As Michener had warned, the day to day brutality was extreme. I saw three guys who had robbed a bus outside of Kandahar hanging by their writs from the struts of a flatbed truck. As the truck rolled slowly through the city, pedestrians pelted them with stones. A short time later they were hanged in the public square in front of the mayor’s office.
And while some of the violence I witnessed was planned, some of it was incidental. Like the time I flipped my wet jeans over the clothesline that turned out to be a bare 220 volt wire. I felt like I was being drawn and quartered, as if my shoulders, elbows and knees were being torn apart. A passerby realized I was being grounded by electrical current and couldn’t let go of my wet pants. He took a flying leap and knocked me off the wire. He understood, as I would not have, that he had to keep both his feet in the air when he touched me. That was the only way he could avoid becoming grounded right along with me. I am forever grateful for his wisdom and bravery.
I began teaching Business English at Kabul University. But the longer I taught, the less committed I felt. I tried to analyze my feelings and it boiled down to this: Peace Corps was giving me wonderful new experiences and I was starting to write them down. But we were as far as you could get from the English-speaking world. The work of teaching (and learning) English seemed a waste of time. I started losing my passion for the work.
Fortunately, as my passion for teaching receded, it found a new focus right next door. Peace Corps provided daily reminders that Afghan women were off-limits. This applied, not only to us, but to every man in Afghanistan. We were told that even asking a friend how his wife was getting on could result in a swift beating. “To ask after her suggests you know her. And that suggests her virtue has been compromised. As long as you behave as if no women exist in Afghanistan, you will get along just fine.”
One day I saw a young woman peeking into our courtyard from a ladder she’d propped against our eight foot wall. She ducked away when I spotted her and it took some cajoling to get her to show herself again. When I asked in Farsi what she was doing there, she answered in British-accented English. “My father told me he had rented our house next door to four American boys. My curiosity got the better of me.”
Shallah had recently returned from a British boarding school. She said she felt under house arrest after all the freedom she had known at school. “My father would severely beat me if he knew I was speaking to you,” she said. Then after a minute she added, “And he would certainly kill you.” She began meeting me, along with one of my housemates, at the wall each day. After a while she decided that she wanted to come visit our side of the wall. When her visits became routine, we decided she might be interested in one or the other of us. By the time she let on she was interested in me, I was infatuated with her.
Shallah told me she was minor royalty in Afghanistan. She was descended from Zahir Shah, a former king who ruled Balochistan from 1933 until 1973. She was also one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
In all the time we spent together, she remained a chaste and proper Afghan girl. The most we ever did was hold hands, but somehow that was enough to make my heart take flight. The terror of knowing what her father would do if he discovered us didn’t dissuade me. In fact, I think it added to the romance. Though even from the beginning I suspected things would not end well.