic that projected such fear: the word “Shia”. Poorly hidden at the heart of their reasoning was this sectarian prejudice — if I didn’t share it, I had no reason to be afraid at all.

The one road east from Tripoli reached the patch of thousand year-old cedars in the aptly named town of Ariz, “Cedars.” The national tree has survived only here and on Lebanon’s flag, but for an entrance fee of whatever-you’d-like-to-pay you can stand under them forever. The gatekeeper gently refused to offer suggestions for donations, so I slid him three green thousand-lira bills ($2). He handed me two official looking tickets and grinned, “That’s enough for two.” It’s an amazing kind of green.


And that’s where the road stops. Read the rest of this entry »

(في هذه الظروف (جزء الثاني — Under These Circumstances (Part Two)

Part One
Part Two

“Let’s go, man.”

We took the long way back to the parking lot, every moment asking why? — why are we doing this? why are you doing it with me? Given each action, each movement, under what circumstances would they make sense? If you’re trying to rob me? If you’re just trying to hang out?

“I don’t normally come here,” Salim said about the downtown quarter. “But I like to walk with company, because of this one.” He patted his belly.

He walked me into a falafel shop — I’d mentioned I was hungry. I ordered one, then two, and Salim paid. Weird. Sure, they were about 50 cents each, but when did a cab driver ever take his fare to lunch? Either he felt it was only fair considering how many thousands of dollars of electronics and dirty sweatshirts he was going to steal from me, or he bizarrely wanted to make a nice gesture for a tourist in his city.

Whatever his game, I decided to fight back. We paused at a streetside tea vendor. I paid. Maybe if I was nice enough, and melted his heart with warm mint tea, he’d call off the hit.

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