By J. Malcolm Garcia
The antique weapons dealer remembers me from my visit last spring.
“You were the American reporter who bought a pistol.”
“Not a pistol. Flintlock rifle. 1852.”
“Yes,” he says.
“On my way back to the States, I was stopped at airport security in Pakistan, Dubai, and London. They were worried about the gun.”
“They thought you were a terrorist with an ancient rifle?”
“I guess. No one stopped me here.”
“Why would they? After thirty years of war, why we would we care about an old gun leaving Afghanistan?”
I follow him up some broken stairs to the second floor of his shop. He points to a rug and we sit on the floor near an open balcony. Rifles and pistols, decorated with ivory and tin, hang from the cinder block walls beside circular shields and swords brown from rust and age. Knives and spiked battle flails lay tangled in the corners.
Below us on Chicken Street, Kabul’s tourist district, laborers slap cement on the walls of a new apartment building. American soldiers cradling AK-47 rifles roam the jammed sidewalks. Merchants call to them, point at the old red and yellow carpets hanging outside their shops. New carpets lay on the muddy street and passing trucks and cars flatten them, grinding in dirt and stones. This quick and easy aging process fools the unsuspecting foreigner into believing that the worn, dusty carpets harken back to bygone eras. There is a common expression among carpet merchants: Three days on the street, three hundred years old, three hundred dollars.
“Please come look,” they shout. “No charge for looking.”
When it seemed that war in Afghanistan was a thing of the past, lost to history and memory, and the guns and pistols seemed to have no purpose other than as souvenirs, he began selling those instead.
The antique dealer calls to a boy and tells him to bring hot water for tea. The boy rinses two glass cups with steaming water from a kettle. He offers the cups to us and sits beside the antique dealer, pouring us green tea from another kettle. Sunlight spills into the room from an open balcony, the sky a brilliant blue, and we shift our positions to keep the sun’s relentless heat off our backs. The lumbering weight of trucks outside shakes the shop, and the antique dealer, the boy, and I put our hands on the floor until the building stops trembling.
The antique dealer’s father opened the shop in 1939. At first he sold old clothes and furniture, but when it seemed that war in Afghanistan was a thing of the past, lost to history and memory, and the guns and pistols seemed to have no purpose other than as souvenirs, he began selling those instead.
“In this time, the 1950s and 60s, there were many tourists in Afghanistan searching for old things,” the antique dealer says. “Why is this? I think some countries move too fast and the people do not know who they are and so they come here. Here our history is all around us.”
I sip my tea, listen to the noise of bicycle riders frantically ringing their horns on the crowded street below us, racing past buildings that still bear scars from the civil war that nearly destroyed Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
When I watch BBC news reports from Syria in my hotel room and see the shorn remains of buildings in Aleppo, I have a small sense of what the fighting here must have been like during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and the later civil war, the Taliban and the post September 11th American-led invasion. Eleven years later fighting continues. The United States has learned as did the Russians and invaders before them that Afghanistan won’t yield to would-be conquerors. Plans now call for all American combat forces to draw down by 2014 with no pretense of victory.
Today, the Taliban controls large swaths of Afghanistan, areas that function not unlike independent city-states. Maidan Wardak province, for instance, just a forty-minute drive from Kabul, is dominated by the Taliban. As is Logar province, a ninety minute drive from Kabul, and Nangarhar province, a two hour drive from Kabul, and so on. The Taliban govern southern Afghanistan so thoroughly that the divide is nearly as stark as that between North and South Korea.
When I was young, the foreigners were not like they are now. They came here to see Afghanistan. They slept outside in tents.
But on Chicken Street the war feels far away. The laborers dip shovels into mounds of stones mixed with cement, and cover their faces with prayer shawls to protect themselves against the dust the cement mixers produce as they turn in slow circles. Donkey-drawn carts haul bricks, and men pull wagons stacked with wood. Above them, signs on nearby buildings—Baha DVD Store, Kabul Computers, A.B. Samey Hamayoun Desk Top Publishing—promote a new Afghanistan rushing to catch up with the 21st century. Boys fly kites from rooftops near billboards advertising “Afghan Wireless: Your connection to the world.”
