The main reason I passed up on the opportunity to get out of Afghanistan was my neighbor, Shallah. We spent countless hours talking about how we would weather this storm together. We created scenarios of being together, both with and without her father finding out. A couple of months after the fighting ended, the political situation was only getting worse. Peace Corps let us know that they wanted to draw down the number of volunteers. To do this, they mandated that anyone who had been in-country for a year or less had to pack and leave the following week. They didn’t say that we were being evacuated. They said we were being sent to Iran for a cooling off period, after which we could decide to return. The decision to return to Afghanistan would be left entirely to us.
Shallah burst into tears when I told the news. “I knew this would happen. I knew you would leave me. This was never going to work,” she said. I declared my commitment to our relationship. Then I swore that I would be back. I promised I would make it work. I asked only that she have a little faith in me.
We arrived in Tehran in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. The day we got in the militants bombed the carpet bazaar. The tanks on every corner attested to the massive social unrest. Hordes of protesters clogged every street. I remember thinking that it seemed like the entire world was at war.
I now know that even surreal situations can feel normal when lived through day by day. But a little distance is all you need to change that focus. It was easy to see the oddity of life in Afghanistan from the distance of Tehran. With two weeks of the ‘normalcy’ of rioting Iran, not a single one in my group of ‘forced evacuees’ decided to return to the chaos of war in Afghanistan.
For me, that meant leaving Peace Corps less than six months into my twenty-eight month tour. More than that, it meant breaking my oath to Shallah. But my growing dislike of my assignment, and the pressure Peace Corps put on us to abandon post, began to work. For one thing, they offered us our pick of onward posts. The pitch went like this:
They asked us to give them three criteria to match. I told them I wanted to learn a language I could use after Peace Corps. I didn’t think all the effort I expended on learning Farsi would be of future use. Second, I didn’t want to teach English any more. Instead I said I wanted to ‘do actual development work’. Finally, between Challenge/Discovery and Afghanistan, I was sick of deserts. If I had to live in sand, I wanted it to be near the ocean.
They came back with Kpagouda, in Togo, West Africa. They told me that the national language there was French. They left out that my posting would be among the world’s half a million people who spoke nothing but Kabye. They said I’d work on a USAID project training farmers to plow with oxen. They forgot to mention that the project wasn’t funded yet. And they let me know Togo is on the beach. It also turned out to be a difficult two-day trip from Kpagouda that I only made a couple times a year.
What I knew as I left Teheran was that I was heading to a great program on a beautiful French-speaking beach. That gave me four weeks in the U.S. to get my relationship with Shallah sorted out. I knocked on my parent’s door in Virginia before they’d even heard I had left Afghanistan.
Things didn’t go well with Shallah. She reminded me that I had given her my word. She tearfully informed me that she’d known in her heart of hearts that I had no intention of helping her get out. I can’t remember what I excuses I made…It can’t have been very thoughtful or convincing. She was right in everything she said. With my tail between my legs, I promised again that I’d do anything to be with her. But for a while it was best if we planned to keep in regular touch. This despite knowing I would be in the heart of Africa and she across the sands of Afghanistan. It didn’t sound plausible even to me.
The final chapter of this saga was as implausible as the rest. In time I heard that Shallah had made her way back to London, and after my first year in Togo, I also managed to get there. She was not particularly eager to see me, but I finally convinced her that we should briefly meet. She agreed on conditions set by her family. First, we’d meet at a public tearoom. Second, her grandmother would join us there. While the meeting provided closure, it did little more than that. The intervening year had not been kind to either of us and whatever we’d once had was gone. Before we went our separate ways she told me she was now engaged and would soon be married to her cousin.
My final Afghan memory came as I was waiting in the Kabul airport for the flight that would take us to Teheran. The airport was teeming with young militants in khakis, all carrying Kalashnikovs. They were giving us a hard time about trying to leave, and we were all tense as they tore through our luggage. They seemed eager to find contraband or anything else that they could detain us for. The tensest moment came when one young guy tore open a female volunteer’s backpack. He dumped a pile of tampons out on the table. Then he jumped back, startled, and started shouting and waving his gun around. Our translator looked every bit as freaked as the young soldier. He stammered as he translated, pointing at the pile, “He wants to know what those things with the fuses are!”