“When I was young, the foreigners were not like they are now,” the antique dealer says. “They were not soldiers. They came here to see Afghanistan. They slept outside in tents and no one bothered them. My shop was open until one o’clock in the morning and I never locked it. The police were not like they are now. They did not take bribes. They were not former militia. The police in that time would stop by and I’d asked them in for tea.”
Two American soldiers in desert fatigues walk into the shop. They nod and smile, and the antique dealer stands and bows slightly, pressing his right hand over his heart. One of the soldiers picks up a pistol drawing cobwebs with it. He makes a face and puts it down, slapping dust off his hand. The antique dealer stands and points to other guns.
“Very clean, no problem,” he says. “Two hundred years old.”
The soldiers stand over the guns whispering to each other, and the antique dealer sits beside me again. He watches the soldiers put the guns down and move into another room filled with swords and knives.
“Without peace, we can’t live here,” the antique dealer says. “During Talib time, I lived in Pakistan selling rugs. I returned when Karzai came to power. But now the fighting has come back. The rocketing has not stopped. We are waiting for tourists like before, but I think we will be waiting a very long time.”
The boy takes our empty cups and rinses them, tossing the water out on the floor. He follows the soldiers into the other room with the cups and two kettles. He comes back out seconds later, drying his hands with a rag.
“They are gone,” he says.
The antique dealer and I peer into the room. I see a rear door open to a narrow stairwell. We listen to the soldiers clomping down the steps in their heavy boots, look at one another and shrug. The boy sits down.
“I hope every day becomes better in Afghanistan but I don’t know,” the antique dealer says. “The Americans are leaving. There will be big problems, big fighting. Our soldiers, the Afghan National Army, are not completely strong yet.”
I look out the balcony and watch merchants dragging carpets off and onto the street. I listen to the sound of jack hammers and the rumble of traffic. A laborer pulls bags of cement off the backs of two donkeys, and rips one bag open emptying it into a cement mixer. He washes his hands in a bucket of muddy-looking water. He shakes his hands dry and dials a number on his cell phone.
“Come, I’ll show you something,” the antique dealer tells me.
Hot, moldy air washes over us and I taste dust in my mouth. A ribbon of gray light shines through a crack in the mud walls.
He takes my hand and leads me into the room the soldiers just left. He closes the door to the stairwell. He pulls a cord to a ceiling light and parts a curtain, revealing a closet protected by an enormous padlock. He unlocks it with a long slender key and opens the door. Hot, moldy air washes over us and I taste dust in my mouth. A ribbon of gray light shines through a crack in the mud walls. About a dozen Russian Kalashnikov rifles lie in a pile on the floor, scratched and worn. Duct tape holds several of the rifle butts together.
“Relatives gave these to me to sell for them, and some of them I bought myself,” the antique dealer says. “But it is too soon to sell. Maybe in ten years if there is no more fighting, I can sell. Not for killing but for decoration. For now, I will keep them here and we will see what happens.”
The boy picks up one of the guns and points it at the crack in the wall, squinting through the sight. Behind us, rising up over the balcony, I hear the high-pitched noise of a drill. The boy puts the gun down. It slides off the pile and clatters to the floor.
“If the fighting comes to Chicken Street, I would say to Karzai, ‘I have the guns. Take my chair so I can no longer sit and I will help you defend our country,’” the antique dealer says.
I imagine the new building going up across the street being destroyed by an army of men who, like this antique dealer, would believe they were fighting for the good of Afghanistan. I think of the Aleppo footage again and try to picture what happened here, but the pandemonium on Chicken Street interferes with my thoughts, and then I hear someone enter the shop and the antique dealer hurries to close and lock the closet door.
He pushes the boy ahead of him and looks at me and presses a finger to his lips. He reaches back and pulls the curtain and shuts off the light. We move toward the white-hot glare beyond the balcony, and the noise of construction outside.
J. Malcolm Garcia is the author of Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul (2009), and Riding through Katrina with the Red Baron’s Ghost (2012). His articles have been featured in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading.